Women in Orthodox Judaism, or: Daniella Opens a Can

Dear Josep,

I was asked recently whether I had written anything for the blog on the status of women in Judaism. I gave an ironic smile and said, “Oh, heck, no. I’ve been avoiding that can of worms.”


I brought my can opener.
I brought my can opener.

I’ve been avoiding it because… well, volumes have been written on the topic of women and gender in Judaism from every possible viewpoint and perspective, and I don’t feel I have anything groundbreaking to contribute to the conversation. Furthermore, my views on the topic are somewhat conflicting and in flux–sometimes I feel one way strongly, and sometimes another, and sometimes neither.

But you are not part of any of that discourse, so I might as well just give it to you straight, and then discuss my thoughts on it afterwards.

The Torah asserts a fairly non-politically-correct, but in my opinion, actually-correct idea: that men and women are built differently. Now before everybody jumps on me, that isn’t to say that one gender is better than the other, or that some men aren’t built more similarly to women, and some women, more similarly to men. It means that in general, the biological difference reflects a mental and spiritual difference, too. And the differences in the requirements of halakha in regards to men and women, are meant to reflect those differences.

However, as we all know, society has been abusing those differences since the dawn of humanity, and some of the differences between men’s and women’s roles in society are the result of misogyny and abuse of power. Sadly, there are some aspects of Jewish law that probably reflect that as well.

Practically speaking, the difference is this: women have fewer halakhic requirements, and therefore halakhic privileges, than men. We are exempt from commandments that are anchored to a certain time of day, and a few others. They include many of the external and public ritual observances, such as prayer, putting on tefillin, studying Torah, and the like. While that means we have less halakhic “responsibility,” it also means that we can’t be as involved in those rituals as men are. For example, because we are not required to study Torah, and therefore hearing the Torah reading is optional for us, we can’t read the Torah for a man to fill his obligation, because he needs to hear it from someone who has the same level of obligation as him. When it comes to the reading of the Scroll of Esther on Purim, on the other hand,  women and men are equally obligated, and therefore a woman could theoretically read it for a man and fill his obligation. But because of issues of modesty, it is very rare for a woman to read megilla for men (even though it is permissible). In communities that have megilla readings by women, they are usually for women only.

So, historically, the combination of lesser obligation and modesty issues led to women being marginalized in the synagogue, and left out of the houses of learning altogether, until quite recently. Women were generally your typical homemakers and child-bearers, and female leaders were very rare. But they did exist! Miriam, Moses’s sister, had a prominent role among the Israelites. Deborah the Prophetess (Judges 4-5) led a war against a Canaanite general.

Deborah, as interpreted by Gustave Doré.
Deborah, as interpreted by Gustave Doré.

Salome Alexandra (Shlomtzion in Hebrew) was a Hasmonean queen who brought relative peace to Judea under her rule. A woman called Bruriah is quoted as a sage in the Talmud, and was respected for her vast knowledge. And today, there are quite a number of rebbetzins (rabbis’ wives) who are regarded as great spiritual leaders.

Still, as a general rule, women have a more traditional role in Jewish society, and the laws of modesty tend to focus more on women’s requirements than men’s. There is no denying that sometimes that can be stifling, if not discriminatory.

However. There are a few howevers:

Unlike most other religions, the heart of Judaism is not actually the external rituals observed in the synagogue, but the laws observed in the home, namely kashrut, Shabbat, and family purity. The observance of these laws has always fallen mostly in the domain of women. Moreover, having children and raising them as dedicated Jews has a lot of importance to us. Therefore, women have actually had a very central role in Judaism. That’s one of the reasons Judaism is passed down through the mother, not the father or a combination of both.

Which brings me to the next “however”: there are aspects of Jewish law that actually favor women over men. Such as what I just mentioned. Another example: the Jewish marriage contract is slanted sharply in favor of the woman. The Torah (Exodus 22:10) specifically requires a husband to provide for his wife, and it specifies: food, clothing, and sexual satisfaction. (!) While the husband does expect certain “rights” from his wife, these have much less weight than those three Torah obligations. The entire contract was built to protect women, and though it is far from perfect, it was way ahead of its time.

Also… things are changing, even in the most insular of Jewish communities. It was always accepted for women to have female spiritual leaders, but now that has become a lot more widespread, and there is even a daring movement in the Orthodox world to ordain female rabbis. Whereas many synagogues used to designate one little room in the back with a little window as the “women’s section,” these days it is much more common to have a barrier down the middle of the room, so the women can be close to the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept, and follow the prayers more easily. In the communities I have belonged to, women also give talks on Torah topics during the services (where only men used to do that), and generally participate more fully in the ritual aspect of Jewish life. I read from my weekly Torah portion at my bat mitzvah party (instead of at synagogue), and a number of my peers held women’s prayer services for their bat mitzvahs so they could read from the Torah during the service. And I’ve been reading from the Scroll of Esther on Purim during women’s readings since I was in tenth grade.

As Ludwig van Beethoven. What?
As Ludwig van Beethoven. What? 😛1

Personally? I very rarely felt excluded and marginalized as an observant Jewish woman. I grew up in communities where women were respected and valued. But I recognize that I may not be representative of the majority. I mean… I grew up with a mom who is a karate instructor and later became a prominent activist for women’s empowerment and all kinds of other cool things; she is one of the founders of El Halev (the Association for Women in the Martial Arts in Israel). And I followed in her footsteps as a self-defense instructor.2

Basically, I was raised in a household where there was no concept that I was any “less” because I was a woman. My mother always took a very active role in her public practice of Judaism. I went to a high school for religious girls, and they never gave me a sense that I had any less responsibility or a less important place in society than men. For the most part, I am relieved to have a “lesser” obligation towards certain mitzvot, because it gives me more leeway, and freedom to connect to God in a way that suits me. And I connect to the more “feminine” aspects of Judaism and the commandments that have traditionally been embraced as being “women’s” commandments–lighting Shabbat candles, “taking challah” (separating a piece of dough and burning it in memory of a donation to the priests that would have been made in the time of the Temple), and immersing in the mikveh. In general, I grew up with the sense that women are to be respected and revered for our power to bring life into the world; that femininity is a force that is different, but no less powerful, than masculinity, and both are required to bring balance to the world.

I know, though, that there are many who have experienced being a Jewish woman differently.

I have written before that there are things about the Torah that I struggle to reconcile with my own sense of morality. In some senses, we believe that the wisdom of the Torah is Divine and therefore eternal and relevant at every moment in time. In other senses, however, we recognize that some parts of it may have been meant as a compromise with human nature, taking into account the context of the time. For example, in Deuteronomy 22:1-14, the Torah describes a situation of war, in which a beautiful woman is taken hostage by an Israelite soldier.  The Torah permits the Israelite to sleep with her, but only after he fills the following conditions:

  1. He must admit her into his household.
  2. Her head must be shaved and her nails cut.
  3. She must be permitted to wear regular (non-slave) clothing.
  4. She must be given a full month to mourn the loss of her parents.

After all these things, if he still wishes to sleep with her, he may marry her, and do so. If not, he must set her free, and he is not allowed to sell her, because, the Torah says, “he has tormented her.”

…Why would the Torah allow a Jew to “torment” a woman this way?

The Sages teach that during the time of the Bible, and even today (see: ISIS), raping and pillaging as part of war was a matter of course. The Torah accepts that this is the reality, the Sages say, and that this is part of human nature during wartime; however, it seeks to channel this urge more positively. Meaning, it gives the man an outlet for his urge, but only under certain circumstances which place some distance between him and his urge, reducing the harm to the woman somewhat, and discouraging him from doing this in the first place.

But why, one would ask, would the Torah do this? If the Torah recognizes wartime rape as immoral, why not simply forbid it? The Sages would respond that the Torah has to take human nature into account, because if it ordered us to do things that were simply impossible, we would end up rejecting the whole thing.

Okay, well, I recognize the wisdom in taking human nature into account. But why is wartime rape “channeled,” while, say, homosexual relations are completely forbidden? And I think the answer is that the Torah was speaking to the context of its time–when homosexuality was less about love and more about idol worship, and women were still viewed as lesser members of society, if not property.

The fact is that the Torah was daringly progressive for its time in terms of its treatment of women. As far as I know, it was the first religion to grant women any rights at all. (See above about Jewish marriage.) Many of the laws, such as requiring a man to marry a woman if he rapes her, seem cruel and primitive in the context of our time, but actually made more sense in the context of the Biblical period; a woman who was raped was seen as damaged goods and would probably never find a husband to provide for her–pretty much a death sentence for a woman of that period. Requiring the rapist to marry her meant that she would be provided for. “Well, then,” I say, “why not punish rape more severely, and require the community to support a woman who was raped, or offer an incentive to a man who marries a victim of rape?” I have lots of advice for God, you see. 😛

I am not the only person, however, to think that the restrictions in the Torah are sometimes not enough, and that the rules should be adapted to raise the moral standard. The most famous example of this is the ban of Rabbenu Gershom, prohibiting Jews from marrying more than one wife. While polygamy was not prohibited by the Torah, monogamy was generally the norm in Jewish society, and Rabbenu Gershom, seeing how much harm polygamy could cause, made it officially prohibited in the 11th century.

The problem is that this only goes in one direction. We can add restrictions, but we can’t lift them. So if monogamy makes sense, we can definitely forbid men to marry more than one wife. And if slavery is awful, we can toss the laws protecting the rights of slaves and ban slavery altogether. But if, say, it also makes total sense for women to serve as rabbinical judges, we can’t cancel the strong precedent in Jewish law that asserts that rabbinical judges must be male (based on the conjugation of the Biblical passage). It is those types of restrictions or limits that are the source of the most friction in this constant conflict within the heart of the modern observant Jew. Jewish law does change and shift over time and there is importance to the reality on the ground, but there is a strong anchor in ancient texts that may be less relevant to our time… and that’s built in to the system.

So I think that the Torah was meant as a starting point; a blueprint on which the Oral Tradition and the living sea of Jewish law was meant to be built upon. And I think that there are parts of it that are meant to be taken at face value–such as, “Thou shalt not murder”–and others that we are meant to struggle with over time. So maybe God actually likes my “advice,” and gives me–and all people in general–the responsibility to figure these things out, working from the framework laid out by the Torah. And maybe the things we find difficult, we are supposed to find difficult. I don’t know why. But I have faith that God knew what He was doing.

Our anchor in ancient texts and precedents, which in some ways may hold us back, also prevents us from being swept away in the swiftly-changing currents of human ideas. This may be counter-intuitive to the modern thinker, but there is great wisdom in it, because the human sense of morality has shifted drastically over time–usually in a direction of greater morality, but not always. Western concepts of equality and human rights, for example, are wonderful and progressive ideas that are definitely supported by the Torah. Western concepts of sexual freedom, however, can be highly destructive when they get out of bounds–objectifying women, creating an environment where young men feel they have to make “sexual conquests” to be “real men,” etc. When you have a system like ours, trends and ideas are sifted through many filters, considered extremely carefully, before we adopt them as part of our society. So, being slow to change has its advantages, too.

And now that I’ve probably offended or disappointed everyone along the entire religious and political spectrum, I’m just gonna post another photo of 16-year-old me in my Beethoven costume.

You're welcome.
You’re welcome.



1. Dressing up in costumes is a unique tradition of Purim, which I explained in a post about Purim that I had to remove for technical reasons (and will post again next Purim). And I always embraced this tradition with such gusto and creativity, that the photographic evidence of my wackiness is basically the only thing Josep remembered about Judaism from all the e-mails I sent him that year. 😛

2. Yes, I am a self-defense instructor for IMPACT Personal Safety here in Israel. Click here for more information on IMPACT … and here to see a video of me demonstrating a knee strike on a padded male instructor! 😀 (Don’t worry, he’s well protected!) 

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