Shammai Engelmayer

Gender barriers rise and fall through the Torah

Whether a woman can ever be president of the United States may not be answered on Tuesday. This election, after all, is more a vote on which candidate voters dislike the least. At the end of Election Day, gender may have had little to do with the outcome.

Gender, however, remains an issue in Jewish life, at least in some more rigidly observant circles. Barriers may have come down in all of Judaism’s streams, but not all barriers and not in all quarters. The tendency is to blame the Torah for this, because it is at the very least paternalistic, and at worst misogynistic.

As this column has noted in the past, however, the opposite is the case. What the Torah actually has to say about women’s rights has been so distorted over time as to be unrecognizable. Some people, for example, continue to believe the Torah itself forbade women from studying sacred texts. Deuteronomy 31:11-12 says otherwise. Blame the creative interpretations applied to those verses by some men for the prohibition (which, thankfully, has been discarded by most sects). Neither the Torah nor the Judaism that emerged from it are to blame.

The Judaism espoused by the Torah always has held women to be the equals of — and at times, better than — men. Individual rabbis may have held chauvinistic views, but their opinions must be considered for what they are, not for what their proponents claim them to be (i.e., the “definitive” explanation of a Torah text).

At the same time, we also must be able to distinguish between talmudic opinions and legal pronouncements, which carry with them the stamp of Sinai itself. The Talmud tells us a woman is entitled to be called to the Torah, but then adds that men should not to do so for the honor of the congregation. (See the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Megillah 23a.)

Clearly, that a woman is entitled to be called to the Torah is a statement of law, but is the rest also a statement of law or merely an opinion?

One way the Torah transmits information is through narrative. The women who play major roles in the Torah are the matriarchs and Miriam, the sister of Moses. Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel all were strong figures. It was to Rebekah that God revealed that Jacob would be dominant over Esau (see Genesis 25:23). When Isaac seemed intent on thwarting God’s will by passing the torch to Esau, she acted decisively to prevent it.

Miriam stood beside Moses in Egypt and in the desert. If that is not clear from the Torah itself, the prophet Micah leaves little room for doubt. He quotes God as saying, “For I brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” (See Micah 6:4.)

The matter-of-fact tone of Micah’s reference testifies to an early Israelite belief that Moses headed a troika, of which a woman, Miriam, was a God-appointed part.

Throughout the Torah, we see the law striving to achieve equality for women, usually accompanied by an understanding of human nature and the power of societal norms.

It was not uncommon in ancient Near Eastern cultures, for example, for a man to sell his daughter into slavery if he needed money. The Torah accepts that such things will happen regardless of what it says, so it makes no effort to ban the practice. Instead, it takes steps to protect the young girl. (See Exodus 21:7-11.)

As its law was developed over time by the Sages of Blessed Memory, that girl must be raised in the master’s house and assigned only light duties; when she comes of age, she must be married to the master or his son; she may not be sold to anyone else, and if the marriage is not to take place, she is to be set free. If the master or the son do marry her, and then marry someone else, the former “slave girl” is guaranteed her food, clothing, and conjugal rights.

Indeed, it is from this law that the rabbis determined that a woman has all the conjugal rights, while the man has all the conjugal obligations. Simply stated, even though only a woman can give birth, only the man is obligated to have children. Thus, a woman may say no to her husband, but he cannot say no to her. This means that he cannot force himself on her legally.

This kind of protection extended to all women, not just Israelite ones, as you can deduce from the way an Israelite soldier in wartime had to treat a woman who caught his fancy. (See Deuteronomy 21:11-14.)

In essence, the Torah in these two cases (and many others) covers what it actually is saying in a chauvinistic veneer, in order to level the playing field. This approach may not sit well with us today, but the Torah was dealing with a different reality when it first appeared. The Near East of 3,500 years ago saw nothing wrong in men treating women as mere property, and any system of laws that said otherwise risked being ignored by those men. The Torah, therefore, “accepts” these norms, but then imposes rules that have the opposite effect, especially as the majority of Sages over time interpreted them.

It also is unfair to condemn the Torah and Judaism for the objectionable opinions of some sages. There are a few pretty disgusting ones, such as the statement in BT Shabbat 152a that “a woman is as a pitcher full of filth and her mouth is full of blood.”

For all the negative opinions you can pull out, there are plenty of positives to counter them. Genesis Rabbah 17:7 tells us of a righteous man and a righteous woman who divorced after 10 years because they were childless. The man married a wicked woman and became wicked himself. His ex-wife married a wicked man and he became as righteous as she was.

“This shows,” the rabbis said, “that everything depends on the woman.”

Regardless of whether America’s political glass ceiling comes crashing down on Tuesday, clearly Judaism’s stained-glass ceiling never should have gone up.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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