(True Womanhood commentator, Songbirdy, shared these thoughts with us because she thought they might be helpful to some of the discussions we have been having on the roles of women. We agreed and hope anyone else who has studied this topic will share more of what they understand. It is longer than our usual entries but well worth the read if you are interested in the historical OT views of women.)
In our ‘quest’ to eschew man-made definitions of the role of women, I find it might be helpful to take the time to do a small study into the Biblical role of women. I recently read a blog post that talked about art and ‘negative space,’ in other words, what the artist choose not to include in their work. When applying ‘negative space’ to our discussions here I interpret this to imply that we study the things that Christ and the Apostles didn’t feel it necessary to discuss or write down because, like the Constitution’s writers, they were truths held to be self-evident.
Having been blessed with the friendship of two Jewish women at various points in my life, I have a very minor understanding of the Jewish role of women and have found it to enrich my understanding in the topics we discuss here on this blog. While I no longer have contact with my fellow University friend, I have enjoyed the wisdom, friendship, and straight forward advice of a fellow homeschooling mother who is a Jew. Both of these women have shared with me insights into what it means to be a Jewish woman. I asked my friend Ber to please read over my following article to help insure accuracy. She added some points in italics that I have found very helpful.
To me the most striking thing is that in the Jewish tradition there has never really been an issue of feminism. The question, “What is a woman’s role and what is a man’s role?” is not really asked. Their tradition, and Christianity’s heritage, holds that man and woman are equal but created differently, not that woman is created lesser than man, but equal and different.
When speaking of God, Jews don’t assign a gender to God. The Hebrew language does not have gender neutral words so you will find God referred to as ‘He’ or ‘Him.’ In fact our desire to ‘genderize’ God likely comes from the influence of the Latin language on translations of the Bible. Historical ignorance to this influence has gone on to really effect how women have been treated by later generations. We have lost a very significant part of our heritage.
Just an added thought here is that a great deal of solid nouns are male but most actions are female, especially future tense. An example is Dalet, door, is male but the action of opening is Patakh, female. Most all of the items through which we enhance our worship are female mezuzah, menorah, Mizbaiakh (the alter), and even the Torah itself, the five books of Moshe and the Tanakh the complete Bible ) Through this you can see an equal and different, however absolutely interdependent relationship exists. The Torah is a power source and wisdom but without the man to read it the value is still present but the joy is missing. What is that power worth without a conduit? In Hebrew any multi or group takes the masculine ending. For example you have Yeled, boy, Yaldah, girl, and then Yeledim, children. The –im ending is used not because the male is greater but the male protects his hidden treasure and power source, the female.
To be truthful, having been brought up in our American culture I had a very hard time adjusting to the above fact. My nature said surely they must have had a time when the Patriocentric model I have been told is so Biblical was the norm. Surely that was the norm in Biblical times!
The truth is no. What is being taught as a Biblical norm is in fact not the norm.
In the Old Testament, women’s status under the law was the same as men. That is not to say their role was the same, but they were equals under the law. For example, a divorce was not given until both the man and the woman agreed to the divorce.
In 1000 CE Gershom finalized and protected women with a halachic decision that a woman cannot be divorced without her consent. At that time the Hillel ruling was being taken too broadly. So even in the midst of the Medieval World., Christianity was limiting woman more, Jews were strengthening the woman’s role and rights.
n our American culture much is made about women’s sexuality. In the Hebraic tradition, the woman controlled her sexuality. She was the one who knew her menstrual cycle and when she was clean and unclean. It was her responsibility to go to the temple and bring the required offerings so that the Priest could make atonement for her after menstruation and after giving birth, not her husband, but the woman herself. See Leviticus 12 for further details.
While doing research for this post, I was thrilled to find out that in the situation of rape there is no talk of “well she asked for it” and that the woman is generally held to have not consented to the act. Period.
Also we have made much of fact that the Old Testament laws have very little role for women at the Tabernacle. Yet our lack of understanding of the Jewish traditions has left us with a very shallow understanding of the area in which the women had a great role and influence. We don’t make much of the Jewish practice of Shabbat.
Without Shabbat you do not have the sign of the covenant. It is the Highest Holy day within Judaism and the woman’s territory. It is when God gives us his portion and establishes us for another week. This is also why it is on this day that once she has ushered Shabbat in, choosing the times to light candles, the governing factor, the husband then blesses his wife and reestablishes her position of power and honor in the family. Then he blesses the children and commands them to be faithful. Even this is used to remind him, the man, of his absolute dependence upon his wife and his children. It is not to effect the true positions.
This is a great error on our part. There were many times in history when the Jews have had to live without their land and Tabernacle. Synagogues were found in Christ’s time but were not always in existence. Yet, from the beginning Jews were called to rest on the Seventh Day. From this command comes the practice of Shabbat. A very cursory glance at the Shabbat traditions will tell you almost instantly that it is the woman who holds the pivotal role and leadership in Shabbat.
The Jewish Mother is also a very respected and honored role. My personal understanding here is very limited but I have come to see that a traditional Jewish mother is not under the thumb and rule of her husband.
He is actually dependent on her for his very continuation, within synagogue life and the generations to come. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 are the passages where the woman was given the power to demand marriage to a brother and the child be named the son of the dead husband to continue that husband’s lineage. Even when the husband diad, she was insuring his continuation. This also can be seen in the story of Tamar, she is seen more righteous than Yehudah, even though she was forced to play the harlot. [Judah and Tamar; Genesis 28]
The impression I get is that a Jewish woman is glad not to have the additional responsibilities at the Synagogue. At times that would require her to abandon her first role of Matriarch of her family and leave her duties unfinished at home. In Biblical times, the average Jewish mother would not be able to leave her crying children at the daycare to go and help fulfill the daily worship requirements as listed in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. If she had to attempt to fit those things into her day, she would neglect very important things like cooking and caring for her family. Daily living tasks were such a huge responsibility!
It actually has more to do with that women are constantly reminded of their Godly responsibility, must constantly give a good example, teach the children, and the role of a woman is more spiritual in nature and not so much physical. She is the spiritual breath or wind of the family and the man is the sail, the wind will still blow with power and has an effect but with the sail there is a funneling of this power. The sailor thinks he controls the wind but truly he has only learned to work with the wind. A wise sailor knows this to be a fact.
And yet the woman was not without influence in the synagogues. A man could not be a Rabbi if he was not married. The man was not whole without a wife. There are many instances where the Rabbi’s wife was known to have great influence in the work of that Rabbi. Wives were not belittled as unknowing. Nor were they left uneducated if the family could afford the time and effort required. Esther was an educated woman.
A woman doesn’t have to even speak her thoughts to her husband to be effective. This is due to the echad natur, oneness, of a marriage. The husband who loves and honors his wife often knows her thoughts and she definitely knows his thoughts. Similarly as we know our parents thoughts, would they approve, what would they have us do, how would they have acted. A Rabbi’s wife, a Rebbitzin was usually just as busy as her husband because of her status in the community with the women. Have you ever heard anyone say, “I know just what she is going to say…” They truly do.
Nor were Biblical Jewish woman prevented from conducting business. The Woman of Valor in Proverbs 31 is praised for her business sense. A careful reading of that passage also tells us that her husband was alive. From that we can conclude that the idea that a widow, or woman without a man to speak for her, was not condition required for her to conduct business. No, indeed her husband and children praised her business sense!
All of these things mentioned above were the norm for the listeners of Christ, the disciples and early church. Not only were they the current norm, the roles of women were very defined and accepted. Jews had many years of working out a model for the roles of men and women, roles designed to compliment and fill the ‘negative space’ found in the opposite gender. God, who was one whole being, ultimately created two beings in His image so that together they might make a better picture. Following are some links that do such a good job explaining Jewish thoughts on this topic that I had such a hard time writing this post!
A good summary:
Article refuting the idea that Jewish women are inferior to the men:
Article on Gender Differences:
Article about the role of Women in Worship: