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Role of women in Judaism

The following considers the role of women in Judaism.

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The role of women in Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism views men and women as having different but complementary roles, and thus different obligations. This is similar to the traditional interpretation of some other religions, for instance Islam. In the area of education, women were traditionally exempted - and often banned - from any study beyond a basic understanding of the Torah, and the rules necessary in running a Jewish household. Women were discouraged from learning Talmud and other advanced Jewish texts. Women are exempt from having to follow most of the set daily prayer services, and most other positive time bound mitzvot[?] (commandments), such as wearing tefillin. (There are a number of notable exceptions). As such, the halakha (traditional law codes specify that women are not eligible to be counted in a minyan[?], as a minyan is a quorum of those who are obligated.

Many people view these elements of Orthodox Judaism as sexist.

Tzinut - the rules of modesty

Orthodox Jewish men generally do not touch, gaze at, or sit next to women other than their wives or relatives, for reasons of modesty. They also do not touch their wife while she is menstruating, for a short period after menstruating, and after the birth of a child. This also includes indirect contact; for instance a plate would not be passed on directly, but first put down on a table so that both do not hold on to the object at the same time. They also include additional restrictions against, for example, flirting.


Both the Tanakh and the Talmud allow polygamy; however the Torah's stories imply that monogamy is the preferred and ideal state; the Talmud itself teaches that monogamy is the ideal that all people should follow. In most Jewish communities, polygamy has not existed in any significant form for thousands of years. In the 10th century C.E., Rabbi Gershom of Germany[?] issued a Takanah (rabbinic decree) banning polygamy, and his ruling has been accepted by all Jewish communities. (The isolated Yemenite Jewish community[?] continued to practice polygamy into the 1950s.) Rabbi Gershom noted that, while polygamy exists in the Bible, every instance thereof leads to terrible unhappiness and suffering: Abraham's wives Sarah and Hagar hate each other; Jacob's second wife Leah in unloved and miserable, and her sons grow to hate her sister Rachel's son, Joseph. He also concluded that legal polygamy constituted chilul Hashem -- it created a negative image of Jews in the eyes of non-Jews.

Even before Rabbi Gershom's takanah, the Talmudic precept "dina de'malkhuta dina" -- "the law of the state is the (Jewish) law" -- had outright prevented polygamy for all Jews living in countries where civil law banned it. In those cases when it was not prevented, it was still remarkably rare. Each of the rabbis of the Talmud -- whose written redaction spanned from before the Common Era to the 5th century C.E. -- was married to exactly one woman.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin[?] notes that, had God seen polygamy as the ideal, He would have created "Adam, Eve, and Joan."

Changes in the Orthodox position

One of the first major breaks with the traditional role of women came from within the Orthodox movement, by the Chofetz Chaim[?], Rabbi Yisroel Meir HaKohen[?] (1838-1933). He overruled the traditional prohibitions against advanced training of women on the basis that times have changed, and that in the modern world it is now important for women to have an advanced Jewish education. Soon after this, the Bais Yaakov (House of Jacob) network of Orthodox Torah schools for women was built.

Recently, a few leaders in the Modern Orthodox community have set up schools that bring advanced Jewish studies to women, including Stern College at Yeshiva University, and the Drisha Institute[?] (both in New York City). At recent conferences on Feminism and Orthodox Judaism, a small but growing number of Orthodox Jews have proposed that it may acceptable for the Orthodox movement to ordain women as rabbis. In a growing number of places, Orthodox women have established their own tefila (prayer) groups. It should be noted that this phenomenon is still an anomaly within Orthodox Judaism. Even at the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy, Yeshiva University, some Talmud teachers publicly denounced and forbade the concept of women praying together in a women's tefila group. Most Orthodox Jews reject the idea of ordaining women as rabbis, as they feel that this is an unacceptable deviation from tradition.

The role of women in Conservative Judaism

The past 30 years have seen a revolution in how Conservative Judaism views women. Conservative Judaism believes in the equality of men and women, and, where necessary, has produced responsa and innovative rituals to address religious needs in this area. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly has approved a number of responsa on this topic. Responsa have been accepted that justify women's active participation in synagogue life:

  • Publicly reading the Torah (ba'al kriah)
  • Being part of the minyan
  • Being called for an aliyah to read the Torah
  • Serving as a Cantor (shalich tzibbur)
  • Serving as rabbi and halakhic decisor (posek)
  • Wearing a tallit and tefillin

Note that a congregational rabbi may or may not decide to adopt particular rulings for the congregation. So some Conservative congregations will be more or less egalitarian than others. However, there are other areas where differences remain between men and women, including:

Matrilineal descent. The child of a Jewish mother is born Jewish; the child of a Jewish father is born Jewish if and only if the mother is Jewish.

Serving as Witnesses. Women do not usually serve as legal witnesses in those cases where Jewish law requires two witnesses. One opinion of the CJLS affirms that women may serve as witnesses. However, most Conservative rabbis currently affirm this only as a theoretical option, because of concern for Jewish unity. A change could result in many Orthodox Jews refusing to recognize the legitimacy of many marriages and divorces. A current Conservative solution is in the area of weddings: A new custom is to use Ketubot (wedding document) with spaces for four witnesses to sign; two men, and two women.

Pidyon Habat. Conservative Judaism prohibits performing Pidyon Ha-Bat on a newborn daughter. Pidyon Ha-Bat is a newly proposed ceremony that would mark the redemption of a newborn daughter; the CJLS has stated that this particular ceremony should not be performed. Other means, such as a Simchat Bat, should instead be used to mark the special status of a new born daughter. [CJLS teshuvah by Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik, 1993]

The role of women in Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism

To be written.

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