Women in Judaism


The role of women in traditional Judaism has been grossly misrepresented and misunderstood. The position of women is not nearly as lowly as many modern people think; in fact, the position of women in Jewish law that dates back to the biblical period is in many ways better than the position of women under American civil law as recently as a century ago. Most of the important feminist leaders of the 20th century (Gloria Steinem, for example) are Jewish women, and some commentators have suggested that this is no coincidence: the respect accorded to women in Jewish tradition was a part of their ethnic culture. In traditional Judaism, women are for the most part seen as separate but equal. Women's obligations and responsibilities are different from men's, but no less important (in fact, women's responsibilities are considered more important, as we shall see). The equality of men and women begins at the highest possible level: God. In Judaism, unlike in Christianity, God has never been viewed as exclusively male or masculine. Judaism has always maintained that God has both masculine and feminine qualities. As one rabbi explained it to me, God has no body, no genitalia, therefore the very idea that God is male or female is patently absurd. We refer to God using masculine terms simply for convenience's sake, because Hebrew has no neutral gender; God is no more male than a table is. Both man and woman were created in the image of God. According to most scholars, "man" was created in Gen. 1:27 with dual gender, and was later separated into male and female.

According to traditional Judaism, women are endowed with a greater degree of "binah" (intuition, understanding, intelligence) than men. The rabbis inferred this from the fact that woman was "built" (Gen. 2:22) rather than "formed" (Gen. 2:7), and the Hebrew root of "build" has the same consonants as the word "binah." It has been said that the matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah) were superior to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) in prophesy. Women did not participate in the idolatry regarding the golden calf. Some traditional sources suggest that women are closer to God's ideal than men. Women have held positions of respect in Judaism since biblical times. Miriam is considered one of the liberators of the people of Israel, along with her brothers Moses and Aaron. One of the Judges (Deborah) was a woman. Seven of the 55 prophets of the Bible were women.

The Ten Commandments require respect for both mother and father. Note that the father comes first in Ex. 20:12, but the mother comes first in Lev. 19:3. There were many learned women of note. The Talmud and later rabbinical writings speak of the wisdom of Berurya, the wife of Rabbi Meir. In several instances, her opinions on Jewish law were accepted over those of her male contemporaries. In the ketubah (marriage contract) of Rabbi Akiba's son, the wife is obligated to teach the husband Torah! Many rabbis over the centuries have been known to consult their wives on matters of Jewish law relating to the woman's role, such as laws of kashrut and women's cycles. The wife of a rabbi is referred to as a rebbetsin, practically a title of her own, which should give some idea of her significance in Jewish life. There can be no doubt, however, that the Talmud also has many negative things to say about women. Various rabbis at various times describe women as lazy, jealous, vain and gluttonous, prone to gossip and particularly prone to the occult and witchcraft.

Men are repeatedly advised against associating with women, although that is as much because of man's lust as it is because of any shortcoming in women. Women are discouraged from pursuing higher education or religious pursuits, but this seems to be primarily because women who engage in such pursuits might neglect their primary duties as wives and mothers. The rabbis are not concerned that women are not spiritual enough, but rather are concerned that women might become too spiritually devoted. The rights of women in traditional Judaism are much greater than they were in the rest of Western civilization until this century. Women had the right to buy, sell, and own property, and make their own contracts, rights which women in Christian countries (including America) did not have until about 100 years ago. In fact, Proverbs 31:10-31, which is read at Jewish weddings, speaks repeatedly of business acumen as a trait to be prized in women (v. 11, 13, 16, and 18 especially).

Women have the right to be consulted with regard to their marriage. Marital sex is regarded as the woman's right, and not the man's. Men do not have the right to beat or mistreat their wives, a right that was recognized by law in many Christian countries until a few hundred years ago. In cases of rape, a woman is generally presumed not to have consented to the intercourse, even if she enjoyed it, even if she consented after the sexual act began and declined a rescue! This is in sharp contrast to American society, where even today rape victims often have to overcome public suspicion that they "asked for it" or "wanted it." Traditional Judaism recognizes that forced sexual relations within the context of marriage are rape and are not permitted; in many states in America, rape within marriage is still not a criminal act. There is no question that in traditional Judaism, the primary role of a woman is as wife and mother, keeper of the household. However, Judaism has great respect for the importance of that role. The Talmud says that when a pious man marries a wicked woman, the man becomes wicked, but when a wicked man marries a pious woman, the man becomes pious. Women are exempted from all positive commandments ("thou shalts" as opposed to "thou shalt nots") that are time-related (that is, commandments that must be performed at a specific time of the day or year), because the woman's duties as wife and mother are so important that they cannot be postponed to fulfill a commandment. After all, a woman cannot be expected to just drop a crying baby when the time comes to perform a commandment.

It is this exemption from certain commandments that has led to the greatest misunderstanding of the role of women in Judaism. First, many people make the mistake of thinking that this exemption is a prohibition. On the contrary, although women are not obligated to perform time-based positive commandments, they are generally permitted to observe such commandments if they choose. Second, because this exemption diminishes the role of women in the synagogue, thus many people perceive that women have no role in Jewish religious life. This misconception derives from the mistaken assumption that Jewish religious life revolves around the synagogue. It does not; it revolves around the home, where the woman's role is every bit as important as the man's.


The Role of Women in the Synagogue

To understand the limited role of women in synagogue life, it is important to understand the nature of commandments in Judaism and the separation of men and women. Judaism recognizes that it is mankind's nature to rebel against authority; thus, one who does something because he is commanded to is regarded with greater merit than one who does something because he chooses to. The person who refrains from pork because it is a commandment has more merit than the person who refrains from pork because he doesn't like the taste. In addition, the commandments, burdens, obligations, that were given to the Jewish people are regarded as a privilege, and the more commandments one is obliged to observe, the more privileged one is.

Because women are not obligated to perform certain commandments, their observance of those commandments does not "count" for group purposes. Thus, a woman's voluntary attendance at daily worship services does not count toward a minyan (the 10 people necessary to recite certain prayers), a woman's voluntary recitation of certain prayers does not count on behalf of the group (thus women cannot lead services), and a woman's voluntary reading from the Torah does not count towards the community's obligation to read from the Torah. In addition, because women are not obligated to perform as many commandments as men are, women are regarded as less privileged. It is in this light that one must understand the man's prayer thanking G-d for "not making me a woman." The prayer does not indicate that it is bad to be a woman, but only that men are fortunate to be privileged to have more obligations. The

corresponding women's prayer, thanking G-d for making me "according to his will," is not a statement of resignation to a lower status (hardly an appropriate sentiment for prayer!), but should be understood in light of traditional sources saying that women have greater binah, and are closer to God's idea of spiritual perfection than men, and to all the joys of being a woman generally.

The second thing that must be understood is the required separation of men and women during prayer. Men and women must be separated during prayer, usually by a wall or curtain called a mekhitzah or by placing women in a second floor balcony. There are two reasons for this: first, your mind is supposed to be on prayer, not on the pretty girl praying near you. Second, many pagan religious ceremonies at the time Judaism was founded involved sexual activity and orgies, and the separation prevents or at least discourages this.

The combination of this exemption from certain commandments and this separation often has the result that women have an extremely inferior place in the synagogue. In my experience, the women's section is often poorly climate controlled, and women often cannot see (sometimes can't even hear!) what's going on in the men's section, where the services are being led. Women cannot participate in any of the services (traditional Jewish services have a very high degree of "audience participation" -- and I'm not just talking about community readings, I'm talking about actively taking part in running the service), and are not obligated to attend. Because of these problems, many Orthodox women rarely attend services, and if they do go, many of them spend much of the time talking and not paying attention.

But as I said before, this restriction on participation in synagogue life does not mean that women are excluded from Jewish religious life, because the Jewish religion is not something that happens in synagogue. Judaism is something that permeates every aspect of your life, every thing that you do, from the time you wake up in the morning to the time you go to bed, from what you eat and how you dress to how you conduct business. Prayer services are only a small, though important, part of the Jewish religion.




Beshalakh - the Song of the Sea - in praise of women

This Shabbat we read in the Torah the fourth portion in the book of Shemot (Exodus), from 13:17 to 17:16. The portion is called Beshalakh because it begins with the words, "Va’yehi beshalakh Adona’y et ha’am - when the Lord sent the people out [of Egypt]..." [Ex. 13:17] We read of the voyage of the people to the Sea of Reeds (Yam Soof), of the Egyptians getting out to chase them and bring them back, and the dramatic events of the splitting of the sea, the crossing of Israel in the dry and the drowning of the host of Egypt.

On the other side of the sea, we read, "Then sang Moses and the people of Israel this song to the Lord, and spoke, saying, I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea." [Ex. 15:1] And also, " And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing. And Miriam answered them, Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea." [Ex. 15:20, 21] It looks as if Miriam gathered the women to repeat the song that Moshe and the people had already chanted. Yet there is a different, and it is a significant difference, and needs to be noted and understood. Moshe and the people said "Ashira l’Adona’y - I shall sing to the Lord," while Miriam exhorted the people to praise God "Shiru l’Adona’y - sing unto the Lord." The difference is that Moshe is suggesting while Miriam gives direction.

Our tradition teaches us the importance of women. This is evident in many passages in the Torah, in the role of our matriarchs and other women of valor. Indeed, the passage from Proverbs 31 about the woman of valor is a perfect case in point. This week, as we read the events of the redemption of Israel from Egypt, let us study the feminist lesson: The sages tell us that we were redeemed because of three women: Yokheved, Miriam, and the daughter of Pharaoh. That threesome saved Moshe from early death, to bring him to the burning bush and his assignment to save Israel. Another woman, his wife Tziporah, saves Moshe at the inn on his way to Egypt with the circumcision of his son as the sign of God’s covenant. Tziporah goes back to her father’s home, to return to Moshe at Sinai, and Miriam becomes "part of his team" that saves Israel, as evident in the verse above, where we read "Vatikakh Miriam hanevi’a akhot Aharon - And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron," Miriam is called a prophetess, and it is only the second time that the word is used in the Torah of either a woman or a man. Only once, in Genesis 20, God speaks to Avimelekh and tells him of Avraham, "for he is a prophet..." [Gen. 20:7]

It is interesting to note that on this Shabbat, which, because of the "song of the sea" is called "Shabbat Shirah - the Sabbath of Song," we read the haftarah portion from the book of Judges, and tells the story of another woman: "And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, judged Israel at that time. And she lived under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Beth-El in Mount Ephraim; and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment" [Judges 4:4,5] The reason for reading this passage, it is believed, is because the song of the sea is matched with the song of Deborah, one miracle of redemption celebrated next to another. However, again we see here a case of "mida keneged mida - portion for portion," as the story of the redemption involves three women: Deborah, Ya’el eshet Khever, and Sisrah’s mother. Just as Miriam is called prophetess so is Deborah - and just like Miriam, she is unique and singe in her honor. No other judge was also a prophet - and no other prophet attained the position of judge!

Similarely in modern times, there have been great women, heroines of reborn Israel, from the martyred Khanah Senesh to the famous Golda, from Emma Lazarus, whose poem is etched on the plaque at the statue of Liberty, to Henrietta Szold - who founded the Hadassah organization to bring modern medicine to Israel, and then followed with Youth Aliyah, the organization that saved thousands of children from the mouth of the furnaces of the Holocaust. The role of women in Judaism cannot be denied, and has not been denied, ever. Fropm mother Sarah to my young granddaughter, whose very name is "an answer to prayer." For all these devoted women, prophetesses and heroines, teachers, nurses, family builders and keepers - we have to thank God each and every day of our lives. When we see the candles of Shabbat burning in a Jewish home, we know who keeps the flame burning.


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