Tradition Today: The blessing of daughters

The major discrimination against women in Israel has to do with divorce.

A woman wears tefillin while praying at the Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A woman wears tefillin while praying at the Western Wall
I recently had the pleasure of attending a welcoming ceremony for our newest great-grandchild, a girl. And not only a girl, but the first girl in two generations of that family, following five sons born to my daughter and then two sons born to her son.
This was, therefore, a very special event.
In some remarks, I cited the well-known controversy in classical rabbinic literature concerning the meaning of Genesis 24:1, “… and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things,” bakol. According to the Tosefta Kiddushin 5:18-20, “Rabbi Meir says: ‘[He was blessed in] that he did not have a daughter.’ Rabbi Shimon in the name of Rabbi Judah says: ‘[He was blessed in] that he did have a daughter.’ Others say: ‘Abraham had a daughter, and her name was Bakol.’” Here you have diametrically opposed views of the importance of women and the place of daughters in Jewish life. According to Rabbi Meir, one of the most important of the early rabbis, a pupil of Rabbi Akiva, it is a blessing to have only male children; while Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Judah – as well as “others” – see the birth of a daughter as a blessing. Which is it to be? There are other disputes concerning girls in our tradition.
For example, there is disagreement as to whether girls should be taught Torah or not, continuing to this day in ultra-Orthodox circles, where girls are kept from Torah studies; and in some places where they can learn Bible, but not Talmud.
I have no idea why Rabbi Meir felt the way he did. Was it because girls were more of a burden financially, or was it a general feeling that boys are a blessing because they are dominant in family life, could become great scholars and were obligated in more mitzvot? Certainly, in his time, women could not enter the ranks of religious leadership.
Whereas the Bible presents women in such roles – there are women prophets, beginning with Miriam and continuing up to Huldah at the time of Jeremiah; as well as women like Deborah who served as judges – in effect the rulers of the tribes of Israel, that was not so in later rabbinic times.
Today in Israel, women play a major role in politics and government. They are important in political parties, including religious-Zionist parties. Only in the ultra-Orthodox parties and Shas are they denied representation. Indeed, it is a stain on Israeli democracy that parties which discriminate against women and keep them out of everything except voting are allowed representation.
In official religious life, dominated by the Chief Rabbinate, obviously women play no role as judges or rabbis, but there are women who can appear as pleaders in rabbinic courts. More importantly, outside the rabbinate, there are more and more Orthodox congregations in which women play an important role. In some they have their own minyanim, and in others they participate in the services themselves in various ways. Some synagogues have a separation between men and women, but on an equal basis, rather than always sending the women upstairs.
Of course, here and throughout the world in Conservative/Masorti and Reform movements, women serve as rabbis and congregations are egalitarian in nature.
The place of women as rabbis in my own movement has made a major contribution in all areas of rabbinic leadership and scholarship; excluding them would be unthinkable today.
The major discrimination against women in Israel has to do with divorce.
Because Jewish law has put the power of divorce in the hands of husbands, the problem of agunot – women who want a divorce, but whose husbands will not grant it and chain them to their marriages – has become acute. The scandal of women suffering this status for years is a blot on Israeli life. The recent film Gett illustrates this very well.
Israel’s sages in post-biblical times were most sensitive to this problem, and did everything they could to protect the rights of the woman given the law as defined by the Torah. Boldly they instituted the ketuba, a marriage contract, the sole purpose of which was to protect the woman by making divorce more difficult for the husband, and guaranteeing the woman monetary compensation should a divorce take place. They also required the consent of the woman to the divorce. In this way, although rabbinic Judaism did not alter the basic status of the men and women regarding marriage, functionally it protected the woman’s interests.
Halachic authorities abroad, especially in America, have wrestled with this problem and many different ideas have been proposed over the years.
The one implemented by the Conservative Movement in the 1950s was the addition of a clause to the ketuba known as the Lieberman clause – a tribute to Prof. Saul Lieberman, the great talmudic authority who devised it. In it, the couple agrees to grant the Jewish court the authority to impose terms of compensation, should the husband or wife fail to carry out its decisions concerning divorce. Similar prenuptial agreements have been devised. In more recent years, American Orthodox rabbis have adopted such measures.
Within the Conservative Movement, a more radical approach has sometimes been taken – in which, when all else fails, the court annuls the marriage on the principle that “all marriage is done with the authority of the court.”
Halachic solutions such as these have been proposed to Israel’s rabbinate but tragically, the official courts are reluctant to put any of them into practice.
The sages of old were sensitive and bold enough to recognize the need to protect women when the need arose, and when new social situations required it. Surely the sages of today should be able to do the same thing.
Refusing to recognize the problem and deal with it within the bounds of Jewish law brings not only suffering to the women involved, but shame to all of Judaism – in other words, hillul Hashem.
A daughter is indeed a blessing to any Jewish family, and we owe it to our daughters to see to it they can live a full Jewish life, participate fully in Judaism and not have to suffer the indignities and difficulties that are currently the case in our rabbinic courts.
Welcome to my great-granddaughter – she is indeed a blessing! ■
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).