Where does gender matter?

Inevitably, many people, particularly young people, admit that in their “regular” lives, it hardly matters at all.

YOUNG WOMEN study at Jerusalem’s Midreshet Lindenbaum (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
YOUNG WOMEN study at Jerusalem’s Midreshet Lindenbaum
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In the beginning of tractate Brachot, the question is asked about women’s obligation in mitzvot. In the next few columns, I plan to address both traditional source analysis and contemporary discourse of this topic.
However, before approaching the topic, it should be first asked: Where does gender matter in our lives today?
People often veer immediately to the biological differences between men and women. Biology of course matters, particularly in determining certain fundamental differences between men and women. In addition, there are many studies that have been conducted suggesting that men and women feel and think differently, experience events and relationships differently and learn differently. In short, men and women are not the same.
However, in the 21st century, how does gender affect the decisions men and women make?
Inevitably, many people, particularly young people, admit that in their “regular” lives, it hardly matters at all. Their teachers and professors are men and women. Their fellow students or colleagues are male and female. Many have male and female employers or supervisors or alternatively, employees of all genders.
Men and women have equal educational and professional opportunities, and while women are still famously underpaid in some professions as compared to men, and greatly underrepresented in some key areas such as government and CEO appointments, they are able to choose to study and work in fields that are meaningful, interesting and financially lucrative.
It is true that some women and a few men will choose professions that will give them greater flexibility when raising a family, but many do not. This means that in marriage, men and women will create partnerships and divisions of labor with regard to the household and child-rearing responsibilities not automatically based on gender. When both parents are doctors, lawyers, research fellows or computer scientists, scheduling will be based on who has the greatest flexibility and on external childcare arrangements.
IN CONTRAST, gender matters very much in traditional Judaism. The traditional structure is made up of a binary in which men and women are different and far from equal. Men have more obligations and thus more rights.
They alone make up the quorum of 10 men that allows a prayer service to take place. They alone lead services, read Torah and generally oversee the functioning of the synagogue. They are obligated in daily, weekly, monthly and yearly mitzvot that take them out of the home to perform often onerous religious duties, but these also confer privilege.
For instance, they alone may serve as witnesses (with a few exceptions about personal status) and judges, witnessing marriages and hearing petitions in the cases of divorce and conversion. Until recently, only men were asked halachic questions because only they studied Talmud and related halachic material. This has given them exclusive decision-making power in Halacha and in the running of the Rabbinical Courts, which has tremendous ramifications in the lives of women.
Finally, in Jewish marriage, a man exclusively acquires the sexual rights of the woman. There is no way to soften that legal reality. If there is to be a legitimate Jewish divorce, the husband must willingly free his wife, saying, “you are now permitted to any man.”
This has become perhaps the most dissonant part of the gendered structure, for it leaves women completely at the mercy of men in acrimonious cases, stranded for years in limbo, forced to cede money or property in order to be freed of a toxic marriage. It creates a moral Achilles’ heel for a religion that holds itself to a higher standard than the nations around them.
It is not to say, however, that women are not important or valued. The Jewish nation could not survive without the wombs of Jewish women. Matrilineal Judaism turned a woman’s womb into a covenantal necessity. It created a protective envelope for the daughters of Israel, actively discouraging Israelite men from marrying outside of the fold.
NONETHELESS, RABBINIC sources about women are complicated. They can be divided into three main categories.
The first are sources about women as Other. These texts are difficult to read and often offensive. Women are portrayed as temptresses and pollutants. They are light-headed and liable to misconstrue information. Even God, according to one midrash, is unable to have control over her character, although He tried to create woman as docile and submissive. In one particularly difficult text, the Talmud writes: “A woman is a pot of filth and her mouth is full of blood and all run after her.” These sources show a distinct suspicion toward and bias against women.
In contrast, sources on the Jewish wife and mother are overwhelmingly positive and acknowledge the tremendous influence and impact women have on their husbands and sons. Without women’s commitment to God’s covenant, the men, who are obligated to transmit the Torah, would not have the temerity or discipline to fulfil their duties. Women as wives are thus central partners in the perpetuation of the covenant. In short, Jewish theology saw woman and her role as exalted but also essentially inferior in body and mind. In other words, she is at once the symbol of both virtue and sin.
Finally, in the third category, which are texts presenting halachic categorization and obligation of women in distinction to men, the imbalance between the sexes is made clear. Women are significant partners, but they are not equal. Because men have more mitzvot, their lives are worth more. Thus, if a choice must be made to save a man or a woman, the man is given priority.
Despite the imbalance, the halachic structure takes pains to protect the most vulnerable women in society. If a man or a woman needs to be supported financially, a community with limited resources should protect the woman to shield her from a life of prostitution. Married women have rights to food, clothing and sexual relations, and can petition the court if their husbands are not fulfilling marital obligations.
Women are actively commanded in many mitzvot that require them to be present at the Sabbath table, Passover Seder and megillah reading. They are expected to know many varied Jewish laws, in order to keep a kosher home, observe Shabbat and engage in sexual intimacy (mikva).
While there are many exemptions and some exclusions, women are very much present throughout Jewish history.
Nonetheless, in the past 40 years, questions around women’s status in traditional Jewish Halacha and community have become among the most pressing, theologically, sociologically and halachicly. The issue unleashes feelings of angst and at times vitriol, along with bigger questions about modernity, morality, evolution of Halacha and rabbinic authority.
One of the major distinctions between men and women in the traditional structure is women’s exemption from positive time-bound mitzvot. In the Orthodox world, it is often presented definitively as the seminal proof that men and women are intended by God to fulfill different roles. I would go so far as to suggest that the foundation of gender separation rests largely on this distinction.
In the next column, I will begin an analysis of where this exemption comes from and what its impact has been.
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies along with courses on sexuality and sanctity in the Jewish tradition.