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A feminist perspective on the Jewish woman
Lucy Y. Steinitz
Let me begin with a quote from a speech made at the first National Jewish Women's Conference in New York, in 1973. The speaker is sharing a deeply personal issue in her own Jewish identity.
It seems to me that the identity of the Jewish woman — or rather of some of the Jewish women I know, including, first of all, myself — lies somewhere in the conflict between being a woman and being a Jew and in the necessity of combining the two in as yet unknown ways1.
Three years have passed since that speech — scarcely a wink in the great span of Jewish history. But in that time the Jewish women's movement — that is, the convergence of a feminist ideology and Jewish commitment among women of all ages — has stimulated hundreds of local and three North American conferences, the publication of related books and articles, and the gradual change in the school curriculums and policies of many non-Orthodox institutions in America. In 1972 Sally Priesand was the first woman rabbi to be ordained by a theological seminary. One year later, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Jewish movement in America resolved that men and women should be counted equally for a minyan (quorum for prayer), which was heretofore only permitted in less traditional Reform congregations.
The Jewish women's movement is an organized response to the traditional position women hold in religious Judaism, and to the raised consciousness of women which was sparked by the secular feminist movement. Permit me to take an example from my personal experience. Last fall I taught a course on the Jewish woman at City College in New York City. Two thirds of my students were young Orthodox women who had had twelve years of parochial yeshiva (Jewish day school) education. Every lesson in the course, they said, no matter how abstract or how objective, addressed them personally and directly. It spoke to their lives, their futures, and their relationship to God and the community of Israel.
WOMEN IN THE BIBLE
In looking for appropriate role models, we may first look at Jewish women in the Bible. In the beginning of Genesis it is written that God created both man and woman in his own image (Gen. 1:27). They both share in his blessing « Be fruitful and multiply » (Gen. 1:28). This is God's first commandment, and more than any other it has shaped the life of the Jewish woman.
« May God make thee like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. » A Jewish father pronounces this benediction over his daughters every Shabbat (Sabbath) evening, since ancient times. We honor and praise these matriarchs, our primeval foremothers, praying that contemporary women might find fulfillment in the same roles as they did. God pronounced a sentence upon the first woman, Eve, informing her of the inescapable role of all women:
And to the woman he said: « I will make most severe
Your pangs in childbearing;
In pain shall you bear children,
Yet your urge shall be your husband,
And he shall rule over you » (Gen. 3:16).
All the tragedy of woman lies in these words, and, according to large segments of Orthodox Judaism, all of her ordained happiness as well.
The biblical narratives show us the condition of early Jewish women. A great many of the legal regulations apply to men and women alike; in addition women were given special assurances that they were owed food, clothing and loyalty by their husbands. The honor and purity of women was carefully protected by law. A man who raped a betrothed woman was stoned; if she submitted to him of her own free will, both were stoned. When Jacob's only daughter Dinah was seduced, her brothers took revenge on all the inhabitants of the offender's city. True, the Bible permits polygamy (which was formally outlawed only in the eleventh century C.E.), but prostitutes could not be held sacred in the Israelite community. The Jews were pledged to become a goy kadosh -- a holy nation, a model for all other peoples.
There are great moments in biblical history when Jewish women have had major parts. Miriam, sister of Moses, led the women of Israel in what was probably the first national anthem, « Sing unto the Lord * (Ex. 15:21), in celebration of the end of four centuries of bondage in Egypt. We initially see her in Exodus 2:4, 7, guarding her baby brother, fearlessly asking the daughter of Pharaoh whether she would like a Hebrew nurse (i.e. herself) to care for the foundling baby Moses. Miriam was as forthright as she was courageous, later punished with leprosy after her criticism of Moses' marriage to a Cushite woman. But, « Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, "0 God, pray heal her!" » (Num. 12:13). While Miriam was shut out of the camp for seven days in accordance with the regulations held by the Israelites (Num. 12:15), the people waited for her before they resumed their journey to the Promised Land.
Following Miriam are the prophetesses Hulda and Deborah. Deborah was the only woman in the Bible to be placed at the height of political power by the common consent of her people. She was a counselor during peaceful times and a leader at war, arising to defend Israel, exclaiming to Barak: « Up; for this is the day in which the Lord hath delivered Sisera into thy hand; is not the Lord gone out before thee? » (Judges 4:14). The battle was won; the victory celebrated through the composition of the triumphant « Song of Deborah » (Judges 5:2-31).
Two books of the Bible are called by the names of women; they are Ruth and Esther, whose stories are read every Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) and Purim in the Jewish calendar. The Book of Ruth is the tale of a Moabite woman who converts to Judaism, and her undying devotion to Naomi, her mother-in-law. The Book of Esther is the story of a Jewess who becomes queen in the Persian court. Through her modesty and charming guile, forever faithful to her people, she succeeds in influencing the king to save the Jews from threatened destruction. The role model, then, is clear. The ideal Jewish woman should possess beauty, humility, courage, loyalty, grace and obedience.
Above all, the Jewish woman is to be a wife and mother. Every Shabbat eve the woman is blessed by her husband: « Eshet hayil, mi yimzah?..”
A woman of valour, who can find?
For her price is far above rubies...
She looketh well to the ways of her household, And eateth not the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up, and call her blessed; Her husband, also, and he praiseth her:
Many daughters have done valiantly,
But thou excellest them all (Prov. 31:10-29).
But there is another side of woman, too. We are warned:
To keep thee from the evil woman,
From the smoothness of the alien tongue. Lust not after her beauty in thy heart;
Neither let her captivate thee with her eyelids.
For on account of a harlot a man is brought to a loaf of bread,
But the adulteress hunteth for the precious life (Prov. 6:24-26).
The prototypical evil woman stems out of the conflict between two biblical stories of creation. In Genesis chapter two, God created Eve out of the rib of Adam. In the first chapter of Genesis man and woman are created equal. The contradiction led to the midrashic development of the Lilith myth — Lilith, who receives only scant attention in Isaiah 34:14, sometimes translated as the « night-monster ». The legend is as follows:
To banish Adam's loneliness, Lilith was first given to him as a wife. Like him she had been created out of the dust of the ground. But she remained with him only a short time, because she insisted upon enjoying full equality with her husband. She derived her rights from their identical origin. With the help of the Ineffable Name, which she pronounced, Lilith flew away from Adam, and vanished in the air. Adam complained before God that the wife He had given him had deserted him, and God sent forth three angels to capture her. They found her in the Red Sea, and they sought to make her go back with the threat that, unless she went, she would lose a hundred of her demon children daily by death. But Lilith preferred this punishment to living with Adam. She takes her revenge by injuring babies — baby boys during the first night of their life, while baby girls are exposed to her wicked designs until they are twenty days old. The only way to ward off the evil is to attach an amulet bearing the name of the three angel captors to the children, for such had been the agreement between. them.
The woman destined to become the true companion of man was taken from Adam's body, for « only when like is joined unto like is the union indissoluble ». The creation of woman from man was possible because Adam originally had two faces, which were separated at the birth of Eve.2
The Lilith myth has a moral to it. Lilith was punished and later feared for her independence. For hundreds of years Jewish women have been told that it is dangerous to be like her. Aggression, self-assertion and strength are not considered admirable qualities in a woman. It is better to be submissive like Eve.3
WOMEN AND THE COMMANDMENTS
Even more than from specific character models, the life of the traditional Jewish woman is defined by her relationship to the mitzvot (commandments) which every observant Jew must follow. Of particular interest here are those positively stated time-bound commandments (mitzvot aseh shehazman g'rama) from which women are exempt according to the Mishnah (Kiddushin 1:7). Women are not required, for example, to hear the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah (the Jewish New Year), pray three times daily, wear tefillin (phylacteries) or the tallit (prayer shawl), or eat in a sukkah (hut) during the Festival of Tabernacles. The three exceptions to this rule are the preparation of hallah (separation of dough for the Sabbath loaves), the kindling of the Sabbath lights, and the maintenance of taharat ha-mishpahah (the laws of family purity).
The reason that is most frequently given for this general exemption is that women are constantly caring for their husbands and children and cannot always afford the time to perform mitzvot at a specific time. The woman's primary concerns are domestic; within the family she has necessary and often noble tasks to fulfill. In her home, the traditional Jewish woman is often placed on a pedestal. Her role is different from a man's, but no less essential for the continuity of Jewish life.
But this interpretation has been criticized by many who feel that the heart and soul of Judaism is in the community and in prayer. The Orthodox bet midrash (house of study) and synagogue are almost exclusively dominated by men. Women may have been satisfied with their position throughout most of Jewish history, but our modern perception forces us to conclude that they have been consistently relegated to a second-class status in almost all areas of Jewish communal activity.
It is true, however, that although women are exempt from certain commandments (and generally have not performed them), many rabbis agree that women may choose to perform these commandments if they wish. Some feminist Jews today are making that choice. Of all the major post-talmudic rabbis, only Rashi entirely precludes women from performing these mitzvot.
MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE
Many of the Jewish laws pertaining to women concern the rituals and regulations of marriage. On several occasions the rabbis have said that he who is without a wife dwells without blessing, life, joy, help, good and peace' The purpose of marriage is to fulfill the duty of procreation, to act as a check against immorality (i.e. to legitimately channel sexual impulses), and to grant economic and social companionship to both parties involved. The actual ceremony involves the two distinct acts of betrothal and marriage, including the signing of the marriage contract (ketubbah) which is the legal document embodying those central points to which the husband and wife agree. The ketubbah was originally instituted to protect the wife against arbitrary divorce or neglect. It traditionally contained provisions for the dowry and inheritance, and for the wife's right to food, clothing, medicine, ransom, burial, marital (sexual) satisfaction and payment of a minimum amount of money in case of death or divorce.
Under normal circumstances, a divorce can be granted only by the free consent of both the husband and (by the decree of Rabbi Gershom in the eleventh century) the wife. Only a man, however, may directly demand a divorce from his wife; the woman must first publicly plead her case before a bet din (rabbinic court) in order to begin divorce proceedings.
Biblical law (Deut. 25:5-10) required that a widow of a man who did not leave any children be married to her husband's brother in order to ensure that the deceased husband would have an heir. The child of the levitate marriage (as this union is called) was considered the child of the late husband. The widow could be released from the levitate bond only at the discretion of the deceased's brothers through the performance of a special ceremony known as haliph. According to another decree of Rabbi Gershom, however, the option of a levitate marriage is almost always no longer available, and the parties must invariably carry out the halixah ritual.
Once married, the observant Jewish woman adheres to the laws of taharat ha-mishpahah (family purity). Sexual intercourse is forbidden during and directly following the woman's menstrual period. This time span in which the woman is considered teme'ah (separate, or unclean), includes the duration of the menstrual flow (for which one must count a minimum of five days), and the dormancy period of seven days during which there can be absolutely no bleeding (or else it must be repeated). After bearing a child the woman is also teme'ah for a period of two or three weeks including the seven-day dormancy period, depending on whether the child is male or female, respectively (see Lev. 12:1-8). One modern interpretation ascribes the symbol of death to the contacting womb after childbirth and to the release of menstrual blood which, when inside the womb, was a potential life nutriment.' The teme'ah woman becomes clean or repurified and may resume normal sexual relations following her immersion in a ritual bath (mikveh).
The psychological effects of the laws of family purity on the contemporary Jewish woman can, if not properly understood, be devastating. If a ritually impure woman is considered physically unclean or repulsive, this may cause damage to her own attitudes and self-esteem. In response to this problem one feminist group in New York developed a berakhah (blessing), to be recited upon the onset of every menstrual flow, which helps to counteract any adverse or negative implications menstruation may have:
Blessed are You, 0 Lord our God, and God of our foremothers and forefathers, who have set the moon in its path and have set the order of the cycles of life. Blessed are You, 0 Lord, who have created me a woman.6
WOMEN IN JEWISH HISTORY
The position of women in Jewish history has to be seen in relation to their position in general community life. As reflected in the responsa literature of the Middle Ages (900 C.E. - 1500 C.E.), for example, Jewish women were very active in the business and commercial operations of their husbands. Often entering into transactions entirely on their own, they were widely respected as efficient and astute businesswomen. This economic importance increased their prestige and influence within the Jewish community. The commentary cites that « nowadays we no longer avoid walking behind a woman (for fear of evil) » despite an earlier talmudic caution to the contrary.' Women also began pressing for certain religious privileges that had previously been observed only by men. Some leaned at the seder meal during Passover, wore xitzit (ritual fringes), or asked to be called up to the Torah in the synagogue.9 The responsa literature gives us clear evidence of the simultaneous rise in the status of Jewish women in secular and in religious life — a correlation known to sociologists as status equilibration.
This is significant because I believe that the same relationship is evident today. We are witnessing a tremendous change in the role of women in our society. Women are advancing in educational achievement, in research and academia, and in positions of political and organizational influence. Many Jewish women are seeking the same kind of change within their sectarian communities. Motivated, perhaps, by the secular women's movement but nevertheless committed to their own tradition, these women are studying their heritage, struggling with specific issues, and demanding what they feel to be appropriate changes within the educational, political and religious realms of Jewish life. Jewish feminists are asking, in short, to be treated as full and complete Jews, as human beings, and as equal participants in the development of a vital international Jewish community.
Lucy Y. Steinitz is Co-ordinator for Academic Development at the Department of Jewish Studies at the City College of New York and edits Response Magazine: A Contemporary Jewish Review.
1. Judith Plaskow Goldenberg, « The Jewish Feminist: Conflict in Identities », Liz Kolton et al, eds. Response: A Contemporary 'Jewish Review ("The Jewish Woman: An Anthology"). No. 18 (Summer 1973), p. 11.
2. Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1956), pp. 65-66. This legend is based on the Alphabet of Ben Sira 23 a/b and 33 a/b; Zohar I, 19b, 34b, III, 19a; Midrash Ha-Gadol I, 83; Genesis Rabbah 8.1 and 17.6; etc.
3. Sally Priesand, Judaism and the New Woman (New York: Behrman House, 1975), p. 5.
4. See C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1960), pp. 507-510.
5. Rachel Adler, « Tum'ah and Tohorah: Ends and Beginnings », in Kolton, op. cit., pp. 117-127. Rachel Adler suggests that the duration of teme'ah (separateness or uncleanliness) is increased at the birth of a daughter because the mother is giving birth to another potential birth-giver.
6. Nita Polay, « Bracha on Menstruation », Kesher:
A Havurah and New Halacha Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Washington, D.C., August 1974). [Text slightly modified. Ed.]
7. The responsa are replies written by competent rabbinic authorities to questions dealing with Jewish law. A vast responsa literature covers the period from the ninth century to the present day.
8. Isidore Epstein, « The Jewish Women in 'the Responsa », Leo Jung, ed., The Jewish Library, Vol. 3, Woman (London: Soncino Press, 1970), p. 44. See also Talmud Berakhot 61a.
9. Epstein, op. cit., p. 44.