Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Knowledge, decisions, and responsibility

Note: this post reworks two previous ones from years back. The Wordpress blog they were on is not searchable or even fully accessible, so I give the thoughts new life here.

 During the  reign of Chezkeyahu, all across the country there was not a single child (tinok o tinoket) that were not thoroughly versed in hilchos tuma and tahara [the laws of ritual purity].  There is that wonderful picture of the king planting a sword in the doorpost to demonstrate his point that anyone who does not study the Torah would be stabbed by the sword.  Int hat case, strong tactics worked.  But what the king imposed was not his own authority or even blind obedience to other authorities; he imposed studying enough so that one knows on one’s own—even a female one—what the halacha is. 

 In contrast, today many push for people—particularly female ones—not to really learn the principles and derivations of halacha.  The goal is not that one should know the halacha oneself but that one should know just enough to ask questions over every little thing.  The ideal is not well-educated Jews who can independently do the right thing but Jews—particularly Jewesses—taught to be ignorant, so that they would be dependent on asking rabbinic authorities for any move.

  Now, of course, there are times when real questions do arise, and a competent posek should be consulted.  However, there are many, many more things that are not real questions.  Their status has been established long ago and even recorded in sforim.  In other words, they could be learned and internalized as they are not new questions. However, dependence is set up as an ideal because of an implicit fear that the female mind will mess up if left to her own devices. 

Personally, I don’t like to be told what to think, and I don’t want to tell others what they should think either.  However, this view is not one that is shared by all, particularly females.  I recall someone saying she liked being told what to think by seminary.  Now if you wonder why that is, consider that it is not a uniquely frum Jewish phenomenon.

A classic work on gender differences is Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge and London: Harvard UP, 1982.
She explains:
“When women feel excluded from direct participation in society, they see themselves as subject to a consensus or judgment made and enforced by the men on whose protection and support they depend and by whose name they are known.” (Gilligan 67)  So a patriarchy offers less individual control but more protection.
She proceeds to quote someone on her experience:

“’As a woman, I feel I never understood that I was a person, that I could make decisions and I had a right to make decisions.  I always felt that that belonged to my father or my husband in some way, or church, which was always represented by a male clergyman.  They were the three men in my life:  father, husband, and clergyman, and they had much more to say about what I should or shouldn’t do.  They were really authority figures which I accepted. . . . . Well, I think in one sense there is less responsibility involved.  Because if you make a dumb decision, you have to take the rap.  If it happens to you, well, you can complain about it.  I think that if you don’t grow up feeling that you ever have any choices, you don’t have the sense that you have emotional responsibility.  With this sense of choice comes this sense of responsibility.” (qtd. in Gilligan 67)

And back to Gilligan herself: “The essence of moral decision is the exercise of choice and the willingness to accept responsibility for that choice.  To the extent that women perceive themselves as having no choice, they correspondingly excuse themselves from the responsibility that decision entails” (Gilligan 67).

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