Women and Judaism

19 02 2007

People who know me are aware of the fact that I’m a fairly rabid feminist (by East Coast standards, not West Coast ones.  This means that I don’t find jokes like “Why couldn’t Helen Keller drive? Because she was a woman” or “A truck hit a woman the other day, who’s fault was it?  The drivers, he shouldn’t have been driving in the kitchen” funny at all.  This is normal where I grew up, but at my college it puts me in the crazy category.)  This has caused an awful lot of confusion for my friends, because why would someone that feminist even consider converting to a religion that treats women as secondary the way they think Orthodox Judaism does. 

It’s interesting, since things that would bother me in any other situation don’t bother me in Judaism.  Proscribed roles for men and women, women not being able to lead public prayer, all of that? It would drive me crazy anywhere else.  I would be leading the protest.  But somehow, in the context of religion (This specific religion) it doesn’t bother me.  Now, that’s not to say that I don’t think women’s roles should be expanded as much as possible, but I don’t object out of hand to women doing different things than men do.  I think this is because of a few different things.  First off, Judaism has a very clear concept of “separate but equal”.  Jews arn’t better than non-Jews (according to reasonable people, bigots will clearly tell you otherwise.), HaShem doesn’t love Kohenim more than Levi’im, meat is not inherently better than dairy, Shabbos is wonderful, but weekdays have their upsides too (knitting and Heros being two of the best).  So fine, men and women do different things, but lots of things are different, and in that context it doesn’t seem like HaShem is saying he thinks men are better and so he’s giving them more mitzvot.  He’s just saying that different people are different, and need different things in their relationship with Him.  When you phrase it that way, it really becomes a sort of “Well, duh!” statement.  

Also (and this is something that’s only visible from inside the community) there is an incredible amount of respect shown to women.  Women really do have control over all the most important things in a family, and if you hear the way the orthodox men I know talk about their wives it’s quite clear that they don’t regard them as “silly women” but as equals.  Think about which miztvot are generally considered women’s mitzvot, and which ones are men’s.  The ones that are absolutly vital to maintaining a Jewish community are all trusted to women.  As for davening with a mechitzah, I actually enjoy davening with just women around me.  I’m far less selfconcious, and there’s a really wonderful community that forms, that wouldn’t be the same if there were guys there. 

Lastly, and this is what’s hardest to describe, my relationship with G-d is deeply rooted in the part of my identity that includes my being female.  Since the two are so closely related in my mind, I have have a hard time saying that Judaism shouldn’t acknowledge that gender affects how people ought to relate to G-d.

Now, this is not to say that I don’t have my issues with the treatment of women in many situations.  Beating women up for not sitting in the back of the bus?  Totally out of line.  Spraying bleach on women who you think are dressed immodestly?  There are so many problems with that, I don’t even know where to starts. I hope they’ll be glad to know that if anyone in Jerusalem ever sprays anything on me, the overall modesty in the area will decrease dramatically, since my response will now be to rip off whatever item of clothing has been sprayed in an attempt to avoid chemical burns.  My safety is a bit more important than modesty, and I’m reasonable sure G-d’s on my side on that one.  (I’d certainly try to cover up as fast as possible, since I’ve never been comfortable in revealing clothing, much less topless, but still).  I’m choosing not to convert Sephardi (and it would be an option for me, so I really am giving up lentils and rice during Pesach) because I want to have the option of performing mitzvot I’m not obligated in, and Sephardi practice (I believe, correct me if I’m wrong) is not to do so.  Artscroll’s perspective on women frequently bothers me, for example this passage about candle lighting “Since women generally look after household matters, the mitzvah of of kindling the lights has devolvedupon the mistress of the house” (Artscroll Interlinear Translation Siddur, pg 2., emphasis mine)  Devolved?  Every time I read that I feel like what they really wanted to say was “Women are at home all day, so we get to stick them with the crappy mitzvah,” which is totally demeaning both to women and to my favorite mitzvah (after that comes Chanukah menorah lighting, and then burning chametz.  Theme much?) They could just as easily have said “Since women generally look after household matters, the mitzvah of of kindling the lights has traditionally been the responsibility of the mistress of the house.”  See, much more positive all the way around! 

In the end though, I feel like most problems about women and Orthodox Judaism are really issues with smaller segments within the larger Jewish community, not a problem with the overall system being irreparably broken, the way many people would have you believe. 

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5 responses

20 02 2007
Gavi

Ah, another Artscroll misinterpretation… Gotta call it like it is: Artscroll has done some wonderful things, especially with their siddur and machzorim, but sometimes they don’t give the whole picture.

Also, your comment about Sefardi women not doing mitzvos that they are not obligated, while Ashkenazi women doing them: it is not as clear-cut as that. To oversimplify, most of the differences centre on whether the woman performing the given mitzvah makes a beracha or not (e.g. taking the daled minim on sukkos). There are, however, some mitzvos that technically could be performed by women that no community of women within the positions of normative Orthodox halacha has adopted (e.g. wearing tefillin or tzitzis).

As a male, I agree with your conclusion – and it’s not only true with issues relating to women. Many gender-irrelevant issues are the same way.

20 02 2007
Emily

Yes, Artscroll is certainly special. I love my siddur, but there are some things that drive me crazy in it.
As for women in Ashkenazi and Sephardi practice, you’re right it’s not as clear cut as I made it seem, but I do still feel that there’s more of a barrier to women’s full participation in Sephardi practice. There are certain parts of the service that they don’t say, etc, which as you pointed out, comes back to not saying a bracha on mitzvot that you’re not obligated in. I suppose part of it is that philosophically I agree more with Ashkenazi practice on this, and since I’m in a position where I get to choose which I follow, I’ll choose what I agree with most. And this isn’t by any means the only thing affecting my choice, there are plenty of other factors. You’re right though, thanks for pointing that out.

(Also, there have been orthodox women who wore tefillin, like Rashi’s daughters. Just because it’s not common doesn’t mean it’s not done 🙂 )

6 09 2007
David

The word “devolve” does not mean the opposite of “evolve” – it means to pass onto another. There is nothing perjorative about its usage concerning lighting Shabbat candles. Since the woman is at home at the correct time, and men are usually not, this mitzvah is more appropriately done by her. This certainly cannot be seen as a less important mitzvah, in fact, lighting candles for Shabbat is a very important mitzvah and is a primary way Jews distinquish Shabbat from other days of the week.

Concerning women wearing tefillin, Rashi’s daughters are unique cases, few Jews can claim to be at this level and there are things that particular Sages did which I think no Jew should decide he merits the same departure from today’s normative halacha. Also, if a woman wishes to wear tefillin, I think it only correct to do so privately, and not publically.

Sometimes we more deeply serve Hashem by not doing instead of doing.

25 09 2007
Emily

David- i was amazed that when i looked it up, you’re right about the denotation of “devolve” While I will give you that point, I still maintain that the connotation, the sense of the word, is still negative. My main point still stands, which is that there is a far more positive way to phrase that.
And you’re correct about tefillin too. If women do wear them, it should be done privatly. However, again this comes down to not common, but still not disallowed. Thanks though, you bring up good points!

28 11 2009
mrsglassmer

I love this post! I completely agree with a lot of what you are saying…but I do have a different point of view as well. I’m a Conservative Jew, so there are some things that I grew up doing, like wearing a Tallit after my Bat Mitzvah, that I don’t know if I’ll be able to give up as I become more religious. On the other hand, I don’t mind, and actually am growing to enjoy, covering my hair as a married woman. Anyone who knows me as a feminist thinks I’m a little crazy, but I know that there is such a sense of equality in Judaism that really does make it quite beautiful.

P.S. People always ask me if I have a gender neutral Tanakh or prayerbook or anything like that and my response is always no. I don’t mind the characterization of HaShem as male. Every little girl and every little boy looks up to their father for protection and guidance, and HaShem is our father, so what’s the problem? It’s not to say males are better…it’s just the way it is.

Mallory Glassmer
rediscoveringmysoul.wordpress.com

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