Role of women in Judaism

From Academic Kids

The role of women in Judaism is determined by the Hebrew Bible, Talmud (oral law), tradition and by non-religious cultural factors. The Bible and Talmud mention various female role models, but religious law treats women differently in various circumstances. Feminism has led to a reappraisal of the role of women in Jewish religion.


Classical Judaism

See also Old Testament views on women.

The role of women in the Bible is contradictory: few women are mentioned by name and role, suggesting that they were rarely in the forefront of public life. There are, however, numerous exceptions to this rule (the Matriarchs, Deborah the Judge, Hulda the Prophetess, Abigail who married David, Esther), who in the Biblical account did not meet with opposition for the relatively public presence they had.

The Talmud continues this pattern: while few women are mentioned, those who are mentioned specifically are portrayed as having a strong influence on their husbands, and occasionally having a public persona. Examples are Bruria, the wife of the Mishnaic Rabbi Meir, and Yalta, the wife of Rabbi Nachman (Talmud). Rabbi Eliezer's wife (of Mishnaic times) counselled her husband in assuming leadership over the Sanhedrin.

Middle Ages

Both the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud allow polygamy; however the Torah's narratives imply that monogamy is the preferred and ideal state; the Talmud teaches that monogamy is the ideal. In most Jewish communities, polygamy has not existed in any significant form for thousands of years. In the 10th century, Rabbi Gershom of Germany issued a rabbinic decree banning polygamy, and his ruling was accepted by all Ashkenazi Jewish communities. Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews were not affected by the ban and continued the practices, most commonly in the isolated Yemenite Jewish community, known as the Teimanim.

Gershom noted that, while polygamy exists in the Bible, every instance thereof leads to unhappiness and suffering: Abraham's wives Sarah and Hagar hate each other; Jacob's first wife Leah is unloved and miserable, and her sons grow to hate her sister Rachel's son, Joseph. He concluded that legal polygamy constituted chilul Hashem, a desecration of the name of God.

Even before Gershom's ban, the Talmudic precept "dina de'malkhuta dina" -- "the law of the state is the (Jewish) law" -- had outright prevented polygamy for all Jews living in countries where civil law banned it. In those cases when it was not prevented, it was still remarkably rare. Each of the rabbis of the Talmud -- whose written redaction spanned over 400 years to the 5th century -- was married to exactly one woman.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes that, had God seen polygamy as the ideal, He would have created "Adam, Eve, and Joan."

Present day

Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism views men and women as having different but complementary roles, and thus different obligations. This is similar to the traditional interpretation of some other religions, for instance Islam. In the area of education, women were traditionally exempted - and often banned - from any study beyond a basic understanding of the Torah, and the rules necessary in running a Jewish household. Women were discouraged from learning Talmud and other advanced Jewish texts. Women are exempt from having to follow most of the set daily prayer services, and most other positive time bound mitzvot (commandments), such as wearing tefillin. (There are a number of notable exceptions). As such, the halakha (traditional law codes) specify that women are not eligible to be counted in a minyan, as a minyan is a quorum of those who are obligated.

Many people view these elements of Orthodox Judaism as sexist. Men, however, are seen as lacking a spiritual element that women possess, which accounts for why men have more obligations. For a woman to participate in a man's obligations would be to deny her nature as a more spiritual being.

Rules of modesty

See main article: Tzeniut

Orthodox Jewish men generally do not touch, gaze at, or sit next to women other than their wives or relatives, for reasons of modesty. They also do not touch their wife while she is menstruating, for a short period after menstruating, and after the birth of a child. This also includes indirect contact; for instance a plate would not be passed on directly, but first put down on a table so that both do not hold on to the object at the same time. They also include additional restrictions against, for example, flirting.

Changes in the Orthodox position

One of the first major breaks with the traditional role of women came from within the Orthodox movement, by the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisroel Meir HaKohen (1838-1933). He overruled the traditional prohibitions against advanced training of women on the basis that times have changed, and that in the modern world it is now important for women to have an advanced Jewish education. In 1917 the Bais Yaakov (House of Jacob) network of Orthodox Torah schools for women was founded by Sarah Schenirer in Krakow.

Recently, a few leaders in the Modern Orthodox community have set up schools that bring advanced Jewish studies to women, including Stern College at Yeshiva University, and the Drisha Institute (both in New York City). At recent 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.

Women's prayer groups

Since women are not allowed to lead services or read from the Torah in Orthodox Jewish synagogues, a small number of Orthodox women have begun holding women's tefila (prayer) groups. While no Orthodox legal authorities agree that women can form a 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 three schools of thought on this issue:

  • The first rules the while women do not constitute a minyan, they may still carry out full prayer services. The sole halakhic authority who has ruled this way was Israel's late Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Goren, in 1974. However, Rabbi Goren later either clarified or retracted his view, and stated that his writing was purely a speculative work published against his wishes, and not intended as a practical responsum, and that in his view the actual halakha was in accord with the third school of thought, listed below.
  • The second includes leading faculty of Modern Orthodox Judaism's Yeshiva University, and almost all Haredi Rabbis, and rules that all women's prayer groups are absolutely forbidden by Jewish law.
  • The third maintains that women's prayer groups can be compatiable 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 Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Joseph Soloveitchik, Avraham Elkana Shapiro, former British Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, and Israel's late Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, among others[1] (

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 Jews are bound by halakha (Jewish law and tradition), and holds that all of its members and clergy have total personal autonomy in deciding how to practice their faith. As such, Reform Judaism ignores traditional prohibitions on women's role in Jewish life, and holds that women, if they decide to do so, may peform any ritual done by a man, 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

American Reform Judaism has rejected the traditional Jewish view of matrilineal descent. Instead, they hold that if any one parent is Jewish, then the child is automatically Jewish if that child is raised as a Jew. The movement has never formally defined what it means to raise a child as a Jew; as such, Reform rabbis note that the de facto standard is that anyone with a single Jewish parent or grandparent is considered Jewish within the Reform community, even if they have not been raised as a Jew.

External links

  • 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.
  • List of academic links on women in Judaism (, primarily from a liberal perspective.
  • Lilith Magazine (, a Jewish feminist journal
  • Feminism & Judaism (, from an orthodox, anti-feminist perpsective
  • History of Women as Rabbis ( from the Jewish Virtual Library

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