The role of women in traditional Judaism. Reflection on parashat Pinchas.

The role of women in traditional Judaism. Reflection on parashat Pinchas.

The Torah portion for this week, apart from laws and other stories, contains also the one about daughters of Tzelafchad petition Moses that they be granted the portion of the land belonging to their father, who died without sons. God accepts their claim and incorporates it into the Torah’s laws of inheritance. (Num 27:1-11)

This story, as well as many other in the Hebrew Bible (for example, the story of Gen. 21:9-13, in which God tells Abraham to listen to his wife Sarah and act according to her will), proves that the role of women in traditional Judaism has been grossly misrepresented and misunderstood. The position of women in traditional Judaism is not nearly as lowly as many modern people think; in fact, the position of women in halachah that dates back to the biblical period is in many ways better than the position of women under US civil law as recently as a century ago.  Many of the important feminist leaders of the 20th century (Gloria Steinem, for example) were 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.

Of course, in traditional Judaism, women’s obligations and responsibilities are different from men’s, but no less important. There is no question that 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 (“You shall…” as opposed to “You shall not…”) 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 (including rabbis) 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 these commandments if they choose. Second, because this exemption diminishes the role of women in the synagogue, 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 only.  It does not; it revolves around the home, where the woman’s role is every bit as important as the man’s.

The equality of men and women begins at the highest possible level: God. In Judaism, unlike Christianity, God has never been viewed as exclusively male or masculine. Judaism has always maintained that God has both masculine and feminine qualities (which we often encounter in kabbalistic literature).  God has, of course, no body; therefore, the very idea that God is male or female is patently absurd in the ‘traditional gender context’.  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 or chair (both “masculine” nouns in Hebrew).

Both man and woman were created in the image of God.  According to many commentators, “man” was created “male and female” (Gen 1:27) with dual gender, and was later separated into male and female.

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 were discouraged from pursuing higher education or religious pursuits, but this seems to be primarily because women who engage in such pursuits might neglect their duties as wives and mothers. Stereotypes and recommendations of that kind originated from ancient living conditions, completely different from those in which we live today. They have no theological grounding and represent the “spirit of Judaism” only in the aspect in which Rabbinic Judaism was created as a living tradition responding to the problems of a given epoch.

The rabbis are not concerned that women are not spiritual enough, but rather are concerned that women might become too spiritually devoted, which can be, from a purely practical perspective, problematic for both women and men. The Midrash says:

When the daughters of Tzelafchad heard that the land was being divided among the tribes but not among the women, they convened to discuss the matter. They said: God’s mercy and compassion is not like the compassion of man. Mankind favors men over women. God is not like that; His compassion extends to men and women alike. (Yalkut Shimoni)


Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski

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