Women’s Rights and Religion

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There was a great Kristof article in the Sunday Times about the impact religious inequality of the genders has on the overall oppression of women in the world. When women are denied the ability to participate equally in religious ceremonies and rituals, it contributes to the overall perception that women are secondary or inferior to men, and therefore have fewer rights.

While Judaism gets off pretty easy, there is an accurate and much needed reference in the article to the prayer Orthodox Jewish men say each morning: “sh’lo asani isha” – “that I wasn’t created a woman.”

That blessing is only one striking example of many where women are not treated or considered equal in Orthodox Judaism. In most Orthodox synagogues/communities: women cannot be ordained as Rabbis, cannot lead prayer services for a mixed crowd, cannot chant from the Torah, are discouraged from donning Tallit and Tefillin, and are significantly segregated for many religious and communal activities.

I understand the halachik necessity of gradual progress, and I’m not calling for an end to the distinction between men and women in Jewish life. Men and women are different, and it’s not unreasonable for there to be some ritual differences. But for the life of me, I can’t understand why the idea of a woman serving as Synagogue President is controversial in most Orthodox communities.

While Orthodox Judaism is miles ahead of the violent and oppressive acts against women that can be found in some places around the world, that’s not a standard Jews should be holding themselves to. As a moral and ethical people, we need to work harder to create equality of the genders.

This does not mean that women should immediately begin practicing Judaism in the same way that men do.

The focus needs to be on empowering and allowing women to be spiritual and organizational leaders in the Jewish community. There is not much demand among Orthodox women (to my knowledge) to start wearing Tefillin. The demand is to be given the opportunity to directly influence the direction of the Jewish community as leaders.

There are some amazing efforts out there such as Yeshivat Mahara”t to create a Rabbinic-type ordination for Orthodox women.  We should applaud such well-intended and well-planned initiatives to allow women to pursue Jewish leadership and involvement. Less controversial efforts to allow women to assume leadership positions in notorious boy’s club Jewish organizations would be a nice start.

Unlike the halachik problems of homosexuality, it’s hard to point to a pasuk and justify the different treatment of men and women. Our tradition refers to women as the property of their husbands/fathers, and our legal system (to this day!) allows men to punish their ex-wives  by turning them into Agunot. Let’s create a new tradition that places women in leadership roles, and create a reputation for ourselves as a gender equal religion.

Whatever the text of the siddur may be, hopefully men and women alike can have the following in mind: “sh’asani kirtzono” – “that I was created according to His will.”

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2 thoughts on “Women’s Rights and Religion

  1. Are You Serious

    This claim, that women are second class citizens in Judaism, is getting quite old. Throughout history, Judaism has projected woman as equally capable of making an impact as men.

    From the Sarah, and the well know comment that Hashem told Avraham that her prophecy is of a higher level, to the Grandmother of the Yam Shell Shlomo, who used to actually give a shiur to men (albeit from behind a mechitza).

    The lashonos of the Gemara and Chazal that refer to women as property,etc are speaking purely in the Halachic realm, and not socially. Just as you might imagine, if one’s own child were to do damage, the father is responsible for compensating the victim because the child is considered the father’s property, we would never view the child as actual property, so too by women.

    There is plenty of room for both men and women to grow and contribute from within their current gender roles.

  2. The halachik process has been dominated by men ever since it was put in the hands of humans. Men have dictated which mitzvot women can participate in, and how they participate in them.

    There can be a million divrei torah about how women are holier and don’t need as many mitzvot, but until women are allowed to be involved in making those decisions and the direction of halachik development, it’s hard to deny there is a 2nd class status.

    Thankfully we have evolved to the point where women can give shiurim in front of mixed crowds without a mechitza, but it’s not enough.

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