General Topics

Jewish Women


There are of course Jewish women and Jewish women, and any generalization on either word is plain silly. But Jewish women who wish to remain loyal to the religious tradition in all its Divine magnificence and Human interference can, if they step out of line or try to deal with rabbinic authority, have a very tough time.

In 1994 admirable UK community leader, Rosalind Preston OBE, produced a report on the state of Jewish women in the UK. It highlighted the overwhelming feeling that women were excluded from communal leadership, that Orthodox institutions gave them no voice, and they suffered disabilities in their encounter with rabbinic authority, and felt disadvantaged by Jewish Law. Britain is different than the USA because it is a community in which Orthodox authority dominates. Many of the issues are not relevant in Reform communities, which have their own specific problems to deal with. At the time, well-meaning rabbis in the UK assured Mrs. Preston that they would deal with the problems. I knew it was all window dressing and PR and that nothing would change. Fifteen years later nothing has changed. I was accused then of being a cynical rebel for predicting this.

The Board has just produced a new report, “Connection, Continuity and Community: British Jewish Women Speak Out”. You would not know it was not written in 1994. For it only reiterates that nothing has changed. Any community that disenfranchises, ignores or underestimates its female talent, cuts off 50% or more of its pool of talent, must be stark raving mad. It is a symptom of atrophy, conformity and mediocrity. This cannot make sense and it is one of the reasons why the UK suffers a serious Jewish brain drain (including every one of my parents’ children).

It is true that UK Jewry is small in number, weak in academic institutions, and limited in talent. But still there are plenty of examples of how things can happen outside of and despite the establishment. It is the evil of British institutional authority, the dead hand of the establishment, the exclusion of talent from the hierarchy, that is as much to blame for wasting potential as the sad complacency, not to say cowardice, of most rabbinic leadership, and the marginalization of the few who would see change.

Of course there are many, many Orthodox women who are perfectly happy, who live fulfilled lives and, within their parameters, do a tremendous amount of good (and it helps if you have lots of money). But just as I believe a just society can be judged by how it treats its poorest and most disadvantaged citizens, so the test of a successful system is how it deals with those who do not fit in or who come up against the system. On all those counts Orthodoxy in the UK has failed far more obviously than either Israel or the USA, the two main Jewish communities of the world today, and I am not claiming for one minute that all is rosy in either of those places, either.

It cannot be right, nor can it be justified, that women are in any way disadvantaged under Jewish law. But they are. Husbands blackmail over divorce and too many rabbis only encourage them. Recalcitrant or absentee husbands will not release ex-wives to remarry and the authorities wash their hands and pretend there is no solution. In previous generations, rabbis took steps to redress grievances. This is not an academic or halachic piece so I am not going to cite chapter and verse, but I can assure you that legal literature is replete with evidence that a thousand years ago rabbis were more gutsy and less mentally paralyzed, indeed less politicized, than they are today, and were not afraid to use their authority and actually force divorce or annul marriages if nothing else worked.

Jewish Law does allow for ways of redressing the balance; it is a scandal that we have to rely on civil courts to do our own religious dirty work. If the boot were on the other foot and men were at a disadvantage, believe you me, they would soon find a halachic way of sorting it out. Nothing casts Jewish Law in a more negative light than the implication it is stymied and needs other systems to help it out of a fix of its own creation.

I fail to understand the argument that Jewish law does not allow women to be appointed to leadership roles, because according to Maimonides the Torah only talks about appointing kings. Why no earlier source than a man living under Islam? So better a dumb male than a bright female? When Deborah was a Judge, or Queen Salome Alexandra cleaned up the messes her husbands made, were the authorities then unaware of Torah? How much of our current paralysis stems from living so long under Christian and Muslim regimes that considered women inferior and put pressure on us to toe the line?

I am in favor of ritual differences. I do think we need to encourage more and different and female forms of spirituality, instead of butchering existing models that were not designed to be all things for all people. Why would one want to conflate Lithuanian and Hassidic prayer, instead of retaining variety and offering options? But when it comes to the equivalent of civil law, there can be no situation that leaves women, disadvantaged and in tears. According to His own words, the tears of the oppressed offend God, and yet too many rabbis act as if that did not matter.

11 thoughts on “Jewish Women

  1. I have tried and failed to find out why women cannot be trustees of the United Synagogue

    Jonathan Hoffman

  2. Jonathan:
    Good point. I haven't actually seen the rules myself, but I gather from women who have wanted to stand that although they may now sit on the board they may not be synagogue presidents and hold certain other positions.

    Perhaps someone who has access to the laws, byLaws, and regulations of the United Synagogue will be able to provide us with the exact wording.

    Shabbat Shalom,

  3. Not all activity requires leadership. The London School of Jewish Studies (president, the Chief Rabbi) has extensive series of lectures and in almost every class, the female students outnumber the male. Even the orthodox (some might say ultra-Orthodox) Ner Yisrael Community now provides Gemara Shiurim for Ladies – though why they are not mixed shiurim for either sex to attend defeats me. Maybe it might lead to dancing !

  4. Our local rabbi gave a class on whether women are allowed to learn Torah. He had determined that it is forbidden to teach them Torah, but to tell them so would be a violation of that very halacha. So when we arrived for the shiur, there was simply a sign on the door saying, "GO HOME!"


  5. Ephry:
    Yes, indeed, there are shoots and its not entirely black! Oops, I meant white! No, that's not right. Now what exactly DID I mean?

    Yes, of course, one can manage without proactive leadership, but still it's a shame when the tail wags the dog!


  6. Ephry:

    Do you happen to know if male only classes are ever taught by women? The reason I ask (aside from ignorance) is that it seems from the website of The London School of Jewish Studies that the women only classes exist in part to provide teaching platforms for women. I really can't see anything uniquely female about the content of those on offer exclusively for women apart from the bat mitzvah classes. I can't summon up any interest in classes aimed solely at women for no discernable reason because in the secular, academic world, my experience is that the greater the variation in student background, the richer the contributions so why would I want a class that excluded men (or anyone else)?

    If there were mixed classes as you suggest, that would suppose too that the teacher would have only to be a teacher rather than gender being of any relevance. If that were the case then too, anyone coming out of those mixed classes, male or female, could reasonably assume that a leadership position would be open to all.

  7. Ephry:
    The only evidence I have is of Nechama Leibovitz invited to lecture at three Charedi Leumi all boys yeshivot. She was also invited to a Sephardi Charedi yeshiva and Ovadia Yosef paskened she could from behind a mechitza!

  8. "Why no earlier source than a man living under Islam?"

    A tad infantile, no? I hope the attempt to associate Judaism's chauvinism, a tradition that seems to affect all Abrahamic faiths, as somehow the result of Islam is incidental.

    I have always held Maimonides in the highest regard. And not simply because if not for Rambam, we may not even know today's Judaism, but also because of his human philosophy. And if Islam and Arabic tradition had an affect in this, then that was positive and didn't detract from what is possibly the greatest source of cross-cultural thought from the not too distant past.

  9. Anonymous:
    Of course I agree Islam, like Judaism, is not monolithic and there have been great enlightened Muslim eras. But let us not forget that it was Muslim Berber fanaticism that drove Rambam out of Spain, even if he found a different Muslim dynasty to receive him in Egypt.

    My point was not that anti-feminism started with Islam. It did not. My point was not that Islam was necessarily more oppressive of women than other societies. It was that until the era of Rambam, living under a regime that did ascribe second-class citizenship to women, no earlier great Jewish authority living under Greece or Rome had previously gone on halachic record saying that you may not appoint women to top jobs!
    And therefore I may asume it was external mores that infuenced the decision.


  10. Just reading this got me wondering, and this may not be related exactly, but why is it that we seem to have an all-male prophethood? No females deserving or spiritual enough? And why is it that first-born sons have such a distinctly, privileged position? This seems to be an issue that predates both Christianity and certainly Islam. So if this is due to external mores, not some divine chauvinism, then where did this mores come from and why were they never challenged?

  11. Anonymous:
    Hey, hold your horses. There WERE women prophets and judges–few I concede, but there nevertheless, precisely because prophets like judges were charismatic individuals who emerged rather than be appointed by other males trying to protect their preserve!!!

    Miriam is described as a prophet Ex.14.20
    Hulda. 2Kings.22.14
    Mrs Isaiah 8.13
    Noadia. Nehemia 6.14
    And of course Deborah Judges 4.4 in her dual role.

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