Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Is Judaism Sexist?

Is Judaism Sexist?

I. The Torah’s View on Women:

The rise of feminism has created a new and serious challenge to the practice of a Torah-based Judaism. Many of the Torah’s laws and the Jewish communities customs are considered biased against women and create a male dominated religious world in which the women has no significant place. The claim has been made that the changes in general society that feminism has effected should be and must be mirrored in Orthodox Jewish practice to create a more equalitative system. Blu Greenberg, in her On Women and Judaism writes:

Today, while secular society has opened up a new range of real roles and psychological expectations to women, the halachic status and religious life of Jewish women remain circumscribed. It is like sitting in a stationary car alongside a moving one... What is sorely needed today is the creation of a dialectic tension between Jewish values and the mores of secular society in light of the far-reaching implications of women’s liberation.[1]

The claim that Orthodox practice must be adjusted is problematic for several reasons. Most simply, the task of “adapting” Halacha to conform to the demands of feminism is nearly impossible. Failure may result either from an inability to remain within the bounds of an intellectually honest Torah true Judaism, or by falling short of the high demands of the Feminist movement. A more basic and fundamental issue is raised in Greenberg’s book and in her words. The claim that Talmudic based Judaism is “sexist” and therefore needs to be reconfigured to include the newfound truth of the feminist movement raises questions about the nature of these laws themselves. Do these laws simply reflect the biased views of the time-period in which they were written? If the answer is to the affirmative, what requires the modern Jew or Jewess to live by an outdated Halachic system altogether? What need is there for a “dialectic tension” if Talmudic law is an obsolete human invention? A serious continued commitment to Torah Judaism requires addressing and rebutting the claim that Jewish law, especially the sections that trace themselves to Biblical and therefore divine sources, assumes women to be inferior to men.

The greatest difficulties many have with Traditional Judaism is its position on women’s prayer. The classical prayer service in which men run the show, the women out of sight behind a wall or high on a balcony is enough to make even the slightest feminist disgusted. This would not be sufficient reason to re-examine the issue except that many feel that this male dominance in prayer is simply the result of the chauvinism of early Jewish history. We have already pointed out that the Rabbis of the Talmud did not view women as second class citizens in regards to religious observance. The Talmud in Berachot (31a) writes concerning the prayer of Chanah (see Samuel I 1:10-12):

Said Rabbi Hamnunah “How many important rules may we derive from these verses. “And Chanah was speaking in her heart” from here we learn that one must focus his heart on the prayer. “Only her lips were moving” from here we learn that one who prays should move their lips...”

Here we find a women used as the model for all Jewish prayer. How can we reconcile this with a male dominated system of prayer?

1. The Ten Man Minyan- Many ask why women cannot count as part of a minyan. Let’s look at the Talmudic source for this law and see if it helps alleviate any of our difficulties.

Talmud Berachot 21b How may we derive that an individual may not say the Kedushah (communal sanctification)? From the verse “and I shall be sanctified amongst the Jews” and we find that the same word is used in describing the spies “amongst the this group (of Ten Men)”

The Talmud’s source for the requirement for a group of ten adult men to be present for “davar shebekedusha” is puzzling for several reasons. First the connection between the narrative of the spies and prayer seems to end with the similar word “among”. Is there a reason why the Talmud chose the story of the spies as a source text? Also these “ten men” actually refer to the ten evil spies whose lack of faith led to the Jews’ suffering in the desert for an added forty years, hardly the first group one would look to as the role models for Jewish communal prayer.

Based on this difficulty many Jewish thinkers explain that actually these communal prayers were only instituted after the sin of the spies. In this incident a group of ten men spoke against the land of Israel and expressed disbelief in G-d’s ability to assist the Jews. This led to a huge desecration of G-d’s name amongst the men of the nation in general. In response to this incident, men received the obligation to say certain prayers in public, in a group of at least ten adult males.[2]

Based on this understanding we see that the fact that women may not be included in a minyan does not reflect negatively on females at all. Actually, the women never sinned in the sin of the spies and so they never required these Tefiloth. Since they never sinned and were not included in the requirement to say the communal prayers, they can’t help create the ten man minyan required for these prayers.

2. Leading the Prayers- Recently, Jews of many denominations have created opportunities for women to lead the prayer services, sometimes attempting to stay within the standard of Jewish tradition and others ignoring this tradition. Classically, women were not permitted to lead the services for the simple reason that they were not included in the original requirement to say these prayers. The general principle in Jewish law is that an individual who is not obligated to fulfill a certain requirement may not lead or discharge the obligation of one who is included in this requirement. So of course women could not lead the services.

There is however, a deeper problem in this movement. As we have shown communal prayer was only instituted to respond to a problem. Prayer in general can certainly be completely personal. The Patriarchs and Matriarchs all prayed as individuals. Many of the laws of prayer are derived from the prayer of Hannah, who poured out her heart in the temple, completely alone. Even in communal prayer the most important section is the silent devotion, which is said as a group but quietly. People who focus on the communal aspect of prayer miss the point entirely. Prayer is the “service of the Heart” an individual’s chance to commune with G-d on a very personal and sincere level. To claim that we must find a way to allow women to feel as though they are leading the services is to cheapen the entire institution of Jewish prayer, making it no more than a show. It is in reality, one of the deepest, most profound experiences an individual can achieve. Actually, when one prays the law requires that they see themselves completely alone before G-d. In prayer nothing in the universe exists besides the human and her Creator, her Master, her Father. Personally, I try to avoid leading the services because I feel it distracts me from focusing on the true meaning of my prayers. Hopefully if we work on ourselves and our prayers as individuals, then the problem of allowing women to lead the services will become a non- issue. The avenue of true sincere prayer is open to anyone who wishes to pursue it.

B. Modesty, and Separation of Men and Women

Anyone who visits an Orthodox Jewish community will immediately notice the unusual dress of the women. The long skirts and shirt sleeves contrast sharply with the revealing styles and fashions of our day. Many snicker at the married women’s head coverings, pitying the foolish and naive women who degrade themselves with such traditional dress. This unusual modesty is usually viewed as a male invention to subjugate and degrade women and to protect the men from sin. Let’s take a closer look and see if these feelings are justified.

Actually, the requirement of modesty applies to both men and women. The Talmud tells us:

What is the garment of a righteous man? Something which does not allow his flesh to be seen from beneath it (either because it is too short and reveals the legs or because it is too thin - Meiri)... (Baba Batra 57b)

The need for modesty is based on several factors. The most important factor in the requirement for modesty relates not to the perceptions others have of the individual, but how the individual views himself. The Torah teaches us that man is made up of two parts, the body and the soul. Humans are “the dust of the earth”, and at the same time “the image of G-d” capable of the most sublime intellectual and spiritual accomplishments. G-d demands that we define ourselves by the G-dly aspect within us. Among our greatest challenges is the temptation to define ourselves by our physical half. To live life only for the goal of receiving sexual or other physical pleasure is diminish our minds and souls to tools of the body. Modern society has sadly fallen prey to this temptation and the individual cannot help but be swept along. It is difficult to imagine the enormous changes in our daily lives were the world to view the body only as a tool for spiritual growth. The advertising industry has ensured that the images of the young and attractive are all around us. Entire industries are dedicated to weight loss and cosmetics and pornographic solicitations bombard us on our computers. In light of our obsession with beauty can we be at all surprised that cases of anorexia and bulimia have become commonplace in adolescents. The Jew strives to define herself not by the dust in her, but by the Divine. To expose our bodies is to expose the lowest part of ourselves, to ignore the G-dly and focus on the mundane. The Jew, in covering her body demands that she be defined by more than her lower elements. She tells the world that she will not allow herself to be defined and perceived simply by her figure and her sexual appeal. That this should be considered a degradation of women is absurd.

The same applies to the requirement that married women cover their hair. When beginning their new life together she and her husband must know that their relationship must be based on more than physical attraction if they wish to build a Jewish home. The newly wed woman covers her hair not to protect other men from sin but to demonstrate that the young couple’s relationship is not based on bodily lusts but on the intimate closeness of spirit which comes from the sharing of common hopes and dreams.

A simpler reason that the Torah demands that a Jew act and dress modestly is that the Torah demands that we be concerned with the spiritual well being of our fellow Jews. The concept “that all Jews are responsible for one another” appears throughout halachic literature. The Torah includes a negative prohibition to cause another Jew to sin.

Maimonides writes:

One who looks at those sexually prohibited to him thinks that this is nothing, for he reasons “have I touched her?”. He does not realize that the looking is a great sin... as it says “you shall not stray after your eyes”

This of course related back to the requirement to raise ourselves above the physical. This being the case, we must concern ourselves that we not become a stumbling block for others. Certainly, wearing revealing clothing, even if it will not elicit a direct reaction, puts others in a situation in which they may sin. This may explain gender differences in the laws of modesty. Although the laws of modesty do apply to men, the laws of modesty are more restrictive for women. This is not a function of the Torah’s desire to degrade women but a result of added lusts on the part of the men. Studies regarding gender differences in sexual fantasies have shown that men are more prone to such thoughts. A 1990 survey of college students conducted by Jones and Barrow claimed that although internally triggered fantasies occurred equally in both men and women, males reported more than twice as many externally stimulated fantasies than women.[3] Men also proved to be more prone to being sexually aroused by visual stimuli. A slew of studies indicate men fanaticize more often than women in general.[4]

These differences are probably at least partially biologically based and exist regardless of cultural influences. Although some argue these variations are simply a result of societal norms, evidence exists that biological factors, specifically higher levels of testosterone in the male body, increase susceptibility to sexual fantasy from external stimuli. A study involving eight through tenth grade boys found that serum testosterone level was a significant predictor for levels of sexual fantasy.[5] Other studies involving testosterone treatments for men with low testosterone levels showed a significant relationship between increase in testosterone levels and increased sexual fantasy.[6]

Higher levels of testosterone in males, creating a greater risk for sexual fantasy, may be the motivation behind stricter standards in female modesty. These added restrictions therefore, do not reflect male dominance or female subjugation, but results from biologically determined factors.

C. Time Bound Commandments

Another area of Judaism in which many feel that Traditional Judaism looks down on women is in that Orthodox women do not perform certain rituals, like wearing Tefillin (phylacteries) and Tzitzit (ritual fringes). The source for the idea that women are exempt from certain mitzvoth is a passage in Tractate Kiddushin in which the Rabbi’s derive that women are exempt from most time bound mitzvoth. These mitzvoth include many day to day commandments, like tefillin and tallit, as well as more rare mitzvoth like the obligation to sit in the succah on succoth or to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashana.

Some take offense to the fact that women are not enjoined to fulfill these commandments since this exemption reflects a feeling that women aren’t a significant part of the Jewish community. It has already been shown that no such feeling exists either in the Bible or in the Talmud. This being the case, an alternate explanation for this exemption must be found.

The earliest explanation for this exemption is given by a Midrash hbugna yuekh

“And Hannah was speaking to her heart” why were women exempted from certain mitzvoth, because they are of only one heart as it says “to her heart”

This Midrash interpreted by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, a great Sfardic scholar, to mean that women are naturally more sincerely committed to G-d than men. He writes

therefore it seems that women do not have as great an evil inclination with regards to matters of the heart.(Yabeah Omer v.1 O”H 40)

This being the case they do not require the constant cycle of reminders which men require to fulfill their spiritual potential.

Another explanation for this exemption is in that women have a specific command in which, although men are affected, women have the primary role. This mitzvah is Mikvah, or ritual immersion which applies to the women as part of the process of Taharat Hamishpacha, or family purity.

Throughout the process the husband is completely passive, taking no part in the calculations or purifications. The Mikvah immersion which the woman undergoes symbolizes rebirth and spiritual purification. The Sefer Hachinuch, a codification of the 613 biblical commands along with a short explanation of each mitzvah explains:

Sefer Hachinuch 173- The reason for the waters (of the Mikvah) is simply that the person should feel his or herself after the immersion as if they had been created at that time, as when life first emerged from the waters... and they should meditate on the idea that just as they have been recreated in body, they shall renew their commitment to do good, improve their actions, and be scrupulous in G-d’s ways.

Actually, many of the more fervently religious Jewish communities. the Chassidim in particular, take upon themselves to immerse in the Mikvah each day, to help them reach a higher level of purity. The only obligatory immersion which can be practiced today however is the immersion of the women. With this cycle of constant physical and spiritual renewal the women gains the higher level of closeness to G-d which men may only achieve through other time bound laws.

A third approach to the exemption of women in time bound mitzvoth is simply that since many women are occupied with the raising of children, they are less able to perform mitzvoth which must be performed at a specific time. Although the idea that women must spend time raising children is difficult for many women’s rights activists to swallow, it should be remembered that a women’s exemption from time bound laws does not preclude her from fulfilling them. If a women desires she may fulfill any time bound command she likes. She is simply not obligated to perform these acts in order to prevent the inner conflicts these commands would place upon the enormously busy but religiously committed mother. To force this mother to constantly feel she must chose between her religious duties and her family would place her in an almost unbearable situation. Therefore, the Jewish women is permitted to perform any law she likes, while the Jewish Mother need not feel she is a sinner because she is unable to fulfill all her duties.

Recently, it has become more accepted that the husband takes a more active role in the child raising process. We find many families in which the female assumes the role of the breadwinner while the husband raises the children. Jewish law certainly does not forbid such a situation (see also the commentary of the Meiri on Pesachim 50a) but the exemption was provided to women in general for several simple reasons. No amount of liberation can free a mother from the difficulties of pregnancy and childbirth. Even after birth, the connection between mother and child is naturally stronger. Many studies show mothers milk to be more beneficial to a child’s physical and psychological health. Human milk contains all the nutrients an infant requires in an easily digestible form. It also boasts of over fifty immunological elements that protect an infant from illness.[7] Studies comparing intelligence levels have revealed that breast-fed children have scored higher on cognitive tests later in childhood.[8] Again, this does not mean that the father is never the parent more suited for child raising. The Torah however, being the single universal law for Jews across the globe throughout the ages of history, chooses the women as the more obvious choice for child raising duties.

There is one exception to the general rule that women may perform any mitzvah[9]. The Code of Jewish law writes:

If a women wishes to wear Tefilin (phylacteries) she may not. (Shulchan Aruch O”H 38:3).

To understand this limitation, we must first take a look at the history of the law of Tefillin and look into the nature of the law itself. During early Jewish history, Tefillin were worn at all times during the day. The Biblical verse mentioning tefillin gives no limitation on the general precept to “bind them as a sign upon your arm and between your eyes”. The Talmud tells us that each second one wears Tefillin one fulfills a Biblical command. The question arises, why is it that modern Jewry does fulfill this obligation and limits Tefillin to the Morning Prayer services?

A second change occurred which specifically involves women. We find several examples of women who wore tefillin in Jewish history, the most well know being the daughters of the great Medieval commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki or “Rashi”. However we also find that the code of Jewish law prohibits women from wearing tefillin. These two changes were addressed by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l, a great Torah scholar and teacher of the previous generation. He writes:

Only they (women) may not wear tefillin... because Tefillin require purity of body and mind and great concentration, and it is for this same reason that men, who are obligated in Tefillin may not wear them all day but only during the short time of the morning prayers (Igrot Moshe O”H 4:49)

The Tefillin contain sections of the Torah inside them. Since the Torah is G-d’s word in this world, the wearer of the Tefillin must keep his or her attention focused on them constantly. Failure to do so would demonstrate a lack of respect and involve a grave transgression. Today in a society in which general religious commitment has dwindled even the most devout are unable to exercise the intense concentration which the sanctity of G-d’s word truly deserves. Men however, must wear tefillin when reciting the Shema in the morning lest they appear to condemn themselves by mentioning the command but ignoring it (the Shema includes the verses referring to Tefillin.) It is only this motivation that outweighs the potential and nearly certain infringement on the sanctity of G-d’s word involved in wearing tefillin. It follows of course that women should not partake of this command being that they have no such motivation.

The issues raised by the Feminist movement regarding equality in Jewish law are significant from both an intellectual and social perspective. The philosophical implications of a sexist perspective in normative Jewish law, especially laws with Biblical sources, are a serious and potentially crippling for a Jewry that accepts such laws as the foundation of its religious life. Modern Orthodoxy must also address the growing group of women who follow Blu Greenberg’s lead in calling for changes in halacha and minhag that include and empower women.

This article, although far from exhaustive, attempts to alleviate some of the problems in the practices of Orthodox Judaism without implementing changes the system itself. Before revamping our practice of Halacha, our history behooves us to attempt to defend Jewish law before the claims of those who would change it at the whim of the zeitgeists of the secular world. Our tradition reaches us after a long, difficult and sometimes tragic journey. The power of its teachings have given strength and meaning to Jews in the most difficult situations and has shaped the moral fabric of the society in which we live. Let us not abandon this treasure before we are sure we must.

[1] Greenberg, Blu On Judaism and Feminism: A View From Tradition. The Jewish Publication Society of America: Philadelphia 1981 pp 5-6

[2] Mordechai Tendler on Beitzah, cited by Lisa Aken in To Be A Jewish Women. (Lakewood: Israel Bookshop, 1993.) pp.97-100

[3] Jones, J.C., & D.H. Barrow (1990) “Self Reported Frequency of Sexual Urges, Fantasies, and Masturbation Fantasies in Males and Females.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 19: 269-279

[4] For a summary of these studies see Leitenberg and Henning’s article “Sexual Fantasy” in Psychological Bulletin May 1995, vol. 117, no. 3, 469-496

[5] Udry, J.R., J. Billy, et al. (1985) “Serum Androgenic Hormones Stimulate Sexual Behavior in Adolescent Boys.” Fertility and Sterility, 43, 90-94

[6] Bancroft, J. (1984). Journal of Sex and Marital Therepy 10, 3-27. For a summary of such studies see Leitenberg and Henning’s article “Sexual Fantasy” in Psychological Bulletin May 1995, vol. 117, no. 3, 469-496

[7] Lazarov, M. & A. Evens (2000) “Breastfeeding: Encouraging the Best for Low Income Women.” Zero To Three, 21, 15-23.

[8] Lazarov, B., et al. (1987) Iron Deficiency, Anemia, and Iron Therepy Effects on Infant Development Test Performance. Pediatrics, 79, 981-995. See also Tanner and Finn-Stevenson’s article in The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry April 2002 vol. 72, no. 2., 182-193

[9] The only other area in which women may be restricted is Tzitzit or Ritual Fringes. With regards to ritual fringes, a woman should consult a Rabbi before practicing this command since it may in some cases involve the Biblical prohibition of cross dressing.