Celebrating the Primacy of Jewish Women
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.
Their position in Jewish law — dating 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.
Jewish women Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan were instrumental feminist leaders of the 20th century. Some commentators have suggested this is no coincidence. The respect accorded to women in Jewish tradition was a part of their ethnic culture.
In traditional Judaism, women are seen as separate but equal. Women’s obligations and responsibilities are different from men’s, but no less important. In some ways, women’s responsibilities are considered more important.
The equality of men and women begins at the highest possible level: God. In Judaism, unlike traditional Christianity, God never has been viewed as exclusively male or masculine. Judaism always has maintained that God has masculine and feminine qualities.
As one Chassidic 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.
Man and woman were created in the image of God. According to most Jewish scholars, “man” was created in Genesis 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” rather than “formed.” The Hebrew root of “build” has the same consonants as binah. It has been said that the matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah) were superior to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) in prophecy.
Women did not participate in the idolatry regarding the golden calf. Some traditional sources suggest 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 “children 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 mother and father. Note that the father comes first in Exodus, but the mother comes first in Leviticus. Many traditional sources point out that this reversal is intended to show that both parents are equally entitled to honor and reverence.
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.
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 this is usually because of men’s lust rather than because of any shortcoming in women. It is worth noting that the Talmud also has negative things to say about men, frequently describing men as particularly prone to lust and forbidden sexual desires.
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. They 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 the 20th century. Women had the right to buy, sell and own property, and make their own contracts — rights that women in Western countries (including the United States) did not have until about 100 years ago.
Women have the right to be consulted with regard to their marriage. Marital sex is regarded as a woman’s right, not a man’s. Men do not have the right to beat or mistreat their wives, a right that was unrecognized by law in many Western countries until a few hundred years ago.
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 and the spiritual influence that a woman has over her family. 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’s obligations and responsibilities are different from men’s, but no less important.
According to traditional Jewish law, the child of a Jewish woman and a gentile man is Jewish because of the mother’s spiritual influence, and the child of a Jewish man and a gentile woman is not. (The Reform and Reconstructionist movements hold a different view — that a child born to one Jewish parent, whether mother or father, is presumed to be Jewish, provided the parents demonstrate a commitment to raise the child as a Jew.)
Women are exempted from all positive mitzvot (“thou shalts” as opposed to “thou shalt nots”) that are time-related (mitzvot that must be performed at a specific time of the day or year). A woman’s duties as wife and mother are so important that they cannot be postponed to fulfill a mitzvah.
After all, a woman cannot be expected to just drop a crying baby when the time comes to perform a mitzvah.
It is this exemption from certain mitzvot that has led to the greatest misunderstanding of the role of women in Judaism.
First, many mistakenly think this exemption is a prohibition. But women are generally permitted to observe such mitzvot if they choose.
Second, while this exemption diminishes the role of women in the synagogue, Jewish religious life revolves around the home, not the synagogue. At home, a woman’s role is every bit as important as the man’s.
Tracey R. Rich writes for Judaism101 at jewfaq.org.