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A Jewish perspective on Gender

Debbie Young-Somers's picture

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Huge amounts have been written about this subject so there is obviously much to say. I will have to be brief however and try and limit myself.


The changing role of women

There are different ways to approach Judaism's treatment of women, but we must first acknowledge that for the vast majority of our history, we have had leadership roles dominated by men, and texts which were the reserve of men. For some women this means that there is nothing useful to be extracted and things are too embedded in patriarchy and misogyny for anything to be redeemed today. For others there is an understanding of Judaism as delineating roles for men and women that are equal, but different, so traditionally men inhabit the public sphere, and women control the private, and some women are happy to continue this tradition. For others, and I would count myself in this group, there is a need to rediscover the female voice in Judaism, and discover what might be empowering and meaningful for Jewish women today.

This may mean re-interpreting ancient texts, or it may mean finding new understandings of ancient rituals that women were previously excluded from and find ways of creating access to them for women. It can also mean taking rituals that have always belonged to women, and helping women to understand what can be taken from them positively.


No Jewish movement today would actively seek to oppress women, and there are women who live very traditional lives, and women who live very secular lives, all of whom feel empowered by their Judaism. However it must also be acknowledged that some women today, and through history, have felt oppressed and limited by Jewish law and communities.


Trying to understand the principle

One example of this is divorce. Divorce is permitted in Judaism, but the Rabbis didn't want to make it so easy that people would use it lightly. Marriage contracts were seen to protect women in a time when they were often treated as second-class citizens by society.  So some of the restrictions put in place were also thought to protect women. Today, however, they sometimes serve not to protect women, but to chain them and prevent them from remarrying and having (more) children. It is also important to remember the lenses with which we come to texts. In Torah (the Bible), for example, a modern reader will be appalled by laws which insist a rapist must marry his victim. This seems like a cruel punishment for a woman who has done nothing. But in tribal Canaanite and Israelite society where women's status depended on having a husband and children, this was the best way to protect women. My response to this would be that we must extract the principle (to protect those in society who are vulnerable) and apply it to today, rather than taking the literal meaning of the law.

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