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A Jewish Perspective on Being a Working Mother

A Jewish Perspective on Being a Working Mother

This post is adapted from Rabbi Danziger's prepared remarks for the Northeast Ohio Women's Summit.

When I hear the term 'women in the workplace,' I picture power suits and pumps; water coolers and metal filing cabinets. As a rabbi and a community organizer, my workplace looks more like coffee shops and video conferences, jeans, messy ponytails and even, sometimes yoga pants! My actual office is the spare bedroom in my home, from which I will soon be evicted by the individual currently residing in my uterus. My husband and I are expecting our third child under the age of 4. When people learn about my pregnancy and my young children, one of the first questions I ultimately get (sometimes following the thoughtful- “you do know how that happens, right”)  is “will you continue working?” This question is often followed by confusion about how I could possibly pull that off! Nobody, by the way, asks this of my husband who leads a congregation.

When I hear the term “women in the workplace,” I don’t immediately see myself. Yet- I am an important earner in our family economy, I work more than 40 hours a week and I am representative of a growing share of the workforce, especially women, who work remotely at schedules with some flexibility. When people ask me if I will continue working, the answer is yes! And the reason I am able to give that answer and that my family can continue to benefit from two incomes is that my job doesn’t come with a strict, one-size-fits-all schedule.

Research shows that one of the main reasons for gender gaps at work—why women are paid less than men, why we are less likely to reach the top levels of our companies and why we are more likely to stop working after the birth of a child—is an expectation that we will spend long hours at our desks. Flexibility regarding when and where we work can go a long way in closing these gaps. It is increasingly offered by small and large companies alike, improves employee engagement and attracts talented workers. However, The New York Times reports that even when flexibility is offered by an employer, a stigma exists around taking advantage of it. I understand that! A few weeks ago, when asked to join an important meeting at the same time as parent teacher conferences, I struggled internally for hours about what my response should be. In the end, I decided on the parent teacher conference, but I made a note in my mental score card of work life balance that I should say yes next time.

It is inevitable that working and living are a balancing act, but this requires flexibility. In Judaism, the traditional response when someone learns of a pregnancy is not “congratulations,” but rather, “b’sha-ah tova” – “may it come at a good time.” This sounds kind of funny. It is based in superstition about not watching to celebrate something before it happens. But, to me it feels very real. As any of us who have children know, there is no right time. There could always be more preparation, more money in the bank and more sleep. But I kind of like b’sha’ah tova, the acknowledgement that parenthood leaves us little control and forces flexibility. Whether that is the roller coaster of childbirth, a stomach bug on a day when two parents have big presentations, or the opportunity to take part in the spontaneous joy of young children—balancing work and parenting requires creativity and adaptability.

The Jewish legal tradition is full of guidelines for fulfilling our obligations as members of society; and guidelines for when we should be exempt. Deuteronomy (24:5) teaches, “When a man has taken a bride, he shall not go out with the army or be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household; to give happiness to the woman he has married.” As I learned from Ally Jacobson, my classmate at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in her senior sermon, for this important duty, one that community safety depends on, Jewish law acknowledges that sometimes family happiness - not just family survival - must come first. A later text (Mishna Sotah 8:2) elaborates. It reads: “All these men hear the priest’s words concerning the battles of war and return home and they supply water and food and repair the roads.”

Here are two different ways in which we can be creative and flexible so public life and family life can co-exist. The first is a finite amount of family leave—one year away to focus on happiness at home. The second is more creative—instead of serving on the front lines, a new spouse contributes to the war effort by working from home. Both these examples show the importance, even in ancient times, of treating employees like whole people with multiple identities and roles. An inflexible workplace environment didn’t work for ancient Israelite soldiers and it doesn’t work today for the American work force, especially women.

This is an issue of privilege. Many jobs held by women of lower income levels, women of color, immigrants to this country are not trending more flexible. Public policies like domestic workers’ bills of rights or universal preschool along with the need for new ideas are necessary to treat all women like whole people.  Whether they apply to our place of work or perhaps to women who work in our own homes, policies are really a statement of our values and the opportunity to put them into action.

The Hebrew word that is probably best known is the word Shalom- meaning peace. But Shalom comes from the same root meaning as the word Shalem- wholeness. We cannot really be at peace without getting to be our whole selves. We must craft and advocate for policies and professional lives that let us all be our whole selves.

Rabbi Lindsey Danziger is the Lead Organizer of the Ohio Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. 

Published: 12/16/2018