Wednesday, November 25th, 2020

Our Writers Respond: The Component Issues of a Traditional Jewish Womanhood by Gidon Rothstein

You know that moment in a conversation where you begin to suspect that the two of you see the world so differently, it might not even be possible to have an intelligible exchange? I do, very well; I once, years ago, deeply offended a congregant and friend when, in the middle of a discussion of some faith issue, said, “Well, you can say that if you want, but then we can’t talk.”

Months later, I found out he thought I meant I would refuse to speak with him if he said that, when I only meant that there would be little for us to say, since I was operating from premises so radically differently from his that we could not bridge that gap.

Worryingly, I have recently had a similar feeling about comments I’ve made regarding how we conceive of opportunities for Orthodox Jewish women. In a post in this space, I argued that any assertions about the future of women in Orthodox Judaism should be based on a picture of womanhood constructed internally, built up from the guidance given us by God in the Torah and as elaborated by halachah

I was somewhat surprised to see how confidently and vigorously people opposed that idea in theory, saying that it could not be done, that any resulting suggestions would be “arbitrary and impressionistic,” and that we were better off adhering to each halachah we encounter, but not suggesting that those halachot build anything as guiding as a sense of what ideal Jewish womanhood (or manhood) would look like.

Part of my surprise stems from my sense that my premise is largely unchallenged in the Orthodox world, so that finding Orthodox people who are ready to reject it out of hand is both surprising and distressing.  Since at least the time of Rambam, virtually all rabbinic and halachic thinkers have accepted the premise that there are reasons for mitsvot, that mitsvot carry a meaning and message beyond the rote act itself. While someone who eats matsah on Pesach simply because the Torah said so has technically observed the mitzvah, the failure to consider the message that mitzvah is sending ineluctably means that the observance is significantly lacking.  As Rambam put it, the person who does so is turning mitsvot into exactly what the Prophet Yeshayahu bemoaned, a מצוות אנשים מלומדה, a rote, meaningless practice, not the vehicle to Godliness and God-relatedness God intended when giving them to us.

That means that halachot that show men how they must act, ideally ought to act, are discouraged from acting, and prohibited from acting, shape not only those specific actions but give guidance on areas not as explicitly codified by halachah.  The same would seem obviously true for Jewish women, except that many now bristle at the idea of an external force, even God, telling us what type of people we should be.

To form a systemically faithful view of where Jewish women go from here, I therefore repeat, would  have to involve building such a picture from within the sources of tradition, seeing where tradition makes unequivocal statements about what the role of women has to include, and seeing where we go from there.  By recalling the areas of halachah where God differentiated men from women, and without offering a personal view as to how to weave those together (since that will seem arbitrary and impressionistic), I hope to remind us that there the Torah provides a latent view (or, range of views) of womanhood that is not based on sociology or outmoded notions of what women are. The areas I note here are those that are universally and timelessly a part of Jewish law and practice, and in that very fact are meant to shape our view of the different roles the members of the two genders occupy in an ideal Jewish society.

A First Difference: Time-Related Obligations

Perhaps the most commonly referenced differentiation between men and women is women’s exemption from מצוות עשה שהזמן גרמא, obligations that have a time element to them.  There have been many explanations for this exemption (I have offered some thoughts on this issue as well, most recently at, in post 17), but there are pieces to the puzzle I wish to highlight.

First, at least for these mitsvot, the Torah does not exclude women, it exempts them from obligation.  Women are welcome to wave a lulav, hear a shofar being blown, or perform almost any of the other of these commandments, and will clearly become closer to God by so doing; they just cannot manufacture an obligation to do so.  That lack of obligation has halachic ramifications, since it means at least that they cannot perform these acts in a way that will help someone obligated fulfill that obligation.

This distinction between obligated or not can be exaggerated or minimized, and advocates of improving women’s spiritual opportunities within Orthodoxy have done both.  The exaggeration would be to find oneself deeply offended by this distinction since, after all, women can perform these mitsvot.

The too-minimal approach would be to fail to realize that the Torah is sending a message here about how it views men and women.  What that message is would require an in-depth discussion of those mitsvot to try to understand why the Torah articulated this distinction.  One promising area of inquiry is the source the Gemara adduces for how it knows of that exemption.

The Source: Women’s Exemption From Talmud Torah

Although it is rarely remarked in discussions of why women are exempt from these mitsvot, bKiddushin 34a-b sources it in a comparison between tefillin, taken as a paradigmatic example of such mitsvot, and the obligation to study Torah.  The discussion gets somewhat convoluted, but the Gemara seems to see that as the general position of how we know that women are exempt from these kinds of mitsvot.  If so, any proper explanation of the exemption would have to base itself not only on perceived characteristics of those mitsvot, but also on how that connects to women’s being relieved of the obligation to study Torah.

That exemption, too, is often explained in distressingly sociological ways (e.g., in the Torah’s time, women were uneducated, so it would have been unfair, etc.).  I call those distressing because they seem to lose sight of the fact that we have a God-given Torah, articulating values and obligations that apply throughout history; had God wanted women to study Torah, I cannot imagine He (pardon the pronoun) would have refrained out of fear of the sociological difficulties, especially since God did obligate women in plenty of mitsvot that were also beyond the ordinary expectations of the time.

Without offering my own view, I would note that some of this is based on the partially erroneous assumption that the mitzvah of Talmud Torah refers just to the act of studying Torah. As I have noted elsewhere (Journal of Halachah and Contemporary Society, Spring, 2004), the mitzvah is actually an obligation to know, not just study, the entirety of at least the Five Books of the Torah, and possibly Scripture in general.

A proper explanation of the distinction between men and women in these areas of mitsvot, then, has to give some systemically plausible reason for why God would decide to exempt women from attaining this kind of knowledge (they are, after all, required to know how to be proper servants of God, however they gain access to that knowledge), and why that exemption should expand to include time-related obligations.

The Public Community


A second prominent distinction between men and women is that only the former are required to take part in the public community of the Jewish people. While this is more commonly known from women’s not being counted in a minyan, or being able to serve as שליח ציבור, the leader of certain congregational prayers, it comes up in simpler halachot as well, such as women’s exemption from giving the מחצית השקל, the half-shekel poll-tax used to finance the yearly public sacrifices. Women are allowed to give that tax, but not obligated to, a distinction that, as we saw above, has its own halachic ramifications.

Once again, the question is not only these halachot’s exact parameters, and what ways we might find to circumvent them, but what messages they send. I stress again that it is insufficient to say that in the Torah’s time women were not part of the public community, for at least three reasons. First, God can and did demand whatever was deemed important enough of women; second, God can make different obligations apply in different circumstances, and, finally, the Torah did require women to participate in wars when necessary.  The decision to exempt women from this role in the public community, then, is a set of choices God made, whose import we need to understand before we can properly apply them contemporarily.

Entry and Exit From Marriage

Another aspect of Jewish womanhood, and one that currently rankles because of the abuse of the system, is that women are required by the Torah to make a commitment to only one man, whereas, by Torah law, a man could marry several women.  I again fear that a sociological/historical reason springs to people’s lips, and would remind them that God made these laws for all times. This has numerous halachic ramifications, such as the fact that adultery in halachah involves a married woman; the man’s marital state is irrelevant.

A flip side of this issue is that the Torah does not allow women to initiate divorce. This, too, is often assumed to be a sign of the Torah’s distrust of women’s capabilities, a position belied by a simple comment Rambam makes in Hilchot Melachim 9;8. When defining adultery for non-Jews (also a capital crime), Rambam notes that non-Jewish divorce (by Torah law) can be initiated unilaterally by either the man or the woman. Unless we believe God and the Torah trusted Jewish women less than non-Jewish women, some other explanation is required to understand the message the Torah is sending.

Tzniut: A Lost and Misunderstood Value


Once we raise issues of public participation and marriage, the question of modesty necessarily arises.  Today, we often connect modesty to a form of dress, particularly women’s.  bMakkot 24a reminds us that that is a mistake, noting that despite these events generally occurring with great fanfare, the Prophet Michah tells us that God wants us to conduct ourselves with modesty.  The kal va-chomer, that all the more so should we conduct ourselves modestly in venues where it is generally assumed, is explicit in the Gemara.

That means that any properly traditional Jewish society must also articulate a sense of how that modesty expresses itself.  One such area, but by no means the only one, is sexuality and Judaism’s unceasing (and, in our world at least, seemingly quixotic) effort to restrict it to the only venue where it is relevant, the relationship between husband and wife.  One way was to largely segregate them, such as in the traditions that Avraham converted men to monotheism while Sarah did the same for women; or the Torah’s testimony that Miriam led women in a separate Song after the Splitting of the Sea. 

That is not the only way, but as I noted in my recent post about Purim, all versions of Jewish society, wherever they fall out on the mixed/segregated continuum, still have to account for safeguarding the Orthodox interest in a proper and appropriate sexuality.  This certainly can be done for many different versions of society, but it must be done in order to qualify as a plausible one.

Monarchy, Priesthood, and Marriage

Two more issues that I think would be necessary to address in articulating a vision of Jewish womanhood that could be both flexible in application and faithful to God’s wishes are the question of women’s exclusion from monarchy and the Temple aspects of the priesthood.  It is well-known, and perhaps overemphasized, that Rambam saw the Torah’s excluding women from monarchy much more broadly, as ruling out all positions of serarah, of coercive power.  Even if we do not adopt Rambam’s position, it is still true that the Torah excluded women from monarchy itself. 

Lest we dismiss that as irrelevant in our non-kingly times, or restricted to that one unique role in Jewish society, the Torah also excluded women from the Temple-related aspects of the priesthood.  I phrase it that way because many people assume that the Torah excluded women from all aspects of the priesthood.  As Rambam codifies it in הלכות בכורים, Laws of Bikkurim (and Other Gifts to Priests) 1;11, several of the gifts given to priests can be given to females of the clan as well (whom the Rambam terms כוהנות, female priests). Strikingly, at least two of those gifts, according to Rambam, can be given to a woman-priest even if she is married to a non-priest which, for other purposes, takes her out of the clan.

Incidentally, this last fact suggests another area for consideration, the makeup of the marital home and its character. For a long time, it was assumed that men set the tone for the home at least in religious aspects, such as which customs to follow. The process of marriage was seen as a woman leaving her parental home and joining her husband’s home (hence the יחוד ceremony at the wedding, the husband symbolically taking his wife into his home).  With changes in society, this is no longer as clearly true, and important poskim, such as R. Nachum Rabinovitch of Maaleh Adumim, are increasingly comfortable with a wife maintaining some of her own customs.

The question will be in what ways the Torah insisted on unity of custom in the home, and in what ways we are comfortable with recognizing and accepting continuing differences. In terumah terms, the woman who has joined a non-priestly household has left her parental home; for זרוע לחיים and קיבה purposes, she has not.  Defining which are which and why would seem to be an important part of understanding what the Torah saw as necessary and ineluctable aspects of creating a properly unified marital home.

There is probably more to be considered and said on these issues, but this seems a worthy start.  Finding the maximum possible room for spiritual development, for men and women, is a clear desideratum of Judaism or any religion; the question for Orthodox Jews is what counts as proper spiritual development and what as a mistaken adoption of ideas and ideals not consonant with the religion. 

And to understand that, much preliminary work needs to be done, as I hope I have laid out here.  I do not fool myself into thinking that the way I would understand those issues would be the same as those to the left or to the right of me, but success here, for me, would mean that we are at least back to having the same conversation, that we all recognize the questions we need to ask and answer, and move forward from a common base to find the most productive answers for all of Jewish society.

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