Do Women Matter
According to the Tanach?

By Rabbi Shlomo Nachman © April 03, 2014 (last updated June 15,2017)

Recorded Live on Facebook

This is my response to a question I received via e-mail:
... And I ask this with the most sincerest of hearts, but does the female soul even matter? Let me explain why I ask. And as a female, I hate to even approach the question. But here is how I arrived at the query. Through Noach down to Avraham, on down to the 12 sons os Israel/Jacob, the blessing HaShem has always been on the male. So why does the female soul matter? And why do the Jews count you Jewish if the mother is Jewish and not the father? These things don't make sense to me. It seems to me that, Biblically speaking, the female is what gets the males into trouble (eating of the forbidden fruit, the conception of Ishmael) the blessing is on the male, so the female is inconsequential to the plan, and the blood line is passed through the father (HaMashiach will be of the house of David, it doesn't tell us the maternal lineage just the paternal)...
Here's my reply:

This is a tough one for a lot of modern women, and for more men than you would probably expect.

There are many important women in the Bible of course. Without women the human race would not exist nor the Jewish people, not the coming Mashiach. Beyond these obvious truths however, women are essential.

The Bible has a certain consistent focus. It presents each of its characters and incidents for specific reasons. Not everything is to be found there, otherwise the world's largest libraries combined would not be able to contain a single edition, and no one would be able to read it all. This is partly why we have the Talmud and other sources of clarification. I'll share more on this below, but considering the times and cultures of the Biblical period it is amazingly supportive of women and their importance. With regard to female souls I think the following from the online Jewish Encyclopedia might be of interest. While not all Jews would agree with the following, I think it is essentially accurate:

"... Generally the souls of men transmigrate into the bodies of men, and those of women into the bodies of women; but there are exceptions. The soul of Judah, the son of Jacob, was in part that of a woman; while Tamar had the soul of a man. Tamar's soul passed into Ruth; and therefore the latter could not bear children until God had imparted to her sparks from a female soul..."
The soul is not as complete nor fixed a unit as many suppose. The realm of the Spirit includes a fluidity that is unknown in the realms of matter although personal experiences sometimes offer hints. The distinction between male and female is as not as absolute and many suppose. I not referring to the current transgender trends, but a cursory survey of men and women demonstrate than not all men as equally "manly" not are all women equally "feminine." Each of us is unique.

Biblically speaking, as with everything else HaShem established gender roles for the human race so they could harmonize with His Will. As we have discussed elsewhere, the Eternal ONE is neither male nor female, although we think of God in male terms dues in part to cultural realities. When men and women through the covenant of marriage both fully embrace these roles they form a complete "person" and then there is peace in the home and beyond it. The problem is both men and women are unaware of HaShem's design and/or choose to live outside of it. One is often more giving while the other is more taking. Successful marriages require an equal give and take of both parties in harmony with their individual natures. We are very far away from the perfection of Eden and we must each determine how to live meaningful lives in this ongoing exile of the Olam Hazeh by intentionally "blending" with our spouses, not by overpowering them. Torah guides us in this, but the personal and social factors can not be ignored. Rabbi Shalom Arush offers two important books on this, one for husbands and one for wives.

Its helpful to separate what we might call the 'ideal' from the 'real' world. Ideally there would be no sexism, racism, antisemitism, ageism, nationalism, egoism and so on. In reality however these things exist and we all must coexist with reality (whether we embrace them, oppose them or try to ignore them).

The ideal reality would be that Adam and Chava chose the path of yetzer tov (righteousness). In that reality they are coworkers joyfully united in their service to HaShem and one another. Note that Chava was created not from Adam's feet (as a servant) but from his side (arguably from left side where the heart is) as his partner. Working together, if we take the story literally, they and their offspring were to extend Gan Eden outward, blessing by blessing, until the entire planet became like their splendid Garden Home. ideally.

In reality, again taking the account literally, Adam chose yetzer hara (which is essentially the path of egoism). Note that God commanded Adam about the tree and he passed the order on to Chava. When Chava ate, nothing bad happened. It was not until Adam ate that the negative consequences arose. People speak of the 'sin of Eve' but it was more properly the sin of Adam that brought humanity into rebellion. The man knowingly violated the direct order of HaShem while Eve disregarded Adam's instruction. Had he obeyed and corrected her the violation would have been rectified through teshuvah.

Whether one accepts this account at face value or as the metaphorical sharing of a common creation story held throughout the region, humans chose the path of direct knowledge and responsibility over the path of child-like faith and ignorance alone. As Jew so deeply value the importance of knowledge and personal responsibility we view this event differently from certain other religious systems. This was in any case a joint decision of both Adam and Chava. Likewise each of us, having knowledge, must choose to accept or reject the Torah of HaShem.

Likewise, while Genesis attributes the decision to impregnate Hagar to Sarah, Avram was the authority. It was his decision to act upon Sarah's suggestion (Hagar was just a servant with no say in the matter). So again, while there was mutual culpability in that decision, the 'buck stopped with Avram' not with Sarah nor Hagar. Biblical dynamics place the onus on the males more than on the females. Both the Scriptures and Jewish Tradition view females as spiritually less fallen than males. The sexism expressed in many of our societies are not consistent with Torah.

As the human family spread out farther and farther from Eden (their point of origin) they developed the diverse cultures. During these early periods physical strength was paramount: strength of arms, strength of defense, physical strength, social strength and so on. Of equal importance was progeny. Communities that produced and trained offspring had the best chances of surviving. This was the dominion of the women. Being so fundamentally responsible for the future of the tribe, women were carefully protected by their societies. The males ruled and defended their wives and children honorably for the most part. In most ancient cultures this meant that males ruled in all areas of life. Even in those domains where females sometimes had precedence, like in the home, in the healing arts etc, it was usually under patriarchal authority. This is how it worked in the 'real world' for better or for worse and for most of history, in most cultures, this arrangement was accepted as the natural order.

While there were several female prophets, seers and mystics, this area too was largely dominated by men, in part because the male power structures dictated whose messages, visions, prophecies, etc. were to be heeded. There were of course always such women as well. Again, objectively this was neither 'right nor wrong', its just how things were and most people, male or female, accepted it until fairly recent times.

As Moshe composed the Torah (i.e. Genesis - Deuteronomy) under the direction of HaShem, he wrote according to his world view and experience. What he wrote was carefully passed down through male scribes in a patriarchal society and those sacred writings.

In the 1950's things began to really change (in part because of the fast changing roles of women during WW II -- Rosie the Riveter etc). Our social desire for and conception of gender equality and inclusiveness is relatively new. Such changes seldom occur 'over night'. The Old World gender roles continue within much of Orthodox Judaism, although groups like Women of the Wall are chipping away at these ideas and customs. Non-Orthodox rabbis pretty much accept standard Western gender roles today.

We live today in 'the real world' and must determine how to survive within this reality. We must have the understanding that without women there would be no human life on the planet. Women are our mothers, our first teachers, our healers, our wives, our lovers ... we disrespect and deny their equality at our mutual peril. At the same time, the traditional Jewish gender roles grant a degree of honor and respect to women that is all but absent in the current world. Modern women have attained greater "equality" but at what cost?

It seems important to understand that what may appear as gender inequality to modern sensibilities is viewed as honoring and respecting women by others. 'Casting women out of the honor of traditional roles' is not viewed as liberating by many of Orthodox men and women, but rather as abandoning them to a cruel and unloving world. More importantly the traditional views are seen as conforming with the nature design of HaShem. Ancient traditions are not lightly cast aside nor should they be. Many Jewish women prefer these traditions, as the number and intensity of women opposing Women of Wall attests.

The times are changing and historic gender roles are being transformed. Women around the world are proving that they are neither more nor less important nor capable than men in all areas of life. This ongoing movement toward 'gender equality' has its positive and negative ramifications. The modern social engineers seem intent on throwing the proverbial baby and it mother out with the bath water.

As for tracing Jewishness through mothers, there is a bit of debate. In the Torah lineages are traced through the father. This was because, as cited above, men held the majority of power and the main function of the recorded lineages had to do with property and authority rights (including the calculation of the lineage of the future Mashiach ben David). Unlike any other book of antiquity the Torah includes legal land right protections for widowed women. That was revolutionary. This is but one example that Torah is evolutionarily female positive.

During the time of Ezra and the Great Assembly (i.e. in the period from the end of the Biblical prophets to the early Hellenistic period) violence and widespread rape led to lineage uncertainties. Due to the need to maintain the Messianic lineage, as well as property rights, priestly authority and more, maintaining knowledge of the proper Jewish lineages is of vital concern. In an attempt to affirm that one was born into the Covenant and through which family, the emphasis on Jewishness was transferred to the mother (who could identify her offspring if not always their biological fathers). The tribal/house affiliation remained with the father's lineage. The ruling was made as a way to protect Jews (males and females) from having their Jewishness challenged if their father's identity were either debated (due to rapes etc.) or if they were deceased (due to antisemitic attacks, wars, etc). By that point most Jews were living outside of Israel. Within Israel tribe-based land ownership had ceased due to the occupations of other peoples. Transferring those rights to the mother's side was deemed unimportant. Karaite Jews still base their Jewishness on the father, but they are a very small part of the Jewish people today and normative Judaism is matrilineal.

Mashiach ben David (the coming Messiah) will be of the House of David according to Isaiah 11 and other texts. He will be confirmed by his royal tribal affiliation. His ancestral mother's lineage in this regard must be demonstrated since David's authority is reckoned Ruth the Moabite (4th century BCE). Who is Moab? The Torah recounts this lineage through who Ruth and David arose. Moab was a son of Lot by one of Lot's own daughters. The Torah tells how Lot and his daughters fled the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, taking refuge in a cave. Due to the incredible destruction, Lot's daughters believed that not only cities of the plains, but the whole world has been destroyed. The believed that only the three of them remained. They believed that only man remained alive, their father Lot.

The daughters got Lot drunk, had relations with him, and one of them gave birth to Moab. The convert Ruth was one Moab's descendants, King David was her descendant, and one day HaMashiach ben David will arise from this biblically preserved lineage. These women are therefore critical in recognizing the future Messiah.

We have this from The Jewish Virtual Library:

There are believed to be three different kinds of mitzvot: those that are inclusive to everyone (observing Shabbat), those that are gender based (having children), and those that are gender based but not related to biological differences (reading Torah).

The Mishnah teaches that women are required to follow nearly all the negative commandments (mitzvot lo taaseh), except trimming one’s beard and viewing the deceased (Kiddushin 33b). As for the positive commandments (mitzvot asay) women must perform virtually all the commandments not structured by time, and are exempted from those mitzvot that are restricted by time (mitzvot asay she’hazeman gerama). This is because of women’s traditional domestic roles of bearing children, raising a family, and fulfilling household responsibilities.

The law was designed to liberate women of obligations of mitzvot that they would find difficult. For instance, a woman is not required to pray in the morning, because it would be demanding for her to also pay attention to the children. Nevertheless, every Shabbat women are obligated to recite the prayer over the wine (Kiddush) because all Jews are required to “remember the Sabbath Day” (Exodus 20:8). Additionally, women are expected to light the Chanukah candles because both men and women observed the miracle of Chanukah. Some rabbis believe that women are naturally more spiritual than men, and therefore require less demanding religious mitzvot.

There is no definite agreement among rabbis as to which positive, time bound commandments women are not obligated to fulfill. However, many rabbis follow the view of Maimonides and the Talmud which specifically lists five time-bound mitzvot not required to be performed by women: residing in the sukkah, raising the lulav on Sukkot, listening to the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and wearing tzitzit or tefillin. It is also stated in the Talmud that women are not obligated to count the Omer or say the Shema. Furthermore, women are not expected to study the Torah, which is not time-bound. All of these commandments that a woman is exempted are outside the realm of her domestic sphere. These commandments involve a public religious life removed from domestic life.

Since the Mishnah uses the expression “exemption,” many women voluntarily choose to perform time-bounded mitzvot. However, the Orthodox community has denied women the mitzvot of wearing tallit and tefillin, no matter whether they voluntarily choose to perform the mitzvot. Scholars also debate whether a woman is permitted to recite the suitable blessing that adjoins a mitzvah that she is electing to perform.

Maimonides also believed that a commandment fulfilled by a woman, who is not obligated, is less equal than when performed by a man who is required. Conversely, Rabbenu Tam argued that mitzvot are a united responsibility of the Jewish people and once a woman or man takes on a mitzvah they are accountable for all aspects of the obligation. This has become a highly contested issue of whether a woman can claim she is accepting the mitzvah on behalf of the community, such as reading from the Torah.

Most traditional communities have maintained that a woman may not release men’s obligations by voluntarily opting to perform a mitzvah required of men. This judgment is emphasized by the idea of k’vod ha-tzibbur or “honor of the community,” that a woman discharging men of their obligations brings embarrassment to the community. However, in egalitarian Conservative and Reform synagogues, women can read from the Torah and lead services, consequently releasing men of their obligations. In virtually all Conservative and Reform services women can also execute the mitzvah of being counted in a minyan, unlike in Orthodox congregations. In 1973, the Conservative movement decreed that the omission of women from the prayer service was discriminatory.

Over the past five thousand plus years much has changed, but much has remained the same. In every generation Judaism's elders must determine how our people and religion is to survive and secure its future for the coming generations. The elders of the Great Assembly made far reaching decisions but in every generation the elders have made tough rulings that altered our understanding of observance (driving on Shabbat, the use of electricity on Shabbat, what constitutes halachic conversion, gender roles, female rabbis, etc). Doing this is an essential part of biblically mandated rabbinic authority and is one of the reasons Rabbinic Judaism has survived whereas the other forms are all mainly passed away.

In our times major changes are underway. Some of these concern gender norms, rights and privileges but there are many other difficult issues as well. What the future holds remains to be seen. Am Y'israel chai.

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