At the beginning of the Torah section of Tazria and towards the end of the Torah section of Metzora, the Torah provides us a sampling of some of the many laws concerning women that are strewn along with other references to women throughout the Holy Scriptures and Rabbinic writings.
Throughout Biblical and Rabbinic literature, we find many and various favorable references to the woman’s participation in society. In the Bible, we are told that Sarah’s demand to drive out Hagar was upheld by G-d (Bereshit 21:10-12), and later, Rebecca demonstrated the necessary insight to evaluate Esav’s true character (Bereshit 27). Despite the negative influence of Lavan’s home, Leah and Rachel were able to muster the energy to create the proper environment to generate and develop the progenitors of the people of Israel. Great emphasis was placed on the leadership of the prophetess Devorah (Shoftim 4-5). The wise woman was treated with respect and consulted on important matters (II Shmuel 14, 20), and, during the reign of Josiah, Huldah prophesied and was consulted on matters of official policy (II Melakhim 22). In Rabbinic literature, we are informed of the moral courage of the midwives that saved the people of Israel, and we are told of how Miriam prevailed upon Amram not to destroy the people of Israel despite the frustration of bearing children in Egypt (Sh’mot Rabbah 1:17). In the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11a, our Sages proclaim, “Because of the righteous women of that generation, Israel was redeemed from Egypt.” In a similar vein, our Sages report that, unlike the men, the women did not panic at Moses’ ostensible disappearance, nor did the women consent to the forming of the calf (Pirke d’R. Eliezer 45).
We also find in Biblical and Rabbinic literature diverse proverbs and aphorisms that look on the woman in a favorable light. In Mishle 12:4, we find, “A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband,” and, in Mishle 18:22, “One who finds a wife finds good.” In the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 14b, our Sages assert, “Women are compassionate,” and, in the Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 62b, we discover “Any Jew who does not have a wife is without joy, without blessing, without goodness, without Torah, without protection and without peace.” Our Sages even tell us, “G-d gave more insight to woman than to man” (Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 45b).
In numerous instances, our Sages also stress the importance of being sensitive to the feelings and needs of women. We are warned, “One should not marry a woman with the intention of [later] divorcing her” (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 37b), and the Jewish male is exhorted to “…love his wife as himself and respect her more than himself” (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 62b). In the Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 10b, our Sages tell us, “It is not proper to make light of the daughters of Israel,” and, in the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a, we find that one should be careful not to oppress his wife, and should consult her before making a decision.
However, despite the aforementioned favorable references to the woman’s participation in society, the favorable proverbs and aphorisms concerning the woman and our Sages’ sensitivity to her needs, we also find various examples of verses, laws and customs that some, in their zeal to dismiss the Torah and Talmud as antiquated, simplistically interpret as representing a subordination of the daughters of Israel to the sons of Israel. Concerning the creation of the first woman, the Torah reports, “And the rib, which the L-rd G-d had taken from man, made He a woman” (Bereshit 2:22), rather than describe the creation of womankind as independent and separate from that of man. And after eating of the forbidden “tree of knowledge” , G-d tells Eve, “And he [man] will rule over you” (Bereshit 3:16), which appears to some to be a divine decree that womankind is to be subservient to mankind. Moreover, the unenlightened mind considers the woman, unlike the man, to be burdened by laws of niddah. Women, unlike men, are exempt from active precepts that are temporally contingent (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 20b), rather than being obligated in the same laws as men. Unlike men, a woman is disqualified as a witness in legal cases (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 154b). According to the Torah, a divorce requires only the man’s consent (Shulchan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer 119:6), and a father is permitted to sell his daughter to be a maidservant (Sh’mot 21:7).
After deeper scrutiny, the first woman’s creation from the rib of man would appear to indicate the dependence of each one on the other, rather than the subservience of one to another. Since his rib was taken, man was made incomplete, necessitating a partner – a woman. Her being created from man’s rib may, thus, signify a natural bond, i.e. man and woman should be bound together in a manner that they could thereby better promote each one’s needs.
The verse, “He will rule over you,” can be understood as a specific invective directed at Eve because of her transgression, and, accordingly to any woman who would act in the manner of Eve. In fact, our Sages point out in the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 12a that righteous women are not affected by the curse on Eve.
After closer examination, one can also better understand the differences in Torah law between men and women as different ways to address the personal needs of each, rather than as a subordination of one to the other.
By forbidding sexual intercourse during the period of being a niddah, i.e. during the woman’s menstrual period when her possibility of conceiving a child is at a minimum, the Torah would seem to be reserving the sexual act as much as possible for the purpose of reproduction. Thus, as M.D. Tendler notes in his Pardes Rimonim p. 11, the laws of niddah serve to ensure that the “marital act is not to be degraded to a physical act devoid of the emotional bonds and sense of familial obligation and responsibility.” Finally, after the end of menstruation and before a couple is permitted to resume sexual relations, the woman is enjoined to acknowledge G-d’s role in this facet of her life by reciting a blessing upon her immersion into the mikvah; and, consisting of rainwater or spring-water that are in their natural state, not having been tampered with by human hands, that aid in the preservation and growth of animal and vegetable life on earth, the mikvah is, thereby, the sole instrument that allows a couple to continue their part in the preservation and growth of the human species.
The importance of the laws of niddah having been demonstrated, we must also consider two natural distinctions between the man and the woman which may help to resolve some of the other difficulties. One is that the woman, not the man, becomes pregnant; and the other is that usually the woman does not possess as much brute force as the man.
By adhering to the laws of niddah, which include frequent examinations for menstrual bleeding, the cessation of sexual intercourse upon the sight of such bleeding, waiting the necessary time until the period of bleeding is completed and the subsequent immersion in a mikvah, the woman is bound in an active manner to the will of G-d for an extended and recurrent period of time. In addition, a woman’s becoming pregnant requires special care for the successful birth of another human life, and, thereby, links her to G-d’s will to “…be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth” (Bereshit 1:28) for an extended period of time in an active manner. Moreover, as a result of the woman’s lower level of brute force (which contributes to her inclination towards compassion and fair-mindedness, thereby helping to offset the not infrequent excesses of the male ego), much wandering and roaming on the “outside” by the woman, which could lead to her being taken advantage of sexually, is not preferable. Thus, the Torah discourages the woman’s coming to court for the purposes of testimony, and we read in Tehillim 45:14, “The entire glory of the daughter of the king lies on the inside.” Since the woman is, consequently, more engaged in extended active bonds to the will of G-d, which serve to engrain the truth of the Torah in her mind over and above that of the man, and the woman is generally more limited in her outside exposure, which necessitates fewer safeguards against outside forces opposing the mind’s inclination towards the truth of the Torah, she was not required to engage in the same number of active precepts as her male counterpart, and, thus, exempted from active precepts of a temporal nature.
Women, then, are, as a result of the laws of niddah and the period of pregnancy, generally engaged in extended and recurrent responsibility and vigilance. In addition, they are obligated to heed all negative precepts (i.e. precepts that enjoin us to refrain from a given act); and, as R. Moses Isserles asserts in Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 246:6, “A woman is obligated to study laws that are applicable to a woman.” Therefore, to burden women with the interminable obligation of studying all of Torah law and lore, whether applicable to them or not, in addition to their many responsibilities and obligations which weigh no less than those of men, would be unnecessary and could cause more harm than good by diverting their attention from the many and significant responsibilities and obligations which they otherwise have. However, although she is not obligated to study all of Torah law and lore, should a woman voluntarily engage in such study without adversely affecting her other responsibilities and obligation, she is certainly rewarded.
Regarding the Torah’s requiring only the man’s consent in case of divorce, we must understand that under the law of the Torah a man was permitted to marry more than one woman, perhaps as a result of the lower ratio of men to women because of war and the like. Consequently, because of the unlimited number of wives that a man could have, a woman who was divorced would have little difficulty in marrying again. However, since every woman could only be married to one man, if a man would find himself unexpectedly divorced, he would have difficulty in finding a desirable and available lady. Requiring the man’s consent in case of divorce served as a safeguard against such difficulty. Therefore, when R. Gershom b. Judah of Mayence enacted the prohibition of polygamy in the early Middle Ages, he also required the wife’s consent in any divorce case (Shulchan Arukh, Rama, Even ha-Ezer 119:6).
On the subject of a father’s selling his daughter as a maidservant, Maimonides notes in his Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Avadim 4:2, “A father is only permitted to sell his daughter if he has become impoverished to the extent that he has no land nor movables nor even a garment [to wear], and, nevertheless, we force the father to redeem her after he sold her.” In other words, selling one’s daughter was only permitted in the most dire circumstances, and, even then, was discouraged.
Let us now consider the man’s daily blessing of “Blessed…who has not made me a woman” in contrast to the woman’s recitation of “Blessed…who has made me in accordance with His will.” The woman’s aforementioned propensity for operating on the “inside,” the home-front, appears to have endowed her with the capacity of creator, molder and guardian of the Jewish home, which she executes by giving birth to, nurturing and raising the children as well as other responsibilities in the home. Consequently, a woman’s being is similar to G-d’s will that manifests itself as creator, molder and guardian of the entire universe, and the woman, therefore, blesses G-d “who has made me in accordance with His will.” In contrast, the man’s propensity for the “outside”, as mentioned above, requires him to heed various active precepts which a woman is not obligated in as a result of her other weighty responsibilities. Thus, by blessing G-d “who has not made me a woman,” the man expresses his appreciation for not being required to engage in such heavy responsibilities of the woman as the ongoing vigilance of the laws of niddah and caring for the unborn fetus during pregnancy, as well as his gratitude for the various precepts which safeguard against outside forces to which he is exposed that oppose his inclination towards the truth of the Torah.
Finally, in contrast to what some surmise, nashim da’atan kalot does not denote less intelligence among women. Rather, as M. Meiselman points out in Jewish Woman in Jewish Law, pp. 41-42: “Nashim da’atan kalot…is used twice in the Talmud…in the same context – that most women under intense pressure will yield more easily than most men. This is not a general rule covering all situations and was never meant as such; it was only a statement of general psychological tendencies…Furthermore, this statement reflects the fact that women are generally more sensitive and softer than men.” Thus, the phrase nashim da’atan kalot is but an expression of psychological tendency and indicates the possession of a greater degree of sensitivity, rather than an inferior intelligence. In fact, our Rabbis tell us in the Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 45b, “G-d gave more insight to the woman than to the man.”
To be sure, some post-Talmudic authorities have spoken of the woman as an inferior being. However, such statements are not to be taken as expressions of prescriptive belief and practice.
Torah law has, therefore, prescribed statutes whereby men and women can best instill in themselves the truth of G-d’s ways in a manner best fitted to their respective general needs and characteristics. If, then, they fulfill their obligations in full, there should be nothing standing in the way of their receiving the highest reward – whether man or woman. Let us only hope that both men and women fulfill their obligations in full.