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It is no secret that gender and religion have been contentious throughout the religious world since Biblical times. The role of gender and Judaism has been the subject of scrutiny and debate for decades, but has rarely been addressed or brought to the public sphere. In comparison to many other ancient religions, Judaism has been unique in its ability to grow and change as society progresses. However, women’s role in Judaism has remained mostly stagnant. This is because women originally have been viewed as a deviance from the male standard that defines society in Biblical times and today. While Judaism’s religious aspects have grown and formed in congruence with society, the role of women within the Jewish religion has barely progressed with the rise of feminism because of the traditional texts that restrict the opportunities that women can possess in the religious sphere.
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In traditional Orthodox Judaism, many Jews stress the importance of Jews bring named as God’s chosen people in the Hebrew Bible. Deuteronomy 14:2 states “for you (the Jews) are a people holy to the LORD your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the LORD has chosen you to be his treasured possession”. Jerusalem was named the Holy Land, and Jews played a major role in the shaping of both modern Jewish tradition and Christian traditions. Jews banded together in Biblical times because of the prejudice they faced from the rest of society, who rejected their beliefs and stripped them of basic human rights. During this time, Jews often lived in fear and exile, but their assurance that they were the chosen people of God drew them near to Judaism. In fact, Judaism was not even viewed as a religion, but as a integral part of everyday life. Nothing could be done in politics, economic dealings, or social matters without involving a core reminder of their faith. However, with the Enlightenment and the stress on individuality, Judaism also evolved. Being religious became a choice and not a necessity. In “Stranger at Home: “The Holocaust”, Zionism, and American Judaism” author Jacob Neusner writes that “the universal humanism, the cosmopolitanism of the old Jew are abandoned in the new particularism” (177). In the past century groups such as Jewish atheists (people that exclusively practice Jewish cultural practices and not the religious aspects of Judaism), Jewish agnostics, Zionists, and many other groups have grown and become prominent members of the Jewish community. Neusner also claims “For several generations Jewish atheists and agnostics continued to take an active role in the Jewish community- indeed, functionally to constitute the majority in it- and have seen nothing unusual either in their participation in Jewish life or in their lack of religious commitment” (189). In this way, Judaism is unique in adapting to society. To be an atheist Christian or agnostic Muslim would simply not be permitted by the limitations set forth by the traditional practices that continue to be essential to their religious practices.
Recently, movements like Zionism have taken a huge part in modern day Judaism. The Zionist movement stands by the belief that Israel is the country of the Jews and therefore rightfully belongs to them. They believe that if one is to be a true Jew they must live with the sole goal of returning to their homeland in Israel and reclaiming and renewing its heritage. This movement brings back some of the old group mentality that was linked with traditional Judaism and combines it with extreme nationalist tendencies, but neglects the direct religious tie. In the document that cemented this movement (The Balfour Declaration), the British Government states “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object”. While the movement is controversial, there is no question that it is widely influential. The Zionist movement is seen by some as one of the most important and prominent Jewish reformations of the modern day, and only goes to show how flexible Judaism as a religion and culture is. By examining the Biblical roots of Judaism and the path of Judaism as a religion throughout time, it is obvious that it is a flexible and malleable. Yet although Judaism has been shaped by society heavily over the course of many centuries, women’s role in Judaism has remained almost unmoving.
Women have seen a sharp increase in women’s rights over the past five decades. The feminist movement rages on in numerous countries worldwide. But if one were to contrast the role of women in Biblical times to the role of women in Jewish traditions in the current day, it is astounding how little progress has been made. Originally, women in the Bible served as enablers to men. Eve, the first woman to exist on Earth and arguably the most famous woman from scripture, was essentially an enabler to Adam. She was derived from Adam’s rib, and God made her codependent and to be ruled by Adam. Even as He creates her, God said “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18).
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Rachel and Leah were enablers in order to have children for Yaacob (Jacob) in another famous Biblical context. As Leah is having children she says “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons” (Genesis 29:34). These women were pioneers and an example for women of the Biblical times, and are often looked at as extremely influential. But their role as enablers and child bearers limits them; they are only valued in terms of what they can do to serve men. Arguably, an exception to this would be the story of Lilith, who was originally created for Adam but resisted his male dominance. Susannah Heschel in “The Lilith Question” says “The Lilith story may be a clue to our own history, reflecting some assertive, rebellious behavior of women in the past. Lilith may represent a whole group, a whole generation; or she may reflect the existence of a type of woman who appeared generation after generation, a woman who would not be dominated, a woman who demanded equality with man” (43). This story was twisted to make her seem like a demon who steals men’s souls. In this Biblical context, it is important to mention that in the very framework of Judaism women are always referenced in comparison to males. They are docile creatures whose role is exclusively to raise a family or to help their husbands achieve their goals. In Heschel’s “On Being A Jewish Feminist” she says “As Virginia Woolf long ago pointed out, ‘the vast literature that attempts to define ‘woman’s nature’ clearly reveals the assumption that women lie outside the general definitions of humanity and constitute a separate category in need of explication’” (XXXIX). By placing women in a separate category to the “norm” of men, women are seen as beings that are something other than the norm. She points out that there is no such thing as “men’s nature” ever examined in literature because it simply does not need explaining.
This is the crucial pitfall that is holding women back in modern day Judaism. Women are written into the system and the scriptures as a side note, with almost no religious rights or ties to God. To this day, women struggle to hold leadership positions within religious spaces. Some complain that the presence of a woman would distract from the nature of the traditional practices, or even that having a woman involved in a service could conjure erotic thoughts for the male worshippers that would distract from the religious significance. Lucy Dawidowitz as cited in Heschel’s paper says “To my mind, the assumption by a woman of rabbinic or priestly function in the synagogue undermines the very essence of Jewish tradition” (XXXIX). Jewish feminists also agree that they have faced discrimination when wanting to be more involved in an active role within their spiritual communities. This all stems from the fact that while Judaism had no rigid laws preventing the growth of it’s methods of practice, women were written into scriptures with little room to interpret a modern day role where they could serve as anything other than helpers to men. The Jewish religion has come far from it’s Biblical days and is extremely unique in its ability to mold to the needs and norms of the society in which it exists. But women are held in a hostage situation between their spiritual rights as a woman in the modern world and the passive place in which Judaism has painted them since the very beginning of the Jewish tradition.
In contemporary society, there are exceptions to this rule. In many reformed and more progressive synagogues or temples, women may have leadership roles and be well respected among the religious community. Many male Jews don’t believe that women pose a religious issue. Nonetheless, these outliers are often subjects of controversy among the Jewish world. In order to allow women to assume an equal role to men in religious places, the very pillars that rely on scriptures would have to be reexamened or even rewritten. Judaism remarkably was able to adapt to the rise of individualism with the Enlightenment, the rise of nationalism with the Zionist movement, and stretch the boundaries of a religious culture by accommodating atheist and agnostic Jews. But Judaism is behind on the feminist movement. Women in Judaism are faced with an ultimatum; play a passive and almost subservient role in their religious practices, or abandon their beliefs. The scriptures have shaped society to trap women in a passive role within Jewish religious practices even though Judaism itself has stretched it’s outer limits.
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