Why I don’t feel oppressed as a young Jewish woman

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Why I don’t feel oppressed as a young Jewish woman

Liina Otsalu of Kings College London
Liina Otsalu of Kings College London

When it comes to the Torah, are women inferior, superior or equal?

Liina Otsalu, an International Economics student at King’s College London, gives a resounding defence of the female position in the eyes of Judaism.

At a seminar on feminism that I attended recently, I heard the standard claim that most religions are patriarchal, oppressive to women and promote inequality.

Liina Otsalu of Kings College London
Liina Otsalu of Kings College London

This claim is hardly new, however I feel the need to challenge it.

I am an observant Jew and I am not going to defend all religion from this claim, however I will present an alternative view from Judaism.

The root of this apparent tension between feminism and religion predominantly stems from the concept of equality. Feminism and Orthodox Judaism are not mutually exclusive, only certain strands of feminism are. Claiming that women are equal to men in moral worth is compatible, paralleling the idea that all humans were created B’Tzelem Elokim (The Image of G-d).

However, claiming that there are no differences other than biology between men and women is incompatible. This is the point where Judaism befriends “difference” feminism, which claims that rather than trying to be like men, women should celebrate their characteristics, female qualities and roles. Under no circumstance is different supposed to imply better or worse.

The original “man”, Adam, was actually a mixture of both man and woman. The same is true for all of us now. The idea is that in marriage man and woman become one soul in two bodies.

There is an even loftier idea that men who have many female characteristics or women who have many male characteristics are simply more in touch with their original core, their soul, which is neither male nor female but both.

Our bodies are just tools for our soul to express its mission. As the Taamei Hamitzvot states that it would be redundant for both halves to do the same thing, male and female bodies simply reveal to us that we have different tools to use for equally deserving missions.

The aim is to complement each other rather than compete.

  • The Male and the Female

For some reason the fact G-d created Chava from the rib of Adam is controversial. I can kind of understand why some might be offended by this but let’s investigate why this was the case.

There are male characteristics and there are female characteristics. However, there is a difference between men and masculine and women and feminine.

Men and women are made up of both masculine and feminine characteristics, however usually you will have more of one that the other. Being created from an internal limb is representative of the internal power and wisdom of woman, something that is gained without necessarily demonstrating the external character that a materialistic outlook implies.

An IDF soldier prays with tefillin
An IDF soldier prays with tefillin

In Kabbalah, the male is representative of Chochma (wisdom) whilst the woman is representative of Bina (understanding). Chochma focuses excessively on new ideas and endless potential whilst Bina has a natural almost instinct of how to put potential into practice and the realistic limits attached.

One is not better than the other and clearly they both need each other. In fact, Bina has been the historic source of the strength of the Jewish woman with faith. In contrast to the men, women did not donate to the making of the Golden Calf, yet were the first to donate to the construction of the Mishkan.

On the way out of Egypt, the women brought drums with them, as they had complete faith that Hashem would redeem them. Men however need much more reminding and immersion in order to remain focused, which is why they have much more obligations.

Wearing the Kippah and Tzitzit are reminders that women simply don’t need. In regards to wearing Tefillin, the womb is compared to the Tefillin shel Rosh whilst the umbilical cord is compared to the Tefillin shel Yad. They do not need these things as they are born with a direct connection.

This is why a woman is compared to a mirror, she needs only to turn to G-d to receive holiness. Women were given Bina Yetira, which is one of the reasons they are compared to water, whilst men are compared to bread. Bread is man-made and man must work much harder to fulfil his duties and develop his character, whereas water is sourced simply from nature, needed little input to make its impact.

This is the reason women are entrusted with the internal Mitzvot. Unlike other religions, the synagogue is not at the heart, rather it is the home. The fact that women do not participate in the services the same way that men do should be placed in the perspective that women are the foundation of the home, as it says in Mishlei “the wisdom of a woman builds her home”.

This is one of the many reasons Chava was created was to be a “helper” to Adam – which seems sexist, no?

Not really, as it says a helper “corresponding to him”, implying he will be also be a helper. Being a helper is not a lowly status, as materialistic culture obsessed with external status would have us believe, as G-d himself is described as a helper.

  •  Male-dominant Practices

In the mess of accusations, we must differentiate between those that are legitimate and those that are not.

A Haredi woman at the Western Wall in Jerusalem
A Haredi woman at the Western Wall in Jerusalem

Forced marriages, domestic abuse and so on are legitimate claims that should be acknowledged and dealt with, however such actions are in fact direct transgressions of the faith and its laws rather than intrinsic to it. Many other claims, however, such as the oppression of the laws of modesty or the subtle obligations of domestic duties hold much less weight.

Let’s begin with modesty. It is said that modesty for women has the same merit as Torah study for men. Both sexes have laws of modesty in both conduct and dress, however women have more.

After understanding the immense value of modesty within Judaism, the fact that women are entrusted with the Mitzvah of upholding it, you realise the prestigious level they are on. Humility is arguably the most important characteristic in Judaism, with all bad traits being rooted in the ego, the opposite of humility.

Moshe, the most righteous man on Earth, was praised not because of his piety, leadership qualities or even kindness but the fact that he was “extremely humble, more than any person on the face of the earth”.

Balaam, a wicked non-Jewish prophet, travelled to curse the Jewish people but upon seeing them, said “How wonderful are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places Israel”. This was because the tents were arranged in such a way that they didn’t face each other so every family could have privacy, thus preserving modesty.

In the Vilna Gaon’s famous letter, the Iggeres HaGra, he writes “My dear Mother, I know that you do not need my advice, for you a very modest”.

Clearly modesty isn’t intended to be a form of repression for Jewish women. By contrast, it is pritzuz (immodesty), which is truly oppression, something many secular feminist thinkers such as Ariel Levy (author of “Female Chauvinist Pigs”) agree with, by suggesting women are valued for their bodies rather than character and deeds.

  • Thank you for “not making me a woman”

Another source of anger is the seemingly controversial morning blessing in which man thanks G-d for “not making me a woman”. That is about as sexist as openly sexist as it gets, some claim, but let’s explore the meanings and explanations given for this blessing.

It should be noted that even if the Rabbis who instituted the morning blessings were as misogynistic as they seem, they would never be allowed to institute a blessing that would in any way upset or embarrass women, considering that to avoid embarrassing people we are encouraged to metaphorically “stand on hot coals”.

A simple answer is that since King David established the custom of saying 100 blessings every day, one blessing is made into three. Rather than saying “thank you for making me a man”, man thanks G-d for not making him a gentile, slave or woman.

That might explain it but it still sounds sexist, and now racist, you might say. The fact is that none of these blessings are offensive at all, they simply reflect the joy in being able to fulfil a very different role to the other millions of people on the planet.

The man is thanking G-d for giving him the opportunity to serve him with so many commandments – as opposed to Gentiles who are only obligated to keep the 7 Noachide laws and women who are only obligated to keep non-time-bound commandments.

By contrast, many women say an alternative blessing thanking G-d for making them “according to his will” in which they can serve G-d without the necessity of commandments to perfect them. The Alter Rebbe was concerned that this blessing might sound simply like an apologetic acceptance of the lower status of women rather than their true exalted status and so encouraged women not to say it, but the point remains.

The other explanation is that the blessing refers to the daily return of the soul. This is why converts to Judaism also say the blessing thanking G-d for not making them a gentile. This would seem counter-intuitive since they were clearly born to non-Jewish parents, however the blessing is thanking G-d for making them Jewish today.

The soul leaves the body every night when you sleep so there is a fear that it may be returned with an “impregnation” so that a man may feel like a woman or vice versa, so the blessings thank G-d for returning the soul in perfect pure form.

  • Differing Roles and Contributions of the Jewish Woman

The Jewish woman’s role has evolved throughout history.  Of course, there are certain requirements as there are for men, yet the roles women have fulfilled and the structure of the family, has been anything but stereotypical.

I know many families who conform to the “stereotype” in which the man earns a living and the woman takes care of the children at home.

I also know many in which the man spends his days learning whilst the woman is out earning a living. The couple aims to work together and whilst their internal roles are intrinsic, their external roles can be adapted to what best suits them, and neither structure is superior.

In Mishlei, the woman of valour is described as being the “crown of her husband” (12:4), indicating she is someone to be cherished and it is her influence that makes her husband a “king”.

The Jewish woman has not been prevented from making her contribution to the wisdom of Judaism. The tradition of men turning to women, be it their wives, sisters or whoever, began with the first Jews, Avraham and Sarah.

Although the mass education of women has been a relatively new thing, the wisdom of the woman has been well known for centuries. The Maharal of Prague and his wife famously studied together, with her even editing his work and making several corrections.

A certain Rabbi’s daughter is a famous example. When stranded in a situation with urgent need of a legal ruling regarding an Eiruv, the friends walking with the family listened as the Rabbi turned to his daughter to ask what was correct to do. She gave them an answer and when they returned home and read through the books of Halachah, found she was perfectly correct.

Considering the idea that every human being has a contribution to make to the interpretation of Torah wisdom, women certainly play a significant part. Although it is mostly men who take the titles of great scholars, it is not that woman are prevented from doing so but that they feel no need to make a demonstration of their immense knowledge until it is needed.

  • Are Women Superior?

There are in fact many cases in Judaism in which women appear to be given superior status. A man has many more marital obligations, is encouraged only to indulge in pleasures that will benefit his wife so as to direct his urges towards a positive end and is thought to have a worse instinct on what is right and wrong.

Add to that the fact that a child is halachically Jewish through the mother alone. Before the giving of the Torah at Sinai, Moshe gave two separate speeches to the men and women. The men’s speech was long and harsh whilst the women’s was short and delicate.

This is the opposite of offensive as it demonstrates that women did not need to be convinced to keep the Torah; it is within them. Upon returning to his home after many years of learning in isolation, the great Jewish scholar Rabbi Akiva, saw his wife running eagerly towards him.

The scholars surrounding him thought she was just a common woman and urged her to leave, but Rabbi Akiva said “Leave her alone. Everything that I have, and that you have, belongs to her”.

In addition, King David, one of G-d greatest servants, once stated (Bamidbar Rabba 4:20) “If only that my portion in the World to Come will be with the Jewish mother”.

Clearly the Jewish woman, even when simply fulfilling domestic duties in the home, is not to be belittled.

Lastly, it was in the merit of righteous Jewish women that we were redeemed from Egypt (Sotah 1b) and it was also through righteous Jewish women that we will be redeemed through the coming of Moshiach.

  • In conclusion…

In Judaism, you can interpret either the man or the woman as having superior status, it just depends how you look at it. Women in fact have a surprisingly superior level of a great number of aspects.

However, this desire for status and external confirmation of value misses the fundamental goal of Judaism: Status is irrelevant, it is your deeds that define you.

So if as a young Jewish woman, you ask me if I feel oppressed, the answer will be a resounding no.

What do YOU think? Let us know in the comments box below

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