Jewish women should go it alone

Torah scroll (Jewish News)
Torah scroll (Jewish News)

The Israeli rabbinate is threatening to go on strike if they have to train women how to sit scholastic exams. I always thought the word ‘rabbi’ meant teacher, but there you go. Frankly, Jewish women need men to train them like a hole in the head. There have been great Jewish women as far back as the Bible.

The Old Testament has women prophets – Miriam and Huldah – and the Judge, Deborah, who led the army that beat the Canaanites. We also shouldn’t forget Esther, who brought down Haman, as we record every Purim. 

It was the very famous first century Rabbi Eleazar ben Arach who set the standard. They wanted to appoint him head of the Sanhedrin, and he said he couldn’t accept until he had consulted his wife. Rabbi Akiba was equally eminent and he said he owed everything to his wife, Rachel. The former Chief Rabbi, Hermann Adler, quoting Akiba, said the same thing about his wife, Rachel. The list of famous Jews who have not consulted their wives is not very long.

Women should obviously be treated as equals, but the pages of history are full of Jewish women who have achieved their goals in male dominated societies anyway.

Female Jewish doctors are to be found in some numbers as early as the Middle Ages. There were the 13th century Sarre la Migresse and the oculist Marat Yuskah, the 14th century Fave of Manusque, Na Bellaire and Na Pla and the 15th century Rare of Wurzburg. There were plenty more.

There were Jewish women politicians as well; Dona Garcia Nasi was the earliest of Zionists. She bought Tiberias from the Turks in the 16th century. They were short of money and she wanted a national home for persecuted Jews. Later, we were lucky to have Golda Meir as well.

Jewish women who have won Nobel prizes include Gerty Cori, Rosalyn Yalow, Gertrude Elion, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Nadine Gordimer and Ada Yonath. If, for example, and I know it’s been worrying you, you want to know more about the ribosome, you need Ada. The Italian Rita Levi-Montalcini once said: “If I had not been discriminated against, or had not suffered persecution, I would never have received the Nobel Prize.”

In the law in Britain, the first woman KC was Rose Heilbron, who also became an Old Bailey judge. The first Jewish women barristers were Rita Reuben and Maria Alice Phillips. Rosalyn Higgins was President of the International Court of Justice and Hazel Cosgrove is a Scottish Judge.

How about women succeeding in business? You’ve got Estee Lauder, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, Mindy Grossman, the CEO of WW (formerly Weight Watchers), Safra Catz, the CEO of Oracle and Ruth Porat, the former CFO of Morgan Stanley and now the CFO of Google. Notice how they see the possibilities of new technology.

Rachel Sassoon Beer was the editor of The Sunday Times and The Observer as early as the end of the 19th century. When it comes to fashion in Britain, you have Stella McCartney, Nicole Farhi and Janet Reger. 

The first Jewish bank manager in Britain was Ethel Rebecca Benjamin.

It isn’t entirely surprising that there have been no British Jewish women philosophers. Women are about being practical, which is why Anna Freud was a famous child psychologist and Marie Jahoda was an acclaimed social psychologist.

Jewish women are very well represented in the world of British entertainment. Actresses include Zoe Wanamaker, Miriam Margolyes, Claire Bloom and Helena Bonham Carter. Jewish women singers internationally include Barbra Streisand, Eydie Gormé, Bette Midler and Scarlett Johansson.

If, however, you really want to recognise the importance of women in Judaism, you only have to note that a Jew is the child of a Jewish mother, not a father. That makes them really important. She also holds the family together as we all know. No, the contribution of the rabbis in Israel would be useful, but Jewish women can stand on their own two feet.

Mind you, my wife doesn’t believe in equality for women. She says she’s been superior for so long, she certainly isn’t going to settle
for equality.

About the Author
Derek is an author & former editor of the Jewish Year Book
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