Just a Thought: On women and Judaism

"The reality is that the question of what role women are to play in Judaism in the 21st century is paramount in importance."

jewish women 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
jewish women 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The difficulty of writing an article on the subject of women and Judaism is inherent in the title. Why would anyone ever conceive of writing such an article, as if women are in anyway distinct from Judaism? No one would ever write an article about men and Judaism, as men are obviously part of the package known as Judaism. Women, it would seem, are not. We find this distinction in the Torah itself. The Tenth Commandment is clearly addressing men alone with “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” In covenant ceremonies Israelite men are addressed by God while the women are included under the rubric of “You, your women.” The women are not “you,” they are “yours”; a big difference! (Shaye J.D. Cohen)
The reality is that the question of what role women are to play in Judaism in the 21st century is paramount in importance. Other questions, like those raised by theodicy, biblical criticism, revelation, and human evolution are dwarfed by the question of the participation and roles women are to play in the 21st century. As Judaism is a religion of deed not creed, we are defined not by our beliefs, but by our actions. What actions women are to take in Judaism in both the public and private spheres will do more to define us than those theological questions.
In contrast to the quoted verses of the Torah, rabbinic tradition is more mindful of women. The halachic source for the different set of obligations for men and women can be found in the Mishna in Kiddushin which informs us that women are exempt from “positive time-bound mitzvot.” This statement, meant to be inclusive of women, has often been used to create an artificial mehitza, barrier, between women and their Creator. The operative word here is “exempt.” The rabbis sought to exempt women from these commandments, not forbid them from their performance. Rabbinic Judaism never sought to cast the mitzvot as special totems only held by men. How then, did this exemption become a classification? The Talmud (Kiddushin 33a) asks for examples of such mitzvot and answers: succa, lulav, shofar, tzitzit and tefillin. I want to pause and look at the list given to us by the Gemara itself.
There are five mitzvot listed. In spite of the exemption, the mitzvot of succa and shofar been universally adopted by women throughout the generations, while the other three have not. There are even special shofar blowings for women who missed the earlier communal one performed in the synagogue. The question is why were these two mitzvot adopted while the others fell into the domain of men alone? The answer, I believe, like most things in life, is economic. Those two mitzvot cost nothing.
The other three, tzitzit, tefillin and lulav, represented a price much too high for the common Jew. In a time of subsistence living (most of Jewish history) the main concern of most people was having enough food to eat and a decent place to sleep, The other three mitzvot were luxuries well beyond the reach of the common Jew. Only at the end of 20th century has a lulav started to be seen in the hands of women, and that is only because of the drop in prices after the Second World War.
Before the Holocaust, the masses of Jewish men never owned their own set of lulav and etrog; the rabbi of the community owned his, bought for him by the community, and everyone lined up to shake it. This of course, runs counter to the halacha requiring everyone to actually own his individual set. But this halacha was set aside in light of the economic difficulties of such a requirement. (Imagine the difficulties of procuring a citron and palm branch in Russia in the 18th century.) But if that’s the case, why did women adopt lulav and not the other two? This happened because lulav, unlike tzitzit and tefillin, is held, not worn. After so many years of tzitzit and tefillin being in the province of men alone, it became recognized as a man’s garment (which really is prohibited to be worn by women).
That would mean that, like all garments of either gender, it is only a cultural distinction that tells us that one is for men and the other for women. Tefillin and tzitzit could have easily developed to be unisexual as well as a necktie or a ribbon in the hair. There is nothing ontologically male or female about either item.
This is not meant to be a halachic responsum on the matter. Anyone who has dipped his or her toe into the sea of Talmud knows that the issues are far more complex than I described. But I believe the point of distinction having an economic cause remains firm. The most famous women in Jewish history who are said to have donned tefillin are Rashi’s daughters. Whether or not it is true, the fact that the story was repeated throughout the generations tells us more about the mind-set of the Jews telling the tale than it does Rashi’s daughters. It tells us that it was at least plausible to those Jews that Rashi’s daughters, who were no doubt saintly and wealthy, put on tefillin because they were pious enough, rich enough, and as Rashi’s daughters (and Tosafot’s mothers), knowledgeable to do so.
The truth is, I am not an advocate of women wearing tefillin and tallit. This was just a thought… The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.