Q. The beginning of Genesis calls Eve her husband’s “help mate”. Does this mean that a woman is not important in herself?
A. Every culture (except perhaps for the Amazons) assigned to women a supportive role in society. Men were automatically the dominant – one might almost say normative – figures, and women were there to help them. For women to gain an education and have careers in their own right was highly unusual. It was conceded that women could be teachers or nurses, but this would probably cost them the chance of getting married. Some of my own family did not know how to take it when my mother went to university and became a professional; many of her colleagues remained unmarried because “home duties”, as the quaint phrase went, were regarded as incompatible with a career.
Judaism had its own version of the woman-as-supporter notion. It said that women acquired merit by enabling their husbands and sons to perform their masculine roles in the house of study and synagogue. Nonetheless one should not belittle this approach even though it may not be adequate for the future. These days more and more Jewish women are gaining knowledge of our texts and traditions and deepening their own religious commitment. It took struggle to reach this point but today it is a given. Still, some men are uncomfortable to find that their women know more than they do and want a more active in Jewish life. It also discomfits some of the women, who assure you that what was good enough for their mothers is good enough for them.
The only condition that I think both males and females have to agree upon and implement is that expanding the role of women must not be at the expense of the Jewishness of the home and family. Not that this requires women to stay in the kitchen, but it does mean that the men have to accept more responsibility for the home front.