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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Recently, the topic of woman’s role in Judaism has come to the fore once again. The questioning and fingerprinting of Anat Hoffman of the Women of the Wall movement in January by the police has sparked protests from the liberal wing of Judaism. Some have gone so far as to assert that this action proves the second-class status of women in Orthodoxy.
On the other extreme, we have the separate seating arrangements on bus routes serving the haredi community, the separate sidewalk arrangements in Mea She’arim and the protests raised by certain right-wing fanatics over men and women mingling at festive occasions. As with most such overheated topics, I believe the truth lies somewhere in between.
If one accepts the Torah as the primary source for topics related to Judaism, a careful reading will (a) present a clear picture of what woman’s true role is perceived to be and (b) dispel any notion of her being either of second-class status or a pariah to be shunted to the side or rear. We can begin at the beginning – Eve, on bearing her first child, declares: “For man has now acquired godlike powers” (Genesis 4:1). Until that point in time, only God had produced human life; now woman has done likewise.
The matriarch Sarah perceives quite correctly that her son Isaac will be corrupted by the evil practices of her stepson Ishmael. She tells Abraham that Ishmael should be sent away; this distresses Abraham, who is told by the Lord, “Be not distressed over the youth or your slave woman; whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice, since through Isaac will offspring be considered yours” (21:12). Sarah is the epitome of woman’s role in Judaism. Her centrality to “Jewish continuity” is without question.
So too with the next matriarch, Rebecca. Once again, the patriarch (Isaac) is attracted to the wrong son (Esau); Rebecca knows quite well that the Jewish future lies with her other son, Jacob. And so, when Isaac is about to give his blessing to Esau, she perpetuates the well-known ruse by which the blessing is bestowed upon Jacob. The primacy of women, once again, in perpetuating the faith.
Onward through Rachel and Leah, in the rivalry to bear Jacob the most children/tribes. Through the women of Israel so eager to donate their fineries and jewelry to bring honor to God in the building of the Tabernacle. Through their true love of the Land of Israel by – (a) refusing to take part in the revolt of the ten spies, and (b) the daughters of Zelophehad’s impassioned plea to Moses to grant them a landholding (Numbers 26:64).
I think it is fair to say that the biblical narrative supports neither those on the left nor those on the right on the question of woman’s role in Judaism. The Jewish woman is on a par with the Jewish man in every aspect and facet of our faith and peoplehood. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Jewish marriage is a partnership of equals, period.
IT IS in no way demeaning, therefore, to state that the Jewish woman’s role is to maintain a Jewish home and be a “good Jewish mother.” She need not be a career woman to be deemed successful. Let us return to the matriarch Sarah. Listen to Rashi’s description of the sensations Isaac experienced as he brought his new wife Rebecca into his departed mother’s tent – “For all the time that Sarah lived, her tent was filled with light from Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve, there was a blessing on all the dough she prepared, and an overhanging cloud was tied to her tent. And when she died, all these ceased; when Rebecca entered the tent, they returned” (Genesis 24:67). I dare say that must be the finest description one can find of the Jewish mother and homemaker.
Let us put some other misconceptions to rest. For those modernists who are discomfited by the laws pertaining to menstruation and mikve, who believe these rules paint the Jewish woman in an extremely negative light, nothing could be further from the truth. It has nothing at all to do with being “unclean” or “dirty.” Just as the high priest had to immerse himself in the mikve no less than five times during the Yom Kippur service at the time of the Tabernacle and the Holy Temple, so too the Jewish woman after menstruation or childbirth. Mikve is a means of regaining a higher spiritual plain. Post-menstruation or post-childbirth, when the woman is physically incapable of attaining the godlike status of bearing children (see Eve), she goes to the mikve. Nothing at all demeaning.
And what of women donning a tallit and/or reading from the Torah in proximity to the Kotel? I answer as an Orthodox Jew – there is absolutely nothing at all wrong with this. Because of the overwhelming responsibilities a Jewish woman bears as a mother and homemaker (see the matriarchs), rabbinic law absolves women of having to fulfill any mitzvot which are time-sensitive. However, if a Jewish woman feels a sincere need (I repeat, sincere) to fulfill such commandments, she has every right to do so.
May a woman don a tallit? Yes. May a woman put on tefillin? Yes. May a woman read from the Torah scroll? Yes. So, is there anything halachicly wrong with the Women of the Wall holding a women-only prayer service at the Kotel? Absolutely not. No more so than the women’s minyan formed by Miriam, Aaron’s sister, in last week’s Torah portion (Exodus 15:20-22) after the splitting of the sea. If the ultra-rightists at the Kotel do not understand this, the answer is not to arrest Hoffman; the answer is for rabbinic leaders to explain these halachic principles to the masses.
Lastly, the “demeaning” blessing at the onset of the morning service –
“Thank You, God, for not having made me a woman.” In light of
everything I have set out above, I have always interpreted this
blessing to mean–“Thank You, God, for not having tasked me with the
overwhelming responsibilities incumbent upon a Jewish mother and Jewish
In closing, I would remind all of that most beautiful paean to Jewish women, A Woman of Valor
which families around the globe sing to their wives and mothers as they
stand around the Shabbat eve dinner table. No such song exists for the
supposedly superior Jewish male.The writer is a professional portfolio manager for both high net-worth individuals and institutions. He resides in Kochav Yair.