HomeMarch 2015The Emergence of Women in Judaism

The Emergence of Women in Judaism

0315evolutionPrior to the development of the American Jewish community, Jewish women were at all times viewed as inferior and subservient to men.  Although the Bible and rabbinic literature mentions various female role models, religious law treats women differently in various circumstances.

Marriage and family law in biblical times favored men over women. For example, a husband could divorce a wife if he chose to, but a wife could not divorce a husband without his consent. Laws concerning the loss of female virginity have no male equivalent. These and other gender differences found in the Torah suggest that women were subordinate to men during biblical times.

Relatively few women are mentioned in the Bible by name and role, suggesting that they were rarely in the forefront of public life. However, there were many learned women of note. The Talmud and later rabinical writings speak of the wisdom of Berurya, the wife of Rabbi Meir. In several instances, her opinions on halakhah (Jewish Law) were accepted over those of her male contemporaries. However, the Talmud also has negative comments at various times describing them as lazy, jealous, vain and gluttonous, prone to gossip and particularly prone to the occult and witchcraft.

Women were taught to read, write, and run a household. They were also given some education in religious law that was essential to their daily lives, such as keeping kosher. Yet, many Jewish women gained enough education to help their husbands out in business and were engaged in their own occupations as well as helping thier husbands. In fact, the rights of women in traditional Judaism were 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 which women in Western countries (including America) did not have until about 100 years ago.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Jewish middle-class women played an increasingly active role in philanthropic life. They embodied the role of pure and pious homemakers, who stressed the ethical, rather than the ritual and ceremonial.  In the twentieth century, the new American Jewish woman sought higher education, and other ways to express her Judaism, and solutions to the challenges of the Progressive Era. Many daughters, whose mothers worked as seamstresses in sweat shops, took advantage of public schools and higher education and became teachers and later physicians, dentists, or lawyers. Other first-generation Jewish women became union leaders and political radicals.

With the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, in 1963, Jewish women embraced the women’s liberation movement. They entered the Reform and Conservative rabbinate and sought parity with men in religious life, while Orthodox women began to learn traditional texts generally reserved for men. Today Jewish women are academic scholars, politicians, Nobel Prize-winners, astronauts and Supreme Court Justices. Here in Orange County, women occupy very visible roles of leadership within the community as well as on the bima.

While Orthodox Judaism maintains that there are different roles for men and women, there are different opinions among Orthodox Jews concerning these differences. Some claim that men and women have complementary, yet different roles in religious life, resulting in different religious obligations.  Orthodox women have been working towards change within religious life, promoting advanced women’s learning and scholarship, ritual inclusion in synagogue, communal and religious leadership, and more. Women have been advancing change despite often vocal opposition by rabbinic leaders.

Within the Chabad movement, Rabbi Schneerson recognized the important role women play in religious life. While still restricted to the “roles deemed appropriate,” women in Chabad lead study groups and often run the religious schools and the rebbitzen is as visible to the community as her rabbi husband.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a young orthodox woman who was studying at Yeshivat Maharat in New York. The school offers a rigorous program which provides women an official path for gaining the skills, training, and certification they need to become spiritual leaders within the Modern Orthodox community.

“Once a woman graduates from Yeshivat Maharat she has the credentials to lead Orthodox congregations alongside her male peers and to lend her voice and talents to help build rich, dynamic Jewish communities.” While this is an example of how some parts of Orthodoxy are moving towards equality in this country, it will be up to the community in which she lives, whether or not she will be able to assume a leadership role, and that is still a hard course.

Florence L. Dann, a fourth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.


JEWISH WOMEN: First Among Equals & NEVER Subservient

Do NOT Mess with Jewish Women

By Josh Namm

Judaism, and by extension, Jewish culture, has always held women in the highest regard. Not the “we’re putting you on a pedestal like a pretty doll” kind of regard, but the “women are central to our culture and traditions and every inch the equals of men” kind of regard. Virtually alone among ancient traditions, Judaism has, literally from the beginning, placed men and women on an equal footing, while still recognizing the inherent differences between the two sexes (and to claim that there are no differences is as silly as saying that water is not wet).

Our traditions are infused with images of strong Jewish women. Far from the narrative of patriarchy that comes from some quarters, Judaism has, from the onset, set the tone:  women are not to be regarded as secondary. While men and women have separate roles, women are inherently superior in many ways (as any honest man will tell you).

The concept started, as I said, literally, in the beginning: In Genesis, G-d tells Abraham (the patriarch of the Jewish nation) “Whatever Sarah says to you, do.” Why? In Jewish tradition, women are generally seen to be wiser and more spiritual than men (more on that later). The Sages of the Talmud state that “Sarah had a higher degree of prophecy than Abraham” (Shemot Rabbah 1:1). Sarah was closer to G-d than Abraham. The matriarch was closer to what we call “Ribono Shel Olam”  (Master of the Universe) than was the patriarch. Our Kabbalistic traditions also go into depth about the feminine and masculine aspects of G-d himself (“him” here is just a weakness in our language, G-d, is neither a him nor a her, but exists in a realm beyond the physical).

The list of strong Jewish female role models is long: Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Deborah, Miriam, Tzipporah, Hana (from whom we derive the central traditions of the Jewish prayer service), Esther, etc. In more modern times, we see Jewish women active and involved in every aspect of Jewish society. From Golda Meir to my own mother (herself a pioneer in her industry, she was an executive in her twenties during the early 60s) Jewish women, of EVERY generation have proven to be the equals of men. Clearly, Jewish women have never been meant to remain “behind the scenes” nor were they ever comfortable in the “victim” role.

Modern American society focuses on the outward manifestations of gender, rather than deeper aspects of what makes each gender special. The Jewish concept of equality is the recognition that men and women are inherently different and each gender must respect, and appreciate, those differences. It is a tragic degradation of the specialness of both genders to suggest that they are identical. Women are, in many ways, superior, so why would anyone want to take that away by insisting on equality as sameness?

Does chauvinism exist in the traditional Jewish world? Of course it does. Nobody claims, ever, that all Jewish people are perfect. Nobody is, and that is true for the entire Jewish community. The point though is that, if a guy with a yarmulke eats pork, he is not “Orthodox.” A man who views a woman as not being his equal is also not truly “Orthodox” or traditional.

So what is the role of women in Judaism?

In traditional Jewish life, women are the central figures in the home. Dancing around that fact would be silly. However, the synagogue, was not, and is not, where the most important parts of Jewish life take place – the home is. In fact, the Torah alludes to the spirituality integral to the Jewish home when it instructs the Jews in the building of the Mishkan (the “Tabernacle.”) Women aren’t required to pray three times a day. That’s not because they are “inferior” (G-d forbid), but because, as was pointed out earlier, they are seen to be on a higher spiritual plane (remember Sarah).

None of this means (and this is a mistake that many people make) that women are supposed to be relegated to the home. Our traditions put women in charge of the most important area of Jewish life. But do Orthodox women have careers? Of course they do. That many observant women choose to be teachers, which is often the case, is a testament to the centrality and importance of education in Jewish life, not an indication that women are second-class citizens. Don’t we all wish that more young women (and men) in secular society wanted to be teachers? That said, it is not uncommon for women in the traditional world to be doctors, artists, business people etc.

What about the fact that women aren’t rabbis? That doesn’t mean that they aren’t scholars. From the earliest days of Jewish nationhood, women were scholars and leaders, including Deborah who was a “Judge,” the leader of our people. Today, the wives of Chabad emmisaries are scholars and teachers in their own right and are the absolute equals of their rabbi husbands. In fact, many Orthodox women attend secular universities while the men are ensconced in yeshivas. It is actually more common, in many communities today for women to go to college than men. Those are just two of many examples past and present.

Lastly, women in secular society are increasingly objectified. Judaism insists that women dress modestly not because there is anything wrong with the female form. It is because there is something right about the female form. Judaism demands that women are treated with respect and not seen as a sexualized objects (which doesn’t mean that Torah-observant women are not physically beautiful, they are). Women, and men, are taught to respect themselves and their bodies by dressing modestly. The Torah has, as usual, a lesson about this. While Abraham and Sarah are in Egypt, Sarah’s name is never mentioned. It is only when they are in the land of Israel, outside of Egypt, that we hear her name. Why? The Egyptians saw Sarah only as a physical object of beauty, and not as a full person.The Torah fully rejects Egyptian society and its idol worship. We have an entire holiday, and numerous blessings, to remind us of that fact. Before they are in Egypt and when Abraham and Sarah go back to Israel, to the world of Jewish values, she is again called by her name. She is a full person only when she is seen as an equal. THAT is the Jewish way.  It always has been and always will be.

Josh Namm is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine



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