How “light” is a woman’s intellect?

It’s true — the Torah seem to underestimate female intellect. The Talmud and many of the classic commentators say that women have a “light” intellect, and most Torah observant people accept this as fact.  Orthodox women are discouraged or even forbidden from holding public political office, from serving as witnesses in a Jewish court, or from studying certain parts of the Torah, such as the Talmud.

This issue of a woman’s “light” intellect has been interpreted in three main ways:  1) women are “light” because they are more susceptable to seduction. 2) women prefer to deal with a multitude of issues in a shallow way and are less inclined to investigate an issue in great depth.  3) women are simply less able to understand (and cope with, emotionally) deep and complicated issues.

The sages did not speak from ignorance.  Any woman who  has spent significant amounts of time feeding, watching, and caring for her children realizes that when a woman is caring for infants and young children full time, she has neither the time nor the energy to investigate intellectual issues in great depth.  If she can keep her children out of danger, provide them with their needs, and get a good night’s sleep, she is doing well.  And when a woman is pregnant, she is more emotionally labile, more forgetful, and often sick with nausea.  In the past, women spent a much greater percentage of their lives pregnant and/or caring for little ones, it is understandable that they were perceived as “light” by their menfolk.  Also, there was so much women’s work to do (spinning thread and sewing clothing, bringing water, washing garments by hand, preparing food from raw unprocessed or minimally processed materials over a fire that needed to be constantly guarded, cleaning up after undiapered babies, etc.) that most girls and women had neither the time nor the inclincation to seek formal schooling.   women of the past were not educated formally.  Obviously this had a significant impact on women’s ability to reason critically and logically, and to express their thoughts in writing.  Women WERE light, but not biologically.

And what about seduction? Men in leadership positions don’t have affairs at least as frequently as women do? Well, men don’t have affairs which lead to pregnancy, childbirth, constant child rearing (in those days, anyway), and all of the distractions that those things bring.   Men, regardless of how many affairs they may have, don’t give birth to children whom, on account of the circumstances of their birth (i.e. “bastards”), will be condemned as social outcasts.  If men don’t see their infants or care about them, they don’t need to have anything further to do with those children.

On the other hand, the mother of a newborn infant, in order to provide that infant with what it needs to survive and thrive, needs material and financial help while she is home breastfeeding (as frequently as every 2 hours) and tending to her infant. Maternal infant bonding is biological and largely automatic — so there is much less of a chance that a woman will ignore the needs of her infant when those needs conflict with the demands of her role as a scholar or leader.   In her desire to be a good and loving mother, she becomes desperate for material support.  And by having an affair with a man who is not a committed husband and father, a woman leaves herself open to spoken or unspoken influence, or even blackmail, from those who do agree to support her and her infant.  This is obviously a problem, not only for  leaders and court witneses, but also for the integrity of scholars.

In ancient and traditional societies in which women played an important leadership role, the leading matriarchs were usually older and past childbearing age.  And until the development of reliable birth control, most societies (and ours as well) were more concerned with sexual seduction of women than that of men.  But – birth control and baby formula became game changers.  Birth control meant that a woman could choose to devote herself to her position or occupation, or she coulc choose to devote herself to bearing and raising children.  She could avoid social repercussions of having children out of wedlock, and then, later, she could choose to bear children once her family situation became stable.  Basically, birth control meant that a woman was no longer stuck, required to accept a man’s, a family’s, or an organization’s influence in order to keep her baby alive.

As for baby formula — we have bottles and baby formula to thank for the success of professional childcare and day care centers.  In the past, hiring a wet nurse and/or sitter was a privilege reserved mainly for the wealthy.  But thanks to baby formula, a mother was able hire others to care for her children while she was at work.   A mother could support her own home and her own children financially, wihtout outside help.  And this, in turn, allowed her to avoid dependence on external generosity with strings.  Even in societies in which birth control is discouraged (such as in the Orthodox Jewish world), a woman can achieve a large degree of financial independence, thanks to baby formula and child care.

(Note — it is wonderful that Orthodox Judaism places such a high value on childbirth and on children; and also on “women’s work” in the home.  This is actually one of the reasons that I embraced Orthodox Judaism as a young adult. I love this aspect of Torah Judaism, and I feel that secular society does not value it enough.  So — I am not saying that our society should not prize homemaking and child rearing.  However, this world might be better served if  women who are so inclined to serve in a public role are able to do so. )

I’m not saying that women should stop breastfeeding.  Breastfeeding was and still is the best food for babies.  But what I am saying is that the world today is very different from the world that the Talmudic sages knew.  The sages lived in a world in which women were often preoccupied, sleep deprived, emotional, and distractable, and in which women were more susceptable to corruption and influence — professionally, and in court —  on account of their dependence.  The sages were right.  Putting a woman in a position of leadership, putting a woman on the witness stand in a courtroom, or expecting a woman to excel as a scholar, was taking a big risk.

But today  things are very different.  Today, there is not the same risk that a woman will be more distractable than a man, or more impressionable than a man on account of material necessity.   The validity of a woman serving as rabbi, public servant, or even (maybe someday) as a witness in a Jewish court, should be evaluated in this context.  We’re not as “light” as they thought.

In Jeremiah’s description (31:21) of the Messianic era,  “the female forces will be superordinate over the male forces”   (“u’nekayvah t’sovev gawver“).   It hasn’t happened yet, but as we approach 6000 years of Jewish history — isn’t it time we start looking for bits of evidence along the way?

About the Author
Janice Block is a pediatrician, a wife, a mother, and a student of complementary/alternative medicine. She made Aliyah with her family in 2002.
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