Domestic Labor: Where Feminism and Orthodox Judaism Agree
From children running across Zoom backgrounds to cat filters invading legal proceedings, the COVID-19 pandemic has blurred the borders between work and home. Women are caught in the middle, and that tension is something that Orthodox Judaism has grappled with for centuries.
In recent weeks, prominent women—led by Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, and including Amy Schumer and Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood—have implored the Biden Administration to implement a Marshall Plan for Moms, named in reference to the 1948 World War II recovery effort. The plan consists of policies aimed to help the more than two million moms who have been pushed out of the workforce by the pandemic. In addition to promoting pay equity, affordable childcare, and paid family leave, it includes “direct payments to moms, who have had their paid labor in the workforce replaced by unseen, unpaid labor at home.”
The task of balancing work, childcare, and education has placed an exceptional strain on all working parents, and on moms in particular. “Women in the Workplace,” a yearly study by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org, found that in heterosexual partnerships with children, moms are more than three times as likely as dads to hold responsibility for most of the childcare and housework during the pandemic. For single mothers, the domestic labor challenges imposed by COVID-19 are even greater. Reflecting the barriers imposed by increased domestic labor needs, in December 2020, while men gained 16,000 jobs, women lost 156,000, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. And, across the board, people of color experienced higher levels of unemployment.
American society’s underappreciation for domestic labor is not new or unique to the pandemic. And, while workforce data shows that domestic labor disproportionately burdens women, a social shift toward tangibly valuing domestic labor would certainly benefit all caregivers, regardless of gender or family structure.
In the early 1970s, Silvia Federici co-founded the American chapter of the Wages for Housework movement. Since America’s political and economic systems operate on capitalist principles, money is used to ascribe value. According to Federician thinking, domestic labor should be economically supported and valued just like other forms of labor. The Wages for Housework movement operates with the intention of economically labeling domestic labor as labor so as to recognize the domestic responsibilities disproportionately thrust onto women, even those who also hold full-time jobs (termed “the second shift” by sociologist Arlie Hochschild). Essentially, by compensating domestic labor, this branch of feminist thought aspires to free women from the restrictions imposed by the unwaged labor expected of them at home and, accordingly, give women the active choice of where to distribute their energy, productivity, and labor.
Unlike American economic and political systems, Orthodox Judaism recognizes the value of the behind-the-scenes housework and childcare that too often falls on women's shoulders. According to Jewish law, women are exempt from positive time-bound commandments—like saying the Shema at a particular time or waving the lulav on Sukkot—in recognition of their household responsibilities.
When I first learned this principle years ago, it seemed to me, frankly, blatantly sexist and designed to perpetuate a problematic patriarchy. I even took a class at school called “Women and Mitzvot” that heavily relied upon this exemption to remind me week after week that so many religious practices central to the Jewish experience of my friends who were boys—like wrapping tefillin every morning—were not required of me. In fact, Orthodox Judaism leaves some positive time-bound commandments optional, while actively discouraging women from practicing others.
However, upon deeper investigation, the exemption of women from positive time-bound commandments seems to employ a feminist view of domestic labor. Both feminist traditions and Orthodox Judaism actively recognize the intrinsic value of domestic labor and strive to ascribe it tangible worth. In a capitalist economic system, that worth should be compensated through wages; in Judaism, that worth is compensated through exemption from other duties also understood as forms of religious work. By exempting women from certain commandments, Judaism effectively elevates the status of domestic labor to equal that of the specific commandments which only men are obligated to fulfill.
While both feminist tradition and Orthodox Judaism emphasize the value of domestic labor, they approach the issue from different angles, resulting in distinct outcomes. Feminists seek to liberate women by acknowledging the time and energy that domestic labor consumes; Orthodox Judaism acknowledges the time and energy that domestic labor consumes by systematically assigning familial duties to women, effectively reinforcing gender norms. Yet, their shared practice of definitively valuing domestic labor sends an important message and remains striking.
Orthodox Judaism provides an example of how societies rooted in traditions other than modern capitalism have functionally recognized the intrinsic value of domestic labor. Modern feminism can use this model as a reminder of the importance of valuing domestic labor to provide support both for people striving to break glass ceilings, and for people choosing domestic roles, regardless of gender.
On March 3, 2021, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tammy Duckworth introduced the “Marshall Plan for Moms” resolution to Congress. As the plan—and the feminist values it stands for—gains momentum, American systems will expose just how prepared they are to place appreciable value on domestic labor. And as they do (or don’t), perhaps modern feminism will learn to take a page from Orthodox Judaism. Domestic work is work. It’s time to pay up.