Discussion about the status of women in Israel has been featured heavily over the years. What is the biblical and rabbinic view of the status of women in Jewish society? What do the various movements in Judaism say about this?
The late evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould once responded to the claim that rape, pillage, sexual infidelity, genocide and other such behaviors are all the results of innate elements of our DNA that evolved from our caveman ancestors. Gould’s response was to note that everything that human beings are capable of is, by definition, there in our DNA. We sadly know too well that humans are capable of rape and genocide – so that potential must be there in our genome, but humans are also capable of generosity, kindness, altruism, selflessness etc. and the potential for those traits are also in our DNA.
Likewise, the canonical texts of a traditional religion like Judaism (in our case, the Torah and rabbinic literature) are the DNA that makes possible all of the various manifestations of that religion whether progressive or conservative, benign or violent. So, to directly respond to the contemporary context of your question, there are hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Jews who participate peacefully as citizens in American multicultural democracy. Likewise, in Israel the overwhelming majority of Haredim reject the violent extremism on display in Beit Shemesh (even if they have not, as of yet, shown the will to confront it strenuously or effectively). We too are living our observant Orthodox lives in an authentic way that can be directly traced back to Biblical and rabbinic sources. The existence of a Torah revealed to us by God, does not eliminate the necessity and obligation to engage in human interpretation, using our reason, moral intuition, and analysis to apply ancient texts to current reality. Not surprisingly, different interpreters, and different communities, will apply their reason, moral intuition, and analysis and come to different conclusions regarding weighty questions.
The “status of women in Jewish society” is a question that divides the contemporary Orthodox world, perhaps more than any other internal Orthodox debate.
At one end of the spectrum, Modern Orthodox Jews emphasize that the vast majority of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah are gender-neutral and apply equally to men and women. The handful of mitzvot that are obligatory only upon men or women, are understood narrowly – no attempt is made to construct a grand theory of Jewish womanhood out of such a small percentage of the Torah’s mitzvot. And it is common for women to voluntarily accept upon themselves the observance of mitzvot that they are technically exempt from performing (listening to the shofar each Rosh Hashannah being an old and widespread example of this phenomenon). Women in Modern Orthodox communities live religious lives that include the same basic elements as the religious lives of men - with Torah study and prayer, joining acts of hessed, as the pillars of Jewish religious life. Indeed, it is now common within the Modern Orthodox community for women to receive identical Torah educations as men up to and including a year or two of college-level Torah study after high school. Modern Orthodox women who attend one of a growing number of post-collegiate advanced Torah study institutions (such as Drisha in New York or Nishmat in Jerusalem) are likely to display similar competency in rabbinic literature as ordained rabbis.
Synagogues that operate according to this worldview will be designed with a women’s section large enough to accommodate high attendance, and sufficiently esthetically and architecturally pleasing to be compelling to women every bit as devoted as men to creating an intense religious experience through public prayer. Modern Orthodox Jews look to the early chapters of Genesis for inspiration, where men and women are each explicitly created in the image of God, and to the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, whose partnership was essential to the formation of the Jewish people.
At the other end of the spectrum, Haredi (or ultra-Orthodox, traditionalist –Orthodox) Jews, have constructed theories of Jewish womanhood that emerge from the exemption of women from certain mitzvot and the special emphasis women traditionally have placed on others. Haredi women, while they often manage businesses, run non-profit organizations, and earn professional degrees of various kinds, cultivate a religious life that is distinct from that of men. Caring for the religious ambiance of the home, raising young children with a love of Judaism and a spiritual core, extending hospitality to those who may need it – are all part and parcel of the religious lives of Haredi women. Advanced Torah study and a devotion to communal prayer are not typically core elements of the spiritual life of Haredi women.
The above portrayal is overly simplistic, but it is helpful, I hope, in portraying the range of responses, each one rooted in an authentic response to the Torah and its tradition of interpretation that the contemporary Orthodox world has adopted to understand “the status of women in contemporary society.”
Thank you for this question and for acknowledging how Jewish ideology and practice continue to be relevant in today’s world, especially in Israel. Of course, however, this is really the subject for a voluminous book rather than what can be justly covered in this format. Rachel Biale’s Women and Jewish Law, Judith Hauptman’s Rereading the Rabbis, and Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism are each important books in their own right that appropriately deal with this topic. This is merely an attempt to begin the discussion.
The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) portrays a patriarchal view of women, wherein women are unequivocally subordinate to men. A woman’s purpose in the Tanakh is primarily as wives to husbands and mothers to children. They entirely depend upon men economically. They do not inherit property and cannot initiate divorce from their husbands. Childless, divorced, and widowed women are especially taboo, as there is a stain attached to their capacity to continue a male’s family line. There are also repugnant laws associated with a woman who is accused of infidelity (Num. 5:12-31) and with rape (Deut. 22:13-29). That all being said, the Tanakh does recognizes certain great women who continue to serve as heroic models, as well as requirements for men to provide for their wives, establishing family as the bedrock of Jewish life.
Rabbinic literature is replete with pejorative statements and laws against women (along with praiseworthy ones, too). Women are deemed equivalent to slaves and minors (Mishnah, Berakhot 3:3), they are seen as small-minded and bad influences (Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 1:5), they are forbidden from studying Torah (Mishnah, Sotah 3:4), and men are to bless God for not having made them a woman each day in the morning blessings (she-lo asani ishah). Great medieval rabbis such as Maimonides and Moses Isserles understand women to serve their husbands and even permit men to beat them, if necessary (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Women 21:10 & Darkhei Moshe, Tur, Even Ha-Ezer 154:15). Yet, it is important to note that there are moments in Rabbinic literature that speak admirably of women and there are several sensitive laws and practices established that ensure certain women’s rights, such as in the Ketubah, marriage contract, which was revolutionary for its time.
In the 20th century, as the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements in America developed, the understanding of women in the Jewish tradition arguably became the most obvious and definitive wedge issue. Consequently, it is impossible to understand why women participate in a movement in a particular way without understanding the movement philosophy as a whole.
Conservative Judaism approaches the traditions of Judaism, as Robert Gordis succinctly put it, as “a complex process of interaction between the past and the present… As it comes into contact with contemporary conditions, problems, and insights, the spiritual and intellectual leadership is called upon to evaluate these new elements… The leadership will recognize some aspects as dangerous and ill-advised and will reject them in toto. Others it will deem ethically sound, religiously true, and pragmatically valuable, and these will be incorporated” (The Dynamics of Judaism, 1990).
When the leadership evaluates Jewish interaction between past and present, Gordis goes on to say, “Halakhah [Jewish law] is not locked in mortal combat with the contemporary age… . Cut off from history, the arena in which men and women live and struggle, the Halakhah is doomed to sterility and death. Nor are Halakhah and sociology mortal foes. Sociology supplies the data that the Halakhah must examine in order to determine how to deal with a new situation.”
Alert to the realities of modernity, Conservative Judaism has recognized that women are not chattel of an ancient patriarchy, but instead fully capable and equal partners in society with men. Moreover, Conservative Judaism has acknowledged the feminist critique that men have defined the traditions and literature of the past, that women’s voices on women’s issues have been lacking. Thus, utilizing the intellectual tools available in contemporary society (e.g., history, sociology, psychology, and anthropology), Conservative Judaism has engaged a dynamic halakhic (Jewish legal) process that has, over the course of several decades of scholarship, demonstrated a Judaism that empowers women within a traditional framework; the modern intellectual disciplines of study enhance our understanding of our unique covenant with God. In turn, Conservative Judaism has confronted the challenges and benefits of modernity and done the mature and difficult work of advancing Judaism in a consensual and scholarly way, rather than reinforce the status quo apologetics of a female superior spirit, while denying actual religious rights.
Conservative Judaism continues to work on women’s issues in contemporary Jewish life, maintaining the integrity of the traditional Jewish legal process, while incorporating lessons of sociological and psychological scholarship. Today, Conservative Judaism permits and encourages both men and women to participate in every level of Jewish life available, including reading from the Torah, wearing tallit and tefillin, serving as witnesses, and even studying to become rabbis and cantors.
The question is timely and it revolves around two issues: who gets to do the mitzvot and who gets the power. The answer biblically, with a few notable exceptions, and Rabbinically - with notable modern differences - is men. Men have almost exclusive control over women. There are notable exceptions in the Tanach - Zelophedad's daughters, Deborah, Yael, and, to some degree, the matriarchs and perhaps Zipporah, Moses' wife. But, by and large, in a patriarchal society, the men control the property and the cash and they are in charge.
This is true to a lesser extent through the eyes of the Rabbis and to this day through the actions of literalists and traditional Jews. However, it must be said that though there are many who seek to break away from the tight strictures, many people embrace such a life because it offers security and safety even though they have fewer rights than a man. They do not necessarily see themselves as second-class Jews and enthusiastically embrace the role.
The modern movements of Conservative and Reform Jews will, frankly, have none of that. Women have all the same rights and obligations as a man. They have equal intelligence and ability to be rabbis, cantors, educators, as well as the secular professions where women are - ostensibly - equal to men. To believe that women allure men sexually as a reason not to integrate them into the worship experience speaks more about men's inability to control themselves than it does about a woman's allure. To suggest that listening to a woman's voice leads to sin is insulting to women. After all, since the woman seems to be worthy enough with whom to have sex, why does that mean she should not speak in public?! Of course, the answer is that there are many men who honestly believe that women should be quiet and exist only to please the man.
For a haredi to spit on an 8 year old girl, to try to kick a woman to the back of the bus, to call a female Israeli soldier a 'whore' is the natural extension of believing that women are not really people. Thankfully, this is a very small minority of the Jewish world but it is, sadly, a part of the Jewish world. The question is whether or not their actions and words will continue to be tolerated or whether they feel they are above civility in Israeli or even western society. No amount of apologetics by an stream of Judaism excusing or defending their actions should be tolerated. Their actions are a shanda and points a light on to how easily repression of women can take place if the group of men is large enough and feels safe. In other words, I doubt very much they would have the nerve and chutzpah to do the same thing on Rachov Dizengoff in Tel Aviv. Hating in public is safe but only when you have friends to feed off. Parts of Jerusalem society have created exactly that atmosphere. I condemn it in the strongest terms possible.
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