By Rabbi Pinchos Fried
Table of Contents
- What is a woman anyway?
- The woman’s role
- Are men and women equal?
- General role…
- The woman is the home
- A woman’s role in marriage
- The humility vs. martyr complex
- A woman’s role in the transmission of Torah
- …and individual role
- What is modesty?
- Is beauty a bad thing?
- Women’s role today
- Common questions about the role of women in Judaism
What is the role of women in Judaism? Of late, this has become a hot-button issue, something of a loaded topic. With passionate feminism coming up a lot, many point an accusing finger at Torah Judaism, claiming we are stuck with an outmoded perception of women at best, and a discriminatory, chauvinistic attitude at worst. (The fact that half of authentic Torah Judaism is made up of actual women, so many of whom are quite content with their beautiful lifestyle, often gets lost in the translation)
In truth, like with many subjects, there is a lot to discuss, and a lot of depth to explore. Giving a shallow and simplistic answer is not fair to us, not fair to our women, not fair to the Torah, and is simply a shame. And as the lucky husband of the most amazing wife (for real), and proud father of lovely girls (not to mention my dear sisters, with whom I once fought so lovingly, and now graciously forgive me… I think), this topic is especially meaningful to me. So, here goes.
What is a woman anyway?
Or a man, for that matter.
A few short years ago, this question would be unthinkable. But, yes, we have arrived. The enlightenment of the human race has reached the glorious zenith where well-known people have publicly claimed ignorance of the answer to “what is a woman”.
When you think about it, this deterioration of society is only natural. It’s simply the continuation of a process. Western culture largely rejects or marginalizes belief in a Higher Being, Who created the universe with a purpose. In absence of that, the meaning to existence slowly crumbles.
The process does take time, because values embedded in society disintegrate slowly, but it continues inexorably. After all, if the entire world is but a random accident, why should a collection of organic matter be bound by any specific definition?
Where this will end, who even knows? Perhaps there will come a point where society will hit rock bottom, and people will finally realize there’s no way but back up. But there’s no telling.
Judaism’s perspective is completely opposite of this. According to Torah, women, and men, are precisely designed by God, imbued with a unique mission for each, and a particular spiritual identity, which is linked to the physical make-up, abilities, and qualities of each gender. Our status as either man or woman is coded into our physical and spiritual DNA.
The woman’s role
Really, a woman’s role in Judaism is too broad and multi-faceted to be covered in one article. And the layers of depth may be endless. However, we can discuss some principles and concepts, which will illuminate the topic somewhat.
First, in order to discuss a woman’s role, it is helpful to explore her relationship with the other member of the human race, the man.
Are men and women two parallel universes who will never meet? Obviously not. You don’t get a man without a woman, or a woman without a man. And there is a natural attraction between the genders, which [up until relatively recently] was universally understood to be manifested through marriage. But according to Judaism, it goes much deeper than that. According to the Torah, Man and Woman were created by God as one unit. They were later separated, and their task is to reunite as one[i]. Man and Woman were not two separate individuals inhabiting a shared space. They were, and still are, two halves of one whole. A man cannot complete his mission himself, as God Himself stated “it is not good for man to be alone[ii]”. Only together, working as a team, do man and woman realize their joint potential.
And so, for the BIG QUESTION…
Are men and women equal?
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote up the Declaration of Independence, penning the famous words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. This concept was later expanded to include women too. The words have since become immortalized, considered the world over incontestable.
Does the Torah agree that people are created equal? Yes. And no.
That is, all people are equal in that they have infinite value, and were created in the image of God, as it were (God, of course, has no image. This is allegorical, and beyond the scope of this article). However, we are not all the same. A Kohen (priest) was allowed into parts of the Bais Hamikdash (the Jewish Holy Temple) while others were not. A Kohen Gadol (High Priest) could enter the Holy of Holies, whereas even a common Kohen could not. The Leviim (Levites) had a unique job of singing, playing music, and guarding the Temple, while other Jews did not.
Similarly, men and women do not have the same positions in life, even while they are two halves of the same soul[iii]. And that position is their essence. An emotionally healthy woman should not desire to be a man, and an emotionally healthy man should not desire to be a woman. If a woman were to be a man, it would be a tragedy, and vice versa. Every person has a unique mission, and a unique contribution to the perfection of the world, and to bringing it closer to God. And each and every detail of our individual makeup and circumstance is crucial to this goal.
In fact, our sages teach us that God Himself consulted each and every creature prior to its being created. And each creature, realizing the cosmic importance of its mission, and the greatness it provides them, agreed wholeheartedly to its role[iv]. (We just don’t remember this during our lifetime here on earth).
Just as men and women are not the same, no two women are the same either. And circumstances differ. Generations differ too. And these differences greatly affect their missions and roles in life. Still, there is a baseline general role given to women as a whole.
The woman is the home
Many women today turn up their noses at the traditional role of women as homemakers. To them, aside for lacking glamour and excitement, the role seems unfulfilling and primitive. They don’t see any prospect of actualizing their talents and capabilities by running a home.
But if you think about it, running a home and raising a family contains in it a lot more than just cooking and cleaning, doing laundry and wiping faces, changing diapers and rocking babies to sleep. (Though that’s quite a bit on its own!)
As a wife and mother, a woman encourages her husband to reach his maximum potential spiritually, financially, and emotionally. She also raises her children to be healthy (physically and emotionally), well-behaved, responsible, knowledgeable, decent adults. She makes sure they are up to par in all areas of their development, and helps them through the struggles of childhood, teenage hood, young-adulthood, and sometimes even full adulthood.
To say she is a teacher, psychologist, therapist, rabbi, business coach and consultant all rolled into one is still missing the point. All of these are her assistants; they are helping her do her job. But no one can replace the organic power of a wife and mother.
Looks a little different from this perspective, huh?
A woman’s role in marriage
The Feminist Movement has devoted much effort to promoting equal roles in marriage for men and women. Now, at the time, back in the ol’ days, there was a legitimate need to change certain things that had become commonplace. Sadly, many husbands, particularly outside the religious Jewish community, felt free to abuse their wives as they saw fit. In that sense, the feminists certainly accomplished much. However, they have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, destroying nearly the entire institution of marriage in the process. The percentage of households including a married couple has already dipped below 50%, and continues to drop like a stone rolling downhill[v]. Even when you include relationships beyond the framework of marriage, things continue to drop, according to many media and research sources[vi]. But our focus is on the framework of marriage, which Judaism views as the ideal one[vii].
According to Judaism, a man and woman are meant to be partners in marriage, but not to share the same roles. Some sources explain it this way: The husband should be the giver, the wife the receiver[viii]. Now, “receiver” should not be confused with a selfish “taker”. A receiver is engaged in a constructive process of building on that which the husband initiates, and bringing it to fruition. This is not only true in the biological process of bringing children into the world, but in everything a couple does.
Example: A husband comes up with a great idea of the perfect vacation getaway; the wife nixes it and comes up with a better idea.
A husband should be a leader, but never a tyrant. He should treat his wife with more honor than he does himself, and serve as the emotional bedrock of the family. He is ultimately responsible for providing the food, shelter and clothing[ix].
The wife should take it from there, be a loving, encouraging partner, care for the children, and fill the home with light. She takes the raw materials the husband provides, and creates from it a functioning, happy family.
Using this model, Jewish families have for centuries transcended the superficial romance promoted by secular culture, and reached true oneness, with the love between husband and wife penetrating to their cores. As Rabbi Arye Levine (1885-1969, Poland, Jerusalem) famously told a doctor, “my wife’s foot is hurting us”. He felt his wife’s pain as acutely as his own.
Interestingly, some secular marriage experts have begun to awaken to some degree to the difference between men and women, and their different roles in marriage. They have seen tremendous success in saving marriages by re-educating couples who had been brainwashed by Western culture in this area. Popular books in this category include “Men are From Mars, Women Are from Venus”, “The Surrendered Wife”, and “First Kill All the Marriage Counselors”. Though these authors have seen some progress, as mentioned, society continues to decline in this regard. The worldview that men and women must be the same is too entrenched, and there continues to be a knee-jerk pushback to the notion of accepting husbands as leaders, or even something close to that. One prominent activist even went as far as comparing that to slavery[x].
Humility vs. Martyr Complex
Please note: We are not discussing here abusive and otherwise genuinely problematic spouses. Without a doubt, a woman must do everything in her power to save herself from such a situation, much as a husband married to an abusive wife should. We are talking about a marriage in which both partners are good, loving and wholesome people, even if they are not perfect. (Who is?) An important differentiation must be made here, between humility, which is a virtue for men, but even more so for women[xi], and being a willing sufferer. To a degree, a fundamental error in the philosophy of the Feminist Movement is not appreciating this difference. It often conflates the two, showcasing current or historical discrimination against women to back the claim that women should be considered the same as men, and accuses those who dispute that position of being out to subjugate or otherwise hurt women.
A woman’s role in the transmission of Torah
According to Jewish tradition, while Talmud is a fundamental part of Torah, its study is not recommended for women[xii]. While some contemporary rabbinic authorities, particularly in left-leaning circles, feel that times have changed in this regard, the mainstream view among traditionalist Orthodoxy is that the sages’ advice is just as relevant today as the day they gave it[xiii].
Still, King Solomon enjoins, “hear my son the admonishment of your father, and do not forsake the teaching of your mother”[xiv]. Clearly, a mother has a vital part in the transmission of Torah.
Some understand it this way: Men tend to be more analytical and systematic, a quality around which Talmudic study is based; while women are more intuitive. Men will meticulously map out the parameters of God’s will, while women will feel it in their gut. And so, men thrash out the technical intricacies of Talmud in the study hall, and the women bring the message home, make it live, and help it penetrate the Jewish People’s collective heart and consciousness[xv].
Women partner in the academic aspect of Torah too, by providing space for their husbands to engage in study, and helping their sons succeed in yeshiva[xvi].
(In modern-day science, it is hotly debated whether or not there is a difference in the way men and women think. Given the intense subjectivity of the matter, it is very likely that researchers’ conclusions are influenced by their leanings.[xvii] All seem to agree, though, that biologically, women’s brains tend to be different than those of men[xviii], making the probability that their brains work exactly the same unlikely.)
Women also have a crucial role in the transmission of Judaism itself. A child’s status as either Jew or non-Jew is determined by the mother. Though the father’s status determines what shevet (tribe) the child is, and whether or not the child is a Kohen or Levi, the foundation comes from the mother. Without a Jewish mother, the child is not a Jew[xix].
…and individual role
As mentioned, not all women share the same role. There are many single women, who for a variety of reasons, are either not married yet, not married anymore, or not hoping anymore to get married. Of course, if applicable, the effort itself to get married is meritorious. Outside of that though, what is their current role?
The answer is that every individual has a unique mission in this world. We all share the same Torah, but we don’t all share the same life. Every individual must utilize the strengths and opportunities granted them, overcome the difficulties and challenges placed before them, and achieve the specific perfection available only to them.
What is modesty?
Judaism has a modesty code, for women’s dress and for interaction between men and women. For some reason, some misunderstand this as a degradation of women. In truth, it has nothing to do with that. Quite the opposite. One of the bitter complaints of modern-day feminism is the “objectifying” of women. But when women dress immodestly and provocatively and interact with men in that fashion, they can be creating or contributing to that very problem. If a woman willingly sacrifices her dignity for the sake of appealing to this inclination of men, it is she in fact, who is “objectifying” herself. (Makes sense, no?)
Judaism takes the bar to its ideal level, not only for the sake of the dignity of women, which is itself important, but also out of a fear of sin. In the Torah view, a sin is a tragedy, something to avoid at all costs. For this reason, Jewish women are careful not to provoke anyone inappropriately. In fact, the great sage Rabbi Yochanan once said he learned how to fear sin, from a young Jewish girl, who prayed to God that no one be incited to sin through her[xx].
Which brings us to…
Is beauty a bad thing?
Or a good thing? Or is it inconsequential, simply irrelevant?
Or are somehow all three true at the same time?
In classic Jewish style, indeed, all three are true. How can that be?
The answer is that like so many qualities, beauty is a potent tool. A tool can be used for good, can be used for bad, or can be simply squandered, and used for inane and petty matters.
God gives Jewish women beauty to be channeled and used for great things. The Jewish women in Egypt used their beauty to ensure the Jewish nation’s continuity when the horrific conditions of slavery had dissuaded their men from fathering children. Their heroic achievement was celebrated by incorporating their copper mirrors into the Kiyor, (washing vat) in the Mishkan (Tabarnacle)[xxi].
Used wrongly, though, beauty can be a terrible force of destruction, for both men and women. Primarily spiritual destruction, but often it goes beyond spiritual, and ruins families, careers, reputations, and lives.
Even outside the context of licentiousness, if beauty is merely a tool to glorify its possessor, it is indeed vain, empty and shallow. Ultimately, no one really likes a narcissist, even if they seem popular on the surface.
On the other side of the coin, Western women sometimes feel enormous social pressure to “be pretty”. While sometimes relatively benign, at times the pressure can be insidious, bringing on stress, low self-esteem, and in its worst form, anorexia and bulimia[xxii].
Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon) teaches “Grace is false, and beauty is hot air. A woman who fears God, she shall be praised”[xxiii]. Ultimately, beauty is a tool like all tools. God, in His infinite wisdom, apportioned specific tasks to specific people, and equipped them accordingly. Someone who was provided the tool called beauty is obviously tasked with using it as a force for good, whether actively, or passively, by overcoming the negative temptations associated. Those whose strong points are in other areas, are simply tasked with another mission.
Women’s role today
As we mentioned briefly earlier, the settings and conditions of the times we live in certainly has an impact of all of our roles, including that of women. For better or for worse, women today are educated, and thoroughly integrated in the workforce and in community life. Many families are forced to rely on two incomes too, and in some families the woman is the only parent. Many other circumstances are different as well. Recognizing this reality, Sara Schneirer founded the Bais Yaakov Movement in 1917; a system of schools for girls in Poland. She received approbation for the undertaking by many Torah leaders of her time, who recognized its crucial need. (Less known is that Bais Yaakov was actually not the first Jewish girl school in modern times. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch instituted a girls’ school in his community of Frankfurt, Germany, already in 1853[xxiv])
Many Orthodox Jewish women today work outside of their homes, and many occupy prestigious positions in companies, some even founding and owning their own. (Recently, Netflix ran a popular show of Julia Haart, a formerly Orthodox Jewish woman who rejected the Torah way of life, because she felt Orthodoxy didn’t allow her self-expression. The show received much pushback from Orthodox Jewish women, who spoke about the happy and full lives they live).
But even as circumstances change, ideals don’t. For the Jew and Jewess, the true purpose of life is neither financial success, nor glamour or fame. We are not here to massage our egos, or to toot our horns. Our mission in the world is to fulfill God’s will in the best way we can, in the individual role only each one of us can fulfill. And that is our true ticket to ultimate happiness as well.
(As a side note, the progress made by the feminist movement with integrating women in the workforce etc. may not always a good thing for all women. While many women are happy for the opportunity, it can create a peer pressure and a rat race for all women, many of whom might not be naturally inclined to that lifestyle. Research shows many women experience “burn-out” at work[xxv] The possibility that working is not for all women is rarely explored, though.
See more about the pressure work creates on women who are working, and simultaneously caring for their family.
Similarly, western society has created a pressure on women to be ‘female men’ in personality and temperament. Putting pressure on people to be something they are not is usually not productive for their emotional health[xxvi].)
Common Questions about the role of women, and Answers
- Do men and women have the same Torah commandments?
- Do women have a significant role in Jewish history?
- Can rabbis be female?
- What are a woman’s marital rights according to the Torah?
- Did the curse of Chava(Eve) change the woman’s place?
The Role of Women in Judaism by Rabbi Pinchos Fried
[i] Bereishis 2, 24, and Ramban there
[ii] Bereishis 2, 18
[iii] Zohar Part 3 page 7b. See also Igros Moshe O.C. 4, 49 which states that a Jewish man and woman have the same level of holiness
[iv] Chulin 60a and Rosh Hashana 11a; See Rashi
[vii] That is, even for non-Jews, as it says in Bereishis 2, 24. For Jews there may more prohibitions involved in intimate relations out of wedlock, which is beyond the scope of our topic
[viii] This idea is prevalent in Kabbalistic and Chassidic writings
[ix] See Q&A “What are a woman’s marital rights according to the Torah?”
[x] Quoted with source at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surrendered_wife
Regarding differences between men and women see also https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20161011-do-men-and-women-really-have-different-personalities and https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/taking-sex-differences-in-personality-seriously/
[xi] Megilla 14b
[xii] Sotah 21b Rambam Hilchos Talmud Torah 1, 13
[xiv] Mishlei 1, 8
[xv] See Mirkeves Hamishna on above Rambam. Explanation of difference between men and women’s intellect style heard from Rabbi Moshe Braverman. Igros Moshe O.C. 4, 49 adds that since a woman’s primary role is raising her children and running her home, it precludes her from engaging in Talmud study
[xvi] Brachos 17a
[xvii] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42QuXLucH3Q&t=608s on the influence of biases on the outcome of scientific research.
[xix] Kiddushin 66b, Yevamos 44b/45b, Rashi Bamidbar 1,2
[xx] Sotah 22a
[xxi] Rashi, Shemos 38, 8
[xxiii] Mishlei 31,30
Interestingly, some researchers suggest the higher burnout rate among women is because women are still discriminated against, and so find themselves in positions beneath the level of their true capability, leading to feelings of unfulfillment. However, the studies say that this gap is mainly with women crossing into lower management positions. The burnout rate skews higher with women in leadership positions. This seems to make that interpretation unlikely.