One issue that has come up for discussion in recent times is the public realm vs. the private realm. Most people go along with the idea that the public realm is the important one, and either dismiss or pay lip service to the private realm. But does Torah Judaism allow us to do that? No.
Most other religions are based on ritual. It’s all about the rituals performed and about performing them in some kind of public space, usually a house of worship. But rarely does the religious practice go home; and even when it does, it’s still all about ritual. Torah Judaism is not like that. Yes, we have our rituals, some done in public and others done in private, but halachah takes us home even down to such small details as tying one’s shoes. Plus, even most public rituals can be done at home and in private.
I find it unfortunate that it took a public health crisis to remind us of this.
There’s a teaching from Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (aka the N’tziv) that when we build a new Jewish community, the first public facility must be the mikvah. And if there are problems raising money for it, we are even allowed to sell a sefer Torah to help finance it. Why? Because the women’s mikvah and the mitzvah of Taharas HaMishpachah help promote a strong home and family, and the private realm of home and family is that important for our survival as a nation. Other nations, which didn’t promote a strong family unit, have long since disappeared.
What about the comment by Rashi that Yaakov Avinu sent his son Yehudah to Mitzrayim to build a beis midrash? Yes, that teaches us that Torah is the foundation of our nation, but did it work in Mitzrayim? In fact, we Jews assimilated with the Mitzriyim and we only kept our names, our language, and our dress. And it was the women who had to bring the men home to bring the G’ulah. Yes, our Torah is the foundation, but if we don’t have strong stable homes and families, and bring that Torah home to them, that’s how we disappear.
I also find it unfortunate that both women and the mitzvah of tz’nius have become victims of the prevalent belief that the public realm is more important than the private realm.
We women have always known how important the private realm really is. We have always understood that the backbone of Jewish society is home and family. In Mitzrayim, we women were the ones who never lost faith in Hashem even while the men did lose faith, and we succeeded in bringing our men home, whether it was by force of argument (as with Miriam bas Amram) or by creative thinking (as with the women and the copper mirrors). And that was how we women brought about that G’ulah.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that pays no more than lip service to the home and family. And it associates women with that, and pays no more than lip service to women. Even more unfortunately, many elements of Jewish society have succumbed to that influence and do the same. Baruch Hashem, we have more and more women who are writing and speaking and putting themselves out there, both to serve the klal and others and to command the respect that we deserve. And, baruch Hashem, we have a lot of men who do grasp this truth.
As for tz’nius, that word has been twisted and used to dismiss women. Too many people misinterpret the term to insist that women need to stay private and hidden. They might say that we women need to know our place. However, we have always known our place. First, true tz’nius does not allow a woman to stay hidden. Second, even privacy has its limits. There are things that are kept private for the sake of a stable person, family, and home, but a woman’s talents and strengths may very well serve the klal better in the public realm. To not use those G-d-given talents and strengths is a form of cheating. And our Torah doesn’t shy away from that either. We only recently read about the b’nos Tz’lafchad who came forward and claimed their nachalah in Eretz Yisrael. We also have all our other heroines through the ages who did what they had to do, in public and/or in private, to serve klal Yisrael.
As I write this, we have just completed the mourning of the Nine Days and Tish’ah B’Av, and have celebrated new hope on Shabbos Nachamu that the G’ulah Sh’leimah will arrive. Now is the time for all of us Jews – men and women – to come together, to respect each other, to respect both the public and private realms, and to use our talents and strengths to bring that G’ulah.