Motherhood and Justice

Ann Gerhart argues that The Supreme Court needs more mothers:

But in selecting Kagan, Obama ensured that one key demographic would actually lose representation on the court, compared with its membership just a few years ago: mothers, a category in which 80 percent of American women eventually land.

It’s not like we’ve never had moms in black robes. The flinty rancher and the feminist firebrand who blazed the trail for female justices both are mothers, with five children between them. Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who joined the bench in 1981 and 1993, respectively, benefited from high-achieving husbands who held the Bible for them as they were sworn in, supported their aspirations and sacrificed for their careers. …

The women of a younger generation who stand on their shoulders, Sonia Sotomayor and, if confirmed, Kagan, are single and have no children. That’s not a judgment, just a fact, a line or two not found on their extraordinary bios. If Ginsburg is the next justice to step down, the court could be transformed into a body with no mothers — otherwise known as people who know what it’s like to come home from work and spend a night picking lice out of a kid’s hair.

For women and their climb toward social and economic parity, is this a sign of progress or a setback? And for the country and its Constitution, would more mothers on the bench change the way the laws of the land are interpreted? …

I, for one, am grateful that no one has turned up any record of a Supreme Court nominee saying, “I would hope that a wise working mother of three, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” The howls would be deafening.

Women in general are more “socially compassionate” than men, says Northwestern University social psychology professor Alice Eagly, citing her analysis of decades of research on gender difference in decision-making. As legislators, lawyers and judges, women are somewhat more likely than men to favor what we call, irritatingly, “women’s issues,” generally child care, reproductive rights, sex discrimination in the workplace, education and health care.

But differences between mothers and non-mothers? “Interesting question,” Eagly said in an e-mail. “I don’t know of any studies on this question of motherhood and decision-making.”

It seems sensible to imagine that a woman who has juggled it all — the full-time job, the kids, the housework, the aging parents — has a deeper and more instinctual grasp of the challenges facing similar women. Michelle Obama, a Princeton and Harvard Law grad like Kagan, now living in the White House with a guy who watches “SportsCenter” to chill, frequently tells her audiences of women various versions of “Look, I get it,” to loud cheers. …

To tease out any gender differences, researchers conducted a review of about 7,000 federal appeals court decisions between 1976 and 2002 and found no statistical difference in the way women and men ruled in a variety of types of cases, except one: sex discrimination.

In those cases, female judges were about 10 percent more likely to find for the plaintiff than their male counterparts, said Christina Boyd, a political scientist at SUNY-Albany and a co-author of the study. And on three-judge panels where at least one member was a woman, the men were 15 percent more likely to find for the plaintiff than on panels with only male judges.

So women do affect the law — something Ginsburg learned through experience. “Yes, women bring a different life experience to the table,” she told Emily Bazelon in an interview for the New York Times Magazine shortly before Sotomayor’s hearings. “All of our differences make the conference better. That I’m a woman, that’s part of it, that I’m Jewish, that’s part of it, that I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and I went to summer camp in the Adirondacks, all these things are part of me.”

In saying he wants justices who have “heart” and “empathy,” and who understand “how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives,” Obama has invited us to ask who has a life outside work and who doesn’t. That’s hard to determine in a confirmation process that will require Kagan, like Sotomayor before her, to crimp her personality and bite her tongue.

Motherhood offers a one-word verifier. It signals a woman with an intensity of life experiences, jammed with joys and fears, unpredictability and intimacy, all outside the workplace. Much of the time, it’s the opposite of being strategic and assiduously prepared.

It’s a story we understand without needing all the details.

Neera Tanden finds these arguments “ridiculous”:

The policy initiative I worked on most with Elena at the White House was President Clinton’s child care initiative, a then-historic $20 billion investment in child care, after school, Head Start, and early learning. That’s why I find arguments by some that have criticized the president for not selecting a mother to the Supreme Court so ridiculous. There seems to be a notion that a single woman can’t represent the interests of mothers. Frankly, there were plenty of Republican members of Congress who happened to be mothers, who didn’t lift a finger to help mothers balance work and family. Now that I’m a mom, I know Elena got it because what mattered to her was drafting policies that made a concrete difference in the lives of children and helped working parents with their most important obligation.

Bella DePaulo (author of Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and the Living Single blog) is also unhappy with Gerhart’s piece, and see also this essay of hers (h/t: Nicky Grist [bio]).

Hazal actually do maintain that fatherhood is (generally) an essential qualification for membership our Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin, and not just fatherhood, but recent fatherhood:

[תניא] אין מושיבין בסנהדרין זקן וסריס ומי שאין לו בנים ר’ יהודה מוסיף אף אכזרי וחילופיהן במסית דרחמנא אמר לא תחמול ולא תכסה עליו:1

Rashi explains that the senior has “forgotten the pain of child-rearing, and is not compassionate”:

זקן. ששכח כבר צער גדול בנים ואינו רחמני וכן סריס:

The remarkable implication is that judges, at least on the Sanhedrin, are not supposed to be mere soulless automations, rigidly applying the Law untainted by the milk of human kindness. Our previous discussions of this general topic:

And my lecture The Legitimacy of Compassion as an Influence on Judicial Decisions, which comprises much of the above material, does indeed utilize this Gemara as its starting point.

Returning to Gerhart’s thesis, Rav Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel actually takes precisely the opposite view; he concludes a lengthy analysis of the Halachic legitimacy of female judges (listen to my lecture on the topic) by declaring that although the institution of a policy allowing such appointments can be technically justified, it is nevertheless inappropriate:

אלא שלדעתנו מפני חשיבות של ענין דין בישראל לא נכון לעשות תקנה כזאת [לקבל נשים], שהיא פוגעת בהנהלת משק הבית הישראלי וחנוך הבנים וטפולם התמידי שאינו יכול להעשות אלא על ידי אם רחמניה שהיא צופיה הליכות ביתה, ושאין הדין יכול להיות אמת מסבות פסיכולוגיות של רגשי רחמים מרובים, שהאשה חוננה בהם, וגם מסיבת עדינות רגשותיה שהונאתה מרובה ודמעתה מצויה, אין ממנים אותה לדון דאחד מתנאי הדיין הוא: אנשי חיל, גדולים בחכמה ואמיצים ברוחם, שמקימים לא תגורו מפני איש כי המשפט לאלקים הוא.

Rav Uziel argues, in diametric opposition to Gerhart, that motherhood is actually a hindrance to proper justice (in addition to the deleterious effect that jurisprudence will have on her domestic character): “the Law [produced by a female judge] cannot be true due to psychological causes of feelings of great compassion, with which Woman is graced, and also due to the cause of the delicacy of her feelings, for her emotional hurt [heb. הונאתה] is great and her tears come easily, we do not appoint her to judge, for one of the qualifications of the judge is: men of valor, great in wisdom and brave [Heb. אמיצים] of spirit, who fulfill [the charge of the verse] “ye shall not be afraid of the face of man; for the judgment is God’s:”

We close with this fascinating exchange, from the pages of Binah magazine, about the personal and professional life of the most famous female judge in Jewish history:

Devorah Haneviah was a leader of Klal Yisrael, but the passuk says, “ad shekamti Devorah, shekamti eim beYisrael.” Devorah’s primary role and her greatest pride was not her prophecy or prominent position, but rather her motherhood.2

The author explains the passuk “ad shakamti Devorah, shakamti eim b’Yisrael – until I, Devorah, arose; I arose as a mother in Yisrael” (Shoftim 5:7) as referring to, and attributing the highest significance to, Devorah’s status as a biological mother and her career as mother to her own children. Is there a source for this explanation?

The classic meforshim who explain this passuk – Ralbag, Metzudas Dovid, and Malbim – explain eim, “mother”, as referring to various aspects of Devorah’s leadership of Klal Yisrael: as a maternal leader, a “parent” who rebukes Klal Yisrael, as well as a metaphorical biological mother of Yisrael, due to her saving them from Sisrah. Targum Yonasan goes so far as to translate the phrase as “until I was sent to prophesy for Yisrael,”, with no mention of a maternal connotation. Indeed, it would be difficult to understand why the passuk would be praising Devorah as a “private” mother in the context of her shirah on the salvation of Klal Yisrael.

I would be interested to know if there is an authoritative source that explains this passuk as referring to Devora as a “real” mother, as the author states, rather than as a leader. Otherwise, it would seem that the explanation in the article was an extension of the author’s personal views on the subject, rather than an accurate interpretation of the passuk and the portrayal of Devorah HaNeviah in Tanach.3

I heard the pshat on Shiras Devorah from Mrs. Devorah Leah Silberberg, Rav Gedalia Schorr’s daughter, who is a well-known mechaneches is Eretz Yisrael. After receiving your letter, I presented it to Rav Yisroel Dovid Schlesinger from Monsey, N.Y. who verified its veracity for me.4

I think it is clear who has the better of this interchange.

  1. סנהדרין לו: – קשר []
  2. Liba Cohen, Up Against the Tide, in Binah Vol. 4 No. 181 (19 Iyar 5770 / May 3, 2010) p. 53. []
  3. Letter to the editor from R. Reich, ibid. Vol. 4 No. 185 (18 Sivan 5770 / May 31, 2010) p. 14. []
  4. Liba Cohen, ibid. p. 15. []

Damsels In Distress

SternGrad discusses slipping, losing her balance and almost falling while on a date, her date’s reaction, and her reaction to his (and to his hypothetical one, had she failed to regain her balance):

I am a klutz. I have proved to be capable of tripping over my own two feet, bumping into walls, and knocking over cups filled with various liquids, luckily most often water, which is not nearly as difficult to clean up as soda, which gets sticky. The reason I mention this is because a while back I was on a date and we were walking some place slippery. …

If you’re thinking, “Oh she probably slipped and fell down,” well, Baruch Hashem that did not happen. What happened was that I slipped, lost my balance for a second, and almost fell, but managed to regain my balance. The interesting part, though, was the guy’s gut reaction, which was instinctively to reach out his arms to catch me. Remember that this happened in all of about 3 seconds- me losing my balance, saying “whoa,” his arms in a split second reaching out, ready to catch me, and me regaining my balance, so there was no need.

But I always wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t regained my balance. Would he have caught me and would we have touched? Would I have instinctively grabbed on to the closest thing to help me regain my balance, meaning, him, and then quickly let go the second I was back on my feet? That would have been so awkward, so I’m glad it didn’t happen. But the alternative would have been to hope that he didn’t stretch out his hands, and just let me fall, so as not to touch me, which could be viewed as halachic or as rude, depending on how you look at it. He also came from a background where he had not been shomer negiah for his entire life, which I think was part of the reason why his impulse was to reach and not to refrain.

Here’s the question: Should he have stretched out my hands to catch me or shouldn’t he? I remember being shocked that his gut reaction was to reach out like that, instead of to panic and stand there motionless as I struggled to maintain balance. My immediate reaction was, “Hmm, was he really about to touch me?” I think if a guy I was on a date with lost his balance, my guy would be not to reach out, since it’s touching, and it’s been so ingrained in me to refrain from touching males. …

So, what do you think? Should he have reached out to help me, and should I have taken this as a sign that he has good middos, and is a kind person for not letting me fall? Or should I have been concerned about the fact that he was so quick to abandon the laws of negiah? What would you do in this situation/ what would you expect your date to do in this situation?

Here’s the Debrecener’s famous discussion of a variation of this situation: if a woman has fallen, may / must a man help her to arise? His position is that the man must help her if he can do so by grasping her clothing, but if she is scantily clad, and aiding her will require holding her bare arms, then the Halachah is less clear. He initially inclines toward stringency (i.e., ignoring her), but then suggests that where there is “somewhat” of a חילול השם, there exists a Halachic basis to rely on בשעת הדחק to help her:

נשאלתי אחד שראה אשה שנפלה על הקרח או סתם נפלה על הארץ אם רשאי או מחוייב לעזור לה לקום.

השבתי, על יסוד הכתוב עד עתה1 עליו החוב לעזור על ידי אחיזת בגדיה להקימה, אבל בימי הקיץ שכמעט אין בגד לאחוז מוכרח להעלים עין.

ועיין בעזר מקודש (סימן כ”א) ועל פי מה שנתבאר ונתלבן למעלה תמצא שאין שום חשש בדבר לעזור לה. ואני מעיד על עצמי שבעיני ראיתי לרב גדול ומובהק אחד שבימי החורף נפלה אשה לפניו, ואני הלכתי על צד השני של הרחוב, והרב הנ”ל אחזה והעמידה וכשראה אותי עבר אצלי מצד השני והסביר לי למה עזר לה לעמוד, ממה נפשך אם ישראלית היא הלא מחוייב מצד הדין ואם נכרית איכא מפני חילול ד’, והרכנתי לו בראשי שבודאי ובודאי יפה עשה, ובודאי בימי הקיץ שנשים הולכות פרוצות באופן מבהיל ואשה כזו נפלה לפני אדם ואין בגדים לאחוז להקימה, ומן ההכרח לאחזה בזרעוי’ הערומות, בזה צע”ג כדת מה לעשות ודעתי נוטה לאסור,

אבל לפי דברי הרמ”א בשם המרדכי (באבן העזר סימן כ”א סעיף ה’) שמותר לרחוץ מעובדות כוכבים שפחות וכן נוהגים יש מקום להתיר, דנהי שהבית יוסף כתב על דברי מרדכי אלו שתלמיד טועה כתבו, אולם הב”ח כתב שמצא על קלף ישן שכתב שמותר רק אם יכול להזהר מהרהור, והנמנע מתברך. וכתב הב”ח שלא התיר המרדכי אלא להלכה ולא למעשה, ולהלכה נמי דוקא בשאין לו ספק שיכול להיות נזהר מהרהור. ועל מנהג שכתב הרמ”א כתב הב”ח שהוא טעות ויש לבטל המנהג הרע הזה כי בטעות נהגו כן על פי הספרים שנדפסו בטעות.

עם כל זה בכה”ג שנפלה ויש קצת חילול השם אם לא יעזור לה ולא יסייעה הסומך על הרמ”א יש לו על מי לסמוך בשעת הדחק,2

He then discusses helping an old lady cross the street, and reaches a similar conclusion:

אבל אם המצא תמצא שאשה זקנה מבקשת להעבירה מצד אחד לצד השני של הרחוב אם לא אפשר להשתמט אז יאחזנה בבגדיה, ואם מלובשת באופן שאין לו לאחזה בבגדיה, ישתמט ממנה ויעשה עצמו כאלו לא שמע מה שהיא מבקשת, כנ”ל נכון בעזהי”ת. אבל בשום אופן לא יאחזנה בזרועה מגולה שלה לסייעה להעבירה מצד אחד לצד השני’.

  1. תשובה זו היא בתוך סדר של הרבה תשובות בעניני צניעות וקורבה בין אנשים לנשים []
  2. שו”ת באר משה חלק ד’ סימן קי”ח – קשר []

The Light and Yeast of Torah

Peter Beinart

Although there are a lot of Orthodox Jews in my family (my mother is Sephardi, which doesn’t always translate easily into American categories), I was raised in a Conservative synagogue. I began going to Orthodox synagogues in my 20s.

What appealed to me was the dedication to Jewish learning, which I have come to believe is the only path to Jewish continuity. I feel in many ways limited by the fact that I did not attend Jewish school, and want my children to learn more, far more, than I did at their age. In a way, I’m more concerned with their knowledge than their observance, though I suspect and hope that the latter will follow the former. (In any case, we’re less strictly observant than some). If they can feel confident in a Jewish religious context, it will always be available to them, even if they drift away for periods of their lives. I’m also attracted to Modern Orthodoxy’s vision of a life in which one can be faithful to halacha (though I myself could be more faithful) and also truly at ease in the world, recognizing the truth and beauty in non-Jewish things.1


ר’ הונא ור’ ירמיה בשם ר’ חייא בר אבא אמרי: כתיב: (ירמיה ט”ז) ואותי עזבו ואת תורתי לא שמרו. הלואי אותי עזבו ותורתי שמרו, מתוך שהיו מתעסקין בה, המאור שבה היה מחזירן למוטב.2

א”ר חייה בר בא אותי עזבו אוותרה שמא את תורתי שמרו שאילו אותי עזבו ותורתי שמרו השאור שבה היה מקרבן אצלי3


אך אם הוא עוסק בתורה בראותו דרכיה, ציוויה ואזהרותיה, הנה סוף סוף מאליו יתחדש בו התעוררות שיביאהו אל הדרך הטוב. והוא מה שאמרו ז”ל (פתיחתא דאיכה רבתי): הלואי, אותי עזבו ותורתי שמרו, שהמאור שבה מחזירו למוטב.4

The careful reader will have noticed that the first version of the אגדתא cited above, from Daat’s text of מדרש רבה – איכה, reads “המאור שבה”, while the second version, from Mechon Mamre’s text of the תלמוד ירושלמי, has “השאור שבה”. In truth, both readings exist for both sources. From the commentaries to the Medrash on איכה:

הכי גרסינן מתעסקין בה המאור שבה כו’. כך מצאתי בירושלמי דכתיבת יד פרק קמא דחגיגה ואמר מאור על שהיא מאירה עיני האדם להטותו מדרך רעה לטובה וכדמפרש ואזיל

אכן בירושלמי שנדפס גרס כמו כאן.5

השאור שבה. יש לומר השאור רמז לסודות והחכמה הכלולות בתורה שהן מגדילין ומרבין אותה לעיני האנשים כשאור המגדיל את העיסה. ולפי שבהשגת החכמות והסודות יכירו נפלאות תמים דעים יהיה סיבה להתקרב לד’ לאהבה וליראה אותו [יפ”ע].6

השאור שבה. כן הוא בירושלמי פרק קמא דחגיגה. והמתנות כהונה גרס המאור שבה על שהיא מאירה עיני האדם. להטותו מדרך רעה לטובה.

וביפה ענף מקיים הנוסחא שלפנינו ופירש ששאור רמז ליצר הרע על דרך שאור שבעיסה מעכב. והיינו מה שילמדו בבחינת יצר הרע. …7

המאור שבה היה מחזירן כו’. כמ”ש ותורה אור ודרך חיים תוכחת מוסר. שאור התורה היה מאיר להחכימם מחשבת פתיותם בסכלות היצר הרע ולדרך חיים היה מטיהו התוכחת מוסר שבתורה וכמ”ש בזוהר ויקרא (כ”ג) דאורייתא מודעא ליה חובי’.8

From the commentaries to the Yerushalmi:

השאור שבה. פירוש רמז לסודות החכמה מצאתי

ולי נראה דהכי גרסינן המאור שבה וכן הוא ברבה:9

השאור שבה היה מקרבן אלי. קיצור לשון הוא וכמו מאמר שאור ותבלין הנותנין טעם וכלומר התורה שהיא שאור ותבלין נגד היצר הרע כמאמר חז”ל בראתי יצר הרע בראתי התורה תבלין ואלו לא היו עוזבים את התורה לגמרי כבר השאור והתבלין של התורה היה מקרבן לחזור אצלי לעבודתי:10

  1. From an email to Alan Brill. []
  2. איכה רבה, פתיחתא ב’ – קשר []
  3. ירושלמי חגיגה פרק א’ הלכה ז’, ו: – קשר []
  4. מסילת ישרים, פרק ה’ – קשר []
  5. מתנות כהונה []
  6. ענף יוסף []
  7. עץ יוסף []
  8. חידושי הרד”ל []
  9. קרבן העדה []
  10. פני משה []