Women in Judaism: An Evolving Role in Religion and Society
Many laymen to Judaism look inward into the religion and view Jewish women as oppressed, their lives and choices dictated to them by the men who surround them. From rabbis to husbands to the Bible itself, the belief has generally been that women have been essentially inferior to men since the dawn of the religion centuries ago. However, in taking a contemporary view toward women in Judaism, and in marking the significant strides that the sex has made throughout the centuries, one can immediately see that all it takes to understand the power and respect that Jewish women afford themselves is merely to take a closer look. In viewing the changes and struggles that Jewish women have been through throughout the centuries as well as taking a strictly-religious view in understanding the way Jewish people view God to have made them, the truth regarding Jewish women's value in Jewish religion and culture is one that is revered. A Jewish woman's role is far more encompassing than one might believe, and in viewing her role in Judaism, it is clear that women are a vital part or the Jewish faith, community and culture.
Jewish Women in Biblical Times and Texts
The notion that Jewish women have been inferior to Jewish men is a belief that stems as far back as Biblical times, and this belief can be largely afforded to the lack of Jewish women in the Bible itself. Very few women are mentioned by name or role within Biblical texts, which as often suggested to the outside world that women rarely, if ever, participated in roles that would afford them a public presence or public notoriety. Because of this lacking presence, scholars and Jewish women alike have been left searching for a concrete description regarding what their role is supposed to be within the Jewish religion and within Jewish culture.
The question: "What does it mean to be a Jewish woman?" is one that has been researched and distributed throughout the world for ages. In beginning their search, many are lead directly to the Torah and the Bible. Within the Bible, the first group of women characters present include Eve (or Chavah in the Torah), who is noted as the mother of humankind as well as the four matriarchs of the Jewish people (Fishelov, 1). These five women function within the Bible as archetypes, who embody a certain set of morals, values and the capacity for potential which have been cited by many Jewish women who have come after them.
Perhaps no one has made it harder for Jewish women to earn respect throughout the centuries than Eve herself. Cast out of Eden for breaking God's one law given to her, Eve -- and all women who came after her -- have carried the stigma of sinner and temptress. Every mention of Eve brings with it a mention of "sin," whether undertaking these sinful actions herself or through her "leading" of Adam into the realm of sinners with her. Ever since Eve led Adam and herself from the garden, women, referenced in the Bible and the Torah carried with them the "capability" to seductively lure men into the realm of evil. Additionally, having been the first mention in any Biblical text of a male-female relationship, the story of Adam and Eve -- and especially Eve's wicked ways -- have laid the foundation for many more tales of the destructive woman to come.
In reading the story of Adam and Eve, Eve is noted as the one who will essentially burden the lives of women for all eternity. Through her actions, she has cast herself and everyone who will come after her out of the lustrous and sustaining garden and into a world of pain and suffering. God tells Eve that she will be forced to endure painful childbirth and a lessened status amongst mankind. Eve has brought this curse on herself. God tells her, linking her negative actions to the negative effects that she has had an all of creation (Bernbaum, 1). What she has done will not stop at herself, but will plague each and every woman to be born for all time.
As a counter to the sinful presence of Eve, Judaism sets forth in its texts, the four matriarchs of the Jewish religion: Sarah, wife of Abraham, mother of Isaac; Rebecca, wife of Isaac, mother of Jacob and Esau; Rachel and Leah, wives of Jacob, mothers of several of his thirteen children. The Talmud comments that women possess a certain power, that, when properly cultivated, exceeds its counterpart in men (Wein, 1). This intellectual power is referred to as "binah" a word that comes from the Hebrew word meaning "between;" with this binah comes the ability to analyze and then distinguish between situations or entities that on the surface seem similar, but are really very different (Wein, 1). Such differences are seen in viewing these "four matriarchs," who are credited with building the Jewish nation from within.
Each of these women is said to have possessed the ability to see what was not obvious to the men around them, no matter how revered these men were. For instance, Sarah was said to have had great clarity and beauty. Sarah is said to have made the decision to banish Ismael enabled her to act decisively for the good of all of Judaism regardless of the fact that this decision was widely frowned upon. Rebecca, is viewed as the next great matriarch in Judaism, is said to have been deeply in touch with the essential nature of her sons, Jacob and Esau, and through this connection is able to help them do great deeds within their lives. Finally, Rachel and Leah are said to have given crucial advice to their husband, Jacob, regarding the future of the Jewish nation, which without their counsel could have fallen into utter chaos and division.
Jewish Women through the Centuries
While the Bible and Torah look to the aforementioned woman in terms of pinpointing how womanhood has helped to shape Judaism, we must also look to the different roles of women in Judaism throughout the centuries in order to trace womanhood from its inception to today. Judaism understands that the roles of both men and women are unique to each other, yet essential to the overall whole which is the Jewish faith and culture. Despite the far overreaching presence of men within Biblical texts to the presence of woman, Judaism in its basis has sought to make it understood that the role of men and the role of women within the religion cannot be weighed against each other.
It is obvious that men and women have clear physical differences, but it must also be noted that there are many hormonal, neural and personality differences that have been noted to allow women to find directions and conceptualize differently than men (Women, 1). In Judaism (as well as in many other facets of society), women have the primary responsibility for bringing up the next generation, and Judaism, above any other culture in the world, has shown that it is the women who will mold the next generation in their values and psychological makeup (Women, 1). As Sarah determined that the whole future of Judaism would rest upon the potential of Ishmael outside of the Jewish nation, so do Jewish mothers have the ability to impart a value in their children to exist in truth both inside and outside of the Jewish context. As such, Jewish women have been able, through the years, to hold true to the core values of the Jewish faith while changing to meet the demands and changing times of the outside world.
However, while women in Judaism have clearly played a massive role in the creation and fostering of the family unit, the Jewish woman's role in actual practiced religion within the Torah and synagogue is far more limited than a woman's role in the faith-building that takes place within the family unit or within herself. It is in the area of women in the practicing of Judaism within the Temple that women are still as limited in their abilities as they were at the inception of the religion. However, despite this exclusion, Judaism makes it clear that there are firm and fast reasons for this practice.
Jewish Women in the Synagogue
The role of women in the synagogue is vastly limited. While women are revered and respected in the Jewish religion, the synagogue is one place that there has been little reform since the religion's inception. In order to understand the limited role of women in synagogue life it is important to understand the nature of the mitzvot -- or commandments -- in Judaism and the aforementioned separation of men and women.
Judaism has long-recognized that women are not required to perform certain commandments, and thus, their presence at certain commandments does not count toward group purposes (Rich, 1). For…