Is It a Feminine Trait?
by Faigie Twerski

To begin a series on the uniqueness of woman, we must first appreciate that men and women are different. 

In our world of mass production, there is a drive to standardize everything. This urgency to eliminate the unusual or the different has affected even our understanding of what it is to be human. Today, equality among human beings has somehow come to mean that everyone is the same. Obviously this can't be true. 

Throughout our history, the Jewish people have maintained an unwavering and at times controversial stance: Men and women are different. Our 3,500-year-old tradition maintains that the genders are parallel partners, unquestionably equal in importance, but definitely not the same. 

My child once asked me: "When God created the world, why did God create men and women? Why not make just one kind?" It's a profound question. God is infinitely powerful, and easily could have created a world populated by women only, or a world of men only, and fashioned a mechanism to have the one sex reproduce itself. 

Instead, what did God do? If you turn to the pages of Genesis, you will see a peculiar sentence in the description of the creation of Adam, the first being: "In the image of God He created him, male and female He created them. B 'tzelem Elokim Bara Oso, Zachar u 'Nekayva Bara Osarn"" (Genesis 1:27. The sentence is jarring because there's no congruence: Either the "him" in the first half should have been "them" or the "them" in the second half should have been "him." 

Our sages explain that the dissonance is a hint to a fascinating mystery of creation. God created one original being, a singular entity called Adam. But that Adam, the first being, was also a "them," a double, because Adam was created as androgynous being, both male and female, and only afterwards was divided into two separate beings of different sexes. 

Why God chose to start out with one entity, and later split it into two halves, only to have those halves reunite through their own free will is a riveting discussion on its own but is not our topic here. Yet one thing is clear for our purposes. 

In creating two distinct sexes, male and female, God was indicating that there is a need for that which a male can contribute to the world and a need for that which a female can contribute to the world, and they're not the same thing. We know that everything in creation is purposeful, and that the existence of two sexes means we absolutely need the unique strength of both. 

The male and female contribution goes beyond the human realm: We find that the entire world is a balance of male and female. Our mystical literature teaches us that the world was created through the letters of the Hebrew language, and that Hebrew words are not arbitrary symbols, but reflections of the inner reality of the entities they describe. Tellingly, in Hebrew, there are no "its." In Hebrew, every noun is either of male or female gender. 

There's a beautiful balance in all this. Take the Hebrew word for body:"guf". "Guf "is a masculine term. Then you have the Hebrew word for soul: "neshama." "Neshama" is feminine. In Jewish belief, the person is both neshama and guf. 

If we wanted to, we could argue what's more important: Guf or neshama. Some might say, the guf after all, that's the part of the human we relate to most directly; it's what we see. Others might argue the neshama is more important. But what good is a soul if you don't have a body to put it in? The body is the tool with which we actualize the potential of the soul. And what value is a body without a soul? It's like a garment without a person inside. 

You have the same partnership in the Hebrew terms for tree and earth. "Aitz," tree, is male. "Adama." the earth, is female. Without the earth, out of which the tree grows, you can't have the tree. The earth sustains the tree; the tree is an expression of the earth. 

Within every human being too, there are female and masculine properties. As a woman, I have both masculine and feminine capacities. When we speak about the uniqueness of women or the uniqueness of men we speak about the major thrust of the human, realizing that neither gender excludes the properties of the other. 

It makes sense that each human being has this balance of both masculine and feminine attributes because we are created in the image of God, and God has both masculine and feminine aspects. 

God is not a man, and God is not a woman. Indeed, we can't really say what God is at all, because God's essence is beyond human comprehension. Yet we can and are encouraged to examine what God does in this world. And in this world, God has both male and female manifestations -that is, God acts in both masculine and feminine ways. 

A common name for God in Hebrew literature is "The Blessed One, HaKodesh Boruch Hu," a masculine construction in Hebrew grammar. But the "Shechina," the indwelling presence of God in this world, is female. 

One of the responsibilities of our being made in the image of God is that we are supposed to act like God, to the best of our abilities. 

As women, we were given an extra share of the God-like feminine way of being. Our task is to refine the feminine ability we have, and bring it to the highest expression we can in this world, and within the particular life situations in which we're placed. 

This is not a small task. Yet, this very difficult assignment has become even harder today because women are convinced that the "womanly" side of them is something either to be ignored, or, at best, relegated to an inferior role in their lives. 

Unfortunately, our society has "bought into" the masculine thrust and devalued entirely the feminine way of being -the feminine contribution. 

We ourselves - women who are otherwise self-confident and self-possessed -believe that in order to succeed, we must act as aggressively as men do, we must dress like men, and we must stifle everything feminine. "It's a man's world," we say, and the sad thing is, we believe it. 

The tragic result is that a lot of really wonderful feminine properties are being lost on the way. 

At a certain point in the 1960s, it became taboo to refer to the woman in conjunction with the home. Even though we now consider ourselves liberated from the excesses of the liberation movement, and many women are choosing to stay at home, things haven't changed a great deal. 

I've had occasion many times to speak to women who complain that, still today, the only way to be accepted in society is to be "out there." We must act like men as well. There is an unwritten rule that, "out there" at least, we can't be seen as different from men, and we have to develop masculine approaches. 

We have little difficulty doing this. It's become almost a cliché that top women executives are much tougher than any man - that if men drive mercilessly, women drive ever so much more mercilessly. Because women have to overcompensate for those feminine feelings that might, God forbid, surface, they end up being harsher on themselves and others than any man would. 

Several women have told me that after they've taken a break from the workforce and from hustling alongside men, and they start relaxing into their own natural mode of behavior, they find out how much of their own femininity they've repressed along the way. 

Anthropologist Ashley Montague wrote a book in 1953 called The Natural Superiority of Women in which he discussed what he called a woman's genius of interacting. He's not the first nor the last to have described the phenomenon: Women have a capacity to relate to others, to understand them, with a depth and a facility that most men can't match. Of course there are exceptions; we are speaking about general tendencies. This capacity to relate is an essential quality needed in the running of the world, and Montague pleaded with women not to lose the trait, and not to lose other distinctly feminine qualities. 

The heart of this idea may have best been expressed by the Kotzker Rebbe, an outstanding Jewish educator and philosopher of the 19th century. The Kotzker Rebbe said: "If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then you are not you and I am not I." 

In other words, the only way that "I am I" is if I am true to myself - if I define myself according to what I know to be true and important. If I define myself, rather, according to the predominant values of the society around me, then I am not true to myself. And if the predominant value of the society is a masculine one, then I'm at risk of ignoring perhaps the most basic part of myself. 

If we refuse to be ourselves, we stymie the very purpose of creation. God needs each one of us to do that which no one else can do - to be ourselves, and to perfect that share of the world that was given to us to perfect. It's only in being who we truly are that we can begin to accomplish these lofty goals. And only with the strengths of both the male and the female working together can we reach the ultimate perfection of the world. 

I would like discuss one crucial feminine property in danger of extinction: The feminine strength of privacy. 

Sallie Tisdale, writing in Vogue magazine, asserts that privacy in its essence is a feminine trait. Though she makes many points I would disagree with, she expresses personally and perceptively a feminine attitude towards privacy: 

"Privacy, to me, is nothing more or less than what I hold to be private. 

"...There's an old cliché: biology is destiny. I used to hate it; I thought it was a coy excuse for a myriad of mistakes. Now I wonder if there isn't a lovely poetry in the phrase. After all, my biology has been my destiny as often as not, because so much of what I am seems to rise out of the fact of being female... 

"I have a finely developed sense of territory. I shared a small bedroom with my younger sister; we drew invisible lines across the walls and floor - her side, my side. I still make invisible lines around my house; after all, I share it with four people. 

"...Privacy is a condition of the body; it is more than a social construct or anidea... The boundary of my body is made and shaped by what my body does and by what can be done to it. I've never met a man who cares half as much about curtains as almost any woman I know, and I don 't think it has anything to do with a propensity for domestic chores." 

In the Psalms, King David writes that the honor and the beauty of a daughter of Israel is this privacy, this inwardness. Today we can hardly understand such a concept because, with rare exception, we have come to value only that which is public. 

The more public something is, the more valued it is. To "make it" in our society means to have reached the extremes in public awareness: To be a leader in business or politics, a top athlete, performer or author. Who isn't dazzled by the trappings of such great fame - the neon-lit marquis, the talk show, the cover of Time? Indeed, the allure of public roles pervades even the inner circle of Jewish life. 

Take, for example, the issue of prayer. Judaism prescribes a formula for men's prayer: It should be done with a quorum of 10 men, a minyan. Women who want to be counted in a minyan because they think the male way to pray is the only way to pray, or women who have taken on the traditionally male function of an getting an aliyah (the public Torah reading in synagogue) tell me: "It's so wonderful. You get up there in a public setting, you feel so confident, so proud, so close to God." 

I wonder if it's really closeness to God we're discussing. When a person walks off the bima after reading from the Torah, they get all those pats on the back. Abundant congratulations. Who can blame anyone for wanting this? Who doesn't love getting strokes? 

If women are clamoring for these public expressions - like minyan and aliyah 

 - it's for a very good reason: No one knows anymore that there's an inner stage to life that was given primarily to woman to perfect. For all intents and purposes, it doesn't exist. 

In the Jewish understanding, achievements that are not subject to public scrutiny are among the most precious achievements mankind can offer God. This concept is examined at length in a book called Jewish Woman in Jewish Law (Ktav Publishing/ Yeshiva University Press, 1978) by Moshe Meiselman. It's a basic Jewish concept. 

The inner stage of life, as Meiselman describes it, refers to far more than activities that take place in a private setting like the home. It's the way we look at life. It's the understanding when we look at our lives that what is private is more valuable than anything public possibly can be. It's giving weight and importance to what is really going on inside us, rather than that which we project for public consumption. It's the ontological soul rather than the mask we wear. 

For an act to have integrity, it almost has to take place in the private sphere. 

When we perform an act of kindness in a public setting, how can we be sure of our motivation? When we know we will get those pats on the back, or receive other strokes of approval, how much of our act remains pure? Only those things which happen in the inner stage of life are completely uncompromised. 

Woman, more than man, was given a natural propensity to appreciate this inner stage of life, the private sector. True, we may be tuning out this natural appreciation because the drone of what society tells us is so loud. But if we would be ourselves- if we would get in touch with our inner souls - we would find that we really understand. 

This is one reason why women relate to others on a higher level than men. We're more in touch with our private selves, so that, when we relate to others, it's core to core. We have the ability certainly - whether we use it is up to us. 

If women have this stronger sense of privacy and boundaries and the importance of them, it's no wonder that Judaism assigns woman the responsibility of sanctifying space. While the sanctification of time is seen as the domain of the man, the consecration of space is a woman's domain. 

We are charged with the responsibility of making every space we occupy fit to be a meeting place between God and the human being. A woman has the peculiar and specific ability to do that. In our tradition, after a woman gets married, she goes to a mikveh, a pool of natural water as prescribed by Jewish law, to sanctify the original space, the first space, a baby occupies. Beyond that, she goes out to sanctify any space that she occupies, whether that space is the home or where she works. She does it with her appreciation of the inner stage of life, of privacy and the unique potential it guards. 

Indeed, almost all of the greatest acts of Jewish history took place in private. The first time the Tablets of the Ten Commandments were given to the Jewish people, they were shattered. Eighty days later, we received a second set that exists till today, hidden away after the destruction of the First Temple. The first set was given at Mt. Sinai in an event witnessed by millions of people - the entire Jewish people. The second set was given in private, and because of that fact will survive eternally, our sages have told us. 

All of us want to leave our mark in this world. Society has led us to believe that the way to do this is to grab the world's attention. 

Yet, if we look into our own lives, who was it who affected us in any kind of deep, lasting way? Was it Jack Kennedy? Madonna? George Bush? Hardly likely. For most of us, the people who affected us most profoundly were our parents. 

My father, Rabbi Israel Stein of Bensonhurst, passed away three years ago. He was an extremely public figure and a very distinguished rabbi, and he had a tremendous following in Brooklyn. At Jewish events in Madison Square Garden that drew crowds of 20,000 or 30,000, people would say that if he would speak, everyone would come away inspired. One minute they were crying, the next minute they were laughing. 

I remember as a child how proud I was. As we walked down the street and I held his hand, I would look in all directions to see if everybody noticed it, and realized that he was my dad. The night after community rallies, the teachers at school would tell me, "Your father was the only one there who really understood the situation and portrayed it the way it needed to be portrayed." 

These things meant a whole lot to me. But at those moments at night when I can't sleep, that's not what I think about. What I remember in those moments are the times I would arrive back at my parents' home in Bensonhurst, after a flight from my home in Milwaukee. There was never a time when my father wouldn't be standing by the window, looking out, waiting for me. 

My father had a heart condition and couldn't move heavy things. A half-hour before my flight was due in, he would ask my mother, "Please, can you move that chair over by the window? I want to sit by the window and wait, because my Faigele is coming in." 

She would say to him, "But the plane isn't even due for half an hour, and then it's going to take another 45 minutes before she gets here. Why sit all that time?" 

He said, "I don't want to miss that first instant when I can lay my eyes on her." 

Those are the things that impact on our lives. I remember another event that, still today, is at the marrow of my bones. When I find myself feeling very vulnerable, it's this that I remember. 

I was a little girl and was quite ill, with an extremely high fever. It seemed like an eternity that I was in bed, suffering with this fever, and throughout the whole ordeal, my mother sat by my side. 

Each time I would become aware enough to open my eyes, she'd be leaning towards me and she'd say: "Have a drink? Would you like a drink? Maybe something to eat?" She asked each time in order to see some sign of life, some indication of recovery. 

At one point I felt a little better; the fever was breaking. I opened my eyes and she asked, "Is there anything you would like?" 

I said, "Mommy, I would love a big, green, sour apple!" 

Till today, every time I talk to my mother and she senses I'm a little low, she asks me, "Would you like a big, green sour apple?" It's become a symbol of security, of a mother who sits at your side, who goes through whatever you go through, and who cares more than anyone can imagine. In those darkest moments, when I opened my eyes, she was there. 

These are private moments. If anything gives me the wherewithal to handle difficult situations in life - and we all go through moments of loneliness and fragility - it's these moments. 

When we think about what it is we want to do with our life, and we get dragged along by society's message that only those things which are seen by the public are important, let's pause and remember what's truly meaningful to us. I think we'll conclude that the vital stage of life - the place that's most important to you, to me, and to all of us - is not the public arena, but the inner stage of life. 

* Tapes on this topic by Mrs. Twerski are available. Write to the Avir Yaakov Torah Learning Center, 2700 No.54 St., Milwaukee WI 53210 for a tape list. 

Mrs. Twerski, a teacher and counselor, lives in Milwaukee with her husband, Rabbi Michel Twerski, and children. She and her husband have lectured around the world on Jewish topics. 

 

Sample Lectures: Self Esteem; Feminine Trait; Intimate Road; Parenting; Politics

 

 

 


 
 
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