To get a clear picture of the Jewish view of womanhood, we must go back to the beginning – the Torah.
In the first chapter of Genesis, the Torah chooses to refer to Adam in the plural:
God created the man in His image; in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them. And God blessed them. (Genesis 1:27-28)
Why "them"? This was before the creation of Eve!
The Jewish Oral Tradition provides us with a fascinating insight into this grammatical oddity. The first human, it tells us, was really an androgynous being, both male and female in one body, sophisticated and self-sufficient.
But if God had created such a complete human being, why the later separation into two parts, into Adam and Eve?
As God is the source of everything, self-sufficiency would be a spiritual defeat.
The answer given is that God did not want this first human creation to be alone, for it would then possess an illusion of self-sufficiency. Note that there is no word for "independence" in classical Hebrew. (What we use now, atzma'ut, is of modern vintage.) The concept of independence doesn't exist in Jewish tradition. Aside from God, nothing and no one is really independent. Since we are supposed to ingrain into ourselves that God is the source of everything, self-sufficiency would have been a spiritual defeat.
God wanted to fashion the human being into two separate people in order to create a healthy situation of dependence, yearning, and mutual giving. Human beings are not meant to be alone because then they would have no one to give to, no one to grow with, and nothing to strive for. To actualize oneself spiritually, a human being cannot be alone.
Why Not Identical Twins?
But why, then, didn't God create two identical beings? The answer is that in order to maximize giving, the recipient must be different from the giver. If the two are identical, giving can occur, but it is limited. One would give based on his or her own needs, since the receiver would have the exact same needs. To truly be a giver, the person must take into account what the receiver needs and not only what the giver wants. By giving to someone with different needs, a person is trained to think and give on terms other than his or her own.
We see, then, that the separation had to be into two different beings, in order for us to learn to appreciate, love, give, and care for those unlike ourselves.
This is fundamental to all moral and spiritual growth. We can also understand why God didn't just create two beings from the start: by starting as one, we can know and feel that our life partners are our true complement, that we need them and their differences just as they need us and ours.
The Torah is a path to self-actualization, to spiritual growth. We have seen that in order to grow, a person cannot be alone. Therefore two beings were created. To maximize growth, the beings need to be different, and so men and women were created as different beings. But what are these differences?
In the creation story told in the Book of Genesis, the way in which God separates man and woman provides us with an insightful look at gender differences. We will briefly discuss here some of the most powerful of these. Note that the feminine-masculine polarities we will discuss do not apply exactly the same way to each man and woman – we were all created as unique individuals. However, what the Torah describes does exist for everyone to some degree.
Adam was not split down the middle; rather, Eve was created from an internal organ – his rib.
Interestingly enough, Adam was not split down the middle; rather, Eve was created from an internal organ: his rib. By mentioning the rib, the Torah is teaching us a principle in understanding the nature of masculine and feminine strengths, namely that feminine manifestation and strength is more internal, while the masculine focus and expression is more external.
The feminine internal nature can be observed in the enormous weight women place on relationships, which by definition are personal and private. Modern psychology confirms this key distinction. The best-selling book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus by Dr. John Gray, advances the idea that women are more "relationship-based" than men.
This emphasis on the internal has many practical implications. While most of Judaism applies equally to men and women, including the central ideas of celebrating Shabbat and keeping kosher, not all commandments apply in the same way. The Torah's system of spiritual achievement and happiness applies differently to the two genders.
For example, women, who are more internal – and in a sense private – will usually find their direct connection to God most efficiently through private prayer. Therefore Judaism encourages them to express this through regular daily private prayer, although of course they can pray in a synagogue if they prefer. Men are more external (we see evidence of this in the world at large also, in that men are more drawn to be part of a group or team.) This is part of the masculine spiritual makeup and explains why man's spiritual path is more related to public prayer.
The Torah also describes the process of Eve's creation using the word vayiven, "God built." This word shares thes same Hebrew root as binah, meaning "insight" or understanding. This suggests, as it says in the Talmud, that women were created with an extra dose of wisdom and understanding.
Binah is much greater than "women's intuition" – it means the ability to enter something and understand it from the inside – what has been called "inner reasoning."
Men tend toward more da'at, an understanding which comes from the outside.
Men tend to have more of what is called da'at, an understanding which comes from the outside, a type of understanding which tends to be more connected to facts and figures.
Society loses an enormous asset when only one of these intellectual aspects is valued. Just as two eyes make our view of things more accurate, seeing things from the two different male and female perspectives makes our understanding of life more complete.
Note that modern science supports Judaism's age-old contention that men and women's minds work differently.
A case in point is research by Ralph Holloway and Christine de Lacoste-Utamsing, Jeanette McGlone, and Doreen Kimura. (See M. Kaufman's "Feminism and Judaism" for a comprehensive summary.) This research has proven beyond a doubt that men and women's brains are physically quite different. Not surprisingly, social scientists are looking more and more to physiology as the source of different behaviors and ways of thinking, as well as a determining factor in areas of interest and excellence.
Equal But Different
Gender is a pivotal quality in each person's identity. Men and women are fully equal but different – and that difference is good. With their own unique talents and natures they can give to one another and help each other along the road of life.
Since the genders are different, it's counterproductive to force them to act identically.
God, in His infinite wisdom, created humans as two distinct genders in order to enable them to complement and fulfill each other. Each gender should appreciate and use its special strengths. Since the genders are different, it would be counterproductive to force them to conduct themselves identically – what helps a man won't necessarily help a woman and vice versa.
King Solomon's beautiful poem Eishes Chayil, "A Woman of Valor," describes all the different roles a woman can play, including teacher, businesswoman, mother, wife – but all of them as a woman.
When a person is asked what she does, she often responds by naming her career. But the truth is that we are not merely doctors, engineers, secretaries, educators. We are human beings trying to fulfill our unique potential.
By giving her the tools to grow morally and spiritually while maximizing her unique strengths, the Torah frees a woman to be herself with self-esteem and joy – and no apologies.
Excerpted from "Jewish Matters," short essays on relationships, prayer, happiness and Shabbat. Available at Amazon.com.