Q. Why do Jewish sources insult women so much?
Babylon had a mother goddess but also routinely degraded women. Greek society was a man’s club. A Greek thinker, Hipponax, even said that woman gives a man only two days of happiness – her wedding day and her funeral.
Roman law decided to keep women in a subservient position by reason of their “imbecility” (the Romans actually used this word). Islamic writings considered man had God-given qualities not shared with women. These societies thought that what was wrong with women was their womanness.
Jewish writings were far more positive. The Bible was not anti-woman. Its women had minds of their own and never hesitated to criticise their husbands’ judgement or actions.
Sarah stood up to Abraham. Rebekah stood up to Isaac, and the commentators blame her for not being more self-assertive. Hannah, Deborah, Esther, Naomi and Ruth are personalities with opinions and common sense.
Rashi points out that the wives of the patriarchs were often cleverer than their husbands; Rav Soloveitchik says that it was the wives who often saved the situation.
According to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah (Talmud Niddah 45b), “The Holy One, blessed be He, placed more intelligence in women than in men”.
So why do the women not have to keep all of the commandments? It is explained that they do not have to observe positive duties carried out at a set time, because there are competing duties that must be attended to – yet in many cases the women voluntarily assumed the extra commandments from which they were technically exempt.
Actually, many authorities say that a “distinguished” woman may override the general exemption, and “in our days all our women are distinguished”.
Women as rabbis? In the historic sense the rabbi was a scholar and teacher, and women are recorded as fulfilling that role.
Women as prayer leaders? They are recorded as fulfilling that role too, amongst the women. True, not in the synagogue amongst the men, but historically the synagogue and its services were never as important as they seem to have become since the modernist Emancipation movement, probably influenced by the pedestal on which the gentiles placed the worship rituals and services of the church.
For too long the Jewish woman has been put down by anti-female prejudice; for too long the Jewish woman has acquiesced in the thought that she is merely a chattel, handled at her menfolks’ whim.
To suggest that Judaism connives at the insults to women found in other cultures is unfair to say the least.
Some Jewish men, in ancient times and throughout history, have tried to denigrate their women, but have they ever asked God whether He agrees?