Gender and Sexuality
Written by: Allan Nadler
Men and women are equally obliged by the Torah's system of Divine commandments, or mitzvot. However, on account of their traditional domestic, and especially their "natural" child-rearing obligations, women were exempted by rabbinic law from any obligation to perform positive commandments that are "time-bound," most notably participation in public prayer services at specifically mandated times. Women were also excluded, and often discouraged, from the obligation to study Torah, which is commonly viewed in rabbinical theology as the pinnacle of religious devotion.
As a result of this exclusion of women from the public and most elevated of religious obligations, classical rabbinical Judaism—including contemporary Orthodox Judaism—is often depicted as being essentially patriarchal, or even sexist, in nature. Compounding this perception is the fact that ecclesiastical authority has, since biblical times, been the exclusive domain of males, from the priests and Levites of ancient Israel who administered the rituals in the Jerusalem Temple, to the rabbis and cantors who today serve as the spiritual leaders of traditional, or Orthodox, congregations. Moreover, while the other denominations of Judaism all practice egalitarianism in public worship today, Orthodox synagogue services remain strictly gender separated, with women usually relegated to the sides, rear, or balcony of the sanctuary, while men alone are permitted to lead the services, preach sermons, and be "called up" to bless, and read from, the Torah and Prophets.
At the same time, women do play a vital role in traditional Jewish domestic and family life, most notably in assuring adherence to the dietary laws and ensuring that the many domestic Shabbat and festival rituals (most notably candle lighting), meals, and customs are prepared and conducted in accordance with Jewish law. Women are also entrusted to ensure adherence to the laws of taharat ha-mishpacha, or family purity.
Since the 2nd-century codification of the Mishnah, the rabbis have endeavored to soften some of the biblical laws most prejudicial to women through ingenious scriptural exegesis and the introduction of new legal institutions. The Jewish laws of marriage and divorce offer a key case study in such strategies employed by the rabbis to adjust, if not quite equalize, the status of women over the course of centuries. In ancient Israel, as the Bible makes quite evident, wives were considered the property of their husbands. A man could, for example, simply and abruptly divorce his wife, just as easily as he had "acquired" her. This is dramatized by the simple and brief biblical legislation regarding the procedure for divorcing one's wife, which to this day presents a formidable obstacle in achieving gender equity in Jewish family law: "A man takes a wife and possesses her. If she fails to please him because he finds in her something unseemly, he shall then write her a bill of divorcement, hand it to her and send her away from his house" (Deuteronomy 24:1).