Professor Lerner's discussion centers around two sources: The "Ten Curses of Eve" in Rabbinic literature, which list the disabilities of women; and the Mishnah's placing priority of men over women in the case of saving a life in danger (assuming all other factors are equal). The curses range from the biological ("The first is menstruation, when she is driven from her house and banned from her husband.") to the psychological and/or social ("The fourth is that her husband rules over her.", "like a hand-maid she waits on her husband", etc.)
Professor Lerner points out many fascinating insights, but his chief aim is to discredit apologetic responses to egalitarianism. Many Orthodox Jews are liable to defend Judaism's laws with something like, "Separate-but-equal"; men have more mitzvot, but women control the home! But among the curses is "confined within a prison"; apparently, the Rabbis held that her domesticity is a curse, not a privilege! Similarly, regarding a woman's inability to testify in court, many say that this is not because she is inferior or untrustworthy, but only because it is unbecoming of her modesty. But one of the curses is "and she is not believed in matters of testimony". Apparently, women - or at least their situations - were seen as inferior; they - or at least their situations - were not seen as separate-but-equal. The Rabbis bluntly admitted that men have more enviable situations.
I have recently had a discussion with a friend regarding a woman's washing her husband's face; Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits pronounces this halakhah as sexist, but my friend said this halakhah is perfectly fine. One of the curses of Eve is "and like a hand-maid she waits on her husband"; apparently, her washing her husband's face is indeed an indignity to her, according to the Rabbis.
Thus, we see that many of the fundamental disabilities of women, being confined to the home and domesticity, are regarded by the Rabbis as curses, not as privileges. Professor Lerner notes that of all curses - such as a woman's bearing children in pain - there is no prohibition for us to try to overcome them; would any rabbi disapprove of using painkillers or some such to reduce the pain of childbirth? So too, then, we have no prohibition today of trying to lessen these curses of domesticity as much as possible.
Additionally, Professor Lerner notes, the Mishnah says a man's life is saved before a woman's, a man in mortal danger taking precedence over a woman. Rambam explains this Mishnah as being that since men are more sanctified with mitzvot, therefore their lives take precedence. Professor Lerner points out that if a woman's domesticity is taken as separate-but-equal, this explanation makes no sense; if the home were as important as the public sphere, and men and women equal only with separate spheres of influence, then Rambam's explanation is inconceivable. Rather, traditional Rabbinic thought assumed that since men have more mitzvot, their lives are actually more valuable.
Professor Lerner says that perhaps, today, we can say that new truths of the Torah have been uncovered, and today we can realize that the home is as important as the public sphere, thus validating the separate-but-equal explanation. But even if this is all true, that we have discovered new truths, we must at least admit that we are thereby disagreeing with the traditional authorities. Uncovering new truths in the Torah is legitimate, but intellectual honesty demands that a hiddush (innovation, insight) be admitted as such. In Professor Lerner's own words,
One might say that full respect for the role of women is a truth of the Torah which has remained hidden from the eyes of earlier generations, waiting for us to be its discoverers. However, we cannot pretend that those earlier generations had already made this discovery. That would be a fabrication of history and a sin against intellectual honesty.
I was already skeptical of the apologetic response. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes that a woman's virtue is said to be bringing her husband and sons to learn Torah. Asks Rabbi Telushkin, would any man be pleased if this statement were reversed, that his virtue is in bringing his wife and daughters to learn Torah? As with consoling a mourner, the only suitable response is one that would please oneself in the same situation. Since the separate-but-equal answer wouldn't satisfy me, I cannot expect it to satisfy women. Now, thanks to you, I have more textual evidence to back up this feeling, that the Ten Curses take woman's domesticity as a curse, and men are considered superior in life for their mitzvot, giving no regard for a woman's importance in the home. Thank you.
Due to all this, I have long preferred Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits's response, classifying the laws of women as concessions to uneducated primitive mankind, akin to slavery, go'el ha-dam (Shada"l = Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto), milhemet reshut (Raya"h = Rav Kook), korbanot (Ramba"m). These laws may still be binding, but it is our duty to overcome them.
Professor Lerner makes another crucial point:
It is entirely possible that many of the rabbis’ female contemporaries would take exception to the inclusion of some of the items in the lists of curses. After all, these lists offer men’s descriptions of how hard it is to be a woman. For instance, might not all this hand wringing over the curse of female sexual frustration involve the projection of male sexual frustration? Did women really not enjoy raising their children, or was it just difficult for men to understand that women might take pleasure in caring for children?In the comments to the blog, he further notes,
Over the years I have come to think that there is an extra twist to understanding the ten curses: these are lists of aspects of the woman's role which male rabbis viewed as unfortunate for women. At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, couldn't it be that there are some things many women actually enjoy which seem like torture to many men? (In my own case: certain kinds of shopping). I don't think that this consideration does serious damage to my argument, but it should be taken into account in a sophisticated reading of the "ten curses" midrashim.I think this is an important argument. However, I responded,
Indeed, I thought it was an important observation of yours that many of the curses are curses only from the male perspective; for example, child-raising. Nevertheless, we could say: if any individual woman demands greater participation in the public sphere, then this shows, ipso facto, that the given curse in question is not merely a subjective curse in the eyes of men, but is an objective curse for a human qua human, at least in this woman's particular case.