The point has been made before on the problem of discussing the subject of women and Judaism: that there is any discussion at all.
No one ever talks about men and Judaism. The very phrasing of the question leads one to think that women are in some way different, or apart, from Judaism.
Yet the question still stands because there are many women and men who do feel that Judaism excludes them, or at the very least limits them and their roles within it. Minimizing the feelings of those who think this is true only alienates people from Judaism, and makes Judaism look incapable of addressing the concerns of many well-meaning people.
Those who would push away these concerns would do well to keep in mind that those asking are people who are concerned and care about Judaism. The bigger problem comes from those who don’t care enough to even ask the question, and seemingly reject Judaism – perhaps best personified by the fourth son in the Haggada.
To begin with, we must frame the issue as part of the broader question of “Women in Society.” Once we understand the developing role of women throughout history, we can then begin to understand how Judaism, a product of history, responded in each era.
Fundamental to understanding the issue is the idea that while Torah and Judaism are indeed affected by history and time, it does not take away from the timeless, divine nature of God’s revelation. Shakespeare, for example, is both of its time and beyond its time. We continue to read him since the truths embedded in his writings, though clothed in the Elizabethan era, are as relevant today as they were when the Great Bard lived.
If we are to accept the idea that the Torah speaks in the language of Man, we must understand this cannot be referring to Hebrew alone, but to the ideas, idioms, images and conceptual thinking of an Israelite standing on Sinai some 33 centuries ago.
Yet the obvious question is: If the Torah really believes that men and women are equal, why doesn’t it come straight out and say so? It’s a fair question, until you realize that it belongs to a broader question of: Why doesn’t the Torah come out and reveal other truths to us as well? Why doesn’t the Torah tell us that slavery is plain wrong? Why doesn’t the Torah inform us that we live in a heliocentric universe? Why doesn’t the Torah give us the instructions for antibiotics or the cure for cancer? The reality is that while Torah is theology, it is also pedagogy! In fact, the very word “Torah” means teaching; it shares the same root as moreh, teacher, and horeh, parent.
Like any good teacher or parent, the Torah sometimes does not reveal certain truths outright because they are best perceived and understood when the student or child arrives at them on their own. Sometimes early exposure to certain truths is actually detrimental to a child and his development.
Think about the question of “Where do babies come from?” When a six year old asks the question, we can talk about a “special seed” that daddy gives mommy and puts into her tummy. But what we don’t do is graphically describe the sexual act that delivers that seed. Not only is a child before puberty unable to understand such a concept, but we intuitively understand that too much information – no matter how true – can actually hurt the child.
The misogyny and patriarchy that is so embedded in human society would have made the Torah’s message irrelevant, had it tried for a larger social revolution than the one it was attempting by weaning the population off polytheism and into an ethical-monotheistic point of view.
Still, these truths do bleed into the biblical worldview. For example, inherent in the word isha, Hebrew for woman and wife, is the idea that the ideal woman was someone’s wife. The parallel, ish for man, denotes no such thing. The Hebrew word for husband is ba’al, literally “owner.” The discomfort with the word ba’al for husband can already be found in Hosea 2:16, in which the prophet, presumably talking about messianic times, prophecies, “In that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘my husband, ishi’; you will no longer call me ‘my master, ba’ali.’” In other words, the unequal relationship between the Israelite husband and wife was felt even in ancient times, when we presume women didn’t yet have a feminist consciousness to pick up on the inherent problems of the word.
If we believe that Judaism is as fresh and relevant to us today as it was when it was first revealed at Sinai, the discussion of women and Judaism is a worthy one. As women continue to take on their roles as doctors, lawyers, CEOs and heads of state, there cannot be a dissonance between the roles women play as human beings and as Jews.
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high school yeshivot and midrashot.