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The Role of Women in the Synagogue

See also Marriage

The Role of Women

Level:  Intermediate

The role of women in traditional Judaism has been grossly misrepresented and misunderstood.  The position of women is not nearly as lowly as many modern people think; in fact, the position of women in halakhah (Jewish Law) that dates back to the biblical period is in many ways better than the position of women under US civil law as recently as a century ago.  Many of the important feminist leaders of the 20th century (Gloria Steinem, for example) are Jewish women, and some commentators have suggested that this is no coincidence:  the respect accorded to women in Jewish tradition was a part of their ethnic culture.

In traditional Judaism, women's obligations and responsibilities are different from men's, but no less important (in fact, in some ways, women's responsibilities are considered more important, as we shall see).

The equality of men and women begins at the highest possible level:  God.  In Judaism, unlike Christianity, God has never been viewed as exclusively male or masculine.  Judaism has always maintained that God has both masculine and feminine qualities.  God has, of course, no body; therefore, the very idea that God is male or female is patently absurd.  We refer to God using masculine terms simply for convenience's sake, because Hebrew has no neutral gender; God is no more male than a table or chair (both "masculine" nouns in Hebrew).

Both man and woman were created in the image of God.  According to many Jewish scholars, "man" was created "male and female" (Genesis 1,27) with dual gender, and was later separated into male and female.

According to traditional Judaism, women are endowed with a greater degree of "binah" (intuition, understanding, intelligence) than men.  The rabbis inferred this from the idea that woman was "built" (Genesis 2,22) rather than "formed" (Genesis 2,7), and the Hebrew root of "build" has the same consonants as the word "binah".  It has been said that the matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah) were superior to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) in prophecy.  It has also been said that women did not participate in the idolatry regarding the golden calf.  Some traditional sources suggest that women are closer to God's ideal than men.

Women have held positions of respect in Judaism since biblical times.  Miriam is considered one of the liberators of the people of Israel, along with her brothers Moses and Aaron.  One of the Judges (Deborah) was a woman.  Seven of the 55 prophets of the Bible were women.

The Ten Commandments require respect for both mother and father.  Note that the father comes first in Exodus 20,11, but the mother comes first in Leviticus 19,3.

There were many learned women of note.  The Talmud and later rabbinical writings speak of the wisdom of Berurya, the wife of Rabbi Meir.  In several instances, her opinions on halakhah (Jewish Law) were accepted over those of her male contemporaries.  In the ketubah (marriage contract) of Rabbi Akiba's son, the wife is obligated to teach the husband Torah!  Many rabbis over the centuries have been known to consult their wives on matters of Jewish law relating to the woman's role, such as laws of kashrut and women's periods.  The wife of a rabbi is referred to as a rebbetzin, practically a title of her own, which should give some idea of her significance in Jewish life.

There can be no doubt, however, that the Talmud also has many negative things to say about women.  Various rabbis at various times describe women as lazy, jealous, vain and gluttonous, prone to gossip and particularly prone to the occult and witchcraft.  Men are repeatedly advised against associating with women, although that is as much because of man's lust as it is because of any shortcoming in women.  Women are discouraged from pursuing higher education or religious pursuits, but this seems to be primarily because women who engage in such pursuits might neglect their primary duties as wives and mothers.  The rabbis are not concerned that women are not spiritual enough, but rather are concerned that women might become too spiritually devoted.

The rights of women in traditional Judaism are much greater than they were in the rest of Western civilization until this century.  Women had the right to buy, sell, and own property, and make their own contracts, rights which women in Christian countries (including the USA) did not have until about 100 years ago.  In fact, Proverbs 31,10-31, which is read at Jewish weddings, speaks repeatedly of business acumen as a trait to be prized in women (v.  11, 13, 16, and 18 especially).

Women have the right to be consulted with regard to their marriage.  Marital sex is regarded as the woman's right, and not the man's.  Men do not have the right to beat or mistreat their wives, a right that was recognized by law in many Christian countries until a few hundred years ago.  In cases of rape, a woman is generally presumed not to have consented to the intercourse, even if she enjoyed it, even if she consented after the sexual act began and declined a rescue!  This is in sharp contrast to Western society, where even today rape victims often have to overcome public suspicion that they "asked for it" or "wanted it".  Traditional Judaism recognizes that forced sexual relations within the context of marriage are rape and are not permitted; in many states in the West, rape within marriage is still not a criminal act.

There is no question that in traditional Judaism, the primary role of a woman is as wife and mother, keeper of the household.  However, Judaism has great respect for the importance of that role.  The Talmud says that when a pious man marries a wicked woman, the man becomes wicked, but when a wicked man marries a pious woman, the man becomes pious.  Women are exempted from all positive commandments ("thou shalts" as opposed to "thou shalt nots") that are time-related (that is, commandments that must be performed at a specific time of the day or year), because the woman's duties as wife and mother are so important that they cannot be postponed to fulfill a commandment.  After all, a woman cannot be expected to just drop a crying baby when the time comes to perform a commandment.

It is this exemption from certain commandments that has led to the greatest misunderstanding of the role of women in Judaism.  First, many people make the mistake of thinking that this exemption is a prohibition.  On the contrary, although women are not obligated to perform time-based positive commandments, they are generally permitted to observe such commandments if they choose.  Second, because this exemption diminishes the role of women in the synagogue, many people perceive that women have no role in Jewish religious life.  This misconception derives from the mistaken assumption that Jewish religious life revolves around the synagogue.  It does not; it revolves around the home, where the woman's role is every bit as important as the man's.

The Role of Women in the Synagogue

To understand the limited role of women in synagogue life, it is important to understand the nature of commandments in Judaism and the separation of men and women.

Judaism recognizes that it is mankind's nature to rebel against authority; thus, one who does something because he is commanded to is regarded with greater merit than one who does something because he chooses to.  The person who refrains from pork because it is a commandment has more merit than the person who refrains from pork because he does not like the taste.  In addition, the commandments, burdens, and obligations that were given to the Jewish people are regarded as a privilege, and the more commandments one is obliged to observe, the more privileged one is.

Because women are not obligated to perform certain commandments, their observance of those commandments does not "count" for group purposes.  While a woman must pray the silent standing prayer just as a man does, she need not pray the full prayer service of the synagoue that a man prays.  Thus, a woman's voluntary attendance at daily worship services does not count toward a minyan (the 10 people necessary to recite certain prayers), a woman's voluntary recitation of certain prayers does not count on behalf of the group (thus women cannot lead services), and a woman's voluntary reading from the Torah does not count towards the community's obligation to read from the Torah.

In addition, because women are not obligated to perform as many commandments as men are, women are regarded as less privileged.  It is in this light that one must understand the man's blessing thanking God for "not making me a woman".  The prayer does not indicate that it is bad to be a woman, but only that men feel fortunate to be privileged to have more obligations.

 Another thing that must be understood is the separation of men and women during prayer.  According to Jewish Law, men and women must be separated during prayer, usually by a wall or curtain called a mechitzah or by placing women in a second floor balcony.  There are two reasons for this:  first, your mind is supposed to be on prayer, not on the pretty girl praying near you.  Second, many pagan religious ceremonies at the time the Torah was given on Sinai involved sexual activity and orgies, and the separation prevents or at least discourages even thinking about such things.  A separation like that in today's synagogue was also made long ago in the Temple.

The combination of the exemption from certain commandments and this separation results in some women feeling that they have an inferior place in the synagogue.  Because of these problems, many Orthodox women rarely attend services.

But as said before, this restriction on participation in synagogue life does not mean that women are excluded from Jewish religious life, because the Jewish religion is not something that happens in synagogue.  Judaism is something that permeates every aspect of your life, everything that you do, from the time you wake up in the morning to the time you go to bed, from what you eat and how you dress to how you conduct business.  Prayer services are only a small, though important, part of the Jewish religion.

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