This article is arranged according to the following outline:the historical perspective
marriage and children
women in household life
Educational and Managerial Roles
women outside the household
contesting the idea of patriarchy
Post-Biblical and Talmudic Period
the cult and public life
women and the rabbis
Medieval Islamic World and Spain
the islamic experience
Innovations and Aberrations in Jewish Law
women in medieval spain
Inheritance and Guardianship
Medieval Christian Europe
women's high status
mysticism and folklore
Early Modern Period
women in the public sphere in italy, 1600–1800
women, mysticism, and messianic movements
Modern Central and Western Europe: 1780–1939
Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries
from the colonial period to 1945
Modern Muslim Worlds
the old yishuv
the new yishuv
israel since 1948
the judicial perspective: women and the israeli courts
Husband and Wife
A Woman's Economic Rights
Succession Right of Daughters and Wives
The Right to Vote and the Right to be Elected to Public Office
the ruling in the shakdiel case
The Halakhah and Women's Study of Torah
the ruling in the nager case
a parent's right and obligation to decide on a child's education
torah study for women
the women of the wall case
bat mitzvah celebrations
Recovering the lives of Israelite women in the biblical period is difficult because the major source, the Hebrew Bible, focuses on national concerns rather than on the lives of ordinary individuals and also because its principal interest is in the lives of men rather than those of women. In addition, the biblical text postdates, often by centuries, the periods it purports to record. Another problem is that much of the Bible originates in and reflects the urban setting of Jerusalem, whereas most Israelites lived in agrarian households in small villages or walled agricultural towns that were not true cities. However, a multidisciplinary approach, using biblical data along with information produced by archaeology and also ethnographic data and interpretive models from anthropology, can bring the women of ancient Israel into view.
The Hebrew word ishah means both "wife" and "woman," signaling the fact that a woman's identity was virtually inseparable from her status as a married woman. It was inconceivable that a woman might willingly live on her own apart from a family structure. Israelite marriage was not the kind of love-based companionate relationship that is the ideal in the modern world; rather, it was a heterosexual pairing meant to provide offspring to assure generational continuity in a landbased society. The conjugal pair with their children would also constitute a work force sufficient to meet the needs of a family in an agrarian society; and the children would be the ones to care for their parents should they survive into old age. Having children was a non-negotiable necessity.
The Bible does not have a term for "marriage" as such. The formation of a marital bond is indicated by saying that a man "takes" a woman. The narrative of the courtship of Isaac and Rebecca, for example, culminates in the statement that "he took Rebecca and she became his wife" (Gen. 24:67). That a man "takes" a wife is a reflection of the patrilocality of Israelite households. That is, the bride would move to the household of the bridegroom, who usually resided with his own family. An extended family would thus be formed, although each constituent nuclear family might have its own abode within a family compound. The incest laws in Leviticus may have originated to deter problematic sexual intimacy among members of a complex household group.
Financial arrangements generally accompanied marriage except among the poorest families. Although there are no "marriage laws" as such in the Bible, information in narratives indicates that a bride's family typically provided a dowry, usually consisting of moveable property such as jewelry, clothing, and household utensils. In wealthier families, livestock and servants might also be included (see Gen. 24:59; 29:24, 29). The dowry could be supplemented by the groom and his family (Gen. 24:53). Although her husband would have had some access to the dowry during the duration of the marriage, it theoretically remained the woman's possession.
Another marital payment was made by the groom's family to that of the bride. This betrothal gift, sometimes erroneously called "bride price" (mohar; see Gen. 22:17; 34:12; i Sam, 18:25), has often been interpreted as evidence that a man purchased a woman. The fact that a word sometimes used for "husband" is ba'al, which can (but does not always) mean "master," has also been adduced to claim that a woman is the property of her husband. Similarly, the use of the verb kanah, which can mean "to buy" but more generally "to acquire," to describe Boaz' marriage to Ruth (Ruth 4:10) has also been interpreted as an indication of male ownership of women. However, such assertions are now known to be flawed.
In anthropological perspective, the dowry as well as the betrothal gift functioned in overlapping ways to maintain the viability of a family. The betrothal gift would provide some compensation to a woman's family, who would lose the labor of a daughter upon her marriage. The dowry would constitute a woman's chief means of support in the event of widowhood or divorce, especially if she had no sons or if her father was deceased. And the two payments together served to establish and solidify alliances between a woman's natal family and her marital one. Such connections were important in agrarian communities; they served to increase the likelihood of mutual aid in the event of economic or other difficulties, not unusual in Israelite households living in marginal ecological zones. Betrothal and dowry payments together served important economic, social, and legal functions.
To refute the notion of male ownership of women is not the same as establishing equality in the relationship. Perhaps the greatest imbalance was in the area of sexuality. Once a woman was betrothed, her fiancé, and then her husband, had exclusive rights to her sexuality. The patrilineal nature of Israelite society, with land and property transferred across generations via the male line, is likely the reason for the stringency in biblical legal precepts dealing with a woman's sexuality. The gender asymmetry in the treatment of sexuality is evident in Deuteronomy 22:13–21, in which a bridegroom claims that his wife is not a virgin. The ensuing elaborate procedure for dealing with this accusation reflects the value of virginity as a means to assure a groom of his paternity of children she will bear. Gender disparity is also evident, for similar reasons, in the different treatment of women and men in biblical adultery laws (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22–28), where sex between a married man and an unmarried woman is discouraged but not proscribed. Concern for heirs is also a factor in the institution known as levirate marriage, in which a childless widow would marry her deceased husband's brother, with the first son produced by that liaison considered the dead man's heir (Deut. 25:5–10; cf. the narratives of Tamar, Gen. 38, and Ruth). The case of the daughters of Zelophehad (Num. 26:33; 27:1–11; 36:1–12) would seem to mitigate the absolute nature of Israelite patrilineality; however, the inheritance of land by daughters in that case is accompanied by provisions that the land would remain within the clan.
The powerful male interest in transmitting property to biological heirs is also a factor in the existence of polygamy, or rather polygyny (more than one wife), in ancient Israel, as in the ancient Near East in general. Monarchs may have had multiple wives as a sign of their high status and to solidify political alliances, and wealthy individuals may have had more than one wife as a sign of affluence. But in most instances, taking a second wife or a concubine would have occurred because the first wife did not produce offspring. The Genesis narratives give us the impression that polygyny was common. However, shorter life spans for women than for men (meaning a shortage of women of child-bearing age) and the fact that most people probably lived near the poverty level (meaning the inability of a family to support multiple wives) would have precluded polygyny for all but the wealthy. Indeed, many biblical texts, such as Genesis 2:24, the Song of Songs, several passages in wisdom literature, and even legal rulings such as Exodus 21:4–5, reflect a monogamous norm.
Although dissolution of a marriage was sometimes unavoidable, very little is known about provisions for divorce. Isaiah 50:1 mentions a bill of divorce (cf. Mal. 2:14, which refers to a marriage contract), indicating that formal documents were used for establishing or dissolving a marriage, although probably only for people of means. The sole biblical text with divorce rulings, Deuteronomy 24:1–4, addresses a particular situation, the case of a man seeking to remarry a woman to whom he had once been married. Unfortunately, it gives the impression that only men could initiate divorce in the biblical period. Information from extra-biblical sources (e.g., the Elephantine papyri) and indirect information from other biblical texts, such as the narrative of a Levite's secondary wife leaving him (Judg. 19:2), provide reason to contest that notion.
It would be incorrect to assume that women were subordinate to and dominated by men in all aspects of life. Indeed, with few resources available from outside the household, the relationship between a woman and her husband was one of interdependence and complementarity in the various functions of household life.
As the primary unit of social existence, the family household was the locus of the activities necessary for the maintenance and continuity of life. Family life was task-oriented; without the labor of both women and men, and also children, survival in the marginal habitat of the highlands of Ereẓ Israel would not have been possible. But the responsibilities of all family members were not the same. The division of labor by gender, albeit with some overlap, was the most efficient way to accomplish the myriad of household tasks. In addition to procreation, households served the economic, educational, and religious needs of their members.
Women's economic roles, which included growing field and horticultural crops and keeping domesticated ruminants (mainly sheep and goats), were manifold and complex. Although they participated to some extent in the male-dominated agricultural tasks of growing grains and also helped tend orchards and vineyards, especially in laborintensive harvest periods (see Ruth 2: 8–9), their own agricultural activities probably involved growing garden vegetables and herbs. Women's major contributions to the household economy were largely the time-consuming food- and fiberprocessing jobs, the former on a daily basis and the latter more likely on a seasonal basis. That is, the agricultural products of the household had to be transformed into edible and wearable form through the expertise and labor of women.
Cereal products were the most important food source in the biblical period, with bread providing an estimated 50% of the daily caloric intake. The transformation of grain into edible form involved parching or soaking, grinding, and heating and/or leavening. With an average family size of six persons, three hours of work per day would have been required to produce enough edible grain. With the assistance of older children, women did the work of bread production and also processed and prepared supplementary foodstuffs, mainly fruits, vegetables, and legumes and also dairy products. Some of these would have been eaten raw; but many, such as milk, olives, capers, grapes, nuts, figs, and dates, were also variously churned, pressed, pickled, roasted, or dried on a seasonal basis. Meat would have been eaten rarely, probably only at festivals.
The onerous nature of these food preparation tasks was offset by certain positive aspects. Unlike the often frustrating male tasks of growing field and horticultural crops, in which yields could be drastically affected by periodic droughts or infestations of insects, food preparation, even of limited amounts, always yielded a finished product. Thus, women experienced constant gratification from their daily work, repetitive as it was. Another positive feature was the mastery of technology involved, for the various food-processing procedures each involved considerable technical skill.
Just as important as the individual benefits were the social and political aspects of food preparation. Grinding implements are often found in clusters in the archaeological recovery of dwellings from the biblical period, indicating that women from neighboring households gathered together, undoubtedly to chat and sing, during the long hours spent preparing grains and other foods. The time spent together helped forge women into informal social networks in a way that the more solitary tasks performed by men did not. These networks also constituted a social safety net for Israelite women, facilitating assistance when illness or emergency threatened a neighboring household. Moreover, as is known from ethnographic studies of agrarian households in pre-modern settings, these networks operated on a political level as well. That is, women gained access to information that influenced community decisions made by male officials. Such indirect female political power is typically unrecognized but nonetheless real.
Women's economic roles extended beyond food processing. They gathered garden or wild herbs and plants to concoct medicinal substances used in folk remedies. Although sophisticated ceramic vessels may have been procured from traveling potters or urban workshops, women, perhaps several in a village, likely produced simple storage jars, cooking pots, and serving bowls for everyday use. However, perhaps the most important household activity, because of its potential for commercial activity beyond the household (see Prov. 31:13 and 24), was textile production.
Spinning, weaving, and sewing were woman's domain in the ancient Near East from time immemorial. The discovery in dwellings of the biblical period of spindle whorls, weights used in vertical, warp-weighted looms, and bone needles and weaving tools testify to the production of fabrics in Israelite households. Like grain processing, the procedures involved in making textiles were often time-consuming and tedious. It takes several hours of spinning, for example, to produce the amount of yarn or thread needed for an hour of weaving. Women in pre-modern cultures typically do textile work together; indeed, some of the procedures, such as weighting and even working a warp-weighted loom, were best done by women working in tandem. The personal, social, and political benefits that accrued to women (and their daughters) as transformers of food products were intensified by the shared experience of working with fibers to produce garments and coverings for their families and perhaps also for barter or sale.
The primary care of young children was the mother's responsibility. The child-care component of a woman's workday was subsumed into her daily obligations, no doubt with the assistance of older children and elderly parents. From a very young age, children assisted in household tasks, with women supervising offspring of both genders until boys were old enough to accompany their fathers into the fields. Given the absence of any formal or institutionalized education in the biblical period, except perhaps for a handful of upper-class urban males, women were the chief educators and socializers of both boys and girls in their early years and into adolescence. Fathers surely educated sons in the tasks and activities performed mainly by males. The educative roles of women are not very visible in the Bible, where the mention of sages and elders gives the impression of a male monopoly in teaching skills and inculcating traditional practices and beliefs. However, an understanding of the dynamics of an agrarian household indicates the prominence of women in this role.
A mother's educative role was hardly trivial. It involved instruction in the technologies of household life, in appropriate behavior (as reflected in many of the precepts in the book of Proverbs), and also in the transmission of culture and values more generally. However androcentric and upper-class Proverbs may be, it is nonetheless clear from the frequent parallelism of "mother" and "father" (1:8; 4:3; 6:20; 15:20; 19:26; 20:20; 23:22, 25; 28:24; 30:11, 17) that both parents had important educative roles. And because women had more contact hours with children, their interactions with offspring were of foundational significance in transmitting many aspects of Israelite culture from one generation to the next. It is hardly an accident that the very notion of "wisdom," which includes technical expertise as well as social sagacity, has important female aspects, arguably rooted in the broad role of women in caring for and socializing their children. Note that the biblical word for wisdom in the Bible, ḥokmah, is feminine; wisdom is personified as a woman in Proverbs (1:20–33; 3:13–18; 4: 1–9; 7:1–5; 8:1–36; 9:1–6; 14:1); the "strong woman" (eshet ḥayil) of Proverbs 31 is characterized as speaking wisdom and teaching kindness (verse 26); and two narratives feature "wise women" (ii Sam. 14:1–20; 20:14–22) with none featuring a "wise man."
A woman's educative role was not limited to the instruction of her own children. In the complex, multi-generational Israelite households, older women served as household managers, instructing their own children as well as daughters-inlaw and nieces in the array of tasks performed by women as well as in appropriate behaviors. The fifth commandment (Ex. 20:12 and Deut. 5:6) and the demanding (and probably idealized) family laws of Exodus 21:15, 17 and Leviticus 20:9, which were likely concerned with the behavior of adult children in multi-generational households, underscore the authority of both parents. This is in contrast to some ancient Near Eastern societies that apparently favored men over women in assigning authority over offspring. Another indication of female authority in household life is the fact that mothers predominate in the Bible as the ones who name their children. In light of women's extensive educative and managerial roles, the appearance of the phrase "mother's household (bet'em)" rather than the usual "father's household (bet av)" several times in the Bible is noteworthy. "Mother's household" appears in passages dealing with the internal life of the household (Gen. 24:28; Ruth 1:8; Songs 3:4; 8:2) and seems to indicate that women controlled most household activities (as in the case of the Shunammite woman, ii Kings 4:8–37; 8:1–6), whereas men controlled supra-household lineage interactions.
The predominance of women in household education and management may have been replicated in household religious roles. Although the Bible's focus is on temple or tabernacle and on national or communal practices, there are clear indications of family celebrations that punctuated the annual religious calendar. For example, Passover in its origins was likely a home-based spring festival involving specific kinds of food preparation; the other major festivals, similarly grounded in the agricultural calendar, no doubt involved family feasting. Household Sabbath traditions are difficult to trace back to the biblical period, but the manna provisions for the seventh day, as well as post-biblical sources, indicate festal meals were part of the holy day of rest. The domestic celebration of festivals and observance of Sabbath are inconceivable without special meals requiring women's culinary expertise and labor.
In addition, women undoubtedly participated in celebrations at shrines near their homes and even initiated cultic activity. The Hannah narrative is instructive in this regard (i Sam. 1–2). Hannah accompanies her husband and his secondary wife and their children to an annual sacrifice at the cult center of Shiloh. In addition, she comes "before the Lord" to make a vow and a sacrifice in the hopes of ending her barrenness. Although post-biblical textual traditions try to obfuscate her role, the Masoretic text clearly indicates that Hannah, having become pregnant and given birth to Samuel, fulfills her vow by bringing sacrifices to Shiloh. Although Deuteronomy 16:16 does not enjoin women to participate in the pilgrimage festivals in Jerusalem, they were not precluded from doing so. Moreover, other passages in Deuteronomy (e.g., 12:12; 16:11, 14) are gender-inclusive in their instructions for bringing sacrifices and celebrating at the central shrine. And dozens of priestly passages use the gender-inclusive term nefesh, indicating that women as well as men were mandated to offer certain sacrifices (see, e.g., Lev.2:1 and Num. 5:6).
The participation of women in extra-household religious life and in family celebrations was only part of their religious roles. Those religious activities carried out only by women, known through archaeological and ethnographic evidence, were arguably the most important aspects of women's religious lives. Women in pre-modern cultures typically coped with the many problems related to childbearing, which today would be dealt with by medicine, through behaviors that might be termed "magic" but were clearly religious in nature. Facing the possibility of barrenness, childbirth complications, difficulty in lactation, and high infant mortality rates (as many as one in two infants did not survive to the age of five), women performed a variety of rituals in order to keep away the evil spirits thought to be the cause of problems and to attract benevolent ones to assure reproductive success. Many of these apotropaic practices, such as wearing shiny amulets or eye beads to avert the "evil eye," tying a red thread around the wrist or ankle of newborn (cf. Gen. 38:28, where such a thread is a marker), keeping a light burning in a birthing room or place where an infant sleeps, salting and swaddling a newborn (see Ezek. 16:4), continued into the post-biblical period and are found in Muslim and Christian as well as Jewish families well into the 20th century.
Women's household religious praxis can be understood to have empowered them in respect to their concerns about life-and-death matters. Their religious activities focused on the welfare of their families and themselves. Women were ritual experts, for they possessed the requisite knowledge to perform rituals in a prescribed and efficacious way using specific materials and artifacts. Such knowledge was transmitted across generations by older women to younger ones, just as experienced priests educated younger ones in the intricacies of communal ritual. Moreover, household rituals dealing with childbirth were carried out for women by women, including neighbors, relatives, and sometimes midwives (i Sam. 4:20; cf. Ruth 4:13–17). Women's religious practices were profoundly important components of their adult lives.
The midwives who assisted Israelite women in childbirth were religious specialists as well as health-care practitioners, since prayers and potions are part of the culture of childbirth in traditional societies. Other female religious specialists may have included temple servitors (Ex. 38:8; i Sam.2:22). There were surely diviners, as is apparent from the strong anti-divination passage in Ezekiel 13:17–23 addressed to a group of female prophets. Yet not all female prophets were viewed so negatively. Miriam (Ex. 15:20) and Deborah (Judg. 4:4), two of the most prominent women in the Bible, are called prophets, as are Huldah, the first person to issue a ruling establishing the authenticity of a text as God's word (ii Kings 22:14–16), and Noadiah, a leader of the postexilic community (Neh. 6:14). Many other religious specialists are reviled, as in the gender-inclusive denunciations in Leviticus 19:31; 20:6, 27; Deuteronomy 18:11, a sure sign that women's services were being utilized. Women served as necromancers, mediating between dead ancestors and their living relatives, as the story of the medium of Endor (i Sam. 28:7–25) suggests. Women also were sorcerers and are specifically condemned as such (Ex. 22:18; cf. Isa. 57:3).
Other female professionals, less explicitly religious, are also mentioned in the Bible. Deborah is a "judge," a charismatic military leader, as well as a prophet. The wise women of Tekoa and Abel help resolve national crises. Troops of female musicians appear in several instances in which military victory attributed to divine intervention in human affairs is celebrated (Ex. 15:21; i Sam. 18:6–7; ii Sam. 1:20; Ps. 68:25; Jer. 31:4,13). These cases reflect a special musical genre, unique to women, involving drums, dancing, and singing. Women as well as men are mentioned as professional singers (ii Sam. 19:35; Ezra 2:65; Neh. 7:67; Eccl. 2:8; 12:4) and perhaps even temple singers (i Chron. 25:5–6). As is true in many traditional societies, women were deemed more expert in mourning rituals than men (Jer. 9:17–20; Ezek. 32:16). And some women, perhaps those unable to support themselves in any other way, are depicted as prostitutes, an occupation condemned in priestly texts but viewed matter-of-factly in narratives about the heroines Rahab (Josh. 2,5) and Tamar (Gen. 38), and the two women who brought their dispute to Solomon (I Kings 3:16–28).
These varied professional activities are noteworthy because they negate the image of women as confined to the household. In addition, recognizing their existence has important implications for understanding the lives of the women engaged in these occupations on a part-time or full-time basis. Many of these professional specialists, including musicians and singers, mourning women, wise women, and even midwives and prophets, functioned in groups or were connected to each other in loose, guild-like associations. The "daughters" learning dirges in Jeremiah 9:20 and wailing over Saul in ii Samuel 1:24 are analogous to "sons" in the phrase "sons [company; disciples] of the prophets" (e.g., ii Kings 5:22; 6:1) in that they constituted a guild of professional mourning women. The biblical silence about other such groups does not mean that they did not exist; informal organizations of women with technical expertise in certain areas, such as birthing or healing, are found widely in ancient cultures, including in neighboring Mesopotamia and Anatolia. These women would gather occasionally or even at regular intervals to share knowledge, train newer members of their group, and, in the case of musical professions, compose songs and rehearse in preparation for performances.
Membership in such groups, which typically are organized hierarchically with senior or more talented members earning the esteem of the others and exercising control of group functions, provided women with opportunities to experience prestige and status. Moreover, whether they functioned in groups or as individuals, female professionals provided necessary services for their communities. In so doing, they had the opportunity to experience the benefits of contributing to the public weal. Moreover, those whose roles were performative, as ethnomusicologists have shown, were likely to have subverted or suspended existing hierarchies during performances by virtue of the rhetorical power of their expressive acts. It is noteworthy that societies in which women have rich opportunities for extra-household association are generally considered the least repressive with respect to gender.
The term "patriarchy" has not been used in this discussion of women in the biblical period. To be sure, Israelite society was both patrilocal and patrilineal: the major public offices were held mainly by men; and men controlled women's sexuality. Yet the conventional wisdom about pervasive male, or patriarchal, dominance in hierarchical structures affecting all domains of Israelite life can be disputed. If "patriarchy" means that men dominate or monopolize all the pursuits that a society most values, then it is incumbent to ask whether all members of a society value the same pursuits and also whether women themselves have important or even autonomous roles in relation to those pursuits.
Power in pre-modern communities is hardly unitary. There were multiple loci of power in Israelite society, with women as well as men shaping household and community life. The gendered spheres of life within the household, except for sexuality, can be considered complementary rather than hierarchical; men controlled certain activities and subsistence tasks, women had sole expertise and responsibility in others, and some were shared. Furthermore, the existence of female professionals means that there were women's groups with their own hierarchies and that women functioned in public roles, some of which, including mourning, midwifery, certain types of musical performances, perhaps sorcery, were largely or exclusively female.
Anthropologists studying pre-modern societies who are dissatisfied with the shortcomings of existing models of sociocultural complexity have suggested that heterarchy rather than hierarchy is a better way to understand complex traditional societies. The term heterarchy refers to an organizational pattern in which "each element possesses the potential of being unranked (relative to other elements) or ranked in different ways, depending on systemic requirements." Social systems can be related to each other laterally as well as vertically. In this conceptualization, the activities of Israelite women can be considered subsystems, each with its own rankings and statuses. Especially in professional groups but also in informal networks, women exercised leadership and dominance vis-àvis other women in the system. Looking at women's systems, along with those of men, as constituents of the heterarchical complexity of Israelite society rescues women from the notion of oppression, as implied by the term patriarchy, and allows a more nuanced reading of their lives.
[Carol Meyers (2nd ed.)]
The authors who left their imprint on history did not view post-biblical Jewish women as equal to men, just as they were not viewed as equal in the Greco-Roman, Semitic, Egyptian, or Persian societies in which Jews lived. The difference between Jews and their neighbors is to be found in the explanations offered for women's lower status. Jews of late antiquity located the origins of female inequality in the narratives and injunctions of the Hebrew Bible. Women's subordinate position was understood as a consequence of Eve's role in Genesis 2:4–3, both as a secondary creation and as guilty of the original sin. Thus, the second century b.c.e. Jerusalemite sage Ben Sira accuses all women of bringing death to the world, obviously referring to the incident in the Garden of Eden (Ecclus. 25:24), and a Jewish pseudepigraphic composition, usually referred to as the Book of Adam and Eve, further elaborates this theme. Later midrashic literature continues in the same vein. Women are said to be punished for bringing death into the world: they suffer while giving birth, are subjected to their husbands (as already suggested in Genesis 3:16), and confined at home as in a prison, and must cover their heads when they go out (Avot de Rabbi Nathanb, 42). Their function at funerals (preparing the body, mourning the dead) are understood as consequence of their responsibility for human mortality. Even the special commandments reserved for women – lighting the Sabbath candles, setting aside the #x1E25;allah portion, and the laws pertaining to menstruation (niddah) – are viewed as retribution for that sin (e.g. Gen. R. 17:8).
Contemporary concerns and Hellenistic influence merged with the biblical justification for women's subordination. In one midrash the rabbis compared the biblical story of the creation of women with the Greek Pandora myth, which also depicted woman as a secondary creation who released all evils, including death into the world, when she opened a forbidden box. In the midrashic version, Eve is compared to a woman whose husband gave her all his property save one barrel, which she was not to open. Yet, she could not contain her curiosity, opened it, and unloosed scorpions and snakes (Gen. R. 19:10). The rabbis compare this anecdote to the story of Adam and Eve, who were told to eat from all trees except the tree of knowledge. However, Eve ate from it and consequently she and Adam and all their descendants experienced suffering.
Jewish women's secondary legal position also has its origins in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in injunctions in the legal sections of the Pentateuch. However, biblical law was of Semitic origin, and reflected a society that upheld polygyny and bride-price marriages. Internal developments, however, as well as influence from Greek and Roman practice, tended toward monogyny and dowry marriages. Thus, some biblical injunctions associated with women were reevaluated and reformed.
Numbers 27 (1–11) discusses the daughter's right in her father's inheritance. The daughters of Zelophad had no brothers, and demanded of Moses the right to inherit. Moses recognized the justice of their claim and ruled in their favor, but his decision clearly stated that Jewish daughters could inherit from their fathers only where there are no sons and if they married within their own tribe (Num. 36:10). Although this ruling is often upheld as an example of an emendation favoring women in biblical law, it was certainly not egalitarian (since it denied other daughters the right to inherit). It also prevented further egalitarian legislation in this field in late antiquity, since the Bible itself made a clear distinction between sons and daughters. Thus, Second Temple Pharisees, in their legal dispute with their Sadducees opponent (tj, bb 8:1, 16a), zealously upheld this ruling as the final word on the matter. Their opponents, on the other hand, were probably influenced by the Greco-Roman world, in which women were equal heirs to their fathers. They claimed that this law is unfair, and therefore could not reflect the divine intention. Their reliance on the sages of the gentiles (ḥakhmei goyim) is stated explicitly in the source. Yet the Pharisee position won the day.
*Levirate marriage is the obligation of a childless widow to marry her dead husband's brother, discussed in Deuteronomy 25:5–9. The rabbis of late antiquity maintained this institution and an entire tractate in the Mishnah (Yevamot) is devoted to its intricacies. The Talmuds greatly praise Rabbi Yose, who took his sister-in-law in levirate marriage (e.g. tj, Yev. 1:1,2b). However, the Bible also includes, albeit grudgingly, a move to release the levirate bride from her levir. This action is called ḥaliẓah, and requires a ritual in which the reluctant levir is denigrated – his rejected intended spits in his face and removes his shoe. Despite praise for levirate marriage, its practice was almost completely abandoned by the end of the second century c.e., as it often clashed with a tendency toward monogyny, at least in the Land of Israel. One talmudic text suspects all levirate matches as emanating from lust of the partners, and likens the offspring of such unions to bastards (mamzerim – Yev. 39b). The rabbis ceased to view this release ritual as a negative dereliction of duty and maintained that in their day ḥaliẓah was the norm rather than the exception. Thus, we see how in some cases post-biblical Judaism maintained biblical law without maintaining its spirit.
Some biblical laws concerning women were greatly expanded. One such example is the laws of menstruation (*niddah), which are discussed in Leviticus 15:19–24. It is not clear whether these laws originally applied to the entire female population. Some scholars maintain that they were intended for the separation and special elevation of the priestly caste. During the Second Temple period, however, the laws of niddah were strictly upheld by most segments of Jewish society and greatly elaborated upon by the rabbis in the Mishnah. They state specifically that members of the Sadducee sect and of the Samaritan denomination observed these rites differently (Nid. 4:1–2), obviously indicating that control of women and their actions was a site of sectarian struggle. After the destruction of the Temple, most purity regulations were abandoned. Niddah regulations, however, were upheld and even expanded. For example, the rabbis demanded that a woman examine her internal parts often, to discover whether she was or was not bleeding. This is because they maintained that everything a woman touches between one examination, when she discovered herself pure, and the next, when she was found to be menstruating, is retroactively defiled (Nid. 1:1). They demanded that women who had ceased to bleed at the end of their menstrual periods further refrain from immersion in the ritual bath (mikveh) and sexual intercourse with their husbands for seven additional "clean" (or "white") days, to ensure absolutely that they would not defile (Nid. 33a). This phenomenon suggests a significant rabbinic anxiety over ritual impurity in the marital context and women's unruly biological functions in general.
Another biblical institution was the test of the bitter water (sotah), according to which a wife suspected of infidelity could be tested by a magical procedure in the Jerusalem Temple (Num. 5). In this ritual the woman was brought to the priest who revealed her hair, tore her clothes and made her drink water mixed with earth and ink. This test, so it was believed, would reveal the woman's guilt. The ritual was still practiced in Second Temple times, but was strongly criticized and perhaps even abandoned altogether toward the end of the period. Rabban *Johanan ben Zakkai, an important rabbi of the last generation before the destruction of the Temple, is reported to have secured the abandonment of this practice (Mish., Sot. 9:9). Whether the report is correct or is a retroactive projection on earlier times is not clear. In any case, the problematic nature of this institution may be reflected in the fact that the biblical text of the sotah was inscribed on a golden tablet and donated to the Temple toward the middle of the first century b.c.e. This donation came from an influential Jewish convert and foreign queen – Helene of Adiabene – probably as a political statement on the sotah debate (Mish., Yoma 3:10). This does not mean, necessarily, that women supported the procedure, while men (like Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai) rejected it. It suggests, more likely, that this woman – Helene – and this man – Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai – were to be found on different sides of the debate. In any case, after the destruction of the Temple the institution was often viewed as ineffective. Guilty women, it was maintained, could withstand the test if they had a meritorious past (Sot. 3:4). The water also tested men who were accused of the same transgressions (Sot. 5:1). This literary trend indicates that rabbinic texts represent Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai's side of this debate.
Many issues associated with women's legal and social status simply are not dealt with in biblical legislation and significant innovations occurred in Second Temple and talmudic Judaism. Thus, according to rabbinic sources, the rabbinic leader *Simeon ben Shetaḥ, instituted the Jewish marriage contract, the ketubbah, during the Second Temple period (Tosef., Ket. 12:1; tj, Ket. 8:11, 32b–c; tb, Ket. 82b). The meaning of this innovation was that several of the woman's rights in marriage were made legally binding by a written document, including financial support for the widow and divorcée. Marriage contracts were produced by some of the societies with which the Jews came in contact, such as the Greeks. Furthermore, we know that marriage contracts were a reality and not a rabbinic fiction, because contemporaneous Jewish marriage documents were discovered in the Judean Desert in the mid-20th century. Although all of these documents were written for Jews, they are diverse in nature and are written in Aramaic or in Greek. They also display a plethora of traits that are incompatible with the rabbinic ketubbah but can be easily traced to Greek and Roman legal tradition. These documents, most of which predate the Mishnah by several decades, attest to the early legal and historical origins of the rabbinic institution of the ketubbah, even as they reveal alternative literary models.
Some scholars speculate that women may have held some sacred offices in the First Temple. However, with the final victory of monotheism in Judaism at the beginning of the Second Temple period (early sixth century b.c.e.), women were completely excluded from officiating in Jewish cultic practices. Their secondary role in the cultus was exemplified by the existence of a women's court in the Jerusalem Temple, beyond which women were not allowed to proceed into the holy precincts unless they were bringing a special sacrifice (Jos., War 5:198–99, Mish., Mid. 2:5–6). Furthermore, women had no official role in the Temple staff. The only mention of women in association with the running of the Temple is that of weavers of the Temple veil (Syrian Baruch Apocalypse 10:19; Tosef., Shek. 2:6). Weaving in general was a traditional feminine occupation, and women weavers producing sacred garments were present in many Greek Temples at the time. Nevertheless, in our sources, even this minor appearance of women on the scene of the Temple was played down. Thus, while the Tosefta clearly mentions the women weavers (Tosef., Shek. 2:6), its more authoritative counterpart, the Mishnah, mentions only the male supervisor of these activities in a parallel passage (Mish., Shek. 5:1).
After the destruction of the Second Temple, the exclusion of women from Jewish religious activities continued within rabbinic legislation, which exempted them from virtually all time-bound commandments, including daily prayer, the wearing of phylacteries, residing in the Sukkah, and going on pilgrimages (Mish., Kid. 1:7). These commandments, as opposed to others which are not time-bound, are clearly cultic in nature. Women's exclusion from them meant their expulsion from Jewish cultic life.
However, outside the official Temple cult, women were not legally barred from any office and took part in various public functions. This can be exemplified foremost by the fact that in Second Temple times a female member of the Hasmonean dynasty served as queen (Alexandra *Salome (Shelomẓiyyon); 76–67 b.c.e. – Jos., Ant. 13:407–32). She inherited the throne from her husband (in the same way that contemporaneous Egyptian-Ptolemaic queens gained their thrones). In an earlier episode, *Josephus (the main historical source for the queen's reign) tells us that Shelomẓiyyon's father-in-law had also attempted to appoint his wife as heir some 30 years earlier, although his attempt failed when his son seized power and had the queen executed (Jos., Ant. 13:302). From this we may surmise that there was a struggle within the Hasmonean dynasty between those who maintained that the queen should succeed her husband and others who believed it was a son's right. Queenship was obviously a secular office, but it is significant that a woman held this office because the monarch (in this case Shelomẓiyyon) was hierarchically positioned above the religious establishment. Thus, it was the queen who nominated the high priest, and not vice versa. Not surprisingly, Shelom#x1E93;iyyon nominated her elder son to the office.
Following the destruction of the Second Temple (and in the Diaspora even during its existence), the synagogue took over the many of the cultic functions of the Temple. Since the synagogue was not included in the biblical cultic system, exclusion of women from communal and religious participation was not yet entrenched. Inscriptional evidence, particularly from the Diaspora, reveals that some women carried titles such as *archisynagogos (head of synagogue), presbyter (elder), or mater synagogos (mother of the synagogue), apparently indicating that women played central synagogue roles alongside men.
Alternative religious outlets were also available to women during Second Temple times. For example, they took an active interest in the programs of Jewish sects and could join some as full-fledged members. Philo describes the Diaspora ascetic sect of the *Therapeutics. This Jewish-Egyptian group chose to withdraw from human society and live a life of contemplation in the desert. It consisted of both male and female members, whose burdens and responsibilities were of equal value. The nature of the interaction between the sexes in that sect can be described as "equal but separate" (Philo, De Vita Contemplativa).
The Pharisee sect seems to have encouraged women's involvement and support. They were sponsored not just by the Hasmonean queen Shelom#x1E93;iyyon but also by Herodian women and by women of the high-priestly families. Probably too, women were not just sympathetic supporters but active members of the group. Thus, rabbinic texts dealing with the ḥavurah (apparently the Pharisee table-fellowship) indicate that equal demands were made of men and women (Tosef., Dem. 2:16–17). The invisibility of women in Pharisaism, reflected in most rabbinic texts, results from an androcentric authorship, as well as a deliberate attempt by later rabbis to erase women's presence and, indeed, all sectarian characteristics from the earlier Pharisees.
Women may also have been involved in the activities of the *Dead Sea Sect. Dead Sea scrolls mention women elders and female scribes. They also discuss in detail laws applying to all the family and one document describes the responsibility of the sectarian wife to give evidence against her husband in cases were his behavior transgresses sectarian law (see below). Female skeletons, discovered in the cemetery of Qumran, were probably those of members of the Dead Sea Sect buried in the communal cemetery.
It is likely that women were active participants in the various sectarian organizations that fomented the revolt against Rome in the years 66–73 c.e., of which the *Zealots were but one. Most of our evidence for women's participation in these groups refers to the company that followed *Simon bar Giora. We hear both that women constituted part of his entourage (Jos., War, 4:505) and that his wife was one of his constant companions (ibid., 4:538). But more circumstantial evidence is also available. Both the Jewish writer Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus refer to women who joined in the fighting against Rome (Jos., War 3:303; Tacitus, Histories 5, 13:3). Women were present on Masada and took part in the famous suicide pact practiced by the defenders of the rock (ibid., 7:393). Furthermore, women served as prime role models in the two main ideological innovations of the Zealot movement of the revolt against Rome. The first was personal zealotry, in which an individual aided his or her community by assassinating a public figure. The best literary example of such an action is the female heroine *Judith, who, by slaying the general Holofernes, delivered her people from foreign conquest. The second ideology typical of the zealot movement was the idea of self-inflicted martyrdom, namely suicide rather than subjugation to the enemy. This was practiced by Jews throughout the war against Rome and is nowhere better exemplified than on Masada. The only literary role model for this action from Second Temple times is the mother of the seven Maccabean martyrs, portrayed in the fourth book of Maccabees. In this later composition, the mother chooses to take her own life rather than subject herself to the will of the Greek ruler (iv Macc. 17:1).
Finally, there is little doubt that Jewish women became important supporters of the Jesus movement prior to the Crucifixion. Jesus' followers included women, and when he was arrested, and all his male supporters deserted him, it was women who cared for his burial, and were thus the first witnesses to his resurrection. These women, it should be remembered, were Jewish and not Christian, and their story belongs to Jewish history.
Women's support for sectarian organizations and nascent religious and ideological movements is a universal social phenomenon. Within Second Temple Judaism, such affiliation was a means of social and vocational expression for marginalized groups, such as women, who were barred from participating in the official power and influence systems. However, once sects like the Pharisees and Christians achieved political success, they not only legislated against women's holding positions of equality and power but also attempted to erase any traces of the central roles women had once played.
Women are frequently portrayed in late antique Jewish sources as exercising magical power; they are accused of being witches and practicing sorcery (e.g. tj, Sanh. 7:19, 25d; tb, Sanh. 67a). Most stories of witchcraft and magicians in rabbinic literature focus on women: one tradition mentions a female leader of sorceresses (TB, Pes. 110a), while another tells of a woman whose healing powers are a guild secret (tj, Shab. 14:4, 14d). This association of women with the occult by male writers in androcentric sources may reflect unsympathetic interpretations and misunderstandings of women's religious and even professional activities, of which we now know very little. Women's intensive involvement in the medical profession, as well as their roles as midwives and cooks, gave them knowledge of herbs and chemical processes, adding to their expertise as potential healers. When their healing efforts were unsuccessful, however, these failures could be represented as malicious malpractice, sorcery, and poisoning. At one point in Second Temple history this disparaging attitude toward women's activity seems to have erupted into a full-scale witch-hunt. This event, which probably took place during the reign of Queen Shelomẓiyyon, is recorded laconically in rabbinic literature. The Mishnah states simply that Simeon ben Shetaḥ (apparently Shelomẓiyyon's Pharisee advisor) hanged 80 women in Ashkelon (Mish., Sanh. 6:4). The Jerusalem Talmud, however, specifically identifies the women as witches (Sanh. 6:9,23c). Since witch-hunts are a universal phenomenon, a historical kernel for this story seems certain.
In fact, very few Jewish women frequented public places or filled important offices in late antiquity. Although the sources exerted considerable energy to bring this minority of independent and assertive women under male control, most Jewish women were engaged in home-based activities. For these women the sources are both prescriptive and descriptive.
The most complete literary corpus dealing with women's position in Judaism in antiquity is found in the Order of Women (Nashim) in the Mishnah (edited ca. 200 c.e.). This collection is an attempt to organize neatly the messy issue of patriarchal control of women in Jewish law. As a consequence, rabbinic literature, particularly the Mishnah, is more restrictive toward women's participation in public and private life than the picture of actual life that seems to emerge from Second Temple sources. For example, rabbinic literature excludes women altogether as witnesses in a court of law (rh 1:8; Sif. Deut. 190). During the Second Temple period, however, women apparently did serve in such a capacity. In the Dead Sea sect, for example, one text suggests that wives were encouraged to give evidence against their husbands in the sect's tribunal (1qsa 1:10–11). This was not a very feminist piece of legislation, since it was intended to distill in female as well as male members the priority of loyalty for the sect over loyalty for one's spouse. Yet, it indicates that the rejection of women as witnesses, later considered a time honored Jewish tradition, was unknown to the Dead Sea sect. Similarly, in descriptions of Herod's court women are often portrayed as giving evidence in important trials (e.g. Jos., Ant. 17:65).
Divorce constitutes another example. The right to divorce in the Bible, described incidentally as part of the law that forbids a man to remarry his wife after she was married to another (Deut. 24:1–4), does not give the husband the absolute prerogative to dissolve a marriage. Rabbinic literature, however, constructs divorce as a unilateral action, reserved to the husband alone (Mish., Git. 9:3). Nevertheless, one of the documents discovered in the Judaean Desert seems to indicate that outside of rabbinic circles women could and did initiate divorce proceedings. In this document a woman by the name of Shelomẓiyyon, daughter of Joseph of Ein Gedi, sends her husband, Eleazar son of Hananiah, a document terminating their marriage. The words she uses to describe the transaction are "a bill of divorce and release," just as in the mishnaic text (Git. 9:3). This document is one example of how reading rabbinic literature alone as a reflection of Jewish social reality in late antiquity may distort our view.
The codification of rabbinic sources also brought about a tightening of control over women within rabbinic circles themselves. The entire corpus of rulings associated with the House of Shammai was rejected wholesale by the descendents of the House of Hillel who edited the Mishnah. While the Shammaitic corpus may, in general, have displayed a more somber view of life, it likewise represented a more benign view of the position of women in Judaism. Thus, the House of Shammai supported a woman's right to run her business transactions independently (Ket. 8:1) and argued for the reliability of a widow's testimony regarding the death of her husband, demanding a full payment of her wedding settlement into the bargain (Ed. 1:12). And since Bet Shammai accepted the unilateral nature of rabbinic divorce, they protected women by limiting considerably the grounds on which a husband could sue for divorce (Git. 9:10).
Other examples of the curtailment of women's rights within rabbinic literature are found in the early rabbinic composition Sifrei Deuteronomy, usually assigned to the influential school of Rabbi Akiva. In its insistence that various nouns in the Hebrew Bible that could be understood collectively should be understood as referring only to males, Sifrei Deuteronomy exempted women from a large number of roles and activities. For example, it interpreted the phrase "and you shall teach them to your sons" [rather than the alternate reading "to your children"] (Deut. 11:19) to mean that the Torah viewed only sons but not daughter as entitled to learn Torah (Sif. Deut. 46). Likewise the biblical words, "You shall set up a king over you" (Deut. 17:14) were understood as ruling queenship illegal (Sif. Deut. 157). Interestingly, the same composition mentions with great admiration the queenship of Queen Shelomẓiyyon (Sif. Deut. 42). Such contradictions, however, are hardly surprising within a literature that was in the process of transforming itself in new directions and attempting to conceal earlier practices.
Rabbinic literature, however, is not uniform, and a tightening of control over women may be evident in one of its compositions, while the reverse may be detected in another. Judith Hauptman has shown that while the Mishnah is restrictive, careful reading of its sister collection of legal traditions, the Tosefta, can reveal a less rigid attitude toward women's position. For example, while the Mishnah reserves procreation as a commandment to men alone, the Tosefta can envision a situation where women are equally commanded to fulfill it. Unlike the Mishnah, however, the more benign Tosefta never became canonized and its rulings never became law.
The rabbis who composed rabbinic literature were, in the main, scholars who envisioned a society that valued learning above all. Learning became an important status symbol and a means of achieving social mobility that endowed its initiates with social privileges. Men were encouraged to learn Torah and become literate. For this reason, the rabbis' attitude toward women's literacy and the learning of Torah is of special importance. To begin with, rabbinic literature displays some ambivalence on this question. The Mishnah presents the issue as a dispute between two sages in which one rabbi is specifically quoted as supportive of teaching daughters Torah (Sot. 3:4). The more lenient Tosefta even suggests that women were not altogether absent from rabbinic academies. Thus, a woman by the name of Beruriah is mentioned as formulating a halakhic principle (Tosef., bm 1:6). However, by the time that the Babylonian Talmud came to be composed the idea of a female students was so unusual that the rabbis transformed Beruriah into a superhuman scholar (tb, Pes. 62b). At the same time, their restrictive policy toward the freedom and independence of women in all walks of life eventually won the day in this field as well, and women were exempted and then barred from all participation in Jewish learning (see in particular tb, Kid. 30a). This meant, of course, that throughout Jewish history Jewish women have produced very little written evidence and have, for the most part, remained mute to us.
In most respects, late antique Jewish attitudes towards women, with small nuances, conformed to larger social norms in the cultures in which Jews thrived. While it is difficult to know the extent to which the attitudes and practices codified in rabbinic writings were actually realized in the various environments in which Jews lived, one can confidently state that the idealized society delineated in rabbinic literature is patriarchal and androcentric. Women are constructed as second class dependents whom are generally under the aegis of a male relative. Independent women of means, such as widows and divorcées, were seen as potentially disruptive and social custom strongly encouraged their remarriage and return to male control.
[Tal Ilan (2nd ed.)]
The lives of Jewish women in regions under Islamic rule were influenced in many ways by the social mores of Muslim culture. Polygamy and concubines, for example, permitted under Islamic law, were also features of Jewish family life. While Jewish women of prosperous families were not literally isolated in women's quarters as were Muslim women of comparable social status, community norms dictated that the woman's place was in the home. In addition, reports indicate that Jewish women wore black veils outside the home so as not to be distinguished from Muslim women. In some countries, the robes and pants women donned were quite similar to those of the men, but the veil revealed their gender.
Although available information for the early days of Islam is rather limited, sources refer to two unusual Jewish women of this era. A poet from Yemen named Sarah was apparently a contemporary of the prophet Mohammed (570–632); she was said to have been a guerilla fighter who was murdered by a Muslim agent. One of her extant poems in Arabic, recorded in Kitab l-Aghani, a 10th-century collection edited by Abu al-Faraj al-Isbahani, immortalizes the infamous massacre of the Jewish tribe, the Banu *Qurayza, by Arab forces.
Dahia Al-*Kahina, a convert to Judaism, led North African Berber tribes who thwarted the Arab military in its first attempt to conquer the Maghreb at the end of the seventh century. The details of her policies are rather muddled as are the dates of her rule, but she apparently destroyed settlements under her own sovereignty in the mistaken hope of dissuading the Arabs from pursuing a second attack from the south. In the long run, the Arabs triumphed and gained access to all of North Africa and eventually to Spain. However, until this defeat, Dahia was a successful ruler of Byzantines, Jews, and Christians in the region for a considerable amount of time. Arab historians record the defeat of this Berber Jewish queen; in his 14th-century accounts, Ibn Khaldun glorified the remarkable victory of Islam over this "cruel" monarch.
With the conquest of Spain in 711, Arab culture strongly shaped the subsequent development of the Spanish Jewish community. Poetry flourished, first in Arabic and later in Hebrew, and a few examples of women who were proficient in this art survive. Qasmunah of Andalusia was adept in writing verses in the genre known as muwashshaḥ, a rather difficult style because of the frequent variations that are part of its format, rhyme, and meter. Her writings reflect not only a familiarity with Arabic poetry, but display intelligence, cultivation, and originality. Her father trained her in the art of writing poems in this genre; his technique was to compose a line by himself and then challenge her to complete the verse with her own complementary line. The father is recorded as Ishma'il Ibn Bagdalah and it is possible that this name is a distorted version of Ibn Nagrilla, or *Samuel ha-Nagid (993–1055), who is known to have had a daughter.
The majority of available source material concerning medieval Jewish women in the Muslim world is found in the documents of the Cairo *Genizah (950–1250). Painstaking reconstruction of Genizah fragments that began in 1947 and ended in 1984 have demonstrated that the wife of *Dunash ben Labrat, the 10th-century poet who initiated the use of Arabic poetic forms in Hebrew, was also a poet in her own right in Spain. Her reconstructed poem begins, "From the wife of Dunash ben Labrat, to him." In a tragic and nobly restrained style, it refers to a forced separation between a husband and his wife and infant son; promises of faithfulness and love abound. In his reply, Ben Labrat refers to his wife as "an erudite woman like you." Ezra Fleisher has recounted the tale of this reconstruction as well as what is known of the authors; he suggests that this nameless woman might well be the first known proficient female Hebrew poet (E. Fleisher, "On Dunash Ben Labrat and His Wife and His Son," Jerusalem Research in Hebrew Literature, 5 (1984), 189–202 (Heb.)).
A similarly fascinating reconstruction from Genizah fragments was achieved by Joseph Yahalom and Edna Engel concerning the life of another Jewish woman from the upper echelons of society, in this case a convert from a wealthy French Catholic family who married David Narbonne, a respected member of an elite Jewish family from Provence in the second half of the 11th century. Her conversion to Judaism infuriated her Catholic relatives, so the couple crossed the Pyrenees into Spain to avoid their wrath. Narbonne and his wife eventually settled in Manyo, but as fate would have it, this community suffered a pogrom; Narbonne was murdered in the synagogue and two of the couple's children were taken captive. The community provided the widow with a loan to redeem her children and a letter of recommendation to fellow Jews in other communities to come to her aid. A second letter continues her saga. The convert remarried but was still being pursued by her relatives. The latter eventually located her, at which time she was incarcerated and sentenced to death. A daring rescue was carried out, the prison guards were bribed, and this woman was whisked away from her cell in the dead of night. Since these documents were found in the Cairo Genizah, one assumes that she eventually sought refuge in Egypt where her Christian family would have no standing. It is admirable to see how the Jewish communities in Spain supported this woman, giving her loans and letters to enable her survival despite the fact that she was essentially an outsider, a non-Spanish convert to Judaism (E. Engel, "The Wanderings of a Convert from Provence" (Heb.) and Y. Yahalom, "The Manyo Epistles: The Handwriting of a Rural Scribe from Northern Spain" (Heb.), Sefunot, 7 (1999), 13–21; 23–33).
While most of the information from the Cairo Genizah repository concerns the Jews of medieval Fustat (Old Cairo), Genizah sources also document a larger Mediterranean society. This was due to the mobility of numerous members of this community and their ongoing contacts with Jews in Yemen, India, North Africa, and Spain. S.D. Goitein translated the letter of a medieval trader from Fustat who traveled between Aden and India after having lost all of his initial investment in a shipwreck. His wife, and especially her father, felt that he had more or less abandoned her, and one of their missives asks that he send her a divorce writ. His long letter of reply, in which he defended his personal conduct and emphasized his own suffering, alluded to letters from his wife which had been characterized by frequent rebukes. Another letter translated by Goitein contains information about a merchant who left a concubine and son behind in his travels, making no provisions for them; presumably these were not unusual occurrences. Some men were absent for lengthy periods of time, and their wives and other members of the family begged them to return and rejoin the family. Rabbis such as Maimonides were quite concerned with husbands who abandoned their wives and families, often because they had wed other women and begun parallel families elsewhere.
While the men, in their role as merchants, did the majority of the traveling, some women had to leave their homes because of marital alliances and visits to family members who resided elsewhere; often the kebira or matron of the family was sent on a mission that could only be entrusted to her. Genizah documents refer to a woman who had fled from the land of Israel during the Crusades and who appealed to the congregation for aid during services, stopping the prayers at the permitted time as was acceptable for those whose cases were urgent and needed to be brought to immediate attention. In a letter stamped with the caliph's seal, a wealthy matron admonishes emissaries assigned to bring funds to the Holy Land not to delay their journey but to set forth immediately to alleviate the suffering of those in need of support.
Women were concerned with education and sometimes they themselves were rather literate. Joel Kraemer has unearthed numerous letters from the Genizah written by women. While some of these might have been dictated to scribes, the custom of paying a professional to stylize a letter was common for both men and women and does not necessarily establish literacy or illiteracy on the part of the sender. Many of the discovered letters allow us to hear the voices of women whose language was not necessarily as elegant as that of the men, but whose messages were clear and direct, often reflecting a respectable level of literacy.
Some women had dowries that included writing tables and others left instructions in their wills for their sons as well as their daughters to be given private lessons. A question posed to Maimonides referred to a group of girls receiving lessons from a paid teacher; the girls had apparently been misbehaving and had vexed their blind teacher who swore he would never teach them again.
As traditional as Genizah society appeared to be, nonetheless there were women who diverged from the norm. In the 12th century, the daughter of Samuel ben Ali of Baghdad, a Babylonian gaon, taught at her father's yeshivah in a modest fashion. She was reported to have had expertise in Scripture and Talmud.
At the same time, a study of two responsa by Maimonides reveals the story of an impoverished woman in 12th-century Cairo who was desperately trying to care for two children while her husband was absent for long periods of time. She found a solution by teaching in a school run by her brother. She continued in her capacity at the school even after her brother also left the city, indicating that she was respected for her abilities.
The community's vote of confidence in her teaching was manifested by the fact that the parents of the pupils continued to bring their children to her school even though they had other alternatives. The uniqueness of this set of responsa lies in the fact that one hears both sides of the story. The husband first asked the court if he could have permission to marry a second wife, although their marriage contract clearly stated that he could not do so without the first wife's permission (which was not forthcoming). Maimonides informed him that this was an ironclad clause, but if he desired to restrain his wife from teaching, he could do so legally and with the support of the court. The wife then presented her case. After describing the years of abandonment and neglect with which she had to contend, this anonymous teacher argued that her husband had been repeatedly undependable in the past, that she had built up her student clientele over time, and that were she to give up her teaching she would not easily be able to resume her school should her husband again disappear. Maimonides's remedy is that the Jewish rabbinical court compel the husband to divorce his independent wife on the grounds that he had not fulfilled his legal obligation to support her. Moreover, he advises the wife to refuse all relations with her husband and to forfeit her marriage portion, probably long ago squandered in any case, since these actions, too, would constitute grounds for divorce. After that, Maimonides says, "She will have disposition over herself, she may teach what she likes, and do what she likes"; however, he rules that "if she stays with her husband, he has the right to forbid her to teach."
In medieval Ashkenazi society, women were influenced by the high level of piety that had permeated Christian society and began to initiate changes such as observance of time-bound commandments. No similar developments have been discovered in the medieval Sephardi or Oriental world. The rabbis did not encourage female observance of men's commandments, and women who taught children Bible appear to be among the most learned Jewish females in their Muslim-influenced environment.
However, some women did rebel against religious authority. Maimonides' responsa offer information on a "Mikveh Rebellion." At the end of the 12th century, many Egyptian Jewish women discontinued bathing in the ritual bath, preferring to use public bathhouses or to wash their bodies at home under more pleasant conditions than contemporaneous mikva'ot apparently afforded. The Egyptian rabbis were infuriated by this tactic, which, in their eyes, was akin to following Karaite practice. This rebellion seemed to have been organized and successful and lasted several years until it was decisively quelled, proving that the women were easily not deterred by the serious threats made by the rabbis.
In later periods, women also banded together to make similar decisions that were unpopular with the rabbis, also around issues of ritual immersion. When the water at the ritual bath was deemed too cold, women refused to go; in Cairo, Jerusalem, and Hebron, women entered the Turkish bath after mikveh immersion. Some used the ancient canal of Cairo which was rejected as an option by rabbis like the Radbaz (*David ibn Zimra) because the water did not flow all year round; nevertheless, the women continued using it. Some women whom did not want to wait until the conclusion of the Sabbath to bathe, moved things up and immersed a day earlier. In sixteenth-century Damascus, there were women who went to bathhouses during the day and when the rabbis discovered this, they had a lock installed; undeterred, some of the women broke down the door in defiance of the rabbis.
Polygamy, or more accurately polygyny (the practice of a man having more than one wife) was a feature of Jewish life in the Islamic world where Muslim men were permitted to take up to four wives. Needless to say, a husband's taking a second wife presented a threat to the first wife. As early as 1100, the nagid*Mevorakh ben Saadiah, following talmudic precedent, declared that a protective clause could be included in the marriage contract (ketubbah) to prevent polygamy. M.A. Friedman has named this "the monogamy clause" and determined that it was included in most contracts in the Genizah period. In addition, fathers who were anxious to protect their daughters included clauses regarding their right to work, to retain earned income, etc. While one would assume that only wealthy men could afford second wives, this was not always the case (such as the aforementioned teacher's husband). In some instances, husbands took a second wife when the first wife appeared unable to bear children.
Women could maintain a certain level of independence if they had monetary sources of their own. On the whole, wealthy working women like the broker *Wuhsha al-Dalala, seem to be the exception to the rule, although there were professional teachers, especially of crafts taught to girls. Many women earned money from needlework, particularly embroidery; entrepreneurial women served as brokers who collected the spun threads, textiles, and embroidery work of other women and sold them to merchants. In addition, there were women in traditional professions such as midwives, keeners, healers, and landladies who rented out property they owned.
Unfortunately, no significant collection of documents about Jewish social life has been found in Spain and thus the reconstruction of women's lives, particularly during Islamic rule (8th–11th/13th century) is not very comprehensive. The influence of Islam on the Jewish community and upon its women was similar to that of Genizah society: seclusion of women was considered to be the ideal; polygamy was acceptable; and having sexual relations with concubines appears to have been accepted social custom. The ruling of R. *Gershom mandating monogamy did not apply to the Sephardi or Oriental communities. Although the rabbis in Castile expressed occasional opposition to the practice of polygamy, prominent figures in Spanish Jewry, such as the 14th-century leading Aragonese rabbi *Ḥasdai Crescas, had two wives. In the matter of yibbum or ḥaliẓah for a childless widow, Ashkenazi rabbis preferred ḥaliẓah, releasing the widow from any obligation to marry her brother-in-law. Sephardi rabbis, however, often showed a preference for yibbum (marriage of the widow to her husband's brother); the fact that he might already be married was not a matter of concern in this environment.
Rabbinical leaders were in disagreement on whether maintaining a concubine was acceptable; many believed this practice would prevent less desirable forms of sexual immorality such as adultery with married women. *Naḥmanides, for example, felt that it was preferable for men to support concubines rather than to indulge indiscriminately in relations with numerous women. Jews often had Muslim female servants or slaves and the masters frequently had sexual relations with them; at times these women converted and married their former masters. A ban was issued by the community of Toledo in 1281 against taking Muslim concubines but apparently was not very effective.
Jewish men frequented bordellos and did not seem to discriminate concerning the prostitute's religious preference. There was a Jewish brothel in 13th-century Saragossa. Some of the rabbis debated as to whether it was preferable to choose a Jewish versus non-Jewish prostitute. Since frequenting a brothel was something of a luxury, it was generally an option for men with financial means.
Girls were engaged to be married at a very early age both in Jewish and Muslim society. Often the groom was considerably older than the bride. In both societies, the young bride was frequently widowed at a tender age; this was the fate of many orphaned Jewish girls who were married off to much older men. If the widow remarried and her second husband died, she was considered a "murderous wife" (katlanit). Based on talmudic legal precedent, such a woman was not permitted to marry a third husband, even if she was still quite young, since she was considered dangerous to men. This trend was exacerbated with the growing popularity of mysticism in Spain. The *Zohar discouraged remarriage for widows as the deceased husband was supposedly waiting for the wife whose spirit was linked with his; a struggle with the new husband might even result in the latter's demise. Maimonides objected to branding these young widows as "untouchables" and ruled in favor of a third marriage for these widows. Avraham Grossman has claimed that Maimonides' principled stance against superstition and his pragmatic response to a real social problem had a great impact on sages who acted after him in Spain and in the Muslim world, as well as in Ashkenazi periphery, and saved "thousands" of women from a bitter fate (A. Grossman, "The Killer Wife," Tarbiz, 50 (1998), 531–61 (Heb.)). This issue also arose following the riots and forced conversions of 1391 when many women were also left widowed. Following Maimonides, it was generally accepted that if a husband had died as a martyr or as the result of the plague, the designation of "murderous wife" (katlanit) would not be applied to the widow and she would be allowed to re-marry.
Jewish women in Spain engaged in traditional professions as midwives, wet nurses (for Christian families too), healers, and peddlers, as well as merchants and moneylenders. Poorer women would work in the ritual bathhouse or for the burial society. Again, there is sparse material available concerning women in the Muslim period, although they seem to have been more active in the economy under Christian rule. Women were present in the marketplace and many middle class women took over for their husbands in their absence due to travel or after their deaths. In the 14th century, women dealt in foodstuffs, handicrafts, spinning, weaving, leather crafts, and the manufacturing as well as sale of footwear.
The widow stands out as the most active and independent woman in Jewish society, especially if she had financial means. She might have inherited from her father or husband, as a stipulation in the will itself, in the form of a gift, or as a condition in the marriage contract. There seems to have been some positive influence from Christian and Muslim society concerning bequests to widows or daughters who would not normally have inherited anything under Jewish law. In Egypt, for example, daughters were often given a tenth of the deceased father's estate (as compared to an eighth in Islamic law). The option also existed in Muslim countries whereby the father could leave his estate to a Muslim institution such as a children's endowment. The result was that his children, male and female, were granted perpetual use of his estate and Jewish inheritance customs would effectively be bypassed. These unusual methods were accepted, albeit grudgingly, by the Jewish community because claims taken to Muslim courts would have resulted in even more favorable results for the women in the family.
At the beginning of the 13th century, a change occurred regarding the fate of a woman's property if she predeceased her husband. Originating in Toledo, the decision was made that if the couple had children, the surviving husband no longer inherited everything as was customary in talmudic law, but had to share with the next generation. The sons and daughters shared equally with the husband and if there were no children, the woman's mother would receive half the dowry if she had provided it; otherwise, the estate was divided between the husband and heirs from his wife's father's side of the family. This regulation stood out in sharp contrast to the customs in the Levant, such as the Damascus regulation, which favored the traditional method; after the 1492 expulsion from Spain, the regulations co-existed, although some rabbis were unhappy with the situation. In the 16th century a compromise was made whereby two-thirds of the deceased wife's dowry went to her husband and the rest to her relatives, unless there were children; in that case, he was entitled to all of her property. This too was subject to additional changes.
Another difference between local inheritance customs is reflected in the assessment of the marriage contract. The Spanish custom was to record a sum to represent the total value of the dowry whereas the Jews in the Middle East listed the value of each item individually. The latter method proved to be detrimental to the woman as values appreciated and depreciated and items that could still be used were returned in order to deduct their value. According to Lamdan, in dealing with dowries as well as monetary assessments, the Spanish system favored the women; this might have been due to the fact that they were a wealthier community than those of the Middle East and more concerned with protecting their daughters in case they were widowed or divorced.
On the other hand, a husband could sidestep Jewish custom and make his wife an heir, even a universal or main heir, should he predecease her. In Christian Spain, many Jews did so in Latin wills upheld by Christian courts. As a result, the widow gained a large degree of independence. Widows were also named as guardians both of property and of their children, often as part of a committee. This joint guardianship was not due to lack of confidence in the women, but in order to protect them from being burdened with sole liability. Many examples of female guardians as part of a group can be found in Aragon, even though the local law did not advocate the formation of committees. These women often continued their husbands' businesses or engaged in their own. Quite a few of them were engaged in money-lending, particularly in the new community of Perpignan in the 13th century; some were married although most were widows. The tendency in this community, for example, was for widows (both Christian and Jewish) not to re-marry. These women did not want to lose their newly independent status or to complicate the lives of their heirs by collecting their dowries. The communities did not pressure them, most likely because they were contributing to the local economy and were not a drain on local resources.
The expulsion of 1492 resulted in a chain of upheavals for the Spanish Jewish community and affected many other Diaspora communities as well, especially those that received the exiles. Immediate effects included impoverishment and the breakdown of family units, for some members preferred to convert. In addition, many of the exiles were robbed, raped, and killed en route to their chosen destination. Serious problems resulted, including women whose husbands had converted to Christianity and had not given them divorce papers. Dilemmas faced the rabbis in Diaspora communities who needed to decide the fate of these potentially "chained women" (agunot). Problems of this sort were particularly acute in Salonika. Many of the rabbis did not want to cut off ties to their *Converso brethren and thus discourage their future possible return to Judaism. In addition, decisions had to be made as to whether an apostate was considered a levir in case his brother died childless and left a widowed sister-in-law. If the rabbis ruled that the convert was still part of the community, the decision left the women at a disadvantage as it was nearly impossible either to get a divorce or perform ḥaliẓah long distance. As time passed, the rabbis' attitudes changed and became more lenient in terms of the women's situation.
Most of the Jews who left Spain came into contact with other Sephardi and Oriental Jews; the nature of this contact depended upon their destination. Jewish women in the Ottoman Empire at this time were relatively independent, and engaged in moneylending, petty commerce, artisanry, and real estate. Some embroidered and others sold needlework. Some were brokers for products made by Muslim women who did not have the option of entering a public domain like the marketplace. There is even a record of a women welder in 16th-century Cairo. Many of these women had stipulations in their marriage contracts stating that their handiwork belonged to them. Goitein commented that in medieval Cairo, ready-made food could be purchased in the market; it seems that this was still the case in the late 15th century as well (R. Obadiah of Bertinoro). Cairo Genizah letters written by female exiles from Spain clearly reflect a new level of independence created by the experience of immigration and the encounter with non-Iberian communities.
[Renée Levine Melammed (2nd ed.)]
Between the rise of Islam (seventh century) and the 15th century, most Jews lived outside the Land of Israel, with significant populations in the Muslim worlds of North Africa, the Middle East, Western Asia, and Spain (Sepharad). Far smaller numbers of Jews lived in Christian Europe (Ashkenaz). One of the major intellectual endeavors of medieval Judaism was the continuation of the talmudic enterprise through collections of rabbinic answers to legal questions (responsa literature), the production of legal codes, and biblical and talmudic commentaries. These sources confirm that medieval legal authorities continued rabbinic patterns in ordaining separate gender roles and religious obligations for men and women, and in relegating females to secondary, enabling positions. However, norms and customs of local environments were also factors in how Jewish social life developed, since Jews assumed the language, dress, and many of the social practices of their non-Jewish neighbors, including cultural attitudes regarding appropriate female behavior. In medieval Christian Europe where Christian women had a wide range of public and private social, economic, and religious roles, the position of Jewish women markedly improved, relative both to the talmudic era and to the situation of Jewish women in Muslim countries. The reason, beyond a larger environment that was relatively supportive of female initiative, was the economic success that transformed the relatively small Jewish communities of Ashkenaz into a bourgeois society. As Jews prospered in trade and money lending, Jewish women played increasingly vital and often autonomous part in their family's economic lives, both as merchants and as financial brokers, allowing them to achieve almost unprecedented status and power in Jewish communal life.
The small Jewish communities of medieval Christian Europe lived in an atmosphere of religious suspicion and legal disability. Beginning with the period of the major Crusades (1096–1204), Jews were gradually limited from virtually any source of livelihood but moneylending; following 1215, they were often compelled to wear distinctive clothing and badges. By the end of the Middle Ages, Jews were expelled from areas where they had long lived (including England in 1290, and Spain in 1492); those who remained in Central Europe after the mid-16th century were compelled to live in crowded ghettos. Despite their political insecurity, the Jews of Ashkenaz enjoyed a high standard of living and were significantly acculturated. This is evident in the women's names that appear in extant sources of various kinds: Alemandina, Belassez, Blanche, Brunetta, Chera, Columbina, Duzelina, Fleur de Lys, Floretta, Glorietta, and the like, are far more common in our various sources than biblical appellations. (Jewish women in the Muslim realm similarly tended to have names of Arabic derivation).
Prior to the mid-12th century, most Jewish men were merchants and many traveled extensively. Like the Christian women of the upper bourgeoisie and lower nobility among whom they lived, Jewish women were often left to manage things at home while husbands were absent. And like Christian women, Jewish women had significantly more freedom of movement and higher social status than women in the Muslim world. This high status is indicated, in part, by the large dowries Jewish women brought into marriage. Since the capital with which a young couple started life had its origin mainly in the bride's portion, parents demanded strong guarantees in the ketubbah (marriage contract) that the bride would be treated with respect, that her marriage would have some permanence, and that she would have financial security. While the dowry of a deceased childless wife legally belonged to her husband, a 12th century enactment made all the dowry returnable to the father should his daughter die in the first year of marriage. This was to encourage fathers to endow their daughters generously; if a woman died in the second year of marriage without children, one half was to be returned.
A further recognition of the high status accorded to Jewish women in this milieu, as well as an indication of the influence of the prevailing mores of the Christian environment, is the 11th century takkanah (rabbinic ruling) forbidding polygyny for Jews in Christian countries. This change in traditional Jewish law is attributed to Rabbi *Gershom ben Judah (c. 960–1028), the first great rabbinic authority of West European (Ashkenazi) Jewry. A. Grossman suggests that the edict forbidding polygyny was also motivated by the involvement of many German Jewish men in international trade which often involved lengthy sojourns in Muslim countries. Some of these merchants may have married second wives while absent from home for long periods of time; the problem of deserted wives and their children is often referred to in Jewish legal literature from the Muslim environment and R. Gershom's ban (of excommunication) may have been intended to prevent such callous behavior that also strained community welfare resources. The important takkanah that no woman could be divorced against her will also originates in this time period. In fact, divorce appears to have been less common among Jews in medieval Christian Europe than in the Muslim milieu, perhaps because it was not a sanctioned act within Christian society. It was also the custom here, as in Muslim lands, for Jewish husbands to leave their wives with a conditional divorce document when they set out on journeys so that their wives would be free to remarry should they fail to return after a specified length of time.
Jewish girls in this society, despite rabbinic prohibitions to the contrary, were betrothed very young, often at the age of eight or nine. A young woman might be married at 11 or 12, while her husband would be almost the same age. The responsa of R. *Meir of Rothenburg (d. 1293) records an instance of a young girl, married before the age of twelve, who went to court against her mother who had interfered in a marital dispute between the young bride and her husband. R. Meir ruled that the young wife is in no way bound by agreements her mother made without her knowledge and he takes for granted that it is the young woman who is in control of the couple's financial resources (Teshuvot R. Meir, Cremona edition, no. 217).
Early marriages were motivated by the religious desire to remove young people from the sexual tensions which might lead to sin. Economic factors were also operative since a well-dowered young couple could support themselves immediately, learning the business at the same time. Marriages could form an enduring and profitable partnership between two wealthy families, while settling a young daughter well proved her desirability and increased her family's prestige. Conversely, a broken engagement might give rise to rumors concerning the rejected bride and her relatives that could harm her own future marriage chances and those of other family members. Such anxieties contributed to an 11th-century takkanah imposing a ban of excommunication against those who violated a betrothal agreement; in most cases the guilty parties were bridegrooms and their families.
One topic on which the sages of France and Germany spoke out very strongly, and another indication of women's prominent social status, was the impermissibility of spousal abuse for any reason. Wife-beating was recognized as grounds for divorce; methods of enforcing the granting of a divorce in such cases were taken far more seriously than in any other part of the Jewish world. Concerning one such case, R. Meir of Rothenburg wrote, "A Jew must honor his wife more than he honors himself. If one strikes one's wife, one should be punished more severely than for striking another person…. If [the abuser's] wife is willing to accept a divorce, he must divorce her and pay her the ketubbah" (Teshuvot R. Meir, Prague edition, no. 81; cf. Cremona edition, no. 291).
Jewish medieval literature expresses positive attitudes towards marriage and sexuality that were at odds with medieval Christian teachings, which enjoined celibacy on the representatives of the Church, and taught that the only purpose of marital sexuality should be procreation. It is not surprising that Christian writers criticized Jewish sexual behavior, real and imagined. Influence from the Christian environment may account for the ambivalence towards sexuality characteristic of the German-Jewish pietists of the 12th and 13th centuries, the *Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, whose writings, such as Sefer *Ḥasidim (Book of the Pious), express not only an obsessive concern with the ubiquity of extramarital sexual temptations, but also a profound ambivalence about the joys of licensed sexual activities. Although a happy marital relationship lessened the likelihood of involvement in illicit sexual temptation or activity outside marriage and was, therefore, a good thing, they were concerned that it might also distract a man from God, who should be the focus of his greatest and most intense devotion (Baskin, 2006). One unfortunate consequence of the dissonance occasioned by these contradictory mandates was the objectification of all women and their frequent representation as vessels of sexuality and erotic distraction in certain pietistic Jewish writings.
During the Middle Ages, marriages between Jews and members of other religions were generally forbidden by religious and secular law in both Muslim and Christian realms. This is not to say that liaisons between Jews and non-Jews did not exist; they were common and at many different levels of intensity, but for a romance between a Jew and a non-Jew to progress to a recognized marriage, one of the parties to the relationship would have to convert. Generally speaking, it was the woman who did so.
Even without the possibility of marriage, Jews and gentiles were involved in a variety of sexual contacts, ranging from visits to prostitutes, involvement with maidservants, a recognized relationship with a mistress or lover, to common-law marriages. A romantic relationship which led to tragic consequences may have existed between *Pulcelina, a prominent 12th century moneylender, and Count Thibaud of Blois. All such liaisons were decried by both Jewish and non-Jewish authorities, and offenders, particularly those involved in permanent or semi-permanent relationships, were sometimes prosecuted by Church authorities, occasionally receiving the death penalty. There was more tolerance on the Church's part of Christian men having affairs with Jewish women, probably because Jewish mistresses were likely to adopt their lover's faith; indeed, the seduction/conversion of a Jewish girl by a Christian suitor became a popular theme in Christian literature. Not surprisingly, Jewish authorities objected to such relationships far more strenuously than the much more common occurrence of Jewish men keeping a Christian mistress, or maintaining sexual involvements with non-Jewish servants. There is no doubt that concern about all Jewish-Christian sexual liaisons was among the factors leading to efforts by the Church to isolate Jews from Christians; it was most likely because of fear of sexual contacts between Christians and Jews that Church legislation (beginning with the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215) forced Jewish women to wear a distinguishing badge at a younger age than was required for Jewish men, and often insisted that women wear humiliating attire, such as one red slipper and one black.
Jewish women's economic activities generally supplied a part or even the whole of the family income, sometimes allowing their husbands to devote themselves to study. This economic success empowered Jewish women not only in their domestic lives but in the religious and communal realm, as well. The medieval responsa literature is replete with references to women's business undertakings and to their frequent meetings and travels with Jewish and gentile men for business purposes; no objections are cited anywhere to women's wide ranging freedom of action. That women who traveled could be at risk from violent attacks was an accepted part of their economic lives, as it was of men's. Sefer Ḥasidim gives evidence of this: "A woman who was traveling heard that a group of gentiles was approaching her and she feared they might rape her. In such a case, she is permitted to dress in a nun's clothing so that they will think she is a nun and not attack her sexually. And if a woman traveling hears that a group of Jewish ruffians is approaching her, she is permitted to dress in non-Jewish dress and say that she is a gentile. She may warn them that she will cry out and report them, and she may also cry out at once in order that gentiles will come to help her, even if they kill the ruffians" (sḤ Bologna ed., par. 702). A responsum of the 12th-century German sage, R. Eliezer b. Joel Halevi, concerns a woman who set out on trade with two Jewish men, one of whom raped her during the journey. On the question of whether or not the woman was also culpable, in that she had acted immodestly by being alone with men contrary to talmudic law, R. Eliezer replied in the negative, saying "Day after day women go forth with two or three men, and seeing that the sages of Torah offer no protest, are unaware that it is forbidden" (Or Zaruai, p. 166, no. 615).
Women engaged in all kinds of commercial operations and occupations, but moneylending was especially preferred; widows would frequently continue their financial activities, occasionally in partnership with another woman (see *Banking and Bankers). Such entrepreneurship undoubtedly required some degree of literacy in the vernacular and training in mathematics and bookkeeping skills. *Licoricia of Winchester was a highly successful Jewish businesswoman in England who had direct business dealings with the king. Her five sons, known as "sons of Licoricia," continued their mother's business after her murder in 1277. Some women were involved in craft activities they learned from their fathers or husbands, as well, and there are references in Jewish and Christian sources to independent Jewish women who practiced medicine or worked as midwives. Several medieval obstetrical treatises in Hebrew, apparently intended for female midwives, indicate that at least some women involved in medical practice were literate in that language (Barkai; Shatzmiller).
All Jewish women acquired domestic skills in childhood. These included not only the rudiments of cooking, needlework, and household management, but also the rules of rabbinic Judaism applicable to home and marriage. Basic religious training was considered essential so that a woman would know how to observe dietary laws, domestic regulations pertaining to the Sabbath and festivals, and the other commandments relevant to her family life and her relations with her husband. Sefer Ḥasidim ordains that a father is required to teach his daughters those practical commandments and halakhic rules essential for correct observance, but goes on to warn that "an unmarried man should not teach a girl, not even if the father is present, for fear that he will be sexually aroused or she will be overcome by her passions." Rather a father should teach his daughter and a husband should teach his wife (sḤb, par. 313).
Particular anxiety is expressed in several sources that women should not only be assiduous but also expeditious in observing "family purity" regulations. In his 14th-century ethical will, R. *Eleazar of Mainz advised his daughters to "scrupulously obey the rules applying to women," advising that "they should carefully watch for the signs of their periods and keep separate from their husbands at such times …. They shall be very punctilious and careful with their ritual bathing, taking with them women friends of worthy character" (Abrahams, pp. 209–10). Sefer Ḥasidim endorses similar sentiments and advises against using mikveh immersion as a bargaining pawn in domestic quarrels: "A father should tell his daughter who is about to be married not to postpone the time of her immersion in the mikveh, and not to say to her husband, 'I will not immerse in the mikveh unless you give me a certain amount of money or such-and-such gift'" (sḤb, par. 506). Sefer Ḥasidim also mentions a woman who refused to immerse in the mikveh until her miserly husband agreed to purchase books and donate them to charitable purposes. The husband complained to a rabbinic authority who told him, "Blessed is she for having brought pressure on you to perform a good deed. This is her only means of compulsion." To the wife, however, the sage said, "If you can find another way to persuade your husband to act generously, then well and good, but don't pressure him by withholding marital relations, because he will have sinful thoughts, you will keep yourself from becoming pregnant, and you will only increase his anger" (sḤb, par. 873).
Some women used their refusals to immerse in the mikveh as a strategem out of an unhappy marriage when their husbands would not agree to a divorce. A wife who refused sexual relations was considered a moredet, a rebel, and was subject to a daily monetary fine; when the value of her dowry had been exhausted, the husband was compelled to divorce her. Such an expedient might be acceptable to an unhappy wife who had the financial support of her relatives. In cases where rabbinic authorities determined that a woman had refused sexual relations or fled because her husband was repulsive to her, to escape blatant physical or emotional abuse, or due to a lack of economic support, her husband could be compelled to give her a divorce and return her dowry.
Jewish customary law concerning the menstruating woman (niddah) became more exclusionary in the Middle Ages, particularly in the Christian sphere. According to the highly influential *Baraita de-Niddah, a book apparently of the geonic period, the niddah was forbidden to enter a synagogue, to come into contact with sacred books, to pray, or to recite God's name. These customs were followed in many locales during the medieval and early modern eras, although they have no basis in halakhah. Generally, they were endorsed by rabbinic authorities who praised compliant women for their piety. Even where menstruating women did attend and enter fully into synagogue services, one late fifteenth century source reported, "They take care only not to look at the Torah scroll when the sexton displays it to the congregation" (Jacob Landau, Sefer ha-Agur, sec. 1388).
While most Jewish boys were literate in Hebrew, and some became quite learned, only a few girls from elite families ever learned much Hebrew. However, lack of Hebrew learning was not seen as an impediment to religious practice and prayer for either women or men, since as Sefer Ḥasidim advises, "one should learn the prayers in a language one understands, for prayer is first and foremost an entreaty of the heart and if the heart does not understand what issues from the mouth how can the supplicant benefit? It is better to pray in whatever language [the person] praying understands" (sḤb, par. 588).
An indication of women's high status in Ashkenaz is their voluntary assumption of religious practices from which they were exempt in talmudic Judaism. Women, for example, were permitted in 12th-century Germany and northern France to perform and to recite blessings over time-bound positive precepts, such as putting on tefillin (phylacteries) even though they were exempted from them by halakhah; the 12th-century scholar, R. *Simḥah of Speyer included women among the quorum of ten people required to recite the grace over meals. Another example of women's assumption of ritual roles in the public domain is the insistence of prominent women in serving as godmother (sandeka'it) at the circumcision of a son or grandson. R. Meir of Rothenburg, a major rabbinic leader of the 14th century, attempted to abolish this practice, since he believed the presence of perfumed and well-dressed women in the synagogue among men was immodest. His failure to do so (this custom continued until the beginning of the 15th century), indicates Jewish women's high status and financial clout in the communal realm of Ashkenaz. However, as the political and economic situation of European Jewish communities gradually worsened, beginning in the 13th century, and traditional practice and laws were reasserted, most of the gains Jewish women had achieved, in this and other areas of daily life, were firmly curtailed.
Some learned women, usually from rabbinic families, led prayers for the other women of their communities. Among women who are described as women's prayer leaders are the 12th-century *Dulcea, the wife of R. *Eleazar of Worms, discussed below, and Urania of Worms of the 13th century, whose headstone epitaph commemorates her as "the daughter of the chief of the synagogue singers…. she, too, with sweet tunefulness officiated before the women to whom she sang the hymnal portions." The Worms synagogue had a separate room in which women's prayers took place, perhaps with a peephole into the larger sanctuary so that the prayer leader could keep her place in the service.
Jewish women appear to have been less likely than men to choose the always available option of conversion to Christianity, perhaps because the benefits such conversion offered to a woman were far fewer than those available to a man. A number of legal queries to rabbinic leaders deal with the question of a woman's divorce from a converted husband. The rabbinic authorities did everything possible to free a Jewish wife from such a marriage and guarantee the return of her property so that a remarriage might occur.
Women are strikingly prominent in 11th-century Hebrew Crusade chronicles which describe the devotion of numerous Jewish women who actively sought death for themselves and their children rather than apostasy. Some scholars have suggested that many of the horrific events narrated in these Hebrew chronicles are imaginative reconstructions, meant to express the high esteem in which women were held in Ashkenazi society and to provide didactic models for future generations of women who might confront similar circumstances. Some have also wondered if women are praised so highly in order to cast shame on men of their own times who were very far more likely than women to become Christians. S. Einbinder has pointed out a deliberate downplaying of female agency in later Jewish liturgical poems on themes of martyrdom that focus more on women's passivity and vulnerability to male assault. This difference in the portrayal of women may be no more than a reflection of the formulaic conventions of the poetic genre. However, given the steady deterioration of women's legal status in Ashkenaz during this same time period, Einbinder's suggestion that "the rabbi-poets increasingly emphasized the sanctity of family bonds and rabbinic authority" to the detriment of female agency and independence is quite persuasive. By representing women as "defenseless and violated," male authors enhanced their own communal power in an effort to rally other men in opposition to a common enemy against whom all Jews were increasingly powerless.
Many ideals of medieval Jewish family life, including the value placed on education, are evident in the medieval ethical will. Such moral testaments, left by a parent for his or her children, sum up the author's life's experience and values, and advise offspring on the proper conduct of their lives. One example is the will of Eleazar b. Samuel of Mainz, a 14th-century Jew of whom nothing else is known. Eleazar's will urges all his children to attend synagogue in the morning and evening, and to occupy themselves a little afterwards with "Torah, the Psalms, or with works of charity." His daughters are particularly requested to obey the laws applying to women, "modesty, sanctity, and reverence should mark their married lives," and they must "respect their husbands and be invariably amiable to them." Daughters, as well as sons, are admonished to live in communities among other Jews so that their children may learn the ways of Judaism, and, significantly, he insists that "they must not let the young, of either sex, go without instruction in the Torah [Hebrew Bible]." Eleazar specifically requests that his daughters prepare beautiful candles for the Sabbath, and that they refrain from risking money in games of chance, although they may amuse themselves for trifling stakes on New Moons, days customarily celebrated as holidays by Jewish women. Eleazar urges his children to avoid "mixed bathing and mixed dancing and all frivolous conversation." He further suggests that his daughters "ought to be always at home and not be gadding about." Nor should they stand at the door, watching whatever passes: "I ask, I command, that the daughters of my house be never without work to do, for idleness leads first to boredom, then to sin. But let them spin, cook, or sew." Eleazar's obvious concern for his daughters' educations, for their mode of life, and his knowledge of the pitfalls they might encounter is vibrant testimony to a Jewish society in which women played many active roles (Abrahams, 209–10).
The esteem granted a beloved wife, and a description of her activities, is found in the lament of an important spiritual leader, R. Eleazar ben Judah of Worms, known as the Roke'aḥ, for his exemplary wife, Dulcea and his two daughters, killed by intruders in their home in 1197. He relates that Dulcea, who supported her family and her husband's students through her business ventures, was also involved in religious activities, attending synagogue regularly, sewing together 40 Torah scrolls, making wicks for the synagogue candles, and instructing other women and leading their prayers. Of his thirteen-year-old daughter, the father poignantly wrote that she had "learned all the prayers and melodies from her mother. She was pious and wise, a beautiful virgin. She prepared my bed and pulled off my boots every night. Bellette was nimble about the house, and spoke only truth, serving her Maker and spinning and sewing and embroidering." And of his younger daughter, Hannah, Rabbi Eleazar remembers: "Each day she recited Shema Yisrael and the prayer that follows it. She was six years old and could spin, sew and embroider, and entertain me by singing" (Baskin, 2001).
While celibacy and monastic living allowed some Christian women to be recognized as scholars, saints, and mystics, rabbinic insistence on universal marriage forbade any access to such life alternatives for Jewish women. Formal Judaism offered no adult avenues through which Jewish women could express their spiritual aspirations beyond marital devotion, maternal solicitude, observance of domestic Jewish rituals, and acts of charity to others. Jewish religious leaders criticized women who adopted ascetic practices such as fasting, prayer, and acts of personal deprivation; these traditional male methods of expressing devotion to God were seen as a dereliction of a woman's primary duties to her husband and family, and were suspect even in the unmarried girl and the widow (cf. Sot. 22a).
Given these prohibitions, it is not surprising that medieval Jewish mysticism was an essentially male endeavor. Moreover, in the gender imagery which pervades medieval Jewish mystical writings, the male, created in the divine image, is construed as the dominant, primary sex, while females are seen as passive and secondary. In sexual union female distinctiveness is effaced, and similarly, by analogy, the *Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of the divine, will ultimately be absorbed by the preeminent male entity, the *Ein-Sof (the infinite and eternal aspect of God), from which she was originally derived. While the Shekhinah as bride is a positive symbol, pointing to divine unity, the Shekhinah alone, sometimes represented as a niddah, is dangerous, since the unconstrained female and her menstrual blood are linked to the demonic forces responsible for evil in the world.
Many of the negative attitudes towards women entrenched in rabbinic traditions are prevalent in medieval Jewish folklore, as well. One example is traditions about the demon *Lilith. These are synthesized in the 11th-century Alphabet of Ben Sira, where rabbinic speculation about the "first Eve," who refused to submit to Adam's mastery and established herself as an independent sexual entity, merges with legends about demons who kill infants and endanger women in childbirth. In later Jewish folklore and mysticism, Lilith is the exemplar of rebellious wives and the fiendish enemy of submissive women and their children. Associations between women and witchcraft, already present in rabbinic literature, also appear in Sefer Ḥasidim, which assumes that even the most pious woman has the potential, however unwitting, to tempt a man to sin or sinful thoughts.
[Judith R. Baskin (2nd ed.)]
As R.L. Melammed comments above, the experience of immigration and the encounter with non-Iberian communities offered some female exiles from Spain, particularly those with significant financial resources, a new level of empowerment and independence. Powerful widows, such as Benvenida *Abravanel, and Doña Gracia *Nasi (1510–1569), both of the 16th century, continued their deceased husbands' business ventures successfully, intervened with rulers on behalf of threatened Jewish communities, and were renowned for their philanthropy and their support of Jewish culture and learning.
Benvenida Abravanel, niece of the statesman-philosopher Isaac *Abravanel, married her first cousin, Samuel. The couple left Spain in 1492 for Italy and Don Samuel became head of the Jewish community in Naples. Benvenida was an educated woman who established a good relationship with the duchess of Tuscany. When the Jews of Southern Italy were threatened with expulsion in 1541, Benvenida used her influence to negotiate a postponement of the decree. Following her husband's death in 1547, she took over his business concerns and attained important trade privileges. Benvenida also gained renown as a pious and charitable woman, much given to fasting, whose home was a center of study and culture.
Gracia Nasi was born a New Christian and was baptized as Beatriz de Luna in Portugal. Her husband Francisco, whom she married in 1528, left her half of his property when he died in 1536. Once the Inquisition was established in that same year, Doña Gracia realized that Portugal was no longer a viable home for a crypto-Jew and with her family resolved to return to an open observance of Judaism elsewhere, taking care to move slowly to preserve the maximum amount of their fortune. Ultimately, the family ended up in Constantinople where Doña Gracia supported numerous scholars and rabbis and aided in the publication of scholarly works.
Because of her connections, wealth, mobility, and foresight, Doña Gracia managed to escape the reach of the Inquisition. However, many other crypto-Jewish women were not so fortunate. As the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions became obsessed with discovering unfaithful New Christians (see also *Conversos), women were particularly at risk, since they played a crucial role in perpetuating Judaism in this period. Without communal institutions or leadership, the home became the sole center of Jewish continuity and women were central in preserving Jewish domestic rituals, especially the dietary laws and Sabbath observance. Such practices were always dangerous, since servants often testified to the Inquisition about their employers' judaizing activities. Numerous crypto-Jewish women were arrested and tortured, and many sacrificed their lives as martyrs for their faith in the course of the 15th and 16th centuries.
Since the 19th century historians have asserted that Renaissance Italy was a period in which women attained a new and more equal status in society, and Jewish writers have accepted this view concerning Italian Jewish women, as well. Close examination of the various sources of Jewish communal history in the early modern period, however, demonstrates that while women did function in some public capacities in Italian Jewish communities, there was not a significant departure from traditional attitudes about appropriate female roles. Nevertheless, the Jewish communities of Italy were highly acculturated and there were opportunities for a few unusual women to shine in literature and the arts.
At least two Jewish women in 17th–century Italy became distinguished published writers in Italian. Devora *Ascarelli translated Hebrew liturgical poetry into rhymed Italian, presumably for use by female worshippers. Her Abitacolo degli oranti, completed in 1537 and published in 1601, may be the earliest published work in Jewish literature written by a woman. The most accomplished Jewish woman of this period in terms of education and literary productivity was the writer and poet Sara Coppio *Sullam (1592–1641). Born to a wealthy and prominent Jewish family in Venice, Sullam married Jacob Sullam, a local Jewish leader. She formed a salon of mostly Christian men of letters for whom she provided financial support as well as intellectual friendships that sometimes soured. As a female Jewish writer, Sullam was an ideal target for accusations intended to undermine her accomplishments as a woman and a Jew. However, she was able to respond to her detractors in witty and biting prose and poetry. Another talented woman of this period was the professional singer known as Madama Europa De' *Rossi, a highly accomplished performer in the court of the Gonzaga family in late 16th and early 17th century Mantua and the sister of the composer and musician Salamone De' *Rossi.
As early as the 13th century in Italy, certain rabbis allowed girls to receive a Jewish education. Most young women learned to read and write Italian at school or at home, and some learned Hebrew, as well. Teachers of girls were often women and those who taught Hebrew were known as rabbit or rabbanit. Other women, often widows, offered instruction in domestic skills. Two women of this period exceptional for their learning were sisters, Fioretta (Bat Sheva) Modena and Diana Rieti. According to the Venetian rabbi Leon *Modena (1571–1648), Fioretta's nephew, the women had mastered Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Jewish law, and Kabbalah (Modena, Ḥayyei, fol. 15b). At the age of 75, after the death of her husband, Solomon da Modena, Fioretta set out to live in Safed, a city known for its many mystics.
An interesting feature of the early modern Italian Jewish community is the licensing of specific women to act as ritual slaughterers and to porge (nikkur or treibern) animals. This contrasts with efforts by rabbis elsewhere in Christian Europe to limit women's rights to be involved in kosher slaughtering and porging. The probable reason for this liberality was so women could provide food for their families in isolated locations, such as summer houses in the mountains, or in distressed circumstances (see *Sheḥitah: Women and Sheḥitah).
The invention of printing in the 15th century, which made the dissemination of popular literature practicable and inexpensive, played an important role in expanding Jewish women's religious lives and piety in Central and Eastern Europe in the early modern period. Female access to reading matter in the vernacular had a transformative effect for many women, deepening their knowledge of Judaism and Jewish traditions and even empowered a few women to become writers, themselves. Rabbinic injunctions against women's learning were believed to apply to Talmud study but not to the Bible or legal rulings necessary for women's everyday activities. While Jewish women were generally ignorant of Hebrew, most were literate in Jewish vernaculars (Judaeo-German (Western Yiddish) in Central Europe and Yiddish in Eastern Europe, written in Hebrew characters), which had long been essential to women's economic activities. Translations of the Hebrew Bible, the first books to be printed in the Jewish vernacular, gave women access to Judaism's holy texts. Particularly popular were the Taytsh-khumesh, first published by Sheftl Hurwitz in Prague in 1608 or 1610, and the Tsenerene, by Yankev ben Itzkhok Ashkenazy (c.1590–1618), both of which included homilies on the weekly biblical readings from the Torah and Prophets, as well as stories, legends, and parables drawn from rabbinic literature, the Zohar and other mystical texts, and histories and travel accounts. *Musar literature, ethical treatises which discussed proper conduct, woman's religious obligations, and her relations with her husband, such as the Brantshpigl ("Burning Mirror") by Moses ben Henoch *Altschuler (1596), and the Meneket Rivkah of Rebecca bas Meir *Tiktiner of Prague (d. 1550; posthumously published in the early 17th century), were also available to female readers. These vernacular books intended for women were also read by Jewish men, many of whom were not possessed of significant Jewish scholarship; they were printed in a special typeface, vayber taytsh ("women's vernacular") based on the cursive Hebrew hand women were taught for business contracts, marriage agreements, and correspondence.
Although all the Hebrew and Aramaic prayers of the standard liturgy were translated into Judaeo-German/Yiddish, they were never as central to women as *tkhines, supplicatory prayers which were intended for female use in Jewish rituals and in worship, both in the synagogue and at home. Collections of such prayers began to appear in the 16th century. C. Weissler has pointed out that while much of this literature was written by men for women, and represents men's conceptions of women's religious lives, tkhines do demonstrate what women prayed about and offer insight into how they understood the meanings of their religious acts.
Although some attributions of tkhines to female authors or editors seem doubtful, there were women like Rebecca Tiktiner who wrote and published tkhines collections. Weissler has written that tkhines written by women sometimes articulate both the sanctification of women's traditional roles and a critique of them. Sarah Rebecca Rachel Leah *Horowitz (c. 1720–c. 1800), the highly educated author of the Tkhine imohes ("Tkhine of the matriarchs"), emphasizes the power and importance of women's prayer. In the Shloyse she'orim ("Three Gates"), *Sarah bas Tovim (probably 18th century) made use of rabbinic and mystical texts in Yiddish to construct a new vision of women's religious lives in which women's prayer was as significant as men's.
Collections of prayers and religious texts in Yiddish and in European vernacular languages, intended for female use, were produced into the 20th century. Stunden der Andacht ("Hours of Devotion"), a German prayer book for women written by Fanny *Neuda (d. 1894) went through 28 editions by the 1920s and was also translated into English. These prayers for women reflect a personal rather than a communal understanding of Judaism, one in which women often called upon the biblical matriarchs to intercede with God on behalf of the worshiper and her family. Inasmuch as some of these prayers were written by women, they also represent some of the earliest extant expressions of female spirituality in Jewish tradition.
One early modern woman who wrote in her own voice was Glikl bas Judah Leib (*Glueckel of Hameln; 1646–1724). Her autobiography, written to drive away the melancholy that followed her husband's death and to let her children know their ancestry, is an engrossing document which interweaves and juxtaposes pious tales and moralizing with Glickl's accounts of events in her own life and those of her loved ones. Born into the prosperous Court Jew milieu of Central Europe, Glikl was well read in Judaeo-German literature, and had some knowledge of Hebrew and German as well; her memorial notice characterizes her as "a learned woman" (melummedet), unusual praise in her time and place. Betrothed at 12, married at 14, and the mother of 14 children, Glikl was active in business and pious in religious observance, including regular synagogue attendance. At the threshold of modernity, both as a woman and as a Jew, Glikl's business activities reflect the growing economic participation of Jews in the non-Jewish world, while her religious and secular educations speak to the broader horizons and new educational opportunities available to some 17th century Jews – including women.
Esther Schulhoff Aaron *Liebmann (c. 1645–1714) came from the same milieu as Glikl. Married first to Israel Aaron (d. 1673), supplier to the Brandenburg court and founder of the Berlin Jewish community, Esther subsequently wed Jost Leibmann. Liebmann's first wife, Malka, was Glikl's niece and Liebmann himself learned the jewelry business from Glikl's husband, Ḥayyim Hameln. Esther and her husband were the court jewelers to Frederick i of Prussia and the leading family in the Berlin Jewish community. Esther worked actively alongside her husband and successfully carried on their business after her husband's death. Like many Court Jews, Liebmann's fortunes depended on the favor of the ruler. After the death of Frederick i and the accession of Frederick William i in 1713, Esther Liebmann was put under house arrest and released only after she had paid the king a substantial fine.
Women are connected with both mysticism and the messianic movements that are a significant feature of Jewish history in early modern Europe. This phenomenon first appeared among crypto-Jewish women in Spain. As R. Melammed has written, Conversas, observing secretly, in the hope of salvation, were likely candidates for a mystical or messianic penchant. During the post-expulsion period, several women and girls experienced visions and delivered messianic prophecies, particularly in the La Mancha and Extremadura region of Castile. Between 1499 and 1502, Mari Gómez of Chillón and Inés, a 12-year-old from Herrera, inspired a renewal of Jewish observance, with special emphasis on fasting, based on their predictions of the imminent arrival of Elijah, heralding messianic redemption in the Land of Israel. This movement was quickly extinguished by the Inquisition: Inés was burned at the stake in 1500 and Mari Gómez escaped to Portugal.
In 1524–1525, Benvenida Abravanel, a wealthy exile from Spain who had settled in Italy, became an enthusiastic supporter of the messianic pretender David *Reuveni (d. 1538). She is said to have sent him financial support, a silk banner with the ten commandments written in gold on both sides, and a Turkish gown of gold cloth.
Rachel *Aberlin (second quarter of the 16th century, Salonika (?)–first quarter of 17th century, Damascus (?)), is described as a mystic in Sefer ha-Ḥezyonot ("The Book of Visions"), the memoir of her contemporary Ḥayyim *Vital. Vital, the most prominent disciple of the greatest 16th century kabbalist, Isaac *Luria, refers to "Rachel Aberlin" and "Rachel ha-Ashkenaziah" frequently in entries that provide rare insight into the mystical religiosity of early modern Jewish women in the period preceding Shabbateanism. Aberlin is portrayed in Sefer ha-Ḥezyonot as a woman who regularly experienced mystical visions, from pillars of fire to Elijah the Prophet. She is said to have been "accustomed to seeing visions, demons, souls, and angels." Aberlin seems to have been an important figure to other women in her community, who regarded her as a spiritual leader.
Sarah, one of the wives of the preeminent messianic figure of the early modern period, *Shabbetai Ẓevi (1626–1676), continues to be an enigma to historians. Apparently a survivor of the 1648 Chmielnicki pogroms in Poland who had been brought up as a Christian, Sarah attracted attention with her beauty and her claims that she was destined to marry the messiah. According to some reports, Sarah was an erstwhile prostitute, who had traveled from Poland to Amsterdam and then to Italy, where she worked as a servant for various Jewish families and institutions. Exactly how she and Shabbetai Ẓevi were brought together is unknown. However, the couple was married in Cairo in March, 1664. At least one source reports that Shabbetai married her because of her ill repute, so as to fulfill the word of the prophet Hosea, "take yourself a wife of whoredom" (1:2). Sarah, who subsequently gave birth to a son and a daughter, converted to Islam shortly after her husband in 1666. In 1671, Shabbetai divorced Sarah, even though she was pregnant, and arranged a marriage with another woman. He then changed his mind and took Sarah back. She died in 1674.
An interesting facet of Shabbetai Ẓevi's messianic claims was his promise to ameliorate the secondary status of women in Judaism. He allowed women in synagogues he visited in Constantinople, Smyrna, and Salonika to be called up to the Torah. According to G. Scholem, Shabbetai is reported to have promised in 1665 that he would lift the "curse of Eve" from women, and added, "Blessed are you, for I have come to make you free and happy like your husbands, for I have come to take away Adam's sin." Scholem has suggested that Shabbetai may have been attracted by "the audacity of Sarah, the reputed harlot, because he cherished the dream of the reparation of Adam's sin and of the consequent restoration of woman to her original freedom" (p. 405). Scholem goes on to say the idea that the messiah would repair Adam's sin was current in Lurianic mystical writings but that Shabbetai seems to have been the first to make the connection in terms of the emancipation of women.
Eva *Frank (1754–1816), daughter of the charismatic Shabbatean leader Jacob *Frank (1726–1791) played a major role in the messianic and antinomian Frankist movement. Originally named Rachel, she is referred to in Frankist writings as the Lady, the Virgin, or Matronita, the Aramaic name of the mystical female entity Shekhinah. She became known as Eva following the conversion of her family to Christianity in 1760. Jacob Frank saw himself as the eternal messiah and told his followers that Eva-Rachel should be recognized as the mystical royal figure of the Shekhinah who would lead them as a messianic redeemer in his temporary absence. Ultimately, Frank claimed, he would be reborn and united with his daughter in "the unity of Messiah and Shekhinah." After Jacob Frank's death in 1791, Eva led the Frankist community in its hopes of imminent messianic redemption. Even after she died, many Frankist families continued to keep her portrait and honored her as a saintly woman who was falsely reviled.
The development of the pietistic/mystical movement Ḥasidism in 18th–century Poland had a profound and lasting impact on East European Jewry. Ḥasidism brought no improvements for women's status, however, and in some ways intensified negative views of women already present in Jewish mysticism and traditional rabbinic Judaism. Ḥasidic tradition preserves descriptions of daughters, mothers and sisters of rabbinic leaders who are said to have themselves led ḥasidic communities and to have adopted rigorous standards of personal piety. Among them are Sarah Frankel *Sternberg (1838–1937), daughter of ḥasidic Rabbi Joshua Heschel Teomim-Frankel and wife of the ẓaddik Ḥayyim Samuel Sternberg of Chenciny, a disciple of the famed Seer of Lublin. After her husband's death, she is said to have functioned successfully as a rebbe in Chenciny and was highly regarded for her piety and asceticism. Her daughter, Hannah Brakhah, the wife of R. *Elimelekh of Grodzinsk, was an active participant in the life of her husband's court. A. Rapoport-Albert has pointed out that there is little written documentation about these women and that their authority was based on their connection to revered male leaders.
The one apparent example of a woman who crossed gender boundaries to achieve religious leadership in a ḥasidic sect with some success was the well-educated, pious, and wealthy Hannah Rochel Werbermacher (1815–1888?), known as the Holy Maid of *Ludomir. Werbermarcher, who acquired a reputation for saintliness and miracle-working, attracted both men and women to her "court," to whom she would lecture from behind a closed door. Reaction from the male ḥasidic leaders of her region was uniformly negative, and pressure was successfully applied on Hannah to resume her rightful female role in marriage. Although her marriages were unsuccessful, they had the intended result of ending her career as a religious leader, at least in Poland. Around 1860, Werbermacher moved to Jerusalem where she re-established herself as a holy woman. Here, too, she attracted a following of ḥasidic women and men, as well as Sephardi and possibly some Muslim Arab women, and led gatherings at the Western Wall, the Tomb of Rachel, and her own study house.
Ḥasidism, in its emphasis on mystical transcendence, and on male attendance on the rabbinic leader, the zaddik or rebbe, to the exclusion of the family unit, contributed significantly to the breakdown of the Jewish social life in 19th–century Eastern Europe. Similar tensions between family responsibility and devotion to Torah were also present among the non-ḥasidic learned elite of this milieu, where wives tended to assume the responsibility for supporting their families while husbands were studying away from home. D. Biale has noted that the sexual ascetism of the homosocial ḥasidic courts and rabbinic yeshivot of the 18th and 19th centuries offered young men a welcome withdrawal from family tensions and the threats of modernity. However, the negative attitudes toward human sexuality they found in these environments were often openly misogynistic, incorporating many demonic images of women from rabbinic, kabbalistic, and Jewish folklore traditions.
[Judith R. Baskin (2nd ed.)]
Modern Central and Western Europe: 1780 to 1939
The *Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment movement which began in late 18th century Germany, brought enormous changes to Jewish religious, political, and social life in Central and Western Europe. Receptive to modernity and European culture, the Haskalah insisted that Jewish acculturation to the mainstream mores and customs of the public sphere was not incompatible with adherence to Jewish tradition and rituals in the private domain of home and synagogue. While the goals of Jewish political emancipation and achievement of full civil rights, with their accompanying economic benefits, were central to this movement, some of its supporters also championed religious change within the Jewish community. Most modern forms of Jewish religious practice, *Reform Judaism, *Conservative Judaism, and Modern *Orthodoxy, were shaped in this milieu. Moses *Mendelssohn, the founder of the Haskalah in Central Europe, and others of his circle, also advocated social change in gender relations, opposing arranged marriages and advocating love matches.
Adoption of the language and values of the non-Jewish world tended to occur first among the wealthiest Jews who had frequent economic dealings with non-Jews. D. Hertz and B. Hahn are among those who have chronicled the lives of women from Berlin′s wealthy Jewish elite in the last decades of the 18th century. In a Jewish society in which girls received only minimal religious education, instruction in music and modern languages, together with exposure to a new world of secular novels, poetry, and plays, distanced young women from brothers and husbands whose lives were focused on traditional Jewish learning and commerce and finance. It is not surprising that many of these wealthy and accomplished women, such as Henriette *Herz, Dorothea *Mendelssohn, Rahel Levin *Varnhagen, and Fanny von *Arnstein (a Berlin native who moved to Vienna), found success in a *salon society where gentiles and Jews mixed socially. For some of these women, divorces from Jewish husbands were followed by conversions to Christianity and marriage to gentile suitors, often from the impecunious nobility. The absolute number of women who followed this course was small and their motives for doing so were complex. However, for these Jewish women, abandoning Judaism meant integration into the dominant upper-class culture and society. In making the choices they did these women experienced "at an early date and in a gender-specific way the basic conflict between group loyalty and individual emancipation that would torment so many European Jews in the two centuries to follow" (Hertz, 1991, p. 198).
The experiences of Jewish women of the salon world were not typical for most Western and Central European Jewish women. Scholars like M.A. Kaplan and P.E. Hyman have shown that by the mid-19th century processes of acculturation and assimilation, followed in some cases by dissolution of minority ties through conversion and/or intermarriage, were generally quite different for women and men. Gender tended to limit the assimilation of Jewish women, rendering their progress to integration halting and incomplete in comparison to Jewish men. Confined to the domestic scene, restricted in their educational opportunities, and prevented from participating in the public realms of economic and civic life, Jewish women had far fewer contacts with the non-Jewish world. Rather, women were encouraged to cultivate a home-based Judaism in which spirituality was expressed in domestic activities. As Kaplan has demonstrated through memoirs, diaries, personal correspondence, and cookbooks, at a time when male synagogue attendance and ritual performance was declining, it was most often women who transmitted Jewish values to their families through a form of domestic religion which united traditional Jewish cooking and some form of home observance of the Sabbath and other holidays. Perhaps because they had been excluded from so many public rituals to begin with, women′s Judaism was essentially domestic, and in secularized homes they were often the last to preserve elements of Jewish tradition. Sigmund Freud, for example, persuaded his wife to drop all religious practices, but throughout their marriage Martha Freud and her husband argued over her wish to light candles on the Sabbath.
Rachel *Morpurgo (1790–1871), the Italian Hebrew poet, is an exceptional example of the impact of the Haskalah on a Jewish woman. Born in Trieste, she was a relative and close friend of Samuel David *Luzzatto (1800–1865), a major figure in modern Jewish thought and Hebrew literature, with whom she studied Hebrew religious texts and poetry for many years. Morpurgo's extensive education was acquired at home, alongside her brother and cousin, from private tutors and family members. Like Italian Jewish women of previous generations Morpurgo worked in the family business, as a turner on a lathe, a skill she learned from her uncle and father. After her marriage to Jacob Morpurgo in 1819, she was no longer able to give much time to study and writing since her husband disapproved of these activities and insisted that she devote herself to domestic duties. Prior to her marriage Morpurgo had maintained an extensive Hebrew poetic correspondence with Luzzatto; he published her writings 30 years later in Kokhevei Yiẓḥak (1847) to enormous acclaim. Morpurgo's poems and letters were collected and were published as an anthology entitled Ugav Raḥel (ed. V. Castiglioni , rep. 1943).
In 19th century England, a significant number of Jewish women worked in the public domain to hasten Jewish enlightenment and emancipation and to further religious reform. These include active advocates of liberal Judaism like Lily *Montagu, and writers of both fiction and non-fiction with Jewish themes directed to Jewish and gentile audiences such as Grace *Aguilar (d. 1847), and the sisters, Marion *Moss (1821-1907) and Celia *Moss (1819–1873). In her extremely popular book, The Women of Israel, Aguilar defended the exalted position of women in Judaism, highlighting what she described as women′s traditional role in hastening redemption as "teachers of children" and through other domestic activities. M. Galchinsky has noted that despite their uplifting messages, Jewish women′s success in the world of literature was profoundly threatening to the men of their milieu; while male Jewish reformers were compelled to support at least a degree of female emancipation in principle, they were determined to limit, trivialize, and undermine women′s writing and influence in the public sphere.
Nineteenth century domestic Judaism throughout Central and Western Europe not only reflected traditional Judaism′s preferred positioning of women in the private realm of husband and family, but was also a form of Jewish conformity to the Christian bourgeois model of female domesticity which put religion in the female sphere. Jewish literature and the Jewish press of the late nineteenth century, both in Europe and the United States, where the Jewish community prior to 1881 was overwhelmingly of Central European origin, described the Jewish woman as the "guardian angel of the house," "mother in Israel," and "priestess of the Jewish ideal," and assigned her primary responsibility for the Jewish identity and education of her children. This was a significant indication of acculturation in an ethnic group in which men had historically fulfilled most religious obligations, including the Jewish education of their sons. Moreover, this shifting of responsibility for inculcating Jewish identity and practices to women led rapidly from praise to denigration, as commentators began to blame mothers for their children′s assimilation. Such criticisms not only allowed men to ignore the implications of their own assimilationist behavior, but also revealed central tensions in the project of acculturation itself, including a communal inability to prevent individual defections to the larger society.
Reform Judaism, which sought to offer 19th century Western and Central European Jews a modernized form of Jewish belief and practice emphasizing personal faith and ethical behavior rather than ritual observance, proclaimed that women were entitled to the same religious rights and subject to the same religious duties as men in both home and synagogue. Emphasis on religious education for girls and boys, including the introduction of a confirmation ceremony for young people of both sexes, and an accessible worship service in the vernacular, also made the new movement attractive to many women. Pressure from young women may have prompted the Reform rabbinate to adopt the innovation of double ring wedding ceremonies in which not only men but women made a statement of marital commitment. In fact, however, European Reform Judaism made few substantive changes in women's actual synagogue status, offering no extension to women of ritual participation in worship and maintaining separate synagogue seating for men and women well into the 20th century (see *Synagogue: Women and the Synagogue).
Emulation of Christian models of female philanthropy and religious activism played a significant part in middle-class Jewish women's establishment of service and social welfare organizations in the 19th and early 20th century centuries in Germany and England. Such organizations as the *Juedischer Frauenbund in Germany (founded in 1904 by Bertha *Pappenheim), the Union of Jewish Women in Great Britain (founded in 1902), and the *National Council of Jewish Women in the United States (founded in 1893), cooperated in the international campaign against coercion of poor women into prostitution. They also argued for greater recognition of women within their respective Jewish communities as "sustainers of Jewish communal life and guardians against defection from Judaism." Women's activism in Europe and Great Britain positively affected the Jewish community in such areas as social welfare services, feminist trade unionism, support for women's suffrage, and agitation for religious change. Women who worked for these goals also blurred the boundaries between traditional male and female spheres as they acquired administrative expertise and assumed authoritative and responsible public roles.
While most Jewish women in Central Europe in the first decades of the 20th century conformed to the bourgeois models of early generations and focused their energies on home responsibilities and volunteer organizations, some achieved less conventional lives. Jewish women made up a disproportionately large percentage of the early generations of women who sought university education and professional training in Germany and Austria in the early 20th century. Many of these women made important contributions as academics, educators, social scientists, scientists, and physicians and helped pave the way for far larger numbers of middle-class professional women in the late 20th century. H.P. Freidenreich, has written that in an era when married women had a difficult time advancing their professional lives, many university women chose to devote themselves to their careers, tending not to marry or to marry later in life. While most university-educated non-Jewish women tended to become teachers, Jewish women followed the patterns established earlier by Jewish men, and became physicians, scientists, and social scientists, as well as academics and lawyers. A number applied their professional skills to improving the lives of women and children. Many female Jewish physicians specialized in gynecology or pediatrics and advocated for the widespread availability of contraception and legalized abortion; female psychiatrists and psychoanalysts often focused on childhood disorders and trauma. Unlike most of their Christian counterparts, Jewish university women tended to be on the political left. Mostly from highly acculturated middle class Jewish homes, few of these women were connected with the organized Jewish community prior to 1933.
Most of the discrimination these women faced in the early inter-war period was due to their gender, since educated women, in Europe and elsewhere, were often unpaid and underemployed. Even those who achieved academic positions rarely achieved tenure or the recognition they deserved, whether in Germany or Austria, or elsewhere after emigration. Antisemitism also played a role in limiting job opportunities before 1933. With the advent of the Nazi era, professional women, as all Jews, were forced to flee Europe in order to survive. Those who were able to leave Germany and Austria, often at a relatively advanced age and under adverse circumstances, had mixed success in reconstructing their lives and careers.
M.A. Kaplan has chronicled the everyday tyranny German Jews experienced under the Nazi regime from the perspectives of gender, delineating the ways in which women were more sensitive to the experience of discrimination, how women were usually more anxious to leave and risk uncertainty abroad, how women often were compelled to assume "male" roles within and outside the family, and how being female shaped an individual's destiny. After 1933, drastic changes for Jews in the public domain transformed occupational patterns in Jewish families. As Jewish businessmen and professionals were forced from their occupations, many married women had to enter the job market for the first time, often after training in service occupations. Although economic prospects were poor for all, women showed more adaptability than men. And as the family became a refuge from Nazi-imposed social, economic, and psychological hardships, women felt obligated to run their households smoothly even while functioning as the family's wage earner and advocate in the outside world.
Kaplan has also shown that parental desires to keep daughters at home, and preferential treatment of boys by Jewish welfare organizations providing career training, meant that girls were usually only 25 to 30 percent of participants in these vocational programs, often to their detriment. Still, as the situation of Germany's Jews worsened, community efforts to save all young people grew. By 1939, 82 percent of children 15 and under and 83 percent of young people between 16 and 24 had managed to escape Germany.
Following the pogrom of November 1938, more than 20,000 Jewish men were arrested while women witnessed the vandalizing of their homes. From this point on women rescued men, pulled together immigration papers, and where possible extricated their families from increasingly certain disaster. However, gender also played a role in emigration; by 1939, women, mostly elderly, were 57.5 percent of Germany's Jewish population, and they died disproportionately in Hitler's camps, a trend that has been documented for all European Jewish women.
Kaplan has also examined the situation of Jews who had intermarried, noting that almost all German Jews who survived Nazism without emigrating were partners in mixed marriages. While the Nazis condemned such unions and encouraged their dissolution coercively, gender played a crucial role, since Nazi sexism privileged couples with "Aryan" men over those with Jewish men. Nevertheless, "Aryan" men were more likely than "Aryan" women to divorce or abandon a Jewish spouse, although many mixed unions endured almost unbearable pressures.
[Judith R. Baskin (2nd ed.)]
Jewish women in Eastern Europe were marginalized by both ethnicity and gender. In some respects, their individual and collective stories were cut from the same cloth as the larger Jewish historical narrative; at the same time, gender also had a distinct impact in the arenas of religion, family and work, education, culture, and political life.
Female spirituality was deeply embedded in Ashkenazi Judaism. While women possessed a rudimentary understanding of Jewish theology, commandments, and values, they were excluded from participation in public worship and study. As a result, "female variants" of elite male culture emerged with new styles of prayers and learning. The recitation of *tkhines or supplicatory prayers formed an integral part of women's piety. Unlike formal liturgy, these Yiddish prayers, which addressed everyday concerns and the three female commandments (*ḥallah, *niddah, and hadlakah or lighting *candles), were voluntary, personal, and could be recited at any time. In lieu of Hebrew and Aramaic texts, women (and "men who are like women" in their lack of Hebrew knowledge) read popular religious literature in the vernacular such as the Tsenerene ("Go Forth and See"), a collection of homilies on the weekly Torah portion. To facilitate greater participation of women in their section of the synagogue, architects in Poland began to include women's annexes (wibershule) starting in the 16th century, which later became integral parts of the buildings as "women's sections" (ezrat nashim). Moreover, the sacralization of popular customs such as kneytlakh legn (candlemaking from wicks used to measure graves) lent greater value to female religious rituals.
Gender ideals also shaped Jewish women's status and roles in the family and in the social world of the *shtetl (see *Shtetl: Women and the Shtetl), the small towns where most East European Jews lived. A patriarchal division of labor allocated domestic chores and child rearing to women. However, in contrast to the cult of middle class domesticity in the West, economic necessity and cultural ideals forced the majority of East European women to contribute to the family economy. As a rule, most couples labored together to earn a livelihood by running a family business or earning separate wages. Sometimes, however, the onus of breadwinning fell disproportionately on the shoulders of Torah scholar's wives so that the husbands could study. I. Etkes suggests that elite society of religious learning was successful in constructing women's tacit acceptance of these roles as a privilege that bestowed cultural prestige. While they formed a small minority, these wives in turn served as a "legitimating symbol" to be emulated by ordinary women. Ḥasidic wives whose husbands spent all their time in the company of fellow Ḥasidim or the rebbe assumed a similar burden. Yekhezkel *Kotik (1847–1921) was particularly critical of the extreme poverty in which many of these families lived. With the onset of industrialization in the late nineteenth century, many Jews left the shtetl for the large cities of the Pale of Settlement. Women began to work in workshops and factories where they dominated the needle and garment trades. By 1921, Jewish women who worked in industry comprised 55.9 percent of Jewish wage earners in Poland.
Despite the modicum of power that Jewish women exercised in the family economy and household, they were vulnerable in matters of family law. In czarist Russia, where Jews retained autonomy over their own marriages and divorces, rabbinic authorities adjudicated all cases based on halakhah; in Galicia, Jews rejected civil marriage, which had been introduced by the Hapsburg state in 1783, and continued to follow religious procedures. Jewish women became increasingly powerless in divorce suits and not simply because of their husband's unilateral prerogative to dissolve marriages. More important was the breakdown of rabbinic control over these broad rights, which had served to protect women previously. As a result, wives found it difficult to secure a get (bill of divorcement) from husbands for wife beating and other reasons or to protest a coerced divorce. In response, some resorted to new strategies by turning to state courts and government institutions to enforce or overthrow a rabbinic decision and to secure their monetary rights. Despite these innovative venues, Jewish women still suffered from specific disabilities under Jewish law, especially as *agunot ("chained" women who were unable to remarry).
The Jewish Enlightenment movement in Eastern Europe, which began in the last few decades of the nineteenth century, was very different from the Haskalah in the West, lacking both the emphasis on Jewish achievement of political rights and civic equality, and the impetus for religious reform, since neither were likely to be achieved in the conservative Eastern European environment. Nor was the impoverished and predominantly small town Jewish population an appropriate constituency for the middle-class norms and values of the West. Rather, the Haskalah in Eastern Europe was a secularizing process which caused many to discontinue religious observance while fostering a Jewish national/ethnic identity, often linked to socialist and/or Zionist political goals. East European women were frequently in the forefront of this movement of cultural transformation.
Women's political involvement was due, in part, to the fact that Jewish women gained greater exposure to the secular world as a result of a gendered system of education in Eastern Europe. While boys received a formal religious schooling starting at an early age, most girls obtained an informal domestic education. The Orthodox community did not begin to provide vehicles for female religious education until after World War i (see Sarah *Schenirer, founder of the *Beth Jacob school network). At a minimum, a large segment of women gained literacy in Yiddish in order to read devotional literature. Alongside these sacred books, it was not uncommon to find popular tales about knights (Bove Maaseh) or the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor (Centura Ventura). These reading habits made it easy for women to shift to secular Yiddish popular literature by Isaac Meir *Dik, *Shomer, and others. In middle-class and wealthy families, daughters studied foreign languages, music, and art with private tutors without any censure from the Orthodox establishment. Others attended the newly secular schools for girls throughout the Russian empire. Ita Kalish, who grew up in a ḥasidic family observed that the sons studied at the shtibl while the girls learned about the "purity of Polish culture" in foreign schools. While not all women were educated, the "benefit of marginality" granted them access to new, modern ideas and prepared them to serve as agents of acculturation in their homes.
Moreover, girls and women in East European Jewish society, where the strong capable woman shrewdly interacting with the outside world was the dominant cultural ideal, were also secularized by their active participation in public economic life. In many ways late 19th century Eastern European women were far more involved in the process of Jewish assimilation than women in Western Europe or the United States. This is evident in the large numbers of East European Jewish women who sought higher education and professional training in Western Europe, a significantly higher percentage of female conversions to Christianity, and particularly in female involvement in a wide range of political movements, discussed below, which offered women opportunities for activism and leadership unavailable in traditional Jewish society.
The Jewish community of Eastern Europe had many social strata. Jews at the higher economic levels moved beyond shtetl society and had closer contacts with the wider world far earlier than their less prosperous co-religionists. The memoirist Pauline Epstein *Wengeroff (1833–1916), who grew up in a wealthy household in the 1830s and 1840s with a father and brothers-in-law who were extremely receptive to the promises of the Haskalah, was an unusually well-informed and well-read woman for her time and place. She received private tutoring in German and Russian as an adolescent, and she became a great enthusiast of literatures in both these languages. In the early days of her marriage she helped her husband improve his German skills, a necessary accomplishment for success in business. This emphasis on a Jewish culture deeply intertwined with the broader intellectual and artistic interests of the modern world was central to the Wengeroffs' family life and values. C. Balin has studied the literary remains, both published and unpublished, of a number of Russian-speaking daughters of prosperous middle-class urban Jews in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Like Wengeroff's daughters, some of these acculturated young women attended gymnasia, learned European languages, and earned university degrees, following educational, artistic, and professional paths comparable to those of many contemporaneous middle-class Jewish girls in Western Europe.
However, with education and acculturation, many Jews of the higher social echelons lost any sense of allegiance to the Jewish people or heritage. Wengeroff wrote her autobiography, Memoiren einer Grossmutter: Bilder aus der Kulturgeschichte der Juden Russlands im 19. Jahrhundert (Berlin, 1913; 19192), towards the end of her life. She presents herself as the casualty of significant social transformations which had undermined the female role for which she had been prepared and called into question many of the values with which she was raised. Nor did she see her tragedy as affecting only herself. As she wrote of the baptisms of her children: "Gradually this sorrow lost the significance of a personal tragedy and turned more and more into a national tragedy. I grieved not just as a mother, but as a Jew, for the entire Jewish people, which was losing so many of its strong members" (p. 226).
Wengeroff, in her own way, was part of a larger cohort of Jewish women in Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th and in the early decades of the 20th century who began to explore the greatly enlarged opportunities for self-expression offered by modern secular culture by writing poetry and prose, in languages that included Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, Russian, and German. While male supporters of the Haskalah in Eastern Europe lauded the process of modernization, they expressed deep ambivalence about the notion of female equality and the intrusion of women into their cultural domain. Nonetheless, maskilot like Miriam *Markel-Mosessohn, Devorah Ephrati, Hannah Bluma Sultz, Sarah Shapira, Sarah-Feiga Foner Meinkin, and others became an integral part of the Haskalah movement as producers of culture. The "anxiety of authorship" led some to write under pseudonyms while others adopted palimpsestic writing to hide the true meanings in hidden layers – a strategy used by maskilim in general. However, in the case of the maskilot, their hidden layers concealed an authentic feminine voice as well as the opinions of an enlightened individual. Up through the interwar years, Jewish women continued to contribute to the Russian and Polish language press and published their own volumes of literature, poetry, or history. However, estrangement from Jewish life frequently accompanied self-realization: to become a Jewish woman writer was to become a cultural anomaly. Often the price of such achievement was equivocal exile from a male culture profoundly uncomfortable with female intellectual assertiveness.
Disillusionment with the old order and aspirations to create a more egalitarian society drew Jewish women into the public political arena. Inspired by the works of Alexander Herzen, Nikolai Chernyshevskii, and other influential writers, women joined the Russian revolutionary movements in disproportionate numbers starting in the 1870s. From the onset, personal and political liberation were intricately connected as Jewish women rebelled against patriarchal oppression and legal disabilities. The most famous revolutionary, Gesia Gelfman, ran away from her prosperous Orthodox home on the eve of her wedding to join the People's Will and participate in the assassination of Alexander ii.
However, by the end of the 19th century, the composition and nature of Jewish involvement with socialism (see *Socialism: Women and Socialism) was transformed by the growth of a massive Jewish artisanal working-class in the cities of Eastern Europe. As Jewish women flocked into light industry, primarily the needle trades, but also tanning, bristle making, and cigar and cigarette production, many began to organize as workers and as Jews to protest their exploitative working conditions. Jewish women joined the socialist-oriented *Bund when it formed in Vilna in 1897, comprising one-third of its membership, and occupied many of its middle rank leadership roles, much to the chagrin of traditional families. In the early 1920s, the Bund established a separate women's division, the Yidishe Arbeter-Froy Organizatsie (yaf) and two sister youth groups (Zukunft and Sotsialistisher Kinder Farband) – a common practice among leftists groups in Poland. The women's auxiliary focused on the critical needs of working women, especially the need for child care. While the Bund articulated egalitarian ideals, female activists complained that gender relations and roles had changed little in the family. Male activists expected their wives to perform all their traditional domestic roles even at the expense of missing meetings and activities. As in most revolutionary parties, broader political goals took precedence over the woman's question. Jewish feminist activists persisted and founded the Jewish Women's Association in 1920.
Other women, like Puah Rakovsky, chose to devote their political energies to *Zionism. Two newspapers, Di froy (The Woman) and Froyen-shtim (Women's Voice) appeared in the mid-1920s with the goal of combining Zionist and feminist aspirations. Both sought to encourage women in their dual struggle as the female half of an oppressed and persecuted people.
Jewish women's lives changed abruptly with the outbreak of World War ii. Studies have shown that gender played a critical role in the different male and female responses to crisis and strategies for survival during the Shoah. Prewar socialization proved critical in the early years. In Poland, Jewish women who had significant familiarity with the Polish language and customs as a result of sex-segregated education comprised the majority of Jews who lived on the Aryan side. A Yad Vashem survey found that women were more successful in their disguise due to greater confidence in their physical appearance (i.e., no circumcision), lack of a Jewish accent, fine Polish mannerisms, and attentiveness to the feelings and reactions of others. Moreover, they were more likely to receive assistance from non-Jewish individuals and organizations. These women participated in resistance and rescue activities as couriers and fighters.
Prewar gender roles also persisted in the ghettos. Women assumed the traditional role of caring for their families; however, basic domestic tasks such as feeding the children now required great ingenuity and courage. All Jews, including former housewives, were forced to work in order to survive. Wage differentials in the ghetto were substantial: women often received two-thirds or three-quarters the pay of male workers; moreover, they had a more difficult time finding scarce jobs due to their lack of skills. Another obvious distinction was women's reproductive capacity, which was the target of infamous Nazi policies. In the ghettos, Germans instituted a policy of compulsory abortion. Women with young children and visibly pregnant women were immediately exterminated in the death and labor camps. Women were also more likely to experience rape and sexual harassment at the hands of foster family members, fellow inmates and guards. Testimonies reveal that German commanders selected the most beautiful girls as personal "housemaids" at their own discretion. Some women had no choice but to enter sexual relationships in order to obtain better rations or conditions. In the ghettos and camps, women devised new strategies to survive emotionally and mentally. In contrast to men, many of whom stopped washing or shaving, the majority of women attempted to take care of their personal hygiene. They also formed surrogate families, especially camp sisters and mothers, to provide mutual aid and sustenance.
At the end of World War ii, the majority of East European Jewish women survivors opted to immigrate to Israel or America, leaving behind a rich historical legacy.
[ChaeRan Freeze (2nd ed.)]
Jewish women in colonial America continued their accustomed domestic roles while simultaneously integrating themselves into the wider culture. Often they did so ingeniously, adjusting, adapting, and reinterpreting American forms to serve their Jewish purposes. The first two Jewish women known by name in North America, Ricke Nunes and Judith Mercado, most likely widowed heads of families, were among the 23 Jews who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654 from Brazil.
Most colonial Jewish women were respectable matrons; their households, as in the case of Rebecca Machado *Phillips (1746–1831), who bore twenty-one children, could be quite large, but others were much smaller. Certainly, dietary laws were followed in many homes. When, in 1774, Hetty Hays suspected that she had bought meat that was not properly kashered, she was ordered to "do Cassarar [kasher], or properly Clense, all her Spoons, plates and all other utensals, used in her House" (Snyder, 25). The extent of observance of traditional *niddah regulations in this early community is unclear. The first known communal *mikveh was built by the Jews of Philadelphia in 1786.
Abigaill *Franks (1696?–1756), whose letters form the largest body of writings by a Jewish woman in North America, honored the Sabbath and holidays and kept kosher. She told her son Naphtali never to eat anything at her brother's home, because she knew his household did not observe the dietary laws. Franks ensured that her daughters as well as her sons learned Hebrew. But, she also displayed an independence of mind typical of other American Jewish women. Yearning for a modernized Judaism, she wrote in 1739, "I Must Own I cant help Condemning the Many Superstions wee are Clog'd with & hartly wish a Calvin or Luther would rise amongst Us[.] I Answer for my Self… I don't think religeon Consist in Idle Cerimonies" (Smith, 17). The costs of the open society and such impulses were high. When Franks's daughter Phila married outside the faith, her spirit was crushed; none of Abigail's two dozen grandchildren seems to have passed on Judaism to the next generation.
On Sabbaths and festivals Jewish women joined their male relatives in worship. The second synagogue built in colonial America, in Newport, Rhode Island in 1763, was constructed with an upper level women's gallery that dispensed with the additional grilles and curtains found in European synagogues. This established a pattern in American synagogue architecture in which woman could see and be seen (see *Synagogue: Women and the Synagogue).
In 1820 the Jewish population in the United States was less than 3,000. Jews lived out their lives among their Christian neighbors and represented Judaism to them, inviting Gentile friends to celebrate with them at their weddings and circumcisions. Early America's Jewish women joined these Christian friends and neighbors to aid others. In 1801, Rebecca Machado Phillips and some 20 other Philadelphia women, Christians and Jews, including Rebecca *Gratz (1781–1869), founded the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances. Jewish women also supported the needs of their own community; in 1782, when Philadelphia's Jews built a new synagogue, Rebecca Phillips and Grace Nathan raised funds to purchase its ritual objects.
In the 19th century Rebecca Gratz was the epitome of Jewish American female volunteerism. Also a founder of Philadelphia's Orphan Asylum, she is best remembered for her endeavors on behalf of the Jewish people. Gratz founded the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1819 to aid the Jewish poor and protect them from Christian missionizing. In 1838, when she established the first Hebrew Sunday School in America, she launched the prototype of a new educational setting for America's Jewish children and opened a new avenue for Jewish women's communal activism as teachers.
Between 1820 and 1880, America's Jewish population grew to 250,000, mainly due to immigration from German-speaking lands. In 1846, eleven women from New York's Temple Emanu-El established the Unabhängiger Orden Treuer Schwestern. The only independent female fraternal order then in America, it eventually sparked a web of lodges offering newly American Jewish women mutual aid in times of emergency and sickness and guaranteeing members a decent burial.
Another important public avenue for Jewish women's piety was literature. Penina *Moïse (1797–1880) of Charleston, South Carolina, published poems in the leading papers and periodicals of her day. She was superintendent of Beth Elohim Congregation's Sunday school and was the author of the first American Jewish hymnal; many of her hymns were used in the Reform movement well into the 20th century. Periodicals directed at American Jewish women, such as *Die Deborah, published in German between 1855 and 1902, and *American Jewess, the first English-language periodical for American Jewish women, edited by Rosa *Sonneschein in 1895–99, informed and entertained female readers and also provided vehicles for Jewish women's writing.
The best known Jewish female writer was poet Emma *Lazarus (1849–1887). In the early 1880s, deeply disturbed by the Russian pogroms whose refugees she met through her work with the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society, she called for founding a Jewish state in Palestine ("The Jewish Problem," 1883). Her 1883 magnum opus, "The New Colossus," inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, portrays America as the "Mother of Exiles" welcoming "the huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
Between 1881 and 1924, some two million East European Jews streamed to America. Propelled by grinding poverty, violent pogroms, and the dislocations of revolutionary turmoil and war, theirs was overwhelmingly a migration of families. When the male head of the household journeyed ahead, as Israel Antin, father of author Mary *Antin, did in 1891, he spent the next years scrimping and saving to buy passage for his wife and children. This migration utterly transformed American Jewry. By 1930 the 4.4 million American Jews, 3.6 percent of the U.S. population, comprised nearly a third of world Jewry.
Domestic concerns were central to the East European Jewish immigrant women and their daughters who lived in the crowded tenements of immigrant enclaves such as New York's Lower East Side, Boston's North End, and Chicago's West Side. Many strove to adhere to Judaism despite significant economic need. When the price of kosher meat soared from 12 to 18 cents a pound in New York in 1902, immigrant mothers broke into butcher shops, set meat afire, and shared recipes for meatless meals to compel their neighbors to honor their kosher meat boycott.
Established and prosperous American Jewish women, generally of Central European origin, were anxious to help their struggling and impoverished co-religionists. The *National Council of Jewish Women, founded in 1893 by Hannah Greenebaum *Solomon (1858–1942), protected Jewish immigrant girls traveling without guardians from falling into *prostitution. They and other middle-class American Jewish women established vocational training and classes for immigrants to learn American customs. East European Jewish immigrant women also established their own social welfare agencies. Poor immigrant women who had fallen upon hard times, like the newly widowed, and entrepreneurial women, who wanted to buy cloth to sew or coal to heat the bathhouse, could borrow money from immigrant women's credit networks operated by those just slightly better off than they.
Jewish American women had frequently participated in the economic lives of their family. In the colonial era, married Jewish women managed family businesses while their husbands traveled and widows kept kosher boardinghouses. In the 19th century, many Jewish women "helped out" in family businesses, selling clothing and canned goods, saddles and blankets from behind the counters of the dry goods stores their husbands owned in the small towns dotting the landscape of the South and the West. But 19th-century middle-class propriety in America, as in Western and Central Europe, expected women to busy themselves with their homes and families while leaving economic concerns to their men. Following these bourgeois ideals, many Jewish women, prior to 1880, eschewed the public world of business for the private sphere of their homes.
East European Jewish immigrants, however, came from a world which desperately needed and valued women's contributions to the family economy. In Russia young Jewish women had worked primarily in the needle trades. Their mothers sold goods in the marketplace. Immigrant Jewish women came to America expecting to work, and they, especially the unmarried, found employment in the burgeoning ready-made clothing industry. Married Jewish women contributed to the family economy in other ways, taking in piecework to sew at home or opening their tenement apartments to boarders. They also sold goods from pushcarts on the streets or worked in the family's five-and-dime or soda fountain. Later in the 1920s and 1930s, their daughters, aspiring to white-collar work, became sales-clerks and bookkeepers. Those who were able to take advantage of New York's tuition-free Hunter College would go on to teach in the city's ever-expanding public schools.
But it was Jewish women's employment in the garment industry, especially in the dress and waist trade, that shaped their politics. Some immigrant working girls had already participated in political movements, unions, and workers' actions in Europe. Low wages, poor working conditions, and frequent layoffs propelled many others into the *International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (see *Socialism: Women and Socialism). In the 1909 "Uprising of the 20,000" the shirtwaist makers struck, seeking a fifty-two-hour workweek and paid overtime. This labor action helped launch "The Great Revolt," which spread to Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, and Kalamazoo and emboldened the American labor movement. By 1919, half of all garment workers were members of a union. Fannia M. *Cohn,*Rose*Schneiderman,*Pauline*Newman, and Clara Lemlich *Shavelson,*all East European-born, experienced the shirtwaist strike as the formative event of their activist youth, as did Theresa *Malkiel, who later became an important Socialist Party activist and immortalized her experiences in the novel, Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker (1910). Many female Jewish trade unionists such as Bessie Abramowitz *Hillman, continued their socialist-inspired activism through progressive and reform politics in the New Deal. Labor unrest also provides a context for the neighborhood politics of kosher meat boycotts and the rent strikes Jewish women would stage into the 1930s. Not surprisingly, these same immigrant women actively campaigned for the New York State suffrage bill in 1917.
As immigrant Jewish women and their American-born daughters ascended to the middle-class, they acculturated to middle-class norms that presented women as wives and mothers who were largely uninvolved in economic endeavors and political crusades. American Jewish women with time for leisure pursuits adopted the Chinese game of mah jongg; vacationed with their children in Jewish bungalow colonies in the Catskills, while their husbands spent the week at work in the city; and became consumers of culture, of the theater, movies, and literature. But, most importantly, middle-class leisure allowed America's Jewish women to invent new spaces for themselves in American Judaism that became essential to sustaining Jewish life in America (see *Synagogue: Women and the Synagogue; *Philanthropy: Women and Philanthropy).
Synagogue sisterhoods encouraged women to be exemplary Jewish wives and mothers, to extend the boundaries of their home to the synagogue, equipping its kitchens, and catering its lunches. By 1923, women affiliated with each of the denominational synagogue movements of American Judaism, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, had created national organizations of synagogue sisterhoods (see *National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, *Women's League for Conservative Judaism; Carrie Obendorfer *Simon; Mathilde Roth *Schechter). Other American Jewish women found places in the ladies' branches of *landsmannschaften or the socialist brotherhood of the Yiddish-speaking Arbeter Ring, or *Workmen's Circle.
Zionism, the movement for a Jewish homeland in Israel, also commanded American Jewish women's energies, enthusiasms, and commitments. In 1912, Henrietta *Szold, one of the most remarkable Jews of her era, transformed a small Zionist study circle into *Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, which would grow into the largest women's organization in America. Through it and other women's Zionist groups, including *amit (Mizrachi Women's Organization of America), founded in 1925 by Bessie Goldstein *Gotsfeld; *ort (Organization for Rehabilitation through Training); and *Pioneer Women, American Jewish women would help support human needs in the State of Israel into the 21st century.
Jewish women in America continued these commitments at home and abroad, even as the Great Depression strained their household economies and propelled some back into the workforce. In the 1930s, America's Jewish women also struggled against the growing menace of Nazi persecution. In the 1930s, the women of the American Jewish Congress picketed Woolworth's to boycott the sale of German goods and battled antisemitism at home. The shelters they established in the 1930s to house refugees fleeing Nazism would soon house allied soldiers as America entered World War ii.
Not all Jewish women were concentrated in the Eastern part of the United States. Nevertheless, even those in the Midwest and West, like Rachel *Calof (1876–1952), who was a homesteader in North Dakota, faced the same challenges: how to raise and sustain a Jewish family in the midst of America. They found similar answers in the synagogue sisterhoods they joined in Omaha, Nebraska, and the Hadassah chapters they founded in Detroit, Michigan. Frances Wisebart *Jacobs (1843–1892), known as Denver's "Mother of Charities," helped organize and led the Hebrew Ladies' Benevolent Society, founded the nonsectarian Denver Ladies' Relief Society, and served as the impetus behind the founding of National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives. Florence Prag *Kahn (1866–1948) of San Francisco, the first Jewish congresswoman, was elected in 1924 to the United States House of Representatives for the first of six two-year terms. And Ray *Frank (1861–1948), a California native who spent some years in the Pacific Northwest, was the first Jewish woman to preach and lead religious services from a North American pulpit.
In the 60 years since the end of World War ii, America's Jewish women remained devoted to their homes and families, synagogues and Jewish organizations, although they lived out these commitments in new settings These included the emerging Jewish suburbs and cities with growing Jewish populations, like Miami and Los Angeles. Making these neighborhoods their own, women shopped at the Jewish bakeries and kosher butchers that cropped up. They helped start new synagogues and supported educational and social programs for their children from pre-school through the high school years. They imported #x1E24;anukkah lamps and candlesticks from Israel and sold them in gift shops run by the sisterhoods in their new temples. With antisemitism waning in American life, these women, increasingly the daughters and the granddaughters of the East European Jewish immigrants, also discovered opportunities to acculturate more fully into the American scene. Hence, for many, Jewish commitments became but a single strand in the design of their lives, perhaps more intensive when their children were young, and less so earlier and later.
Ḥasidic communities took shape in North America in the interwar period and grew substantially after World War ii. Ḥasidic women continue to stand out from the rest of America's Jewish women with distinctively modest dress and head coverings (see *Ḥasidim: Women in Ḥasidism). Ḥasidic daughters mostly eschew higher education, marry young, usually meeting their husbands through professional matchmakers, and have large families. While many in the ḥasidic world were born into it, some Jewish women have entered this world from the outside.
A high level of education is characteristic of most American Jewish women: 1990 figures indicated that over 85 percent of Jewish women aged 30–39 had gone to college and 30 percent had gone on to graduate school. Similarly, three-quarters of Jewish women aged 25–44 and two-thirds of those aged 45–64 were part of the labor force. Moreover, an increasing number of Jewish women over the decades have entered and achieved in the professions, the entertainment industry, and the arts. American Jewish women have a long history, as well, of success as business entrepreneurs in a number of industries, including cosmetics, dolls and children's toys, fashion, and the food and hotel industries (see Beatrice *Alexander; Jennie *Grossinger; Ruth Mosko *Handler; Estee *Lauder; Judith *Leiber; Mary Ann Cohen *Magnin; Regina *Margareten; Mollie *Parnis; and Ida Cohen *Rosenthal). The ground-breaking two-volume reference work, Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Paula E. Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore (1997), provides biographies of the hundreds of Jewish women who have made significant contributions in numerous areas of endeavor to American and American Jewish life from the colonial period to the present.
American Jewish women, including Betty *Friedan, Gloria *Steinem, and Letty Cottin *Pogrebin, have been in the forefront of the second wave of American feminism that began in the late 1960s (see *Feminism). At the same time, individual Jewish women have carved out personal places in American judicial and political life. Among them are Congresswomen Bella *Abzug, N.Y. Supreme Court judges Birdie *Amsterdam and Judith *Kaye; Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader *Ginsberg; and United States Senators Barbara *Boxer and Dianne *Feinstein, both from California.
Feminism has also led to major changes in women's status and roles in American Judaism, including the equality of women in synagogue worship outside of Orthodox Judaism (see *Synagogue: Women and the Synagogue; *Liturgy), a plethora of new opportunities for Jewish learning for girls and women across the denominations, and the flourishing of Jewish feminist scholarship and theology (see *Feminism; *Theology: Feminist Theology). The public honoring of young women's coming of age in the synagogue, the *bat mitzvah, had become widespread by the late 1960s.
Since the 1970s American Jewish women have also been ordained as rabbis and cantors (see *Ḥazzan; *Semikhah: Ordination of Women; *Rabbi, Rabbinate; *Synagogue); the first American female rabbi, Sally *Priesand, was ordained in 1972. Occupying a historic place in the annals of Judaism, female rabbis have sought to open worship and practice to women's particular concerns. Their astonishing creativity, part of the emergence of feminist Judaism, has produced new prayers and ceremonies for conception, pregnancy, and childbirth; for those grieving infertility, suffering stillbirth, and turning to adoption; for the onset of menses and the completion of menopause; and for healing after rape, for remaining single, and for acknowledging marital separation (see *Ablution; *Birth; *Marriage; *Mikveh; *Niddah; *Feminism; *Theology: Feminist Theology; *Liturgy). Furthermore, feminism has also encouraged the inclusion within the Jewish community of many women formerly marginalized, including single women, divorced women, and lesbians (see *Feminism; *Lesbians; *Synagogue: Women and the Synagogue).
Feminism has brought alterations to all sectors of Jewish communal life. Certainly many women have given up the hours they once devoted to volunteer activities for fulltime employment, Many women who continue to volunteer now divert their energies to causes beyond the Jewish community, especially those that support and further gender equality. This has resulted in a decline in numbers and an aging of volunteers in many of the established Jewish women's organizations and synagogue sisterhoods at century's end. Nevertheless, feminism has also allowed for the creation for new avenues for Jewish women's communal and religious activism. These include adult b'not mitzvah, feminist seder s, Rosh #x1E24;odesh groups (see *Bat Mitzvah; *Passover: Women and Passover; *New Moon), and the new spaces for women's projects which have sprung up in Jewish community centers and federations.
Although an increasing number of qualified women professionals are employed in Jewish agencies, the Jewish communal sphere has been slow to recognize and encourage female leadership potential. This resistance to women in positions of authority is indicative of the sexual politics of contemporary Jewish identity in general. While some men will continue to resist what they perceive as female encroachment on male hegemony in the public domain, others may simply abandon Jewish communal institutions and Judaism to women altogether. As S.B. Fishman has cautioned, the stakes for American Jews are significant since, "The American Jewish community not only shares in all the human consequences of feminism but also carries with it the additional responsibility of preserving three thousand years of Jewish history and culture and confronting the problems of a numerically challenged population as well" (Fishman, 247). However, if the past is any indication, forces from outside the Jewish community will be as influential as any from within in determining the roles of women in American Judaism and American Jewish life in the 21st century.
[Pamela S. Nadell (2nd ed.)]
The position of Jewish women and gender relations in the countries of the modern Muslim world, including Turkey, Iran, Iraq, North Africa, Yemen, and the Middle East, were shaped by Jewish law and traditions, the practices of the surrounding Muslim society, and the gradual penetration of Western ideas, customs, and political influence. Due to the wide geography and heterogeneous social and cultural composition and political life of the Muslim world, the amount of external influence on Jewish life varied. It tended to be strongest in urban centers (where most Jews lived) in those countries with closer ties to the West. Internal communal initiatives also brought about new developments and with the passing of time gender relations among Jews in most regions gradually changed from patterns developed in the medieval era.
A division between the realms of women and men was intrinsic to the Muslim world: women were in charge of maintaining the home, while men provided the material means for the family's existence. These well-defined differences in gender roles were also followed in Jewish communities and they had implications for behavior, division of physical space, work, religious activity, education, spirituality, and recreation. An unquestioned gender hierarchy led to different attitudes towards men and women throughout their lives. The birth of a boy was welcomed and celebrated with traditional Jewish rites and particular local ones, while the birth of a girl was rarely celebrated, and at times even deplored. Upon death, too, formal attitudes were different; ceremonies honoring deceased women were rare. Gender preference also had an impact on marriage since lack of male children was considered the woman's fault. If the first wife did not give birth to a son within a certain period of time (usually ten years), a husband could divorce her or marry a second wife, even if daughters had been born.
Gendered space was characteristic of the Muslim world and of the Jewish communities who lived within it. Women spent most of their time within their household whereas men went outside for work and spiritual activities. Most occupational, social, cultural, and religious activities were gender-based; any mixed gender activities occurred mainly within the family circle. Consequently, the internal structure of the home was gender-based, with kitchens and sleeping quarters perceived as the women's space, with men's temporary admittance there at night, while men occupied the public areas of the house. Women in towns rarely stepped outside the house; when they did, they were usually accompanied and veiled. Clothing restrictions were usually less strict for young girls. Urban women were also restricted regarding the places they could visit, usually limited to the homes of other women, the gender segregated ritual bath, the cemetery, and the synagogue. The latter, however, was considered men's space, and most did not have a special women's section until modern times. Sporadic female synagogue attendees observed the service from windows or gates. Markets were also male space and men usually did the daily shopping. Some urban women carried out trades among women, Jewish and even Muslim, but this was unusual, and rarely brought them in contact with men. Gender segregation and clothing restrictions were somewhat lighter in rural areas where most community members were relatives and women's work required departure from the restricted limits of the house.
These social divisions by gender had implications throughout life. Males were part of the women's world only as toddlers; partial separation started when the boys went to school, and culminated once they went out to work. As they grew older, both genders met mainly in close family circles or among a somewhat larger group during special family or seasonal celebrations. Even on these occasions, men and women were often segregated; in many regions men and women ate apart at home and celebrated separately during larger gatherings. This lengthy separation resulted in shyness between married couples; in some locales they hardly spoke with each other, did not use each other's names, and were ignorant about sexual issues, resulting in late pregnancies.
Many female responsibilities remained the same throughout life, but their degree, intensity, and character were also based on the woman's stage within the overall life cycle. Upon their marriage brides usually moved to the extended family household of their husbands where the mother in-law or oldest matriarch headed the female hierarchy. The position of women was also influenced by socioeconomic and geographical settings. Women on the margins – the poor and those living in small isolated villages – had more freedoms.
Regular female household duties included food preparation and serving, cleaning and heating, and care taking, especially of children. The basic duties of women in urban and rural regions were similar, but concepts of what constituted a household were different, based on socioeconomic and geographic conditions. In the village, demographic conditions enlarged the physical space: since the community was smaller, most members were in various degrees of kinship, thus allowing women to have freer contact with men. This enabled women to carry out regular duties outside the house, not only in the attached garden, but also in far away fields. These duties, in turn, made it possible for women to mingle with women outside their family as well as with men, both Jewish and gentile.
The position of rural women was also shaped by economic factors. Women worked in the vegetable garden attached to the house and drew water and fetched wood. Rural girls drew water daily from a source that either belonged exclusively to Jews or to the whole village. This resulted in the village well becoming a center for social interaction. Men were attracted to these gatherings of young women, but due to the large concentration of members of both genders who were often kin, there was little opportunity for privacy in these meetings. Still, these gatherings could result in the formation of couples, although parental approval for marriage was required. In town, on the contrary, until a late period, male water sellers brought water to homes, and rain water was collected in reservoirs.
In the village, wood for cooking and heating was usually fetched weekly by a group of women who left early in the day. They often had to walk a great distance and returned carrying a heavy load on their heads. This activity was accompanied by songs which strengthened group identity and consolidation and served as a diversion from hard labor. Although fetching wood was carried out in groups, and usually did not bring women in contact with men, some urban rabbis objected to it because it was in contrast to city modes of behavior and modesty.
Traditionally, some women worked outside their home due to economic need or in order to perform unique female assignments. In the first category were maids, petty merchants, peddlers, and even ritual butchers (in Yemen), while in the second category were midwives, cosmeticians (mainly for brides), and mourners. Some women gained income from handicrafts which they produced at home by spinning, knitting, weaving, or embroidery. Most women gave their earnings to their male guardians – be it father, brother, or husband. Nonetheless, throughout the period, women often had independent authority over their dowry, and thus some economic power. Older women, and especially widows, had the most social and economic independence, and could invest in economic enterprises and contribute to various private and communal causes, including the establishment of religious institutions and the writing of Torah scrolls.
Towards the second half of the 19th century changes emerged in urban areas as a result of harsher economic conditions, the growing presence of European enterprises, and the increase of employment opportunities following the introduction of new jobs. Increased availability of formal education, including vocational training, also played a significant role. At first, female wage earners were mainly from among the poor, who worked outside their household as long as they were single; married women still rarely worked outside their homes. Initially most jobs were an extension of traditional women's tasks or related to their handicrafts. Thus, a large number of women worked as maids, mostly, but not exclusively, in Jewish households. Those with skills such as needlework and ironing worked either in gender segregated workshops or at home. Only gradually, in the 20th century, did women start to enter mixed-gender workplaces, as nurses, factory workers, and office employees. Even then, women often worked separately. Nonetheless, opportunities for unsupervised inter-gender interaction increased among Jews and between Jews and gentiles. The opening of kindergartens and girls' schools called for the employment of female teachers and directors. This led to temporary migrations of single women and married couples, mostly within the *Alliance Israélite Universelle (aiu) educational network, mainly from Turkey and Morocco. With the spread of state schools, especially after independence, Jewish women also began to teach in non-Jewish schools (e.g., in Morocco).
With the passing of time, a growing number of women wanted to join the workforce not only out of economic necessity, but also in order to satisfy their personal ambitions, interests, and desire for public service; some regarded it as a means for self affirmation and independence. This tendency was the strongest in those urban centers which were exposed to Western influences, in countries such as Turkey and Morocco. However, despite the growing numbers of women in the workforce, they rarely reached leadership positions, even in fields where their number was high, like teaching. This resulted from their lesser leisure time due to continued responsibilities at home and from continuing gender bias against women in managerial roles.
The different status of women and men was reflected in their educations. Education for men was intended to enable them to participate in synagogue worship and communal affairs and to prepare them to support their families financially. Girls' education, too, provided them with tools to perform their specific tasks. Since their world was mainly domestic, they learned how to maintain a Jewish home, mostly from older female relatives. All home activities had a specific Jewish character and were performed within a broader Jewish framework. Thus, the preparation of food was ruled by strict religious laws regarding kashrut, with further instructions for the Passover festival. In addition, girls learned some Hebrew prayers which related to women's religious obligations, such as lighting the Sabbath lights. In time, girls were instructed in regulations governing ritual purity and received some sex education. Girls, who were mainly illiterate, memorized appropriate religious rules and prayers from their female relatives, most of whom had gained their knowledge in a similar way.
Women were not required or expected to participate in the formal male conducted communal service in the synagogue and thus had no need to be instructed in Hebrew. Some girls did learn to read Hebrew, usually from male relatives. On a few occasions, little girls were sent to mixed-gender schools, but their studies lasted a shorter time than the boys'. Although it was very rare, some women became teachers of little children, while a very few others were renowned for their Jewish learning. While all males had a Hebrew name (sometimes in addition to one in the local dialect), many women had names in the vernacular or in European languages, further distancing them from the more prestigious male culture.
A major component of female spirituality was women's poetry, which was part of their life and in their local dialect. Such poetry expressed the individual and the group at work, recreation, celebration, and worship. It dealt with daily issues and events, including specific feasts and celebrations, matters of belief, and private life. Girls were exposed to it from an early age, hearing older female relatives sing individually or together in private or at work, during leisure time, family celebrations (especially at weddings), seasonal feasts, and while honoring the Torah and local places of worship like synagogues and tombs of saints.
Since women tended to be illiterate, their poetry was oral and given to constant change. While many songs had a basic pattern, individuals often improvised to emphasize specific events, personalities, and places relating to a particular occasion. Women usually sang only for women or in family gatherings. Those who sang to a larger non-kin, mixed-gender audience were often from a lower social status and were despised. Female poetry was also a channel for inter-communal and inter-denominational contact and influence. At times, women mixed with the crowds surrounding singers of another group, even belonging to another religion, to learn new songs and melodies. Thus, female poetry and music eased the burden of heavy labor, strengthened group ties, served as a means of artistic expression and form of worship, and even served as a bridge between communities.
Men's poetry, on the other hand, was more rigid and less understood by the masses. Much of it was religious poetry in Hebrew, unintelligible to the majority who knew only the local Jewish dialect. It was mostly created by known poets and sung by professionals. Even the poetry in the local dialect was generally composed by individuals and much less given to improvisation. Consequently, it was easier to preserve and study men's poetry. But although many men listened to this art form, only relatively few could fully understand and appreciate it or contribute to its development. Women, on the other hand, could enjoy, participate, and contribute to their poetry throughout life, regardless of age, status, or occupation.
Women of several households used to gather in their limited leisure time, talking, singing, and doing their handicrafts, which were often intricate artistic creations, unique to specific regions and the bearer's stage in life. During these meetings, female poetry was sung by any member of the group. Girls were exposed to this rich creative environment from an early age, observing visual art in its development, hearing poetry while it was composed, and becoming aware of intimate issues related to family life. Thus, although most girls were illiterate, they acquired the skills of creativity from a tender age and developed their own forms of spirituality in a supportive environment.
The long established cultural equilibrium in Jewish communities under Islam was shattered when new educational systems were introduced, although in many cases schools were established in response to indigenous requests. Among the major elements active in modern Jewish education, including female education, were the Paris-based Alliance Israélite Universelle, beginning in the 1860s (mainly in Morocco, Turkey, Palestine, Iraq and Iran), and the Zionist movement, through local activists and emissaries from Palestine (mainly in Iraq, Tunisia, Morocco, and Libya) during the 20th century. Other modern schools were mostly foreign or, later, run by the state. Communal educational systems were slow to change, and usually did so in response to outside competition. Jewish leadership often opposed modern education because it was geared towards alien value systems and threatened to dispossess traditional functionaries. The opposition was less fierce towards formal female education, both because the community did not provide one and because a secular or Jewish system could draw girls away from missionary schools. Still, in some places, like Iraq and Palestine, there was rabbinic opposition to any formal female education out of fear that educated girls, as the mothers of the next generation, would champion change. Formal female education not only made women literate, but also facilitated another major departure from tradition, the mass entry of women into teaching.
Early girls' schools emphasized vocational training, complemented with a few academic subjects. The focus on vocational education was an effort to attract poor girls, who would acquire profitable professions which could be performed at home. There was a fear that emphasis on academic studies would come at the expense of mastering household skills and would make girls feel superior to their environment and even equal to men, thereby diminishing their chances to marry. Since Muslim girls rarely received formal vocational training at the time, Jewish girls encountered little competition in the professions they learned in school.
Jewish girls' schools were established later than schools for boys, there were usually fewer female than male students, and even fewer girls passed the level of primary education. This was due to continued communal desire for women to marry young and to the fact that secondary education was usually mixed. Schools were mostly segregated by gender, but mixed schools (with either separate-gender classes or mixed ones) existed too, mainly for economic reasons in small communities. Although the attendance of Jewish girls at missionary or state schools increased their chances of meeting gentiles, some Jewish parents sometimes selected missionary schools, as was the case in Egypt and Aden, because of the European languages they taught and the free tuition they offered. Similarly, parents opted at times for state schools, as was the case in Iraq and Iran, because of their sheer number in comparison to Jewish schools, especially at the high school level. In the republic of Turkey, all foreign, religious, and communal schools were gradually closed beginning in the late 1920s.
Those Jewish girls who did receive modern educations often became agents of change. However, the gap between expectations and reality tended to be wide for educated young women. Even when they managed to enter the "men's world," they generally held lower rank jobs with virtually no likelihood of advancement.
Leisure time activities were traditionally gender-based. Women's meetings often incorporated an element of work, private or communal. In addition to home gatherings, adult women met towards the week's end to clean the synagogue and prepare it for the Sabbath, while neighboring women provided them with refreshments. On these occasions female poetry was sung in praise of the Torah scroll. Women frequented the synagogue for worship much less than men. Most women could not pray from prayer books and usually voiced improvised prayers, blessings, and wishes in the vernacular, sending kisses to the Torah scroll. Women were also active in self-help societies, mainly for the needy, including poor brides and the sick. Men's leisure time activities were more text-oriented, usually in the form of prayers or community sponsored study groups, where men passively listened to readings from religious literature or chanted Psalms. Men also met for recreational purposes in coffee houses and drinking places.
Towards the end of the 19th century, new leisure time activities sprang up side by side with traditional ones. Many of the new patterns resulted from foreign influences and the new educational systems. The aiu was very active in this respect, especially in Morocco and Turkey. In anticipation of the foundation of an aiu school, a local aiu committee was established to advance aiu goals, to promote the establishment of an aiu school, and then to serve as a support group for the school. Most aiu committee members were men, but a few women participated too, usually when supporting girls' and mixed schools. The aiu also triggered the establishment of welfare-oriented organizations, which included many female members. Following a few years of a school's existence, an alumni organization was established, supporting the school, mainly through paid cultural and social activities. These organizations were at first often gender-based, but gradually attracted women and men for mixed-gender activities.
The 20th century witnessed the establishment of specific organizations for youth, focusing at first on recreation (mainly sports, parties, and performances), often as an offshoot of an adult organization (e.g., the Maccabi sport organization establishing Young Maccabi). The earlier organizations of this kind were mainly for men, but women were accepted as guests; only at a later stage (mostly in the 1940s) were women admitted as full members or in a separate branch.
The next step, taken mainly in Palestine, Iraq, Tunisia, Morocco, and Libya, was the establishment of ideologically focused Zionist youth organizations. Established by local Zionists and with the support and at times the guidance of emissaries from Palestine, these youth organizations aimed to change the world view of the youth and thus of the community at large. One of their central goals was to create a "New Jew," a term incorporating both men and women, based on an ideal of gender equality. Consequently, the youth movements were for both genders, although some of their activities were gender-based. Deep-rooted concepts, however, were slow to change: girls were less active in mixed group discussions, there were fewer girls than boys in most movements, and fewer still in leadership positions. And although the movements advocated the equal place of women in the new, productive (i.e., agricultural and industrial) workplace, fewer women joined the agricultural training farms (hakhsharah), and both there and in the clubs women carried out traditional female tasks, such as cleaning and cooking. Most often, "New Women" found themselves living in a conceptually old world, regardless of their personal spiritual and professional metamorphosis.
Traditional gender divisions had implications on marriage. Only in the village could young people of both genders meet relatively freely, usually when girls performed their daily task of drawing water. Even in villages, however, the final decision concerning marriage rested with the parents. In some regions, young men could influence the choice of their bride through the intervention of local, even Muslim, dignitaries. In urban settings, where most Jews lived, the opportunities for young people to meet were very limited. Apart from family gatherings, which were often gender segregated, some regions had special events which enabled the youth to meet. A very famous occasion took place in Tripoli, Libya, on the last day of Passover, when girls stood beautifully dressed outside their homes, waiting for young men to indicate to their parents which girl they wanted to marry, leaving the negotiations to the parents. Much of the matchmaking was conducted during the informal meetings of family and neighborhood women, who knew quite well the most intimate details about each other and their families. Although girls were usually allowed to reject a prospective bridegroom, they were not supposed to initiate the choice, and the decision of the couple was based mainly on an occasional glimpse. The older women, on the other hand, knew much of the family background and the character of the younger generation and based their decisions on this information. The economic details of the marriage were settled by the fathers. After a decision was made, the couple was not supposed to meet until the wedding.
Most first time brides were in their early teens with somewhat older grooms. At times, though, girls were forced to marry old men. In many places girls unmarried by their mid-teens were considered old spinsters, almost unmarriageable, except to less sought after men, including the poor, disabled, or old. Marriage of minors, even below the age of ten, took place relatively rarely, and happened mainly in Yemen. In some places, babies were given out in marriage, but these agreements were sometimes broken. As a result of Muslim influence, polygyny was accepted among Jews in the Muslim world, but Jewish law required that both wives be treated equally, sexually and economically. Polygyny was not widespread and happened mainly among Yemeni and Kurdish Jews and in rural areas or when the first wife did not give birth to a son.
Preparations for weddings were elaborate, culminating in a week of festivities. The bride, for whom this was the major public event of her life, was adorned and wore luxurious clothing and jewelry (which at times passed from one bride to another). Before the wedding, the bride and her female relatives went to the mikveh (ritual bath), an occasion which could be used by her future female in-laws to watch for any hidden physical imperfection.
The introduction of European educations, the operation of youth movements, and the entrance of women into the workforce gradually changed these practices, mainly in the urban centers. Modern educators tried to keep girls in school, in part to postpone the age of marriage. The aiu was active in this trend from the late 19th century on, trying to influence communal leaders to permit marriage only above a certain age. Many couples met as a result of the activities of youth movements (mainly beginning in the 1940s). The entrance of women into the workforce delayed the age of marriage and facilitated contacts among young people, even of different religions and nationalities. As a result, over time most engaged couples knew each other and even chose each other and the marriage age rose, although parental consent for marriage was usually required. These changes took place mainly in the urban centers and on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. They were much less common in Iran, Yemen, and rural hinterlands.
[Rachel Simon (2nd ed.)]
Throughout the early modern and modern periods, until the end of the 19th century, the Jewish population of Palestine was centered in Jerusalem. This population, primarily made up of spiritual seekers from all parts of the Jewish world, survived on charitable contributions from Diaspora communities. These *ḥalukkah payments, distributed separately by Ashkenazi and Sephardi religious authorities, were originally intended to enable Jewish men to devote their lives to Torah study and prayer. However, demographic data demonstrates that women, mainly widows who had come to the Holy Land to spend their remaining days visiting sacred sites and preparing themselves for the next world, were the majority of the Jewish population of Jerusalem in the 19th century and they also benefited significantly from ḥalukkah. As M. Shilo has shown, in the course of the 19th century the male religious establishment linked ḥalukkah to pious and modest behavior by the enforcement of by-laws (Takannot Yerushalayim) that applied to men and women alike. A number of these regulations constructed all women as objects of sexual temptation and attempted to limit severely women's presence in the public domain. Any mingling between men and women was looked upon as a sin, and husbands and the fathers were expected to supervise the women of the family to preserve the sanctity of the community and to ensure that the family received its allotted share of ḥalukkah. Women and their needs were always subordinated to a traditional male view of how society should be arranged.
From the late 19th century on, with the growth of Zionist movements of various kinds, the population of the Old Yishuv (Jewish settlement) was augmented with increasing numbers of immigrants, from both Eastern Europe and from Middle Eastern Jewish communities, such as Yemen. Zionists from Eastern Europe were particularly intent on building up the land and engaging Jews in economic endeavors. In this era the highly religious nature of the Jewish communities of Jerusalem (of both European and Middle Eastern origins) slowly began to change owing to the influx of largely secular immigrants and infusions of funds from Zionist organizations abroad. The areas of transformation with special impact for women included the introduction and external funding of various educational alternatives for girls, including vocational training, and gradual improvements in health care options.
The inequality in the treatment of the sexes exemplified in the Old Yishuv community of Jerusalem continued to be a reality in the modern Jewish settlement of the land. The pioneers of the First Aliyah (1882–1903) and Second Aliyah (1904–18), included both men and women. Most of the women of the First Aliyah accompanied their husbands and settled into domestic roles in agricultural settlements (moshavot) or urban environments. The women of this immigration, many of whom were as deeply committed as their husbands to their new lives in Palestine, faced a difficult struggle to achieve any public recognition and participation. Many of the idealistic young people of the Second Aliyah, inspired by the fervor of Labor Zionism, had been trained to work the land in Zionist training schools in Russia, which stressed the equality of women and men. On arriving in Palestine, most young single women, a significant minority among the second wave of immigrants (17–18%), found their options limited and their choices narrowed, simply as a result of their gender. Feeling betrayed by their male comrades, who did not support their struggle, and limited by male perceptions of their biological inequality, unmarried women were virtually unemployable as agricultural workers, and were forced to survive by providing the men with kitchen and laundry services. As Raḥel *Yanait, wife of Israel's second President, Izhak *Ben-Zvi, and a noted educator and writer recalled of those days. "In the thick of that passionate movement toward the land the women workers suddenly found themselves thrust aside and relegated once more to the ancient tradition of the house and the kitchen. They were amazed and disappointed to see how the cleavage was opening, the men comrades really united themselves with the land, but they, though on it, not becoming part of it. The united front was cracking" (Plough Woman, 109). Or as Ziporah Bar-Droma put it, "In Palestine there came a parting of the ways. Over there in the Russian exile, men and women had been equal comrades in the movement. We worked together, suffered together in the prisons and in the remote countries to which we were expelled; the moment the first pioneer certificates reached us, admitting us into Palestine, we were divided into the two classes: men comrades and women comrades…. And when we landed we were actually separated into two groups: In the one group were those who were 'building the country' and in the other were those who would take care, in every day matters, of 'the builders of the country'" (pw, 145).
Denied membership as single women in most collective settlements, and refused employment as agricultural workers, a few women founded successful female agricultural and urban collectives, and women's training farms. Such women's farms excelled particularly as tree nurseries. Raḥel Yanait, as an early settler, wrote: "With our own hands we raised, on our soil, tens and hundreds of thousands of shoots, and a kind of bond was created between our fruitful little corners and the wild bare hills around us. We were participants in the great task of re-afforesting the country" (pw, 112). Here on their own farms, women were able to forge their own connection to the land, and their belief that they were helping to build something new went hand in hand with their own feeling of self-renewal. Yet for every place for a woman in such a settlement, there were dozens who were turned away for lack of resources to provide them support and employment.
In the years following World War i, the majority of single women in the Yishuv were unable to find agricultural employment. In order to survive, many ended up working in cities as cooks or laundresses, seamstresses or clerks, or maids in private homes. Under the immigration regulations imposed by the British mandate on the Third Aliyah (1919–23), women were allowed to enter Palestine as dependents, wives, and elderly mothers, but only to a limited extent as prospective workers who could receive a labor immigration permit. Although men and women immigrated in roughly similar numbers (36 percent were women), two-thirds to 90 percent of all women came as dependents, as compared to 10 to 20 percent of all men. Labor permits were allocated to over 50 percent of all men and to only 10 percent of the immigrant women. Moreover, the vast majority of adult Jewish women who immigrated to Palestine had little relevant occupational experience to enable them to become active, equal partners, let alone self-sufficient members, of their new community. In these years many of the goals of the Second Aliyah were being implemented, including the establishment of the Histadrut, the General Federation of Hebrew Labor (1920) and the Women Workers' Movement (1921).
Some of women's complaints about the inequity of their situations were met by the *kibbutz movement, at least for that small group of women who gained entry into a kibbutz. Many of these kibbutzim were dedicated to bold social restructurings of the family in order to create a society in which each individual would achieve economic independence. In such a social setting wives would not be dependent upon their husbands and would no longer be subservient to them. In the kibbutz the family was to be renewed in such a way that men and women would be equal and independent partners sharing common goals; here, women were to be emancipated from the demands of the home and from childcare so that they might work productively and creatively with men in building the land.
Yet even on the kibbutz, women mainly worked in the kitchens and laundries. And here, in this experimental setting, woman's role in childcare raised issues which remain problematic. Many kibbutzim opted for bringing up children collectively in children's houses under the care of nurses and teachers. Parents would only see their children for an hour or two each day. In this way mothers would be freed to function as independent members of the collective, and children would benefit from a feeling that all the adults of the kibbutz were concerned for their development and care. Yet as one kibbutz theorist, Eva Tabenkin, admitted in the early 1930s, perhaps collective child rearing asked too much, "We are worried constantly by one thought: how can we bring into the life of the child which is being cared for in the home, the bright glance and the loving smile of the mother for which even the tiniest creature instinctively longs?" "But," she went on to say, "we cannot forget what was in our minds when we approached the whole problem at the beginning, what ideals and wishes we had regarding life in Palestine generally and our own lives in particular. For it is only as part of a high cultural life that the group upbringing of children has meaning, and only in the larger setting of a general ideal will we find the strength to continue seeking, through this form, a loftier and finer life for ourselves and our children" (pw, 159).
Most women in the Yishuv were married mothers of children. The pre-Zionist communities of both the Ashkenazi Orthodox and Jews of Middle Eastern origin were strongly committed to the establishment of families. Women of these communities tended to marry at a relatively early age. Many among the more recent Zionist immigrants arrived already married and most others married, as well. Community studies conducted in Jerusalem and Haifa in the 1930s indicate that by 35 to 40, all but five percent of Jewish women in the Yishuv had married, and the majority of women bore children. Despite the varied Zionist utopian visions of the new Jewish society to be built in Palestine, traditional gendered divisions of labor and patterns of authority tended to be preserved in the Jewish families of the Yishuv, with the exception of the kibbutz experiment described above.
Few married women in the Yishuv worked outside their homes. Those who did faced the inevitable conflicts of the working woman who must leave her children in the care of another with few social supports. "What is a mother to do," one woman asked, when, "in spite of the place which the children and the family as a whole take up in her life, her nature and her being demanded something more. This woman cannot divorce herself from the larger social life. She cannot let her children narrow down her horizon. And for such a woman there is no rest" (pw, 164). "Am I at fault," asked the writer, Golda *Meir (then Meyerowitz), "if after giving my family a place in my heart there is something left over which has to be filled by things outside the family and the house?" Society, she acknowledged, can offer no easy answer, for as Meir wrote, "This eternal inner division, this double pull, this alternating feeling of unfulfilled duty today toward her children, the next day toward her work. This is the burden of the working mother" (pw, 165).
As D. Bernstein has written of pre-State Israel, women's unequal and marginal position in the labor market, and their sole responsibility for family care, created a distinctly different life pattern for women as compared to that experienced by men. Since the private sphere, where women were central, was all but invisible and since women were only intermittently visible in the all important public sphere, women were essentially excluded from power and influence as the Yishuv moved towards the immense challenges of statehood in the years following World War ii.
Modern Israel continues to be far from progressive where the status of women in concerned, and is, at the beginning of the 21st century, more conservative than most other western democracies on women's issues (see *Feminism: Feminism, Zionism, and the State of Israel). Despite significant achievements and continuing progress, as a whole Israeli women continue to earn less that their male counterparts, are less visible and influential in the political arena, do not share equal responsibilities or privileges in the military, have unequal rights and freedoms in family life and law, and are secondary in shaping the nation's self image and cultural orientation.
The unequal status of Israeli women is a result of generations of past discrimination in Jewish tradition in general, as well as the additional impact of highly conservative Middle Eastern cultures on many Israelis from Muslim countries. Women suffer numerous disadvantages in the workplace, mandated by paternalistic legislation and the expectation that women will also assume most household responsibilities. Israeli women continue to fulfill the traditional Jewish role of enablers, supporting their husbands and sons, who hold the primary power and powerful jobs, and whose lives are at risk in defending the state. Only a small number of Israeli women reject women's subsidiary roles; most believe that women will not achieve equality as long as war and conflict is a dominant theme in Israeli society.
Jewish women in Israel are significantly disadvantaged in personal status issues. When the State of Israel was established in May, 1948, the Declaration of Independence stated that "The State of Israel will maintain equal social and political rights for all citizens, irrespective of religion, race, or sex," a sentiment reiterated in 1949, in the basic guidelines of the first government of Israel. Yet 1953 legislation awarded the Orthodox religious establishment monopolistic control over marriage and divorce for all Jewish citizens, thus legalizing women's substantial legal disadvantages in the halakhah, particularly in areas of family law. There is no civil marriage or divorce in Israel, nor do Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist Judaisms, with their more egalitarian approaches, have any official standing. Particular problems are connected with the dissolution of Jewish marriages since, according to halakhah, a Jewish woman cannot obtain a divorce without the permission of her husband. Many men refuse to grant their wives a divorce document, sometimes attempting to extort large sums of money from the estranged wife's family before they will comply with a religious court's ruling and agree to the legal dissolution of the marriage. Many refuse to comply at all, leaving the wife in legal limbo. The issue of the over 5,000 agunot, women who cannot obtain a divorce because their husbands refuse to grant one or because the husbands cannot be located, is the best known instance of the inability of the Orthodox rabbinate to deal with real social problems which cause immense pain and suffering to women and their families. Only recently have women begun to fight back, forming an International Coalition for Agunah Rights, reflecting an intensive effort to reform what are perceived as unjust and discriminatory divorce proceedings in rabbinical courts worldwide.
Although women are eligible for military service, most women in the army are assigned to education, clerical work, and training. Fewer than half of all eligible women are actually conscripted because they are not really needed, although army technology is beginning to create more equal tasks for the Israeli woman. Moreover, since the beginning of the 21st century rapid changes in women's opportunities in the military have been underway. In early 2000, the Israeli Defense Forces decided to deploy women in the artillery corps, followed by infantry units, armored divisions, and elite combat units. The Navy also decided to place women in its diving repair unit. At the beginning of 2004, about 450 women were in combat units; in late 2005, it was announced that three female pilots, including one combat pilot, would shortly complete training and join the nine other female soldiers in Israel's Air Force.
Given the historical pattern of secondary female military roles, however, women remain poorly represented in the upper echelons of the military, as they are in public and political life and in the civil service and academia. Since an important premium is put on military background as the necessary precondition for public office, women have found it very difficult to break into the political system.
Prolonged military conflict highlights various norms which are antithetical to the promotion of gender equality. These include the glorification of the hero and of macho-like ideals which may be necessary to ensure a continued commitment to defense and security. These values tend to glorify military prowess and to stress loyalty and commitment which are carried over from military to civilian life. One consequence of the emphasis on national security is that what are seen as women's issues, particularly in the areas of health, education, and welfare, are almost always given low priority in terms of policy considerations. More significantly, women have not been able to articulate their position on matters of general concern because the primary questions on the national agenda have come to be defined as male issues requiring an expertise that only men have acquired.
A report on the status of women in Israel in 2004 presented by the Israel Women's Network to the Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women is Israel's parliament (Knesset) indicates that of 121 countries in which women are included in the legislature, Israel, despite having once been led by a woman prime minister, ranks 66th. Women constitute only 15% of Israel's 120-member Knesset, placing Israel somewhere between the Arab world and developing countries in its attitude to female politicians. The Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women and individual female Members of Knesset are attempting to advance women's status through legislation. Their initiatives address a variety of gender issues such as equality at work, violence against women, welfare, health, and fertility concerns. The Authority for the Advancement of Women, established by law in 1998, is authorized to encourage, coordinate, promote and monitor the government's and the local authorities' activities regarding women's status, to promote legislation, and to advise the government on the enforcement of laws promoting the status of women. It is also expected to initiate research and to enhance public awareness through the media and education. The growing awareness of the status of women in the early 21st century has led to an increasing presence of women in managerial and decision-making positions. Prime Minister Ariel *Sharon included a record number of women ministers (three) and deputy ministers (two) in his government.
Israeli women are highly educated. Approximately 22% of Israel's women have 13–15 years of formal education compared to 20% of men, although 4.5% of women have no schooling compared to 1.8% of men. However, while 57% of all academic degrees are earned by women, and 46% of the doctoral students are women, only 22% of senior faculty members and 7.8% of full professors are women.
Government figures indicate that in 2000, 45.44% of the labor force were women, of whom only 15.8% worked full time, compared to 34.1% of the men. The average monthly salary for women was 60.18% of men's wages and the average wage-per-hour was 80.5% of that of men. In general, women worked mostly in lower-paying jobs, in services, education, health, welfare and clerical positions, and were significantly less represented in prestigious and lucrative occupations. Government statistics also indicate that violence against women is a serious problem in Israel, ranging from spousal abuse, sexual violence, sexual harassment, incest, and trafficking in women for prostitution. It is estimated that a significant number of women suffer from domestic violence. Facilities for their support and care are woefully inadequate.
The Israel Women's Network, founded by Alice Shalvi in 1984, is an advocacy group for women's rights that concentrates on legislative and political efforts to overcome discrimination against women in the workplace, military, religious courts, and in the healthcare and educational arenas. With particular attention to violence and sexual harassment, the iwn helped secure passage in 1998 of legislation criminalizing sexual harassment and holding both the harasser and employer responsible for civil damages. In recent decades, Israel's nascent feminist movement has begun to bring cases to Israel's Supreme Court (see below: The Judicial Perspective) on issues as diverse as access to abortion, women's right to be elected to and hold seats on municipal religious councils, and the ability of women's prayer groups to hold services at the Western Wall.
Several feminist organizations emerged beginning in the 1980s that called for return of the occupied territories to Palestinian control, and condemned the violence and impoverishment in those territories. Women in Black was founded in 1988 to hold weekly silent vigils of Israeli and Palestinian women calling for an end to the occupation. It now has an international peace network and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. New Profile is a feminist organization that seeks to change Israel from what it perceives to be a militarized to a peace-seeking culture, and works especially on educating children for peace (see essays in Fuchs). At other end of the political spectrum, Women in Green advocates the annexation of Judea and Samaria and supports continued Jewish settlement there.
This increased feminist activity, influenced by the women's movement throughout the Western world, is indicative of the gender and religious tensions that characterize Israeli society in 2006.
Similar concerns are also evident in the kibbutz movement at the beginning of the 21st century. Recent studies indicate that the ideology of equality with which the movement began has never been realized. At present, the division of labor parallels occupational profiles outside the kibbutz, with women predominating in education, childcare, food preparation, and laundry, while men more commonly choose revenue producing occupations in agriculture and industry. One consequence is that women are seen as providing services while men, who are seen as earning money for the kibbutz, come to be regarded as the experts in management and fiscal policy making. Thus men are far more likely to be elevated to leadership positions in the kibbutz, thereby gaining disproportionate power, status, and respect. Similarly, changes in the organization of family life on the kibbutz have added to women's burdens. Where once virtually all kibbutzim provided separate housing for children, who would spend a few hours of relaxation time with their parents, today children almost never sleep in children's houses. This means that women assume the primary responsibility for child care and the increase in household tasks associated with a family sharing living quarters which were often intended only for two. It is not surprising that there is growing dissatisfaction with kibbutz life among younger women who struggle with the contradiction of being "homemakers without homes" (Palgi; essay in Fuchs).
In microcosm, the status of women in Israel is a result of generations of past gender discrimination from a variety of sources, both religious and cultural, together with the problems of inequality which surface in a society experiencing an ongoing state of military conflict. The legal advocacy and political activities of some women in recent times constitute alternative approaches to combating women's unequal roles, but fundamental transformations in Israel's legal structure are necessary if these are to be realized. Similarly, true change for women will only come when the adjudication of family law issues is removed from the sole control of the Orthodox rabbinate which has been inflexible in easing the discriminations against women inherent in halakhic tradition.
[Judith R. Baskin (2nd ed.)]
The issue of the status of women, by its very nature and its significance for society and the family, exemplifies the importance of finding a synthesis between halakhah and the needs of the place and time. This was true over the generations, in the worlds of the tannaim, the amoraim and the geonim, in the world of the medieval authorities (rishonim) as well as of the aḥaronim, during their various periods and dispersions. Since the beginning of the Emancipation period, new considerations and elements have arisen, and special creativity has been evident since the restoration of Jewish political independence in the State of Israel.
Justice M. Elon opens his discussion of the topic (Ma'amad ha-Ishah – Mishpat ve-Shipput, Masoret u-Temurah: Arakhehah shel Medinah Yehudit ve-Demokratit (2005), pp. 17–18 (henceforth Elon, Ma'amad ha-Ishah) with the following words:
The issue of the status of women is one of the striking examples of creativity in the world of halakhah in days of old and in our times. The word halakhah is derived from the root halokh ("go"), as explained by Rabbi Nathan ben Rabbi Yehiel of Rome, author of the Arukh, in the 11th century: "that which goes from of old until the end [of time], or [that way] in which Israel goes." I am inclined to add that the word halakhah bears the additional aspect of creativity. That is, the halakhic Sages viewed themselves as commanded to go forward, to lead halakhah in a creative manner and in accordance with the circumstances of their time; that is, halakhah goes (holekhet) forward. Regarding the issue of the status of women, this "going" of the halakhah, which includes accommodating its foundations and principles to the needs of the time and the place, is given very prominent and creative expression. Nonetheless there are a number of grave issues relating to the status of women that have been partially resolved, but have not yet found their full resolution, such as the problem of women who have been refused a divorce, abandoned wives, and the like; and we must work hard to find a convenient and satisfactory solution (see *Agunah). In general, however, the status of women in Judaism has from its very beginning been dynamic, in a state of constant creativity, especially in comparison with parallel systems. Halakhic creativity has always found expression in theoretical study, through examination of the halakhic principles and statutes, and in the practical application of those principles in changing circumstances. In every realm, but especially in that of the law and all its branches, halakhah is forced to deal with the question of how on the one hand, to continue the past, from the starting point of the existing halakhah – to continue the chain; while, on the other hand, to study and apply the halakhah with creativity and in a manner appropriate to the times. Creativity in this context means resolving the needs of the present, its problems and demands, through a deep and fitting analysis of the world of Jewish Law and its principles in the past, in order to find the appropriate path toward the future.
The issue of the status of women, with the great creativity that has been demonstrated therein, serves as an example of the manner in which Judaism has found a synthesis, which today is called a synthesis of the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state (see *Values of Jewish and Democratic State).
This article will give a number of concrete examples taken from Israeli law and the rulings of the Israeli Supreme Court, an appreciable portion of which are the rulings of Deputy Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Menachem Elon, who gave a number of concrete decisions on issues pertaining to the status of the women. These examples provide a wealth of material regarding the reciprocal influence of halakhah and society; of pluralism and differences of opinion; of activism and restraint; creativity and the avoidance thereof; and the like. All this material provides an impressive picture of how and in what manner the "Jewish" and "democratic" elements of the State of Israel have been combined, how the "Jewish" element has been influenced by the "democratic" and how it has preceded it. Some topics relating to the status of the women have already been discussed at length in other entries; see, for example, *Agunah; *Husband and Wife; *Parents and Child; *Wills; *Succession; *Maintenance, *Ketubbah. These topics will not be discussed here in detail, but references will be made to certain conclusions that may be drawn from them.
The relationship between husband and wife is central to the issue of the status of women, and has been discussed extensively and often in the legal system (see, for example, Cr.A. 92/2157, Padida v. the State of Israel, 47 (1) pd 81; ca 79/458 Nir v. Nir, 35 (1) pd 518; and cf. *Husband and Wife). It has been noted that the fundamental legal principles underlying this relationship are based on the words of the beraita (Yev. 62b): "Our Rabbis taught: The man who loves his wife as himself, and honors her more than himself [Rashi, s.v.yoter: Because disgrace is more difficult for a woman than for a man] who guides his sons and daughters in the right path and arranges for them to be married near the period of their puberty, of him Scripture says: 'And you shall know that your tent is at peace, and you shall visit your habitation, and shall miss nothing.' (Job 5:24)." This, in brief, is the structure of the family cell, as viewed by the Sages. Maimonides codified this law in similar fashion: "Therefore the Sages laid down that a man shall honor his wife more than his own self and shall love her as he loves himself, and shall constantly seek to benefit her according to his means… and shall speak gently with her; that he shall be neither sad nor irritable" (Yad, Ishut 15:19). Similarly, the Talmud states: "Rabbi Helbo said: A man should always be careful about his wife's honor, for blessing is found in a man's house only on account of his wife. As it is stated: 'And he treated Abraham well for her [= Sarah's] sake' (Gen. 12:16)" (bm 59a). In his discussion of this issue, Justice Elon states (Ma'amad ha-Ishah, pp. 194–228, at 195):
These are the fundamental demands. But social reality, throughout the generations and the dispersion, did not always meet them. Thus, a series of judicial rulings discuss cases of violence and abuse on the part of a husband toward his wife, and aggressive and inappropriate behavior on the part of a wife toward her husband. The halakhic authorities responded in resolute fashion, whether by way of judicial decisions or by way of legislation of special enactments. These issues have been discussed in the rulings of the Israeli courts, and the deliberations and rulings follow Jewish Law – its sources, its deliberations, and its rulings.
The substantive difference between Jewish Law over English law with respect to the rape of a woman by her husband has also been discussed in this context (see: ca 80/91, Moshe Ben Meir Cohen v. the State of Israel, pd 35(3) 281). Justice Elon summarizes the issue as follows (Ma'amad ha-Ishah, p. 228): "Jewish Law rescued the honor of women in the State of Israel from the dread of the 'democratic' norm, taken from English law, by which a husband has the right to rape his wife. The ancient Jewish norm, established thousands of years ago, established that a woman is not 'a captive in the hands of her husband,' and thus protects the rights and dignity of a woman. This is the law that is appropriate for the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, Jewish before democratic."
The mutual respect that must be demonstrated between husband and wife in their personal relations has already been noted. A number of examples of creativity regarding the status of women in the area of economic rights should also be noted. They include: the independence of a woman's economic status; her right to compensation at the time of divorce; joint property rights in assets acquired during the marriage (see also Elon, Ma'amad ha-Ishah, pp. 229–54). These topics have been discussed at length in the entry *Husband and Wife, *Maintenance, *Ketubbah, and others.
In terms of halakhic creativity and the protection of the status of women in Judaism, a fundamental principle is that "a woman is not considered her husband's daily laborer in exchange for maintenance." According to halakhah, a man is obligated to provide his wife with maintenance (not only food, but also medical expenses, raiment, lodging and all her other necessaries), and in exchange is entitled to the benefit of her handiwork (Yad, Ishut 12:1–4). The woman may, of her own choice, waive her maintenance, keeping for herself the proceeds of her handiwork. The husband does not have the parallel right: he cannot deny his wife maintenance by waiving the benefit of her handiwork.
Creative decisions regarding the woman's status were also given with respect to property relations between husband and wife. This began in the rulings of the rabbinical courts in the 1940s, even before the establishment of the State of Israel. The issue is discussed in ca 2/77 Azugi v. Azugi, pd 33(3) 1, 17ff [henceforth: Azugi ] and in ca 630/79, Lieberman v. Lieberman, pd 35(4) 359, 372–73. Justice Elon summarizes the issue as follows (Ḥakikah Datit (1968), pp. 165–67):
One of the great innovations of the rabbinical courts in the area of divorce law is the wife's right to receive a certain financial sum at the time of divorce, in addition to her kettubah. This sum varies according to the circumstances of the particular case. The rabbinical courts refer to this additional sum as compensation. According to the accepted law prior to this innovation, except for in certain cases, at the time of divorce a woman was entitled to receive her kettubbah and to take back the property that she had brought into the marriage. This property included: (a) nikhsei ẓon barzel – that part of the woman's property that the couple agree will be given to the almost total ownership of the husband, to the extent of his accepting responsibility for any damage caused thereto, and which, upon the termination of the marriage, the woman would receive the value of in accordance with the sum stipulated in the kettubah; and (b) nikhsei melog – that part of the woman's property whose principal remains in the wife's ownership even after the marriage, but whose fruits (the proceeds of the principal) belong to the husband. The husband bears no responsibility for damage to nikhsei melog. Upon dissolution of the marriage – whether by death or divorce – the woman receives the value of the nikhsei melog at the time of termination of the marriage. Hence, if their value rises, she profits, and if their value decreases, she loses. The halakhah did not recognize the wife's right to receive, at the time of divorce, a share of the assets accumulated during the period of the marriage, unless the parties had an agreement to that effect, even though these assets often come into existence through the combined efforts of husband and wife. This problem has troubled every legal system, and the Knesset considered various private bills regarding a married couple's joint property. It was against this background that the institution of monetary compensation awarded to a woman at the time of divorce came into being through the rulings of the rabbinical courts.
Another innovation related to the woman's economic rights was the establishment, through the rulings of the Israel Supreme Court (Azugi ibid.), of the principle of partnership in property acquired during marriage according to Jewish Law. The law regarding partnership in property was created and developed by the justices of the Supreme Court on the basis of the presumed intention of the two spouses to join their assets, and does not follow automatically from the marital bond between them. This bond serves as the background for the couple's conduct and for additional factors in the lives of the married couple that serve as the basis for the legal presumption of partnership in their assets. The legal reasoning that gives validity to the partnership in assets lies in the presumption of implied agreement that may be inferred from these facts and circumstances. This presumption draws its legal force from the fundamental principles of Jewish Law regarding freedom of contract and power of custom – in all its various forms – that finds expression in tendencies in Israeli society and in the creative and decisive power of presumptions.
The issue of succession in Jewish Law was treated in the entry *Succession. The daughter's standing as lawful heir of her father's estate went through many stages of development and creativity: beginning with the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, who claimed that, as their father had died without leaving a son, and that unless they inherited him, his name would disappear from his family, because his estate would not remain within his family (Num. 27:1–11; 36:1–12); continuing in talmudic law, through the periods of the geonim, the medieval and early modern authorities; and down to the post-Emancipation period, in the various centers of Jewish life. The influences of the diverse socio-economic realities at the various stages are evident. Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, the inheritance rights of daughters were discussed by the two chief rabbis, Herzog and Ouziel. The issue found its resolution in Succession Law, 5725 – 1965, which recognizes no distinction between sons and daughters (see Ma'amad ha-Ishah, pp. 255–78).
According to the early halakhah, the husband is heir to his wife's estate, but the wife is not a legal heir to that of her husband (Yad, Naḥalot 1.8). By rabbinic enactment, a widow is entitled to reside in the same apartment in which she lived with her husband, and to receive the same maintenance from his estate as she was entitled to receive during his lifetime. These provisions apply automatically, even if the husband did not explicitly commit himself to them in his wife's ketubbah. This issue underwent many changes over the course of the generations. In the Ordinances of the rabbinical courts of the Land of Israel of 5703 (1943) (Ordinance 174, 182–183), the rabbinical court agreed that the husband's estate be divided in accordance with the Mandatory Succession Order of 1923, which awards a woman a share in the estate (see: Ma'amad ha-Ishah, pp. 279–96).
The issue of a woman's right to vote and to be elected to public office was discussed in the Shakdiel case (hc 87/153 Leah Shakdiel v. Minister of Religious Affairs et al., pd 42(2) 221). This ruling is the subject of a detailed discussion in Ma'amad ha-Ishah (pp. 51–101), which opens as follows:
The ruling in the Shakdiel case, which was given in May 1988, prior to the passing of Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty in 1992, constitutes a classic example of the need for creative interpretation for the resolution of new problems arising in different times and places, and the method of this interpretation. Through an analysis of this ruling, we learn about differences in opinion among the halakhic authorities regarding the necessity and appropriateness of fitting a particular issue in the world of halakhah into the new social reality in which they are living. The great creativity evident in their method may serve as an important source of inspiration as we occupy ourselves with the question of the synthesis of the Jewish heritage with the needs of a modern democratic state.
Mrs. Leah Shakdiel – a resident of the town of Yeroḥam in the Negev, a teacher of Judaic studies, an Orthodox Jewess and a member of the Yeroḥam Municipal Council – turned to the Israeli Supreme Court sitting as the High Court of Justice regarding the decision that had been taken to disqualify her from serving as a member of the religious council of Yeroḥam. The claim of the respondents to the petition – the Municipal Council, the local rabbi, the Minister of Religious Affairs and the Committee of Ministers – was that a tradition exists, according to which women are not to be nominated for membership in a religious council. This was supported by an opinion of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate that women may not be permanent members of religious councils. The concern was likewise raised that Mrs. Shakdiel's membership would disrupt the orderly course of activity of the religious council.
After examining all the factual material before him and the claims and arguments of the parties, and after taking note of the sources of halakhah and Jewish Law, and the legal material of the laws of the Knesset and the rulings of the courts, Justice Elon concluded that Mrs. Shakdiel's petition should be allowed. The ruling therefore stated: "We therefore decide that she (i.e., Shakdiel) shall be included in the membership of the Yeroḥam religious council, as a nominee on behalf of the municipal council, as her nomination had been presented to the Minister of Religious Affairs with the formation of the religious council."
The Bible, the Talmud, and later sources mention distinguished women – prophetesses, judges, queens, and wise and scholarly woman. These were isolated incidents; the guiding rule – one of great significance in the edifice of the Jewish family over the generations – was: "All the glory of the king's daughter is within" (Ps. 45:14). This verse was taken to mean that a woman earns merit by educating her children and managing her home, and that it is not womanly to be involved in public affairs. A clear and concise expression of this theme is found in Maimonides' reading of Deuteronomy 17:15: "'You shall set a king over you.' "One does not place a woman on the throne, as it said: 'a king over you' – and not a queen. Likewise, for all offices in Israel, only a man may be appointed" (Yad, Melakhim 1.5). Maimonides' opinion that men alone may be appointed to public office, and not women, was the accepted position for many years. This was the customary and accepted norm in the general social and economic realms as well. This position was subjected to question in light of changing time and place at the beginning of the previous century, when the question arose whether women should be granted the right of franchise. The question arose primarily in relation to elections of the institutions of self-government of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel just after the end of World War i. It might be recalled that, until then, women had been denied the right to vote in most countries throughout the world, and that it was only during the latter half of the 1910s that women were given full rights to vote and to stand for election in most states and provinces of the United States and Canada, and in Russia, England, and Germany. In some countries, such as France, this right was only granted as recently as 1944, and in Switzerland as late as 1971.
The views of the rabbinical scholars on this issue fell into three camps. The majority opinion was that women should not be granted election rights, whether active, i.e., the right to vote, or passive, i.e., the right to be elected. Some of the authorities held that women have active election rights but not passive ones. A third camp was of the opinion that there is nothing in the halakhah to prevent women from exercising both active and passive election rights – that is, women may both vote for and be elected to public and governmental office.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook, chief rabbi of the Land of Israel, one of the leading halakhic authorities and thinkers of the Zionist movement, belonged to the camp that denied women both active and passive election rights (see: Ma'amarei ha-Ra'ayah, Koveẓ Ma'amarim me-et ha-Ra'ayah Kook zaẓal, Jerusalem 1984, pp. 189–94). Rabbi Kook discussed the matter from three perspectives: in terms of the law – whether it is permitted or forbidden; in terms of public welfare – whether or not granting women the right of franchise will bring good to the community; and in terms of the ideal – whether our moral consciousness obligates granting election rights or denies it. From the legal perspective, Rabbi Kook followed the earlier halakhic authorities in maintaining that the duty of public service is imposed on men, and not on women. He was also concerned about problems of modesty stemming from a mingling of the sexes in public life. As to the public welfare, Rabbi Kook advocated maintenance of the connection with the sources of Judaism and the Bible, in the name of which the nations of the world recognized at that time the rights of the people of Israel to the land of Israel. "As regards the ideal status of women" – that is, absolute equality of men and women – Rabbi Kook says that "that was a vision for the future… that is as yet entirely unreflected in contemporary cultural life, which is corrupt from within, even though it sparkles from without." Out of concern about injury to the delicate fabric of life and the balance between family life and public life, Rabbi Kook had reservations about granting election rights to women. In his usual manner, he based his decision not only on abstract halakhic principles, but upon his understanding of the delicate balance in the social reality of his time. This position was also advocated by Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzinski, of Vilna, Lithuania, and Rabbi Israel Meir ha-Kohen of Radin, near Vilna.
An entirely different approach was taken in a responsum written by Rabbi Ben Zion Ouziel, chief Sephardi rabbi of the Land of Israel (see Resp. Mishpatei Uziel, vol. 3, Ḥm, no. 6). Regarding active election rights, Rabbi Uziel argued that there is no halakhic rule, implicit or explicit, that denies such rights. As for passive election rights, he was of the opinion that the position of Maimonides, according to which "only a man may be appointed for all offices in Israel" only applies to appointments by the Sanhedrin. Regarding a woman's eligibility for public office, however, there is no question of appointment, but only of acceptance. For by means of the elections a majority of the community expresses its opinion, consent, and trust as regards the elected persons, empowering them to supervise all public affairs; "even Maimonides admits that there is no hint of prohibition in this respect." As for the considerations of public welfare and modesty, Rabbi Ouziel wrote that:
Reason would have it that there is no licentiousness in any serious conference or useful discussion; and every day, men meet with women on commercial business and negotiate with each other, yet none of this produces any alarm or outcry. Indeed, even those given to sexual abandon do not contemplate forbidden acts while they are seriously bent on their business affairs. The admonition of our Rabbis, 'Do not converse too much with a woman' (Mishnah, Avot 1:5), refers to unnecessary idle talk, the kind of conversation that leads to sin. It does not apply, however, to a conversation or debate about important public affairs; and sitting together for the purpose of public work, which is Divine service, does not engender sinful habits or lead to levity. The entire Jewish people, men and women, are holy and are not to be suspected of breaching the bounds of modesty and morality… In conclusion: (a) A woman has the full right [to participate in] elections so that she may be obligated to obey the representatives chosen to lead the people. (b) A woman can also be elected if the community consents and so legislates (supra, pp. 34–35).
Other views expressed on this issue were based on a different analysis of the social reality of the period, through which women were granted an allowance to vote and to be elected to public office by distinguished Rabbis (Shakdiel case, pp. 251–54). A different line of reasoning appeared in a responsum by Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg, who served as head of the Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin (Resp. Seridei Esh, vol. 2, no. 52, vol. 3 no. 105). He writes:
"With respect to your question of women's election rights, Rabbi D.Z. Hoffman allowed them to vote but not to be elected; but the Rabbis in the Land of Israel, as well as Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim and Rabbi Ḥayyim Ozer Grodzinski and others, barred even this active election right. On the other hand, Chief Rabbi Ouziel, in his Resp. Mishpatei Uziel, permits women to both vote and to stand for election. So why should I thrust myself into the controversy between those who permit and those who prohibit; let time take its course and render the decision."
Justice Elon interpreted this position as follows (Shakdiel case, pp. 260–61):
That expression should not be regarded as an evasion of decision-making duty; rather, it embodies one of the methods employed in halakhic decision-making. As is known, custom is one of the sources of halakhah. At times custom serves to decide the law where there are different opinions among the halakhic authorities; sometimes it decides the law on a question that has arisen in practice and to which there is no known answer in the existing halakhah (a lacuna); and at times custom not only adds to the existing halakhah but even alters one of its rules. This latter function of custom is limited to civil or monetary law alone and, with certain exceptions, does not apply to matters of religious law (issur)… As for the role of custom in deciding the religious law where there are differences of opinion among the halakhic authorities, it states in the Talmud, in response to the question of how to decide the law when the authorities are divided: "Go out and see what the people are doing" (Ber. 45a; Eruv. 14b; tj Pe'ah 7:5). "Let time take its course and render the decision," as Rabbi Weinberg put it, is thus an accepted method of decision-making: let the ultimate ruling be in accordance with the custom followed by the public. (See *Custom.)
Rabbi Moses Feinstein also discussed this issue in the course of a responsum (Resp. Iggerot Moshe, yd, vol. 2, no. 44) regarding "the widow of a scholar who was a kashrut supervisor, who has been left penniless and lacking means of sustenance for her orphan sons. She being a modest woman and truly Godfearing, and also wise, understanding, and responsible, [the question is] whether one may rely upon her to take the place of her husband as a supervisor, in this manner to provide for herself and her sons." Rabbi Feinstein ruled that "there is no reason for apprehension regarding her trustworthiness, for if she is regarded as a worthy woman who knows and understands how and what to supervise, she may be relied on." Further on, Rabbi Feinstein concludes that, while the office of kashrut supervisor is a position of authority, a woman may nevertheless be appointed to this office. In Rabbi Feinstein's view, Maimonides' ruling that only men may be appointed to an "office" is not based on any Talmudic source, but represents "his own reasoning," and there were many authorities who disagreed. "Therefore, because of the widow's great need for her sustenance and that of her orphan sons, one may rely on those who disagree with Maimonides and appoint her as a supervisor in her husband's stead" (Shakdiel, pp. 261–62).
The ruling on the sensitive matter of the Shakdiel, which was based on Jewish Law, concludes as follows:
We are aware of the sensitivity of the halakhic, social, and public aspects of the matter. We are also aware of the grave reservations entertained by those entrusted by law with the power of decision, who have rightly sought to avoid an ideological or quasi-halakhic confrontation with the halakhic authorities in Israel today… But none of this is sufficient to free us from the decree of the Israeli law which prohibits discrimination against the petitioner that would exclude her from membership in the Yeroḥam religious council… It pains us that the decision [of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel] was not in favor of the petitioner, even though a decision in her favor would have the sanction of the halakhah, according to the opinion of prominent authorities" (Shakdiel pp. 271–72).
Another example of creativity regarding the status of women in our time – which was also the subject of judicial rulings – relates to the study and teaching of Torah by women and to women. In the halakhah, this issue also relates to the issue of parent-child relations (see *Parent and Child). The issue of Torah study and the related issue of parent-child relations was subject to the judicial rulings of the Israeli Supreme Court, especially in the Nagar case, which was brought before a "Special Tribunal" composed of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Meir Shamgar, Deputy Chief Justice Menachem Elon, and dayyan of the Rabbinical Court of Appeals Rabbi Joseph Kapaḥ (st 81/1, Yehiel Nagar v. Orah Nagar, pd 38(1) 365 (henceforth Nagar)). The case began as a question of parent-child relations, but it came to include a comprehensive discussion of the issue of women and Torah study – both learning and teaching. It should be noted that the Nagar ruling relates to the status of women in the domestic-social setting, whereas the ruling in the Shakdiel case (which was given after the Nagar ruling) relates to the status of women in the public setting. The question to be decided in the Nagar case was: who has the right to decide about a child's education, his father or his mother? The case involved a divorced couple who disagreed about the educational system in which to enroll their children. The father, who was newly Orthodox, wished to enroll his children in the religious educational system, whereas the mother who continued her previous life-style, objected. The rabbinical court ruled that since halakhah imposes the obligation to educate his children on the father, he is entitled to decide on the type of education. In the framework of this case, the Supreme Court discussed two issues: the one, a parent's right and obligation to decide on a child's school; and the second, Torah study for women.
Justice Elon opened his discussion regarding the right and obligation to decide about a child's education as follows:
With all due respect, it seems to me that the unequivocal assertion of the rabbinical court, that the obligation to educate his children devolves upon the father, and therefore it is he who has the exclusive right to decide on the form of that education, would not have withstood appeal in the Rabbinical Court of Appeals, had such an appeal ever been heard. Not only does this assertion contradict the Women's Equal Rights Law regarding equal rights of guardianship of the father and the mother, which requires that equal consideration be given to the preferences of the father and the mother regarding their children's education; with all due respect, it seems to me that this assertion does not even correspond to the accepted view on this issue in the world of halakhah of our time.
The ruling notes that various medieval authorities were of the opinion that Rabbi Johanan and Resh Lakish disagree on the question whether the obligation to educate a child in the performance of mizvot falls exclusively upon the father or also upon the mother (Naz. 28b; and Meiri, Bet ha-Beḥirah, ad loc.). Modern authorities also disagree on this matter (see: R. Abraham Danzig, Ḥayyei Adam, Sect. 66, no. 2: "A father is obligated to educate his son and daughter, and some say that the duty of education applies to the mother as well"; Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger, Arukh le-Ner, Suk. 2b). Moreover, the primary burden of education usually falls upon the mothers, "who send their children to school, oversee them to assure that they engage in Torah study, show them compassion when they come home from school, and encourage them with treats to desire Torah study" (Rabbi Jonah Gerondi, Iggeret ha-Teshuvah, no. 72). Mothers also bear greater responsibility for rebuking their children than do fathers, "because they are available and found more often at home" (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, Shenei Luḥot ha-Berit, Sha'ar ha-Otiyot, Derekh Ereẓ). A mother's obligation finds explicit mention in Scripture: "My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the Torah of your mother" (Prov. 1:8).
The right and duty to educate a child is a central factor with respect to his custody. In the context of custody rights, according to halakhah, the term education, includes, in addition to Torah study, vocational training and, most importantly, fashioning the child's personality. It is thus that halakhic scholars account for the assumption that the daughter must always be with her mother and, above the age of six, the son with his father: "For just as a mother will instruct her daughter in the way of girls, so a father will instruct his son what befits him" (Rabbenu Yeroḥam, Toledot Adam ve-Ḥavah, Sefer Ḥavah, Sect. 23:3); "And he must teach him the method of study and the ways of men" (Resp. Rashba, ha-Meyuḥas la-Ramban, no. 38; see also Resp. Radbaz, vol. 1, no.429). This is the basis for the ruling of the Rabbinical Court of Appeals that the distinction between boys and girls with respect to custody of a child over the age of six applies even when the parents are not religiously observant: "Even in a case where the two parties fail to educate their children toward the practice and study of Torah, the obligation of a father to his son and the right of the son vis-à-vis his father, is that the son should be near his father and in close connection with him, so that he may strengthen his masculine identity and character traits" (Rabbinical Appeal 33/39, p. 259, following R. Kapaḥ). Moreover, as for a son's education, "a father can teach his son what he is obligated to teach him, even if he is not with him, e.g., by hiring a teacher or apprenticing him to a craftsman" (responsum of R. Isaac Molina, published from a manuscript by Abraham David, Kiryat Sefer 44 (1969), 557). This has special significance in our day, when a child's education, in all its various forms, takes place in a wide variety of educational institutions. Thus, the Rabbinical Court of Appeals issued a ruling relating to the aforementioned distinction and making reference to a disagreement between Maimonides and Rabbi Abraham of Posquières (Yad, Ishut 21.17): "However, regarding a son who studies Torah, surely Maimonides writes… that the teacher must teach them all day long and part of the night, in order to train them to study during the day and at night… Thus, the father is not left with any time to teach his son, but only that he should be under his supervision for eating and sleeping, and regarding this it may be argued that the father has no priority over the mother" (File (Jerusalem) 24/42, p. 17, per R. Abraham Shapira).
This was also the conclusion in the Nagar case (p. 403): "While these arguments were put forward regarding the right of custody over the son, they also have considerable implications for the question of the priority given to the father to decide the form of [his son's] education-schooling. Since the child's education is no longer provided personally by the father, and it is not the father who teaches him, but rather the teachers in his school and his rabbis, it stands to reason that these should act as the agents of both the parents and with their consent."
According to the halakhah in the Mishnah and Talmud, a father must teach his son Torah, but a mother is exempted from this obligation (Kid. 29a, Mishnah and Gemara ibid.). This law is summarized by Maimonides (Yad, Talmud Torah 1:1): "Women… are exempt from the study of Torah; but a father is required to teach his minor son Torah; as it is said: 'You shall teach them to your sons and speak of them' (Deut. 11:19). A woman is not required to teach her son, since only those who are obligated to study are also obligated to teach."
As early as in the tannaitic period, differing views were expressed regarding this "triple" exemption of women – the exemption of a mother with respect to teaching her son, of a woman with respect to study, and of a daughter with respect to being taught by her father. According to Ben Azzai, "One is obligated to teach his daughter Torah," while Rabbi Eliezer ben Horcanus took the view, "Whoever teaches his daughter Torah is considered as if he taught her tiflut" – licentiousness (M., Sot. 3:4). Although various talmudic and post-talmudic sources have spoken in praise of wise and learned women, the view of Rabbi Eliezer came to be accepted as the law.
With the passage of time, the law on this subject underwent a number of changes; the prohibition against teaching Torah to women was constructed more narrowly, both in terms of the subjects permitted to be taught (the Written Law and various laws with practical relevance) and how deeply the material should be taught. The halakhah established that a woman is under no obligation to study Torah, and therefore is not obligated to teach Torah. This was essentially the situation until different rulings and conceptions penetrated the world of halakhah, a small number over the course of history, and far more in recent generations.
The social changes that have transpired in recent times have had an evident and far-reaching effect on halakhic decision making regarding Torah study for woman and by women. Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, one of the leading authorities in the world of yeshivot, has ruled: "Recent times are not like earlier times: in earlier times, Jewish families lived according to the rules of the Shulḥan Arukh, and it was possible to learn the entire Torah from daily life at home… But today… not only is it permitted to teach Torah and reverence towards God to the daughters of our generation, but there is an absolute duty to do so, as we have explained; and it is a great mitzvah to establish schools for girls to implant in their hearts a pure faith and [to teach them] Torah and the commandments…" (Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, Moznayim la-Mishpat, 1955, sec. 42).
Halakhic decision-making does not break completely with the existing halakhah, but rather limits it, and distinguishes between prior and newly developing halakhah. In light of the contemporary social and ideological reality that is undergoing fundamental changes, women today are integrated in all areas of activity, in the academic world, in the business world, and in all social life. This reality is no longer commensurate with the conclusions drawn in a different time and under different circumstances, based upon the principle of "All the glory of the king's daughter is within" (Ps. 45:14). Familiarity with and knowledge of the halakhic sources is necessary for both men and women in order to deal with the challenges of the time. For this reason the prohibition to teach one's daughter Torah has been restricted. Rabbi Moshe Malka, head of the rabbinical court of Petaḥ Tikvah, summarized the matter as follows: "Rabbi Eliezer would certainly admit that it is not at all forbidden to teach a woman even the Oral Law, so that she may be able to exercise care in observing all the laws of the Torah that pertain to her work and activities. Indeed, it is our duty to educate her to the fullest extent possible…" (Resp. Mikveh ha-Mayyim, vol. 3, yd, no. 21).
The permission granted to women to study Torah, which has been understood by some as an obligation, was expanded in a ruling of Justice Elon, with the agreement of Dayyan Kapaḥ, to also include an obligation imposed on the woman to teach her children Torah (Nagar, pp. 406–7):
In summary, as we have seen, the law that a father is obligated to teach his son Torah, but the mother is exempt, is based on the law that the father himself is obligated to study Torah, and the woman is exempt from such self-study, following the rule that only one whose duty it is to learn has a duty to teach. In our day, after such an fundamental change has taken place, that not only is there no prohibition, but women are even obligated to study Torah, and women not only study for themselves, but also teach the children of others, the conclusion seems to follow that the obligation to teach a son Torah falls equally upon the father and the mother, following the rule that whoever has the duty to learn has also the duty to teach. All the more so this is true when we are dealing with fulfilling the obligation by way of expressing an opinion regarding the school to which the son should be sent. And were I not hesitant, I would say that the Rabbinical Court of Appeals, had it been asked to deal with obligation of educating children, both sons and daughters, would have concluded that it is a joint right and obligation falling upon both parents, subject of course to the special education that a father must give to his son and a mother to her daughter through understanding of and identification with the children of their own gender.
Another issue that the Supreme Court was asked to consider in connection with the status of women in the world of halakhah was that of public prayer conducted by women (see: hc 257/89 Anat Hoffman et al v. the Trustee over the Western Wall et al.; and hc 90/2410, Susan Alter et al. v. the Minister of Religious Affairs, 48 (2) pd 265–358 (henceforth Women of the Wall); Elon, Ma'amad ha-Ishah, p. 119–193).
The issue of women's prayer, their obligation and their exemption, and other related topics, has been discussed at length in the literature of halakhah and Jewish thought. The discussion has greatly expanded in recent times in light of the social changes that have transpired. The halakhic questions that have arisen in this connection relate to the laws of prayer: First, is a woman permitted to wear a tallit? And second, is she permitted to carry a Torah scroll and read from it? These two questions relate to another issue, namely, the nature of public prayer conducted by women.
Underlying these issues is the halakhic principle stating that women are exempt from time-bound positive commandments, that is, those whose performance depends upon a fixed date or time (e.g., during the day and not at night, during particular hours of the day, on specific days or festivals, and the like; M., Kid. 1:7; Kid. 32a; Maim. Yad, Avod. Zar. 12:3; Yad, Ẓiẓit 3:9; Sh. Ar., oḤ, 17:2; S.J. Berman, "The Status of Women in Halakhic Judaism," in: Tradition, 14 (1973) 11–13). Various rationales have been offered for this exemption (see, for example, R. Elyakim Ellinson, Bein ha-Ishah le-Yoẓerah: Ha-Ishah ve-ha-Mitzvot (vol. 1, second ed., Jerusalem, 1982), p. 30ff.) According to the prevalent view, a woman is exempt from these obligations so as to make it easier for her to fulfill her role in the world, and not because of any inferiority in relation to the man. In the world of Judaism, the primary role assigned to a woman is to build the home and family – "All the glory of the king's daughter is within" (Ps. 45:14). Hence, the Sages determined that any mitzvah, whose performance depends on a particular time, is not binding upon a woman, so as not to make it more difficult for her to fulfill that role.
This rationale is already found in the halakhic literature of the Middle Ages (see: Sefer Abudraham ha-Shalem: Seder Tefillot shel Ḥol, Pt. iii, Birkot ha-Mitzvot), and was well-summarized by Rabbi Moses Feinstein (Resp. Iggerot Moshe, oḤ, pt. 4, no. 49):
For most women in the world are not wealthy, and the burden of child-rearing, which is the most important work for God, blessed be He, and for the Torah… Women's nature is more amenable to child-rearing, for which reason they were granted the leniency of not being obligated in Torah study and the time-bound positive commandments. Therefore, even if the circumstances of living in the world would change for all women, and for wealthy women at all times, and even were it possible to transfer child-raising to certain men and woman, as in our country – Torah law would not change, nor even rabbinic law. … You must understand that this is not because women are lower in the level of holiness than men, for with respect to holiness they are equal to men regarding obligation in mitzvot. For the command of mitzvot is due only to the holiness found in Israel, and all the verses regarding holiness were said to the women as well. At the beginning of the conditions for receiving the Torah: "You shall be My own treasure from among all peoples… and you shall be to Me… a holy nation." All this was said to the house of Jacob, namely, the women, and told to the children of Israel, that is, the men. And wherever you find the matter of the holiness of Israel, it also refers to women. Therefore, women also recite blessings over the commandments, using the formula, "Who has sanctified us with His commandments," like men, even over those commandments that the Torah did not obligate her [to fulfill]. It is merely a leniency for some reason that God, blessed be He, wished to be lenient with them, as explained above, but not because of some deficiency, God forbid. As for the obligations between husband and wife, the husband is obligated to honor his wife, and the wife her husband, with no distinction. And many women were prophetesses and they were governed by all the laws of prophecy like men. They are praised for many things, both in Scripture and in the words of the Sages, of blessed memory, even more so than men. There is no belittlement of their dignity or anything else in the fact that they are exempt from Torah study and the time-bound positive commandments. And there is no reason for resentment whatsoever. This, you must explain over and over again."
A unique rationale for the exemption regarding time-bound positive commandments given to women was suggested by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, pioneer of the school of Torah with derekh ereẓ (in his commentary to Lev. 23:43): "Their exemption from time-bound positive commandments is most certainly not on account of their being considered in any way of lesser worth or importance. Rather, it seems to us much more likely that the Torah did not impose these commandments upon women because it did not consider it necessary that they be demanded of women. God's Torah takes it for granted that women have greater love and more devoted enthusiasm for their God-serving calling, and that this calling involves less danger in their case than for men whose devotion to Torah is more exposed to the temptations which occur in the course of business and professional life. Accordingly, it does not find it necessary to give women these spurring reminders to remain true to their calling, or warnings against weaknesses in their business lives.
Justice Elon summarized the issue in his ruling in the Women of the Wall case (pp. 305–6):
The "exemption" from time-bound positive commandments – such as public prayer, shofar blowing (on Rosh ha-Shanah) and taking the lulav (on Sukkot) – does not deprive a woman of permission to fulfill these positive commandments if she so desires. According to many halakhic authorities, when a woman fulfills a time-bound positive commandment, she is also permitted to recite the same appropriate blessing as that said by men: "Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us…" (Tosafot, Kid. 31a, s.v.delo mafkidna; Ramban, ad loc., s.v.man de-amar li; Ritva, novellae, ad loc., s.v.katvu ba-Tosafot; Ra'avyah, vol. 2, no. 597).
Based on the above, the halakhic authorities ruled that a woman who wishes to participate in congregational prayer is not counted toward a minyan, the required quorum of ten. This was based upon the reasonable and logical reason that one who is exempt from the mitzvah cannot be counted in the obligatory quorum that constitutes the minyan. The same rationale has been applied to a man who is exempt from mitzvot under certain circumstances. Thus, for example, a person whose close relative died but has not yet been brought to burial is classified as an onen – a person in the initial stage of mourning immediately after the death prior to the burial. During this period, he is exempt from the obligation to fulfill mitzvot, due to his emotional state and his preoccupation with the burial. According to many halakhic authorities, during this period of onenut, since he is exempt from the obligation to pray, he is not counted toward a minyan (Sheyarei Keneset ha-Gedolah, oḤ, 55; Hagahot Bet Yosef, 4; Resp. Paraḥ Mateh Aharon, vol. 1, no. 19; Resp. Shevut Ya'akov, vol. 2, no. 25).
For this reason, women are counted toward the required quorum with respect to obligations that for one reason or another bind them (e.g., Megillah reading, public sanctification of God's name, and others). Moreover, according to some halakhic authorities, women are obligated in prayer, but they are not obligated in congregational prayer (Ber. 20a–b; Maim. Yad, Tefillah 1:2; Sh. Ar., oḤ, 106:1–2, and Magen Avraham, ad loc., no. 2).
There is a difference of opinion as to whether women are obligated in all three daily prayers – the Morning, Afternoon, and Evening services – or only in some of them. According to one of the most noted authorities of the past century, Rabbi Israel Meir of Radin, women are obligated to recite the morning and afternoon services (Mishneh Berurah on Sh. Ar., oḤ 106.4). Others are of the opinion that women are not at all obligated in prayer, given that it is a time-bound positive commandment. According to halakhah, a minyan of ten men is required in order to fulfill the obligation of communal prayer, and only in a minyan may "matters of holiness" – that is, prayers and blessings which sanctify God, such as kaddish, barekhu and kedushah – be recited (Meg. 23b), and only in a minyan does the prayer leader repeat the Amidah prayer. Women are not counted toward a minyan of ten, for reasons that we will explain below. There are other matters as well – e.g., the priestly blessing, the special zimmun recited in the presence of ten, and others – that require a quorum of ten men. The halakhic authorities disagree about the underlying rationale (see Maim., Yad, Tefilah 8:4–6; Sh. Ar., oḤ, 55:1, 69:1). As stated above, women are not counted toward the required minyan, except in certain special cases, according to certain halakhic authorities (see: A. Frimer, "Women and Minyan," in: Tradition, 23:4 (1988), pp. 54ff.; A. Weiss, Women at Prayer (1990 (13–56)).
It follows from all the above that halakhah does not take a hierarchical or condescending attitude toward women. On the contrary, women have "greater affection and more devoted enthusiasm" than men, and it was unnecessary for time-bound positive commandments to be required of them. The halakhic exemption granted women is rooted in halakhah's great attentiveness to the special circumstances of a woman's life, the fact that the burden of child-rearing falls primarily on her shoulders. It is, therefore, clear that she is permitted to take part in the observance of such mitzvot, even if she is not obligated to do so (see: D. Sperber, "Tefilat Nashim," in Minhagei Yisra'el (vol. 7, Jerusalem, 2003), pp. 68–81).
Halakhah's attitude toward the new phenomenon of-women's "prayer groups" has been discussed in light of the sources cited above. The discussions begin with concrete halakhic questions, e.g., wearing a tallit and reading the Torah.
Women are exempt from wearing ẓiẓit (ritual fringes) and wrapping themselves in a tallit, for this is a mitzvah that is considered among the time-bound positive commandments, its obligation being limited to daytime, as opposed to night. However, as stated earlier, while women are exempt from the obligation to fulfill time-bound positive commandments, they are permitted to do so. This applies to the mitzvah of ẓiẓit as well. In fact, it is in the context of his discussion of this mitzvah that Maimonides records the general principle. He states as follows (Yad, Ẓiẓit 3:9): "Women… are exempted by scriptural law from the obligation of having fringes on their garments… If women… desire to wear garments with fringes, no objection is raised, but they do not recite the blessing. The same is the rule with respect to other positive precepts from the obligation of which women are exempt. If they wish to fulfill them without reciting the blessing, no objection is raised." R. Abraham of Posquières agrees that women may fulfill such precepts (Hagahot ha-Rabad, ad loc.), and adds that they may even recite a blessing (see also Rabad's comment to Sifra, Vayikra, parshata 2).
There are divergent views in the world of halakhah regarding whether or not women who fulfill time-bound positive commandments of their own volition are permitted to recite a blessing. Rabbi Moses Feinstein, in the previously mentioned responsum (Resp. Iggerot Moshe, oḤ, part 4, no. 49) rules that, just as women are permitted in general to fulfill time-bound positive commandments and to recite a blessing over them, so too regarding ẓiẓit, "a woman who so desires may don a four-cornered garment that is different than a man's garment, put fringes on it, and fulfill the mitzvah." But he adds a reservation that runs throughout the responsum: "Clearly, however, this only applies when her soul yearns to fulfill the precepts, even though she was not commanded. Since, however, this is not her intention, but only an aspect of her protest against the Torah, this is not at all an act of mitzvah, but, on the contrary, a forbidden act, involving the heresy of believing that the laws of the Torah can be changed." Justice Elon commented on this reasoning (Ma'amad ha-Ishah, pp. 131–32):
"The requirement is that one must perform a mitzvah for the purpose of fulfilling the mitzvah, and not out of disregard for a halakhic rule, motivated by 'the alien consideration' of objecting in principle to the exemption because it is offensive to women. In the world of halakhah this requirement serves as a firm foundation for legislating enactments, instituting customs and introducing changes into them. The litigants presented us with a letter written by Rabbi Tendler, Rabbi Feinstein's sonin-law, clarifying his father-in-law's position as to his concern that the women's prayer groups are motivated by alien considerations, as stated above, and that the permission to wear a tallit applies only when it is clear that their intention is for the sake of Heaven, without any questioning of Israel's Torah and customs. This argument is included among the moral understandings of the world of halakhah, which serve as a weighty factor in halakhah's policy of decision-making in general, and in especially sensitive issues, like the one before us, in particular.
In both earlier and more recent generations, there were women who were accustomed to wear a tallit and recite a blessing, with the approval of the halakhic authorities (see Y.Z. Kahana, Teshuvot, Pesakim u-Minhagim Maharam mi-Rotenburg, p. 141, no. 24; Resp. Ẓema#x1E25; Ẓedek, oḤ, no. 3, which goes into a full and detailed discussion of the issue; Y.M. Toledano, Ner ha-Ma'arav, p. 155; and see S. Ashkenazi, Ha-Ishah ba-Aspaklariyat ha-Yahadut, 1953, vol. 1, p. 137). It was nevertheless not the general custom of women, at least not in recent generations, to wear ẓiẓit or enwrap themselves in a tallit, unlike the case regarding other time-bound positive commandments, such as blowing the shofar, waving the lulav, or sitting in the sukkah, which they were accustomed to fulfill. The reason lies in the custom, first mentioned by the Maharil, that women should abstain from so doing (Resp. Maharil ha-Ḥadashot, Jerusalem, 1977, oḤ, no. 7, pp. 13–14). The custom is cited by the Rema (Sh. Ar., oḤ, 17.2) as follows: "Nevertheless, if [women] wish to wrap themselves [in a tallit ] and recite the blessing, they are permitted to do so, just as is the case with the other time-bound positive commandments… It appears, however, as haughtiness. Therefore, they should not wear ẓiẓit, since it is not an obligation on the person." According to some more recent authorities, the common practice today is in fact that women do not wear ẓiẓit (Kaf ha-Ḥayyim, oḤ, 17, no. 8; Arukh ha-Shulḥan, oḤ, 17:2–3, and see there the explanation offered by the author of the Arukh ha-Shulḥan regarding what the Rema says that "it appears as haughtiness," and his conclusion: "Therefore, we do not allow her to practice this mitzvah, and thus is the custom, and there must be no deviations"; cf. Rabbi S. Yisraeli, "Nashim be-Kiyyum Mitzvot," in Ha-Ishah ve-Ḥinukhah (Emunah, 1980, p. 29).
As for the issue of Torah reading by women, most halakhic authorities maintain that a woman is exempt from the obligation of public Torah reading, since it is regarded as a time-bound positive commandment (Tosafot, R.H. 33a, s.v.ha-Rabbi Yehudah, ha-Rabbi Yose; and see there a detailed discussion of most of the topics discussed here; Ran on Alfasi, Meg. 23a, s.v., ha-kol olin le-minyan shiv'ah; Resp. Maharsham, vol. 1, no. 158; Arokh ha-ShulkhanoḤ, 182:6). The mitzvah of public Torah reading is defined as a time-bound positive commandment, since it is limited to specific times. Women, therefore, are not counted toward the quorum of ten required for the Torah reading, just as they are not counted toward the quorum of ten required for congregational prayer. They are, however, permitted to read the Torah in the context of women's prayer groups. A question arises regarding the barekhu blessing that accompanies the Torah reading, since that falls into the category of devarim she-bi-kedushah. Rabbi Tendler summarized the issue in his aforementioned letter: "They may also read from a Torah scroll, but they must be careful to do so in such a way that it not be mistaken for public Torah reading. For example, they may not recite a blessing in public; either they should rely on a blessing that had been recited earlier, or if such a blessing had not yet been recited, they should recite it quietly to themselves." The letter concludes: "There is no absolute prohibition for a menstruating woman to gaze upon or touch a Torah scroll. While it is proper to be stringent, nevertheless it has become customary to be lenient in the matter." It is on this basis that the question of a women's minyan was discussed.
Before the modern period, women generally did not go to synagogue for the purpose of congregational prayer. In modern times, women began to attend synagogue services on the Sabbath and festivals. The prayer service and Torah reading was conducted entirely by the men and in the men's section. The woman sat in the women's section that was set apart from the men's section. They played a solely passive role in the service, that is to say, in the women's section, they recited the entire prayer service that was recited and conducted in the men's section. In the last generation, certain women have expressed the desire to conduct a prayer service that would be composed and conducted entirely by women, but not as was customary in a minyan composed of men – that is, with kaddish, barekhu, and other such elements – but rather without these passages, so as not to violate the laws of halakhah. These women referred to such services as "prayer groups" or "tefillah groups," in order to distinguish between them and a men's minyan. Some Orthodox rabbis have supported these women's prayer groups; others, however, while recognizing and encouraging the social and intellectual achievements of religiously observant women in our day, object to women's "prayer groups," and view them as a serious violation of halakhah (Women of the Wall, pp. 306–7).
Today, the number of women's "prayer groups" is not large; they were first established in the United States, and there are only a few of them in the State of Israel. The two approaches of Orthodox Jewry, while agreeing on many points, differ bitterly on this issue, the controversy having found widespread written expression. Rabbi Herschel Schechter ("Ẓe'i Lakh be-Ikvei ha-Ẓon," in Beit Yiẓḥak, 17 (1985), 118, at p. 127 (henceforth: Schechter)) maintains that: "We have never seen nor heard of such a practice of arranging a separate Torah or megillah reading for women, or of arranging separate hakafot for women. The obligation falls upon us to continue the tradition of our fathers and their fathers before them regarding the manner of observing the mitzvot." Therefore, "since women had never been accustomed to observe the mitzvot of prayer and Torah reading in this manner, we must not deviate from the tradition of our fathers, and make up new practices… Not only must we continue the tradition of our fathers, but there is also a prohibition to deviate from customary practices. While it is true that 'we have never seen' is not proof, nevertheless, the Shakh (yd 1:1) has already explained… that in any event such conduct establishes a custom… and thus these practices involve [the violation of] the prohibition of changing customs" (ibid., pp. 128–29).
This approach was not accepted by Justice Elon who stated (Women of the Wall, p. 313): "This assertion is not free of uncertainty. The absence of a custom does not necessarily constitute proof of the negation of that arrangement; in certain situations there exists a lacuna which may be filled, when the time and the need arrive – obviously, when this does not involve [the violation of] a halakhic prohibition."
Rabbi Schechter views Orthodox women's prayer groups as a "falsification of the Torah" (p. 119), because "it is their intention to show everyone that women are as important as men." According to Rabbi Schechter, the congregational prayer of these Orthodox women involves a violation of the prohibition against adopting non-Jewish practices (ibid., p. 131). For "it is known that these practices were not introduced in our time in a vacuum, but as a result of the general movement for the liberation of women, whose objective in this area is licentiousness, to equate women with men in every way possible" (ibid.). The reference here is not to non-Jewish practices in general, but to "non-Jewish practices regarding the performance of religious duties" (ibid.). Justice Elon commented on this (Women of the Wall, pp. 321–25):
With all due respect to the distinguished author, it is difficult to fully understand what he means. Why should we suspect those who participate in the public prayer groups designed for women and conducted by them of such grave intentions and objectives, when their entire conduct demonstrates their meticulousness about halakhah: for example, not to recite devarim she-bi-kedushah, such as the prayer leader's repetition of the A midah and the like? Does this not in itself prove that the objective of the organizers of the women's public prayer services – with their observance of the framework of halakhah and its laws – is [to fill] a spiritual need that stems from knowledge of the mitzvot and halakhah, of the Torah and the ways of Torah scholars and thinkers? This seems so, particularly in light of the fact that these young girls, teenagers, and women, are meticulous about the ways of halakhah, both trivial and serious, and have studied for many years in educational institutions that promote Torah and derekh ereẓ, and it is because of this education that they seek their own expression, within the framework of halakhah, by way of prayer groups, the subject of our discussion.
In Rabbi Schechter's sharp objection to women's prayer groups, even when they do not constitute a "minyan," he relies on the rulings of two of the generation's leading authorities, Rabbi Moses Feinstein and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Rabbi A. Weiss correctly noted that Rabbi Schechter was imprecise on this point. As for the position of Rabbi Soloveitchik, nothing was ever committed to writing, and the view that is attributed to him was reported by rabbis and disciples who had consulted with him. According to their reports, Rabbi Soloveitchik did not object to the existence of women's prayer groups per se, but to particular elements that were practiced in such groups, such as the recitation of the blessing before and after the Torah reading (see Rabbi Weiss, ibid., pp. 107–8). As for the position of Rabbi Moses Feinstein, this is stated explicitly in a detailed responsum (Resp. Iggerot Moshe, oḤ, pt. 4, no. 49), mentioned earlier. This responsum does not give voice to an objection in principle to women's prayer groups, when their intentions are in fact for the sake of Heaven, but only to certain changes adopted in such prayer groups regarding Torah reading (see Rabbi Weiss, ibid., pp. 108–10). As stated in earlier comments, according to Rabbi Schechter, the world of halakhah, by its very essence, is not stagnant; it is open to new laws and enactments, according to the needs of the time and place. There are, however, matters and principles regarding which halakhic creativity must demonstrate great caution, and according to him, the matter under discussion is included among them. He is aware of the changes that have occurred in recent generations regarding the social standing of women, their knowledge of halakhah and their general education, but he argues that all these do not justify the changes involved in women's prayer groups, that are influenced by alien and non-halakhic considerations, with all that they involve with respect to the centrality of prayer and the synagogue in Jewish tradition (see, ibid., end of p. 125 and p. 127ff. regarding "the pillar of mitzvah in the deeds of mitzvah, and pp. 130–31 regarding the special stringency concerning "synagogue traditions").
Rabbi Weiss espouses the opposite view. In his comprehensive monograph on the topic, he concludes his discussion of women's prayer groups with the following (pp. 123–24): "Within Halakhic guidelines, woman may participate in women's prayer groups, as long as these groups fall into the halakhic category of tefillah and not minyan … Participants in such groups are not rebelling against Torah Judaism. Quite the contrary. They are seeking to instill greater religious meaning in their lives. Their purpose is not to diminish the Torah, but to enhance their Jewish commitment and halakhic observance… Their quest to reach nobly to attain this lofty objective should be applauded."
The issue of women's prayer was dealt with by the Israeli Supreme Court on several occasions. The first ruling (Women of the Wall case) involved two petitions presented by women who wished to conduct their prayer service in the Western Wall plaza, while carrying Torah scrolls, wearing tallitot, and reading out loud from the Torah. The prayer of these women aroused the fierce objection of the overwhelming majority of those praying at the Wall – both men and women – which was accompanied by disturbances and physical and verbal violence. Justice Elon issued a detailed and comprehensive ruling on the matter, close to a hundred pages in length, based on the above-cited and other sources. While he was of the opinion that a women's minyan does not contradict the Jewish character of the state, he ruled that there must be no deviations from local custom, because changes in custom will result in strife and quarreling. He concludes his ruling as follows (pp. 350–51):
It is clear beyond all doubt that granting the petitions before us will give rise to exceedingly difficult, bitter, and sharp controversy, accompanied by violence that will end in bloodshed. It is an uncontested fact that the overwhelming majority of people visiting the Western Wall day and night for the purpose of prayer are counted among those who maintain and believe, honestly and innocently, that the changes sought in the two petitions before us involve a desecration of the prayer site adjacent to the Western Wall. Not only would these changes lead to very difficult and violent controversy, but the laws of halakhah would prevent people, men and women, from conducting their prayers at the Wall… It is clear and unnecessary to say that the petitioners have the right to pray as they please in their congregations and synagogues, and nobody will prevent them from doing so. The freedom of worship of the petitioners remains firmly in place. However, owing to the uniqueness of the Western Wall, and the great sensitivity in the holiest place to the entire Jewish people, prayer in this unique and special place should be conducted in accordance with the common denominator that allows for the prayer of every Jew; namely, in accordance with the custom that has prevailed there for generations.
It should be noted that the Supreme Court addressed the issue in two additional, later occasions (hc 3358/95 Anat Hoffman et al v. Administrative Director of the Prime Minister's Office et al, pd 54(2) 345; hc 4128/00, Administrative Director of the Prime Minister's Office v. Anat Hoffman et al, pd 57(3) 289).
As we have seen, practice and custom (see *Minhag) have had great impact upon decision-making in matters related to the status of women. In this context it is interesting to examine the attitude of the halakhic authorities to the celebration of bat mitzvah of a young girl who has reached the age of maturity (Ma'amad ha-Ishah, pp. 137–42). It should first be noted that Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg discussed the issue (Resp. Seridei Esh, vol. 3, nos. 93–96) whether it is permissible to perform circumcision of an infant, or that of an adult who had not been circumcised in infancy, under anesthesia, in order to lessen the pain and suffering caused by the procedure. He answers in the negative, especially with respect to the circumcision of an adult. In another responsum, Rabbi Weinberg was asked about celebrating the bat mitzvah of a girl upon reaching her 12th birthday, just as it has always been customary to celebrate a boy's bar mitzvah upon his reaching the age of 13. On this matter, he answered in the affirmative, namely, that a celebration should be held for a girl as well. What is common to the two responsa is that they both deal with innovative practices, the one regarding circumcision, and the other regarding the celebration of bat mitzvah. In a lengthy and detailed responsum, Rabbi Weinberg explains his negative reply regarding the use of an anesthetic during circumcision, arguing that this possibility had already existed in ancient times, during the Talmudic period, but it had met with the opposition of the halakhic authorities for the halakhic reasons detailed in his responsum. This being the case, we apply the principle that "the custom of Israel is considered Torah," and do not deviate from the customary practice. In contrast, regarding the celebration of a girl's bat mitzvah, Rabbi Weinberg's reply was in the affirmative, and the reasoning expressed in his responsum is very instructive. Indeed, bat mitzvah celebrations had not been customary in previous generations, and thus, "there are those who argue against allowing a bat mitzvah celebration, on the grounds that it contradicts the custom of the earlier generations, who did not practice this custom" (ibid., p. 297, col. 1). However, he refutes this argument:
In truth, however, this is not a [valid] argument, for in earlier generations it was unnecessary to engage in girls' education, for every Jew was full of Torah and fear of God, and the air of every community in Israel was filled with the spirit of Judaism… Now, however, the generations have drastically changed… [Moreover,] It pains the heart that with regard to general education – the teaching of languages, secular literature, natural sciences, and humanities – people are concerned about girls in the same way that they are concerned about boys, but they totally neglect religious education – the study of Scripture and the ethical literature of the Sages, and training in the practical mitzvot that are binding upon women. Fortunately, the leading authorities of the previous generation recognized the problem and established institutions of Torah and religious strengthening for Jewish girls. The establishment of the great and comprehensive network of Bet Ya'akov schools is the noblest demonstration of our generation. Common sense and pedagogical principle almost demand that we celebrate a girl's reaching the obligation of mitzvot. The distinction made between boys and girls regarding the celebration of their maturity seriously offends the sensitivities of the girl who comes of age (ibid., p. 297, col. 2).
As for the concern of "alien considerations" underlying the introduction of the new practice of celebrating a bat mitzvah – that is to say, such celebrations involve an imitation of non-Jewish practices – Rabbi Weinberg says as follows:
Our brothers who have recently introduced the practice of celebrating a bat mitzvah say that they have done so in order to strengthen in the heart of a girl who has reached [the age of] mitzvot her love for Judaism and its commandments, and to arouse a feeling of pride in her Judaism and in her being the daughter of a great and holy people. It is of no concern to us that the Gentiles also celebrate confirmation whether for boys or for girls; they conduct their ceremony and we ours; they pray and bow down in their churches and we bow down and prostrate ourselves and give thanks to the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He (ibid., p. 297, col. 1).
Justice Elon summarizes this issue in the aforementioned Women of the Wall case:
In summation, a custom that deviates from a pre-existing custom, such as using anesthetics during circumcision, should not be accepted; for this is the power of custom, that it becomes law, and there is no halakhic justification to change it, unless it is justified in the light of the social changes and legitimate ideological changes in the world of halakhah. On the other hand, introducing a new custom, such as celebrating a girl's bat mitzvah, which does not contradict the existing law, and whose non-existence in the past stems from a specific social-ideological reality that has now entirely changed… It is right and fitting that it be accepted, on its own merits and in order to prevent a situation in our generation, as formulated by Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg, in which "the distinction made between boys and girls regarding the celebration of their maturity seriously offends the sensitivities of the girl who comes of age."
The practice of celebrating a girl's bat mitzvah upon her reaching the age of 12 was also discussed by Rabbi Moses Feinstein (Resp. Iggerot Moshe, oḤ, no. 104). Rabbi Feinstein raises doubts about the propriety of introducing the custom of a bat mitzvah celebration, and he sees such a celebration, not as a se'udat mitzvah [a meal constituting a mitzvah], but merely a birthday party." Rabbi Feinstein absolutely forbids the celebration of a bat mitzvah in a synagogue, but permits it at home. He adds that this celebration involves the alien consideration of imitating a practice observed in circles that do not accept halakhah whatsoever.
Rabbi Feinstein's responsum implies that he was not in favor at all of introducing the custom of celebrating bat mitzvah. In this connection, there is an interesting ruling of the former chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who views the celebration in a positive light, and even promotes it: "It seems that there is certainly a mitzvah to arrange a joyous meal for the bat mitzvah, according to what Maharshal (R. Solomon Luria) says in Yam shel Shelomo (Bava Kamma, Ch. 7. 37) that there is no se'udat mitzvah greater than a bar mitzvah banquet… Since she becomes obligated in the mitzvot, and she is like an adult who is commanded to perform the mitzvot, regarding all the mitzvot that are binding upon a woman, [the celebration] is certainly a mitzvah" (Resp. Yabi'a Omer, Vol. 6, oḤ, no. 29, sec. 4). Rabbi Yosef discusses the issue again in another responsum (Resp. Yeḥavveh Da'at, vol. 2, no. 29), where he writes (p. 111): "In truth, opposing bat mitzvah celebrations allows sinners to accuse the Sages of Israel of depriving the daughters of Israel and discriminating between boys and girls." He also cites and relies upon the words of Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg, in responsum no. 93, that this does not involve emulation of non-Jewish practices, and the non-celebration of a bat mitzvah involves discrimination against girls and a serious offense to a girl's sensitivities. Further on, R. Yosef relies on additional responsa of contemporary Sephardi sages, including Rabbi Ovadiah Hadayah, who allow bat mitzvah celebrations (Resp. Yaskil Avdi, vol. 5, oḤ, no. 28). Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef refers to the position of Rabbi Moses Feinstein, who raised doubts about the propriety of celebrating a bat mitzvah, as stated earlier, and expresses his disagreement: "But with all due respect, his words are incorrect, for since she becomes obligated in the mitzvot, and she is like an adult who is commanded to perform the mitzvot, regarding all the mitzvot that are binding upon a woman, [the celebration] is certainly a mitzvah" (Resp. Yabi'a Omer, ibid.)
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef summarizes his ruling as follows (Resp. Yeḥavveh Da'at, ibid.): "The practice of making a celebration and festive meal of thanksgiving in honor of a bat mitzvah girl on the day she reaches 12 years and a day is a good and fitting practice. And it is preferable that they speak there words of Torah, as well as praises of God. One must be meticulously careful to observe the rules of modesty according to our holy Torah… And God will not withhold good from those who walk uprightly." (Regarding bat mitzvah celebrations, see Ma'amad ha-Ishah, pp. 137–42, 145, 149–150).
A major and central topic relating to the status of woman in the world of Judaism is the topic of agunot (wives who are unable to receive a get due to husband's recalcitrance or disappearance). This discussion of this issue began in the tannaitic period and continues to this very day, and it is a striking example of creativity and decision-making in the world of halakhah, in accordance with the time, place and situation, and in accordance with the truth of the law and the truth of the judge. It is an instructive example of the influence of historical reality on the methods of creating and fashioning halakhah, and regarding the integration of halakhah and society in the world of Judaism – thoughts, doubts and differences of opinion. The issue is multi-faceted – an entire world of halakhah and Jewish thought. (For a detailed discussion, see *Agunah).
In this context we will cite the following comments of Justice Elon's (M. Elon, Ḥakikah Datit be-Ḥukei Medinat Yisra'el u-bi-Shefitah shel Batei ha-Mishpat u-Batei ha-Din ha-Rabbaniyyim (1968), pp. 182–84):
Halakhah has the capability, the authority, and the duty to resolve, those problems, the results of which contradict the goals of the halakhic system itself, and which from the perspective of halakhah itself, must be resolved. The classic example of such problems are cases of agunah, whether resulting from the disappearance of the husband or other similar situations. Needless to say, halakhah has no interest in causing the woman pain and suffering; halakhah's sole interest is that a married woman not take another husband, and that a yevamah (widow whose husband died without offspring) who did not perform halitzah, not be permitted to others. There may be ways of not regarding the woman as a married woman, for example, by way of a condition attached to the marriage and by way of a nullification of the betrothal – as a result of which the widow will not be regarded as a yevamah. This manner of solution was introduced by Mahari Brin (Sh. Ar., eh, 157:3). In such cases, halakhah has both the authority and the duty to resolve these problems, for it is the goal of halakhah that the woman – every woman – not remain an agunah. This is the background of the extensive discussion found in halakhic literature of ways to release an agunah, beginning with Rabban Gamaliel the Elder through countless generations of those who made enactments and proposed solutions in order to save a woman from being and suffering as an agunah. It should be stated and emphasized that the way to resolve the matter is not easy, if only for the reason that in recent centuries the tendency has been to make little or no use whatsoever of ordinances in this sensitive and delicate area of marital law. However, the needs of the individual and the community, and most importantly, the essence and goals of halakhah itself, necessitate the speedy resolution of these problems in the framework of halakhah and by the halakhic authorities.
It should again be noted that a partial resolution of the problem of agunot has been reached through the legislation and judicial rulings of the State of Israel, i.e., through the sanctions (harḥakot) mentioned in Rabbinical Courts Law (Enforcement of Divorce Judgments) 5755 – 1995 (see: Ma'amad ha-Ishah, pp. 351–52). These sanctions follow in the footsteps of the enactments of Rabbenu Tam, one of the greatest Tosafists of the 12th century. The coercive force of such sanctions is limited, when the husband refuses to submit and continues in his perverse and abusive ways, despite the sanctions imposed upon him. Similarly, these sanctions are effective only when the agunah's husband lives within the borders of the State of Israel, but not when he lives outside the country, where Israeli law cannot be executed or enforced. It may, however, be assumed that the very passage of the law of sanctions in the State of Israel has had a certain impact on Jewish courts around the world, especially when the sanctions are based and rooted in the world of halakhah in the ordinances of Rabbenu Tam.
The fitting and complete resolution of this problem would lie in the enactment of a takkanah allowing for the retroactive nullification of the marriage, based on a two-thousand-year-old enactment of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, nasi of the Sanhedrin in the Land of Israel. Today, when the Land of Israel and the State of Israel have once again been reestablished as the center of the Jewish people – out of this new reality there have emerged the need and the possibility of resolving the problem of agunot by way of the enactment of a takkanah allowing for nullification of the marriage, an enactment initiated in the Land of Israel and in the State of Israel, around which the entire Jewish people throughout the Diaspora will rally.
A change as blessed and as momentous as the change that has transpired in our days with the establishment of the State of Israel can and should bring about the restoration of the enactment, the basis of which is found in the tannaitic period, and which was in effect for many generations – namely, nullification of a marriage based on the principle that a man takes a woman under the conditions laid down by the rabbis, and the rabbis – the halakhic authorities in the Land of Israel and the dispersion – may annul the marriage. This is the way of resolving the agunah problem and of redeeming the agunot from their plight (see Ma'amad ha-Ishah, pp. 297–372).
In one of the major rulings the Israeli Supreme Court dealing with the status of women, the court stated the following: (Shakdiel case, pp. 269–70):
It need scarcely be said that in the world of the halakhah we do not discuss purely legal-halakhic questions, in the sense of juridical rights and duties. Rather, the ideological and normative values of Jewish religious life are inherent in and inseparable from the subject of the discourse. For there is a great principle: "Read not halikhot [ways], but halakhot [laws]." In the same way we can say by way of paraphrase: "Read not halakhot, but halikhot. For the laws of justice and the ways of life are intertwined. The scholarly passages here cited are not limited to the exposition of the legal issues, but also contain lengthy and detailed discussions of the conceptual implications of Jewish family life – the roles of the father and the mother, of woman and man, domestic harmony, the concept of modesty, and so on. This is because examination of these concepts is essential to the juridical-halakhic ruling on our subject. However, these important concepts must be addressed according to both their original significance and their contemporary setting, as we have learned from the passages quoted.
At the end of the book, Ma'amad ha-Ishah – Mishpat ve-Shipput, Masoret u-Temurah: Arakhehah shel Medinah Yehudit ve-Demografit (pp. 453–56), Justice Elon writes:
We have chosen a concrete example, a specific topic, which contains a combination of "Jewish" and "democratic," with the objective of analyzing the detailed laws, halakhot and principles in it; how the laws, halakhot and principles work and how they were applied in the social, economic and practical reality in which they were activated and applied; how "this one came and taught about that one, and that one came and completed this one, and they became as one in our hands." For there is no comparison between a general examination of principles and a detailed discussion of its practical applications in daily life… which is an issue that lives, breathes, acts, is acted upon, is activated and activates, diversified and many-faceted – in every period and in every society.
Rabbi Samuel Harkevalti writes (Resp. Ma'ayan Ganim, no. 313): "The women whose hearts made them willing to approach the work, the work of God, out of their choice of good, they will ascend the mountain of God, and rest in His holy place, for they are distinguished women. And it is incumbent upon the Sages of their generation to glory and honor them, and strengthen their hands, 'Go and succeed, may Heaven help you.'" It seems that the issue of the status of women that is dealt with in many entries in this Encyclopedia and in many rulings of the Israeli Supreme Court have created a synthesis between its being a Jewish state and its being democratic.
Justice Elon concludes his book (p.456):
Out of all this, so we hope, it will be easier for us to understand the importance, the necessity and the possibility of executing and fulfilling the role and mission imposed upon us, as stated in Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty and Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation: "to establish in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state" – the strength and creativity of the Jewish together with the democratic. May this be the reward of our toil and study.
[Menachem Elon (2nd ed.)]
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"Woman." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved August 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/woman-0