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The question of the role of women within Judaism has been much debated during the course of history. It is evident that from the early history of Judaism women have undertaken a role that contrasts greatly to that of the male. Traditionally, the significant roles of women remained in the domestic circle. In other words, their duties in life revolved around marriage, procreation, motherhood, and the running of a family home, as can be seen in numerous examples presented in the Hebrew Bible (Torah). It is evident that these roles were mostly due to the patriarchal society in which Judaism originated. Women left their fathers households and authority at marriage, wherein they came under the authority of their husbands. As Tikva Frymer-Kensky comments; “Women were subordinate to the men of the household, and men exerted control over women’s sexuality.” (Davidman et al, 1994, p 17) Patriarchy also had a strong economic component; Jewish women did not generally own land, and were financially dependent upon men (their fathers, husbands, and sons). The traditional role of women in Judaism concerning worship was that they were generally not included in the court, temple, or army spheres, and this reality has only changed within the last century. However, there are examples of Jewish women within the torah who held significant spiritual and political positions, such as the prophet Miriam, and the Judge Deborah. Despite this, the Torah is distinctly andocentric in its outlook and portrayal of early Jewish history, which is reflected through the traditional domestic role of women. This position is largely taken by Orthodox Jews today, and is one of the contributing factors to the formation of Reform Judaism, which allows women the chance of equality. This notion is championed by Jewish feminists who focus on the need, in Judaism, for a change in the role of women; from being based around the home, to being able to hold secular and spiritual roles. Before looking specifically at traditions concerning the role and lifestyles of women, it is firstly important to establish what is actually meant by the term ‘equality’. The connotation of being equal can be understood in two ways; first of all, it means ‘to be identical in value to’ something or someone else (Webster, 2002, p 111); secondly, it means ‘to make or do something equal to’ someone else (Webster, 2002, p 111). In terms of women in Judaism the implications of these ideals differ greatly; the former would mean that women hold the same intrinsic value to men, whereas the latter would mean that women serve the same functions (and roles) as men do. The way in which we view equality is vital when discussing male and female issues within religion, because it provides us with contrasting arguments, particularly over the situation of women and their status and role, as I will show during the course of my essay. Judaism is a monotheistic religion, which centers on the belief in a transcendent, necessary being who is responsible for the creation and sustenance of all things. God is non-gendered, and values both men and women (as can be seen in the creation story in Genesis). In theory,
the importance of the home can be seen by the fact that several festivals and ceremonies are marked within the house. therefore whatever a man wishes to with his wife he may do. Traditionally. “The institution of marriage and the establishment of a family have played a crucial part in ensuring the survival of Judaism. Through marriage. This can be seen through Jewish understandings of procreation. and to separate the dough of the Hallah (Sabbath bread). This can be seen firstly by the fact that dietary laws are fulfilled in its walls. which are important guidelines for the practice of Judaism. ensuring that their husbands and children are provided for when at home. fulfilling tasks such as food preparation. Furthermore. Kaufman suggests (Davidman et al. and are both needed in this world to ensure its survival and growth. in which women play a passive role. For instance. a ceremony which could only be complete if a woman is present . This is reflected by the ideology of Maimonides. As Wright notes. wives are expected to sustain the domestic side of housekeeping.” (Holm & Bowker. p 124) The significance of the home is also stressed by the fact that major observances occur within its confines. in practice. 1994. Significant teachings from the Torah concentrate on the male duty to procreate. Shabbat (the Sabbath) is welcomed in within the home. However. p 129) This idea has also been emphasised by Unterman. the home is a place in which the child first experiences and learns about his/ her heritage.” (Holms&l3owker. p 155) that within Judaism this role is a mark of high status. who believe that this role oppresses women. 1994. and adult study. Within the Jewish tradition. This is due to the fact that Jewish families are seen as central to Jewish continuity. He may have intercourse whenever he pleases and he may kiss any organ he wishes. a significant Jewish Rabbi. it can be argued that within Judaism this role does not mean that women are less valued than men. the greater importance is placed upon the role of women within the household. Judaism has been criticised particularly by feminists. Their duties revolve around the implications of being a wife and mother. Despite this. However. While the synagogue plays a crucial role in safeguarding the institution of communal prayer and observance. she is under his authority and is thus not independent. who have been elevated to a subordinate position. and suggest that the wife should comply with his wishes. an idea that is emphasised when looking at the domestic role of women in Judaism. For this reason. . 1994. a Jewish woman becomes the responsibility of her husband.Jewish women have the same opportunity for spirituality and salvation as men do. particularly within the Orthodox tradition. it can be suggested that women are not viewed in this way. “A Man’s wife is permitted to him. who commented that. who commented that. as is the popular secular view. to light the Sabbath candles.as it is their duty prepare food. women are restricted in terms of marriage.
. However. women are restricted in their religious lives. In addition. This tradition still continues to the present day. Rebekah.Nonetheless. A similar issue which raises the debate of the equality of women to men concerns the laws of niddah (menstruation).“The Mitzvah of procreation does not apply directly to Jewish women.” (1981. 1994. For example. and for seven days following their menstrual discharge (Leviticus 15:19-33). Traditionally. read for the Torah in mixed congregations. for example. and as a result. by the Matriarchs such as Sarah. p 148) This would imply that women are in fact subordinate to men. to many. the religious environment in which one has grown up today determines the role and status that women hold. However. but rather they are simply a way of renewing the martial relationship and preserving the purity of the family (Holm&Bowker. the biblical laws of niddah required a woman to remain ‘unclean’ during. are instrumental in pushing forward their husband’s sons. This can be seen. and Rachel who are spirited individuals within their own right. and after childbirth. It is important to note that men. These differences are emphasised when looking at their position in worship and the synagogue. At the end of this period she was to present burnt offerings to God. therefore. to ensure both male and female are not distracted during the service. following childbirth women were also impure for seven days. Therefore. Similarly. and be ritually immersed (tevilah) in order for purification.. Such laws concern the impurity of women during both their period. many Jewish women choose not to adhere to them. . it has meant that the participation of women in the synagogue has been reduced. and at the end of this period of time women are also ritually bathed. some argue that the laws of niddah do not mean that women are unequal. never undergo fixed periods of time when they are considered ritually impure. this argument may not appear totally convincing. because their role is not a passive one. Isaac and Jacob. and can resume sexual relations. women are physically separated from their husbands. Leah. for instance. The Orthodox tradition holds that women should be segregated from men in the synagogue. During menstruation. to an outsider it would seem apparent that women are considered of less worth than men. women are unable to bet part of a ‘minyan’. Jewish women are provided with a sense of security — that they and their children will in turn be cared and provided for. Furthermore. unlike women. to ensure that they did not pollute anyone else. Both Sarah and Rebekah. less valued than men. or become Rabbis. Within Orthodox Judaism. as Davidman notes. and have little authority over their own body. p l30). who played a significant role in the establishment of the Jewish nation. Laws concerning procreation do not hinder the wife. In this light. Many women also chose not to attend the synagogue during this time for similar reasons. Although this would seem an acceptable reason for many. although some post Talmudic authorities maintain that she is indirectly duty bound to marry and procreate based on the verse in Isaiah (45:18). it can be argued that women are not less valued. whereas within the reform movement women are able to fulfil roles traditionally held by men. they simply reiterate the need for the male to be responsible and fulfil his duty as a husband.
In a progressive congregation. Jewish . no vote in synagogue affairs. by contrast.. 1994. and also for after the eight days in which a boy is circumcised. a difference reflected in the ceremonies surrounding their childhood and early youth” (1981. Jewish women possess the same ability to become spiritual beings without having to fulfil the roles which men do. and to invite the congregants to a Kiddush (a small celebratory drink) after the Sabbath service. and are able to become Cantors or Rabbis.” (Holm & Bowker. a feast is arranged for the following Friday after the birth.it would be a physical impossibility. spirituality is not dependent upon the jobs which people fulfil — if this was the case then not many of the women in the Hebrew bible would be able to attain salvation. women do not appear to be equal to men. they are not subordinate to men.p 139) In conclusion. undertaking roles within the reform movement such as becoming ordained to be a Rabbis. their pleas are ignored. and it could be suggested that they are spiritually repressed as result. p 157) In the orthodox tradition. As Unterman observes: “There has always been a difference in attitude within Judaism. When women signal men to be quiet during synagogue services. However. therefore.”(Davidman et al. differences between the sexes are still apparent. 1994. it is evident that there are many angles to the discussion about whether men and women can ever be equal. and women’s spirituality is no longer ignored. In this sense. Although women are now more able to become an active part of the Jewish religious community. the question remains: do women need to be the same as men. therefore.“Women have less access to ritual objects. when a girl is born there are no such celebrations. women play a more active role in the synagogues management. (the latter being possible in Britain since 1975). between the way a young boy and a young girl are brought up.. the two sexes will never be completely the same . then why is there a lack of formal ceremonies within the Jewish tradition which celebrate important life-cycle events of females? Differences are brought out in the rituals surrounding the birth of boys and girls. it is evident that Jewish women are equals. in order to be ‘equals’? I would suggest that they do not. Wright comments that. Despite the fact that many Jewish women can undertake many of the roles that men fulfil. and families they are less significant and valued. despite much misapprehension that because they have responsibilities to their household. p 139) This would seem to be beneficial to Jewish women because it would suggest that they are given the opportunity to be equal to men in the sense that they can hold the same roles. when a boy is born. if this is the case. They are unable to fulfil the same roles. All that is customary is for her father to announce her name in the synagogue on the first Saturday after the birth. and no obligation to pay dues. and still do contrast. “Such changes are a classic example of Judaism responding to the religious needs of Jewish women in contemporary society without loosing sight of those prophetic principles of strict justice and truth which are the pillars on which the religion in founded and which sustain its existence. By contrast. However. It is certainly evident that the roles of the two sexes have. Furthermore.
5. Bowker. Continuum Unterman. Tenenbaum. Jews. (1981). L. A. (1998). Yale HoIm. (1994). such as Miriam (a slave girl who became one the first female prophetess’) would not have been able to be such an influential religious person if this was the case (Exodus 15:20-2 1). Feminist Perspectives on Jewish Sludies. The World Religions Reader. Routledge Davidman. (1994). G. Routledge and Kegan Paul I. Women in Religion.role models. - . Bibliography Beckerlegge.
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