Urim Publications and Ktav Publishing in Jerusalem and New York have just republished “Jewish Women in Time and Torah.” It focuses on three periods of time in how Judaism treated women: (1) The early period of more than a thousand years until around the beginning of the Common Era when women were treated as creatures somewhere between animals and men, beings far inferior to men, created to serve men. (2) The second period until now when many, but not all rabbis, tried to mitigate the situation and treat women as human beings. (3) Now, where too many rabbis still have the early outlook about women, and much more needs to be done.
Ktav published the book for the first time in 1990. It is an important book. Although I am an Orthodox Jew, I think Orthodox Judaism should be embarrassed for not resolving the many discriminatory practices against women. Far too little has been done since 1990. The book should be seen as a cry of pain. Tears should flow. Rabbi Berkovits’s comments are very thoughtful, well-worth reading, and knowing. Hopefully, it will stimulate change.
Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992) was a highly respected philosopher, theologian, and Bible and Talmud scholar. He is considered one of the significant Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century. He was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Berlin. He served in the rabbinate in Berlin, England, Australia, and Boston until 1958. In 1958, he became chair of the philosophy department at the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago. In 1976, he retired to Israel, where he remained for the rest of his life. He is the author of numerous philosophical writings and articles. He authored nineteen books, including two works on halakha that were published in Hebrew. He is a clear writer and a rational thinker. He was a pioneer in examining many present-day crucial ideas within a halakhic framework. He did not fear expressing what he believed was correct and ethical. He thought that a living Torah must speak to the unique needs of each generation. This book is the last of his nineteen books.
The book has an eight-page Foreword by Rabbi Berkovits’ granddaughter Rabbi Rahel Berkovits. She is a senior faculty member at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where she has taught Mishnah, Talmud, and halakhah for over twenty years. She lectures widely in Israel and abroad, especially on women, Jewish law, and Jewish sexual ethics. She is the Halakhic Editor and a writer for Hilkhot Nashim, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance’s Halakhic Source-Guide Series, recently published by Maggid Books. Rahel is a founding member of Congregation Shirah Hadasha, a halakhic partnership synagogue, and serves on its halakhah committee. In June 2015, she received Rabbinic Ordination from Orthodox Rabbis Herzl Hefter and Daniel Sperber. She is the author of many books, including the 93-page 2011 volume “A Daughter’s Recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish.” Orthodox Jewish legal decisions are based on precedences, not only on what modern people think is correct. Thus, Rahel Berkovits inspects the history of the mourner’s kaddish to discover if women may say the kaddish. She comprehensively examines, explains, and comments on 53 rabbinic sources and includes 254 scholarly notes. This very readable, engaging, scholarly book is part of the Ta Sh’ma series, which presents sources on halakhic (Jewish legal) topics concerning women and ritual.
In her Foreword, Rahel Berkovits quotes a statement from one of her grandfather’s articles. “I think that the time has come to admit the truth and to confess that in the legal-halakhic area as well as in the communal-sociological area, there is severe inequality to the detriment of women.” She quotes another. “What we need to understand today is that it is time to act…and it is a time to act not just for the woman but rather a time to act for HaShem, for the things that are happening today are in the category of a desecration of God’s name [hillul HaShem]. The role of halakha is to solve problems.” Our behavior today is a desecration of God.
Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits writes that his goal is to state the truth. In the first phase of Judaism, even prophets degraded women. The prophet Jeremiah said in 51:30 that Jews sat passively, failing to act when they should have. “They have become like women.” The law during this early phase was that if one sees a man and a woman drowning, he should first try to save the man. Only men were allowed to initiate marriage and divorce; women were to be treated as property, which one could acquire and dispose of.
Many rabbis and Jewish leaders continued to have this embarrassing attitude even in the second phase when other rabbis tried to treat women as humans. Rabbi Akiva (circa 135), whose views are part of halakhah today, ruled that a husband may divorce his wife against her will if he found another woman more pleasing to him than his wife. The renowned Torah commentator Rashi (1040-1105) wrote, “For the wife serves her husband like a maid-servant, like a slave his master.” Even the brilliant Maimonides (1138-1204) continued to have this view. He wrote in Mishna Torah, his Code of Law, that a wife must serve her husband, wash his hands, face, and feet, serve him wine, stand before him and wait on him. If he sees that his wife has a long-lasting illness that will cause him to lose money, he can say to her, “Here is your ketubah. Heal yourself with its value, or else I divorce you.” And many rabbis have this understanding in the present third phase of Judaism today.
Berkovits explains with quotes from Rashi, Maimonides, and others that when the Torah was given in the first phase of Jewish life, it had to be provided with laws and procedures that the people could accept because “It is impossible for man to change suddenly from one extreme to the other.” Therefore, the Torah “tolerated” wrong behaviors: slavery, sacrifices, and mistreatment of women were allowed. But the Torah gave multiple hints that when human understanding improved, there would be a need to change. And it provided Jewish leaders the power to make these changes. Women in ancient times were given no opportunity to develop. This had to be tolerated in the past, but not today.
While Rabbi Berkovits does not say so because he apparently accepts the general view of Orthodoxy, I think that the early understanding of Jewish law was that it only applied to men. Women were not obliged to keep commandments. There are many indications of this in the Torah. An example is that Moses only told the men to prepare to hear the Decalogue at Mount Sinai, not the women. He told them to clean themselves, “come not near a woman.” He did not say, “women should not come near men.” Another indicator that Torah only applied to men is the command in the Decalogue, “thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife.” But there is no command for the woman not to covet a married man.
The traditional version is different. The Torah obligated men and women to observe all the commands. Later, according to this view, the rabbis changed the rule and said that women do not have to obey laws that have fixed times, such as tefillin, worn during the day and not at night, the sukkah that is used only during the holiday of Sukkot. I think that this makes no sense. If the rabbis were allowed to tell women that they did not have to observe specific commandments, why can’t they say the same to men today? To argue that the Oral Law had this distinctive rule for women is hard to accept. If such a rule existed in ancient times, we should find some mention, even a hint, in the Torah.
I think that telling women they are obligated to keep some commands, and not others was part of the rabbinical plan in the second historical phase to help women be more equal to men, but it is inadequate. Once it is recognized that this was not a biblical rule and that many rabbis still have the bias against women, and just as the rabbis made changes to allow women to be “more equal” by telling them in phase two that they need to observe laws that are not bound to times, we can take a giant step today, make changes and allow women to be equal to men.
It seems to me that women will not gain full equality in Orthodox Judaism until they are allowed to leave the women’s section and sit with men. There is no factual basis for the rule. Only the fear that they will attract men away from the prayers. Please make no mistake; I am not saying I would change the law. I lack the power. When I succeeded my father as rabbi of his synagogue and the lay leadership requested that I allow mixed seating, I refused. It is the job of Jewish leaders to make changes. My wife feels the same even though she knows many prayers by heart and has no problem understanding the prayers and following the service, and sees women in the women’s section who cannot follow the service and need help frequently to know what page the page service is on.
Rabbi Berkovits discusses many areas where changes are necessary, but not mixed seating. These include husband and wife relationships, limiting the power of husbands over wives, women’s prayer services, participating with men in certain prayers, saying kiddush, inheritance, reading the megillah, slaughtering animals, the agunah, changing the marriage contract, allowing women to initiate a divorce, being counted in a minyan, and more.