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Women in Judaism

The role of women in Judaism is determined by the Hebrew Bible, the Oral Law (the corpus of rabbinic literature), by custom, and by non-religious cultural factors. Although the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature mention various female role models, religious law treats women differently in various circumstances.

Biblical times

Relatively few women are mentioned in the Bible by name and role, suggesting that they were rarely in the forefront of public life. There are a number of exceptions to this rule, including the Matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, Miriam the prophetess, Deborah the Judge, Huldah the prophetess, Abigail who married David, and Esther. In the Biblical account these women did not meet with opposition for the relatively public presence they had. In general, women could perform a number of religious roles, including being prophetesses and Nazirites.

Women also had a role in ritual life. Women (as well as men) were required to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem once a year and offer the Passover sacrifice. They would also do so on special occasions in their lives such as giving a todah ("thanksgiving") offering after childbirth. Hence, they participated in many of the major public religious roles that non-levitical men could, albeit less often and on a somewhat smaller and generally more discreet scale.

Talmudic times

Classical Jewish rabbinical literature contains quotes that may be seen as both laudatory and derogatory of women. The Talmud states that:

  • Ten measures of speech descended to the world; women took nine (Kiddushin 49b)
  • Women are "light on raw knowledge" — i.e. they possess more intuition (Shabbat 33b)
  • A man without a wife lives without joy, blessing, and good; a man should love his wife as himself and respect her more than himself (Yevamot 62b)
  • When Rav Joseph heard his mother's footsteps he would say: "Let me arise before the approach of the Shekhinah ('divine presence')" (Kiddushin 31b)
  • Israel was redeemed from Egypt by virtue of its (Israel's) righteous women (Sotah 11b)
  • A man must be careful never to speak slightingly to his wife because women are prone to tears and sensitive to wrong (Bava Metzia 59a)
  • Women have greater faith than men (Sifri #133)
  • Women have greater powers of discernment (Niddah 45b)
  • Women are especially tenderhearted (Megillah 14b)

While few women are mentioned by name in rabbinic literature, and none are known to have authored a rabbinic work, those who are mentioned are portrayed as having a strong influence on their husbands, and occasionally having a public persona. Examples are Bruriah, the wife of the Tanna Rabbi Meir; Rachel, the wife of Rabbi Akiva; and Yalta, the wife of Rabbi Nachman. Rabbi Eliezer's wife (of Mishnaic times) counselled her husband in assuming leadership over the Sanhedrin.

Middle Ages

The situation of Jewish women, like most women in Europe, was often not bright; exclusively household roles, arranged marriages, and child brides were common. Very little of the written history of Jewish women comes from women. Avraham Grossman writes that "Throughout the Middle Ages, which continued for about a thousand years, we do not find so much as a single women of importance among the sages of Israel... Moreover, over a period of a thousand years, not a single Jewish woman wrote a halakhic, literary, theoretical, mystical, or poetic work, with the exception of a handful of poems written by Jewish women in Spain Jewish women were generally prohibited from holding formal leadership roles with authority over men. Significant developments in Jewish law to affecting women's status occurred.

Domestic Law

Developments alleviating women's domestic situation included a Rabbinic decree (takhanah) by Rabbeinu Gershom prohibiting polygamy among Ashkenazic Jews. The rabbis instituted legal methods to enable women to petition a Rabbinical Court to compel a divorce. Maimonides ruled that a woman who found her husband "repugnant" could compel a divorce, "because she is not like a captive, to be subjected to intercourse with one who is hateful to her." The rabbis also instituted and tightened prohibitions on domestic violence. Rabbi Peretz ben Elijah ruled "The cry of the daughters of our people has been heard concerning the sons of Israel who raise their hands to strike their wives. Yet who has given a husband the authority to beat his wife?" Rabbi Rothberg ruled that "For it is the way of the Gentiles to behave thus, but Heaven forbid that any Jew should do so. And one who beats his wife is to be excommunicated and banned and beaten." Rabbi Rothenberg also ruled a battered wife could petition a Rabbinical Court to compel a husband to grant a divorce, with a monetary fine owed her on top of the regular ketubah money. These rulings occurred in the midst of societies where wife-beating was legally sanctioned and routine.

Religious Developments

Religious developments included relaxation on prohibitions against teaching women Torah, and the rise of women's prayer groups in France and Germany. These changes were accompanied by increased pietistic strictures, including greater requirements for modest dress, and greater strictures during the period of menstruation. Depiction of women in philosophical and Midrashic works was mixed. The rise and increasing popularity of Kabbalist ideas which emphasized the shechinah and female aspects of the Divine presence and human-divine relationship, and which saw marriage as a holy covenant between partners rather than a civil contract, had great influence. At the same time, there was a rise in philosophical and midrashic interpretations depicting women in a negative light, emphasizing a duality between matter and spirit in which femininity was associated, negatively, with earth and matter.

Present day

Orthodox Judaism

According to Halakha (Jewish law), women are exempt from most time-bound positive mitzvot (commandments), as well as a few other mitzvot, such as the study of Torah and the requirement to have children. Orthodox Judaism sometimes prescribes different roles and religious obligations for men and women. According to some, men and women have complementary, yet fundamentally different roles in religious life, resulting in different religious obligations. Some believe that these role differences reflect a fundamental difference in the nature of men and women, with different respective strengths and weaknesses. According to Halakha women are not counted in a minyan.

In the area of education, women were historically exempted from any study beyond an understanding of the practical aspects of Torah, and the rules necessary in running a Jewish household both of which they have an obligation to learn. Until the early 20th century, women were often discouraged from learning Talmud and other advanced Jewish texts. In the past 100 years Orthodox Jewish women's education has advanced tremendously.

As changes in modern society affect even the most insular segments of Orthodox society, women's status in Orthodox society evolved as well. This is especially true among the Modern Orthodox, who seek to learn from and integrate with the modern world without compromising strict adherence to Halakha. Even among Haredi Jews, contemporary women tend to receive more formal education and have much greater contact with secular or non-Jewish society than previous generations. Most Haredi women have much greater contact with non-Haredi sociey than Haredi men. This is especially true in Israel, where many Haredi men are full-time yeshiva students and do not work, while women do.

Some Orthodox rabbis view contemporary efforts at change as motivated by sociological reasons and not by true religious motivation. They also view these suggested changes as a break with the accepted norms of observance, and strongly discourage women from engaging in many activities that are technically permitted as a result. For example, some Orthodox rabbis discourage women from wearing a tallit or tefillin, which are traditionally worn only by men, a position maintained by most segments of Haredi and Hasidic Judaism.

Some Orthodox synagogues do not allow a woman to become the president of a congregation, or to give the customary d'var Torah (brief discourse, generally on the weekly Torah portion) after or between services. However, other synagogues allow women to assume a variety of non-ritual leadership positions within the congregation, including that of synagogue president. Some synagogues also allow women to give a d'var Torah, as well as to participate in other ways that they believe does not violate Halakha. A few Modern Orthodox synagogues include greater ritual participation for women as well, such as all-women's prayer groups and women's Torah-reading. These last two innovations are not universally accepted by Orthodox rabbis or synagogues.

Orthodoxy is divided on the extent to which women may take public leadership roles. These divisions exist not only between Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi Judaism, but between different segments of Haredi society and between the more right leaning and left leaning portions of Modern Orthodox society.

Rules of modesty

The importance of modesty in dress and conduct is particularly stressed among girls and women in Orthodox society. Many Orthodox women only wear skirts and avoid wearing trousers, and some married Orthodox women cover their hair with a wig, hat, or scarf.

Rules of Family Purity

In accordance with Jewish Law, many Orthodox Jewish women refrain from contact with their husbands while they are menstruating, and for a period of 7 clean days after menstruating, and after the birth of a child.

Haredi Judaism

In 1917 Sarah Schenirer founded the Bais Yaakov ("House of Jacob") network of Orthodox Torah schools for women in Kraków. This break with the traditional exemption of women from formal Torah education was backed by the Chofetz Chaim Rabbi Yisroel Meir HaKohen (1838-1933). In order to combat the rampant assimilation of the 1800s-early 1900s, he overruled the traditional prohibitions against advanced Jewish education of women and supported what had previously been a minority view in earlier responsa, on the basis that "at a time of danger [to Judaism], extreme measures are taken", and that in a modern world of assimilation it is important for women to have an advanced Jewish education.

Modern Orthodox Judaism

Women's issues garnered more interest with the advent of feminism. Many Modern Orthodox Jewish women and Modern Orthodox rabbis sought to provide greater and more advanced Jewish education for women. Since most Modern Orthodox women attend college, and many receive advanced degrees in a variety of fields, Modern Orthodoxy generally believes that their Jewish education should equal their secular education. Orthodox girls' and women's Jewish education has expanded tremendously in the past 30 years. Of some controversy are the questions of whether girls and women should or may learn Talmud. While all segments of Modern Orthodoxy strongly support women's education, the permissibility of Talmud study for women is still not completely accepted among all of Modern Orthodoxy.

Women's prayer groups

Separate Jewish women's prayer groups were a sanctioned custom among German Jews in the Middle Ages. The Kol Bo provides, in the laws for Tisha B'Av:

And they recite dirges there for about a quarter of the night, the men in their synagogue and the women in their synagogue. And likewise during the day the men recite dirges by themselves and the women by themselves, until about a third of the day has passed.

In Germany, in the 12th and 13th centuries, women's prayer groups were led by female cantors. Rabbi Eliezar of Worms, in his elegy for his wife Dulca, praised her for teaching the other women how to pray and embellishing the prayer with music. The gravestone of Urania of Worms, who died in 1275, contains the inscription "who sang piyyutim for the women with musical voice." In the Nurnberg Memorial Book, one Richenza was inscribed with the title "prayer leader of the women.

Orthodox women more recently began holding organized women's tefila (prayer) groups beginning in the 1970s. While no Orthodox legal authorities agree that women can form a minyan (prayer quorum) for the purpose of regular services, women in these groups read the prayers and study Torah. A number of leaders from all segments of Orthodox Judaism have commented on this issue, but it has had little impact on Haredi and Sephardi Judaism. However, the emergence of this phenomenon has enmeshed Modern Orthodox Judaism in a debate which still continues today. There are two schools of thought on this issue:

  • The most common view, held by many Modern Orthodox authorities, and almost all Haredi Rabbis, rules that all women's prayer groups are absolutely forbidden by halakha (Jewish law).
  • A second view maintains that women's prayer groups can be compatible with halakha, but only if they do not carry out a full prayer service (i.e. do not include certain parts of the service known as devarim she-bi-kdusha), and only if services are spiritually and sincerely motivated; they cannot be sanctioned if they are inspired by a desire to rebel against halakha. People in this group include Rabbi Avraham Elkana Shapiro, former British Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, and Rabbi Avi Weiss.

Women as witnesses

Traditionally, women are not generally permitted to serve as witnesses in an Orthodox Beit Din (rabbinical court), although they have recently been permitted to serve as toanot (advocates) in those courts. This limitation has exceptions which have required exploration under rabbinic law as the role of women in society, and the obligations of religious groups under external civil law, have been subject to increasing recent scrutiny.

The recent case of Rabbi Mordecai Tendler, the first rabbi to be expelled from the Rabbinical Council of America following allegations of sexual harassment, illustrated the importance of clarification of Orthodox halakha in this area. Rabbi Tendler claimed that the tradition of exclusion of women's testimony should compel the RCA to disregard the allegations. He argued that since the testimony of a woman could not be admitted in Rabbinical court, there were no valid witnesses against him, and hence the case for his expulsion had to be thrown out for lack of evidence. In a ruling of importance for Orthodox women's capacity for legal self-protection under Jewish law, Haredi Rabbi Benzion Wosner, writing on behalf of the Shevet Levi Beit Din (Rabbinical court) of Monsey, New York, identified sexual harassment cases as coming under a class of exceptions to the traditional exclusion, under which "even children or women" have not only a right but an obligation to testify, and can be relied upon by a rabbinical court as valid witnesses:

The Ramah in Choshen Mishpat (Siman 35, 14) rules that in a case where only women congregate or in a case where only women could possibly testify, (in this case the alleged harassment occurred behind closed doors) they can and should certainly testify. (Terumas Hadeshen Siman 353 and Agudah Perek 10, Yochasin)

This is also the ruling of the Maharik, Radvaz, and the Mahar"i of Minz. Even those "Poskim" that would normally not rely on women witnesses, they would certainly agree that in our case ... where there is ample evidence that this Rabbi violated Torah precepts, then even children or women can certainly be kosher as witnesses, as the Chasam Sofer pointed out in his sefer (monograph) (Orach Chaim T'shuvah 11)

The Rabbinical Council of America, while initially relying on its own investigation, chose to rely on the Halakhic ruling of the Haredi Rabbinical body as authoritative in the situation.

Debates within Orthodoxy

Many Orthodox rabbis, based on their reading of rabbinic literature, hold that men are lacking a spiritual element that women possess, which accounts for why men have more obligations. This is expressed by Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik in his Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind. He states that in the beginning of Creation, God's creations became more superior over time. Since woman was created after man, woman has some spiritual superiority to man. For a woman to participate in a man's obligations would be to deny her nature as a more spiritual being. This view is echoed by the Maharal, who writes that men were given mitzvot in order to overcome their innate aggression and become more spiritual. Since women had less aggression, women had more spiritual potential, and thus needed fewer mitzvot, and thus women should not perform most of the time bound mitzvot. (Hidushei Aggadot I, Kol Kitvei Maharal.) Similar views are expressed by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on Genesis 17:14. In the English edition of this commentary he writes "The pure feminine sex, if it descends from Sarah, does not require the external sign of the covenant with Sha-dai, the God who "sets the measure". It itself bears this warning of "Dai" ["enough"] within itself, in the pure feeling of the limits set by its tzniyus with which the true Jewish women are filled. She has the tendency by itself to submit herself to all the laws of purity and godliness, and demands such submission from all that come into contact with her."

Some voices within Judaism hold that such views are indefensible apologetics. Orthodox Rabbi Saul Berman writes "It is one thing to recognise the problems and attempt to understand the...factors which produced them... It is a completely different matter, both dishonest and dysfunctional, to attempt through homiletics and scholasticism to transform problems into solutions and reinterpret discrimination to be beneficial. To suggest that women don't really need positive symbolic mitzvot because their souls are already more atuned to the Divine, would be an unbearable insult to men; unless it were understood, as it indeed is, that the suggestion is not to be taken seriously, but is intended solely to placate women." Views such as those of Rabbi Berman were considered to be on the fringe of Orthodox theology when he first stated this position in the early 1970s, but the in subsequent generation they have been accepted by significantly larger numbers of people within Orthodoxy. An entire genre of Orthodox feminist literature now exists, and has caused changes within some Orthodox synagogues and communities. (The Status of Women in Halakhic Judaism, Berman, Tradition, 14:2, 1973.)

Recently, a few leaders in the Modern Orthodox community have set up schools that bring Talmud study and advanced Halakha study to women, including Stern College at Yeshiva University, and the Drisha Institute (both in New York City), and Matan, Migdal Oz, Nishmat, and Midreshet Lindenbaum in Israel. The Israeli Rabbinate has recently approved women acting as yoatzot, halakhic advisors on sensitive personal matters such as family purity, and toanot, legal advocates for women (e.g. in divorce proceedings) before religious courts. Nishmat trains yoatzot, while Midreshet Lindenbaum trains toanot.

Some left-leaning Modern Orthodox rabbis, including Mendel Shapiro and Daniel Sperber , have opined in favor of the acceptability of calling women to the Torah in mixed services, and leading certain parts of the service which do not require a minyan, under certain conditions. A few congregations, including Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem, have followed these views. (JOFA has called such minyanim Partnership Minyanim) ) However, most Orthodox rabbis and synagogues do not. At recent JOFA conferences on Feminism and Orthodox Judaism, a small number of Orthodox Jews have proposed that it may be acceptable for the Orthodox movement to ordain women as rabbis, or that some form of rabbinical-like ordination for women is possible. A few rabbi-like positions for Orthodox women have been created, but none grant the title "rabbi". However, most Orthodox Jews reject the idea of ordaining women as rabbis, as they feel that this contradicts Jewish law. In 1993, Haviva Krasner-Davidson applied to Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. She never received a response. Instead, it has been reported to her that her application was ridiculed at a Purim shpiel (Nadell 218, Ner-David 196-198). She is now studying in Israel under Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky.

Criteria for becoming a rabbi today, however, differs dramatically from standards in place during the days of Moses (Ner-David 195). Blu Greenberg wrote that: ”A close look at the convention of ordination reveals that it is not a conferral of holy status nor a magical laying on of hands to transit authority. Nor does the process uniquely empower a rabbi to perform special sacramental functions that a knowledgeable layperson cannot. Ordination is the confirmation of an individual's mastery of texts (largely from the Talmud and codes); familiarity with precedents; and ability to reason analogically and apply precedents to contemporary questions. Conferring the title “rabbi” is a guarantee to the community that this person has been judged fit by a collective of rabbis or by a single great scholar to give guidance on matters of issur v'heter, the forbidden and the permitted, primarily as it concerns the laws of kashrut, Shabbat and family purity. The smicha process assumes but does not even test for personal piety, good character or a spiritual bent. The formal criteria are almost wholly intellectual.“

Orthodox approaches to change

Leaders of the Haredi community have been steadfast in their opposition to a change in the role of women, arguing that the religious and social constraints on women, as dictated by traditional Jewish texts, are timeless and are not affected by contemporary social change. Many also argue that giving traditionally male roles to women will only detract from both women's and men's ability to lead truly fulfilling lives. Haredim have also sometimes perceived arguments for liberalization as in reality stemming from antagonism to Jewish law and beliefs generally, arguing that preserving faith requires resisting secular and "un-Jewish" ideas.

Modern Orthodox Judaism, particularly in its more liberal variants, has tended to look at proposed changes in the role of women on a specific, case-by-case basis, focusing on arguments regarding the religious and legal role of specific prayers, rituals, and activities individually. Such arguments have tended to focus on cases where the Talmud and other traditional sources express multiple or more liberal viewpoints, particularly where the role of women in the past was arguably broader than in more recent times. Feminist advocates within Orthodoxy have tended to stay within the traditional legal process of argumentation, seeking a gradualist approach, and avoiding wholesale arguments against the religious tradition as such.

Arguments for change in prayer roles within what is claimed to be classical halakhic reasoning have generally taken one of three forms:

  • Because women were required to perform certain korbanot (sacrifices) in the Temple in Jerusalem, women today are required to perform, and hence can lead (and can count in the minyan for if required), the specific prayers substituting for these specific sacrifices.
  • Because certain parts of the service were added after the Talmud defined mandatory services, such prayers are equally voluntary on everyone and hence can be led by women (and no minyan is required).
  • In cases where the Talmud indicates that women are in principle qualified to lead certain services or perform certain rituals, but authorities hold that women do not do so because of the "dignity of the congregation", lack of education, or similar arguments, modern congregations are permitted to waive such dignity if they wish, and lack of education or similar conditions no longer apply.

Conservative Judaism

The past 30 years have seen a revolution in how Conservative Judaism views women. Although its original position differed little from the Orthodox position, it has in recent years minimized legal and ritual differences between men and women. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly has approved a number of decisions and responsa on this topic. These provide for women's active participation in areas such as:

  • 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 - an arbiter in matters of religious law)
  • Wearing a tallit and tefillin

A rabbi may or may not decide to adopt particular rulings for the congregation; thus, some Conservative congregations will be more or less egalitarian than others. However, there are other areas where legal 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 Ha-Bat, a proposed ceremony based on the Biblical redemption of the eldest newborn son (Pidyon Ha-Ben). The CJLS has stated that this particular ceremony should not be performed. Other ceremonies, such as a Simchat Bat (welcoming a newborn daughter), should instead be used to mark the special status of a new born daughter. [CJLS teshuvah by Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik, 1993]

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards recently reaffirmed the obligation of Conservative women to observe niddah (sexual abstinence during and after menstruation) and mikvah (ritual immersion) following menstruation, although somewhat liberalizing certain details. Such practices, while requirements of Conservative Judaism, are believed not to be widely observed among Conservative laity.

Changes in the Conservative position

Prior to 1973, Conservative Judaism had more limited roles for women and was more similar to current Modern Orthodoxy, with changes on issues including mixed seating, synagogue corporate leadership, and permitting women to be called to the Torah. In 1973, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly voted, without issuing an opinion, that women could count in a minyan, although it continued to hold that women could not serve as rabbis or cantors. In 1983, the Jewish Theological Seminary faculty voted, also without accompanying opinion, to ordain women as rabbis and as cantors.

In 2002, the CJLS adapted a responsum by Rabbi David Fine, Women and the Minyan, which provides an official religious-law foundation for these actions and explains the current Conservative approach to the role of women in prayer.

In 2006, the CJLS adopted three responsa on the subject of Niddah, which reaffirmed an obligation of Conservative women to abstain from sexual relations during and following menstruation and to immerse in a mikvah prior to resumption, while liberalizing observance requirements including shortening the length of the niddah period, lifting restrictions on non-sexual contact during niddah, and reducing the circumstances under which spotting and similar conditions would mandate abstinence..

In all cases continuing the Orthodox approach was also upheld as an option. Individual Conservative rabbis and synagogues are not required to adopt any of these changes, and a small number have adopted none of them.

Conservative approaches to change

Prior to 1973, Conservative approaches to change were generally on an individual, case-by-case basis. Between 1973 and 2002, the Conservative movement adapted changes through its official organizations, but without issuing explanatory opinions. Since 2002, the Conservative movement has coalesced around a single across-the board approach to the role of women in Jewish law.

In 1973, 1983, and 1993, individual rabbis and professors issued six major opinions which influenced change in the Conservative approach, the first and second Sigal, Blumenthal, Rabinowitz, and Roth responsa, and the Hauptman article. These opinions sought to provide for a wholesale shift in women's public roles through a single, comprehensive legal justification. Most such opinions based their positions on an argument that Jewish women always were, or have become, legally obligated to perform the same mitzvot as men and to do so in the same manner.

The first Sigal and the Blumenthal responsa were considered by the CJLS as part of its decision on prayer roles in 1973. They argued that women have always had the same obligations as men. The first Sigal responsum used the Talmud's general prayer obligation and examples of cases in which women were traditionally obligated to say specific prayers and inferred from them a public prayer obligation identical to men's. The Blumenthal responsum extrapolated from a minority authority that a minyan could be formed with nine men and one women in an emergency. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) declined to adopt either responsum. Rabbi Siegel reported to the Rabbinical Assembly membership that many on the CJLS, while agreeing with the result, found the arguments unconvincing.

The Rabinowitz, Roth, and second Sigal responsa were considered by the Jewish Theological Seminary faculty as part of its decision to ordain women as rabbis in 1983. The Rabbinowitz responsum sidestepped the issue of obligation, arguing that there is no longer a religious need for a community representative in prayer and hence there is no need to decide whether a woman can halakhically serve as one. The CJLS felt that an argument potentially undermining the value of community and clergy was unconvincing. ("We should not be afraid to recognize that the function of clergy is to help our people connect with the holy.") The Roth and second Sigal responsa accepted that time-bound mitzvot were traditionally optional for women, but argued that women in modern times could change their traditional roles. The Roth responsum argued that women could individually voluntarily assume the same obligations as men, and that women who do so (e.g. pray three times a day regularly) could count in a minyan and serve as agents. The Jewish Theological Seminary accordingly required female rabbinical students wishing to train as rabbis to personally obligate themselves, but synagogue rabbis, unwilling to inquire into individual religiosity, found it impractical. The second Sigal responsum called for a takkanah, or Rabbinical edict, "that would serve as a halakhic ERA", overruling all nonegalitarian provisions in law or, in the alternative, a new approach to halakhic interpretation independent of legal precedents. The CJLS, unwilling to use either an intrusive approach or a repudiation of the traditional legal process as bases for action, did not adopt either and let the JTS faculty vote stand unexplained.

In 1993, Professor Judith Hauptman of JTS issued an influential paper arguing that women had historically always been obligated in prayer, using more detailed arguments than the Blumenthal and first Sigal responsa. The paper suggested that women who followed traditional practices were failing to meet their obligations. Rabbi Roth argued that Conservative Judaism should think twice before adopting a viewpoint labeling its most traditional and often most committed members as sinners. The issue was again dropped.

In 2002, the CJLS returned to the issue of justifying its actions regarding women's status, and adopted a single authoritative approach, the Fine responsum , as the definitive Conservative halakha on role-of-women issues. This responsum holds that although Jewish women do not traditionally have the same obligations as men, Conservative women have, as a collective whole, voluntarily undertaken them. Because of this collective undertaking, the Fine responsum holds that Conservative women are eligible to serve as agents and decision-makers for others. The Responsum also held that traditionally-minded communities and individual women could opt out without being regarded by the Conservative movement as sinning. By adopting this Responsum, the CJLS found itself in a position to provide a considered Jewish-law justification for its egalitarian practices, without having to rely on potentially unconvincing arguments, undermine the religious importance of community and clergy, ask individual women intrusive questions, repudiate the halakhic tradition, or label women following traditional practices as sinners.

Reform Judaism

The past 30 years have seen a revolution in how Reform Judaism views women as well. Reform Judaism now believes in the equality of men and women. The Reform movement rejects the idea that halakha (Jewish law and tradition) is the sole legitimate form of Jewish decision making, and holds that Jews can and must consider their conscience and the ethical principles of Judaism when deciding upon a right course of action. There is widespread consensus among Reform Jews that traditional distinctions between the role of men and women are antithetical to the deeper ethical principles of Judaism. This has enabled Reform communities to allow woman to do many rituals traditionally reserved for men, such as:

  • 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

Concerns about intermarriage have also influenced the Reform Jewish position on gender. In 1983, the Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a resolution waiving the need for formal conversion for anyone with at least one Jewish parent who has made affirmative acts of Jewish identity. This departed from the traditional position requiring formal conversion to Judaism for children without a Jewish mother:

The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent ... depending on circumstances, mitzvot leading toward a positive and exclusive Jewish identity will include entry into the covenant, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Kabbalat Torah (Confirmation). For those beyond childhood claiming Jewish identity, other public acts or declarations may be added or substituted after consultation with their rabbi. .

The 1983 resolution of the American Reform movement has had a mixed reception in Reform Jewish communities outside of the United States. Most notably, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism has rejected patrilineal descent and requires formal conversion for anyone without a Jewish mother.

Reform approaches to change

Reform Judaism generally holds that the various differences between men and women's roles in traditional Jewish law are not relevant to modern conditions and not applicable today. Accordingly, there has been no need to develop legal arguments analogous to those made within the Orthodox and Conservative movements.

Footnotes

See also

External links

General

Publications

  • Lilith Magazine, a Jewish feminist journal
  • Women in Judaism on online peer-reviewed journal covering women in Judaism, with a special emphasis on history, but also including book reviews and fiction.

Perspectives

Institutions

Particular issues

References

  • Women and Jewish Law: An Exploration of Women's Issue's in Halakhic Sources, Rachel Biale, Shocken Books, 1984
  • Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman's Voice Judith Hauptman, Westview Press, 1998
  • Women Who Would Be Rabbis Pamela S. Nadell, 1999 Beacon Press
  • On the Ordination of Women: An Advocate's Halakhic Response Mayer E. Rabbinowitz. In Simon Greenberg, ed., The Ordination of Women as Rabbis: Studies and Responsa, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1988.
  • Women and Prayer: An Attempt to Dispel Some Fallacies, Judith Hauptman, Judaism 42 (1993): 94-103.
  • The Ordination of Women as Rabbis: Studies and Responsa, Simon Greenberg, ed. Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1988. ISBN 0-87334-041-8
  • Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender, Charlotte Fonrobert, Stanford University Press, 2000

Orthodox Judaism and women

  • On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition Blu Greenberg, Jewish Publication Society
  • Orthodoxy Responds to Feminist Ferment, Berman, Saul J. Response, 40, 1981, 5:17.
  • Gender, Halakhaha and Women's Suffrage: Responsa of the First Three Chief Rabbis on the Public Role of Women in the Jewish State, Ellenson, David Harry. In: Gender Issues in Jewish Law (58-81) 2001.
  • Can the Demand for Change In the Status of Women Be Halakhically Legitimated? Tamar Ross, Judaism, 42:4, 1993, 478-491.
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  • In Case There Tamar Are No Sinful Thoughts: The Role and Status of Women in Jewish Law As Expressed in the Aruch Hashulhan, Fishbane, Simcha. Judaism, 42:4, 1993, 492-503.
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  • Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism, Ross, Tamar. Brandeis University Press, 2004. ISBN 1-58465-390-6
  • Women at Prayer: A Halakhic Analysis of Women's Prayer Groups, Weiss, Avi, Ktav publishers, January 2003 ISBN 0-88125-719-2
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