The feminist movement created an awareness of many valid claims. It was born as a result of women being abused by a male-dominated, non-Jewish society. As a result, women felt humiliated and strove for equality. Torah-observant Jews, however, have not had to respond to women’s claims, because Jewish women were never subjected to abuse and humiliation. They have never been relegated to secondary in importance in society.
King David describes the woman as the akeres habayis (Tehillim 113:9). In modern Hebrew this would be translated as “a housewife,” but in lashon hakodesh, the holy tongue, ”akeres” comes from the same root as ikar, ”essence.” The woman is the essence of the home. In the Jewish home, the importance of the occupants is not determined by the nature of the jobs they perform. The Jewish home is the place of our mishkan me’at, our miniature sanctuary, and the woman is given the central role in creating it. If, however, she does not rise to this challenge, if she does not recognize her important role in the building of the Jewish home, she can become, G-d forbid, the okeres habayis, the uprooter of the house (“okeres” having the same root as ”akeres,” ayin, kuf, reish).
The feminist movement has had a tremendous impact all over the world, and its effects have naturally spilled over also to Jewish society. This has caused the questioning of the basic teaching of the Torah that men and women are different. In the Torah, we see the clear differentiation between the genders from the fact that there is a whole sector of mitzvos, commandments, that women are exempt from performing. Since mitzvos were given in order to refine and to purify our personalities, and women were given fewer mitzvos than men, we can deduce that there must be an inherent inborn difference in the nature of men and women. This difference extends to all dimensions.
This idea is expressed in the Hebrew words panim, face, and p’nim, interior. Both these words have the exact same letters in the same order. We know that in lashon hakodesh there is a connection between the makeup of the word and its significance. The similarity between the words means that the panim is a reflection of the p’nim, the inner being. No one can deny the fact that there is an external difference between men and women. Even if men and women try to wear the same clothes, have the same hairstyles, and use the same names, there will always remain an inherent physiological difference between them. This difference in the panim, the external, indicates the difference in the p’nim, the internal.
We also see these basic differences when we observe the physiological patterns that men and women experience in their life cycles. Physiologically, men are generally stable. In a healthy male, from puberty until old age the only changes which take place in his body are those of a gradual aging process.
This is not the case with women. From the age that a woman reaches puberty, her body begins a process of constant flux. Her monthly cycle dictates that every day her body is different from the day before. This cycle reaches a crescendo when the body is ready to become impregnated, and whether she becomes pregnant or not, her body again experiences significant changes. There are constantly hormonal changes taking place in her body which influence all body systems.
If a woman does become pregnant, the body begins gearing itself up for the process of childbirth, which cannot be compared to anything else in the world. Her body experiences enormous changes throughout the pregnancy. Each day of the pregnancy, the actual birth, the postnatal stage, and the period of lactation are all times of massive changes within a woman’s body. The fluctuations are sharp and continual over long periods. The experience of going through these changes is something men can never truly fathom; yet we often expect our wives to approach life with the same attitudes that we have. This can be a most serious and essential error. We are able to approach life with more emotional equilibrium because we have bodies which cater to such a disposition.
We simply cannot analogize our own feelings and emotions to try to understand our wives’ feelings and emotions. This mistake of the husband using himself as a barometer for his wife’s feelings is one of the greatest problems in shalom bayis, peace in the home. He can’t understand why she stands on the chair screaming just because she saw a cockroach. Why, he has no problem just swaggering over and crunching it beneath his masculine foot. Or perhaps he finds himself in a helpless state of confusion because he can’t understand why today she’s crying about the same thing that she laughed at yesterday. We must understand the situation and recognize the fact that there is justification to these changes in our wive's dispositions. Women have the full right to pendular mood swings even for no apparent reason.
Men, however, have no such excuses. Our bodies are relatively stable, as far as phsycological functioning goes, and this provides, perhaps, one of the insights as to why certain obligations in the marriage are placed solely on the man. Under the chuppah, wedding canopy, a man accepts upon himself three obligations: she'eir, kesus, and onah (see Shemos 21:10). The first two mitzvos, She'eir and kesus, are relatively straight-forward. They refer to a man's obligation to provide his wife with food, clothing and shelter. The third mitzvah, the mitzvah of onah, includes many other issues. The Steipler Gaon writes, in his Iggeres Hakodesh, that understanding and responding to the wife's emotional needs and fulfilling them is an integral part of this mitzvah: “Other forms of closeness are part and parcel of the mitzvah of onah.”
The woman was not given any such corresponding mitzvah. Perhaps because we are physically more stable we are the ones who are expected to be responsible for creating the proper atmosphere in our homes. We have to be the anchor, the stabilizing factor, in this potentially tumultuous relationship.
When G-d told Avraham to listen to his wife, the Torah tells us, “All that Sarah says, shema b'kola – listen in [to] her voice” (Bereishis 21:12). According to the rules of grammar, it should have been written shema l'kolah, listen to her voice, and not b'kolah, literally “in her voice.” G-d created the woman modest and closed. She can be offended or insulted and she doesn't reveal her hurt. Therefore the responsibility is put on the husband to hear “in her voice”, to lend an ear and listen to the silent voice coming from her soul. She may not openly state what’s hurting her, but a G-d-fearing husband has to listen in her voice, b’kolah, to correctly gather what is to be understood in her voice, in order to comprehend her feelings.
Because the mitzvah of onah is entirely in the husband’s hands, we have to view the success of the marriage to be on our shoulders. However, in order to properly fulfill this mitzvah and, in this way, to guard the shalom bayis, we must understand that there is a basic inherent difference between men and women. Without this understanding and without the sensitivities which must accompany it, it is impossible to perform this mitzvah properly.
Adapted from “Two Halves Of A Whole” by Rabbi Yirmiyohu & Tehilla Abramov. Available at www.jewishfamily.org