A wise friend of mine is fond of saying, “There is potency in what is hidden.”
The culture around us seems to leave little to the imagination, from what someone has for dinner to their innermost thoughts, there is a pressure to share for attention. Some people have become celebrities for little more than sharing every intimate detail of their lives, allowing the world to engage in voyeurism. We’re a society of people for whom no amount of attention is enough, addicted to likes, starved for approval.
It starts young. A child, eager for a parent’s attention, quickly learns that negative attention is still better than none. A teen hungers to be accepted, to be admired and learns how to cultivate whatever will gain them that. A young adult strives for perfection to help minimize self-doubt. The more mature adult either collects professional accolades or material objects to prop themselves up.
It feels good to be seen, to be admired, even to be desired.
Torah, though, asks more of Jews. Torah asks us to be a “modest” people and nowhere is the idea of modesty stressed more in halakhah and Orthodox Jewish culture than where it comes to women and our role in Jewish society. In a world where women are plastered on billboards to sell almost any product and where teenaged girls desperately edit their online photos to appear flawless to gain approval, we’re urged to do the opposite. It isn’t an easy concept to take on in modern times. It isn’t easy to explain to non-Jews or even some Jews.
There is a woman I sit next to in shul. I value her company for several reasons, one of which is the fact that she sings enough louder than I do that no one can hear me, my voice straining and off-key. Her voice helps me feel safe to use mine. Another reason I miss her when she isn’t there is that she and I have such different views on so many topics in Torah that she always makes me think. She’s lived her entire life as a Jewish woman and, for the most part, a Reform or secular Jew and she’s of my mother’s generation, a generation of women who fought so hard and long for more equality in American society. It never fails that I leave a conversation with her with more thoughts to think over and wishing I’d had better words when we’d discussed them. Mostly, we discuss how differently Orthodoxy handles the genders, whether in that week’s parsha or the counting of the minyan.
Once, I used to chafe at any difference in treatment, eager to continue the battles my mother’s generation had begun. I wanted to climb corporate ladders, smash glass ceilings. I wanted to make my own mother proud and be some version of “success” that others would nod in approval to. The seeds of a big change in my life, though, were planted one day years before I ever sat foot in a Synagogue when instead I sat next to my grandfather in a dinner in the small town he’d been born and raised in and in which my family farmed for generations. I was holding my infant son, quieting him as we spoke and my grandfather’s eyes filled with tears of sincere pride and he said.
“You are a wonderful mother.”
At this point, I’d been one of the first in my family to graduate from a university and a decently prestigious state college at that. I’d shattered stereotypes working in a male-dominated field. I’d achieved scholarships, awards, accolades of all kinds. And yet…this was the first and only time I could remember my grandfather, the patriarch of our family, being this proud of me, moved not only to speak it, but to tears over it. And what had I done to deserve such praise from a man who didn’t give it lightly?
I’d comforted my own crying baby.
As I drove across states back to where I was living, I mulled this over in my head, trying to figure out why this minor thing was so much larger in my grandfather’s mind than anything else I’d achieved. I also remembered that any time I’d tried to earn his praise before by discussing my great achievements at school or work, he’d always remarked, “You push yourself too hard.” Did he expect less of me than my brothers? Did he think I was weak? My grandfather was, as I knew him at least, an incredibly kind man who loved children and was gentle with people. I puzzled over this, but it began a long road of questioning the values I’d grown up around.
We are a culture that celebrates what is easily seen. We exalt in the physical, the beautiful, the shiny. We don’t have a lot of time for anything else, unless it is easily quantified. We’ll also celebrate, to a lesser extent, awards of intellectual achievement, dollars donated, letters added behind names, and titles earned. These things are tangible. You can write them on a resume and collect them in neat bullet points.
The ability to carefully care for a crying baby…isn’t so easily quantifiable or as celebrated, but what if the things that are most important in life…aren’t?
As I began to walk down that path of questioning, I began to notice things I hadn’t seen before and to question even more. I noticed things in myself that were difficult to see, like the way I would often feel like I HAD to interrupt in a conversation to make sure I was heard. My ideas were special! They needed to know how smart I was or how much I knew! I noticed how often in a class, I’d actually be more interested in proving my “smartness or knowledge” than actually learning. I saw how much I talked about myself and how few questions I asked others. I saw how much I spoke and how little I listened.
I realized that most of my life was about me and my ego and so, I sought a cure for this modern disease. I wandered through different philosophies, lingering for a bit in Buddhism, which was the closest thing I’d found that addressed the problem. Happily, then, G-d brought me my treatment and brought Judaism into my life. Knowing me as well as He does, though, he was sneaky and packaged it at first in the guise of yet another pursuit of knowledge. It wasn’t until I was already hooked that I began to study the ideas of tznius (modesty) much deeper and by then I was more ready to hear it.
Like many things in modern society, we have something very backwards. I like to think it’s part of the hidden-ness of the divine in this imperfect world that will one day be fully revealed. We have the idea that what is readily visible to us is what is most valuable, most important when, really, the exact opposite is true. Things that are precious are hidden away for safekeeping. Things that are valuable aren’t just given away, but rationed out, like expensive aged liquor. This applies in the realm of deeper wisdom, which generally takes time to learn and isn’t always available to just anyone and it applies to women in Judaism.
It’s easy to simply dismiss the differences in gender roles in Orthodoxy as “the patriarchy,” but more difficult to dig beneath the surface to try to untangle why, in most older cultures, gender roles are expressed in similar ways. It’s easy to toss them aside as something outdated rather than try to understand why roles like these have persisted for centuries. I began to turn inward, to stop listening to the noise outside and instead try to understand this thing that I’d been taught for so long to fight. I soon began to see that modesty could be a tool to help me soften out the rough edges I’d found in myself where “mindfulness” had failed.
I began to speak less and listen more, rationing my words and choosing where they would wield the most power. I became more and more content to let someone else take center stage. I became less threatened by other people’s successes or quirks because I no longer felt I was in competition with them. My conversations became more about understanding and connecting than about comparing and judging. I began to like myself more. I realized that I didn’t need to fight to be heard or respected or liked. I could just…be. Even more, if I wasn’t liked or respected or heard by a person, that was ok, too. There were other people who would and I didn’t need to waste my time trying to get attention. I learned there was a kind of peaceful serenity in not having to be up front in the world, not needing to scratch and scramble for approval.
I didn’t need to “push myself too hard.” It wasn’t necessary. I also didn’t need an aliyah or tallis to connect with G-d. My connection wasn’t out there like men’s was. My connection was deeper, inside me, hidden there, but always available to me. While their power might be out in the world, visible in their larger size and strength and their positions of leadership and recognition, mine was hidden but so strong that I didn’t need the reinforcements they did. I could find G-d in my heart and within me, where He and I connected as partners in creation. Who but a woman has really viscerally felt a miracle grow within them? And how, after having been blessed with experiencing something so mysterious and magnificent, could I ever be envious of a man’s extra mitzvot that he’s been given to help him achieve a similar connection?
The more I studied this, the less I felt I needed to “know.” I stopped chafing at my husband’s family’s custom of women not learning Gemara. I started concentrating more on that feeling and connection. I dug more into the three mitzvot most connected to women and I found even more to sift through.
I became quieter, gentler, softer, at home and at work. I became genuinely happier, slower to anger, and more peaceful. At some point, I stopped even needing to explain any of it to other women who were still fighting to share the same place as men. I realized I didn’t need to convince or change them any more than they needed to convince or change men. If asked, as my friend in shul does, I’ll offer a sentence or two of my opinion, but I don’t argue. Often, this seems to make them question their own conclusions more and leaves them the space they need to plant their own seeds.
Just like a simple sentence from my grandfather did for me.