Time for Israel To Change Stance Toward Jewish Women

Orthodox Doctrine Is Keeping Women Unequal

getty images

By Rick Jacobs

Published June 24, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Is Judaism the problem or the solution to women’s equality?

Try telling agunot, women who are chained to their husbands unable to obtain a get, a religious divorce, that they are equal to men. Overarching Jewish values like b’tzelem Elohim — that all people are created in the image of God — may teach equality, but the day-to-day reality of too many women tells us of a struggle that is far from complete.

Is the pervasive inequality of women in Israel and in many other societies God’s will or men’s will? The majority of God language in our liturgy and our sources is masculine, which some have argued is simply the result of the Hebrew language being gendered. But imagine the cumulative effect of boys and girls growing up hearing God referred to only as He, Lord, Father and King. As feminist theologians have pointed out, “If God is male, then male is God.” One could conclude — wrongly — that Jewish theology supports the privileged place of men in ritual and society.

Nineteenth-century leaders of Reform Jewry knew that Judaism needed to be updated. Liberal-leaning scholars and rabbis in Breslau in 1846 declared “the female sex” the “religious equal of the male” with regard to “obligations and rights.” They proposed expunging the prejudicial benediction “shelo asani ishah” from the liturgy, obligating women to the same religious instruction and public worship as men, and raising the age of girls’ religious maturation from the traditional 12 to 13 to match that prescribed for boys.

In 1876, three years after Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise founded the North American Reform movement, he insisted that “the principle of justice, and the law of God inherent in every human being, demands that women be admitted to membership in the congregation, and be given equal rights with men.”

Since 1972, when Sally Priesand was ordained as the first female rabbi by the Reform movement, 686 women have followed, 29 of whom were ordained in Israel by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The Conservative movement’s rabbinical association has 307 female rabbis. And this month, three remarkable Orthodox women graduated from Yeshivat Maharat’s program for careers as spiritual leaders in the Orthodox community. This is changing our Jewish community and our practice of Judaism for the better, enriching both.

But this energy and ritual is missing in the Jewish state. The government of Israel has privileged Orthodoxy as the only legitimate Judaism. How painfully ironic it is that the only democracy in the world that embraces legal discrimination against the streams of Judaism that embrace equality of women is the Jewish State of Israel.

We know the great male sages of the Talmud – Rabbi Hillel, Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai. But what about the unsung female sages?

For instance, Ima Shalom, mentioned in the Talmud, hails from a distinguished family. Both her father and brother headed the Sanhedrin, the ancient court of sages. Her husband, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, also was a great scholar.

Ima Shalom, known for her keen intellect and wise sayings, said, “All gates are closed except the gates of wounded feelings.” She meant that God will always hear the prayers of those who have been wronged. Can you imagine how much richer our Jewish tradition would be if the Ima Shaloms had been allowed to sit on the Sanhedrin?


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.