The following is part of a transcript from a radio interview conducted by Rabbi Simon Jacobson of the Meaningful Life Center with Rebbetzin Leah Kohn, the director of the Jewish Rennaisance Center, an institute focused entirely on Jewish studies for women.

Rabbi Simon Jacobson: The perception that people have of women in Torah is somewhat of an archaic, old-fashioned one. How would you articulate the role of a woman in contemporary society from a traditional Torah perspective taking into account the many misconceptions and stereotypes that this usually evokes?

The secret is education

Rebbetzin Kohn: The woman in many ways is not any different from the role of the man. We are here to live a life that has meaning and a life of self-development, of contributing to others—and in this way there is no difference between a man and a woman.

According to Torah, though, there is a division of responsibilities, the concept of a team, where certain responsibilities are distributed more to men and others to women. This doesn’t mean, they cannot help each other or shouldn’t be involved in each other’s areas of responsibility, But in every team, each member is responsible for a particular part.

Jacobson: When many women see a traditional Orthodox Jewish woman, their attitude is that they dress in an old-fashioned way, and their role is seemingly exclusively motherhood. Living in a masculine-oriented society, these women feel that if they’re not treated as a man, with equal jobs or equal opportunities, they essentially become second class.

And many feel that Judaism has done that. What do you say to a person who has had such an experience?

Rebbetzin Kohn: I think we have to understand a little historical background. Historically, Jewish women, definitely concentrated more on home and raising children. But let’s understand that raising a Jewish child is not just taking care of his physical needs, but it’s also a person who takes care of his spiritual development, and that is very, very challenging.

In the past, this was very valued, and not only by Jewish people but by non-Jewish people too. Unfortunately, in our time, family is not valued as much as it should be, and we suffer for it in society.

This doesn’t mean, on the other hand, that the woman has to be in the family all the time, at home, and not have a career outside.

What I would emphasize is that family is important, and raising the next generation to be a healthy, productive and good generation is essential for us, for society. There is no greater contribution. But it doesn’t mean that the woman has to do everything. Technical things could be delegated to others. There are different stages when children are at home, different needs of children, and the woman can definitely develop herself and her career side by side with the family. At certain points she may develop her career part-time or do it in a way that won’t interfere with the major task that she has at home—and this is not necessarily the cooking or the cleaning, which can be done by somebody else—but making sure that her children will grow up to be good human beings. This is a very challenging job.

Jacobson: We do live, as you said, in a society that doesn’t value home the way it should. And this is especially true in New York, where they call it an epidemic of single life (the mecca of singles). Being in the situation that we are, where family is not honored the way it should be, and therefore the woman’s role is also seemingly undermined and compromised, how do we address that?

Rebbetzin Kohn: I think the secret is education. In order to do the job properly, a woman has to know her stuff, and this was transmitted throughout history,by osmosis, mother to daughter.

You cannot be a good Jew without knowledge. Women, men, it doesn’t matter. You have to know what you believe, what’s your view of life; you have to know how to live a Jewish life, you have to know current issues in order to know how to relate to them and react to them.

Within the last hundred years life for women has changed a lot, and we have to respond to it. That’s why Jewish education for women today is a prime concern of every Jewish community and a lot is invested in it.

You can’t do your job as a mother, as a wife, or if you’re single, as a member of a community, and live Jewishly properly if you’re not inspired yourself, if you don’t know what it is all about.

So being that today the way to educate is formal, women have to get a formal education as well. And you’ll find that women today are very involved in learning. Even the most right-wing societies in Judaism put a very strong emphasis today on Jewish education for women.

Jacobson: What do you tell someone who goes into a synagogue and says, “I can’t have an aliyah,” “I can’t put on tefillin,” or “at some synagogues they lock me up behind a mechitzah,” (which is a partition separating the men from the women).

Rebbetzin Kohn: Well, first I would generalize the question to go beyond the synagogue. Any experiences that women have when they feel that women in Judaism are treated as secondary are real and need to be explained.

Judaism is all about spiritual growth, bringing G‑dliness into this world, the connection to G‑d. And if they want to check if men and women are equal in this, we have to ask, do they have an equal opportunity to be close to G‑d? And they do. Because the highest level of connection to G‑d is prophecy, and there have been both men and women prophets in our history.

There are two aspects of spiritual growth. There is the person’s spiritual growth. Every human being needs to materialize his potential spiritually to the utmost, and grow constantly in his life as long as he is alive.

There have been both men and women prophets in our history

There is also the aspect of the community or the Jewish nation as a whole and its relationship to G‑d. Both are important for every human being, meaning, every Jew has to grow personally and also interact with society, with the community, with the nation, and with mankind at large.

But being that not everybody can be in charge of everything at the same time, we’ll accomplish more if we divide responsibilities between a team, so men are more responsible to the communal, national aspect, while women are more responsible for the personal development of themselves, people around them, whether it’s their own family or people in the community.

Being that this is the case, there will be some differences in the performances of mitzvos, commandments, between men and women. And in prayer it will express itself as well. While a woman is obligated to pray individually in front of G‑d, men are obligated to pray three times a day in a form of ten, what constitutes a community.

But obviously, men should approach G‑d personally as well, and women, whenever they desire, or if it gives them a better connection to G‑d, should obviously go to the synagogue as well and pray in this fashion too.

But everything that has to do with the communal service, according to Jewish law, is given to men. Now I know that women sometimes feel really bad about the fact that they don’t go up to the Torah and read from it. They are going very sincerely in order to have a spiritual experience and feel deprived by not having it.

Let me tell you, a woman might have many, many other spiritual experiences that men don’t experience, or other things that are mainly for women, like giving birth to a child. Nursing a child is definitely not just a physical experience; it’s definitely an experience on a spiritual level that can change a person’s life. You really stand in front of G‑d at that moment and see His wonders first hand.

Man cannot have this, so obviously we are a team. It’s not a matter of being better or being less, but everyone is responsible for his area and we are all together. We refer to ourselves as one body. It’s not two sides, where one is on one side of the table and one is on the other side and we try to get the best for ourselves.

We are working together, harmoniously, hopefully, on a job. And we are very happy that we have our own assignment that we are doing, and somebody else takes responsibility for something else, as long as the job is working well and we interact with each other and make sure that we communicate and that we do the job as a whole properly.

This is also true of the Jewish nation, not just of men and women. We have kings, we have Kohanim (priests), we have the Levites, we have the regular Jewish people, each of whom has a different role. Everyone is responsible for his own role, and together we accomplish our mission.

Jacobson: Once roles have become distorted in society, it becomes so difficult to sort it out. How do we get it back?

Rebbetzin Kohn: I would suggest not to go by the stereotype, but to check for yourself. And it doesn’t have to be just through education, which is obviously the best route, but just to meet Jewish women who are lawyers, doctors, teachers, bankers, in any profession, who are definitely successful in their jobs, who are totally involved in American life, and at the same time lead a Torah way of life in the traditional way.

When you speak to them, they’ll tell you that the real meaning of life, as important as their job is, is not their job but their role as a Jewish woman in Jewish society. And I think just seeing it is an opening and a way to maybe see it in a different light and have the desire and the stimulation to learn it on a different level.

Jacobson: As we wind down, Rebbetzin Kohn, would you like to say any last words to the women or men listening? You know, we live in difficult times but at the same time we have radio to communicate.

Rebbetzin Kohn: I think it’s a very interesting observation. On one hand we are bombarded with information. We have computers, we have email, we have the Internet, and we are bombarded with information. We know a lot today and we have access to unbelievable amounts of knowledge. Women and men are really educated today and can go as far as they want with their education. On the other hand, when it comes to Judaism, many times all that we had the opportunity to have was an education on a child’s level. Most of us, when we come to the age of bar or bas mitzvah, that’s the end of our Jewish education and it will be really a pity, that we have a limited education in what is essential in life.

I really encourage you—it’s fascinating—to delve into the wisdom of almost 4,000 years of Jewish wisdom. It addresses every aspect of life, including being a woman and acting as a woman in modern life, as interesting as it is. Even though it’s an ancient Torah, it does address all the modern issues, and I would encourage anybody and everybody to seek Jewish knowledge.

Jacobson: Thank you very much Rebbetzin Leah Kohn.