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Women in Judaism

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The role of women in any religion is a rather particular one, as throughout the evolution of time, women have intersected with religion and religious practices and precepts several times, inflicting thus particular characteristics to the respective religion regarding them.

In Judaism, women have a particular role, as shown by the Torah, as well as religious traditions and practices. This is due to the fact that in Judaism, the nationality is passed on by the mother, although the children bear the name of the father. Thus, the children of a Jewish father are considered to be Jewish only if the mother is Jewish as well.

Additionally, the role played by women in Judaism differs depending on their belonging to more traditional branches of Judaism or not.

In the Torah, women were often depicted as subordinate to men, as the latter had several obligations to perform to their household, such as providing clothing and food and protecting their wives and children. In those ancient times, men could divorce women according to their own wishes, whereas a woman needed her husband’s consent in order to do that. Women were also economically dependent on men, as they could not possess property, unless they had inherited it from their father, who didn’t have sons. Even in this situation, the woman was expected to marry within the same tribe in order to allow the tribe maintain the entirety of its land possessions.

Apart from maintaining the household and bringing up children, women had also ritual roles. They had to engage in a pilgrimage once a year to the Temple in Jerusalem and offer the sacrifice on Passover, or the “todah” (thanksgiving) after giving birth.

Nowadays, the situation changed for women, and they are more engaged within the society, have achieved economic independence and even higher religious roles.

As far as Orthodox Judaism is concerned, men and women are complementary, but have different roles to be applied in religious life, which means that their performing obligations in religious matters are also different. Such a view is not entirely a result of religious law, but rather of cultural values and traditions. For instance, for many centuries, women were prohibited from studying religious texts, such as the Talmud, apart from a few practical elements of the Torah which taught them how to be good wives and maintain the household.

The beginning of the 20th century saw some evolutions in this regard as rabbis began liberalizing the access of women to activities which used to be reserved only to men in the past. However, there is still no total liberalism yet, as in the Orthodox, Haredi and Hasidic branches, women are prevented from wearing pieces of clothing such as the yarmulke, the tallit or the tefillin, which only men can wear.

In Orthodox synagogues, women are not allowed to read the d’var Torah after or during the service. However, the seating issue within the synagogue has been resolved to a more equal manner. While in the past it was common for men to sit in the front rows and women in the back rows, nowadays, the synagogue benches from one side of the aisle are occupied by men and the other side by women.

Despite the evolution in perception, modesty in clothing is still required of women. Thus many women refrain from wearing trousers and it is common for married ones to cover their hair with a hat or a scarf.

The development of feminism influenced also the developments in the status of women in Judaism. Since nowadays Jewish women have access to education, and even more get degrees in all sorts of fields which used to be reserved only to men, modern Orthodox communities liberalized access of women to religious studies. The year 2013 saw the consecration of women in several positions: Yeshivat Maharat, an Orthodox institution of the United States, became the first to allow women to train for the clergy. Its graduates do not become rabbis, but rather “maharat”. Another noteworthy piece of information is the advent of Malka Schaps as the first female dean of an Israel University – she is dean of the Bar Ilan University’s Faculty of Exact Sciences. Finally, the SAR High School of Riverdale, New York (a Modern Orthodox school) allowed girls to wear tefillin during the morning prayers.

In 2014, a book of halachic decisions written by women who trained in this regard had been published. Women’s prayer groups have been a fact since the Middle Ages, when they used to be led by a woman cantor. Despite the many mentions of such prayer groups throughout the 12th and 13th century in Germany, the practice was discontinued until the 1970s, when women began organizing prayer groups called “tefila”. Although Orthodox authorities claim that such prayer groups cannot be used in order to deliver services, it is a fact that women within these groups study the Torah and read through the prayers. A debate regarding the importance and mission of these groups is ongoing between representatives of the Orthodox, Haredi and Sephardi branches.

Conservative Judaism shares a similar position to that of Orthodox Judaism regarding women. However, in recent years, its stance on the active participation of women in several rituals and religious practices has softened, allowing them to participate actively in the public reading of the Torah, to serve as a cantor, to be considered as part of a minyan, to act as a rabbi as well as a posek, dealing with matters of religious law, as well as to be allowed to wear a tallit and a tefillin during prayer.

The participation of women in the above-mentioned activities is also provided for by the Reform Judaism branch, which supports the equality of men and women, on ethical considerations. Thus, the lack of equality of men and women and the implicit lack of access of women to men’s assigned roles is viewed as antithetical to the principles of ethics displayed by Judaism.

Another important debate is that of women becoming a “Sofer/Sopher/Sofer SeTaM”, meaning a scribe working on the transcription of the Torah scrolls or any other religious texts. According to the Talmud, women are not allowed to transcribe the Torah. However, they are not prevented from transcribing marriage contracts – “Ketubot” or any other texts not bearing a religious value.

Thus, it appears that the role that women have within the Jewish society has augmented considerably, allowing them to take an active part in situations which used to be forbidden to them in the past.

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