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

Posted By Gidon Rothstein On March 9, 2010 @ 10:31 am In Jewish Culture,New Posts,Our Writers Respond | 37 Comments

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 blog.webyeshiva.org, 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.

37 Comments (Open | Close)

37 Comments To "Our Writers Respond: The Component Issues of a Traditional Jewish Womanhood by Gidon Rothstein"

#1 Comment By Michael Makovi On March 11, 2010 @ 9:54 am

” … 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. …”

Isn’t this notion a central component of the Brisker method? I.e., the Brisker method sees halakhah as its own internally-coherent system, to which everything foreign – whether morality, philosophy, reason, whatever – is inadmissible. According to the Brisker method, we have only the four cubits of the halakhah, and we must interpret the halakhah in a vacuum, without any input from anything else, even Tanakh and Aggadah. The Brisker method abhors ta’amei ha-mitzvot.

#2 Comment By Michael Makovi On March 11, 2010 @ 9:55 am

I’m criticizing the Brisker method. I follow Rambam myself.

#3 Comment By Michael Makovi On March 11, 2010 @ 9:57 am

When the Gemara and Rishonim themselves bring ta’amei ha-mitzvot, the Briskers respond that these sources are themselves Torah, and are exempt from the Brisker prohibition of bringing non-halakhic sources and logic into halakhah. Such a claim is clearly tendentious.

#4 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 11, 2010 @ 11:58 am

I didn’t insist on the Brisker or any other method in particular. I noted that any picture of Judaism, to be considered legitimate, would have to account for these halachot de-oraita in a way other than dismissing them, and that until we do that, we cannot claim to have an appropriate view of Jewish womanhood, or any confidence that we can know where or if there is room for appropriate change in how we have handled women’s issues in the past.

#5 Comment By Steve Brizel On March 11, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

R Rothstein deserves much kudos in marshalling the halachic issues in his essay and placing them front and center in this issue, which has suffered from an overabundance of rhetoric without any balance either to Halacha or Mesorah.

#6 Comment By Yishai Schwartz On March 11, 2010 @ 10:47 pm

Rabbi Rothstein,
After reading a few of your recent postings here, I went back and read a chunk of your Mission of Orthodoxy postings. Thank you very much for driving me to start thinking about things from new directions. I hesitate to comment in an ongoing conversation between personalities like yourself and Rabbi Helfgot, but after reading for a while – I have some questions:
1. I’m curious about your argument that people involved in the conversation of halakha must share basic ideas about the underlying principles, like whether there is broad, but essential, Torah view on gender roles. It would seem to me that halakha has developed from people differing in starting points, not just outcomes. There are mystics and rationalists who are concerned about radically different things and think about the basis for halakhot in radically different ways – and yet their opinions have all been incorporated into the corpus of halakha. What makes modern disagreements any less bridgeable? Or, perhaps halakhic debates have always been profoundly messy.
2. Regarding your criticism of treating specific halakhot as obstacles: Don’t we often do this, and admit to it openly, within the context of serving a larger, Torah goal? Every haarama, every technological tool we use to lower the level of a melacha so that we may override it with a compelling rationale is treating individual halkhot like obstacles. We even do it systemically; you mentioned in one of your recent postings that poskim jump through hoops to enable a husband to disbelieve his wife in cases of premarital sex. Isn’t that treating a halakha, and what appears to be an independent halakhic value, as an obstacle? Couldn’t someone’s understanding of the current issue and contemporary situation lead him/her in a similar direction? The halakhic formalism may very well be more of a Burke-like commitment to slow, gradual change than a commitment to these individual halakhot, but if the change is motivated by legitimate Torah concerns – isn’t this precedented?
3. It seems that Rabbi Klapper is already driving at this, but is it perhaps possible that there are formal halakhot without fixed reasons? Simple readings of Tanakh present Niddah and Mikvah as very much about an evil stain and contamination that parallels moral wrongdoing. Yet now we talk about separation allowing individuals their own individuality and facilitating better relationships. Isn’t that a fine move to make? And in constructing new meaning for specifically mandated actions (rather than a perceived ethic that seems to stand behind these specific obligations) aren’t we affirming the possibility of a God who endowed rituals with multiple layers of meaning which can be uncovered over time? Is that a theologically unacceptable approach? If so, why can’t we construct meanings for individual halakhot limiting women in radically new ways and thereby allow for innovation where there are no technical violations?
4.I’m curious whether you think it is fair to separate out elements of halacha which are part of an essential view on gender roles from later developments that may be heavily influenced by society’s contemporary needs. Granted, doing so might get messy. But there is plenty of room for people to say that your “The Public Community” is an artificially compiled category, that exemption from machatzit hashekel and war have absolutely nothing to do with later exclusions of women from public prayer and ritual roles, and that the latter may be firmly based in sociological concerns. The reconstruction of an original Torah-view of gender-roles could very well lead us to view later development as unrelated to this essential view – could we then freely work against and around these later developments?
5. It also seems to me that someone could, in good faith, engage in your very same project and come to precisely opposite conclusions. A person could accept your argument that “a woman might equally—and with equal approval by the religion—choose not to sit in a sukkah, not to shake a lulav, and develop her own sense of how to celebrate what God did for the Jewish people in the desert and throughout the year” – and take it in opposite direction: If women are supposed to be less restricted in how they choose to actualize their constant connection to God, then they should not be excluded from roles in the public prayer and Torah service!
6. Although I cannot speak for them, I hear things from the fully-egalitarian communities (like Yeshivat Hadar) that view halakha similarly to what you are describing. Some of those I have heard argue that the Torah does have an essential view of how people who fall into a specific category should behave, but that these categories might apply differently today. “Women” as a category is different than it once was. I know that this seems distant, but I worry that perhaps views of halakha that attempt to find understandable categories through which to create society inevitably leads down that path.

This was much longer than I initially intended, and I apologize. Many thanks again for encouraging us to think about these issues in a broader context.


Yishai Schwartz

#7 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 12, 2010 @ 4:28 am


Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of my ideas (and for reading my Mission postings). Let me try to respond to at least some of what you raised:

1. I didn’t say people have to share ideas about broad Torah ideas like gender roles, I said that any view of gender roles must operate from a position about how the Torah’s laws guide those roles. I don’t think that getting people to focus on the halachot I raised and what they mean will produce agreement, I only think they will produce a conversation in which we can all be more convinced of our falling within the system. In the Mission posts, I pointed out those parts I thought of as necessitating unanimity; on the rest, I recognize the possibility of debate, I was just pointing out the kind of presentation that falls within the tradition and the kind that raises suspicions that it is rooted elsewhere.

2. I agree that we often do “get around” certain halachot, but we do so when those halachot are problematic for other traditional values. For example, when women first started studying Torah in the original texts, there was some tension with the regnant practice; Chafetz Chayim got around that by noting that it was based in a world that taught women mimetically, a tradition passed from mothers to daughters. With the passing of that world, he noted, Torah study was not only valuable, it was vital. The best thing would be if advocates of change would find internal values (and kavod haberiyot doesn’t qualify, because it is a debated value both in meaning and scope) that would argue in favor of the changes being advocated. And to be an internal value, I am arguing, it has to be built up from within the system.

3. I just responded to R. Klapper’s basic claim; since the time of Rambam, I believe we generally assume that all halachot have a rationale, whether inherently obvious (mishpatim) or not. On the specific Niddah question, I believe those of kabbalistic leanings today would still see a “stain” or impurity element to Niddah, whereas rationalists would not, but that is centuries-old debate about whether all tumah is metaphysically real or formally halachic. It is not so much that we change the rationale as that we find new or undiscovered layers to it; that is fine, but not if it leads to rejecting an halacha de-oraita (which is timeless).

4. I agree that your point gets really messy and is grounded in how much we believe Chazal operated internally, building what they said off of an immersion in Torah and its values, or allowed their outside influences to shape their perspectives. This is certainly an emunat hachamim issue, and I purposely veered away from it. I, personally, find it difficult to treat Chazal as being so sociologically shaped as others do; in the case of Public Community, I think there are more than enough Torah laws that support the position Chazal took that I find it impossible. But I agree that it gets really messy.

5. Less restricted doesn’t mean they can do anything they want– a woman couldn’t prostitute herself or worship idols in the name of serving God. And, yes, if a woman chooses to participate in public worship (or, as R. Yitzchak Blau noted, according to R. Gustman, she should perform any mitsvot aseh she hazman grama that she is available for), that’s fine, but she cannot manufacture the level of obligation that would allow her to take those public roles.

6.The question of what is different and what is the same as in the Torah’s times is also very difficult. Over hundreds of years, rishonim seem to have understood that the role of interest had changed so much as to allow various “haaramot” to get around them, as mori ve-rabi R. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik has documented. It is possible one could argue that, but then the approach would be to find technically plausible such haaramot, which has sometimes happened in the world of women’s roles in Judaisms, some of which are welcome and useful. That introduces two important questions: are we certain that women’s roles can and should change so significantly (we should remember, after all, that we are relying on Western society for its view of women, and that society clearly has adopted other values that are completely antithetical to Jewish ones), and, second, what are certifiable haaramot and what are not? For that last question, I note, the authority of Gedolim would seem a sine qua non for such ideas.

Thanks again for your interest in my thoughts and for sharing a conversation le-hagdil Torah u-le-haadirah!

#8 Comment By Miriam On March 12, 2010 @ 9:23 am

Rabbi Rothstein, thank you for your continued thoughtful engagement with this issue.

I would like to point in the direction of an answer to your repeated call for some intra-Toah value that supports an expansion of women’s roles.

First, I wonder why the same values that support expanded access of women to the Torah learning do not also support access of women to as many Torah vocations as possible – that is, access to a life of torasan umanusan in a way that fits with their individual traits and abilities. There is room to disagree about how to balance those values as against different halachos, so recognizing that these values are at play is not an automatic free pass against other halachos. Recognizing that the values that have already largely been accepted as justifications for more women’s learning are at play in the communal roles discussion as well, however, does mean that we are all, in fact, speaking the same language.

More fundamentally, I question why the basic intra-Torah values we should be seeking are those that dictate gender roles. It seems to me that many changes in womens’ positions have come from a different direction – looking at what the Torah demands of and provides for Jews, regardles of gender. The communities that have provided women with access to serious Torah study have done so not, I submit, out of the conviction that it makes us better wives and mothers, but out of a conviction that women, as human beings and Jews, can and should immerse ourselves in the communal quest to understand God’s Torah. (Indeed, the communities where the primary justification for women’s Torah knowledge is the gendered better-wives-and-mothers approach have genrally not provided access at high levels.)

Regarding other roles for women, then, can we not ask “What is the best thing for someone who knows a lot of Torah to do?” or “How can we create as many opportunities as possible for dedicated Jews to improve themselves and their communities by making Torah a vocation?” Gender roles are obviously part of the story – they may be a second-order limitation on the Torah-inspired aspirations of some Jews. But they are not the whole story or even, I think, the main story.

From this perspective it seems to me that the burden returns to you:

(1) How you can justify certain expansions to women’s roles (e.g., learning, unless you disagere with changes in that area) while at the same time saying that there are no internal-to-Torah values that can even support the suggestion that it might be desirable, if possible, to expand women’s communal roles in other ways?

(2) You demand that frontier-pushers articulate a view on Jewish womanhood. Would you be satisfied if they articulate a universal view of the good Jewish life? A life in which individual Jews are dedicated to improving themselves and their communities by learning and living Torah, and Jewish communities are dedicated to improving themselves by allowing such individuals to flourish and giving such individuals roles in which they can communicate and contribute as much as their personal attributes allow?

#9 Comment By R. Goldberg On March 12, 2010 @ 10:45 am

Halkhik tradition is full of rabbinic response to the situation of the world as it existed at the time that a perceived crisis appeared. Often times a crisis led to a gezera which tried to eliminate or mitigate the affect of that crisis. Not all of the halakha that we accept today as our mesorah stems from clear logical connection to something from the Torah. The Talmud recognized the idea that the Jewish people as a whole were at times smarter than they. The phrase “go and see what the people are doing” as a decision criteria is an accepted way to resolve certain problems.

Indeed, further that this I recall the case of the gezera on yayin nesech an shemen nesach. The people accepted the former and rejected the latter and so it is gone! The Rambam in Hilchot Mamrim describes the methods of overturning a previous beth din and includes he idea that for the same classes of mitzvot established above when and if the majority of the Jewish population shows that by their actions that something established by a previous beth din, no matter how great it was, no longer applies.

In none of these cases does it say that only the charedi, or orthodox, or shomrei mitzvot populations are the only ones included. It would seem that any member of the Jewish faith, no matter the level of observance, is free to vote with their feet on issues established to protect custom or create a sociological aim.

A corollary of this logic is that the only ones who define the kavod of the tzibur is anyone who by right should or could belong to that tzibur.

An analogy from US law and the constitution is the principle of double jeapordy. Any jury can decide that a law is not relevant and other more pertinent issues are at stake in deciding their verdict. If they choose to say not guilty there is no recourse. Apparently our chachamim understood this well and preceded the constitution in allowing for a situation in which the wise general population can overturn overly zealous poskim.

#10 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 13, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

To Miriam, I say that my basic point was that the Torah (and God) sees men and women differently, and we need to explore which of those differences are innate and inherent (and there are such differences, regardless of what Western society might try to say) and how that shapes each gender’s best discovery of how to serve God. When it comes to Torah study, it is such a broadly Jewish endeavor, so central to service of God, that it became clear that all Jews should have access to it (although this is not the space for it, I will say that even there I suspect there are difference between the best emphases for men and women, by and large, even within the world of Torah. While those differences won’t be for every single man or woman, I think that’s also a useful conversation we have yet to have). But it at least shows why I don’t think we can just reach to general values– just like a Kohen’s life would in the ideal look different from a Levi’s and those two from a Yisrael’s (and, really, a member of the tribe of Yehudah would differ from Zevulun or Yissachar, etc.), I believe the Torah conceives of men and women in those ways, and we have to search and find which are inherent and which amenable to change with society.

Which leads, really, to R. Goldberg’s comment, where he raises the notion of gezerot, or of yayim nesech; in an earlier response I mentioned ribit, interest, which over time rabbis found ways around. Why not say, as someone suggested Yeshivat Hadar does, that women’s roles have changed so much, we should just find ways around the halachot of the time of the Torah? The answer, I believe, is that we don’t tend to treat Torah law that way, since it comes from God. In the case of interest, it seems that the Baalei haTosafot came to differentiate between personal loans and business loans, and found legal fictions around the latter (which can be used for the former, but that wasn’t the focus of their attempts). I can imagine similar processes with some aspects of women’s role in Judaism, with the following caveats– I think it would have to be giants of Torah who did it (because it is really so central, our conception of the role that half the people of Israel play in the nation’s service of God), I think it would have to progress slowly, and might even have to wait for the Sanhedrin. But more than any of that, I think it could not start until someone of those giants had conceded that women’s roles have to change in parallel to what society has done. While no one could see anything wrong with business interest, for example, much of the focus of expanding women’s roles has been in ways that Gedolei Torah object to as alien to Judaism. For a simple example with which I personally have much sympathy, the insistence on securing for women the same public roles as men smacks of a desire to say that women are the same as men, which seems completely alien to the way the Torah and Hazal understand the two genders. So that, even if one wanted to say that women should have more access to public roles, even in shuls (as is happening in several shuls in the US), the need to make it the same as men’s raises warning signs that this is foreign and therefore not the kind of thing to be accommodated.

Last point: I confess that I have for years thought we needed to articulate an appropriate title for women of knowledge and commitment who teach Torah whether in schools or synagogues (one of the most remarkable educators I know is a woman, for whom the word ‘Morah’ is said with such reverence that it is the highest form of respect, much as Nechama Leibowitz was just Nechama, as the Gemara says “Greater than rabbi is Rabban, greater than Rabban is his name.”). And yet, the search for a title is unfortunately muddled by mixing it with the desire to secure the same title as men. And that, it seems to me, is just not Jewish cricket.

#11 Comment By R. Goldberg On March 15, 2010 @ 8:06 am

You may have may have chosen to skip over the general point that I was trying to make while concentrating on the example and the corollary which I did not specifically make. The point in one line below:

Gezarot which are made for sociological reasons are subject to the veto of the Jewish population as a whole.

The proofs of that being an accepted principal were drawn from

a) the acceptance of yayin nesach and the rejection of shemen nesach by the people
b) the general dictum that ‘go and see what the people do’
c) the Rambam in hilchot mamrim on how gezerot fall away if the people stop following them at any time in their history

These three establish, at least in my mind, a veto power that mitigates the power of over zealous poskim.

You did not comment on this general principal and what affect it might have on current questions of concern.

#12 Comment By Anonymous On March 15, 2010 @ 8:41 am

I agree with your points (largely, point (c) about the Rambam is not completely clear to me, but may well be correct), but confess that I did not respond to them originally because I was careful, in my original piece, to name only halachot de-oraita for that very reason, to avoid the question of how we balance sociology with Hazal. What Hashem did in the Torah is much less amenable to that, and therefore allows for a more clear sense of what is desired of us at all times and places.

#13 Comment By R. Goldberg On March 15, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

Hilchot Mamrim perek beth…

ה. בית דין שנראה להן לגזור גזירה או לתקן תקנה או להנהיג מנהג צריכין להתיישב בדבר ולידע תחלה אם רוב הצבור יכולין לעמוד בהן או אם אין יכולין לעמוד ולעולם אין גוזרין גזירה על הצבור אלא אם כן רוב הצבור יכולין לעמוד בה:

ו. הרי שגזרו בית דין גזירה ודימו שרוב הקהל יכולין לעמוד בה ואחר שגזרוה פקפקו העם בה ולא פשטה ברוב הקהל הרי זו בטלה ואינן רשאין לכוף את העם ללכת בה:

ז. גזרו ודימו שפשטה בכל ישראל ועמד הדבר כן שנים רבות ולאחר זמן מרובה עמד בית דין אחר ובדק בכל ישראל וראה שאין אותה הגזרה פושטת בכל ישראל יש לו רשות לבטל ואפילו היה פחות מבית דין הראשון בחכמה ובמנין:

#14 Comment By Moshe On March 15, 2010 @ 7:41 pm

R. Rothstein, this is an excellent piece and I believe it properly frames the debate. But stop teasing us: why don’t you let us know what YOUR view on Jewish womanhood is!

I’ve always learned that women are exempt from time bound mitzvot and from public mitzvot so that they can be freed to raise children. The Torah encourages the role of motherhood for women. I think that most Orthodox schools teach this as the rationale for women’s exemption from zman grama, and if you ask the average Orthodox person, I suspect this is the reason they would give.

I was not even aware there are any other cogent explanations given at all, or that any other reason is as intuitively obvious. That’s why I’m surprised that you are calling for an articulation of Jewish womanhood, as if good reasons have not already been offered. So what is your opinion? Do you not subscribe to the Torah encouraging motherhood rationale?

(BTW one area of gender difference that you missed is women being ineligible for Edut, which I think fits well into the exclusion from the public community category.)

#15 Comment By Miriam On March 15, 2010 @ 8:41 pm

Rabbi Rothstein,

Do the (alleged) inherent and innate differences have ramifications for women’s “outside” lives? Would you say that Torah values suggest that women should retract from roles in the “public community” of the USA or secular Israel?

#16 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 16, 2010 @ 11:04 am


I am refraining because I believe that saying things that are not yet likely to receive even an open-minded response is worse than useless; for that reason, as well, Miriam, I will only say that it’s certainly possible. And I note that your formulation– women should retract– is different, and more palatable to many, than the other possibility, that society might want to refrain women from retracting. Certainly, I cannot imagine how an Orthodox woman would be willing to be a model, whose whole purpose is to draw attention to her looks. But once we know how deeply embedded that idea is in Western culture, we would have to start trying to tease out where it shows itself. In the political realm, e.g., there are leaders for whom looks and related matters are of little importance (Nancy Pelosi, to a large extent, I think) and others for whom its central (Sarah Palin). The latter model should be a problem for Jewish women; the more it comes to define female leadership examples, the more of a problem it is.

#17 Comment By Miriam On March 16, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

I am confused by your introduction of the issue of looks/attraction. If your claim is that modesty/sexuality concerns are the primary issue re: secular leadership, how does that compare to the Jewish context, where I thought you were trying to say there is more going on?
I understand your hesitancy to give a fuller answer and will respect your decision not to, but your reduction of the question to attraction is itself susceptible to several rather uncharitable readings of your position.

#18 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 16, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

To R. Goldberg, let me say that I do not understand what your citation of Rambam adds to the discussion– I have already agreed that there is a sociological element to rabbinic ordinances, but that I had chosen only Torah law examples, where that element is not there. In addition, Rambam is discussing ordinances a later court would be able to nullify, so that even if you are right about the sociological element, we’d still need a qualified court (one authorized by the traditional semichah, not the shadow semicha we currently give) to remove it.

To Miriam, I introduced looks/attraction as one clear way, not the only way, that women’s choice about their public roles would transfer from the halachic community to the outside world. Your suggestion that I am opening myself to “uncharitable readings” is one reason I wouldn’t go any further than I already have.

#19 Comment By R. Goldberg On March 18, 2010 @ 3:59 am

Proof that where there is a rabbinic will there is a way…..

Where there is no will even though there is a halkhik way stiff necked people never budge…..

#20 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 18, 2010 @ 6:59 am

There isn’t a halachic way to get around what God communicated was His (pardon the pronoun) way of setting up a Jewish society; there’s only a halachic way around technical barriers to getting closer to what God wanted.

#21 Comment By Chana Luntz On March 21, 2010 @ 8:52 am

I have just recently been pointed in the direction of this posting, so I am coming into this conversation somewhat late. But I did want to point out that there is “a picture of womanhood constructed internally,” that is floating around and which gives strong support to the “boundary pushers” or whatever term you want to use. It is, interestingly, perhaps more overtly being articulated in charedi circles these days, partly because its underlying premise is, at heart, messianic, and modern orthodox thinkers often feel uncomfortable about articulating the messianic. On the other hand, its echo can be found in things like the title to Rav YH Henkin’s book “Equality Lost”.
This view is based heavily on the midrash about the sun and the moon, and the original equality of the two, and the diminishment of the moon, with the promise that in the future the moon will be restored to its original glory. The identification of the moon and women is hardly novel, and the argument then goes that part of our development towards redemption involves an increasing movement towards greater equality and light on behalf of womanhood (there may also be some references to a kind of Adam I, Adam II understanding, but that may be difficult for an American wedded to the RYBS formulation of this to hear).
The argument thus goes that given the sociological realities, the Torah had to allow women more exemptions and freedoms (even as it, as you have noted, gave them more responsibilities than one might have expected given the surrounding cultures – ie pushed them beyond the comfort zone, but not enough so it was impossible to fulfil it given the cultural realities). So that, for example, women had to be exempted from eidus, precisely as articulated in Shavuos 30a, because it could not realistically demand that women at all times in history be available to give eidus, and because eidus is not something that can be optional, it must be compellable where necessary, there had to be a blanket exemption. Not because it is necessarily good that women are exempt from eidus (ie not that the rationale in Shavuos is so much an ideal), but because there was no other alternative as they could not have been compelled to eidus throughout history.
Similarly for mitzvos aseh shehazman grama. For various sociological reasons it was not possible to require women to fulfil all of these mitzvos throughout history. But that when women reached the point in their development that they felt able to take on the obligation of listening to shofar, for example, that was a good thing. It was in fact progress towards the messianic ideal.
Agreed this hashkafic viewpoint tends to be held by the same sort of people who hold that while the Torah allowed for slavery as a economic and social necessity, they are not looking forward to working their eved c’nani befarech come yemos hamashiach.
The argument therefore for the envelope pushers is that in fact they are (consciously or unconsciously) bringing the coming of mashiach. That while it may be, for example, impossible and detrimental to force men to accept leadership by a woman, and hence coercion may be a bad idea and prohibited by the Torah, for men to accept upon themselves leadership from a woman may enhance the development of their midos and ultimately help bring the redemption. This view also may take the position that external movements like feminism are ultimately HKBH’s tool in chivying along the appropriate development (as opposed to understanding feminism as a product of the sitra achra).
You may not like this view, you may not feel comfortable with it, but I do think it exists and meets your criteria of a Torah world view of the role of women.
BTW to my mind, the sources which are the most difficult to reconcile with this world view, are bizarrely and extraordinarily enough, the ones where the battle has been abandoned. Those being the sources dealing with women’s learning. You talk about the exemption of women from talmud torah, but the reality of the sources goes a lot further than that. From the way you phrase it, one would have thought that talmud torah was like the mitzvos aseh shehazman grama, exempt but nice to do. The authoritative sources emphatically do not say that. The Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch liken teaching a woman (eg Rashi al hatorah, which is Torah shebaal peh) to tiflus, and the commentators all discuss why it is that we posken like R’ Eliezer in this case given that the general rule that as a Shammite we do not posken like him. And if you read R’ Yehoshua’s back up the tiflus message becomes even clearer (and see Rashi’s explanation there). And the Rema’s slight permission to learn that which is strictly necessary gives really very little scope as it has been understood through the generations. The message that comes through loud and clear is that the Torah education of women is detrimental to, as you put it, “safeguarding the Orthodox interest in a proper and appropriate sexuality”. And yet, extraordinarily enough, that is not the debate we are having. Nor are we likely to have it. The fact that that is the case, is, if you think about it, possibly only describable as a form of nes. It makes absolutely no rationale or logical sense in the context of the sources. That we are having debates regarding eg a Rambam (serera) that the Shulchan Aruch ignores when there is a pashut Shulchan Aruch that today everybody ignores is just so mind blowing it is hard to know where to begin. Except of course if (following the view articulated above) you are going to say that a horaas sha’ah had to be created because otherwise there was no hope of redemption.



#22 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 21, 2010 @ 1:24 pm


Two issues: First, part of what I object to is the easy “sociologization” of Halachot in the Torah; slaves is not a good example, because Hazal noted the problems in slavery (indeed, the Torah itself did– it never commands slavery, it legislates how to handle it); at least for Jews, it’s not really slavery, it’s more like long-term indentured servitude, and for non-Jews, it involves partial conversion, which can be rejected and then the slave situation will be completely different.

So when we say that over time slavery fell out of use, that’s because it was never part of how the Torah viewed the world. To say that about the exemption from lulav or shofar, where there was no sociological reason to exempt women, is much more difficult and seems, as far as I can tell, to lose sight of the Divinity of the Torah. If it’s all sociology, what do we mean by saying it “stands for ever and ever”? It only stands until someone comes up with a sociological explanation for why they think it should change! This is not the way of Torah.

In terms of education, I have no idea why you think that it is so clear that women studying Torah is obviously wrong. The surprise is that Rambam included the statement from the Gemara in his work, and it is surprising because it seems to be a lone opinion in the Gemara, and the learned women known in Talmudic times weren’t seen as a problem. (That SA adopts it from Rambam is understandable– that’s what he does). Further, Rambam doesn’t have a problem with women learning, he has a problem with fathers insisting their daughters learn; like everyone, Rambam agrees that a woman who studies Torah gets rewarded for doing so (something we wouldn’t say if we thought she was actually headed for tiflut.

We like to exaggerate how anti-women tradition is, because it justifies arguing that it’s changed so much. But the Torah (and God) were not anti-women, they had a view of the parameters of appropriate womanhood. That some of those parameters are uncomfortable for people who have uncritically absorbed Western ideals creates a delicate situation, but does not allow us to change the lessons of the Torah.

#23 Comment By Chana Luntz On March 21, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

You write:

“In terms of education, I have no idea why you think that it is so clear that women studying Torah is obviously wrong. The surprise is that Rambam included the statement from the Gemara in his work, and it is surprising because it seems to be a lone opinion in the Gemara,”

It is not a lone opinion in the gemora as understood by pretty much all the meforshim. It is two against one. The Mishna in Sotah (20a) cites first the opinion of Ben Azzai who is in favour of teaching women Torah, Rabbi Eliezer who is against and makes the statement that it is tiflus (amended by the gemora to be “like tiflus”) and then a final opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua “a woman prefers one kav and tiflus to nine kavs and prishus”.

The gemora then goes on to ask provide a source for Rabbi Eliezer (albeit that one would have to say that it is an asmachta, since it is based on Mishlei 8:12).

It then goes on to discuss the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua. Note that Rashi’s comment on Rabbi Yehoshua goes like this:

רוצה אשה בקב ותיפלות – חפיצה ליזון במזונות מועטין ויהא תיפלותה מצוי לה בתשמיש מט’ קבין ופרישות לפרוש מן התיפלות לפיכך אין טוב שתלמוד תורה.

That is, to translate the final few words in case anybody didn’t get them “therefore it is not good that she learns Torah”. That is why I pointed you in the direction of Rashi on the page.

It is also worth noting Rashi’s comment on the reasoning given for Rabbi Eliezer’s statement:

כאילו – שמתוכה היא מבינה ערמומית ועושה דבריה בהצנע.

That is, Torah will teach her cunning and enable her to act improperly more easily.

So here we have not just Rambam but Rashi as well.

But instead of going piecemeal through all of the poskim, perhaps the easiest is simply to quote the Birchei Yosef’s discussion on the subject:

זכל המלמד את בתו תורה וכו’. כתב מרן בב”י פלוגתא דבן עזאי ור’ אליעזר (סוטה כ א), ופסק כר’ אליעזר. עכ”ד. ואף דקי”ל דאין הלכה כר’ אליעזר, דשמותי הוא, וא”כ הו”ל לפסוק כבן עזאי. ומה גם דתלמודא נקט לה בלשון רבנן, דאמרו בסוטה דף כ”א, מ”ט דר’ אליער, דכתיב אני חכמה וכו’, ורבנן האי אני חכמה מאי עבדי ליה וכו’. הרי דהש”ס לסברת בן עזאי קרי עלה סברת רבנן. מ”מ פסקו הרמב”ם (הל’ ת”ת פ”א הי”ג) והטור וסיעתם כר’ אליעזר, משום דסברי דר’ יהושע דאמר במשנתנו (שם כ א) רוצה אשה וכו’, נושא משך סברת ר’ אליעזר. וכ”כ רש”י בדף כ”א. ורבינו עובדיא בפירושו (שם פ”ג מ”ד), על דברי ר’ יהושע: לפיכך אין טוב שתלמוד ותורה. ותו דבירושלמי התם אמרו דבן עזאי דלא כר’ אליעזר בן עזריה דאמר אם הנשים באות לשמוע וכו’י. ולא עוד אלא דראב”ע דרש’ה ארי בשבת שלו במושב זקנים, ומסתמא משמע דכלהו רבנן הכי סברי. אמטו להכי פסקו הפוסקים כר’ אליעזר, דר’ אליעזר ור’ יהושע ור’ אלעזר בן עזריה ורבנן דעמיה הכי סברי. ומ”ש בש”ס דידן ורבנן האי אני חכמה וכו’, לאו דוקא. ועמ”ש הרב תי”ט.

As you can see, we have Rambam, Rashi, the Tur, the Shulchan Aruch, the Yerushalmi brought in in support and other deductions from the Bavli.

So I ask you in return. Who, amongst the Rishonim does posken like Ben Azzai? Who even gives a hint of this. Yes we have a Prisha to rely on regarding women learning by themselves. One lonely Prisha. But however nice that Prisha might be, the thrust of Rabbi Yehoshua and the various other citations that the Birchei Yosef brings is not about fathers teaching daughters it is about the dangers of women learning Torah due to the need to “safeguard[ing] the Orthodox interest in a proper and appropriate sexuality”.

So I continue to maintain that if you seriously work through the sources it is very hard to come to any other conclusion that that women studying Torah is obviously wrong. I would love you to show me where this is wrong. But given all of our normal ways of poskening. Look at the heavyweight rishonim, look at the consensus, look at support from the Yerushalmi, look at other places in the Bavli, how can you get to anywhere else?

Please show me how I (or should I say the Birchei Yosef and remember he is writing in the 1800s) is exaggerating the anti-woman approach?



#24 Comment By Chana Luntz On March 21, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

Just to respond briefly to another of your points (I am not sure you are write about slavery either, but that is a different debate):

“To say that about the exemption from lulav or shofar, where there was no sociological reason to exempt women, is much more difficult”

But in the case of lulav particularly there is indeed a very strong sociological reason to exempt women. Lulavim need to be purchased. Agreed many women may have had fathers or husbands who would do this for them (or lend them their own, as happens today), but to force women out into the marketplace to purchase such things in many of the societies we lived through would have been a seriously unreasonable requirement. Shofar also requires either the woman to be knowledgeable enough to blow her own, and to have access to a shofar, or to come to public places to hear one, or to have, usually some man, come into her private places and blow for her. Again, great if one’s father or brother or son is capable of this. What happens if they aren’t. When you live in a society where women do not go out of the house more than once a month, and do not ever meet men other than their immediate family, hearing shofar indeed becomes an unreasonable requirement. I know this is not the society we live in today. Nor is it the society that existed at the time the Torah was given. But it was the society at the time of the Rambam, and the Torah had to take that society into account too. Glossing over the reality of the life of women through the ages does not, it seems to me, get us very far. Matzah, on the other hand, can be baked at home, and is eaten in the context of the family, it is thus, of all the mitzvos aseh shehazman grama, the easiest and most natural one to include women in, if you were going to look for one to include. ie what one side of the debate would see as perhaps the Torah ideal, the other side would see as forced on us by the exingencies of eg Muslim society. I am in fact trying not to take sides here, I am just trying to show you that there exists and alternative side.




#25 Comment By Chana Luntz On March 21, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

Sorry, that reference to the Birchei Yosef should have said “in the 18th century” not in “the 1800′s)



#26 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 21, 2010 @ 4:51 pm

What an odd circumstance– I am arguing with a woman who is citing source after source to show me that women shouldn’t learn Torah! ישמע אזנך מה שפיך אומרת! On the substance, though, Rambam didn’t understand the Gemara nearly the way you understood it, as is clear from reading the 1st chapter of Hilchot Talmud Torah. He opens by saying that women and children are exempt, but that a father’s required to teach his son Torah. After going through a whole chapter, he returns to the topic of women to say they are exempt (doesn’t mention prohibited), but adds that they get reward to do it. After that, he throws in that Hazal didn’t want fathers in general teaching their daughters Torah because of the likelihood that they would misuse the knowledge. Had Rambam meant that as a general prohibition, he could simply have reversed the order of this paragraph, or placed this information at the beginning of the chapter (to contrast what was said about fathers’ requirements to teach their sons). The structure and presentation show that Rambam was noting the Gemara’s *worry* about women learning Torah, not its absolute opposition. Fathers shouldn’t teach their daughters *in general* because of the likelihood that it will turn out badly. Incidentally, I suspect that Rambam here wasn’t talking about the *act* of learning Torah, but the fulfillment of the mitsvah of TT, which is about a lot more than whether or not you sit and learn (as I have demonstrated elsewhere, in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society). It is not, therefore, a “lonely Prisha,” it’s a Prisha who shows the simple way to understand what Rambam really meant. As anyone who can read well should have found out on their own.

As for your sociology arguments, it is completely unclear to me what you even mean. However women got food, they could get a lulav; and if you’re really worried about men going into their homes (although their fathers or husbands could chaperone), they could listen at the window while the baal tekiyah stands in the street. And, as for the idea that the Torah had to take into account all sociological possibilities, that’s not the way God legislates in the Torah, not if you read and understand the Torah itself well, and certainly not if you read and understand the Torah She-Be-Al Peh well.

#27 Comment By Chana Luntz On March 22, 2010 @ 2:51 am

You write:

“What an odd circumstance– I am arguing with a woman who is citing source after source to show me that women shouldn’t learn Torah! ישמע אזנך מה שפיך אומרת!”

It is not really such an odd circumstance if you think about it. After all, if you are a woman who learns Torah, you are likely to go into the question perhaps more thoroughly than others perhaps might.

And of course, what you have quoted to me is the “standard learn” today, especially in the kinds of circles you mix in. And of course on one level I “buy” it. That is the reading that has, through, as I have described it, a kind of nes, become accepted today.

But, intellectual honesty should really compel one to understand that that is not the pashut way of reading the sources, and not the one that is in consonant with the way we generally posken halacha. In fact it is a complete deviation from it. The fact that we appear to posken the halacha like this in this case when it is such a deviation from the way we normally do this is extraordinary.

This forces me back to the phrase that I glossed over in your previous response as I wasn’t sure how to deal with it respectfully, but I will try. The statement was:

“(That SA adopts it from Rambam is understandable– that’s what he does).”

Well not exactly. The SA’s official policy is to look at the triumverate, the Rif, the Rambam and the Rosh/Tur and posken like the majority. There are in fact numerous cases where he does not do this, but this is not one of them. Here he has his majority, the Rambam and the Tur (the Tur appears to have the torah shebichtav and torah shebaal peh around the other way, but the Shulchan Aruch understands that as a scribal error), and goes with that.

But there is more to this than that. The Shulchan Aruch is not a stand alone work. It ideally assumes that you have read the Beis Yosef, which is his magnum opus – in which he brings his thinking and a round up of the key rishonim on any given topic.

And his statement on this subject goes like this (Beis Yosef Yoreh Deah siman 246:

ומ”ש ואף על פי שיש לה שכר צוו חכמים שלא ילמד אדם את בתו תורה וכו’. במתניתין פרק היה נוטל (סוטה כ.) פלוגתא דבן עזאי ורבי אליעזר ופסק כרבי אליעזר:

That is, while your drush in the Rambam may be lovely, the Shulchan Aruch does not understand the Rambam like this. He understands it simply as a machlokus between Ben Azzai and Rabbi Eliezer with the psak like Rabbi Eliezer.

And also one needs to take cognisance of the Yerushalmi. Now it is of course generally agreed that if there is a direct contradiction between the Yerushalmi and the Bavli, we posken like the Bavli. But it is also absolutely standard halachic practice to try not to have such a conflict where possible, and where there is no conflict to incorporate the position of the Yerushalmi.

And the Yerushalmi says as follows (Sotah perek 3):

מטורנה שאלה את רבי לעזר מפני מה חט אחת במעשה העגל והן מתים בה שלש מיתות אמר לה אין חכמתה של אשה אלא בפילכה דכתיב וכל אשה חכמת לב בידיה טוו אמ’ לו הורקנוס בנו בשביל שלא להשיבה דבר אחד מן התורה איבדת ממני שלש מאות כור מעשר בכל שנה אמר ליה ישרפו דברי תורה ואל ימסרו לנשים

ie this is the same Rabbi Eliezer that the Shulchan Aruch in his capacity as the Beis Yosef says we posken like, and he says here, “the words of Torah should be burnt and not given over to women”.

And what’s more, just in case you thought this Yerushalmi had disappeared into history, Tosphos quotes it on the Bavli (Sotah 21b):

בן עזאי אומר חייב אדם וכו’ – ירושלמי דבן עזאי דלא כר”א בן עזריה דדריש (חגיגה דף ג.) הקהל את העם האנשים והנשים והטף אנשים באו ללמוד נשים לשמוע ונראה דפי’ דמצוה לשמוע הנשים כדי שידעו לקיים מצוה ולא משום שידעו שזכות תולה, מטרונה שאלה את ר’ אלעזר מפני מה חטא אחת במעשה העגל והן מתין בה ג’ מיתות אמר לה אין אשה חכמה אלא בפלך אמר לו הורקנוס בנו בשביל שלא להשיבה דבר אחד מן התורה אבדת ממני ג’ מאות כור מעשר בכל שנה א”ל ישרפו ד”ת ולא ימסרו דברי תורה לנשים

So, given the way we would normally incorporate the Yerushalmi, and the way we normally interpret Tosphos, you have to incorporate this too. And the Beis Yosef says we posken like Rabbi Eliezer. Not Rabbi Eliezer of the Bavli, Rabbi Eliezer.

BTW, it would generally be unheard of for a Prisha to stand against the kind of weight of rishonic authority that I am bringing you here, but even the Prisha does not get you very far. It may help people like me where one can honestly say that I am majority self taught (although the ability to self teach today in the presence of modern technology is very different to what it was once upon a time). But even the Prisha does not allow for the institutionalised teaching of women that goes on – well across the halachic spectrum (with, officially at least, the notable exception of the Satmar schools).

What I am trying to show you, and I am sorry you cannot hear it, is that if we were to follow all of the normal procedures of determining psak – that we apply across the board, your reading of the Rambam would not fly, in fact it would be laughed out of the beis medresh. It isn’t and that is precisely what is so extraordinary. Even if it is what the Rambam meant, it wouldn’t matter, if this is not how the other Rishonim and the Shulchan Aruch understood both the Rambam and the underlying sugyos. I am not saying I am unhappy that somehow, by a kind of nes, the halacha as accepted by klal yisroel today does not reflect what the rishonim and the Shulchan Aruch (and very influential achronim like the Birchei Yosef) say. But I believe that intellectual honesty should compel us (or at least it compels me) to give a true reading to the sources and not a fudged one. I for one am more comfortable living with the dialectic tension that creates than trying to gloss over the reality of the sources.



PS, other point to be covered in another post, I am trying to keep them separate.

#28 Comment By Chana Luntz On March 22, 2010 @ 3:16 am

Just briefly on the other point, as i don’t have a lot of time this morning (although if you want I can try and write more later) – one of the things that has helped me think a lot about this is reading of various anthropological studies that have been done amongst Muslim women, particularly Parkistani women. The Rambam’s society seems very far away and long ago, but these societies continue to exist today, albeit with Western erosions. One of the most fascinating aspects is how the Parkistani traditional code has developed a concept of “kol kovuda bas melech penima” in a very real sense. When they talk about bas melech, their concept of royality is somewhat particular – they generally are referring to those who are considered to be direct descendants of the Prophet (with a capital P). And particularly for those families who pride themselves on this ancestry, the honour of the family dictates that the woman goes out only three times in her lifetime, when she is born, when she marries and goes to her husband’s house and when she dies. The segregation of women in Pakistan is taken so seriously that many houses are surrounded by eight to ten feet high purdah walls. All rooms face inward, with windows on the ground floor either built close to the ceiling or with frosted glass to ensure that the women who live there are never seen by passing male guests or tradesmen. There is usually one room reserved for guests that has direct access to the outside and which is shielded from those inside.
I could go on and on, as the whole area is a truely fascinating one, at least from an anthropological point of view. Whether one recoils in horror, which is the standard Western approach, or wonders whether the Muslims might not have a point (or perhaps have actually understood the pasuk correctly) will depend of course upon your temperament. But if you want to understand the realities of what Jewish women have lived with for at least a thousand years or so, if not more, you do need to truly try and understand such a modus videndi – including how they get food and the realities of windows. And also as to how the obligation would need to be structured to accommodate such circumstances (ie just as the Muslim men are obligated to provide food for these women, parallel to the Jewish obligation, so too would Jewish men need to be obligated to provide lulavim, there are no other alternatives). A rich sense of our history is thus also an important factor in understanding any socialogical claims.



#29 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 22, 2010 @ 8:17 am

Just briefly, in return: 1) The prohibition against a woman learning Torah, if there is one, is clearly open to the possibility that it is a sociological assumption, not a necessary statement about womanhood. Even if I agree that R. Eliezer and those who follow assume this about the majority of women, that doesn’t mean all women can’t learn Torah, it means we have to approach the issue carefully. That’s especially interesting, to me, considering Rambam’s differentiation between Torah she-Bikhtav and be-Al Peh, but that’s for another time. Just to note: we all know that Rashi’s daughters are reputed to have learned Torah, which would suggest that he, too, was not as categorical as you want him to be.
2) On the issue of being categorical, if everyone was as clear and unequivocal as you want them to be, they’d have prohibited it completely, yet each time, the formulation is the same “even though women get reward for learning, our Rabbis said a man should not teach his daughter” why the switch– why not, “our Rabbis said, a woman should not learn?” that’s not a dvar Torah or a stretch, it’s a question in the simple reading of the text. The answer lies in the proper understanding of what a father teaching his son Torah means, as I noted in my Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society article on the topic of that mitzvah.
There is more to be said, but I don’t feel like belaboring this point– what I will say is that you seem fixed on finding the most stringent reading of those sources, and then showing that tradition is now ignoring them. Maybe you are missing nuances of those readings for back then and also the relevant and important elasticity of texts that allows them to bear truths for different generations in different ways. But that’s true to different extents for different texts: The Torah itself, as I’ve been arguing, is significantly less so in its categorical statements, because it comes from God and is therefore less prone to sociology, etc.
Which is why your whole 2nd post on the history/anthropology of Pakistani/Muslim women is less than relevant to me and my discussion. My job as a student of Torah is to see what the Torah says, what Hazal say, and how that is best applied to the world around me at the time that I am living. All the rest is academics; if it interests you, great, but that’s about as far as it goes.

#30 Comment By Chana Luntz On March 22, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

OK, couple of responses:

- the reason for the distinction between Torah shebichtav and Torah shebaal peh is explained in the Beis Yosef. There is a direct command of Hakel which includes women. And while Chagiga 3a, as quoted by Tosphos, says that women don’t come to learn, they come to listen, still, it is a form of teaching, and so teaching Torah shebichtav cannot be assur. [Note in addition there is a masechet sofrim which says that women are equally obligated in hearing krias haTorah to men, which is also clearly problematic if Torah shebichtav is a problem but the Beis Yosef does not allude to this].
- the reason for the language of father and daughter is because that is how it is written in the Mishna in Sotah, the machlokus there is framed in terms of a man teaching his daughter. It is only from the clarifications in the various gemoros, Bavli and Yerushalmi, does it become clear that Rabbi Eliezer’s position is by no means limited to the father and daughter combination. And note that in the case of the Yerushalmi, the matrona asked a good question, a lumdishe question. So good in fact that the talmudim, once she had left having been rebuffed, wanted to know the answer! And the “mai taima d’rabbi Eliezer” of the Bavli does not in fact suggest a weakness of mind.
And we haven’t even gotten started on the various sources who suggest that the ma’aseh Bruria, as cited by Rashi proves Rabbi Eliezer’s point.

Anyhow this is really all by the by. What I started by trying to point out was that there is out there “a picture of womanhood constructed internally,” that is floating around and which gives strong support to the “boundary pushers” with the argument being that given the sociological realities, the Torah had to allow women more exemptions and freedoms – eg exemptions from eidus, exemptions from mitzvos aseh shehazman grama. That is, for various sociological reasons it was not possible to require women to fulfil all of these mitzvos throughout history. But that when women reached the point in their development that they felt able to take on these obligations, that is a good thing and in fact progress towards the messianic ideal.

What I then tried to point out was that the most difficult sources to reconcile with this socialisation theory are in fact these sources vis a vis women’s learning – because they are so strongly towards the prohibitive, rather than merely exemptive and because of the philosophical implications and individualisation of learning and the nature of the keter torah. But that bizarrely enough, that appears to be the one place where ideas of socialisation are much more widely accepted.
The others are far far less of a jump when one considers that at many times throughout the last four thousand years many many women had access neither to any public spaces at all nor did they have any purchasing power (or indeed acess to any money at all) in circumstances where it is hardly clear that such a lack of access is a Torah ideal. As I mentioned, you may not feel comfortable with a socialisation approach, but all I was trying to say was that it is actually easier to justify such an approach within the sources given the realities of women’s lives over the centuries than a socialisation approach vis a vis either slavery (and by that I am referring primarily to the l’olam tavodu aspect of the eved cnani and other aspects of the halacha vis a vis the eved cnani, and not at all to the eved ivri) or, as I have tried to articulate to women’s learning.

I would also note that there are many many other examples besides the ones on your list. The halacha deals with realities like if a married woman injuries somebody it may be impossible to collect at least immediately. Is that difference a Torah ideal or just due to the reality that in most cases a women’s property was completely tied up in her husband? What about that old thorny one, inheritance? I am surprised that one is not on your list. What about the fact that the Torah obligations within a marriage, aside from the requirement to be faithful (which as you have noted goes only from the woman to the man) goes all the other way? What about the other biggie, pru u’rvu (now that one, to my mind, is truely the most interesting of all)?
I have on various forums in the past attempted to articulate an alternative theory of womenhood based on a concept of reshus and choices. And I do think that is also a possible way to go. But that was not my goal here, my goal here was merely to show that the strong envelope pushers can and do have an alternative internally generated theory that in fact justifies the envelope pushing, based on approaches which are used in other and sometimes more difficult scenarios.



#31 Comment By Chana Luntz On March 22, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

Oh, and here’s another one for your list – how about erechin? Set values of monetary worth as prescribed in the Torah. Socialogical or Torah ideals of value? Need to build that one in to any internally generated picture of Torah ideal.



#32 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 22, 2010 @ 5:36 pm


You have, apparently, infinite energy to hash out this issue, but I am sorry to say that I do not. I can only say that in each case regarding Talmud Torah, you are selecting the reading that most clearly goes your way, despite textual evidence pointing the other way. For only one example, if the Mishnah in Sotah refers to a father because that was the context, that is the only context where we’d have to apply that rule. In addition, that rule is Rabbinic and hence certainly somewhat more open to the possibility that it is culture-dependent, especially since it explicitly tells you why it is being said. Where those circumstances don’t apply, you might have the right to see things differently.

As for your examples, some are in fact interesting and worth conversation, such as inheritance and erechin (which I in fact think is a Torah ideal, although not of value); I would note, though, that it is a Torah rule that we are allowed to make conditions about monetary issues, suggesting the Torah itself saw its monetary rules as instrumental rather than necessary.

#33 Comment By Chana Luntz On March 23, 2010 @ 2:38 am

Um, I hear that you don’t have any more time for this but I cannot really let this pass. The Mishna in Sotah discusses a father and daughter because it starts off with Ben Azzai’s position that a father has an obligation to teach his daughter. Rabbi Eliezer then comes and responds to that in the same terms, as is very common practice in a Mishna. The gemora then explains the Mishna, both in the Yerushalmi and in the Bavli in more general terms. It it is a fairly surprising piece of limud to say that where a mishna expresses something in certain terms, and the gemora explains this, and the codes codify it in the language of the mishna, that means that they are not incorporating the understandings of the gemora. Oh, and schools are generally regarded as being in loco parentis, certainly they are in terms of boys.
It is also rather interesting that your view of Chazal is such that you are relatively comfortable with socialisation once we enter that arena (remembering that everything in relation to davening, for example, is rabbinic).
Not sure I understand your reference to erechin as “a Torah ideal although not of value”. What I was referring to of course is Vayikra 27:2-7 – that the erech of a man from twenty to sixty is 50 shekelim, but of a woman 30, a boy from five until 20 is 20 shekelim, and a girl 10; from one month to five years a boy 5 shekelim and a girl 3, and from from sixty and upwards a man 15 and a woman 10. I am not sure how this relates to your understanding of conditions about monetary issues.
The reason why inheritance is of course a thorny issue is because of it being one of the flashpoints between the Tzaddukim and the Prushim.
And not quite sure why the Torah exemption of women from procreation and the concomitant Torah exemption of them from an obligation to marry is not worthy of conversation.



#34 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 23, 2010 @ 8:16 am

The reason the focus on a father teaching his daughter (and the Gemara doesn’t generalize it, necessarily, it explains why the act of a father teaching a daughter is a problem) is important is that it suggests–especially in the Rambam’s formulation- that it is that version of TT which is problematic. All the versions you cite, “a woman gets reward, but our Rabbis said a father shouldn’t teach his daughter…” may, at the time they were written, assume that was the only way for it to happen, and seen that as a problem. But what happens if a woman wants to learn on her own? One possibility is that that, too, will teach her tiflut, and if you think that, please feel free to stop learning. But the other possibility is that that was an unconsidered possibility, and that that circumstance would not necessarily lead to tiflut.

I meant that an erech is not the same as the value of a woman– that would be her “shovi,” her marketplace worth. So the Torah is saying something in its erechin amounts, but not something as simple (or sexist) as the actual monetary value it applies to the genders at their various life stages.

The exemption from procreation and marriage is in fact worth discussing, and should be part of a picture of how the Torah sees women.

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