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Rights vs. Right

Rights vs. Right

Why can't I affirm the assertion of others that traditional Judaism looks down at women?


Contemporary American Jewish women are standing up for their rights, demanding equality in Judaism. I have heard my sisters' passionate words of protest and have tried to understand their complaints, to share their anger. But I cannot.

Why am I not insulted that Jewish religious law, or halacha, does not count me as part of a prayer-quorum, the minyan - or allow me to be publicly called to the Torah for an aliyah? Why can't I affirm their assertion that traditional Judaism looks down at women?

With my Ivy League undergraduate education and law degree, I am as bright as they are.

With my Ivy League undergraduate education and law degree, I am fairly certain I am as bright as they are. Why have I chosen to become an observant woman, and experienced sheer joy in the journey? Why aren't I bothered by what bothers so many others? The answer lies in a realization that, despite its essential simplicity, is apparently very difficult for many American Jewish women to even consider.

We American women have been raised on the banner cry of equal rights. We have, and rightfully, insisted on equality in the workplace, on the campus, in athletic competition and in the financial world. And we have achieved much success.

At the core of our demands lies the ideal of democracy. The legal, social and political underpinning of American society, the U.S. Constitution, guarantees the right to equality under the law and the right of redress in a judicial system. Nurtured on this tradition, the modern American Jewish woman tends to absorb the notion of equality within the American democratic paradigm.


The legal underpinning of the Jewish people, however, is not the U.S. Constitution but the Torah, a God-given code of law that does not speak in terms of rights, either for men or for women. It bestows no rights at all, only commandments, or mitzvot. And unlike the Constitution, the Torah -- and the legal corpus that derives from it, halacha, or Jewish religious law -- cannot be amended, even by a legislature's majority vote. The Torah does provide mechanisms for interpretation (by scholars whose sole goal is determining the texts' intent) but not for interpretation, much less change, born of human notions or desires.

"You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it."(Deut 4:2).

The crux of the modern American Jewish woman's discomfort with her Jewish religious heritage is, I suspect, her inability, or refusal, to distinguish between what democracy calls "rights" and what the Torah calls "right."

The crux is the refusal to distinguish between what democracy calls "rights" and what Torah calls "right."

Sadly, that reluctance to leave the paradigm of entitlements for that of obligations prevents so many precious Jewish women from even seeing, much less embracing, the beauty of the Jewish religious tradition.

Ironically, it also prevents them from discovering their true power as women, as commanded beings, whatever their particular commandments. Because being a halacha - observant Jewish woman is so much more, not less, than being part of a minyan; more, not less, than donning a tallit or tefillin.

If a woman feels she is equal to a man only through the donning of a religious object or the execution of a public synagogue-role -- if that is the sum of her religious expression -- then she is indeed missing out on something very important. Not men's commandments, though, but her own.


It is easy to imagine how, for a woman who was denied the opportunity to play little league when her brother donned his uniform, old feelings of exclusion and "unfairness" may be touched off once again when she is told that she is not part of a minyan, or that certain mitzvot are not incumbent on her. What has really occurred, however, is a sort of conceptual short circuit; the "equal rights" mindset has crossed wires with the "divine obligation" reality.

True equality -- equality of worth -- is not measured by equivalent religious roles.

Fairness and equality, in their everyday senses, in their proper context, are wonderful; but holiness and Torah occupy an entirely different universe. True equality -- equality of worth -- is not measured by equivalent religious roles. If a Jewish woman is really sincere about being the best she can be, if she seeks strength, dignity, self-esteem, and true, lasting happiness, it is not a tallit or tefillin that she needs, but courage.

Courage to recognize that the American definition of equality cannot be used to change the Torah. Courage to learn, with pure honest and objectivity, about her remarkable Jewish heritage, courage to shoulder the obligations and role it bequeaths her, courage to know that her greatest potential imaginable lies in being a Torah woman.

And so, to all my Jewish sisters, from the bottom of my heart: I wish you abundant courage.

August 12, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 20

(19) Indu Bali, May 16, 2010 6:01 AM

Rights are already there.

I have liked the article and am pleased to quote a line in my LLM thesis'If a Jewish woman is really sincere about being the best she can be, if she seeks strength, dignity, self-esteem, and true, lasting happiness, it is not a tallit or tefillin that she needs, but courage.' . The examples are 'Of the seven prophetesses (Sarah, Chana, Dvorah, Miriam, Esther, Avigail and Hulda) whose words the Talmud tells us are recorded for all generations, Hulda is perhaps the least known. II Kings, 22:14 briefly describes Hulda as, "...the prophetess, the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah son of Harhas, the keeper of the (royal) garments, who dwelled in Jerusalem, in the study house..." Hulda lived during the era of the First Temple and was sole prophetess for the women.' There seems to some mis-interpretations are some chaged texts and in that sense one has to go to origional torah texts and examples. With regards to Ancient Culture and right interepretations and understanding in its origional impart. Indu Bali

(18) JeffSchlanger, December 3, 2006 12:51 AM

You didn't answer your own question...

I was hoping your article would answer your original question "Why can't I affirm the assertion of others that traditional Judaism looks down at women?" but it doesn't. It is the understanding of many Jewish women that they were made exempt by men in order that they should pursue domestic activities. As a former student of Aish Hatorah, Ohr Sameach, and Darche Noam, I learned that women are exempt from positive time bound mitzvos because they are naturally spiritually transcendent of dimension, and positive time bound mitzvos exist for men to transcend the finite world. Please let me know if I misunderstood my Rabbeum because I should contact them and understand how I learned it all wrong. If I am not mistaken, please adjust your article to more effective in demystifying the issues and answering your original question, instead of apologizing and whitewashing.

(17) Anonymous, June 16, 2005 12:00 AM

Thank you to Elaine Viders for making many important points. Too many Jews, both male and female forget!

We need to realize that Judaism is not feminism. The two are based on separate principles and postulates, and therefore, are inherently different. One cannot be both. That is my problem with "Orthodox" "Feminism." Does the word Orthodox or the word Feminist need the quote? That is, are such people Feminists who pick and choose from Judaism only what does not offend their Feminism, or the other way around? As one can immediately recognize, the two "ways around" are diametrically opposed to each other.

Secular society refuses to recognize that men and women are different. There are the obvious physical differences, but as the Sages has told us, there are more fundamental differences. And this is how G-d created us! These differences are a good thing, and should not divide us.

Feminists may say that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. But the Torah view is that a man is incomplete without a woman. Male and female alone is only half the story.

(16) susan, January 3, 2004 12:00 AM

interesting article

I like this article. I am a conservative jew. Who is interested in learning more about traditional Judaism. I am a Jew, but left after my teen years. Butt no traditions were taught. Now I have become more interested. But I was a radical very angry at women not recognized as a minyan not becoming batmitvahed. And you are right that the secular society has influenced us. I am right now torn between getting aliyah now when I know men have the commandment not woman. Lighting the candles I know now are my mitvot, making the challot etc. The only thing I do disagree is halacha were decided by men not women or god. I would like sometime to go to a orthodox temple or a family to experience it.

Leah, August 15, 2013 8:03 AM

women have an important, respected role in Judaism

Susan, Judaism is not just a "religion" but a 24/7 way of life, and the prayers at shul are only a small part of it. unlike christianity where religion revolves around the church, in Judaism the religion revolves around the home where the woman reigns supreme. keeping Shabbat and holidays, keeping kosher, educating the next generation, doing works of chessed - these are the main part of Judaism, and the woman plays a predominant role in all of these. she is not obligated in certain mitzvot, not because the woman is less important, but because the mitzva is less important. (proof: if someone needs to choose whether to observe Shabbat or drive to shul, Shabbat wins.) the Torah was not "decided by men". it was given to us by G-d. and I am saying this not because of "blind faith" but because of many things that I have found inside the text of the Torah that prove its divine origin: e.g. things that would have been written differently if they were written by humans; things that we know now that could not have been known by humans 3000 years ago; etc. learn more about traditional (Orthodox) Judaism and you will see that the role of women in Judaism is not "lesser" but is important and respected.

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