Ask the Rabbis | Women & Religion
Is Judaism good for women?
Yes. To its credit, Judaism has through the millennia endeavored to liberate man from his fear of woman and woman from the consequences of that fear, in ways too numerous to delineate. As feminist author Rosemary R. Ruether put it: “Judaism did more than most other ancient religions to lift woman up to the status of equality in civil rights and spiritual recognition….Ancient Israelite women fared better than modern Western women.” There was a time, for example, when the opinions of women and their “votes” counted toward establishing halachic precedence (Talmud Bav’li, Tosef’ta Keylim 11:3; Minchat Chinuch, No. 78), and when women were equally qualified and authorized as men in rendering halachic decisions and rulings, in other words, serving as rabbis (Sefer Ha’Chinuch, No. 158). Women being called up to the bimah to chant from the Torah scroll seems to most of us totally revolutionary, when in fact it was a standard practice in ancient times (Talmud Bav’li, Megilah 23a). That this and more was discontinued over time was the result not of any changes within Judaism, but of men’s insecure power struggle with the ungraspable force of the feminine, sanctioned by their masterful skill at forging God’s name to their whimsical justifications.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA
Is Judaism good for women? The most honest answer is “It depends.” It depends on the Judaism and it depends on the woman. Historically, women were not treated with dignity in Judaism. Even today in some Jewish denominations, women do not have the same rights and privileges as men. As a college student, I applied to the rabbinic program at Hebrew Union College, only to discover that women were not allowed admission to rabbinical school. Hebrew Union College ordained its first female rabbi in 1972.
There is not one Judaism that treats all women the same, and there is certainly not one woman who reacts in the same way to all situations. If my options were limited to Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Renewal Judaism, Judaism would not have been good for this woman. Happily, I discovered Humanistic Judaism, which allows me to remain connected to Judaism without abandoning my philosophy of life or personal convictions. The strength of Judaism is in its pluralism. And Humanistic Judaism is very good for women.
Rabbi Miriam Jerris
Society for Humanistic Judaism
Farmington Hills, MI
Why ask me? Let’s face it, we men have had more than our say. Better to ask Sarah Imeynu—Sarah our mother—who would have laughed at the question. Or Yael, who might have taken your head off, as she did Sisera’s in Canaan. Ask Rachel, the beloved wife of Rabbi Akiva; his Torah knowledge was said to be all acquired through her merit. Or Glückel of Hameln, who with the ferocity of a lioness of Judah raised a family with a strong Jewish identity through the hardship of a dominant Christian culture in 17th-century Germany.
I hesitate to speak for them, or for the women in our midst today who are striving to answer the question: Judith Hauptman, who rethought the role of women, their obligation to pray and their rightful place as leaders; or Anat Hoffman and the Women of the Wall; or Sara Hurwitz, an Orthodox Rabba. But one thing is certain: Though the paradigm shift has seemingly been slow to come, in the great scheme of G!d’s plan, 2,000 years is like a second. In Genesis 2:18, we read, “And the Lord G!d said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a counterpart to him.’” In the unfolding of Jewish thought and practice, we stand together, men and women, at the threshold of the kind of partnership that G!d has had in her mind all along. We await this full realization “for the sake of the unification of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Divine Presence, blessed be She.” On that day, G!d will look at all of creation and say not “that it was good” but “that it was very, very good”— for women and men alike.
Rabbi Mark Novak
Minyan Oneg Shabbat
More than Judaism is good for women, the full empowerment of women is good for Judaism.
As in any great civilization, misogyny and magnificence coexist on the same page of many Jewish texts. Traditions may look good relative to their time and place of origin, but once ossified, they turn regressive. Since early rabbinic times, when women were either “chattel, or person” (scholar Judith Wegner’s phrase), trends and rulings have cut both ways: Some honor women’s full humanity and experience, while others would completely purge women’s public voices, images and presence, even today.
Enter Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism and originator of the bat mitzvah. His 1922 proto-feminism flowed naturally from a belief that Judaism always has evolved and always should. Nearly a century later, most Jews agree, differing only on the precise pace, path and progressive nature of change.
Now enter Miriam the Prophet, Beruriah, Dona Gracia, Clara Lemlich, Regina Jonas, Judith Plaskow and countless others who overcame the patriarchal odds, who found Judaism “good enough” in their time and improved the Jewish people and the world with their contributions. Empowered women (and male allies) contribute greatly, even today; yet with sexism, everyone loses. Despite great strides toward equality, we must push further.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Religion is like a toolbox. A religious heritage with its texts, values, ethics, rituals and traditions gives us the tools we need to respond to life’s challenges and sorrows, celebrate our joys and answer the questions life throws at us. Some Jewish tools, like our mourning practices, have been passed down to us through the generations. And in many instances, the Jewish community innovatively contributes to the Jewish toolbox with answers, rituals and symbolic lessons that provide guidance to Jews today, such as bat mitzvah, same-gender marriage and our ongoing reinterpretation of Torah.
Yes, Judaism is good for women. Judaism provides everyone with access to the tools people need to find meaning in their lives, to the spiritual guidance and rituals to address life transitions. Everyone, every woman, should have a toolbox at her disposal and know how to use the tools in it.
The question challenging the world Jewish community at the moment is a very different one: Are women good for Judaism? My unequivocal answer is yes!
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
One way to answer this question is to examine the stories of the creation of women, of which there are two in Genesis. Genesis 1 says that men and women are created “in the image of God” and represent the highest level of creation.
A second version of the creation story is presented in Genesis 2. Here the Torah says that Adam was created from the dust of the earth. Eventually God concludes, “It is not good for man to be alone.” God puts Adam into a deep sleep, withdraws one of his ribs and from it fashions the first woman.
Is such an explanation of women’s creation demeaning to women? On the one hand, the claim that man was created first, and woman formed out of a part of him, implies the male’s inherent superiority—especially since Adam gives Eve her name. On the other hand, the fact that every new product of creation is more highly developed than the one that preceded it might indicate that the woman, who is last to be created, represents the apex of creation.
Since there are multiple ways to interpret the status of women in the Genesis stories, we can’t say definitively whether Judaism is or is not good for women. Some texts are clearly negative about women, while others are unambiguously admiring. But many texts and traditions are not at all clear-cut. Some can be interpreted as demeaning and dismissive, while others can be interpreted as inclusive and respectful.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Judaism is the primary source of the concept that every human being has dignity and equality because all are in the image of God. This ethical foundation— modulated through Christianity, Islam, modernity and democracy—is the primary basis of the claim (now on the march throughout the world) driving the growing practice of treating women as full human beings of equal value to men. That is good for women.
On the other hand, Judaism itself compromised with reality and accepted women’s status as secondary in accordance with the cultures in which Jews lived. Women were subject to sale (in the biblical period) and to the husband’s authority and sole power to grant divorce (in the rabbinic period). They were excluded or restricted from public leadership roles from the rabbinic period down to modern times. That is bad for women. Traditional religious Jews provide the largest bloc of resisters to women’s full equality and dignity in contemporary Jewish culture.
In short, the correct question is not: Is Judaism is good for women? (the answer is yes) but rather “Is Judaism good enough for women?” The answer is: Not yet.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
Judaism is a profoundly feminine religion. The ancient world advocated an aggressive masculinity in which war was glorified and those who defeated their enemies were heroes. Along came great men like Isaiah and Jeremiah and said that a time would come when men would beat their swords into ploughshares. Linear masculine symbols would be transformed into more cyclical feminine ones. Maternal qualities like peace would triumph over the masculine values like war. Hence, Judaism values the Sabbath “bride” and “queen” over the six, more masculine days of competition and earning. This philosophy translates into a system of ensuring that women are not just elevated and respected, but made into partners to whom men pay deference so that they themselves can learn to be more nurturing and feminine.
Detractors may focus on the fact that men have more ritual observances and have public rabbinic roles when in truth Judaism respects scholarship and character, and women today have every opportunity to be the equals of men in Torah learning and teaching. Judaism advocates the institution of marriage where a man must commit to and cherish a woman rather than use her and discard her. It obligates a husband to respect a wife more than himself. Above all else, Judaism conditions men to appreciate the more subtle, inner beauty in a woman that is so often overlooked in a world that allows physical beauty and youth to dominate.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Indeed it is.
The Torah is called Torat Chaim, which means “instruction for life.” Unlike other faith systems, Judaism is a “way of life” rather than a “religion” as that term is conventionally used. It is a manual for sanctifying every moment, every activity—including the seemingly mundane—and permeating it with G-dliness. In this framework, the layperson is no less engaged in the service of G-d than the full-time rabbi. The arenas of family and home are as religiously significant as the synagogue, if not more so. Judaism wants every corner of our life to be made divinely purposeful.
When viewed from this perspective, the woman’s influence on Jewish life is indeed primary; her role is central and indispensable. There can be no Judaism without her. She creates and inspires in those critical places where Judaism is most integral—in real, daily life. Of course she studies Torah and prays to G-d—indeed, our prayers are modeled after those of a Jewish woman—but more importantly, the Jewish woman is the acknowledged leader and role model to her family and to her community, often more than her male counterparts. Can we even speak of educating future generations of Jews without the Jewish woman? Can there really be a Jewish home without her? Can we possibly celebrate Jewish holidays as a family without her leading presence?
Religion takes place in special buildings; Judaism is practiced everywhere, especially in the home. Religion is observed on special days; Judaism is lived every day, all the time. Religion is officiated by members of the clergy; Judaism is practiced equally by every Jew. When we understand this about Judaism, many questions about traditional gender roles disappear.
Rabbi Yosef Landa
Chabad of Greater St. Louis