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Equality of Women

The Equality of woman in Judaism

The Idea that woman’s status in Judaism is inferior is a myth, fostered by ignorance of the true facts.

Article by Rabbi Aryeh Carmell


In the Bible we find the great women of Israel accorded equal status by the side of their husbands and sometimes even overshadowing them, for example: Miriam, Ruth, Deborah and the woman of Shunem. Abraham, the first patriarch, is told by God to “do all that his wife Sarah tells him”, on which the Rabbis remark that Abraham was inferior to his wife in prophetic insight.[1]

When proposing His covenant with Israel God addresses His words first of all to the “House of Jacob” – the women; the reason being, according to one of our greatest Agadic exponents, because women’s inborn gift of tranquility makes them nearer in spiritual reality than men.[2]

The Torah is invariably addressed to men and women together and the women are to be found by the side of their menfolk in all its great assemblies.[3]

In the commandment concerning our duties to our parents respect for the mother is put before that of the father. [4]

The closing paragraphs of the Book of Proverbs are devoted to a great hymn of praise to “the woman of worth”, from which we can learn something of the stature of the ideal woman of Israel, and the great esteem in which she was held.[5]

The Jewish husband to this day sings this hymn in praise of his wife each Sabbath eve before Kiddush, in gratitude for her efforts in the past week and for the Sabbath that her labours have lovingly prepared. So Jewish custom makes even the most tongue-tied of husbands the most eloquent of poets!


The Rabbis of the Talmud carry on this great tradition. Here are some of their sayings.

“Our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt only through the merits of the righteous women of that generation”.[6]

“A man should love his wife like himself and honour her more than himself”.[7]

“Blessings come into a man’s house only because of his wife”. [8]

“A man without a wife is without joy, without blessing, without Torah, without goodness… is only half a man”. [9]

“Be careful not to be the cause of your wife’s tears, for this is an offence in the eyes of God”. [10]

“A woman is closer to God than a man, because she gives the food to the poor man direct; the man’s share in the mitzvah – providing the money – is more remote.”[11]

“Women has been given deeper understanding than man.”[12]

“The promise the Almighty gave to the women is greater than the one He gave to the men, for it says (Isaiah 32): You tranquil women, arise and listen to my words!......

What is the great merit of our women? That they educate their children, encourage their husbands to go out and learn Torah and wait for them until they return from the Beth Hamedrash.” [13]

This passage is explained by one of the greatest expounders of the Agada, Maharal of Prague (already quoted above), to refer to the gift of tranquility which is the inborn grace of woman, in distinction to the restless spirit of man. This, he says, makes her more fitted to receive the spiritual rewards in the world to come.[14]

If we compare these sublime sayings with the status of women in contemporary pagan – and Christian – society, and see how incomparably higher Torah concepts have always been than those of surrounding cultures, we get an inkling of why the Torah has always been considered as of Divine origin.


But in Judaism these things did not remain merely in the realm of sentiment. They were translated also into the realm of law. Thus:

A woman’s case takes precedence in a court of law, because to keep her waiting would be degrading. [15]

If a man and a woman apply for charity the woman is attended to first (for the same reason).[16]

If one’s father, mother and Torah-teacher are in captivity and one can only save one of them, the mother takes precedence. [17]

If a man dies and leaves a widow together with young sons and daughters, the widow has the first claim on the estate for maintenance, then the daughters, and only then the sons. If there are insufficient funds for both, the sons become a charge on public funds, but not the daughters.[18]

A husband’s absences from home are carefully regulated in the Halacha, to take account of the wife’s physical and psychological needs as well as the requirements of his trade or calling.

The following amazing law already appears in the Book of Deuteronomy

“If a man takes a new wife he shall not go out in the army nor shall any public service be imposed upon him; he shall be free for his home for one year and give joy to the wife whom he has taken”.[19]

From this we learn that consideration for the wife takes precedence even over public duties. We learn also the importance of the first year of marriage when basic personality adjustments are made – something which modern psychology is only now painfully discovering.

In the Talmud we read that a Torah-student may absent himself from home for a maximum of one month in order to learn Torah; and with the wife’s express consent alternate months at home and away. The Gemara wonders. If he has her express consent surely he can stay away as long as agreed? Answer: No; for longer periods the consent may not be wholehearted; she may only say it to please him but in her heart she may not agree.[20]

Is there any other piece of legislation in the world than can compete with this for depth of concern for a woman’s unspoken feelings?


With regard to the respective rights and duties of husband and wife the Halacha recognizes ten obligations of the husband towards his wife, three from the Torah: maintenance, clothing and regular marital relations; and seven imposed by the Rabbis, including payment for her treatment in illness, ransome if captured and burial when she dies. The wife also has full rights to maintenance and residence on the death of her husband.[21]

The wife’s duties include running the household efficiently and in accordance with the Torah, looking after her husband’s needs and engaging in some light work in the home to augment the family’s income.[22]

In the matter of property rights Jewish and secular law have gone to some extent in opposite directions. Non-Jewish law started out by giving the wife no rights at all and has ended up (in England, anyway) by giving her complete equality with her husband. Jewish law has taken a completely different course. In Biblical law (min ha-Torah) a married woman, like an unmarried woman, had an absolute right to her property and earnings. The sages of the Mishna however decided that in the interests of marital harmony some modifications were necessary. They imposed certain additional obligations on the husband (see above) and at the same time they arranged that normally the wife’s earnings should go to the husband, believing that as a rule “a divided purse means a divided house”.

They left it open to the wife however to opt out of this scheme and retain her earnings for herself, if she is willing to forgo maintenance by the husband.[23]

It is however not open to the husband to opt out of his obligations. He cannot say to his wife: “Maintain yourself out of your earnings.” He cannot avoid his obligations to her in any way.[24]

The wife retains ownership of all property she brings into the marriage, but again for the sake of marital harmony the Rabbis arranged that the rents and profits derived from that property should normally go to the husband, to be spent on the needs of the home.[25]

On her divorce or the death of the husband the property reverts to her absolutely. On her husband’s death she can however, elect to leave the property in the estate and remain in residence and be maintained by the heirs during her lifetime or until she remarries. This is expressly provided for in the Ketuba (marriage contract) which is the sine qua non of every Jewish marriage.


After all that has been said no-one can seriously contend that women occupy an inferior place in Judaism or that their basic rights are in any way ignored.

But equality of rights does not imply identity of function. Much modern confusion arises from a failure to realize this simple fact. As the traditional identities of the sexes are lost a confusion of roles develops. Women begin to compete with men as if they were themselves men, instead of realizing and establishing themselves in their own right as persons. Women have so much more to contribute to the world as women than they could ever have as spurious men.[26]

The “masculinised female” tends to reject the roles of wife and mother. In compensation, the feminized male wants to be a mother to his children and grows dissatisfied with his wife and she in turn with him. The wreckage of these broken homes makes the psychiatrists’ waiting lists grow longer and longer.[27]


In Israeli Kibbutzim women have now enjoyed for three generations most of the advance ages being striven for by Women’s Lib. Yet a leading Israeli psychologist reports that many women are dissatisfied and deeply disillusioned. They have discarded their traditional role only to find that the fulfillment they expected did not materialize.

Although granted complete equality with men in all respects and released from the burdents of housekeeping and child care, the Kibbutz women- even after three generations of virtual insulation from outside influences – tend to place the family be fore the group and to leave decision – making largely to men. Young women of the third generation tend to marry earlier, place greater emphasis on the wedding ceremony and have more children than their grandmothers.[28]

All this tends to show that role differentiation according to sex is not merely sociological in orgin. It goes much deeper and, as Torah wisdom has always asserted, it has biological roots.


The fact is that we have no need to be apologetic about our laws. On the contrary they have proved themselves over the centuries and millennia. Where they are follow they have succeeded in making Jewish family life the envy of the whole world. Where they are not followed but replaced by the standards of the surrounding culture there Jewish life is subject to the very same disruptive influences as the surrounding culture. We are told that these standards and life-styles are progressive, liberal minded, new and exciting. They may well be, but we Torah-Jews are practical people and tend to ask practical questions. When so-called progressive thinkers question the Torah’s chosen life-style on a priori grounds we are entitled to raise an eyebrow and ask the critics whether their chosen life-styles have resulted in more or less unity and happiness in the family, lower or higher divorce rates, less or more juvenile delinquency; and other awkward questions of this sort. The Torah is prepared to stand by its record; and this is a test which can be applied right now in this modern world. In this situation apologetics are out of place.


It is most interesting when indication of the Torah is wrung from the mouths of the Torah’s own detractors. One such detractor, after condemning the Torah’s marriage laws for giving the husband freedom to roam “so long as he does not poach on another male’s preserves, “is yet constrained to remark: “But the Jewish husband has invariably been better than his laws.”[29]  

The critic does not realize that with this one remark he has given the game away. We need only ask: But what made the Jewish husband better? Is he by nature less virile, less temptation-prone? Of course not. It should be obvious to anyone who is not blinded by hatred that what has made the average Torah-Jew an ideal husband is nothing but the Torah itself. It is the Torah which has inculcated over millennia the highest moral standards and the utmost concern for the dignity and welfare of the wife as a person and as the cornerstone of the Jewish home. The very Torah which is reviled turns out to have been the vehicle of the great moral achievement in the history of mankind.

Seen in the real context of Torah life the laws which attracted the critic’s attention will turn out to have a quite different significance than that imparted to them.


The Torah assigns distinctive roles to male and female, to father and mother, closely related to biological and psychological realities, and to the very specific ends which the Torah wishes to achieve.

The Torah’s aim is nothing less than the ennoblement of human life, on the level of the individual, the family and the wider social grouping. Of these the first two are decisive. We have learnt to our cost that delinquency in society starts with lack of love in the home.

The Jewish home has the added function of fostering the specifically Jewish values of the fear of God and obedience to his Commandments and their transmission to the next generation. Here the Jewish wife and mother has a decisive role. Her skill, in creating the home, and infusing it with an atmosphere of warmth, laughter, love, in creating the home, and infusing it with an atmosphere of warmth, laughter, love, affection, loyalty and obedience, is her unique contribution. Education in the Jewish home, begins with birth, and it is the Jewish mother who sees to it that the children are guided from their earliest years on the right path in life. With firmness and love and no little self-sacrifice she encourages her menfolk in their spiritual endeavours. She sees to it that the home is a secure base full of humour, happiness and sound advice, to which they can always return for physical and spiritual refreshment. The family which has the good fortune to be built on this rocklike foundation has nothing to fear. Its children go out into the world as happy, healthy, upright and problem-free adults, and the world is a better place for their being in it.*

This does not mean that the Jewish woman is self-centred, with eyes for nothing beyond her own family. On the contrary she has always been active in the realms of hospitality, good works and charitable endeavours of all kinds. Yet the ideal of Jewish womanhood has remained “tzeniut” – self-effacing, unostentatious modesty. “The glory of the royal daughter is within”: the enormous influence she wields is above all in the fortress of the home. The well-balanced, well adjusted Jewish wife finds fulfulment in the tremendous task with which she has been entrusted and in the spiritual achievements of her husband and family, in which she has so large a share.

The husband’s role on the other hand is the more public one. He provides for the family and is therefore more actively concerned with commercial and social organization and public affairs. His decision-making role is controlled and disciplined by the mitzvoth of the Torah, Particularly by the regularly recurring mitzvoth, such as tefillin, tzitzit and communal prayer. Above all his life is dominated by the requirement to use all the time he possibly can in Torah-study. This special knowledge of the Torah gives him the leading position in the family. He is the one whom both wife and children must look up to. He may indeed be nothing without his wife, but supported by her constant encouragement and sustained by her own spiritual convictions and determination, he is fitted for the great task with which he has been entrusted.

*The unfortunate picture which has been built up in recent years particularly in America, of the “Jewish mother” as oppressively sentimental, smothering, over-possessive, obsessed with materialistic ambitions for her spoilt neurotic children, is a cancerous distortion of true Jewish motherhood. It is an alien growth induced by complete ostrangement from authentic Jewish life-styles.


The Torah has set itself a tremendous goal; nothing less than the creation of a new life-form which shall release the full spiritual potential of the human personality. The vehicles for its achievement are the Jewish nation and above all the Jewish family.

Social anthropology has shown that human social organization has taken many different forms. The respective roles of the sexes has also differed widely in various cultures. The Torah has selected one particular life-style as most conductive to its own goals. One can reject the goals, but if one accepts them one must also accept the Torah’s way of achieving them.

That is why criticism of the Torah from the standpoint of a different culture is such a barren exercise. Whether the culture is 20th century Russo-American-materialist or any other, it may well have goals which are quite different to those of the Torah and therefore completely different life-styles may be appropriate. There is not much point in getting excited about the means when we have not made clear what and we are aiming for. We who accept and believe in the revolutionary goals of Torah-life find the means well-tested and eminently suitable for achieving them. And this is what matters, after all.

All the peculiarities in the Torah-laws which have to do with the relationships between the sexes will be seen to flow from the basic role differentiation which we have attempted to describe above.


This point emerges very clearly in the Torah laws concerning marriage and divorce. The leading role which the Torah gives the husband by virtue of his Torah knowledge is underlined by his having to initiate the act of Kiddushin; the wife having only to give her consent. Significantly the Sages of Israel selected the word kiddushin to denote marriage; the husband “sanctifies the woman to be his wife.” This is to give the lie to any suggestion that the husband acquires the wife as his property; a myth still perpetuated by people who should – and probably do- know better.[30] This concept may have been prevalent in pagan societies, and was not unheard of in England well into the 19th century;[31] but never in Judaism. Belonging there certainly is; the wife “belongs” to her husband in a personal sense, in love, affection and duty; but in the same sense the husband too “belongs” to his wife, in the love and duties he owes to her. Indeed the obligations of the husband are the more onerous, as we have seen, and they include also the mitzvah of ona; i.e. of granting the wife regular sexual fulfillment.[32] The role of the husband as founder of the family is seen again in the Biblical law permitting a man to have more than one wife.[33] A husband might have more than one facet to his character and so be capable of pursuing various (though compatible) spiritual goals. He might, like Jacob, be capable of founding more than one family, provided he has the means and physical powers to devote himself adequately to each of them. This theoretical possibility existed for long periods of our history, yet it appears to have been made use of very rarely. This is hardly surprising since it presupposes tremendous powers of personality and of spiritual attainment. For Ashkenazi Jews even the theoretical possibility was removed by a ban of Rabbenu Gershom about 1,000 years ago.[34]


The stability of the marriage bond demands, according to the Torah’s way of thinking, that the ability to end the marriage must be in the husband’s hands.[35]

This is the husband’s inalienable right. Yet we very rarely find a case where this right was abused. The very possibility of easy divorce seems to have acted as a kind of safety-valve, making the actual occurrence less likely.

In the early periods of our history when the family head occupied on extremely responsible, even patriarchal, position, he could be relied on to exercise his right with the most judicious care. Later on, in Mishna and Talmud times, the Rabbis found it necessary to enact various regulations tp protect the wife’s position. Perhaps the most important of these was the Ketuba, by which the husband undertook to make provisions for the wife in case of widowhood or divorce. On the other hand the wife was given the right to demand a divorce in cases of mental cruelty (e.g. refusal without good reason to allow the wife to have normal social contacts), [36] or if the husband was suffering from a loathsome disease or was impotent and in some other cases. The wife also had the right to a divorce if she found after the marriage that the husband was simply repulsive to her, without any objective reason; though in this case she forfeited her ketuba.[37]

It is instructive to note the humanity of this law compared with the marriage laws of England in the 20th century. This situation and the havoc it causes because of any remedy for the woman is the theme that runs through most of Galsworthy’s famous “Forsyte Saga.” It is not generally realized that if Irene and Soames had been Jewish they – and we – might have been spared all that Iong-drawn-out conflict.

Later still, Rabbenu Gershom banned divorce against the wife’s will except by consent of the Beth Din. He did not and could not, of course, disturb the fundamental right of the husband to divorce, and if the husband defied the ban and divorced his wife the divorce would still be valid (The husband would be proclaimed “a wrongdoer”, unless and until the wife remarried). [38]

It is an integral part of the Torah’s conception of marriage that no divorce can be valid without the husband’s consent. Unfortunately there are cases in our times where a malicious husband takes advantage of this principle to refuse to a wife who is morally entitle to one, thus preventing her from re-marrying. In Israel methods have been adopted which usually result in the recalcitrant husband being brought to heel. In Great Britain measures are now being contemplated in consultation with the Government which may give the Beth Din powers to require a get in such circumstances.


The fact that a woman’s evidence is not acceptable in certain cases in Jewish law often gives rise to misunderstanding. This is not because the woman’s accuracy or reliability is doubted, but is due to entirely different considerations. There are two kinds of case in Jewish law: (1) Cases in which the Beth Din have only to ascertain the facts and apply the din. (2) Cases in which formal evidence must be presented and in which the Beth Din are not empowered to act unless the evidence falls within certain very restricted categories.

The first type comprises the whole range of religious law. Here, since the sole requirement is to ascertain the facts there is not the slightest difference between the woman’s testimony or the man’s.

The second type comprises civil and criminal law. Here, for reasons which are not fully understood, but which certainly have nothing to do with reliability; the evidence, to be formally acceptable, must be presented by at least two unrelated Jewish males. Here the woman is in good company, because even two of the greatest rabbis of the age would be disqualified if they came to give evidence and were found to be related, or if either of them were related to the parties in the case or to the accused. This applies even if their evidence is to the disadvantage of their relative. In criminal cases the halacha goes so far as to say that even if there are 100 witnesses in a case, and one of them is found to be related to the accused or to another witness, all the 100 witnesses are disqualified. It is clear that these restrictions have nothing to do with the reliability of the evidence – the Chofitz Chayim could hardly be considered an unreliable witness just because he is related to one of the other witnesses or to one of the parties in the case. They must be on some other, quite different, principle.


This is a sentence from the Prayer-book which has caused a great deal of resentment – quite wrongly, of course. Enough has surely now been said about the Torah’s attitude to women for us to realize that no judgment of lesser worth is implied here. On the contrary, did not the great Maharal say that woman’s intrinsic gifts bring her closer than man to the ultimate spiritual reward of Olam Haba? But the fact remains that in this world, in allocating the roles in the great partnership which He has instituted, the Almighty gave man certain privileges – the privilege of immersing himself in the Holy Torah and therefore of leading the great enterprise in which they are both engaged. In addition the woman’s lot is often harder. She must suffer the troubles of pregnancy and the pains of childbirth and she seldom gets any recognition for the constant round of mitzvoth she undertakes in the home. Why shouldn’t men bless God every day for their portion?


At the present time, when not only the stability of the family but the value of human life itself is under attack, the Jewish woman has once more a heroic role to perform, as in ancient Egypt and at other times in our history.

If she will accept the Torah’s goals as her own – and they are the most worthwhile in the world – she will find the utmost fulfillment in the enormously constructive and supremely valuable task she has been set. The future of the Jewish people and the whole of mankind is in her hands.

“Woman’s wisdom builds her house;

But Foolishness tears it down with her own hands.”[39]

[1] Genesis, 21:12 Rashi ad loc.

[2] Maharal: Derush al Hatorah.

[3] Deut. 29:10; 31:12.

[4] Leviticus 19:3.

[5] Proverbs 31:10 – 31.

[6] Sota, 11a

[7] Yevamot 62b

[8] B. Netzia 59b.

[9] Yevamot, ibid.

[10] Bava Metzia 59a.

[11] Ta’anit 23a

[12] Niddah 45b.

[13] Berachot 17a.

[14] Maharal: Derush at Hatorah.

[15] Yevamot 100a.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Horiot, 13a.

[18] Bava Batra 139b. Eventla-ezer, 112:11.

[19] Deut. 24:5.

[20] Ketubot 61b, 62a.

[21] Maimonides, Ishut ch. 12.

[22] Ibid. ch.21.

[23] Ibid. ch. 12:4

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ketubot 80b.

[26] “Suturday Review” 27.9.58 p.14 quoted “A Treasury of Tradition” ed. Lamm & Wurzburger, p. 251.

[27] “A Treasury of Tradition” ibid.

[28] Dr. M. Gerson: Report on Kibbutz Education at Oranim, Israel. Quoted “Observer”, London, August 1971.

[29] T. Weiss-Rosmarin: Jewish Chronicle (London), 8.10.71.

[30] See, for example, T. Weiss Rosmarin: loc.cit.

[31] Cf. Arno d Bennett: The Mayor of Caster bridge, Written by Thomas Hardy.

[32] Shulchan Aruch. Even Ha-ezer, 76.

[33] Deuteronomy, 21:15.

[34] Shulchan Aruch, ibid 1 L 21.

[35] Deut. 24:1,3.

[36] Ketubot, 71a.

[37] Ibid 63b.

[38] Shulchan Aruch, ibid, 119 : b (gloss)

[39] Proverbs, 14 : 1.

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