Tag Archive | Bible

Judaism and Feminism – Opposites or Synonyms?

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Many people seem to think that Judaism is chauvinistic.

It’s not.

Judaism is, and has always been, one of the more feminist religions out there.

Some of you will disagree.  How can Judaism be feminist when polygamy is allowed and polyandry is forbidden?  How can Judaism be feminist if a husband whose wife does not want to divorce him is allowed to remarry, but a wife whose husband refuses to divorce her has no such option?

There are many questions.  I do not pretend to have all the answers.  But I will try to give some examples here.

Remember, as obvious as some of these examples are, modern feminism is only a century old, and these laws have been around for more than 3000 years.

Here are some examples solely from Jewish law:

The Jewish marriage contract is called a ketuba.  The requirement to have a ketuba is at least 2000 years old.  Jews are not allowed to get married without one.  In fact, if your ketuba is lost, it must be replaced immediately, because without it, you are not allowed to live as a couple.

What does the ketuba say?

It says that the husband is required to provide his wife with:

1) medical care if she gets sick

2) redemption if she gets captured

3) financial stability

4) clothes

5) marital relations (this is a husband’s obligation to his wife, not the other way around)

6) a certain sum of money in the event of a divorce (the sum stipulated was a very nice sum then, but not so much now; however, many will add to it)

7) food

8) to pay for her burial

9) that she will live in his house and be supported from him if she is widowed

10) that her daughters will be supported by his property after she dies and until they get engaged, and that her sons will inherit the worth of her ketuba along with their shares of his property that they split with the other sons.

In return, the wife commits:

1) not to marry anyone else

2) that she will nurse her children

3) whatever she earns or finds becomes his property (this makes sense if he has to support her – it’s not fair for him to have to pay her expenses, while she keeps all profits she earns)

4) any benefits accrued from her property (fruits, interest) become his, and he inherits her (she inherits him, too, remember).

If he cannot afford a housekeeper, she takes care of the household duties.  If he can afford a housekeeper, he is required to hire one so that his wife will not have to take care of the house (if this is what she wants; she can elect to prefer the money to the housekeeper – it is solely her choice).

In addition, there are a few things that she is required to do for him, that cannot be delegated.  For instance, in the olden days, heating water and helping him wash his hands.  Today, it would be making his favorite type of cake for his birthday.  These things are not allowed to be delegated because they fall under the category of “chiba” (affection), i.e., Judaism requires the wife to show affection for her husband in a few simple, obvious ways.

If she is not happy, she can ask for a divorce, and he is required to give it to her.  In the olden days, the courts would beat him until he agreed.  Nowadays, Jewish courts no longer have such power, and it is much more difficult.  Excommunication sometimes works, but in today’s global society, finding a different community who does not know about the excommunication is not hard at all, and therefore forcing him to give her a divorce can be very difficult.  Therefore, prenuptial agreements, that are binding in all courts of law, are becoming more popular.

In any case where one witness is allowed to testify, women are also allowed to testify.  In any case where it is safe to say that finding other witnesses is impossible, a woman is allowed to testify.

Women are allowed to charge/sue/prosecute anyone they want in court (including their husbands), no questions asked.

If someone decided to force himself on her, he is obligated to marry her (unless she doesn’t want him) and provide her with everything mentioned above.

If a man wishes to take a second wife, he has to ask his first wife’s permission (today this is less relevant, since European Jews are no longer allowed to marry more than one wife).

Women have always been allowed to agree to marriage on condition that the husband never take a second wife.

In Judaism, women have always had the right to agree to or refuse marriage, and have usually exercised that right.

Each wife, in the case of polygamy, must be provided with her own income and her own house.  A man is not allowed to keep two wives in the same house, because this causes them heartache.

If someone gave the wife money and specified that her husband has no control over it, it remains hers to do with as she pleases.

The concept of marital rape has been recognized – and forbidden – in Judaism since Mishnaic times, if not since the times of the Bible.  Prosecuting it, though, is difficult under any circumstances (in today’s courts, too).  In all books on Jewish theory and law, including the Talmud, there are very scary threats presented regarding this issue.  And bear in mind, the Talmud was – is – rarely learned by women, so these threats and scares were presented to men only.

Judaism was also the first group in the entire world to forbid people from hitting their wives.

After age 12.5, a woman is not answerable to anyone until she chooses to marry.

From Jewish Midrashic literature:

In Jewish literature, Abraham is often famed and praised for being subservient to his wife.

Scholarly women have been in evidence since Biblical times, and praised for it.  It seems that our generation is the first to not wholly recognize and praise scholarly women; this probably came about as a reaction to the “Enlightenment,” as an attempt by certain groups to fight back (unsuccessfully).

In general:

Remind me: Who has to pray with a quorum of ten three times a day?  (Men – and trust me, if you have to do this every day, and it’s not just for fun, it can be really tough, and even a drag, sometimes.  My little brother used to joke that he wished he was a girl, because girls are so lucky . . . )  And who can pray whenever they want, wherever they want, as long as they pray once a day – and even the definition of “prayer” for women changes by whether your community is of European (Ashkenazi) or Sephardic descent?  (Women.)

And who has an obligation to study Torah during the day and at night?  (Men.)

And who has to say Shema twice a day?  (Men – again.)

And who, if they so decided, could take extended parental leave and never go back to work, whether the other spouse liked it or not, and every court would support their decision?  (Women.)

See what I mean?

I know there will be a lot of questions and arguments about this post, but I think it is important to write.

Jewish women, until today’s open, equal-rights movement, have always been in an enviable position.

Judaism does not look for converts.  People, however, since Biblical times, have seen in Judaism a forward movement with respect and equal rights, and have wanted to convert.  Especially for a woman, Judaism was a very attractive option.  2000 years ago, it gave her rights that no one else gave her, and it gave her respect, as well.

Today “equality” has taken hold, and some aspects of it make Judaism look outdated.  In truth, what we call “feminism” today, I often think of as “masculinism.”  But that’s a topic for a different post.

In the meantime, know that Judaism is not nearly as bad to women as you once thought it was . . . in fact, it’s pretty darn good.

Why Do Orthodox Women Cover Their Hair?

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As some of you may have noticed in this post, I cover my hair.  It sounds so funny to say it in English, but that is what it is.  I guess I am just used to the Hebrew.

The question that many ask is: Why?  Why do Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair?  And is this similar to what Muslim women do?

We’ll start with the second question, since it’s a lot shorter.  Jewish women and Muslim women cover their hair for different reasons, and in different ways, and therefore, there is pretty much no comparison between the two.

In short, Jewish law does its utmost to protect women.  Jewish law – and Jewish practice, excepting a few crazies who are not/were not accepted in mainstream Judaism – has always been kinder to women than the world around us, excepting perhaps (and only perhaps) today’s modern “feminism”.  2000 years ago, Jewish women were of enviable status, and thus it continued until today.  Muslim values (not Muslim laws – I have not read Islamic holy books; Muslim values – i.e., how much of the Muslim world today behaves.**) are the exact opposite.  Women are not respected, they do not have equal rights in any way, and they are not valued.  A woman is seen, in many ways, as an object, and it is her responsibility not to tempt men.  I know that many of my readers will have a lot of questions on Jewish womens’ dress – and possibly some objections to the simplistic way I have spoken about Jewish and Muslim law – and I welcome them.  This post, however, is solely about hair covering.

Another difference is that Jewish women cover only their hair.  Muslim women cover their hair, parts of their faces, and their necks.  This is a huge difference, both to the woman and to how society views her.

Now for the first question of why Jewish women cover their hair at all.

The source for Jewish women covering their hair is in Bamidbar (Numbers) 5:18, where it speaks about a sotah.  A sotah is a woman who has been accused of adultery (today we do not accuse women of this because we do not have a Temple; if her husband accuses her they are forbidden to live together permanently).  The Chumash (Pentateuch) states that the kohen (Jewish priest), “. . . reveals the hair of the sotah.”

Since we are talking about deciding whether or not a woman committed adultery, this woman is not being seen in a positive light.  Therefore, the kohen uncovering her hair is part of the process of shaming her into admitting her crime.  Which means, therefore, that her hair is usually covered, and it is considered shameful for her to reveal it.  And since we are talking about adultery, and a single woman cannot commit adultery (because she has no husband), we learn (though there are differing opinions) that only married women need to cover their hair.

This analysis of the Chumash (Pentateuch) was written as a law already in the times of the Gemara (Talmud) in Ketubot 72a.  Modern halacha (Jewish law) also states this in the Shulchan Aruch, in the section of Even Ha’ezer (Code of Jewish Law, section 3) 21:2.*

Some of you will ask why it is shameful for a Jewish woman not to cover her hair.  The reason is simple: Most people who are married (we hope) are happy with that fact.  Just like a woman proudly wears a wedding ring, Jewish women proudly cover their hair.  And, in fact, in previous times, a hair covering served the purpose that a wedding ring serves today – to show people that she is a married woman and unavailable to others.  Think about it.  Have you never, ever met a single mother who was not embarrassed, at some point, that she did not have a wedding ring?  Have you never heard of someone who put on a ring that resembled a wedding ring, so that she would fit in?  This is the idea.  The kohen, in order to embarrass her so that she will admit her wrong and not have to be punished as severely, is taking off her wedding ring in front of a crowd – except that taking a ring off a finger is much less obvious than taking off a hair covering.  She is embarrassed.  It is shameful for her.  She acted as if she had the right to act like she was single, and now she is being portrayed as someone who forgot her commitment or didn’t care enough.

And from this, we learn that if uncovering her hair is so shameful (because covering it is a sign she is married), then married women must cover their hair.  If you see a woman with a head covering, you know that there is no point in trying to start with her.  Simple as that.

Here’s another thought: How long do women spend doing their hair each day?  Yeah, that’s what I thought.  If so, she obviously thinks that her hair is very attractive and very important to her good looks.  Shouldn’t that attractiveness be reserved for her husband?  Why is she flaunting her gorgeous hair to the whole world?  She has no need to flirt with any of them.  Of this reason, I say, hmmm.  It is something to think about.  I was never one to spend a long time on my hair, never one to flaunt it, never one to flirt.  But there are many others who are not like me.  And it is the majority, not the exception, who are the basis for creating laws.  So, take it or leave it.  It is something to think about.

At the end of this post, I would like to refer you to two sites:

1) AskMoses, who generously provided me with the sources (the answers I knew already, but I was too lazy to find the sources myself).  This site answers many, many, many questions about Judaism, and they do an excellent job.

2) Wrapunzel, a site dedicated to hair covering.  She uses mostly (if not only) scarves, and it is a beautiful site that gives the idea of hair covering a much nicer rap (pun not intended) than it usually gets.

*Just for your knowledge – this is the only part of womens’ dress that is actually mentioned in the Chumash (Pentateuch) and in Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law).  The rest of the dress code was written for men and later adapted to both men and women.  Meaning, men are also required to dress modestly; the onus is not solely on the woman. 

However, a Jewish woman is not allowed to decide to dress immodestly, because of what we call, “The Law of Judith” (das Yehudis); i.e., Jewish women took these stringencies upon themselves over the years, and it became incorporated into what a Jewish woman is required to do.  So yes, it was a choice for previous generations, and they chose to follow a certain dress code.  But after a few decades (or hundred years), the rabbis gave this dress code their approval, and now it is binding.  But it is by no means on the same level as a Biblical command.

**As I have long suspected, there is a large gap between what the Quran dictates and what is actually practiced.