Rabbi Shlomo Cohen
With the advent of the feminist movement in the late ‘60’s Judaism came under fire, along with just about every other ‘sacred cow’, for its purported negative view and treatment of women. In the intervening decades the vitriol has gone out of the movement and the invective has toned down (women were told to leave their husbands. This was printed in the political platform of the feminist movement). Nonetheless, girls today are reared in an environment of “raised consciousness” in regard to their status of equality with males. Many of the ideas and charges of the early movement are still in the air. Secular women, and even many orthodox women, as well as many men have no idea of how Judaism really views women. Several misquotes, a few out of context concepts, and Judaism ends up with a bad name.
Since the intellectual and axiological position of the questioner is the most important factor in any critique of Judaism it is hardly surprising that those who are college educated secularists with a highly sophisticated world view, but with the equivalent of less than a Sunday school Jewish education, take the stance they do.
A BRIEF HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE.
People tend to view the present as if things have always been this way. Until very recently in America, and to this day, in many other cultures, women have been viewed, at best, as little children, who require the care of father and then husband. Those who didn’t marry were relegated to the role of spinsterhood doomed to take care of her parents until they died and then as a stereotyped aunt residing with relatives. The few who worked did so in the few jobs deemed appropriate for women, schoolmarms, librarians, secretaries or nurses. That was at best. At worst they were, and in many cases still are, considered little more than chattel, property to be used, or abused, as the husband saw fit. In most of the world, for most of history, women couldn’t own property, had few legal rights, and had no say in their lives, no recourse if they were maltreated. In most of the world, for most of history, the vast majority of men were illiterate. As little as they knew, the women knew even less.
By today’s standards Judaism’s view of women may, at first glance, seem somewhat out-dated. However, first off, we must always keep in mind that historically, Jewish women were far, far better off than their non-Jewish counterparts. Secondly, American culture is changing rapidly. This rapid change has many pitfalls. We must remember that today’s ideas will be passe tomorrow. We cannot allow passing fads to color our thinking.
Throughout history, compared to gentile society, Jewish women were mostly literate knowing how to read at least Tehillim, Chumash or Tzena U’Rena. They were always able to independently own property. They always had access to the Jewish courts if they had issues to resolve. They always had the protection of Halacha, which defined normative behavior in every area of life. Even today mothers of young gentile women who are willing to intermarry tell their daughters to find a Jewish guy as they make the best husbands. They don’t come home drunk, don’t beat their wives and do treat them like queens. Gentile men recognize that if they marry a Jewish girl, her expectations are going to be very high.
By today’s standards, many of the perceived anti-women biases in Judaism are less unfair than they are misunderstood. A case in point is the Aguna issue. An Aguna (literally, a chained women) is one whose husband has not given her a Jewish divorce, called a Get. The historical reason for Aguna was generally a man who simply didn’t return from fighting a war and there were no witnesses to his death. In that case, the woman could not remarry. An understanding of the sanctity of the Jewish people helps in realizing that without witnesses to the death of the husband, should the woman remarry and have children they would be Mamzerim if the first husband were actually still alive. Such cases have occurred and do occur. This was actually a major concern after the Holocaust. Although there were cases of men simply running off, they were rare and the Jewish court system was strong enough to enforce Halacha properly. Today, it would seem that there are tens of thousands of Agunos if one believes the press and the vocal supporters of these women. Actually, there are very few real Agunos. Few couples today head straight for Bes Din when their marriages are on the rocks. Most retain lawyers, enter a pitched battle of several years duration in which every edge is seen as a weapon. The lawyers advise using the Get as one of those weapons. By the time it reaches the Bes Din we have two people whose irreconcilable differences have been escalated to all out war. Then, of course, it’s the Rabbis’ fault that the woman can’t receive a Get! The system only works for those who work within the system.
In reality, Judaism has always provided the world with direction. We are a light unto the nations. Our view of women, far from being outdated, has been and continues to be a sane, rational approach, current fads notwithstanding. The present situation in America is the result of several historical forces that need to be understood. Women always worked. They worked very, very hard. Before electricity and running water, every task was done by hand. Laundry was a three or four day a week effort of hauling water, hauling firewood, washing each item by hand, wringing it out, rinsing in more water and wringing again before putting it out on the line to dry. Then each piece had to be ironed with a solid chunk of metal heated on the stove. Each meal was prepared from scratch. Only the very rich woman, and they were very few, were spared this grind and only because some other woman did it for her and then went home and had to do her own work. No matter how hard a man worked, no matter how long his hours his wife worked harder and longer.
With the advent of the technological breakthroughs of the early twentieth century the average middle class man was able to buy labor saving devices to spare his wife these tortures. They had it made. A woman could actually enjoy some leisure. It wasn’t until WWII that women went into the work force en masse to take up the slack for all the men who went off to war with a booming war time economy back home. However, as soon as the men returned, women willingly left the work force to stay home and raise their families. The post war economy continued to boom. Suddenly, people left the farm to move to the city. Men took advantage of the GI bill to get a college education and began making excellent livings. Where, a generation before, most people just finished high school things changed and their children, boys and girls, were sent to college. College has created a true leisure class in America and, if nothing else, has served to raise expectations across the board. A woman who was top of her class through four years of college found herself relegated to the “lowly” status of housewife with none of the glamour associated with being outside. Even more labor saving devices left her with inordinate amounts of leisure time. There was no sense of fulfillment. Then came the civil rights movement. Women got involved. Soon they began to question their own status and so feminism was born.
Just as the civil rights movement promulgated many ideas that proved wrong (Bussing for one), so too, feminism has promulgated many ideas which are having far reaching consequences for society, not all of which are beneficial. A recent study has shown a clear correlation between children with problems and the amount of time they had spent with their mothers, irrespective of the quality of day care. Judaism has no problem with a woman working. No Halacha is contravened in doing so. It is the larger philosophy defining the roles of men and women where Judaism must part ways with feminism.
THE CONCEPT OF DIFFERING ROLES
Feminism notwithstanding, there are differences between men and women. Some are patently obvious others are far more subtle. To intimate that these differences don’t exist or don’t matter is to ignore reality. One does so at some peril. The physiological differences are innumerable. They range from skeletal and muscular to reproductive to glandular and hormonal. There are vast psychological differences. The Torah not only recognizes these differences but goes further to place then in a working context. The very word for mother in Hebrew is Ema. The Aleph denotes primary, the Mem means water, the source of life, hence the word for mother means “primary source of life”. Woman was granted not only the ability to bear children but the wherewithal to give them sustenance as well. The Torah views the woman as the home – Baiso zu Ishto – the Talmud tells us that a man’s home is his wife. Not until the latter part of the last century was this awesome responsibility seen as second rate by the secularists. With no concept of an objective morality, they decided what is right and what is wrong for everybody. Note that this wonderful progress coincided with the advent of the pill and abortion on demand. With the pressure of pregnancy off, women were free to apply the old male double standard to themselves. The cost has been immeasurable. There have been literally millions of abortions in America over the last 30 years. That is the population of some medium sized countries. (Abortion as an issue will be discussed later on). The Torah has assigned roles to both men and women. The woman’s role is seen clearly as the one who has the primary responsibility to care for children, home and hearth. Her status is immeasurably high as the Torah considers the home to be the foundation of Jewish life. At the same time, there are no real blocks to her working outside the home as long as the children are not cheated by her doing so. Nor is there any reason why she cannot have a great education and be employed in a high profile job. As a matter of Hashkafa, a woman will avoid high profile since it really does not fit with her true calling. “The glory of the king’s daughter is inward.” These are not merely words. They are a creed to live one’s life by. Only those who don’t fully appreciate the grandeur of a good home find fault with the wife’s ‘understated’ role.
To complain that men get all the ‘good stuff’ as part of their role is to under estimate the reality of the Torah’s intentions and the Rabbinical law that fosters a proper relationship between the sexes. Men play a public role, both in terms of the workplace as well as in religious life. Historically, working has meant fairly strenuous, and often degrading, physical labor or mind-numbing repetitive work. While a woman’s work in the home was physically strenuous and certainly not intellectually stimulating, it was a far cry from what her husband had to do to put food on the table. Women were spared that in almost every Western culture. Due to the very nature of their responsibilities, women were absolved from the religious requirements that would make it impossible to do either task fully. Thank G-d, today, this is no longer the case for most people so there are fewer blocks to a woman working outside. Religious law (Halacha), however, does not change so easily. The principles established over millennia are not to be tampered with so blithely. Is our current situation really permanent or merely a blip on the larger picture? Were we to change so easily without fully understanding the long term consequences Judaism could very well suffer the fate of disappearing as have so many other religions. Several decades ago the Roman Catholic Church decided, in Vatican II, to drop Latin as the language of prayer, meat was allowed on Fridays etc. The cognoscenti recognized what Jews have known all along: Abrupt changes are dangerous. Those groups within Judaism that have chosen to change have changed so much they are no longer here. One need simply look at the appalling intermarriage rate among conservative, reform, reconstructionist and unaffiliated Jews to see that too much change will inevitably bring disaster. The roles played by men and women are so basically fundamental to all of life that tampering with them is ill-advised. Even so, as we will see, much of the issue is blown completely out of proportion to the reality of the Halachic differences,
THE ALMIGHTY HAS NO GENDER CRISIS
One of the more amusing charges, which emerged early on, was the notion that organized religion views G-d as a male. Christianity is of course modeled on a male-based idea. Islam is a very male based macho religion in which Allah, a somewhat one-dimensional G-d has very masculine overtones. Many believe that the G-d of Avrohom, Yitzchak and Yaakov is also a male. This idea actually is a result of a Christian dilemma. When King James had the bible translated into English his translators ran into a problem. Hebrew simply has no neuter gender. Thus, every thing must either be masculine or feminine. Although English does have a neuter gender it would hardly have been respectful to refer to G-d as ‘It’ leaving a choice between He or She. Medieval England was hardly a bastion of women’s lib, so G-d became He by default. In truth, Tanach refers to G-d by different names each mirroring different Divine attributes. Note that of the names, Shechina, Tzivkos, Makom, and the most important name, YKVK are all feminine. The male form, Elokim, refers to G-d’s attribute of strict justice. The feminine YKVK represents G-d’s attribute of mercy. Of course, every thinking person also recognizes that ascribing gender to G-d places a constraint and G-d, by definition can have no constraints. Any reference is merely anthropomorphic and given to us so we may understand what we may of The Creator. There are several relationships, which, while anthropomorphic, give us an ability to establish certain relationships to G-d as King, as father as well as the kabalistic idea of a marriage between G-d and the Jewish people in which G-d is seen as the groom and Israel as his bride. On the other hand the Rabbis have used the female in other contexts, thus, we greet the Shabbos bride weekly.
“WHO HAS NOT MADE ME A MAN”
One of the most problematic areas centers on the morning blessings in which men thank G-d for not making him a woman. Feminists, of course, find this offensive. It is fascinating to note the background of this blessing. Within its proper context it not only makes sense it also loses its offensiveness. This blessing is one of fifteen recited every morning. Each of the blessings was originally recited in conjunction with the action of the blessing, so, one recited “Who has clothed the naked” when dressing etc. The order is of no particular importance with the exception of three of the blessings. The Talmud, Menachos 43b, discusses these blessings. “Who has not made me a non-Jew” – “Who has not made me a slave” – “Who has not made me a woman” must be recited together and in this order. If either of the first two is skipped one is not permitted to go back and recite it out of order. The reason being that the reference and this is the crucial point, is specifically to Mitzvos. A non-Jew has only 7, Thank you, G-d, for not limiting me to that extent. A slave, while commanded in the Mitzvos the same as a woman, in nonetheless answerable in his time and activities to a human master. Thank you, G-d, for not constraining me in this manner. [See Magen Dovid on Orech Chaim 46 sif katan 4] A woman must keep all the Mitzvos other than positive, time-bound ones. Thank you again, G-d, for giving me the additional opportunity to do your will. The woman recites the first two the same as a man for the same reasons. However, given the reason for the Bracha, she could not thank G-d for not making her a man, so she instead recites “Who has made me according to his will”. The Talmud actually does not mention this Bracha at all and, unlike the other two, it is recited in the positive, which is the topic of a great deal of discussion. Men cannot recite it in this manner since it obviates the prior two Brachos. Although it would appear to do the same for women, leaving out the first two would constitute too great a change in the accepted version with little reason to do so. I have yet to hear any suggestion which carries the import desired by the Rabbis worded any better than the Brachos now in place.
MITZVOS-TO DO OR NOT TO DO?
This leads us to discuss the woman’s role in Mitzvos, the assumption being that those who have more Mitzvos are “better” or “more important” somehow. When Hashem created the world He began with the minerals, moved on to plants, fish and then the higher forms of life, all created from nothing, culminating in the creation of man, fashioned from already existing raw material. However, “man” was not the last created. If the progression holds, then the “highest” form of life is woman since she was the last created and furthermore created from an already living thing. That they are superior is recognized by the Rabbis in many different ways as, for example, the acknowledgement that women are endowed with an additional level of understanding and are considered more sensitive. This entire concept is directly related to Mitzvos. Women are obligated in all Mitzvos with the exception of those that are positive and time bound. Men have no physical connection to time. Without specific reminders, time is ephemeral to a man. Woman needs no reminders. Their lives are predicated on a very physical reality thus, they are absolved from what become totally unnecessary reminders of their connection to reality. Furthermore, women are Patur, absolved, from these Mitzvos, not prohibited. Patur has very specific limitations. For example a man may be Patur from some Mitzvos when he is in mourning, a bridegroom, involved in another Mitzva, sick or caregiving.
In addition, one would assume from the amount of ink spilt on the subject, that there are scores of Mitzvos which women may not do. Of the 613, 248 are positive and 365 are negative. Many of the 613 are applicable only when the Bais HaMikdash is standing. The Chofetz Chaim, in Sefer Mitzvos HaKatzer, lists 77 positive commandments and 194 negative for a total of 271 that are applicable today. All negative commandments apply to women equally as men. Of the 77 remaining positive Mitzvos there are only 16 at issue. They are: 1- reciting Shema, 2- counting the Omer, 3- dwelling in a Succa, 4- taking the four species on Succos, 5- hearing the Shofar, 6- donning Tefillin, 7- wearing Tzitzis, 8- the obligation to have children, 9- the obligations of a groom during the first year of marriage, 10- having an obligation to learn Torah, 11- writing a Sefer Torah, 12-being redeemed as a first-born child, 13-reciting the Priestly blessing, 14-being circumcised, 15- not shaving the beard and 16-not shaving the Payos. Of course, we need to remember that woman are obligated in Tefila, Mezuzah and Birchas Hamazon (grace after meals). They also must eat Matzo on Pesach, drink the four cups of wine, say the Hagada. They must make Kiddush and Havdala on Shabbos. They have to light Chanuka candles and hear the Megilla on Purim. These are all positive commandments (some Rabbinic) with time frames yet women must do them.
Mitzvos are broken into three categories. Mishpatim, those moral and ethical laws that can be readily understood (eg. murder or stealing). Chukim, those decrees which are done solely as result of Hashem’s command although we do not understand the reason behind them (e.g. Shatnez- wearing a mixture of wool and linen). Lastly there are Aidos, testimonies, which are practices serving to remind us of our relationship with Hashem. These include the holidays as well as certain observances such as Tefillin and Mezuzah. All 16 listed above fall into the latter category. The women’s requirement to bear testimony is mitigated by the fact that they, by nature, have a much closer relationship to Hashem without needing the external reminders.
Aside from two, circumcision (#14) and not shaving the beard with a razor (#15), which are moot, there is no Mitzva a woman may not do other than those which are set aside for the Cohanim (#13) which a man may not do either if he is not Cohain by birth. However, even of these remaining 13, a woman in fact certainly may do any or all of them if she so chooses. This is the crux of a major discussion in the Talmud over who receives more reward for doing a Mitzva, one who is commanded or one who is not commanded but fulfills the Mitzva anyway. After much discussion, the decision was that one who is commanded receives more reward although the one who is not commanded is also rewarded in great measure.
Let us examine the rationale and Halacha surrounding each separately.
1- Reciting Shema: It is quite obvious that women do recite Shema daily. Every yeshiva for girls includes Davening as part of the curriculum with no problem at all. It is not only accepted, it is expected. As a matter of fact, the schools do their job so well that, when the girls get older, married and have children, they often feel guilty about missing Davening in taking care of the children, which, Halachically takes precedence.
2- Counting the Omer: Many women do count the Omer. Since few women Daven Ma’Ariv it is often difficult for them to remember to do so as it isn’t connected to anything. However, nobody has any problem with this.
3- Dwelling in a Succa: Virtually every woman eats in the Succa on Yom Tov. Many go the extra mile to eat many, if not most, of their meals in the Succa even on Chol HaMoed. Most also recognize that their husbands have a greater obligation and can only eat outside the Succa for reasons that don’t apply to the women. The leniency works in their favor giving them the choice.
4- Taking the four species on Succos: Again, most women recite the Bracha on the four species every day of Succos without fear of any negative reaction.
5- Hearing the Shofar: This particular Mitzva is fascinating in that women have, in effect, created an obligation for themselves. Although absolved, since women of every generation have made it a point to hear Shofar, it is now incumbent on all women to do so.
6- Wearing Tzitzis: Those women who have opted to fulfill this Mitzva have disregarded the essence of the Mitzva, which is to place Tzitzis on a garment of four corners. Instead, they have taken to the ritual aspect of the Mitzva, Rabbinical in origin, to wear a Talis during Davening but have not taken on the rest of the Rabbinical decree to wear a Talis Katan all day under their clothing. Those who wear a Talis generally do so, on weekdays, in conjunction with Tefillin. As we will soon see, there is, clearly, either a political agenda, a total ignorance of the import of their actions or it is done for show. Political agendas have no place in Mitzvos. Ignorance is always inexcusable. Doing things for show carries the stigma of ‘Mechzei K’Yuhara’, the appearance of arrogance.
7- Donning Tefillin: From all appearances, this is the one Mitzva that all the fuss is about. Sadly, the venue chosen to publicize their feelings has been an in-your-face Rosh Chodesh Minyon at the Kosel approach. These women must think they are the first ever to wear Tefillin. Actually, there are a plethora of stories about the wives of many scholars who felt they were on a sufficiently high spiritual level to don Tefillin daily. Those women chose to do so quietly, in the privacy of their homes with nobody aware of their actions or greatness. K’vuda Bas Melech Pnima, the glory of the king’s daughter is private. The fact was generally revealed after they had passed away by some grandchild who may have inadvertently come into the room and seen her in Tefillin. The fact they wore Tefillin excited no negative comment from anyone. On the contrary, it served to enhance their reputations as righteous women. In general, women have not chosen to wear Talis or Tefillin for a host of reasons. Shlomo HaMelech tells us “Al Titosh MiToras Emecha”, Stray not from the Torah of your mother. The customs of prior generations are binding. Non-orthodox Jews make a point of disregarding tradition, both Halacha (law) and Minhag (custom) but, for some strange reason, don’t seem to have any problem creating new laws and customs on whim.
8- The obligations of a groom during the first year of marriage: Marriage is seen as the relationship necessary for a man in order to achieve ‘wholeness’. A man without a wife is considered only one-half a person. A single woman may reach her potential without a mate. Additionally, Chazal recognized that women have a natural desire to marry and have children. Without a good reason to do so, men would have no real reason to enter marriage. From a solely intellectual point of view marriage makes little sense for the male. Therefor, the Torah placed several responsibilities on the man over and above those placed on the woman. To aide the groom in developing a relationship with his new bride he is expected to spend time with her and not travel away from home on business (unless she grants him permission to do so). Traditionally, women didn’t work out of the house leaving the obligation on the man. Today, with so many women in high-powered jobs, she too, would need to be cognizant of the need to be careful in her relationship with a new husband during the first year. She is, then, in effect, just as obligated in the Mitzva although, technically, it is still the man’s Torah obligation and her’s only as a function of reality.
9-The obligation to have children: As in the above Mitzva, the obligation to procreate is solely the man’s. It is obvious that women have not been overlooked here. She isn’t commanded simply because she need not be. Her connection to this Mitzva is brought home to her graphically from puberty. Many of the staunchest feminists refused to marry and fought to go it alone and then came to the realization as they got older that they were missing out on something. Their biological clocks were winding down. The woman has choice in this Mitzva. Once her husband has fulfilled his obligation he may not force her to have other children. In many instances, Rabbis will permit birth control, usually at the request of the woman.
10- Having an obligation to learn Torah: The fuss here is not about learning Torah that is something done daily in every girls’ yeshiva in the world. It is specifically centered on a statement n the Mishna, Sotah 20a and discussed by the Gemora on 21b, “Rebbe Eliezer says, “One who teaches his daughter Torah, is as if he has taught her Tiflus” Rashi defines Tiflus as Z’nus, (immorality). The Rambam states this Gemora as “A women who learns Torah is rewarded, but not as a man since she is not commanded. One who does a Mitzva in which they are not commanded receives reward albeit less than one whom is commanded, Even though they would receive reward the Chachomim decreed that a man should not teach his daughter Torah…. This refers to Torah She’B’Al Peh (oral law) however, Torah She’B’Ksav (written law) he should not teach her L’Chatchila but if he does teach it to her it is not as if he taught her Tiflus.” (Yad, Hilchos Talmud Torah, Perek 1 Halacha 13)
It is quite apparent, first of all, that everybody today is simply disregarding the L’Chatchila of the Rambam insofar as all girls are taught Torah She’B’Ksav (e.g. Torah, Neviim and Kesuvim). Furthermore, virtually all girls schools teach at least some Mishna which is oral law (Pirkei Avos if nothing more). Additionally, the proscription is against a father teaching his daughter. The school is merely an agent of the father’s and is therefore covered by the same proscription. There is no proscription against a girl, or woman, learning on her own or even hiring a tutor to teach her. Today, with the advent of Torah tapes and good translations there is nothing to prevent a woman from learning all she wants. Furthermore, the Mitzva of learning is continuous, day and night. In not being obligated the woman retains the option to learn or not as she sees fit unlike the man who is held accountable for not learning. We will discuss differing roles further on. Clearly, the role seen for the woman negates the possibility of placing her in the absurd position of carrying a dual role unable to effectively accomplish either.
11- Writing a Sefer Torah: This Mitzva is attached to the previous one. Since she is not commanded in learning, which was the primary purpose of writing, she is also not commanded in writing. Even if she was to write a Torah scroll it would not be usable in Shul for Krias HaTorah. Today, with the universal use of printed Seforim, a man can fulfill his obligation by purchasing Seforim. There is nothing to prevent a woman from buying Seforim. It is likely that she accrues merit for doing so.
12- Being redeemed as a first-born child: This is the father’s Mitzva. The Torah only commanded us to redeem first born male children. The concept of B’chor (first born) has many ramifications including the fact that the first born were originally to have been the Cohanim to do the service in the Bais HaMikdash. It is also related to the final plague in Egypt, the killing of the first born males. A mother may also not redeem her own son. Again, it is the father’s Mitzva. If no father (or paternal grandfather) is available, the child must redeem himself at 13.
13-Reciting the Priestly blessing: Obviously only for the Cohanim to give. The only issue here would be why women whose fathers were Cohanim could not give the blessing as well. Daughters of Cohanim have several laws, which apply to them only as long as they live in their father’s home and only when the Bais HaMikdash stood. These laws apply mostly to food and to laws of purity. When they marry, those few restrictions fall away. Any woman who marries a Cohain, during the time of the Bais HaMikdash would be accepting those restrictions. The tasks commanded the Cohanim were specifically commanded to the Bnai Aharon, the sons of Aharon. If we are to accept the Torah as the divine word of G-d, we cannot very well ignore His instructions. Those who profess to desire change also generally admit to not believing in the divine authorship of the Torah.
14- Being circumcised: Many Arabs do perform clitoral and/or labial circumcision on their daughters. It is seen as a means of controlling women. I have yet to hear of any woman fighting for the right to be circumcised. She is also not responsible to see to it that her son is circumcised. If no father is available the onus falls on the paternal grandfather or Bes Din. Nonetheless, Moshe Rabbeinu’s wife circumcised her sons. During times of travail, with no other options, many women performed their sons’ circumcision themselves or made the arrangements.
15- not shaving the beard: Not applicable. Even a woman with hormonal problems who can grow a beard is not covered by this injunction.
16-Not shaving the Payos: Associated with the beard. Again, we don’t hear of women wanting to perform this Mitzva. Most orthodox men simply wear longer sideburns, which, again, is moot as applied to women.
AN INTELLIGENT WOMAN IS NOT AN OXYMORON
[For some reason I love this sub-title!]
The Talmud, in two places, Shabbos 33b and Kiddushin 80b, use a phrase that is somewhat misunderstood. It is normally quoted as “Nashim Da’atan Kalos”, women are light-minded. The Talmud, however, actually says “Rov Nashim Da’atan Kalos Aleyhem Dilma M’Tza’arei La U’Migalei Lan”, “most women are imbued with a lighter Da’as, should you cause them pain they will reveal to you”. This calls for some understanding both as to the definition and import of Da’as as well as what the Talmud was referring to. The Alkali Hebrew/English dictionary gives several definitions. In idiomatic Modern Hebrew. ‘Kal Da’as’ is rendered “fickleminded, frivolous, wayward, or unstable” none of which fit the sense of the Gemora. ‘Da’atan’, which is the actual word the Talmud uses, is given as “intelligent, sensible: strong-minded, resolute”. Clearly the sense of the Gemora is in the sense of irresolute. Women can change their minds. So much so, that this is a commonly accepted concept. Women claim it as their right. In the case in Shabbos, the Talmud is referencing a women’s ability to withstand terrible stress as in being tortured. The Gemora in Kiddushin is discussing Yichud, a man being alone with a women, other than close relatives, in terms of women being seduced even when there is more than one woman (of course, the Gemora also recognizes the nature of the men involved). Note that the Gemora is speaking in general and recognizes that there are exceptions to the statement. Note also that the Gemora is not intimating that women are less intelligent than men are. Such a statement is obviously belied by examples of women who were, and are, very knowledgeable and extremely intelligent. The same Talmud contains many other references to ideas such as that women have “Bina Yiseira”, a higher level of understanding. They are considered more intuitive and more sensitive. This does not speak of an anti-woman bias. The Rabbis were astute students of humanity. Their observations are right to the point
IN WITNESS THEREOF
The Torah demands that one must bear witness. Women may generally not be witnesses in Bes Din. The Rambam in Hilchos Aidus, chapter 9 lists nine different categories of people who are absolved, each for a different reason. The reason he gives for women is that the Torah states that testimony is to be given by two witnesses. The word ‘witnesses’ is written in the masculine form thus telling us men, not women. This is not to intimate that a woman’s credibility is any less than that of a man. She is only technically disqualified to convict another person. More to the point is the comparison to a king of Israel who may also not bear witness. The very nature of being cross-examined is beneath the dignity of a king as is the requirement of swearing to tell the truth. A woman is also not to be subjected to this treatment. We may also postulate that, in general, women are considered more easily swayed, more likely to change their minds. Her intuitive sensitivity may lead her to be too sympathetic to a guilty party, hence she may not bear witness. Furthermore, in relation to credibility, her testimony is sought in any case where only one witness is needed; that her own husband had died (leaving her free to remarry); to prevent a Sotah from having to drink the ‘bitter waters’ or to prevent the necessity of bringing an Egla Arufa where someone has been murdered between two cities. Her credibility is not questioned in running her home. She is believed in all matters of Kashrus or her Nidda status.
ONLY A MAN CAN DIVORCE HIS WIFE
The patent unfairness in a woman’s ability to divorce her husband is right up there in the list of complaints about Judaism. The fact that Judaism ‘invented’ divorce is not mentioned nor is the fact that Roman Catholic women can never get divorced. Rather than seeing the positive aspects, secularists look only to tear down. There is a flip side to the situation. Only a man may marry a woman. Both the marriage and divorce are contractual agreements specified in the Torah. Both are given as the man’s responsibility. Unlike American law where we find a “party of the first part” and a “party of the second part”, Jewish law has a one party contractual system. This is true across the board. Both marriage and divorce are business deals, contracted and witnessed. Just as only the man contracts with his wife for her hand in marriage, so too, only the man who made the original contract may undo it. Additionally, a woman has recourse to Bes Din, which can literally force a man to divorce his wife if she so desires.
This recourse was one of the famous Takanos (decrees) of Rabbeinu Gershom. The historical underpinnings of this Takana are fascinating. From the giving of the Torah through the time of Rabbeinu Gershom, a period of 2,300 years, there existed a central authority in Judaism. The power of this authority was all-inclusive. We were often given self-governing powers in other countries. With the weight of Jewish law governing all their actions the Jewish people achieved a level of righteousness unheard of before or since. No man would dream of divorcing his wife against her will. No man would dream of forcing his wife to remain married to him if she desired to leave. When the central authority ceased to exist at the time of the Persian conquest of Babylon and the center of Judaism transferred to Europe the level of righteousness fell off. This phenomenon is noted in the change of the various Responsa of the period. Rabbeinu Gershom seized the moment to promulgate several laws for the sake of Tikkun Olam. Amongst them, he decreed that a man may not divorce his wife against her will.
MODESTY AS A DESIRABLE LIFESTYLE
Perhaps no refrain resounds in so many areas of Judaism as does modesty. It covers far more than the simple idea of covering up. Modesty includes such areas as eating, social intercourse, inter-personal relations of all kinds, behavior, language as well as dress. Victorian prudishness has no place in Jewish modesty. Prudes are ashamed and embarrassed. A Jew recognizes the body as the temporary repository of the soul. One must care for it without falling into the traps of hedonism or narcissism. The laws of modesty are in place to insure that a person avoids the traps and pitfalls so prevalent in a free and open society.
Every person must always be cognizant of the effect they have on others. Because a woman’s sexuality differs so greatly from that of a man’s, she will often be unable to realize how deeply and immediately her appearance or actions will create a response totally unintended by her. The problem is far worse when it is intentional. The general answer is, “Well, so what. That’s the guy’s problem, not mine.” which is a totally un-Jewish attitude. All Jews are responsible for all other Jews. I may not do something that causes you to sin. In turn, you may not cause me to sin. That you don’t understand the nature of the sin is no excuse to disregard it. Even those ostensibly orthodox women who dress according to the letter of the law but flout the spirit of the rationale behind it are playing with fire. Serious women dress appropriately. Look at women politicians, high power female lawyers or doctors. They wish their colleagues and clientele to think of them as professionals not objects to gaze at dreamily. Those who buy into immodesty are following the lead of whom? – Hollywood actresses and rock “stars” seeking notoriety or fashion designers seeking your money.
So, you just want to look good . For whom? Yourself, you say? How is that related to showing skin. Are you proud of your svelte figure? Why does that mean you have to share it with the world? Haven’t you noted that, when well-dressed, men are covered but for hands and face while the women are in a contest to bare as much as possible without being arrested. Why do you suppose this is? It’s an attention getting device! Whose attention? MEN! For what? (I don’t think I want to go there.) Those who claim to be dressing so other women notice are guilty of fostering envy and jealousy, both sins. If you are single, immodesty is a form of arrogance. If you are married, there are other names for you, none of them at all nice. By comparison, the Mishna tells us that on the 15th of Av the single girls would go out to find a husband. In order to not take unfair advantage of their wealth these young women all wore the same style, simple dress. “Look not at the container, but rather at what it contains.”
Two related areas, which are misunderstood, are hair coverings and women singing in the presence of men. Both may be more readily internalized only by recognizing the absolute absence of morality in the modern world. Historically, a woman’s hair was either covered even in gentile society or was flaunted by the aristocracy in, often, wild hairstyles. Just as the hair of a married woman is considered reserved for her husband alone, so too, her singing voice has sexual overtones not to be shared with the world at large. That society has dropped any pretense of shame is no reason why a person, or society, must forfeit a claim to moral superiority. Without being elitist, it is not too difficult to aspire to a higher plane, just look around you. In fact, Judaism requires that higher plane!
No matter how misunderstood all these other areas may be, few are as badly misunderstood, or as little talked about as Jewish marriage. If asked to list those things that are prohibited by Jewish law, most people would turn in a completely Christian list. To be sure, there are several approaches in Judaism but these approaches offer choice rather than total submission to church dogma or the need to ignore those dictates. In western society, relations are a male prerogative, the woman has no say. Jewish women, on the other hand, are owed those relations as a matter of a legally binding clause as well as a Mitzva, Mitzvas Onah, included in their marriage contract. The laws of family purity are restrictive. Keep in mind, however, that those self-same restrictions keep a relationship from ever turning stale. The union is kept fresh regularly. Boredom never sets in. Rethink your concept of freedom. You‘ve been brainwashed by the secularists into thinking that it means you may do whatever you want whenever you want. Not only is this patently untrue, it has fostered a manner of thinking contrary to society’s, and the individual’s, best interests.
For purposes of this discussion let us skip over the religious reasons for Mikva. Think of it just in terms of the relationship. You’ve been apart and are about to re-establish the physical aspects of the marriage. A woman takes time from her busy day to clean and bathe herself (imagine what this meant in a time when bathing was done infrequently). The hormonal pressures on her husband are stable across time. Hers wax and wane throughout her cycle. As the new cycle asserts itself, she is required to stop her normal activities and relax. This enforced restful process directs her thoughts to her spouse. Her response to her husband will have been heightened by the time spent in preparing herself. He will be ready for her, now, she too will be ready for him. We pride ourselves on being different from the animals, both four-legged and two-legged. Conjugal rights are sanctified or debased by the nature of the relationship. Mikva is an additional step removed from animal like behavior. Just as we may not enjoy any benefit from food without stopping first to think about, and thank, our creator, so too, the laws of family purity and Mikva set us apart from the world. “Kedoshim Ti’h’yu”, “You are to be holy”.
SEPARATE AND MORE THAN EQUAL
So, if we think so highly of our women why do we insist on hiding them behind a Mechitza in Shul? Why are our weddings and Bar-Mitzvas separate seating affairs. The reason is twofold. On the one hand, we are fully cognizant of the tremendous power of sexual attraction so we seek to avoid situations where that attraction can affect us. Secondly, women are not to be treated as objects, they deserve much more, so the separation prevents untoward sexuality on the one hand and heightens the mystique on the other. Virtually all men look at women. The spectrum ranges from a glance at and then away to the construction workers’ leers and wolf whistles. Women who seek attention are unhappy if they are not noticed and uncomfortable if they attract too much attention. All of that is totally subjective, the woman cannot control the reactions she causes. The objective stance of Halacha is that any attention is to be confined to the appropriate people and the appropriate times. Do you really want strange men watching you while you dance at a wedding even if you did manage to lose those ten pounds?
We have an enviable track record: Fewer divorces, less alcoholism, less of a drug problem, very few unwed mothers or illegitimate children. Our life style fosters strong family ties. The woman is the glue that keeps the process together and working. One caveat, the system only works for those who work within the system.
Two other troublesome areas are abortion and contraception. While both have a long history it is only in the last 40 years that they have both become real issues. So much so that for about 30 years every politician had to take a stance on abortion even if he was running for an office in which that stance affected nothing. Unlike Catholicism, which has an across the board prohibition against abortion and contraception, and which views the life of the fetus as more important than the mother’s, and unlike the secularists who refuse the fetus any rights whatever and gives the mother complete freedom to do as she chooses even on a whim, Judaism appears to have the only rational approach. Abortions are clearly permitted- for compelling reasons. These reasons include, but are not limited to, the physical well-being of the mother, her health, various psychological problems or survival of the mother if a choice must be made. It is never allowed as a form of contraception. Contraception itself is permitted, again for compelling reasons. The raison-d’être of marriage is procreation. A couple may choose to postpone children only for a few reasons and only with the guidance and sanction of their Rav. Most Rabbis will tend to be quite lenient, at least for a specified amount of time, for a whole host of reasons.
We set out to more fully understand how Judaism views women and what part they play in the context of our religious life. We have by no means exhausted the reasons and rationale for what we have discussed and there are other issues to be sure. We nonetheless, feel that there is sufficient food for thought contained in these explanations. The reader may choose to agree or disagree with any of the points. It would be difficult, to say the least, to argue that all, or even most, of the points are unacceptable. Our only request, if the reader still has issues, is that you read on, ask questions and view the answers from the inside, not as an outside, disinterested, objective observer. That is tantamount to reading a National Geographic article about the Hottentots and claiming to understand their culture.