Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Jewish Women's Rights and Responsibilities

Nadene Goldfoot
Jews came along after Abraham, living in Ur (today's Iraq) in the 2nd millennium BCE , realized that there was one G-d.  Moses (1391-1271 BCE) was from the tribe of Judah and laid down the laws that made us truly Jewish.  From there we have the practices of Judaism that we have followed for the past 3,000+ years that concern both males and females.  .

In today's modern age, some Jewish women in the USA are not only becoming rabbis (teachers of our religion) , but  are even wearing tallit.  They are surprised to find that this is unacceptable in Israel, for a religious observance at the Western Wall, where it was being done, must be in accordance with the custom of the holy site and which doesn't offend the sensitivities of the worshipers.  Women that wear prayer shawls have been deemed unduly provocative because of the biblical injunction against women wearing men's clothing and vice versa.  No transgender clothing.

A tallit or prayer shawl  is a four-cornered robe with the required tzitzit and has become the garment traditionally worn by men during morning prayer services.  It is the fringes or tzitzit on the 4 corners that provide it with its religious significance.  It is one of the mitzvot to put on tzitzit so that you may look upon them and remember to do all the commandments of the Lord.

Chabad, an orthodox Jewish group, says that women are not obligated to wear a tallit because they are exempt from fulfilling almost all time-bound positive commandments, like reciting the Shema.  Women may fulfill all mitzvot if they so desire, but the prevailing custom is that women don't wear  a tallit.  There is not even a requirement for men to wear one.  She is drawing undo attention to herself  by showing  excessive piety in an inappropriately ostentatious manner if she wears one.   What is unusual is that this practice is happening in the Conservative and Reform movements but not in the Orthodox where the men do perform  this act.    On a mystical level, the inner workings of this mitzvah are male oriented and just don't "do it" for a woman.

For women who want to wear one or who are doing so,  Rabbi Moshe Feinstein of the 20th century writes that a woman should wear a distinctively feminine tallit and that this comes from a yearning to fulfill this mitzvah and recognize that they are not doing it out of a requirement and that it isn't a protest, challenging what they perceive as a gender bias in Jewish law.  Then it would not be considered as a mitzvot but to the contrary.

Back in 1981, my neighbor in Safed, Israel, Harry Hazen, explained to me why these certain practices are not for women.  There are certain things that are only for men, and because one held to be only for men means that others cannot be done legitimately.    The wearing of tefillin  is expected just for men.  They are the straps that wrap around his arm and the box he wears on his forehead.    This is worn first for a boy when he is 13 and sets apart the men from the boys.  It is the religious symbol and ritual obligation identifying with becoming Bar-Mitzvah "of age."    A male Jew is testifying to his identification with the Jewish past, its present, and its future.  Whether he prays in the synagogue or in his home, it is a required daily weekday observance and something a woman does not have to do.  For the man, tefillin is a reminder of the entire Torah which he is bidden to observe.

Women are not bound  to the formal prayer service or the set times for the 3 daily services.  They are not required, as are the men, to join in public congregational worship.  This is taking into consideration a woman's primary responsibility as wife and mother.  A woman nursing a child is not expected to drop everything, including her baby, to attend set prayer schedules but a man is expected to arrange his schedule and work to conform to religious requirements.   The law can't distinguish between nursing and non-nursing mothers so this leniency extends to all.  Women are required to pray but can do so at anytime convenient for them and in private if they wish.  They attend synagogue on Sabbaths and festivals but their attendance is not a religious statutory requirement.

Women have had more respect and regard in Judaism than in any other religion.  Wasn't it the women who didn't give up in their 400 years of servitude in Egypt and kept on having children when the men had given up all hope? Mirium, sister of Moses  led the Israelite women in triumphal song and dance and is one of our prophets. She and her brother Aaron even challenged Moses's lone leadership.  For her chutzpah she suffered with leprosy, but it was a temporary condition.   Perhaps that is why Deborah (Devorah) from 1150 BCE roused the Israelite tribes to revolt under Barak against the Canaanite King Jabin of Hazor and Sisera as told in Judges 4:4.  She was a leader, prophetess and a judge.

We remember and respect our 4 matriarchs of the Jewish people, Sarah, wife of Abraham and mother of  Isaac; Rebekah, wife of Isaac and mother of Esau and Jacob; Leah, sister of Rachel and 1st wife of Jacob; Rachel, 2nd wife of Jacob. We also remember  Ruth the Moabite, daughter in law of Naomi and mother of King David, and  Queen Esther who saved all the Jews from total annihilation by Haman's  decree in Persia.  We've had Queen Jezebel of Israel and Queens Athaliah and Salome Alexandra of Judah.  We should not forget Prime Minister Golda Meier of Israel in today's world.  Women have not taken a back seat in our lives.

Back in the Hellenistic times Jewish women were treated in a superior status from Greek women.  A Jewish female was in independent legal personality permitted to own property either as a single or married woman.  .Monogamy didn't happen until about  1000 CE but continued in Oriental Jewries.  Judaism has always looked upon sex as a healthy act and so recognized a woman's dignity.  In Eastern Europe it was the tradition for the woman to work in order to help her husband to study.  Thus they became great businesswomen.  The Hadassah organization came about by women for women and have taken in men today as well.  Wizo (Women's International Zionist Organization)  is another one that helps the community, started by women.

In the USA Jewish women have been called the "Jewish American Princess"  because we expect to be treated royally by our husbands.   Every Friday night a Jewish man reads a special tract from the book of Proverbs 31 by King Solomon "A Woman of Valor" (Eshet Chayil) that speaks royally of his wife.  It also gives a woman something to live up to.   A male cannot but feel likewise if he's heard this all his life at his table as a son.

 Is a person a Jew or not? In orthodoxy  it depends on his mother.  If she's Jewish, he is also.  Not only is this something that could be verified as to where he came from, he is taught and raised by the mother. This is why.

Israel was created to be a democratic haven for Jews.  We have been without our state for over 2,000 years and have been living in Christian and Muslim lands with their laws.  Being we are a small group, 0.02% of the world population, this is the only Jewish state in the world with Jewish laws.  If we lose the taste of Judaism here, there will be no reason to call it a Jewish state.  Soon the population would be wiped..  Unlike any other state or country, Israel does have  rabbis who sets down the rules to be followed.  In fact, the Chief Rabbinate consists of 2, the Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger and the Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar.  If Judaism is to continue in this world, it is important that our practices are happening in Israel.

There is one thing that rabbinic male Jews have a problem with, and that's in the Book of Proverbs which warns men against female wiles, and we have used them, for sure, I admit.  But it also depicts the "woman of worth" who is the mainstay of her household.  The Talmud is nervously aware of the sexual power of the woman.  Evidently Jewish men are easily aroused by a woman's hair whereas other men might be aroused by our legs, bottoms, or even upper arms as well as our faces.  This is why the Orthodox women cover their beautiful luxurious hair and are modest in their dress which includes covering their arms to below their elbows.   In the Middle Ages when Jews were objects of ownership by gentiles like the Blacks were in the USA's south not too long ago, the landlord would take a woman sexually before she was married  if he were such a cad, and many were.  So in order to turn him off, the young lady would shave her head.  He'd see her and suddenly freeze.  This has really been the basis for head coverings.

Women's rights in Judaism are found in the Mishnah (Horayot 3:7, in which it is stated that in some respects a woman takes precedence over a man and in others a man over a woman. A woman must be provided with clothing from the charity chest before a man because she suffers greater embarrassment.  If both man and woman are captured by bandits the woman must be ransomed first.  If both a man and woman stand in danger of defilement by bandits the man must be freed before the woman because his defilement (by other men) is unnatural.  Wow!  This tells me that raping has gone on ever since mankind including the act of man raping another man.  .

If both are in danger and only one can be saved, the man's life comes first.  I think that this is because of his ability to father more life.  We need the man's sperm to carry on a family line.  There are always very practical reasons for doing things. Could it also be that Jewish men were scarcer to have than women in a community:?  A man in turn was capable of defending more people than a woman was?    If both a man and a woman lose some property and only one of them gets theirs restored, the man comes first.

Quite frankly, I had noticed in Conservative synagogues  that with the change of accepting women in  a minyon  (10 Jews) that are needed at a service, the men were sluffing off.  They might have felt that their showing up was not a necessity to the group anymore.  That is sad.  It's been happening in the workplace as well.  They are being replaced.  I've always felt that Judaism had provided equal roles for men and for women.  I've even felt superior, being a Jewish princess, that we are not expected to show up for all these prayer groups because we are innately superior anyway.  It's the men who need to pray, ask for forgiveness and guidance, etc. We had other just as important responsibilities.

Isn't it amazing  to see  the subjects our Jewish  men have discussed and have come to agreements of what is right or wrong to do and put it all in writing?   It speaks to the mind and imagination and events over eons of time they knew about.  I bet that TV and movie script writers would love to have spoken with them to create more involved plots about life.  The book, "Portnoy's Complaint" by Philip Roth in 1969  goes into dealing with his strongly willed  Jewish mother and puts Jewish mothers in a bad light.  The novel tells the humorous monologue of "a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor", who confesses to his psychoanalyst in "intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language".

I'm proud to be a Jewish woman and love the fact that our religion goes back so far in time with such wisdom.  I'd hate to have our rituals  cast off.  They all make up the taste and flavor of our religion.  These are all reminders of who we are, our history  and what we should be doing and heavens knows we really do need them.  One only has to look at the reasons for these acts and know that there is an intelligence behind our religion.

Resource: Oregonian newspaper, February 13, 2013, page B8,  For orthodox religion, a tradition-modernity clash; Men Holding the Line, by Ruth Marcus on Editorial page.  by Rabbi Menachem Posner
 To Be a Jew-a guide to Jewish observance in contemporary life by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin
The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia
What Does Judaism Say About.. ? by Louis Jacobs's_Complaint


    3:14pm Update: Additional information about comedian Sarah Silverman's sister praying at the wall with tallit and what happened.

  2. Israel is right place to buy a jewish tallit. From here you can get all variety of designs, and colors in different sizes at affordable prices.