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On the position of women in Judaism

 

On the position of women in Judaism

Not created as a woman: a blessing discriminatory for women?

 

  


Deborah, Judge and Prophetess of Israel. One of the most remarkable woman in Jewish history (1260-1221 B.C.E.)
Queen Esther (483-473 B.C.E.) pleading with King Achasverosh to save her people from the plans of the wicked Haman the Amalekite to anihilate them

 

 

 

 

    

 

Ruth the Moabite, is regarded as a model for Proselites who became Jewish for altruistic motives. She is considered to be the mother of the Davidic Kingship, as she was the great-grandmother of King David (1350-1290 B.C.E.).
Yehudit (2nd century B.C.E.), from the Hashmonean family, was a courageous and clever woman, who in a very sophisticated manner killed the Greek general Holofernes who wanted to seduce and sexually abuse her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feminism and Halacha

 

My late mother mrs. Rivka Daum–Koth z.l.Who can find a woman of great skills? Far beyond pearls is her value. (Proverbs 31:1)
Rebbetzin Francine Simcha Daum-Frenkel, Tlita Many daughters have amassed accomplishments but you have risen above them all. (Proverbs 31:29)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preface

 

Having dealt in my work Halacha aktuell with different topics of Halacha from the point of view of Torah Faithful Judaism, I also wanted to explore the position of women in Judaism. Unfortunately, there are many distortions and there is much ignorance about this issue. For instance, the Rabbis teach us that a man has to give more respect and love to his wife than to himself.

Also, one should be beware that in Judaism it is the woman who determines the religious status of the child and not the father, like in most other cultures. Our Rabbis offer different explanations for this, but the most obvious one is very apparent. A mother carries a baby as part of her body for nine months and the child feels most closely attached to his/her mother. Moreover, in a certain way a woman takes on the role of being a creator, similar to Hashem, in giving life to her child.

In no way is the woman discriminated against in Judaism. On the contrary, in many respects she is privileged. The Rabbis gave a great deal of consideration to women and highly valued their role in educating the future generations and in safeguarding the continuity of our People.

 

For our Sages women and men are equal. However, they do have a different role.  The Rabbis addressed women as Akeret Habayit, the principal of the house, entrusting the harmony of family life to her. She is also given the responsibility for the upbringing of the children in their most formative years. The exemption of women from time related Mitzvoth is in no way to be regarded as discrimination or as a put down of women, but as appreciation for the important task of the woman as mother and companion and as the foundation of every family. Till recent times, and even today, among Torah commited Jews, the phenomenon of divorce was and is almost unknown. The statistics of our general society now show, that every second child comes from a divorced family, in contrast to most religiously practicing Jewish families, where this is certainly not the case. One might ask critically why this negative trend in our society threatens the institution of the traditional family. My personal assessment is that modern women are neglecting their traditional role as mothers, by putting their careers above motherhood.

If we look critically at recent developments in Judaism, of the women's liberation movement, or among conservative, liberal and reform Judaism, where there is no distinction between men and women, we can well understand the breakdown of the traditional family. By features like women wearing Tallit and Tefillin, female rabbis, granting marriage to members of the same sex, one does not have to be astonished that in non Torah Faithful Jewish society we face the bankruptcy of the traditional family. The same goes for our general society.

One might of course have a different view of matters, but as I wrote in my essays, we religious Torah Faithful Jews and Jewesses do not in any way feel treated in a second class manner by our traditional role in the Jewish family. I know quite a few Modern-Orthodox women who are professionals and who are dedicated mothers, without in any way neglecting their motherhood role or their role as companion.

This series of three essays has been written in dedication to two very special women: my late mother, mrs. Rivka Daum-Koth z.l. (1927-2009 C.E.) and my wife, Rebbetzin Francine Simcha Daum-Frenkel, Tlita. I was born into a family of boys and unfortunately have no sisters. In our family my mother was the most dominant presence. She was a survivor of the Shoah and was the only member of her large family who survived. Despite her terrible experiences during the Shoah, she remained faithful to Torah and had the courage to build a family in a religiously traditional way, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. She was the one who safely lead our family, resolute and strict. Throughout her married life she longed for a daughter and missed the closeness of such a relationship.

My wife and I have been privileged to have a family of three daughters. In a way I share this with Rashi (1040-1105 C.E.), who had three famous daughters. Throughout our long marriage my wife has been and is my companion, supporting me during all the phases of life, in the Rabbinate  and as an educator and mentor of many who became Jewish or who are on their way to becoming Jewish. Her kindness, grace and many other lovely features are appreciated by everyone who encounters her. It is my deep wish to express here my gratitude to Hashem for granting me such an Eshet Chayil who is a true Ezer (helpmate) for me and for our family. The essays are in praise of her unselfish dedication and commitment to keeping our family flourishing. May Hashem grant us freshness of mind, health, vitality and much Nachas (joy) from our children and grandchildren. Ad Mea VeEsrim!

Truely Shlomo Hamelech (the wisest of men, King Solomon) expressed his appreciation of a man who has the “Mazal of finding a “Besherte”, (appropriate) wife: Matsa Isha, Matsa Tov! (Mishleh 18:22). (He who finds a wife has found happiness and has won the favor of Hashem - Proverbs 18:22).

 

 

With everlasting love, written by the son and husband, “Ari” (Ahron) Daum

 

 

On the position of women in Judaism

 

The leading role of the Jewish woman is already underscored in Proverbs (of King Solomon), the Biblical book of wisdom: The wisdom of women builds her house[i] The word wisdom is written in the plural in the Hebrew text, to show the many varied influences of a woman of understanding. The female assets of feeling, sensing and fashioning give the Jewish house its character, so that it can develop into a home of mildness, friendship and gentleness.

The Talmud advises the husband[ii] “One should always be concerned for the honour of his wife, because the blessing of the house of the husband is only due to his wife.”

This was also meant by the Amora (a Talmudic Sage from the period 200-500 B.C.) Rabba, when he told the people of the Babylonian city of Machusa: “Honor your wives, so that you will become “rich”.”Wealth” is here also understood in its spiritual sense, in the sense of wisdom, which the woman brings to the house. It is to her to look after the poor, invite guests and to cultivate a mentally stimulating atmosphere. She must see to it that the husband does not flounder in everyday professional life and that everything is of course done with the wisdom to which such a high level of esteem obliges.The Talmud further states:[iii] “Rabbi Tanchum says in name of Rabbi Chanilai: “the one who has no wife, lives without joy, without blessing and without goodness”.”

 

The Rabbis teach us: “He who loves his wife as himself and honors and respects her more than himself, who leads his sons and his daughters on the right path and who weds them when they are near maturity, about him Holy Scripture says: “And you will know that peace remains in your tent”” (Yiov/Job 5:24).

 

Left: an artistic modern “Kethuba” from the 20th century. Right: an ancient “Kethuba” dating back to the 17th century. A “Kethuba” is a marriage contract which protects the rights of the wife and guarantees her financial security in case her husband dies or when she gets divorced (and she is not to blame for the divorce).

 

Rabbi Elazar says:

He who has no wife, is an incomplete human being, because it is stated: “Male and female He created them … and He called their name Adam”.” (Bereishith/Genesis 5:2-3)

In general Jewish women enjoyed a greater measure of affection, prestige and respect than their female couterparts in other cultures. The husband is always commanded “to love his wife like himself and above that to honor her more than himself”.

 

This esteem was based not least on the spiritual and psychological abilities of the woman.

 

G-d gave the woman a bigger spectrum of understanding than the man”[iv] our Sages observed and from this approve a husband listening to the advice of his wife.

On this esteem for the woman, the strength of the Jewish home grew during Antiquity, during the Middle Ages and in modern times up to the present day. Thus the realization of the priceless virtues of the woman formed the foundation of Jewish family life.

 

In the previous sections the high regard for women in Judaism was illuminated. In the following sections it is applied, to investigate how and in which measure the esteem for women also had an impact on their legal status. In our considerations we should not apply the measure of the economic, social and political conditions of our modern age, but we must constantly keep in mind the historical conditions, which underlie many halachic decisions.

 

If one wishes to appreciate the position of the woman in Talmudic-rabinnical law, one should first of all take into account, that the law is based on the brief Torah provisions and details, providing for a people still at the beginning of its development, engaged in agriculture.

When the rabinnical teachers of the law were later confronted with the task of regulating the legal relations between the people under completely different circumstances, they considered the provisions contained in the Torah to be a legal framework, whose deeper meaning and purpose they tried to discover.

 

Artistic representations of “Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, which, according to our Sages, is about the eternal love between Hashem and His chosen People Israel.

 

For this they used traditional and more advanced methods of interpretation in their efforts to harmonize the respective necessities of life with the wording of Biblical law.

 

During this process the legal status of women was decisively changed in their favour in some areas. Moral considerations and deeply rooted responsibility for righteous behavior brought about these changes – the Ethics of the Torah always served as the foundation.

 

Already from the story of Creation it can be inferred that it would contradict Biblical ethics, to declare the woman to be legally second-rate.

 

Both Adam and his wife Chava/Eve were created in the reflection of the Eternal. They belong together and count as a unit. The source for the relations between man and woman is thus a coexistence, which takes place on an equal footing.

 

Although the Talmudists according to the practice of the time denote the husband as the master of the house, they equally applied the principle, which was already told by the Eternal to Avraham: “... in all that she – Sarah – tells you, heed her voice” (Bereishith/Genesis 21:12) – this in contrast to other cultures.

 

Our Sages always sought to protect women, as the physically and economically weaker half,  against arbitrary treatment.

 

The divorce laws are a good indication of this. Originally the husband could have himself divorced from his wife even against her will[v]. This early halachic decision however soon encountered moral reservations, because it would have undermined family life and completely humiliated the woman.

 

It has been a halachic masterpiece by our Sages and to the merit of Rabbenu Gershon ben Yehuda from Mainz (960-1040 C.E.), known with the hononary title “Me'or HaGola” (Light of the Exile), to step by step impede the right to divorce which was unilaterally favourable to the man, to the point where a divorce without the consent of the woman became practically impossible. This happened without violating the requirements of Halachah.

 

It went even further. Although up to the present time it is not possible for the woman to divorce her husband, our Sages found ways and means for a woman who finds herself in an unreasonable relationship, to force the man to divorce her[vi].

 

 

Two images of “Bircat HaBayit”, the blessing of the house. According to the Talmud, the blessing of the house is in merit of the lady of the house and therefore the “Bircat HaBayit” should be a reminder to us men to be kind to our wives and to treat them decently.

 

Likewise, another important Takkanah (Rabbinic decree), goes back to Rabbenu GershonMe'or HaGola”, in that he pushed through the prohibition on bigamy among Ashkenasi Jews under the threat of banishment from the community[vii].

 

It is crucial to determine, that changes in the legal position of women were at all times possible and remain so up to the present day.

In the following passages some examples from Talmudic and early-rabbinic literature will be given, which confirm this development.

In a certain passage in the Mishnah we can clearly detect the special high regard and consideration of our Rabbis for women. It states: “When someone dies and leaves behind sons and daughters: if the inheritance is large, the sons inherit, but the daughters are granted maintenance; however, if the inheritance is small, one grants the daughters maintenance, but the sons get the rest of the estate and when it is necessary, they can beg[viii].”

It further states in another passage of the Mishnah: “The woman has priority over the man in acquiring the necessary clothes as well as in liberation from captivity.”[ix]

 

Rabbi Jacob ben Asher from Toledo (1269-1343 C.E.), author of the halachic Code “Tur”, writes concerning the duties, which are laid down in the “Ketuba (marriage certificate) and which the husband must fulfill for his wife:

“The husband has the following ten duties to perform for his wife. These duties encompass all areas of everyday life. Three of these have been stated in the Torah and the other seven have been decreed by our Rabbis.”[x]

 

From these examples it emerges that, with all the modifications and preferences in favour of the woman, Halachah is not found to be an obstacle or a burden, but always remains a signpost.

 

I would like at this point to express my reverence and deep respect for the Torah Sages of this and of past centuries. I think especially of the vision and foresight of Rabbi Yisrael Me'ir Ha'Cohen (1838-1933 C.E.), known as the Chafetz Chaim and of Rabbi Ahron Roke'ach (1880-1957 C.E.), the legendary Belzer Rabbe, who strengthened Sarah Schenirer (1883-1938 C.E.) in her project, to start the first big, religious, Jewish educational network of Beth Yaacov schools for girls and Beth Yaacov seminaries for women in Eastern-Europe. Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor from Kovno (1817-1896 C.E.) tirelessly devoted his time and energy to the holy task of releasing women, whose husbands were missing – in the terminology of Halachah known as Agunah – from their marital status and thereby making it possible for them to marry again. Rabbi Yechiel Yacob Weinberg (1885-1966 C.E.) in his work of ResponsaSride Esh” underscores again and again the esteem for women, which forms an integral part of Jewish ethics and morals. The deceased Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ben-Zion Chai Usiel (1880-1953 C.E.), vehemently pleaded for the active participation of women in the development of the modern state of Israel.

 

Eshet Chayil, “The capable and industrious wife (and mother)” is praised in chapter 31 of Mishlei (Proverbs) and is written in the order of the Aleph Beth. It is sung by the husband and children at the beginning of Shabbat on Friday evenings to honour and thank the queen of the house, the wife and mother.

 

We can see a truly rabbinical answer to the contemporary position of women in Halachah from the comments of these previously mentioned great men of the Torah.

 

The age old task of being a wife and mother has never changed. The biblical song on the “Eshet Chayil – the woman of accomplishment/valour [xi] praises the woman who cooperates. It is a contemporary song, for which reason every Friday evening, the father of the house, before partaking of the Shabbat meal, should recite it according to an ancient custom, so that all present hear his thanks for the work of the wife and mother, during the week and now for the comfortable Shabbat atmosphere.

 

 

 

The end of this song of praise emphasizes the imperishable Jewish ideal for women:

“Arise do her children and praise her, her husband, and he lauds her:

many daughters have amassed accomplishment, but you have risen above them all.

False is grace, and vain is beauty,

a woman who fears HaShem – she should be praised.

Give her the fruits of her hands

and let her be praised in the gates by her very own deeds”[xii].

 

The influential position of Jewish women is illuminated by the Talmud[xiii]: “Greater is the assurance that the Eternal, blessed be He, gave to women, than that given to men. What has made women so deserving?

By bringing their children to the house of prayer, and having them taught there, and letting their husbands learn in the Beth HaMidrash – house of learning/study –, and waiting for them, untill they return.”

 

In the Song of the Songs, King Solomon compares the People of Israel to a flower which gives off an excellent scent, but which like a rose has thorns to protect itself against anyone wanting to cut or damage it. Similarly, the Almighty protects His People Israel and therefore on Purim we sing the famous song, “Shoshanat Ya'acov, the Rose of Jacob.

 

While the husband goes in search of a living, the wife sees to the education of the children, and her primary task consists of establishing the Jewish identity of her children. The Jewish wife could never live for the day, as she has to guarantee and guide the most precious part of the Jewish future.

Her task remains to fill the house with a Jewish atmosphere, as she causes the husband to take part in the religious life of the congregation and community.

The Talmud states, that Israel was redeemed from Egypt for the sake of the pious women[xiv].

In the days of distress, the Jewish house, run by the women, formed a solid castle in which no stranger was able to enter; here tenderness, intimacy, sincerity and piety ruled, and that which the wife and mother said, was significant to the husband and holy to the sons and daughters.

 

The tireless goodness of the Jewish women has always contributed rich blessings.

The men mainly took care of the intellectual and spiritual education of the Jewish home, while women primarily looked after the wisdom of the heart.

 

Everyone, who has seen a baby, knows, that the mother simply means the whole world to it. The mother is for the child that initial affirmation, that fountain of affection and security, which later also emanate from other parts of reality.

All self-affirmation, that one needs to mature and develop, starts from the inner light of the mother-child relationship.

This is also what the Torah means to convey, when it calles Chava (Eve), the first woman, the mother of all life[xv], and Judaism confirms the priceless value of the woman as a mother also within the religious-legal framework. It is only the mother and not the father, through whom the children are counted as belonging to the Jewish People and Faith[xvi].

 

 

As a wife and a mother, the Jewess in our days also has, as from time immemorial, the task of actively taking part in the life of the congregation and community, for which the good education, which she generally enjoys these days, offers valuable assistance.

The duties towards the community are even more strongly pronounced in these modern times than in earlier centuries.

The perseverance and fortitude of the Jewish woman as wife and mother during the long, dark and painfilled days of the Diaspora and Exile, during the times of flight, during the pionering days in the Holy Land and under the continuing threat to the State of Israel, have given rise to a new song of praise to the Jewish woman.

During the entire history of our People the words from the Biblical book of wisdom Proverbs has turned out to be true – which could also to some extent have served as the leading principle of our discourse:

A house and property are bequeathed by the fathers, but G-d/HaShem bestows an efficient and insightful wife[xvii].

A house and property one has inherited from the fathers or they were the fruit of ones own efforts; but the sensible woman determined by G-d,  brings peace, success and blessing to the family[xviii].

 


Overview of sources from Halacha aktuell : Jüdische Religionsgesetze und Bräuche im modernen Alltag. HAAG + HERCHEN ISBN: 3-89228-672-8, Band 2: Zur Stellung der Frau im Judentum pp. 599-607.

 

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[i]              Proverbs 14:1
 

[ii]              Talmud Bavli/Babylonian Talmud, Baba Mezia 59a
 

[iii]              Talmud Bavli/Babylonian Talmud, Yebamoth 62b
 

[iv]              Talmud Bavli/Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 45b
 

[v]              Mishnah Gittin, 9:10
 

[vi]              Mishnah Kethubot, 7:9-10
 

[vii]              Avraham Grossman: The Early Sages of Ashkenaz, Their Lives, Leadership and Works (900-1096), Magnes Press, Hewbrew University, Jerusalem, 1988, see especially chapter 3: Rabbenu Gershon Me'or Ha'Gola, p. 106-175.             

              Also Encyclopedia Talmudit, vol. XVII, section Cherem de Rabbenu Gerschon, p. 378-454.

 

[viii]              Mishnah, Baba Batra 9:1
 

[ix]              Mishnah, Horayot 3:7
 

[x]              Tur Even Ha'Ezer, Hilchot Ketubot, Siman 69
 

[xi]              Proverbs 31:10-31
 

[xii]              Proverbs 31:28-31
 

[xiii]              Talmud Bavli/Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 17a
 

[xiv]              Talmud Bavli/Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b
 

[xv] 

              Bereishith/Genesis 3:20
 

[xvi]              Devarim/Deutronomy 7:4, cf. ibid Rashi, Esther 10:2-3, Talmud Bavli/Babylonian Talmud, Yebamoth 17a and 23a,  Talmud Bavli/Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 66b and 68b, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Iussure Bi'ah 12:7 and 15:3-4, Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha'Ezer 4:19 and 8:5
 

[xvii]              Proverbs 19:14
 

[xviii]              Some parts of this essay are based on the book: Gesinnung und Tat, Berichte aus jüdischer Sicht, by L. Rotschild, Verlag Huber & Co. AG, Frauenfeld 1969, especially the chapter: Ein Lob für unsere Mütter, pp. 224-235.

             

 

              Colophon:

              Author: Prof. Rabbi Ahron Daum, B.A., M.S. Emeritus Chief Rabbi of Frankfurt am Main (1992 C.E.)

              Translation from German into English: Margreet Westbroek, the Netherlands

              Photo’s and special effects: Angelo Malachi Prins, Antwerp, Belgium

              Webmaster and designer: Yitzchak Berger, son-in-law of Rav Ahron Daum, Shlita, Antwerp/Belgium

 

              Not created as a woman”: a blessing discriminatory for women?

 

              During the daily blessings of Shacharit, the morning prayer, we say:

              Blessd art Thou, Eternal, our G-d, King of the World, Who did not make me a woman. Many women have the feeling, that this praise means a disparagement of women. Does this blessing indeed imply a discrimination of women?

Some interpreters of the liturgy explain the reason for this blessing as follows: a man is grateful for the fact that he does not have to bear the pains of giving birth or the pains of the monthly period [19].

The main reason is however explained in the Talmud and from this we can see, that it does not concern a derogatory pronouncement or blessing against women.

The Talmud explains [20]: Greater is the reward for the one commanded to do Mitzvoth and good deeds, than for those who do them of their own free will, without being commanded.

The Tosafists (during the 12th and 13th centuries C.E.), commentators on the Talmud, explain this statement from the Talmud as follows [21]: someone who has been commanded by G-d to do something, constantly worries to carry out the command, as he subordinates his own will to the Will of his Maker. When a human acts out of obedience to G-d, his/her reward is greater, as he/she lets the will of G-d reign, in contrast to the one, who performs a Mitzvah of his/her own free will, and thus lets his/her own will reign.

              Golda Meir (1898-1978 C.E.), the first ambassador to the Soviet Union of the State of Israel, visiting the synagogue of Moscow (in 1949 C.E.), surrounded by Soviet Jews who came to visit the synagogue in honour of her. They where not intimidated by the KGB.

 

              Man and woman are equal and of the same worth in Judaism and both stand equally before G-d. The difference concerns the performance of the Mitzvoth, commandments. Here the man has been awarded more Mitzvoth than the woman, who, due to lack of time because of domestic and family duties, was not capable of performing so many Mitzvoth.

 

              Our Sages have exempted women from all commandments which are time related.

              Exactly this consideration clearly demonstrates the esteem for women in Judaism.

              The man however does not consider fulfilling the many Mitzvoth as a burden or heavy load, but as a heavenly gift, for which he utters his gratitude in the blessing.

              The same can be argued for the blessing, which a woman recites during the blessings of praise of the morning prayer: …. “Who hast created me according to His will”. This formulation is also not to be seen as a deprecation of the woman.The Talmud declares [22] , that at the beginning of the creation of man G-d thought to create two beings, a man and a woman, both inseperably bound to each other; only later did He create man alone and from him did He create woman.

This is the reason for the woman thanking G-d, that He created her as a being per se, and not as a part of the man [23].

Another reason is given in the Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin [24], namely that G-d consulted with the angels before creating man. When they advised him not to create man, G-d ignored them. The same happened with a second and a third group of angels.

However, when G-d was about to create woman, He consulted no one, because G-d knew the good characteristics and qualities of the woman. For this women thank G-d, that He fulfilled His own Will, without consulting others [25].

The blessing in our morning prayers: “not being created as a woman”, saved many Jewish lives in the past, when persecutors and haters of Jews tried to slander Jews for the daily blessing in the morning prayers: “not being created a Nochri (Goy)” - non-Jew.

It has always been noted, that this blessing neither entailed any sort of hatred or denigration of the peoples of the world, and the proof of this is, that Jews use a similar expression for women, our wives and daughters, whom we love.

 

              Golda Meir, Israeli Foreign Minister, visiting President John F. Kennedy (1963 C.E.). Golda Meir has been the only female Prime Minister of Israel up-to-date. During the years 1969 - 1974 C.E. she was Prime Minister and was known as a vigorous and strong leader. Cynics used to say that she was the only man in the cabinet of Israel. Unfortunately after the Yom Kippur war (1973 C.E.) she had to resign and was full of remorse for not listentening to the generals, and not starting the war first, thus avoiding heavy losses. She herself never recognised the Palestinians as a people and often referred to the fact, that there are many Arab countries around Israel that should absorb their “brothers and sisters”.

 

Overview of sources, from Halacha aktuell : Jüdische Religionsgesetze und Bräuche im modernen Alltag. HAAG + HERCHEN ISBN: 3-89228-672-8, Band 1: “ Nicht als Frau erschaffen worden zu sein“ Diskriminierender Segensspruch fûr Frauen?

 

              19) Siddur Jessode Jeschurun, published by Rabbi Gedalja Felder, Toronto, Canada

             

              20) Talmud Bavli/Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 3a

              Talmud Bavli/Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama 38a

              Talmud Bavli/Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 31a

 

              21) Tossafot on Talmud Bavli/Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 3a

 

              22) Talmud Bavli/Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 61a

 

              23) Talmud Bavli/Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 18a             

              Magid Ta'alumah to Talmud Bavli/Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 61a             

              Ta'ame Ha'minhagim, p. 22, paragraph 35

 

              24) Talmud Bavli/Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38b

 

                 25) Jeschuot Jacob, Orach Chayim, Siman 46, paragraph 5

 

 

 

              Colophon:

 

 

Author: Prof. Rabbi Ahron Daum, B.A., M.S. Emeritus Chief Rabbi of Frankfurt am Main (1992 C.E.)

 

Translation from German into English: Margreet Westbroek, the Netherlands

 

Photo’s and special effects: Angelo Malachi Prins, Antwerp, Belgium

Webmaster and designer: Yitzchak Berger, son-in-law of Rav Ahron Daum, Shlita, Antwerp/Belgium

 

 

 

 

 

 

              Feminism and Halachah

 

              A custom dating from Talmudic times calls upon those present at a ‘Brit Millah’ to, immediately after the circumcision, recite the prayer, ‘Just as he (the infant) entered the Covenant, so may he enter into Torah, Chuppah (the wedding canopy) and ‘Ma’asim Tovim’ (good deeds)'.

              However, in the prayer recited at the naming of a baby girl, the word Torah is invariably omitted. It is told that a pious father in the Middle Ages inscribed the following prayer at the birth of his daugher, ‘May she sew, spin, weave, and be brought up to a life of good deeds.’

 

              My revered teacher, HaRav HaGaon Dr. J.B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993 C.E.) (on the left) delivering a lecture in Rabbinics (Mishnah and Talmud) at the Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University in New York.

 

              The omission of Torah in the prayer for a girl is a consequence of the opinion of the Mishnah Sage Rabbi Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, that ‘He who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he teaches her lewdness.’ This again is a reflection of his opinion that ‘A woman’s wisdom is only in the spindle.’ For centuries traditional Jewry followed this opinion and made no provision for the formal education of girls. Everything they knew of Jewish ritual and observance, they learned from the practice of their parents and the customs of the community in which they lived.

 

              Teaching Rabbinics at the Michlalah l’Banot, Jerusalem College for Women, where all subjects of Judaism, including Halachah and Oral Law, are taught.

 

              In the early 20th century, when secular public education became widespread and Jewish girls were sent to public schools, religious leaders began to question the traditional practice of not giving a formal Jewish education to girls. It was quite paradoxical, they argued, for girls to receive a secular but not a religious education, as this phenomenon could undermine their faith and commitment to Jewish observance.

              No less a strict Halachist than Rabbi Yisrael Meir haKohen of Radin (1838-1933 C.E.), the ‘Chofetz Chaim’, conceded that R. Eliezer’s opinion was tenable only in previous ages, when children would not question the practices of their elders.

              Nowadays, he contended, when non-Orthodoxy is rampant, if girls are not taught the fundamentals of Judaism and its moral imperatives, their defection from tradition would be an imminent possibility. Thus the needs of the hour demanded the establishment of Jewish schools for girls. This demand was first met in Poland with the founding of the network of ‘Beit Yaakov’ schools, and this was soon adopted in other Jewish communities throughout the world. Thus when the ‘MiSheberach’ for the birth of a daughter is now recited in many synagogues, one can hear Torah as well as ‘Chuppah’ included in the blessing for a Jewish girl’s future.

 


Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997 C.E.), the famous Israeli lecturer on Chumash and Tenach at a very high level, for both men and women. She published her works under the name 'Parashat Hashavua': ‘Iyunim, (literally translatable as: The weekly Parasha, deep insights). Her books were translated into many European languages.

 

              Though halachic scholars were ready to sanction instruction for girls, they confined the studies to the ‘Written Law’ (Tenach), the ‘Chumash’ and the ‘Mitzvoth’ which women are obliged to observe; thus ruling out the study of the ‘Oral Law’, such as ‘Mishnah’ and ‘Talmud’.

              However, as girls began to taste the fruits of knowledge, and especially as the teachers required for the girl’s schools – invariably women – had to have broader knowledge than just ‘Chumash’ and ‘Kitzur Shulchan Aruch’ (Abbreviated Codex of Jewish Law), the scope of instruction for girls became broader and deeper, until the number of Orthodox women studying Talmud and Jewish Philosophy in addition to the Sciences and Liberal Arts increased considerably.

 

              Coincident with this increase in Jewishly knowledgable women, the general Feminist movement of recent times arose, with its strident demands for ‘the equality of the sexes.’ Orthodox women, no longer confined within the walls of a cultural ghetto, could not fail to be influenced by this movement.

              Having gained access to basic Jewish sources, they noticed some of the inequalities imbedded in Jewish Law which convey a sense of female inferiority. They also began to feel more keenly their exclusion from some of the religious observances which Halachah imposes upon men exclusively.

              Among the issues raised by Orthodox feminists are the Halachic restrictions against abortion for economic and social reasons, the ruling that only men are empowered to issue a ‘Get’ and the exemption of women from certain ‘Mitzvoth’, such as ‘Tefillin’. Most recently the dominant issue was the disqualification of women to constitue a ‘Minyan’, which means that women are barred from conducting regular congregational prayers (‘Tefillah b’Tzibbur’) among themselves.

 

              Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky (1932-2011 C.E.), daughter of the great Halachic authority HaRav HaGaon Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (1910-2012 C.E.) and wife of one of the greatest Halachic and Talmudic authorities nowadays, HaRav HaGaon Chaim Kanievsky (1928 C.E.). She was known for her outreach-work and was consulted by many women for advice and blessings.

 

              The response to these demands from contemporary Halachists – some ‘Modern Orthodox’ among them – has been negative, and often unsympathetic. Basically they assert that the ‘Oral Law’ (i.e.  Halachah) is ‘Min ha’Shamayim (‘from Heaven’ = meaning that the Torah is from G-d), and thus impervious to subjective emotional considerations.

              Thus the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986 C.E.), responding to a query concerning Orthodox Jewish feminists, stated: ‘At the outset, one has to know that a principle of our pure faith is that the entire Torah, both written and oral, was given by G-d Himself on Mt. Sinai through Moshe Rabbenu, and it is impossible to change even one iota (‘kotz’).’ He qualifies this by adding that the Sanhedrin and Torah scholars have the duty to institute new regulations (‘Takkanot’) and add prohibitions as hedges against possible violations of Torah laws.

 

              The American Orthodox Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis (1938 C.E.), who has great charisma and is an excellent speaker and writer and who can capture the attention of the listeners for hours. She is the founder of the ‘Baalei Teshuva’ movement ‘Hineni', which is the oldest and most famous movement of this kind in America.

 

              He explains the Torah’s exemption of women from certain ‘Mitzvoth’ as based on the principle that they are by nature occupied with the rearing of children. He reiterates that even though social and economic circumstances may have changed ‘there exists no power to change anything, even if the whole world may agree to do so; and these women (i.e. feminists) who stubbornly fight for change are deniers of the Torah (‘Kofrot’).’ He does concede that women may accept upon themselves ‘Mitzvoth’ which they are not obligated to perform by the Torah – putting on ‘Tefillin’ excepted – but this is so only if they want to observe them as ‘Mitzvoth’ and not in order to impugn the Torah, an intention which he attributes to the Orthodox feminists.

 

              Additionally, a long array of authorities are cited who denounce any attempt to deviate from established custom. Some responses have even impugned the sincerity of these feminists, pointing at the general movement which purportedly is a movement for greater sexual license.

              Sarah Schenirer (1883-1935 C.E.) founder of the first Beth Yaakov School and Seminary for girls and women in Krakow, Poland. This prototype of school later spread throughout the  worldwide religious Jewish community. There are now literally hundreds Beth Yaakov schools worldwide. She was supported in her efforts by all the pre-Shoah Orthodox Rabbinic Luminaries.

 

              The demand which has received extensive treatment and which however  Halachists have found impossible to satisfy, is the inequality in the Jewish divorce process.

 

              Rabbenu Gershon (960-1040 C.E.) had reduced this inequality somewhat by instituting that a woman cannot be divorced against her will, but the law still requires the free consent of the husband, and as long as he witholds it his wife remains his wife halachically with all its ramifications, even though the couple are living apart and have been divorced by the civil courts.

 

              Numerous proposals have been suggested to remedy this situation, about which women have been clamoring more and more.

              Most of these proposals are based upon some pre-nuptial contractual obligation which would penalize the recalcitrant party when the giving of a ‘Get’ is ordered by the Rabbinical Court.

              However, Halachic authorities have found one flaw or another in such arrangements, and to-date no proposal has been accepted by the religious authorities.

 

              Even in Israel, where the Rabbinic Courts are empowered to impose various pressures upon the party concerned, even to the extent of imprisonment,Dayanim’ (the Rabbinic Judges) are reluctant to impose them.

 

              Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson (1901-1988 C.E.), daughter of the Voriger Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950 C.E.) and wife of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1902-1994 C.E.). She had an enormous influence on her husband. Unfortunately their marriage was not blessed with children, which is why the Chabad dynasty now has no Rebbe or spiritual leader.

 

              There is one radical solution which has a precedent in a Talmudic ruling: the annulment of the marriage by a Rabbinic Court, declaring that the marriage ceremony was invalid ‘ab initio’. This was a case where a man compelled a woman to accept his proposal of marriage by threatening. ‘He acted improperly, therefore the Rabbis dealt with him improperly'; i.e. by invalidating his marriage, though not stricly according to the law. Already in the Middle Ages, the ‘Rishonim’ (the great early Halachic authorities of the Middle Ages), were reluctant to exercise such authority. How much more so are the ‘Achronim’ (great Halachic authorities of the new age starting in the 15th century up and untill these days) reluctant to exercise such sweeping judicial powers.

 

              An additional consideration which inhibits the Halachists today from making any concession to feminist demands, is formed by the concessions which the Conservative movement has already made in this respect. Examples are the calling up of women to the reading of the Torah and, more recently, the ordaination of women as rabbis. Orthodox Judaism, in its attempt to preserve the line of demarcation between it and Conservative Judaism, is responding to any demand for change in the same manner that its forebears two centuries ago responded to the movement for Reform, namely, with the slogan ‘anything new is forbidden by the Torah.’ It proceeds on the assumption that any breach, no matter how slight, in accepted practice will only strengthen the Conservative movement and eventually undermine the authority of Halachah in other areas as well. As the Halachist sees it, his responsibility is not only to teach Halachah but to preserve its integrity and authority in Jewish life. And the only way to accomplish this is by not sanctioning a deviation from tradition arising from fresh attitudes, but rather by reaffirming our faith in and commitment to tradition’s inviolability.

             

    Jewish Law: An Introduction by Rav Mendell Lewittes

              Feminism and the Halacha, page 228-232.

              ISBN: 1-56821-302-6

              Published by Jason Aronson Inc.
It was very difficult to find adequate material and books about this subject in English. We are lucky to have found an excellent book which is listed above and greatly and effectively helped us to form this essay.

              We thank the following late author, Rav Mendell Lewittes (1912-1994 C.E.) z.l., for using his work for spreading Torah. His work helped us greatly in realizing this essay. We express our gratitude also in name of the many readers of our website.
Rabbi Mendell Lewittes z.l., is no more among the living. May the publishing of this essay help his soul to find its deserved rest. May his soul be bound among the living, Amen.

 

              Colophon:

              Initiated and completed under the supervision of Prof. Rabbi Ahron Daum, B.A., M.S. Emeritus Chief Rabbi of Frankfurt am Main

              Photoshop and special effects: Angelo Malachi Prins, Antwerp

              Webmaster: Yitzchak Berger, son-in-law of Rabbi Ahron Daum, Shlita, Antwerp
 

              Rosh Chodesh Elul 5774 / 27th of August 2014

 

 

              Channa dedicating little Shmuel to the service of HaShem and entrusting her little son to the care of the High Priest Eli.             

 

 

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