We present another letter on the topic of women – as the Rebbe would traditionally speak to a gathering of women and girls during these weeks preceding the summer. In this letter the Rebbe addresses the question of the woman’s role from the viewpoint of “orthodox” Judaism (as he denounces the use of “labels”) and whether there is validity in the notion that she has been placed in an inferior position. The Rebbe brings a clear and concise analogy to explain the functions of man and woman. The letter, written originally in English, is from the archives of the Rebbe’s trusted secretary Rabbi Nissan Mindel.
By the Grace of G-d
13th of Iyar, 5737
New York, N.Y. 10027
Greeting and Blessing:
Your letter reached me with some delay.
First, many thanks for your good wishes in connection with my birthday. I can best reciprocate win the words of our Sages, ”One who blesses others is himself, or herself, blessed by G-d, the Source of all blessings.” Accordingly, may G-d bestow His generous blessings on you in all needs.
Now with regard to your question about the woman’s role from the viewpoint of our religion or, as you refer to it, “orthodox” Judaism.
I must first point out that the division of Judaism into “orthodox, conservative, reform, “ etc. is purely artificial, for all Jews have one and the same Torah, given by the One and Same G-d, though there are more observant Jews and less observant Jews. To tag on a label does not, of course, change the reality of Jewish essence.
As to the attitude of Judaism to womanhood, it has also been frequently pointed out that those who think that the Torah places the woman in an inferior role to that of the man, labor under a misconception, for it has no basis in truth. Man and woman are, by way of example, like the head and the heart of the physical body: both are equally vital, though each has entirely different functions and only the normal functioning of both together ensure a healthy body. The same is true to the role of man and woman in Jewish life and indeed, in any healthy human society.
It follows that the heart need not feel inferior to the brain; although in certain aspects it depends on the brain, just as the brain need not feel inferior to the heart because in certain respects it depends on the latter. Similarly in Jewish life – there are duties and functions which G-d has allotted to the woman and those allotted to the man.
Where a person for some reason is unable to perform a certain mitzvah or some of his functions, there is a ruling in the Torah, Toras Emes – “the Merciful One excuses a person who is incapable of performing his or her duty.” Indeed, G-d Who knows what is in the heart of everyone, and knowing that were the personable, he or she would have performed it, considers the thought in place of the deed.
Incidentally, it is noteworthy that of the various Divine names, it is the name רחמנ (Merciful One) that is used in the above ruling. This pointedly emphasizes that all G-d’s precepts derive from His attribute of mercy and loving kindness which, like all Divine attributes, is infinite. It follows that where a person is precluded from performing a mitzvah by circumstances beyond his or her control he is completely excused and exonerated.
Needless to say, one need not apologize fr asking questions. On the contrary, since Jews are described by the Torah as a “wise and understanding people,” it is desirable that questions which come within the realm of human understanding should also be understood and not left to faith alone, wherever possible. There is only one prerequisite, which goes back to the time when the Torah and mitzvos were given at Sinai, namely that the Torah must be accepted on the basis of Naaseh ( “we will do”) first and then V’nishma (“we will understand”) – meaning that the performance of the mitzvos must not b made conditional on the understanding of their deeper significance, etc. nor must the vitality and enthusiasm of the performance be any the less.
This basic principle and attitude is also a matter of common sense. If the Torah is accepted as Divine – otherwise there is no point at all in any questions and discussions, since if it is man-made one would be free to do as one pleases – that is, given by a Supreme Being, Whose Essence is beyond human grasp, it would be a contradiction in terms to demand to know the meaning and significance of each Divine Mitzvah before performing it, for it would reduce the Supreme Being to the level of the limited human intelligence, which, moreover, is subject to development, since human understanding increases from day to day with newly acquired knowledge and experience; yet he insists on understanding it today, on his present level.
One might even add that there is a sound pragmatic or “business” consideration involved, as by way of a simple illustration, when one is offered an opportunity to invest a dollar with a view to earning a thousand dollars, though there may be a remote possibility of losing the one dollar. A normal individual would certainly not hesitate to make his decision. Similarly – when a Jew, on the basis of na’aseh before nishma invests a relatively small effort by restraining himself in matters of kashrus and Shabbos observance and the yetzer hara attempts to distract him by saying – even if you live 120 yers maybe you will never fully grasp the significance of what you are doing – the most the person will have lost would be having denied himself certain foods or some convenience on Shabbos. On the other hand, if a person will wait with the performance of mitzvos until he will realize their significance and in the meantime will act like a gentile, he will deprive himself of the eternal good which was within his reach and when the time will come and he will discover the truth, he will realize that he has lived in transgression of the Torah – (which, had he kept it properly, could have earned him the eternal good ).