September 2016

Topic of the Week: Meet our Scholars

September 20, 2016

The Place of the Jewish Woman in Jawitz' Writings

By Asaf Yedidya

Asaf Yedidya, an HBI Helen Gartner Hammer scholar-in-residence spent part of the summer at HBI researching the place of women in the writings of Zeev Jawitz, (1847-1924), a writer and rabbi born in the shtetl of Kolno in Poland. He immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1887, but after, 1897 Jawitz lived in various places throughout Europe: Lithuania, Germany and England. His literary and communal activities encompassed virtually all areas of culture as he realized that he was living in an age of transition from one way of life in the diaspora to a different one in the national homeland, one that presented complex problems together with opportunities.  Here is an excerpt from Yedidya’s research.

Zeev Jawitz strove to harmonize Orthodoxy with life as it was developing in the Land of Israel, in part by blending it together with nascent Jewish nationalism. He was active in all spheres of culture: history, language, literature and pedagogy, all the while striving for harmonization with the Orthodox outlook. He understood that a people returning to its homeland needed a national culture, one that was both broad and deep, and that the narrow world of the halakha would no longer suffice. Writing in a positive spirit rather than a subversive one, he therefore strove to construct a picture of the past that was traditional with a view to creating a new program for religious education that would meet the needs of the time without causing a rift with the past. He also tried to advance these ideas in the political sphere through the Zionist Organization's “Mizrachi” party. His main work was the multi-volume Toldot Israel (History of Israel, published 1895-1924) which encompasses Jewish history from its beginning – Patriarchs - until the end of the 19th century.

One of the issues that concerned Jawitz, though not systematically, was the Jewish woman and her place in modern society. At the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, the process of change in western society's attitude toward women was well underway. Their legal status had improved slightly, women became more present in the public realm and schools for girls were becoming a common sight in Europe. Jewish society in central and western Europe, including Orthodox society, to some extent, took several steps in that direction as well. In Frankfurt, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch founded a modern school for girls next to the boys' school and his daughter Sarah Guggenheim was a respected Orthodox writer. Hirsch himself thought that although women were created in the image of God and have intellectual and spiritual skills just like men, they have separate missions. Similar to the bourgeois German values, Hirsch also thought that the woman's role should be domestic, but he especially narrowed it to the education of children. In addition, the methods of learning should be different: while Jewish men should study thoroughly and analytically, Jewish women should study informatively.   

Among eastern European Orthodoxy, the attitude towards women and their status remained as before. In Palestine, too, in the "Old Yishuv" community, the attitude towards women and their status remained as before. However, in the "New Yishuv" community during the first aliyah, girls learned at new schools and the role of women became more varied. One could find increasingly more women engaged in literary writing, teaching in schools and kindergartens, even serving as school administrators.

Part of the change was credited to the enlightenment movement. One of the items on the Eastern European Maskil's agenda was the approach towards women. The Maskilim (European Jewish enlightenment) openly called for respectful mannerisms to women and for better education for women, and even initiated the commencement of schools for girls. They promoted the ideals of friendship and affection between husband and wife, rather than the traditional "forced" matchmaking. A man marries a woman,

Moshe  Leib Lilienblum wrote, so that he'll have a life-long friend: "who will live in partnership with him, share his life, his goals, his ideas and his feelings". (Chatot Neurim, 2, pp. 370-373).

At the same time, they were worrisome of the assimilation rates among women, which intensified during the final third of the 19th century. While Jewish women in Western European society functioned both as the pillar of the house within the private domain as well as the glue that safeguarded Jewish identity and handed tradition down to the next generation – in Eastern Europe the situation of women who underwent a process of secularization was different. 

Jewish women took active roles in providing for their families, and took a stand on various issues in the public domain. They received a minimal Jewish education, and were therefore easily affected by secular trends they were exposed to. This led to a loss of Jewish identity and placed them at the forefront of assimilation.

Jawitz was aware of the woman's role in the secularization process of Czarist Russia, as we see from his letter to his fiancé Golda Pines from summer 1870, in which he juxtaposes between her and her secular friends:

I'm glad you liked the small book I sent you, and if you'll read the article "A few things about the girls of Israel", you'll see that if the author knew you – she would have made you her poster-girl for our nation's girls, as your sole interest is the Jews' holy realm and their prized possessions of old. Your goal is to found a home based on the fear of G-d and the love of Israel, and none can equate to you as such. If G-d would only grant your nations' girls a pure heart and a language like yours, Israel's hope would stand proud, with Hebrew women who won't turn their husbands and sons away from G-d.