- שאלות ותשובות
- Has gender bias affected Halacha?
- What can we do with our questions about women and mitzvot?
- Can there be difference without discrimination?
- Is a wife considered to be in her husband's domain?
- Why should women today be held responsible for Chava's sin? Are men responsible for Adam's?
- Much halachic disucssion assumes that a woman is domestic. What if a woman does not want to be associated with the home?
- Should we be doing this?
- Does bitul Torah (not wasting time away from Torah) apply to women?
- Why don't more women study Torah, especially Oral Torah?
- How does a woman's Torah study affect others?
- Is becoming a scholar a purpose of women's Torah study?
- לפעמים דברים קצרים וממוקדים יעילים יותר מקריאת מאמר. יש בשו”ת התייחסות ממוקדת ואישית. לעיתים אף קריאת שאלות שנשאלו על ידי אחרים יוצרת תחושת חיבור, במיוחד באשר השאלה שנשאלה הטרידה גם אותנו.
- השאלות והתשובות המתפרסמות הן הזדמנות ללמידה משותפת במרחב הוירטואלי.
חשוב לזכור שכל שאלה ייחודית הן מצד פרטי המקרה והן מצד ההקשר. אפילו הטון שבו נשאלה השאלה משפיע על התשובה הניתנת. כל גורם משפיע על ההכרעה ההלכתית בנוגע לשאלה הניתנת ולכן אי אפשר להשליך ממקרה אחד למשנהו.
Has gender bias affected Halacha?
We believe that Torah law transcends human judgment and knowledge.
Since our sages’ teachings represent a received tradition of Torah She-be’al Peh, transmitted orally from generation to generation, the Torah’s credibility on these laws effectively becomes theirs.
Sometimes, however, interpretations of Jewish law offered by our sages may not seem to match up with the plain meaning of the Torah. At other times, sages have viewpoints that are in dispute. And sometimes these interpretations or disputed viewpoints take a perspective on gender that may not sit well with us.
Most people of the ancient and medieval worlds regarded women as men’s inferiors. Should we be concerned that gender bias has affected Halachic teachings from those times?
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein addresses the question of potential biases, conscious and unconscious, in his essay, “The Human and Social Factor in Halakha.”
>Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, 'The Human and Social Factor in Halakha'
Certainly, they [our sages] had predilections and attitudes. However, our faith in them inspires us with confidence that the halakhic process was governed by halakhic factors, that halakhic decisions rested on halakhic grounds. We have neither the right nor the desire to suggest that their judgment was diverted or warped by extraneous factors….We follow in their footsteps not only out of deference to the formal and technical authority of the ultimate arbiter but because we recognize and are overawed by their greatness. … Hence, their attitudes, no mere intrusive graft but an organic outgrowth of the gavra rabba in them, can indeed provide the proper infrastructure for certain halakhot. Hazal’s factual perceptions are, relatively speaking, more historically conditioned. Their reading of human nature, in its permanent metaphysical aspect, retains its full force; but observations of given sociological tendencies may be more relative and of lesser normative status. … Hence, in certain areas, cautious reappraisal may very well be in order. There is, however, nothing in this process to undermine the halakhic order or to challenge its architects….Even if one were to grant that some halakhot were grounded in attitudes, at least partially ascribed to various influences, and if one were to acknowledge license to confront the attitudes, it hardly follows that the halakhot in question can be dismissed cavalierly.
We must trust that our sages have no intent to interpret Torah in line with a particular agenda or bias foreign to Torah. Even when they are innovative, or when their transmission of tradition is unclear, our sages are first and foremost attempting to interpret and uphold the Torah and its values. Sometimes their “factual perceptions are, relatively speaking, more historically conditioned,” and that means that “in certain areas, cautious reappraisal may very well be in order.” That doesn’t suffice to undermine the halachic order or dismiss halachot that may trouble us.
Like us, our sages were human, living in specific places and times. Unlike us, our sages have a unique stature, coupled with a Divine mandate to establish Halacha.
When he describes our sages’ halachic role, Ramban explains how this mandate works:
רמב”ן דברים יז:יא
וענינו אפילו תחשוב בלבך שהם טועים והדבר פשוט בעיניך כאשר אתה יודע בין ימינך לשמאלך, תעשה כמצותם…כי על הדעת שלהם הוא נותן לנו התורה, אפילו יהיה בעיניך כמחליף הימין בשמאל, וכל שכן שיש לך לחשוב שהם אומרים על ימין שהוא ימין, כי רוח השם על משרתי מקדשו ולא יעזוב את חסידיו, לעולם נשמרו מן הטעות ומן המכשול.
Ramban on the Torah, Devarim 17:11
Even if you think in your heart that they [the sages of the Sanhedrin] are in error, and the matter is as clear to you as knowing your right hand from your left, do as they command… For according to their knowledge does He give us the Torah, even if it should be in your eyes as one who switches left for right. How much more so that you should think that they call right what is right, for the spirit of God is on the servants of His sanctuary and He does not abandon his followers. They are ever protected from mistake and from stumbling block.
Ramban anticipates that a person might sometimes think the Sanhedrin’s halachic rulings are mistaken, but he assures us that we should assume that their right is right, and not only because God has given them authority. Why? “The spirit of God” guides them.
We should believe that God watches over Halacha, so that it comes out right. When a halachic ruling that has been accepted as authoritative seems difficult to us, we should humbly trust that, over time, we will come to recognize the Divine in the halacha and that when “cautious reappraisal may very well be in order,” the authorities of our generation will undertake it as Halacha allows. Our greatest halachic authorities often distinguish themselves by helping us see how the spirit of God has guided halachic discussion right from the beginning.
What can we do with our questions about women and mitzvot?
When our sages discuss the genders or when Halacha distinguishes between them, it can sometimes ring unconvincing or discordant to the modern ear.
What can we do about that? Seven things:
I. Ask Honestly We should honestly acknowledge these issues when they arise. We can say that something is challenging for us to hear or to identify with, without disparaging its source or undermining its validity.
II. Look Deeper We should explore them thoroughly and with an open mind, in faith that Halacha can stand up to scrutiny. Careful study can help us find interpretations that bring us closer to our sages’ perspectives or reach conclusions about how to think about these issues.
Too often, ignorance amplifies difficulties or even creates them. Knowledge can help us hone in on the real issues we need to address, and develop perspective on them. Many seemingly modern questions have actually been raised and addressed in the past, often in surprising ways.
III. Challenge Ourselves At the same time, we should recognize that we bring our own biases, conscious and unconscious, to our learning. Ways of thinking shift from generation to generation. Our perspective on gender and definitions of bias inevitably reflect the time we live in. Serious learning often pushes us to reconsider our initial assumptions or to pursue new trains of thought. Keeping that in mind can help our study maintain a respectful tone.
IV. Respect our Sages It is also important to remember that we lack the tradition and erudition of our sages. The earlier and more authoritative the source, the greater the humility with which we should approach it.
V. Classify the Discussion We should keep in mind that Jewish tradition is multi-vocal, so there is some freedom to prefer certain strands of thought in homiletics or theology to others. There is less freedom in Halacha, where we are often bound by precedent and where authority is more decisive, but rejected halachic opinions are not authoritative.
VI. Turn to Authorities Once we know a topic well, we can communicate effectively with halachic authorities. Study gives us a deeper understanding of what they say, and a greater ability to express our thoughts to them in halachic terms.
VII. Persist What if learning and discussion fail to resolve our questions or leave us with new ones? Sometimes, we have to live with tough questions because we are committed to Halacha. However, “She’elat chacham chatzi teshuva.” “The question of a wise person is [itself] half[way to] an answer.” If we persist, continuing to learn and discuss the issues, we can actively help new answers emerge.
How does this work in practice? Let’s take women’s learning Torah as an example.
In Learning Torah II, we saw Rabbi Eliezer’s statement that “Whoever teaches his daughter Torah is akin to teaching her nonsense.” How could Torah possibly lead someone astray? Why should this apply to women?
(I) We openly asked the question of why Rabbi Eliezer says this, acknowledging that it can be hard to fathom. (II) Further exploration of Rabbi Eliezer’s statement led us to suggest that it is more a reflection of his rigid and zealous stance on Torah transmission than of a particular attitude toward women. (III) We came to this idea by taking modern attitudes about women seriously as we explored our question, without assuming that they are infallible or superior to Rabbi Eliezer’s. (IV) We approached Rabbi Eliezer with respect and humility without denying the challenge his statement poses.
(V) In exploring the halacha of women’s learning Torah, one of the central points of discussion became whether Rabbi Eliezer’s statement is a binding halachic prohibition. By the end of Learning Torah IV, describing current halachic rulings and their connection to the past, we saw much evidence of God’s spirit guiding Halacha and (VI) were in position to ask any remaining questions from a point of appreciation and understanding. (VII) As part of our commitment to Halacha, we continue to ask and explore unresolved questions.
Can there be difference without discrimination?
We can define feminism as the theory of equality of the sexes. While the most recent trend is to question binary notions of gender altogether, earlier feminist discourse may prove useful to us for clarifying what it means to treat men and women similarly or differently.
In the late twentieth century, equality feminists sought gender parity by rejecting gender distinctions across the board, and by pushing for gender-neutral theories and policies. Difference feminists, in contrast, held that men and women have equal status, but that equality does not indicate sameness. They argued that equality could be expressed by men and women filling differing roles.
Equality feminism, in insisting on universal gender-neutral legislation, cannot be reconciled with Torah’s frequently gender-specific laws, though it can be reconciled with the many areas in which Torah does not differentiate between genders.4 Difference feminism, on the other hand, might be compatible with Halacha as a whole, harkening back to the double account of creation in which we are both equal and distinct.5
Late Israeli legal scholar and Supreme Court justice Menachem Elon put these issues in legal terms:6
פרופסור מנחם אלון, מעמד האישה, עמ’ 40.
לעניין מושג השוויון מן הראוי להזכיר, בפתיחתם של דברים, עיקרון גדול בתורת המשפט, שלפיו קיים הבדל מהותי בין “הפליה” שהיא פסולה לבין “הבחנה” שהיא מותרת, היינו שיש להתייחס ביחס שווה לכל אדם ואדם, אלא אם וכאשר קיימים ביניהם הבדלים של ממש, שהם הסדלים אמיתיים ורלוונטיים לנושא מסויים. אימתי ההבדלים בין גבר ואישה הם “אמיתיים” ורלוונטיים”, המצדיקים את ה”הפליה” ועושים אותה ל”הבחנה”?
Prof. Menachem Elon, The Status of Woman Translated by Shoshana Zolty
As far as equality is concerned, I would like to point out that there is a major principle in law which distinguishes “discrimination,” which is invalid, from “distinction,” which is valid, such that one must treat every person equally unless there are material differences between them which are real and relevant to the issue. The critical question is, of course: when are the differences between men and women “real” and “relevant” so as to justify “discrimination” and make it into “distinction”?”
Even today, we lack a definitive, overarching consensus on what constitutes ‘real and relevant’ difference between the genders. In the absence of one, we should assume that gender differences in Halacha belong to the realm of distinction, not discrimination.
Is a wife considered to be in her husband's domain?
This question arises, for example, when a married woman is released from some aspects of honoring parents and the reason given is that the married woman is in her husband’s domain. The assumption that a woman is in her husband’s domain in a way that could limit her activities may be uncomfortable for the modern reader. This construction of marriage is not merely sociological, however; it has a halachic basis.
For example, though the wife retains independent ownership of properties that were hers prior to marriage, from marriage onward, property is joint and largely controlled by the husband, by rabbinic decree.
The husband’s rights to the wife’s property are tied to his obligations to her. These include the Torah-level obligations to provide her food, clothes, and shelter, which the Rambam refers to as a type of subjugation of husband to wife.10 There are also halachically acceptable mechanisms by which a married couple may agree to administer their property differently, allowing the wife control.
Jewish marriage does place different types of obligations on each spouse. However, couples have the freedom to work within Halacha to define how their marriages function.
In practice, a married daughter often takes the lead among siblings in caring for elderly parents, sometimes at the expense of her own family and pursuits. This halacha, albeit working within a hierarchical view of marriage, also may protect a woman from becoming overextended. Sometimes hierarchy can achieve important halachic or social goals.
Why should women today be held responsible for Chava's sin? Are men responsible for Adam's?
The Torah presents Adam and Chava as archetypes. They establish norms for humanity and their actions reverberate through time. For example, after Chava’s creation, Adam recognizes her as “flesh of my flesh,” and the Torah tells us that this is the basis for the institution of marriage.6Additionally, God’s statements to Adam and Chava in the aftermath of their sins also apply to humanity as a whole. Man still toils for bread, and women still experience pain in childbirth.
Since Chava is an archetype for women, women have the opportunity to rectify her sin. What about Adam’s sin, and men? According to another midrash, God created Avraham Avinu after Adam so that Avraham can rectify Adam’s misdeeds.
בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת בראשית פרשה יד
א”ר לוי האדם הגדול בענקים, זה אברהם, למה קורא אותו גדול שהיה ראוי להבראות קודם לאדם הראשון, אלא אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא שמא יקלקל ואין מי שיבא לתקן תחתיו, אלא הרי אני בורא את האדם תחלה שאם יקלקל יבא אברהם ויתקן תחתיו,
Bereishit Rabba, Bereishit 14
Rabbi Levi said: “The man who is great among giants” – this refers to Avraham. Why does it call him “great”? Because he was worthy to be created before Adam, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: Perhaps [Adam] will sin and there will not be anyone to come and rectify [matters] in his place. Rather, behold, I am creating Adam first, so that if he sins, Avraham will come and rectify [matters] in his place.
The Zohar expands on this idea:
זוהר חדש כרך ב (מגילות) מגילת רות דף מ עמוד א
דאברהם תקן מה דעבד אדם. וכן יצחק ויעקב וצדיקייא.
Zohar Chadash II Rut 40a
For Avraham rectified what Adam did. So too [did] Yitzchak and Ya’akov and the righteous.
Not only Avraham, but all the Avot and the righteous rectify Adam’s deed.
For women, rectification comes through the three mitzvot. Do men have any comparable mitzva? Avraham is the first to receive the mitzva of berit mila, circumcision. Abarbanel links this command to Avraham’s role as a rectification for Adam:7
אברבנאל בראשית פרק יז
שצוה הקדוש ברוך הוא את אברהם במצות המילה כדי לתקן את אשר עוות אדם הראשון כי הוא באכלו מעץ הדעת נטה לתאות המשגל יותר מהראוי כמו שפירשתי שם ואברהם צווה במצוה כדי להרחיק אותה נטיה מותרית שעשה אדם אביו
Abarbanel Bereishit 17
For the Holy One commanded Avraham in the mitzva of mila in order to rectify that which Adam made wrong, for he in his eating of the tree of knowledge leaned toward sexual desire more than is fitting…Avraham was commanded in the mitzva in order to distance this excessive tendency that Adam his forefather acted on.
Much as women perform the three mitzvot to rectify Chana’s sin, perhaps men undergo berit mila to rectify Adam’s.
Much halachic disucssion assumes that a woman is domestic. What if a woman does not want to be associated with the home?
Many of us (women and men) have conflicting feelings about this association between women and the home. How much of a role do social norms play in constructing women’s and men’s responsibility for the home? Is domesticity essentially feminine? Don’t many women flourish outside the home? Shouldn’t men take on increasing responsibility for home life?
In practice, Halacha leaves room for a wide variety of approaches to shaping home life. Even so, women’s priority in the three mitzvot recognizes the great influence women often wield at home. The mitzvot translate that influence into halachic terms of mitzva and merit, with broad spiritual implications.
Home, and the relationships that we have to each other and to God within it, dramatically affects our experience of Torah. In many realms in Halacha, men take center stage; in this central realm, women do.
Should we be doing this?
This being what we do here on this site, learning Torah, directly from sources, including the Talmud and halachic codes.
This question does not speak to some women, for whom Torah study holds little appeal or interest. These women may wonder instead why a woman would want to study Torah at all.
For others, probably most of you here, the question itself is problematic. It can be hard to imagine why anyone would limit a woman’s access to Torah study. After all, men do not have to entertain questions about the propriety or importance of their Torah learning. And nowadays women have access to education in all other fields.
But a closer look at many of our communities reveals ambivalence towards women’s learning.
Deep uncertainty about women’s learning appears in many guises: The father who learns every Shabbat with his sons, but not with his daughters. The school that teaches Mishna to boys and not to girls. The family friends who give the bar mitzva boy religious books and the bat mitzva girl jewelry. The parents who send their sons to learn in Israel, but keep their daughters close to home. The dating prospect who won’t go out with a ‘girl who learns.’ The Rabbi who declares certain seminaries are off limits because of their curricula. Communal initiatives for women to devote time to acts of chessed, loving-kindness, (or to less lofty pursuits,) but not to study. The couples who make great efforts so that the husband can learn daily, while the wife finds no time to learn Torah herself. The local batei midrash (houses of study) that women never enter and often are entirely closed to women.
משלי פרק ג:יח
עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ וְתֹמְכֶיהָ מְאֻשָּׁר
It is a tree of life to those who grasp it and its supporters are happy.
While it’s clear that Torah is “a tree of life,” it is less clear what role learning plays in a woman’s “holding fast to it.”
Can anyone grasp Torah without studying it? Do resistance, ambivalence, or indifference to women’s Torah learning have halachic roots? How is the recent growth of frameworks for women’s study rooted in Halacha?
To begin to address these questions, we need to trace the halachic roots of differing approaches to women’s Torah study from the beginning.
Does bitul Torah (not wasting time away from Torah) apply to women?
Halacha requires men to prioritize Torah study over frivolous pursuits, because men have an obligation in the mitzva of talmud Torah. A man should not casually waste time he could spend learning (i.e., engage in bitul Torah).
What about women? In the absence of the obligation of talmud Torah, is free time a free-for-all?
Rav Ya’akov Ariel, a National-Religious Israeli halachic authority, writes that bitul Torah does, in a sense, apply to women.
רב יעקב אריאל “גדר ביטול תורה גם לנשים”
יום של ביטול תורה הוא חור באישיותה של האישה, ויש להתייחס אליו במידה מסוימת כ”ביטול תורה,” אף שאינו “ביטול תורה” במשמעות המקורית של המושג. אין כאן ביטול בידע התורני, אך יש כאן ביטול באישיותה הרוחנית של האישה….
Rav Ya'akov Ariel, 'The Safeguard of Bitul Torah Applies also to Women'
A day of bitul Torah [wasting time one could spend learning] is a hole in the character of a woman, and one should relate to it, to some extent, like [the halachic category of] bitul Torah, even though it is not bitul Torah in its original sense. There is no bitul of [obligatory] Torah knowledge, but there is bitul regarding the spiritual character of the woman.
To Rav Ariel, a day without Torah is a blow to anyone’s character. Women, too, have “spiritual character” and should be wary of bitul Torah.
Women don’t have a free ticket to watch hours of television or mindlessly surf the internet. What does exemption from the mitzva of talmud Torah mean then? That women have more flexibility than men in deciding how to study Torah and how much Torah to study.
Why don't more women study Torah, especially Oral Torah?
Even in communities that view women’s study of Oral Torah as permissible, most women do not pursue it.
Why not? Here are some common contributing factors:
1. The wider community’s ambivalence to women’s Torah study, especially Talmud study, can undermine it. It can be difficult to make the effort to study without external validation.
2. Many women lack female role models who balance serious study with other religious commitments. Role models provide inspiration and a sense of what is possible.
3. Many communities do not offer attractive or accessible frameworks for women’s talmud Torah. Without opportunities, women won’t learn. Talmud study, in particular, demands a high level of training.
4. Many women (and men) are most attracted to Torah study that connects directly to matters of faith or to practical Halacha. Scholars who teach primary texts often focus on more arcane subjects or intricate styles of study. That may discourage some women, especially women with less background in Torah study, from learning at all.
Communities can surmount these challenges by supporting women’s talmud Torah, welcoming female teachers, offering frameworks for women’s study, and encouraging a range of study topics and styles.
Possibilities for encouraging women’s Torah study abound: Fathers can learn every Shabbat with their daughters; schools can expand their Torah curriculum for girls; family friends can give the bat mitzva girl religious books; parents can send their daughters to learn in Israel; dating prospects can agree to meet a ‘girl who learns;’ Rabbis can be more accepting of more institutions of learning; communal initiatives for women can incorporate study; couples can make an effort to set aside time for the woman to learn; and local batei midrash can open their doors to women.
(For more suggestions specific to Talmud study, see here.)
How does a woman's Torah study affect others?
When a woman engages in formal Torah study, it clearly benefits her. How does that affect the people around her?
The Talmud teaches that a woman’s merit for Torah study is indirect:
סוטה דף כא.
רבינא אמר: … באגרא דמקרין ומתניין בנייהו ונטרן להו לגברייהו עד דאתו מבי מדרשא מי לא פלגאן בהדייהו
Ravina said: …Through … reading [verses] and repeating [mishnayot to] their sons and watching out for their husbands until they come from the bet midrash, do they not share the reward [of learning Torah] with them?
Ravina lives before women study Torah texts formally. According to him, women receive reward for Torah study by helping husbands and sons to study. Shulchan Aruch agrees.
Rav Schneerson points out that, in our generation, women can also facilitate children’s and husbands’ study by teaching them.
רב מנחם מ. שניאורסון ,”שותפות בלימוד”
והבנים מספרים לאמותיהם על לימודים, הן במקרא והן במשנה, וגם בגמרא…והאמהות מוסיפות להסביר ולבאר להם את לימודם, ועל דרך זה בנוגע לבעליהן…שמביעות דעתן וסברתן וכו’.
Rav Menachem M. Schneerson, 'Partnership in Study'
The children tell their mothers about their studies, both in Scripture and in Mishnah, and also in Gemara…and the mothers contribute, explaining and clarifying for them what they have learned, and similarly regarding their husbands…that they express their opinions and reasoning, etc.
Here Rav Schneerson reinforces his idea that women’s talmud Torah is a net gain for everyone. A woman’s active involvement in discussing Torah with her family or friends enhances their learning and enriches their religious lives.
Women can share or teach Torah in broader contexts as well, and contribute to Torah and communal policy at a very high level.
Everyone stands to benefit when women learn Torah. Halacha recognizes this, too. For example, a woman can make a public siyum with the full status of a se’udat mitzva.
Women’s Torah study elevates the entire Jewish community.
Is becoming a scholar a purpose of women's Torah study?
Rosh Beit Midrash of Migdal Oz (and Rav Lichtenstein’s daughter) Esti Rosenberg, adviser to Deracheha, discusses an additional goal of study, becoming a scholar. She writes that midrashot confront the following question:
Rabbanit Esti Rosenberg, 'The World of Women's Torah Learning: Developments, Directives, and Objectives'
Is the dream and vision underlying women’s Torah learning to produce female Torah scholars who will be able to participate in scholarly Torah discussions at the highest level, or perhaps the primary goal is to raise ba’alei batiyot [laywomen] who are dedicated to and love the Torah?
As in the world of men’s Torah study, there is an inherent tension between fostering an elite cohort of scholars and meeting the religious needs of the general population. In line with most of the sources we have seen, most Torah institutions for women choose to prioritize developing love of Torah over high-level scholarship, while laying the groundwork for further study.
Some schools, Migdal Oz among them, also offer advanced learning opportunities for women. For these women, working to become scholars “at the highest level” is a form of avodat Hashem.
No questions found.
No questions found.