Women, in general, have suffered all sorts of discrimination and have been treated poorly by virtually every society around the world for as long as history has been recorded. Of course not every woman feels herself to be hard done by. But a lot do. All sorts of theories have been suggested as to why this has been the case, from child rearing to division of labor to inherent dominant genes. The question that needs to be answered as far as Judaism is concerned is not whether some Jewish men may have treated some women badly (you bet they have) but to discover how the Jewish tradition has, over the years, dealt with the role of the woman.
The Bible is usually blamed for giving Divine authority to an inferior role for women. God Himself is a "He". Adam the male was created first and Eve came second. Adam was ordained the master and Eve was told to be subservient to him. But on closer examination the situation is not quite so simple. If one takes the first Chapter of Genesis there are two interesting features that go some way to balancing the cliché. The first reference to God acting in the universe is in the second verse. After God has decided to create, the world is described as being "chaos", "Tohu VaVohu", and the "Spirit of God was hovering over the deep." The verb for "hovering", "Merachephet", is a female ending verb so that the "Spirit of God" is in the female form. Just as later on in Jewish literature the word used for God's presence, the Shechina, literally the Dwelling Place of God, is a feminine verb, so here, reference to God is in the feminine. There is nothing "humiliating" or secondary in having God described in the feminine form.
It is true that the most common verbs applied to God are masculine. In many languages the masculine form includes the feminine, too. The plural "they" in English, does not differentiate between male and female. In French or in Hebrew there is a different word for "they" male, and "they" female. But only the male "they" can be used for both. This in itself may be seen as an example of male domination. However the fact that the Torah has no problem using the feminine to describe God is to my mind significant. There is no stigma attached.
We are familiar with the story of woman being made out of the rib of man in the second chapter of Genesis. But we too often ignore the first Chapter. There it states unequivocally in verse 27 that, "God made man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them." This same formulation is repeated after the Garden of Eden too. The name "man" is used for humanity in general but both male and female were created by God and at the same time. The retelling of the acts of creation in the second chapter functions as a supplementary narrative which is common throughout the Torah. Both in narrative and in legal instructions a principle is established followed by details. Or a story is told first through the events and then through someone describing what happened. The same process is at work here. The principle in the first chapter of the Bible is that the elements, the ingredients of creation, receive Divine sanction. The second chapter describes the mechanics and how the system works. The second chapter explains that agriculture requires either the natural cycle that brings rain, or man to work the ground and irrigate. The first chapter describes the creation of male and female. In this they are simultaneous and equal. In the second chapter, the Bible describes their interaction and the relationship between them which may not always be ideal.
Man cannot find spiritual or emotional companionship from the animal kingdom. Humans need more than physical gratification. It is only with someone drawn from opposite the heart, as the symbol of emotions, that the human race which depends on the family, can develop and function effectively. The rib cage symbolizes the seat of the heart and the heart symbolizes emotions. The law of the Tefillin, phylacteries, requires one box of the Tefillin placed on the head to symbolize submitting the intellect to Torah (which is encapsulated in the texts inside the "house") and the other on the upper arm against the rib cage to symbolize the submission of the emotions. So by having Eve come from the rib she becomes the symbol of emotional love. This is the basis of their relationship, the marriage of contrasts.
The episode of the snake in the Garden of Eden illustrates how disobedience to God causes distortions and corruption. Before disobeying God nakedness was not considered a problem. Disobedience shows that anything can be misused and turned into a means of domination or distortion. This is not intrinsic. There is nothing wrong in being naked. It is, unfortunately, dependent on how humans use or misuse nakedness that can make it something "bad" as opposed to natural. After the fruit is eaten and God issues His punishment comes the fateful line to Eve that, "You shall desire your husband and he will rule over you." To our ears this sounds very much as though God is condemning Eve to a subservient role. But, ironically, exactly the same formulation of words is used a little later on referring to Cain after he has been rejected by God. "Sin will lie crouching at your door; you will desire it and it will rule over you." In other words, dependence is not a necessary or a natural state of affairs. Dependency is something that we may bring upon ourselves. Sadly, just as mankind continued to disobey God, so too mankind continued to disregard the integrity of the other. Whether it is male or female or weak or strong people rather than God seem to need to find ways of domination and subjugation. This why the ideal state that is posited as the Messianic period is one without "oppression" where according to Maimonides, each person will be able to fill his or her potential to the fullest without being oppressed or subjugated by those with power. The ideal relationship is one based on love and respect where the two partners complement each other. In such a relationship there is no room for superiority or dominance. The Bible in this early narrative is describing nor prescribing.
Males, sadly, did come to dominate. One cannot lay the blame on Judaism by itself for this. Japanese culture, for example, can hardly be said to have come from the rabbis! The question is whether the Bible regarded that as a necessary or an accidental phenomenon, the result of abuse of the system rather than its fulfillment or the natural order of things. The examples of "the Fathers" are also one that shows different aspects to this issue. Abraham and Sarah are described as both having accumulated "souls" in Haran together. Which the rabbis take to illustrate their partnership in spreading the monotheistic tradition. Over the issue of Hagar, Abraham is commanded by God to listen to Sarah and to accept her way of understanding the situation. It is the woman who makes the crucial decision about inheritance and who will continue the spiritual tradition, both in the case of Sara and in the case of Rebecca. Rebecca has no qualms about defying her husband over the inheritance (and yet one cannot deny that it is the male who passes on the blessing and the property). The question of naming children is also one which shows the role of the wife in naming children although in the case of Benjamin the husband overrules his wife's choice. Of course in this case she dies.
The mention of such personalities in the Torah, as Naama, Timna the concubine and Sarach Bat Asher without amplification of their achievements or explanation as to why they are there, indicates that these were well known and established female figures about whom a great deal of oral tradition must have revolved. Despite the fact that Miriam is punished for her "rebellion" against Moses, she is still referred to as a prophetess and leads the community in response to the miracle of the Red Sea (the assumption that she only led women is not necessarily supported either by the text or by all traditional commentators). It may be argued that this is dredging for crumbs and these are exceptions, as are later, the prophetesses Deborah and Hulda. However the fact that these exceptions did exist and gained fame shows a different perspective to the totally male agenda. The fact that Tamar could plead her case to Judah at all against a background of total male domination, does indicate a degree of understanding and sympathy with those individuals who were able to break the mold.
What emerges from the Biblical tradition is that in all areas of appointment, males preserved their monopoly. The Kingship was a male preserve (except when Jezebel's daughter Athalia took over the throne of Judea by force) and so was the Priesthood. But in areas not subject to appointment and dependent entirely on personal qualities, such as the prophet who was not appointed by anyone but who emerged as a spiritual personality of great influence, one does find, albeit in limited numbers, female leadership emerging.
What was the real position of a woman in Judaism? It is no accident that whereas the Hammurabi code and other legal documents of the pre-Sinaitic eras in the Middle East did indeed differentiate in judicial terms between freemen and slaves and between men and women. The punishment for civil offenses against one was different to the punishment meted out to the other. In Torah law there is never any such distinction. Civil crimes apply equally and in cases where compensation is paid it was usually greater for women as in the case of the obligation to feed and clothe a woman. The attitude of the Torah to rape is surprisingly sensitive. Given the context that intercourse was the method of marriage and that virgin brides had a higher "value" on the marriage market, rape was regarded as a serious violation. Rape is compared to murder.
On the other hand in matters of property, control was vested overwhelmingly in the male. Tribal allocation went according to the males. The seventy elders were all males. The priesthood was male. On the other hand it is surprising that the Torah allowed the daughters of Zelophchad to inherit their father's property when there were no males. Similarly the Book of Job has him dividing up his property amongst his daughters as well as his sons. This, after all, was not something legally allowed in Europe until the nineteenth century (the exception of royalty was because of political considerations and accepted only under exceptional circumstances as a sort of national guardianship). There is a fascinating answer that the Rabbeynu Yaacov Ben Asher gives in the seventeenth century to a question about inheritance in which he says that one should not follow the prevailing non-Jewish custom of only passing on one's property to the male. One has an obligation to make provision for all of one's children.
The greatest problems that Jewish law left unmodified were the questions of a woman's ability to give evidence in a court of law and the marriage and divorce laws. No doubt the reason for not subjecting a woman to public cross examination was to protect women from public scrutiny and to protect their privacy. It was not because of lack of reliability because under some circumstances the testimony even of a single woman would be accepted. Not only this, but, in fact, a woman could act as a judge. The explanation often given for this is that in Jewish Law the litigants can choose to be judged by individuals and can "accept" a woman as a judge. But whatever the reason, female reliability was established.
If the intention of excluding women from giving court testimony in general was that of protecting the woman on the basis of the phrase that "All the glory of a king's daughter is inside," then one might understand the theory. But in practice this has led to women's exclusion from a great deal of Jewish life and has given her an inferior status, de facto if not de jure, in Jewish courts. Even more problematic is the fact that a woman cannot give a divorce and is dependent on the male. Yes, there are circumstances under which she can insist that the Beth Din arrange for a divorce. And yes, in principle she has to receive the divorce and can refuse to. But in practice over the years divorces have been a constant bone of contention. We do not need to reiterate here the extent to which this has been used by many men to blackmail so many unfortunate women. It is true that steps now are being taken to deal with this through pre-nuptial agreements but still, to this day, women are still, very often, at a distinct disadvantage.
Although technically women have to be willing to receive a bill of divorce there are in practice a range of devices open to unscrupulous husbands under Jewish law to evade this that are not open to women. An example is the notorious "Heter Meah Rabbanim", "permission from a hundred rabbis", the device of getting a hundred "rabbis" (but any male will do) to permit a man to remarry. This is device that was originally intended for overruling a special rabbinic decree. Rabbeynu Gershom's decree against polygamy was such a rabbinic innovation that could under extreme circumstances be set aside. But this device has been used exclusively in the area of allowing a man whose wife refuses to divorce him, to remarry. Those few rabbis who try to ameliorate the situation usually find themselves ostracized in the Orthodox world.
What exactly was the attitude of the rabbis to women? What did they really think? The first thing that is obvious is that there are different voices that might have reflected different social and political environments. The Talmud, after all, was a compilation of views of rabbis that covered a time span of a thousand years. It reflected different environments and cultures from India to Italy. Its protagonists were rich and poor, aristocratic and humble and of course there would always have been different attitudes and arguments even within one society.
On the one hand one can find opinions that we would find condescending and humiliating. On the other hand one can find views that indicate a high degree of respect and approbation. They tended to think of women having a different nature to men. "A man seeks (sex) with his mouth, a woman with her heart." But this difference did not necessarily mean something negative. Of course there are very "sexist" attitudes. "A man does not want to have daughters." A well known and oft repeated negative view is, "Women have a light mind," which supposedly explains why two women should not be alone with one man. It is also used to explain that women are more likely to reveal secrets under torture to Roman oppressors. Another very negative view is of a woman's sexuality. "A woman prefers one kav (a small amount to live off) with immorality than nine kavs and separation (from immorality)." And there are other negative attitudes to be found throughout the Talmud.
As against these attitudes one can find quite different expressions such as: "Women have been given greater understanding by God than men." "Women take better care of guests than men." "Women are more merciful than men." The fact is that attitudes are bound to differ and it is a pointless exercise to catalogue the examples of women being on a higher level than men or having greater success in appealing to God or in upholding the religion. The acid test lies not in personal opinions but in legislation.
On a general legal level the very fact that Biblical and post Biblical law allowed a man to have more than one wife created a whole area of female disadvantage that was ameliorated somewhat by Rabbeynu Gershom's ban on polygamy a thousand years ago. However this ban did not affect the Islamic Jewish communities (in practice the movement of most Sephardi communities to the new Jewish State of Israel after 1948, effectively ended polygamy altogether). But this fact meant that a man could have several wives whereas a woman was restricted to only one man. Technically, adultery was defined simply in terms of intercourse between a man and only a woman that he was forbidden to marry, not a "free" one. It has taken time for rabbinic opinion to come round to the view that adultery may be understood on different levels and ways, to involve deceit and betrayal as well as contractual violations. Instead of thinking only in terms of intercourse it can now be seen in terms of betrayal.
The rabbis declared that, "Women, slaves and minors were free from the obligation to carry out those ritual commandments related to time." Logically this humiliating coupling of women with minors and slaves is taken to mean that since they are all subject to more immediate human authority than the Divine, they are not in a position to act freely and set other priorities. Women were subject to their husbands in the way that slaves were subject to their masters. This is why the Talmud says that a woman is less obliged to carry out the command to, "Honor your mother and your father," because she is subject to her husband and less free. On the other hand a divorced or widowed woman was indeed reinstated in terms of her obligations to her parents as we shall see.
If the issue was simply one of freedom to act, free from the restraint of either a husband or society, then women of independent means or those who chose to remain independent, should have been allowed to do as they pleased. Indeed one opinion is that women may opt to do those commandments they are not obliged to do if they choose to do so. And yet in general rabbinic opinion was against adding to ones obligations. They preferred to see laws as being Divine obligations that tested one's obedience and submission rather than opportunities to assert one's religious interest. The debate there between Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Shimon who allow women the right to do something they are not obliged to as opposed to Rabbi Yehuda who objects, is one that carries on through the post Talmudic authorities. On the other hand the rabbis emphasized the equality of the mother and the father as far as a child's obligations were concerned, "Mother and Father are equal." The Talmud Yerushalmi takes this further, "The same applies to a man as it does to a woman. A man has the means to carry out his obligations but a woman does not because she is under someone else. But if she is widowed or divorced then she is just like the man who has the means."
It does appear that the rabbis were sensitive to the position of independent women and women of independent means. They insisted that an important woman should recline on Passover as much as a man. Indeed when the rabbis want to hint at the possibility of women opting to put on Tefillin, something related to time, they talk of Michal, the daughter of Saul, a princess and someone who had no children, deciding to do this and the wife of the prophet Jonah. Similarly with regard to sitting in a Succah they use the story of Queen Helene who frequented Rabbinic circles to illustrate a woman's right to do more than was required by law. What becomes clear is that women of substance were able to manage a great deal independently in Talmudic times and beyond. Cursory study of Ketubot, of marriage documents in both Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions show how wealthy women were able to lay down strict conditions in order to preserve their independent wealth but also do decide on issues such as where they would live and conditions concerning children, concubines and marital obligations. Sadly, as always "money answers everything" and there seem to be two standards, one for the rich and one for the poor, something that should be unheard of in a religious tradition.
The whole debate about whether a woman should study Torah shows the polarized attitudes that have prevailed for so long. The debate between Ben Azai and Rabbi Eliezer as to whether one may teach Torah to a woman, (Ben Azai says one should but Rabbi Eliezer feared she would abuse the knowledge) highlights the two camps in Talmudic and rabbinic thinking on women. One assigns women an inferior role due both to a lower level of obligation and to a lower level of commitment to Torah learning and accepts this as the inevitable lot. The other offers ways for those who want to educate themselves, to enrich themselves and to rise within the community. A similar difference of opinion applies to the rabbinic attitudes to the ignorant peasants .They too were subject to disdain and ostracism because of their ignorance and lack of education. But this is little comfort.
There was another factor that militated against the woman's position in society. The synagogual system developed in the working place as a male study center at a time when the home was the true center of practical Jewish living. The synagogue therefore was by force of circumstances a male preserve, rather like the Gentlemen's Clubs that used to be so popular in the upper echelons of society in the English Speaking World. But in practice the home was always considered the primary location for religious behavior. To this day, the greater the commitment, the more important the role of the home is. Time and again the rabbis emphasize the role of the woman as the center of home life.
The rabbis saw the importance of defining roles. Their emphasis on the home as the center for rearing and educating children and for supporting the husband in his study meant that they genuinely wanted to assert that the primary role of women was indeed to take care of the home and children. The problem was that no provision was really made for the exception, perhaps because the exceptions then were so few. And yet it is clear historically that women always did escape the home, either out of necessity to earn money or because of compulsion by conquering societies. The rabbis, as good religious conservatives, wanted to preserve their vision of the ideal even if it was being eroded.
It is true that there are other examples of "discrimination" in the tradition not confined to women. Priests and Levites are given preference over other males and there is a whole slew of mainly Biblical laws that apply only to them. Indeed the female Cohen had rights well beyond and far more beneficial than those which applied to the 'ordinary' male or female Jew. The learned person was given benefits that did not apply to the ignoramus. The judiciary was given special rights; the political leadership was given rights that did not apply to the ordinary person. Even the Hebrew Slave had an array of special rights that extended to an obligation on his master to set him up in business (or at least to provision him when he left to manage on his own). Nevertheless, two wrongs do not make a right.
The Mishna in Horyot establishes a series of priorities in talking about who the community should support or save first. "A man comes before a woman to be kept alive, (for example if two are drowning and only one can be saved) to return lost property to. A woman comes before a man to be clothed, to be freed from captivity. But where both may be sexually attacked a man should be freed first." One's anger at this clear bias may be assuaged, though not totally extinguished, by continuing in the Mishna, "A Cohen comes before a Levi, a Levi comes before an Israel, an Israel comes before a Mamzer (a Jewish child of an illegal intercourse) and a Mamzer comes before a Netin (a convert under false pretenses) a Netin over a new convert and a convert over a freed slave. When does this apply? When they are equal (in their level of Torah knowledge). But if the Mamzer is a learned man and the High Priest is an ignoramus, then the learned Mamzer comes before an ignorant High Priest." These generalizations underline the real priority. Sure there are differences in social standing and position. But the over riding consideration is Torah. This is why, amazingly, despite the emphasis in the Ten Commandments on honoring one's father and mother, respect, in Halacha, for ones teacher takes priority (unless of course one's father is one's teacher as well). So that a learned woman would certainly leapfrog the others in the list of priorities. One needs to understand this attitude to Torah to see why so many remarks sound anti-feminist. It is because the women then, like the Am Ha'Aretz, the peasant, were not educated and were not trained to value study. It was not their fault. It was the result of the system.
One cannot take the rabbis totally out of their historical and social context. The genius of the rabbis was to make alterations to suit changing circumstances. Certainly they accepted that the Torah was given within a specific time and cultural context, "The Torah speaks in a language of humans (that humans at the time would understand)." This "explains" the acceptance of slavery in general and of selling children into slavery (something the later rabbis forbade) and the right of fathers to betroth their under age children. All these are issues that later on fell into disrepute, even if it took thousands of years to do so. The fact that the Torah introduces protective and qualifying legislation to ensure civil and marital rights for women well ahead of its time is remarkable. The rabbis were able to differentiate between laws that were obligations and laws that were optional. Those that were optional, for example, you did not have to have a slave, you did not have to sell a child, you did not have to suspect your wife, these and others, meant that the rabbis could simply remove the option. One could simply not act and the rabbis could simply prevent people from exercising their options. This was a device they were much happier to use than to try to find ways of changing laws.
Nevertheless they did take several steps to protect women and to improve their lot, well ahead of their times. The laws of the ketubah, the marriage document, were designed amongst other things to protect women both from the abandonment of divorce by ensuring that they had some financial independence, by insisting that heirs stand by commitments both to wives and daughters. This was a tremendous step because otherwise a divorced woman would be left penniless and her only option was to go back to her father's home and live the existence of a drudge. Women, whose husbands had disappeared (a very common problem then) were allowed to remarry on the evidence of one witness and some allowed it on the basis of hear say, on the testimony of a male slave, a woman or a female slave.' The famous case of the woman suspected of adultery, the Sotah, was altered by Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai because he felt that the level of male morality was such that men ought not to have preference over women.
Despite this, the rabbis were clearly aware and reinforced the common assumption of male superiority. A woman could not be called up to read from the Torah, not because any law forbade it but because it was considered beneath the dignity of a man to have a woman represent him. Similarly a woman was capable legally of making certain blessings on behalf of a man but it was considered shameful if a man was so ignorant as to need his wife to bless for him. It is troubling to read Maimonides' attitudes to women even if one does set them against a dominant Muslim society influencing his thinking. It is not until Maimonides that one finds a categorical legal (as opposed to Midrashic) statement that a woman cannot be appointed to a public position. But notice that he has to go back to the precedent of a king for support.
The interesting question is how we, in the twentieth century, tackle the obvious gap that exists between female expectations and rabbinic flexibility. In principle there is a lot to be said for the role definition that makes homemaking a priority. Particularly in view of changing circumstances and attitudes I society, family life and values need reinforcing. But the problem with strengthening family life is that it makes it more difficult for those women (or men, for that matter) who choose to break conventional patterns in their own ways of living or choose not to have a family.
This comes back to the question of whether a woman who is not a homemaker ought to take on male rituals. There is enough weight of halachic opinion to support this option, more than if a man decided to become the home maker. Similarly there are enough precedents for learned women being consulted on halachic issues and indeed teaching. It is probable that increasingly women will turn to women for information and advice on religious issues.
The argument over whether women can use the title of "rabbi" is a smoke screen because the title has been devalued anyway and no longer conforms to the Talmudic "semicha" ordination which ceased two thousand years ago. Very few rabbis nowadays are halachic authorities. Most of the functions they perform can be done just as well by a layman. The only halachic issues are those of representation. Only someone absolutely obligated can act on behalf of someone else obligated in the same way. This creates a problem for women performing for men, particularly in the synagogue. Similarly the problem of women acting as witnesses in the public arena affects areas such as marriage. There are solutions or at least ways of dealing with most of these issues halachically as indeed there are with regard to marital and divorce problems. A major stumbling block is "process". Halachic authority cannot or will not allow itself to be pressurized or harassed into decisions that any way it has difficulties adjusting to. This is the conservative nature of religious authority. Worse, the secular world is perceived as being corrupt and lacking in morality, influenced by self-indulgence and materialism. Secular values are perceived as transient, unstable and not a reliable basis for change. The growing demographic strength of Orthodoxy and its self-perception as being the bulwark against reformation and assimilation make its leadership reluctant and resistant to change.
Under these circumstances the way forward is to increase female study and expertise and to establish female norms and forms of prayer. Facts are created. If the rabbis can say, "If only a person could pray all day long," this certainly allowed for freedom to create ones own praying format in addition to established structures. There is no reason, given the Torah obligation, that this should not equally apply to women. Yes, it is true that it is possible to campaign for women to perform various ritual functions within an orthodox framework, reading the Megillah on Purim, saying various blessings at the Shabbat table. But every one of these issues almost demeans the female in forcing her to battle for recognition.
I am not enthusiastic about tinkering with existing structures of synagogual prayer. Frankly each variation of synagogual activity meets a need and satisfies one section of the Jewish community but disappoints a much larger group. I strongly believe that there are so many avenues and different types of praying experiences. I should like to see a female framework and female forms of prayer emerging parallel with the male structures. Diversity and creativity can only be healthy. This, after all, was how the Kabbalists of Safed generated new modalities of prayer in their day. How wonderful it would be to experience women's prayer even if the tables were turned and the men were the observers.
Women are increasingly exploring new and different ways of expressing themselves spiritually. Inevitably establishments resist change. Particularly so if the change is perceived as coming from a cultural context that is inimical to many of its values. But the drive for women to demand more of a voice in religious affairs is as much a result of genuine spirituality as it is of political agitation. And this must be related to. As Hillel puts it, "In a place where there are no one (Ish), strive to be someone." Yes, I have translated the word "Ish", normally taken to be "man" into "person". This is a perfect example, on a very minor scale, of what can be done. In the sacrificial system the word "Ish", man, is used to include women as well. Why not then translate it as "person"? Where there is a will there is often a way.