The Jewish Obligation to Obliterate the Glass Ceiling on Women

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I experienced the glass ceiling even before I finished high school. Growing up in an Orthodox community, I came to understand rather quickly, when I expressed my desire to teach Torah and be a Jewish leader, that I could only go so far in Jewish communal life. I was a passionate Jewish day school student. I thrived in the setting. The Torah study I encountered and engaged in ignited a fire inside of me that made me want more – more responsibility, more commitment and more leadership within a religious community. “Wonderful, you can be a teacher in a day school,” the rabbis would say. Or “someday you will marry a rabbi and make a wonderful rebbetzin.” I was not amused to learn that no matter how much I loved Torah study, no matter how skilled I was, and no matter how hard I worked, there were limits to my ability to climb the “ladder” of Jewish leadership within the Orthodox community.

As an adult, I discovered this glass ceiling on women was not limited to the Orthodox community, and despite the progress society has made since the first wave of feminism, even today there is still a long way to go.

In Israel, there is an almost equal number of men and women in the workforce, however there are significant disparities in the salaries of men and women, and in the numbers of each in senior management positions. This was highlighted last week in an article by Ravit Hecht. Meanwhile, one of the hottest news items of this past week was the release of Facebook chief operating officer Cheryl Sandberg's new book, “Lean In”, in which she follows two lines of arguments about women and the work place: the lack of women at the highest rung of business leadership and the pattern of women leaning back from work to be more present at home, to become more likable to co-workers or be viewed in a positive light by others. In other words, Sandberg estimates that women hold themselves back as much as society and norms do.

The statistics accompanying these authors’ works are staggering. Hecht writes:

A survey of median salary, based on data from the Israel Tax Authority, found that most of the recipients of the lowest wages in the country are women, with 25 percent of them earning less than NIS 2,900 a month gross, the lowest salary level.

She also adds:

A survey by the accountancy and consulting firm BDO of senior executives in the 100 largest public companies in Israel, found that only 8 percent of these high-ranking positions were held by women, and even that fragile minority earns 30 percent less than their male colleagues.

Sandberg’s statistics don’t offer much promise either. She writes: “We've ceased making progress at the top in any industry anywhere in the world", adding:

In the United States, women have had 14 percent of the top corporate jobs and 17 percent of the board seats for 10 years. Ten years of no progress. In those same 10 years, women are getting more and more of the graduate degrees, more and more of the undergraduate degrees, and it's translating into more women in entry-level jobs, even more women in lower-level management. But there's absolutely been no progress at the top. You can't explain away 10 years. Ten years of no progress is no progress.

What would Jewish wisdom have to say about these concerning statistics?

Judaism demands we create equitable opportunities for all. The concept of “brit” (covenant) requires that we embody the qualities of the Divine here in our world and our lives. Covenant goes beyond our daily behavior. As Daniel Elezar of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs explains: “Jewish values are grounded on and derived from the idea of covenant which in itself embodies a basic value: the idea is that humans need to establish institutions and relationships on grounds of a fundamental equality and based upon freely choosing to do so.” These covenantal principles lead to relationships and societies based on the true equality of all people; it is a fundamental Jewish value and obligation.

We have a responsibility as Jews to create institutions and religious communities that are equitable and fair to men and women alike. We are obligated to teach young girls and boys that they both have the ability to access leadership roles within our communities and in society at large – Jewish wisdom does not rest in the synagogue alone.

The pay gap and gender inequality – whether they be in the highest rungs of business boardrooms or among religious leadership - are Jewish issues that demand answers. Whether in the boardroom or on the “bima,” we must live up to the holiest version of ourselves where equality is a Divine command that is fulfilled by human hands – both male and female.

Rabbi Elianna Yolkut works throughout N.Y.C. and beyond teaching, speaking and writing Torah. You can find her at

Bank Leumi CEO Rakefet Russak-Aminoach, left, and her former boss, Galia Maor. Banking is the only sector in which top female executives earn more than men.Credit: Aviv Hofi

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