Question: As a Jewish woman, I feel that I am subservient to a man, whether it be my father, brother, or husband. In the Torah, it is clear that a woman does not receive an inheritance, may not be the active party in a divorce, and her husband or father may take her income. How is this justified?
Answer: What you are doing is “cherry-picking” a few items to emphasize a certain theme—the subservience of women in Jewish law. I could just as easily “cherry-pick” items from the Torah and the Talmud to “prove” the opposite. For instance, the Talmud says that a man must “honor his wife more than himself.” Additionally, it provides in the text of the ketuba—the marriage document used to this day—that the man obligates himself as follows: “...I will work for, esteem, feed and support you as is the custom of Jewish men who work for, esteem, feed and support their wives faithfully… and I will provide you with food, clothing, necessities, and your conjugal rights according to accepted custom.”
There are many passages that speak of the honor due to a wife, too numerous to mention. One of the most famous is found in the “Eshes Chayil” (a title given to the last chapter of the Book of Proverbs, which describes the “Woman of Valor”). She is referred to as one who purchases fields, sells artifacts that she has made to tradesmen, and otherwise engages in business—in addition to overseeing every aspect of a busy household full of children, servants, and needy people to whom she extends charity. She is praised for her wisdom, and “her sons rise up and bless her, her husband praises her.”
The Sages say that our mother Sarah was a greater in prophecy than her husband Abraham, and when they disagreed on a matter of great importance (i.e. what to do about Yishmael, whose actions were threatening Isaac) God Himself told Abraham to listen to Sarah.
You have to take the Torah and its commentaries as a whole in order to see the entire picture. This picture conveys a sense of a society in which marriage is the holiest state for a man and woman, and the Jewish home (not the synagogue) is the center of worship. Women are cared for, honored, and respected.
While you mention feeling subservient to a father or brother, do not forget that children—both sons and daughters—owe the utmost obedience, honor and respect to both parents. As a mother, you will be the queen of your family.
The Torah was written for all times and all places. Many laws have to do with the protections to be afforded to girls and women. A woman’s property was her husband’s or her father’s because it was assumed that he was obligated to protect and provide for her. It was also assumed that the lion’s share of the income would come from the husband or father, and that the amount the wife or daughter would contribute to the “pot” would be very small in comparison with what was going to be given to her for her support.
In the case of an unethical or abusive husband or father, this system could potentially be open to abuse, but in the vast majority of cases it has provided well for a woman’s protection and support. In most places and times, Jewish women had far more rights and protection than the women in the society around them. It is only in our own day that the Torah seems to give less to women than the surrounding society does. But, in reality, the vast majority of women living a Torah life do feel that they are honored, protected, and supported; they do not feel oppressed and subjugated.
Jewish law is a very complex body with many built-in “safety catches.” Almost always, a way can be found within that law to mitigate what might be a hardship. For example, in the case of a woman who comes to a marriage with independent wealth, the law provides ways for her to keep her property separate from that of her husband’s—but a Rabbi who is an authority in Jewish law must be consulted for the specifics. Additionally, there are ways to deal with a husband or father who turns out to be abusive and does not behave the way a Jewish man should.
In the case of divorce, even though, technically, it is the husband who must grant the divorce, in actual fact there are many ways that a recalcitrant husband can be induced to give his wife a get—a religious divorce.
Although it varies from family to family and situation to situation, it is most common that a husband has a natural leadership role in the family—although the wife has an almost equal status. There’s a Latin phrase, “primus inter pares”—“first among equals”—that neatly describes the role most husbands and fathers play in their families. This is not only because Jewish law somehow “makes” it so; rather, the law itself conforms to, and fits in with, human nature. It is human nature that children usually fear their fathers more than their mothers (but tend to honor their mothers more than their fathers—see the great, medievil commentator, Rashi, on Leviticus 19:3). It is human nature that children in a classroom will more often fear a male teacher than a female one.
Again, it is important to keep in mind that the Torah is for all times and all places. What seems to be “unfair” in the modern era was perceived as giving excessive rights to women in other times.
As the adage has it, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and the final result of living a Torah life is that both men and women are ennobled and refined. Almost always, a Torah-trained man makes a better, more conscientious, more helpful, more loyal, and more steadfast husband than a man whose life is devoid of Torah.