Project Genesis

Women's Issues

Women’s Role in Judaism, Various Issues

Question: I am an Orthodox woman and very unsure if I can stay in this path of life. I don’t want to be told apologetic answers, as I find them demeaning to basic intelligence. Also, they are clearly apologetics because if it were true that “you are misinterpreting things and women are really higher than men” then men would be in an uproar – and they are not. The men hear these answers and smirk because they know what it really is: trying to deal with 21 century sensibilities of women because logic shows that the system is male biased. I also don’t want the “equal but different” line as I find it the Orthodox world’s way to avoid the issues. I don’t want to be told ‘lets’ talk or go to a seminar” I want a simple honest response to each question below.

[Questions continue below]

Answer: I will try to answer your questions and the underlying concerns you have. Before I address your specific questions, I must start by disagreeing with the very premise of all your questions, namely, your assumption that ” Equality is Good and Inequality is Bad.”

You are correct that men and women do not have equal status in Jewish law. Your assumption that this is a Bad Thing is a very twentieth century assumption. Almost all societies all over the world and throughout history have had varying classes and hierarchies of status. And by the way, those societies that attempted to achieve absolute egalitarianism achieved only hell on earth, whether you look at the French Revolution or the Bolshevik Revolution or Red China under Mao – all achieved “equality” at the price of a totalitarian reign of terror and the deaths of millions of people. You yourself were born as an exceptionally privileged person in this world. Why do I say that? Because you were born in America, where the poorest people are wealthier than 90% of the people in Asia and Africa. (I lived in South Africa and I can tell you that indoor plumbing and electricity are only for the rich in most countries; in the rest of the world, it is not obesity, but malnutrition, which mars the lives of the poor.) In addition, you were born into a people – the Jewish people – which enjoys, as a group, the highest levels of education, the highest IQ’s, the lowest levels of violent crime, the most tight-knit families, of any ethnic group on earth. We are less than one percent of the population of the world, and you were exceptionally fortunate to be born into that less-than-one-percent.

The reason I am stressing the positive aspects of your life before I even begin is this: while your questions are genuine questions deserving of answers, at the same time your subconscious tone is the tone of someone with a list of grievances. Indeed, you sound very unhappy.

I do not want to sound condescending but I am going to tell you the plain truth: when I was your age – about 20 – I had the same grievances and complaints, probably for the same reasons. Like you, I was an intellectual seeker and like you, I was a product of a Bais Yakov education – an education that did not begin to satisfy my intellectual curiosity. Like you, I was perturbed by what seemed to be my lower status in Jewish life, compared to men – especially when I knew that I was smarter than most of the men I dated! How did people of inferior intellect dare to look down on ME, just because they were blessed with XY chromosomes?!

I was fortunate that in the course of time, my parents and some of my teachers were able to provide satisfying answers to my questions and complaints, and in addition, I had experiences in the “world out there” over many years that showed me that the glittering world “out there” was in many respects not a better, but a far worse, world for women than the Torah world. I hope to get into that last point in greater detail later, but for now I want to at least begin to address your specific questions – even though truly each of those questions deserves a whole paragraph, if not a whole book, of its own!

Nevertheless I will try to answer briefly and just get to the main points.

So, here goes:

Question: The blessing men recite that Shelo Asani Isha – He didn’t make me a woman” - perhaps Leah Kohn who wrote your response should read R. Baruch HaLevi Epstein (the Torah Temimah) who writes that his aunt had very serious issues with this bracha years ago. Please check her geneology as his aunt was a distinguished person. In addition there is the opinion that Sheasani Kirsono is Tziduk Hadin – an acceptance of the bad, much as a blessing made on hearing of a death is.

Answer: The Torah Temimah’s aunt was an exceptionally brilliant woman who yearned to study Torah on a high level, in an age when few women were educated. She was probably a talmid chacham, indeed! Today many young women study Torah at an advanced level and the doors are far more open than they used to be. However, the majority of women (and a fair percentage of men, if we are honest!) are not yearning to sit and learn Torah 12 or 16 hours a day.

So let’s leave the exceptional female genius out of this and talk about “shelo asani isha” for the average person. Men say this bracha because they are frankly glad not to be women, while women say “She’asani kirtzono” and yes, there are commentaries that say this is tzidduk hadin – women accepting their lot, just as one says “Baruch Dayan Emes” – Blessed is the True Judge. However most women are NOT unhappy to be women, even with the different expectations that the Torah has of them. So what does their bracha really mean?

I’m sure you know that men thank G-d (according to the Talmud) because they have more mitzvos (commandments)  than women. That’s the reason the Talmud writes! It doesn’t say women are inferior – but maybe (you could argue) it implies it.

OK, let me ask you a question. Who is higher, men or angels? When I ask my students, I get different answers. Angels are higher: they are pure spirit, have no inclination for the negative (Yetzer Hara), always do G-d’s will. No, say others, men are higher: they have free-choice, they are not robots like angels, when they do G-d’s will it is because they choose to do so, and they get rewarded for it.

The truth is that a man who doesn’t do many mitzvos is lower than an angel – an angel STARTS OUT higher – but a man has the POTENTIAL to be higher than an angel, precisely because he serves G-d out of his own free will. So where am I going with this?

Women start out higher than men (just as angels do) because by nature they are more inclined to be spiritual, kind, giving, selfless, nurturing – i.e., G-dly. (That’s what “she’asani kirtzono” means.) Yet men have the POTENTIAL to become much higher than women because they have so many more mitzvos. (Women don’t need as many mitzvos to achieve G-dliness.) Men thank Hashem for this much greater potential that He gave them, while women thank Hashem that He made us by nature more G-dly.

Yes in a way this means that men have higher status – or at least the potential for higher status, a potential that not many of them reach. But really it means that the whole question of “higher” and “lower” is almost meaningless.

We each have our own mission in the world. In the next world, the Olam Ha’ emes – World of Truth, we will each be judged on whether we fulfilled our own mission, not on whether we were given a “higher” or a “lower” mission. A Kohen, a Levi, a scholar, a person of low IQ, a man, a woman, a blind, or a deaf, or a childless person, a beautiful, a talented, an untalented person – we each play our own unique part in G-d’s plan. On the Yom Hadin (day of judgement) the person who did what he or she was sent into the world to do has a high status, and the person who did not fulfill his potential has a low status. Even non-Jews who fulfill their 7 mitzvos (The Noachide Laws) have a portion in Olam Haba. But let me add once again that you and I were fortunate to be born Jews.

Question: What is the logic behind the fact that a woman cannot be a witness? She is exempt along with a child, a blind man (who clearly can’t see so how can he witness?) and a mentally incapable individual. It would seem she is viewed as mentally incapable as well. Please don’t compare her to a Melech – a king is exempt simply because a ruler would not be able to rule if he had to give testimony about every thing people told him. I have seen that the Talmud writes this is a curse of Chava. I have also seen the minority opinion that this should be true since the masculine tense does not necessarily exclude the feminine.

Answer: If a woman could be a witness she would then be REQUIRED to be a witness. You can’t have a situation where some people are compelled to be witnesses while others get to choose whether they want to show up in court or not! Jewish women have the absolutely most important job in the world: raising the next generation of Jews! In addition, most women have a natural modesty that makes it extremely uncomfortable for them to be in the public eye in the way that a witness in court must be. I know there are women who enjoy being in the public eye as well as women who don’t have small children at home, but the category still holds: women as mothers, women as shy and modest creatures. Also in Jewish law, the witnesses have to carry out the punishment. If they testify that a man committed murder and he is convicted, they have to be the ones to carry out the execution! This would be unbearable for most women.

I will add something else that I heard from my father, R’ Nachman Bulman zt’l: he said that women tend to add in extraneous details, emotional tone, motivation, background, extenuating circumstances. In a court of law – a human court – there are procedural rules that must be followed, and a witness has to say “just the facts.” But the way a woman looks at things – taking into account the person’s motives, background, feelings and so on – is actually a Divine way of judging events! It is just that a human court has to follow rules of procedures set down for human beings.

Question: How can you claim women have different roles that are equal to men’s when the Torah clearly states in Vayikra 27 that a woman’s value is always less than a man’s? Especially when reading R Shimshon Raphael Hirsch who states this is due to the man’s role giving him two aspects of home and communal so he is worth more. Clearly there are different roles and clearly they are not worth the same so they are not equal. Seems to me this line of different but equal is apologetic and a poor attempt by the Orthodox to deny what is socially unacceptable today: that women are not as valued as men in Torah. Women are indeed inferior in Judaism. We can’t say that today so instead we do gymnastics to deny the obvious. If I am wrong please correct me and if not please acknowledge this.

Answer: Rashi says the differing values assigned to men and women (or to children or to old people) have to do with their physical strength—related to the amount they would get on the slave market if sold as slaves. The passage to which you refer is talking about something very narrow and particular: the case where someone wants to donate to the Temple the “value” of a particular person. “I want to donate the value of my five-year-old son” or “I want to donate the value of my elderly mother.” How would you determine the monetary value of a person? By their physical strength, that’s all.
—Toby Katz

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