Questions and Answers
Sometimes a quick exchange communicates more effectively, and more personally, than an article. Sometimes, just seeing that others share our questions can make us feel more connected.
Our posted questions and answers are an opportunity to learn from each other.
Keep in mind that each questioner’s situation may be unique, in ways that affect the halacha. Even the tone of a question can affect the tone of an answer.
Click here to ask a question of your own!
Has gender bias affected Halacha?
Torah law transcends human judgment and knowledge.
Since our sages’ teachings represent a received tradition of Torah She-be’al Peh, transmitted orally from generation to generation, the Torah’s credibility on these laws effectively becomes theirs.
Sometimes, however, interpretations of Jewish law offered by our sages may not seem to match up with the plain meaning of the Torah. At other times, sages have viewpoints that are in dispute. And sometimes these interpretations or disputed viewpoints take a perspective on gender that may not sit well with us.
Most people of the ancient and medieval worlds regarded women as men’s inferiors. Should we be concerned that gender bias has affected Halachic teachings from those times?
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein addresses the question of potential biases, conscious and unconscious, in his essay, “The Human and Social Factor in Halakha.”
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, 'The Human and Social Factor in Halakha'
Certainly, they [our sages] had predilections and attitudes. However, our faith in them inspires us with confidence that the halakhic process was governed by halakhic factors, that halakhic decisions rested on halakhic grounds. We have neither the right nor the desire to suggest that their judgment was diverted or warped by extraneous factors….We follow in their footsteps not only out of deference to the formal and technical authority of the ultimate arbiter but because we recognize and are overawed by their greatness. … Hence, their attitudes, no mere intrusive graft but an organic outgrowth of the gavra rabba in them, can indeed provide the proper infrastructure for certain halakhot. Hazal’s factual perceptions are, relatively speaking, more historically conditioned. Their reading of human nature, in its permanent metaphysical aspect, retains its full force; but observations of given sociological tendencies may be more relative and of lesser normative status. … Hence, in certain areas, cautious reappraisal may very well be in order. There is, however, nothing in this process to undermine the halakhic order or to challenge its architects….Even if one were to grant that some halakhot were grounded in attitudes, at least partially ascribed to various influences, and if one were to acknowledge license to confront the attitudes, it hardly follows that the halakhot in question can be dismissed cavalierly.
Rav Lichtenstein teaches that we must trust that our sages have no intent to interpret Torah in line with a particular agenda or bias foreign to Torah. Even when they are innovative, or when their transmission of tradition is unclear, our sages are first and foremost attempting to interpret and uphold the Torah and its values. Sometimes their “factual perceptions are, relatively speaking, more historically conditioned,” and that means that “in certain areas, cautious reappraisal may very well be in order.” That doesn’t suffice to undermine the halachic order or dismiss halachot that may trouble us.
Like us, our sages were human, living in specific places and times. Unlike us, our sages have a unique stature, coupled with a Divine mandate to establish Halacha.
When he describes our sages’ halachic role, Ramban explains how this mandate works:
רמב”ן דברים יז:יא
וענינו אפילו תחשוב בלבך שהם טועים והדבר פשוט בעיניך כאשר אתה יודע בין ימינך לשמאלך, תעשה כמצותם…כי על הדעת שלהם הוא נותן לנו התורה, אפילו יהיה בעיניך כמחליף הימין בשמאל, וכל שכן שיש לך לחשוב שהם אומרים על ימין שהוא ימין, כי רוח השם על משרתי מקדשו ולא יעזוב את חסידיו, לעולם נשמרו מן הטעות ומן המכשול.
Ramban on the Torah, Devarim 17:11
Even if you think in your heart that they [the sages of the Sanhedrin] are in error, and the matter is as clear to you as knowing your right hand from your left, do as they command… For according to their knowledge does He give us the Torah, even if it should be in your eyes as one who switches left for right. How much more so that you should think that they call right what is right, for the spirit of God is on the servants of His sanctuary and He does not abandon his followers. They are ever protected from mistake and from stumbling block.
Ramban anticipates that a person might sometimes think the Sanhedrin’s halachic rulings are mistaken. Still he assures us that we should assume that their right is right, and not only because God has given them authority. Why? “The spirit of God” guides them. The idea is that God watches over Halacha. Indeed, our greatest halachic authorities often distinguish themselves by helping us see how the spirit of God has guided halachic discussion.
Not all halachic positions become accepted as Halacha. When a halachic ruling that is considered authoritative seems difficult to us, we should humbly trust that, over time, we will come to recognize the Divine in the halacha, and that when “cautious reappraisal may very well be in order,” the authorities of our generation will undertake it as Halacha allows.
What can we do with our questions about women and mitzvot?
When our sages discuss the genders or when Halacha distinguishes between them, it can sometimes ring unconvincing or discordant to the modern ear.
What can we do about that? Seven things:
I. Ask Honestly We should honestly acknowledge these issues when they arise. We can say that something is challenging for us to hear or to identify with, without disparaging its source or undermining its validity.
II. Look Deeper We should explore them thoroughly and with an open mind, in faith that Halacha can stand up to scrutiny. Careful study can help us find interpretations that bring us closer to our sages’ perspectives or reach conclusions about how to think about these issues.
Too often, ignorance amplifies difficulties or even creates them. Knowledge can help us hone in on the real issues we need to address, and develop perspective on them. Many seemingly modern questions have actually been raised and addressed in the past, often in surprising ways.
III. Challenge Ourselves At the same time, we should recognize that we bring our own biases, conscious and unconscious, to our learning. Ways of thinking shift from generation to generation. Our perspective on gender and definitions of bias inevitably reflect the time we live in. Serious learning often pushes us to reconsider our initial assumptions or to pursue new trains of thought. Keeping that in mind can help our study maintain a respectful tone.
IV. Respect our Sages It is also important to remember that we lack the tradition and erudition of our sages. The earlier and more authoritative the source, the greater the humility with which we should approach it.
V. Classify the Discussion We should keep in mind that Jewish tradition is multi-vocal, so there is some freedom to prefer certain strands of thought in homiletics or theology to others. There is less freedom in Halacha, where we are often bound by precedent and where authority is more decisive, but rejected halachic opinions are not authoritative.
VI. Turn to Authorities Once we know a topic well, we can communicate effectively with halachic authorities. Study gives us a deeper understanding of what they say, and a greater ability to express our thoughts to them in halachic terms.
VII. Persist What if learning and discussion fail to resolve our questions or leave us with new ones? Sometimes, we have to live with tough questions because we are committed to Halacha. However, “She’elat chacham chatzi teshuva.” “The question of a wise person is [itself] half[way to] an answer.” If we persist, continuing to learn and discuss the issues, we can actively help new answers emerge.
How does this work in practice? Let’s take women’s learning Torah as an example.
In Learning Torah II, we saw Rabbi Eliezer’s statement that “Whoever teaches his daughter Torah is akin to teaching her nonsense.” How could Torah possibly lead someone astray? Why should this apply to women?
(I) We openly asked the question of why Rabbi Eliezer says this, acknowledging that it can be hard to fathom. (II) Further exploration of Rabbi Eliezer’s statement led us to suggest that it is more a reflection of his rigid and zealous stance on Torah transmission than of a particular attitude toward women. (III) We came to this idea by taking modern attitudes about women seriously as we explored our question, without assuming that they are infallible or superior to Rabbi Eliezer’s. (IV) We approached Rabbi Eliezer with respect and humility without denying the challenge his statement poses.
(V) In exploring the halacha of women’s learning Torah, one of the central points of discussion became whether Rabbi Eliezer’s statement is a binding halachic prohibition. By the end of Learning Torah IV, describing current halachic rulings and their connection to the past, we saw much evidence of God’s spirit guiding Halacha and (VI) were in position to ask any remaining questions from a point of appreciation and understanding. (VII) As part of our commitment to Halacha, we continue to ask and explore unresolved questions.
Can there be difference without discrimination?
We can define feminism as the theory of equality of the sexes. While the most recent trend is to question binary notions of gender altogether, earlier feminist discourse may prove useful to us for clarifying what it means to treat men and women similarly or differently.
In the late twentieth century, equality feminists sought gender parity by rejecting gender distinctions across the board, and by pushing for gender-neutral theories and policies. Difference feminists, in contrast, held that men and women have equal status, but that equality does not indicate sameness. They argued that equality could be expressed by men and women filling differing roles.
Equality feminism, in insisting on universal gender-neutral legislation, cannot be reconciled with Torah’s frequently gender-specific laws, though it can be reconciled with the many areas in which Torah does not differentiate between genders.4 Difference feminism, on the other hand, might be compatible with Halacha as a whole, harkening back to the double account of creation in which we are both equal and distinct.5
Late Israeli legal scholar and Supreme Court justice Menachem Elon put these issues in legal terms:6
פרופסור מנחם אלון, מעמד האישה, עמ’ 40.
לעניין מושג השוויון מן הראוי להזכיר, בפתיחתם של דברים, עיקרון גדול בתורת המשפט, שלפיו קיים הבדל מהותי בין “הפליה” שהיא פסולה לבין “הבחנה” שהיא מותרת, היינו שיש להתייחס ביחס שווה לכל אדם ואדם, אלא אם וכאשר קיימים ביניהם הבדלים של ממש, שהם הסדלים אמיתיים ורלוונטיים לנושא מסויים. אימתי ההבדלים בין גבר ואישה הם “אמיתיים” ורלוונטיים”, המצדיקים את ה”הפליה” ועושים אותה ל”הבחנה”?
Prof. Menachem Elon, The Status of Woman Translated by Shoshana Zolty
As far as equality is concerned, I would like to point out that there is a major principle in law which distinguishes “discrimination,” which is invalid, from “distinction,” which is valid, such that one must treat every person equally unless there are material differences between them which are real and relevant to the issue. The critical question is, of course: when are the differences between men and women “real” and “relevant” so as to justify “discrimination” and make it into “distinction”?”
Even today, we lack a definitive, overarching consensus on what constitutes ‘real and relevant’ difference between the genders. In the absence of one, we should assume that gender differences in Halacha belong to the realm of distinction, not discrimination.
Is a wife considered to be in her husband's domain?
This question arises, for example, when a married woman is released from some aspects of honoring parents and the reason given is that the married woman is in her husband’s domain. The assumption that a woman is in her husband’s domain in a way that could limit her activities may be uncomfortable for the modern reader. This construction of marriage is not merely sociological, however; it has a halachic basis.
For example, though the wife retains independent ownership of properties that were hers prior to marriage, from marriage onward, property is joint and largely controlled by the husband, by rabbinic decree.
The husband’s rights to the wife’s property are tied to his obligations to her. These include the Torah-level obligations to provide her food, clothes, and shelter, which the Rambam refers to as a type of subjugation of husband to wife.10 There are also halachically acceptable mechanisms by which a married couple may agree to administer their property differently, allowing the wife control.
Jewish marriage does place different types of obligations on each spouse. However, couples have the freedom to work within Halacha to define how their marriages function.
In practice, a married daughter often takes the lead among siblings in caring for elderly parents, sometimes at the expense of her own family and pursuits. This halacha, albeit working within a hierarchical view of marriage, also may protect a woman from becoming overextended. Sometimes hierarchy can achieve important halachic or social goals.
Why should women today be held responsible for Chava's sin? Are men responsible for Adam's?
The Torah presents Adam and Chava as archetypes. They establish norms for humanity and their actions reverberate through time. For example, after Chava’s creation, Adam recognizes her as “flesh of my flesh,” and the Torah tells us that this is the basis for the institution of marriage.6Additionally, God’s statements to Adam and Chava in the aftermath of their sins also apply to humanity as a whole. Man still toils for bread, and women still experience pain in childbirth.
Since Chava is an archetype for women, women have the opportunity to rectify her sin. What about Adam’s sin, and men? According to another midrash, God created Avraham Avinu after Adam so that Avraham can rectify Adam’s misdeeds.
בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת בראשית פרשה יד
א”ר לוי האדם הגדול בענקים, זה אברהם, למה קורא אותו גדול שהיה ראוי להבראות קודם לאדם הראשון, אלא אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא שמא יקלקל ואין מי שיבא לתקן תחתיו, אלא הרי אני בורא את האדם תחלה שאם יקלקל יבא אברהם ויתקן תחתיו,
Bereishit Rabba, Bereishit 14
Rabbi Levi said: “The man who is great among giants” – this refers to Avraham. Why does it call him “great”? Because he was worthy to be created before Adam, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: Perhaps [Adam] will sin and there will not be anyone to come and rectify [matters] in his place. Rather, behold, I am creating Adam first, so that if he sins, Avraham will come and rectify [matters] in his place.
The Zohar expands on this idea:
זוהר חדש כרך ב (מגילות) מגילת רות דף מ עמוד א
דאברהם תקן מה דעבד אדם. וכן יצחק ויעקב וצדיקייא.
Zohar Chadash II Rut 40a
For Avraham rectified what Adam did. So too [did] Yitzchak and Ya’akov and the righteous.
Not only Avraham, but all the Avot and the righteous rectify Adam’s deed.
For women, rectification comes through the three mitzvot. Do men have any comparable mitzva? Avraham is the first to receive the mitzva of berit mila, circumcision. Abarbanel links this command to Avraham’s role as a rectification for Adam:7
אברבנאל בראשית פרק יז
שצוה הקדוש ברוך הוא את אברהם במצות המילה כדי לתקן את אשר עוות אדם הראשון כי הוא באכלו מעץ הדעת נטה לתאות המשגל יותר מהראוי כמו שפירשתי שם ואברהם צווה במצוה כדי להרחיק אותה נטיה מותרית שעשה אדם אביו
Abarbanel Bereishit 17
For the Holy One commanded Avraham in the mitzva of mila in order to rectify that which Adam made wrong, for he in his eating of the tree of knowledge leaned toward sexual desire more than is fitting…Avraham was commanded in the mitzva in order to distance this excessive tendency that Adam his forefather acted on.
Much as women perform the three mitzvot to rectify Chana’s sin, perhaps men undergo berit mila to rectify Adam’s.
Much halachic discussion assumes that a woman is domestic. What if a woman does not want to be associated with the home?
Many of us (women and men) have conflicting feelings about this association between women and the home. How much of a role do social norms play in constructing women’s and men’s responsibility for the home? Is domesticity essentially feminine? Don’t many women flourish outside the home? Shouldn’t men take on increasing responsibility for home life?
In practice, Halacha leaves room for a wide variety of approaches to shaping home life. Even so, women’s priority in the three mitzvot recognizes the great influence women often wield at home. The mitzvot translate that influence into halachic terms of mitzva and merit, with broad spiritual implications.
Home, and the relationships that we have to each other and to God within it, dramatically affects our experience of Torah. In many realms in Halacha, men take center stage; in this central realm, women do.
POSITIVE TIME-BOUND MITZVOT
Why does the exemption from positive time-bound mitzvot loom so large?
Here are two thoughts:
I. Most of the positive non-time-bound mitzvot create the Jewish character and general approach to life, the Jewish gestalt. In contrast, positive time-bound mitzvot are rituals. Three of them are central mitzvot of major holidays.
Although positive non-time-bound mitzvot are more numerous and arguably more fundamental to Jewish life than many of the rituals, the latter (especially when connected to objects or holidays) draw our attention.
For example, viduy, confession of sin as part of the process of repentance, is a significant mitzva. Both men and women are required to perform viduy. But it is the shofar on Rosh Ha-shanah, from which women are exempt on a Torah level, that has come to symbolize teshuva.
When women’s exemptions fall largely in the area of ritual, they tend to stand out disproportionately because of their symbolic value and because of the significance we ascribe to the holidays.
II. Many of the positive time-bound rituals stand out in the context of prayer in the synagogue. When Jewish communities are decentralized and dislocated and the Judaism of the home and society takes second place to institutional Judaism, synagogues take on greater, perhaps outsized, importance.
The more a community’s Jewish life emphasizes synagogue and ritual over holistic Judaism based in the home and the Jewish street, the more time-bound positive commandments appear central and the more central commands, such as believing in God, move to the periphery of religious attention. Perhaps for this reason, there is less communal discussion of this exemption in Israel, where the social and national experience overshadow the synagogue.1
Of course positive time-bound commandments are important, and the exemption from them matters, but they are not the only cornerstones of Jewish religious life.
Are women more religiously enthusiastic than men?
There is no absolute way to prove or disprove essential gender difference in religious enthusiasm. A recent sociological study of American Jews did find disparity between the genders, with women and girls significantly more engaged, specifically among non-Orthodox denominations in America.9 The same study, however, attributes gender differences to American sociological norms, and not to innate religiosity.10
Sylvia Barack Fishman and Daniel Parmer, Matrilineal ASCENT/ Patrilineal DESCENT, p. 1, 69
…Today American Jewish boys and men have fewer connections to Jews and Judaism than girls and women in almost every venue and in every age…Gender makes less of a difference among Orthodox Jews: the social capital of men and women within Orthodoxy is equal…American males are less attached to Jewish life not because men are innately “less religious” than women in some essential psychological way, but because American culture and society value religious activities and behaviors for women but devalue them for men. Moreover, those aspects of religion that men are typically more attracted to—namely religious activities—are not regarded as religious by the Christian-shaped society that values religious belief over religious behavior.
The authors of the study dismiss the idea that men’s lesser religious enthusiasm suggests that they are “innately ‘less religious.'” Still, they acknowledge that “religious activities,” like observing positive time-bound mitzvot, are “aspects of religion that men are typically more attracted to,” and that the Orthodox communities that emphasize them for men have more gender balance overall. There is room to interpret this data in a way that supports Rav Hirsch’s position.
Anecdotally, many women are hesitant to lay claim to a religious advantage rooted in gender, but quick to embrace the idea that women’s spirituality and approach to religion take a different tone than men’s.
Do time-bound mitzvot really take up that much time?
Many positive time-bound commandments do not take much time to fulfill. If a woman can perform a time-bound mitzva quickly, why should it create tension in her home? For example, putting on tzitzit in the morning can be accomplished in seconds.
Abudarham might answer that some of these mitzvot, such as laying tefillin, do take up more time. Perhaps the rule relates to the whole class of mitzvot in order to prevent confusion. We make exceptions only when warranted by the nature of the mitzva, not based on how much time it takes.
Why should anyone question voluntary mitzva performance?
Mitzva literally means commandment. What does it mean to perform a command in which one is not commanded? To do God’s bidding unbidden?
The Ran raises the concern that when we perform a mitzva without being commanded, we risk missing the essential point of the mitzva.
דרשות הר”ן הדרוש השביעי
מי שאינו מצווה ועושה לא יגדל שכרו, כי אפשר שאין רצון השם יתברך בו ובמינו אחרי אשר לא צווה בו…אפשר כי יש במצות טעמים שנתיחדה מהם המצוה במי שמצווה ועושה. …שאפשר שלא תושלם כונת המצוה וסודה במי שאינו מצווה בה, כאשר תושלם במי שצוהו השם יתברך.
Derashot Ha-Ran 7
One who is not commanded and performs, his reward will not be great, for it is possible that God does not desire [performance of that mitzva by] him and his sort, since He did not command him… Mitzvot may have reasons whereby the mitzva is specifically intended for the one who is commanded and performs… for it is possible that the intention and inner nature of the mitzva will not be fulfilled through one who is not commanded and performs as it is fulfilled by one whom God commanded.
Ran points out that God determines the meaning of each mitzva, who is obligated in it, and who is exempt. A mitzva’s deeper significance may be linked to the class of people who are commanded in it. If God exempted me, that very exemption may indicate that my voluntary performance would not have the same religious meaning as a commanded performance.
The significance of voluntary performance of a mitzva might be fundamentally different from the meaning of the mitzva when performed by one who is obligated.
Should we be doing this?
This being what we do here on this site, learning Torah, directly from sources, including the Talmud and halachic codes.
This question does not speak to some women, for whom Torah study holds little appeal or interest. These women may wonder instead why a woman would want to study Torah at all.
For others, probably most of you here, the question itself is problematic. It can be hard to imagine why anyone would limit a woman’s access to Torah study. After all, men do not have to entertain questions about the propriety or importance of their Torah learning. And nowadays women have access to education in all other fields.
But a closer look at many of our communities reveals ambivalence towards women’s learning.
Deep uncertainty about women’s learning appears in many guises: The father who learns every Shabbat with his sons, but not with his daughters. The school that teaches Mishna to boys and not to girls. The family friends who give the bar mitzva boy religious books and the bat mitzva girl jewelry. The parents who send their sons to learn in Israel, but keep their daughters close to home. The dating prospect who won’t go out with a ‘girl who learns.’ The Rabbi who declares certain seminaries are off limits because of their curricula. Communal initiatives for women to devote time to acts of chessed, loving-kindness, (or to less lofty pursuits,) but not to study. The couples who make great efforts so that the husband can learn daily, while the wife finds no time to learn Torah herself. The local batei midrash (houses of study) that women never enter and often are entirely closed to women.
משלי פרק ג:יח
עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ וְתֹמְכֶיהָ מְאֻשָּׁר
It is a tree of life to those who grasp it and its supporters are happy.
While it’s clear that Torah is “a tree of life,” it is less clear what role learning plays in a woman’s “holding fast to it.”
Can anyone grasp Torah without studying it? Do resistance, ambivalence, or indifference to women’s Torah learning have halachic roots? How is the recent growth of frameworks for women’s study rooted in Halacha?
To begin to address these questions, we need to trace the halachic roots of differing approaches to women’s Torah study from the beginning.
Does bitul Torah (not wasting time away from Torah) apply to women?
Halacha requires men to prioritize Torah study over frivolous pursuits, because men have an obligation in the mitzva of talmud Torah. A man should not casually waste time he could spend learning (i.e., engage in bitul Torah).
What about women? In the absence of the obligation of talmud Torah, is free time a free-for-all?
Rav Ya’akov Ariel, a National-Religious Israeli halachic authority, writes that bitul Torah does, in a sense, apply to women.
רב יעקב אריאל “גדר ביטול תורה גם לנשים”
יום של ביטול תורה הוא חור באישיותה של האישה, ויש להתייחס אליו במידה מסוימת כ”ביטול תורה,” אף שאינו “ביטול תורה” במשמעות המקורית של המושג. אין כאן ביטול בידע התורני, אך יש כאן ביטול באישיותה הרוחנית של האישה….
Rav Ya'akov Ariel, 'The Safeguard of Bitul Torah Applies also to Women'
A day of bitul Torah [wasting time one could spend learning] is a hole in the character of a woman, and one should relate to it, to some extent, like [the halachic category of] bitul Torah, even though it is not bitul Torah in its original sense. There is no bitul of [obligatory] Torah knowledge, but there is bitul regarding the spiritual character of the woman.
To Rav Ariel, a day without Torah is a blow to anyone’s character. Women, too, have “spiritual character” and should be wary of bitul Torah.
Women don’t have a free ticket to watch hours of television or mindlessly surf the internet. What does exemption from the mitzva of talmud Torah mean then? That women have more flexibility than men in deciding how to study Torah and how much Torah to study.
Why don't more women study Torah, especially Oral Torah?
Even in communities that view women’s study of Oral Torah as permissible, most women do not pursue it.
Why not? Here are some common contributing factors:
1. The wider community’s ambivalence to women’s Torah study, especially Talmud study, can undermine it. It can be difficult to make the effort to study without external validation.
2. Many women lack female role models who balance serious study with other religious commitments. Role models provide inspiration and a sense of what is possible.
3. Many communities do not offer attractive or accessible frameworks for women’s talmud Torah. Without opportunities, women won’t learn. Talmud study, in particular, demands a high level of training.
4. Many women (and men) are most attracted to Torah study that connects directly to matters of faith or to practical Halacha. Scholars who teach primary texts often focus on more arcane subjects or intricate styles of study. That may discourage some women, especially women with less background in Torah study, from learning at all.
Communities can surmount these challenges by supporting women’s talmud Torah, welcoming female teachers, offering frameworks for women’s study, and encouraging a range of study topics and styles.
Possibilities for encouraging women’s Torah study abound: Fathers can learn every Shabbat with their daughters; schools can expand their Torah curriculum for girls; family friends can give the bat mitzva girl religious books; parents can send their daughters to learn in Israel; dating prospects can agree to meet a ‘girl who learns;’ Rabbis can be more accepting of more institutions of learning; communal initiatives for women can incorporate study; couples can make an effort to set aside time for the woman to learn; and local batei midrash can open their doors to women.
(For more suggestions specific to Talmud study, see here.)
How does a woman's Torah study affect others?
When a woman engages in formal Torah study, it clearly benefits her. How does that affect the people around her?
The Talmud teaches that a woman’s merit for Torah study is indirect:
סוטה דף כא.
רבינא אמר: … באגרא דמקרין ומתניין בנייהו ונטרן להו לגברייהו עד דאתו מבי מדרשא מי לא פלגאן בהדייהו
Ravina said: …Through … reading [verses] and repeating [mishnayot to] their sons and watching out for their husbands until they come from the bet midrash, do they not share the reward [of learning Torah] with them?
Ravina lives before women study Torah texts formally. According to him, women receive reward for Torah study by helping husbands and sons to study. Shulchan Aruch agrees.
Rav Schneerson points out that, in our generation, women can also facilitate children’s and husbands’ study by teaching them.
רב מנחם מ. שניאורסון ,”שותפות בלימוד”
והבנים מספרים לאמותיהם על לימודים, הן במקרא והן במשנה, וגם בגמרא…והאמהות מוסיפות להסביר ולבאר להם את לימודם, ועל דרך זה בנוגע לבעליהן…שמביעות דעתן וסברתן וכו’.
Rav Menachem M. Schneerson, 'Partnership in Study'
The children tell their mothers about their studies, both in Scripture and in Mishnah, and also in Gemara…and the mothers contribute, explaining and clarifying for them what they have learned, and similarly regarding their husbands…that they express their opinions and reasoning, etc.
Here Rav Schneerson reinforces his idea that women’s talmud Torah is a net gain for everyone. A woman’s active involvement in discussing Torah with her family or friends enhances their learning and enriches their religious lives.
Women can share or teach Torah in broader contexts as well, and contribute to Torah and communal policy at a very high level.
Everyone stands to benefit when women learn Torah. Halacha recognizes this, too. For example, a woman can make a public siyum with the full status of a se’udat mitzva.
Women’s Torah study elevates the entire Jewish community.
Is becoming a scholar a purpose of women's Torah study?
Rosh Beit Midrash of Migdal Oz (and Rav Lichtenstein’s daughter) Esti Rosenberg, adviser to Deracheha, discusses an additional goal of study, becoming a scholar. She writes that midrashot confront the following question:
Rabbanit Esti Rosenberg, 'The World of Women's Torah Learning: Developments, Directives, and Objectives'
Is the dream and vision underlying women’s Torah learning to produce female Torah scholars who will be able to participate in scholarly Torah discussions at the highest level, or perhaps the primary goal is to raise ba’alei batiyot [laywomen] who are dedicated to and love the Torah?
As in the world of men’s Torah study, there is an inherent tension between fostering an elite cohort of scholars and meeting the religious needs of the general population. In line with most of the sources we have seen, most Torah institutions for women choose to prioritize developing love of Torah over high-level scholarship, while laying the groundwork for further study.
Some schools, Migdal Oz among them, also offer advanced learning opportunities for women. For these women, working to become scholars “at the highest level” is a form of avodat Hashem.
On prayer, how can there be so much divergence between halachic texts and common custom?
Halachic texts teach that women should pray Shemoneh Esrei at least twice a day, especially when child-rearing or other mitzvot do not interfere. And yet there is also a consensus that the custom of many women is to rely on limmud zechut to pray less—either only one Shemoneh Esrei a day or even a shorter personal prayer. How can that be?
Halacha is an interplay between textual tradition and custom. Some of us grew up with mothers who were careful to recite Shemoneh Esrei on a regular basis. Others grew up with mothers who were scrupulous in their religious observance, but did not open the prayerbook much. Some of these women might have lacked the literacy needed to open the books, or may have learned to pray from mothers who did not read Hebrew.
Women who have the ability to satisfy the simple meaning of the Mishna and Talmud and recite Shemoneh Esrei should absolutely do so. But many women who are committed to Torah observance also find other paths to prayer, especially if they are raising young children, and halachic authorities recognize this and seek to defend it.
At heart, prayer is an audience with God. Jewish women have always engaged in prayer, whether through a running conversation with God or though recitation of Tehillim or techinot, personal prayers. Sometimes prayer can be an experience that is less formal and more naturally intertwined with daily life, and this lived form of prayer is also deeply meaningful and valuable, even though it has not been formalized.
Should women rely on justifications for praying less?
Between Magen Avraham’s explanation of Rambam, later authorities’ lenient rulings, especially for mothers, and the tendency of women who do pray not to do so in a public setting most weekdays, it can be hard to get a handle on a woman’s obligation to pray.
Anecdotally, there are religiously committed women who never miss a Shemoneh Esrei and others who hardly ever recite it, all of whom can adduce halachic support for what they do.
The most important thing may be, as Rav Sternbuch suggests, for a woman to understand what is at stake, and to make sure that she is maintaining a constant connection to God, even if it is less based on formal prayer.
Rachel Weinstein, translator for Deracheha, writes in a similar vein:11
רחל וינשטיין, “בקטנה,” אשירה, 18.5.2016
לפני כמה שנים גיליתי שיש היתרים לאישה שעסוקה בגידול ילדיה לא להתפלל. זה לא הסתדר עם החינוך שקיבלתי מבית ומן אולפנא. אבל מעבר לסתירה ולמחלוקת ההלכתית רציתי להתקשר לרבנים המתירים ולשאול בדמע – אז אני לא חייבת להתפלל. עכשיו מה? איך אני מביאה את הקב”ה אל תוך חיי היומיום שלי?… אם שנים לא מדברים איתו – קשה לחדש את הקשר. אבל אם כל יום מוסרים ד”ש [דרישת שלום], מדברים איתו אפילו קצת, בקטנה, ואולי אפילו בלי המון כוונה, כשיום אחד נתפנה להתפלל באמת – הערוץ פתוח. יש קו. אם ננתק את הקו…
Rachel Weinstein, 'Biktana,' Ashira.co.il
A few years ago, I discovered that there is halachic permission for a woman busy with raising her children not to pray. This did not jibe with the education I received at home and at school. But beyond the contradiction and the halachic debate, I wanted to contact the rabbis who permit it and ask them, in tears, “So, I don’t have to pray? Now what? How will I bring God into my daily life?” …If for years we don’t speak with Him, it is hard to reconnect. But if every day we [at least] send Him our regards, speak to Him even a bit, on a small scale, even if it’s without a lot of concentration, then when one day we have the free time to really pray—the channel is open. There’s a connection.
If a woman can make time to pray, that is wonderful. When children are involved, they can learn as they grow from watching her pray that she, too, has a spiritual life and commitments that they must learn to respect. Even a woman who does not pray formally on a regular basis should, at minimum, take care to check in with God.
Child-rearing itself is avodat Hashem, as are other mitzva-related obligations, and we should not forget that. A woman who prays less because of family responsibilities can focus on how those responsibilities themselves are the way in which she is serving Hashem at that time. Every woman is different and different life circumstances can call for different responses.
We can encourage women to pursue prayer and to view it as a powerful tool that enables us to connect to our Creator, while at the same time respecting each individual woman’s ability to assess what will work for her at any given stage of life.
A woman who is not able to pray Shemoneh Esrei because of other mitzva obligations should still appreciate the value of establishing a relationship with God through prayer, and remains obligated to connect to Him daily through personal expressions that include praise, request and thanks.
Practically, when is someone supposed to fit in the prayers and berachot recited upon awakening?
Sometimes it can seem daunting to find time for any prayer whatsoever. When is a woman, especially if she is busy with children, supposed to fit in moda ani, handwashing, Asher Yatzar, Elokai Neshama, birchot ha-Torah, and birchot ha-shachar?
Moda ani, because it doesn’t include the name of God, really can—and should—be recited as soon as we first wake up. Netilat yadayim and Asher Yatzar can wait until a woman first makes it to the bathroom, but are easily said right afterwards. Washing hands before feeding children is especially desirable, because the Talmud suggests that a ru’ach ra’a on the hands is of particular concern prior to feeding children.15 (Though some say this ru’ach ra’a does not apply nowadays.16)
Finding time for Elokai Neshama, birchot ha-Torah and birchot ha-shachar can be trickier, especially if a woman has a limited amount of time for prayer.
The best idea is to learn them by heart (or to print all of them on a small card and keep it close to hand). Neither takes that long to say, and a woman can recite them in the middle of her morning routine whenever she has a few moments to spare. This is usually more practical than holding them off until she has time to really daven. For these purposes, she does not need to recite all three passages that normally follow birchot ha-Torah. She can just say birkat kohanim, or, if there’s no time and she’s not sure when exactly she’ll have the chance to pray, just the first verse of Shema.
If there are young children around, she can recite the berachot aloud. This way, the children can understand she is praying and also learn the prayers from her, and eventually they may start to recite them with her rather than interrupt.
Must women pray in male language?
In our discussion of modeh ani, we saw that women have the option of saying “moda” in feminine form. Here we see a debate as to whether women may recite “she-lo asani goya” and “she-lo asani eved.” In general, do women have to pray in masculine language?
With a prayer like “moda ani,” where only the vocalization changes, but not the letters or words, it is hard to imagine there being an issue. As we see in birchot ha-shachar, changing words from masculine to feminine forms when praying in the first person is a bit more contentious, though it should generally be permissible when the only shift in meaning is the grammatical gender shift.
Why, then, doesn’t this question come up more?
For most prayers, this issue is irrelevant, because the Talmud teaches us that prayer should be phrased in the plural, not the singular:
אמר אביי: לעולם לישתף איניש נפשיה בהדי צבורא
Abbaye said: A person should always include himself together with the community.
We pray as part of a “we,” not as solitary “I”s. We pray in the context of our community and our people. Beyond that, when we pray in the plural, looking out not only for ourselves, our prayer has a greater likelihood of being heard.
Hebrew grammar’s first person plural includes males and females in the same verb forms. Even in the first person singular, the forms differ only for adjectives and participles. For this reason, most of our prayers are not specifically male to start with.
Often, prayers that seem to be in singular are actually chapters of or quotations from Tehillim, as in Pesukei De-zimra. There, we specifically recite scriptural verses, on the assumption that David ha-Melech’s expression of prayer can speak for all of us and teach all of us about God, humanity, and prayer. Changing his words would be missing part of the point of quoting him.
The fact that Tehillim are sometimes in masculine singular has not gotten in the way of reciting Tehillim being a particularly popular custom among women, even outside the context of formal prayer. At the same time, women often frame recitation of Tehillim with supplicatory prayers, which may be in the feminine, and that combination can be satisfying.
What is the basis for the se'udat amen?
In recent years, it has become increasingly popular for groups of women to gather together for a se’udat amen, an amen feast. At these events, different foods are served in careful order so that each attendee can recite a maximum amount of berachot and so that everyone present can respond “amen” to each beracha. The minimum goal is often to reach one hundred “amen”s.
Where does this come from? There is the talmudic passage praising one who says “amen” more than the one who recites the beracha. There is also another passage that ascribes special power to saying “amen.”
אמר ריש לקיש כל העונה אמן בכל כחו פותחין לו שערי ג”ע [גן עדן] שנאמר פתחו שערים ויבא גוי צדיק שומר אמונים אל תיקרי שומר אמונים אלא שאומרים אמן.
Reish Lakish said: Whoever responds ‘amen’ with all his might, the gates of Gan Eden open for him, as it is said “Open the gates and the righteous nation will come who is shomer emunim [a keeper of the faith]. Don’t read shomer emunim, rather she’omerim amen [who say ‘amen’].
Among Sefardi Jews, it is a common practice to provide a range of foods at a shiva or other memorial events, over which people can recite berachot and “amen” in order to open the gates of Gan Eden for the deceased. Modern women have adapted this practice to seek other types of salvation from God through reciting ‘amen’ en masse.
Perhaps on a strict halachic level, it would be better for the attendees to pray ma’ariv, but these events can be very meaningful for the women involved, since they create the opportunity to share and pray as a group.
Based in the home, and not in the synagogue, and couched as a voluntary assembly, rather than a daily obligation, the se’udat amen translates the idea of me’a berachot to a more feminine context.
Why are the identity berachot phrased in the negative?
For many, the identity berachot would be more palatable if recited in the positive, for example, “Who made me a Jew” as opposed to “Who did not make me a non-Jew.” Even though we are grateful for the mitzva opportunities associated with our identities, speaking in the negative seems insulting to those who do not share those opportunities.
So why are the berachot phrased in the negative?
Of the various explanations given, two seem most compelling:
I. Perhaps using the negative was just a common way to express identity in the time of our sages.4 These negative descriptions may not always have carried the same connotations they do now. Our current cultural paradigm may exacerbate discomfort with openly negating identification with other groups.
II. Perhaps the context for the Talmud’s discussion of these three berachot gives a clue to their language. Shortly before the teaching about these three berachot, the Talmud records Rabbi Meir’s exhortation to make one hundred berachot per day.
היה רבי מאיר אומר חייב אדם לברך מאה ברכות בכל יום.
Rabbi Meir would say: A person must recite one hundred blessings every day.
Rabbi Meir’s project to maximize the berachot a person recites may influence the formulation of the three berachot in the negative. How? If a man were to praise God “for making me a Jew,” recited in masculine singular, that could render the berachot about being free and a man redundant.
Bach makes this argument:
ב”ח אורח חיים סימן מו
דאם היה מברך ‘שעשני ישראל’ שוב לא היה יכול לברך ‘שעשני בן חורין’ ו’שעשני איש’ דלשון ‘שעשני ישראל’ שכבר בירך משמעו בן חורין ומשמעו נמי איש ישראל ולא אשה דאשה נקראת ישראלית וא”כ [ואם כן] לא היה מברך שלש ברכות אלא ברכה אחת ואין זה כוונתינו לקצר אלא להאריך בהודאות ולברך על כל חסד וחסד ברכה בפני עצמה.
Bach OC 46
For if he were to bless ‘Who made me a Yisra’el [an Israelite],’ he would no longer be able to bless ‘Who made me a free person’ and ‘Who made me a man.’ For the language of ‘Who made me an Israelite’ that he already blessed connotes a free person and also connotes an Israelite man and not a woman. For a woman is called a Yisra’elit. If so, he would not recite three berachot but a single beracha. It is not our intention to shorten [the series of berachot] but to prolong thanksgiving and to recite a beracha independently on each and every kindness.
On this reading, the negative formulation is simply a way to make the beracha more specific and leave room for three, differentiated berachot that add praise to God and bring men closer to the goal of reciting a hundred blessings per day.
Nevertheless, the discomfort with the formulation of these berachot may seem stronger than the suggested rationales.
How can we address she-lo asani isha?
The explanations for this blessing and its negative language do not change the fact that many women still find it difficult to hear and many men find it difficult to recite.
We are committed to Halacha, which explains both why just dropping the beracha is not an option and why it is important to have this discussion.
We have seen that, barring a new halachic consensus, or at least the support of a few major halachic authorities, the beracha cannot be omitted or altered. Some have advocated reciting just this beracha in a whisper,18 but this approach is controversial because it may serve only to draw negative attention to it.19
Here are some other ideas:
I. In line with Rav Ha-levi, communities can redouble efforts to make the precise meaning of this beracha clear out of sensitivity to those of us who are troubled by it. Prayer books can add an explanatory note about the proper meaning of the beracha, as well as a note about how important we consider proper intentionality, much as they do for other select lines of prayer.
More than that, there is no halachic barrier to making a statement between the various berachot of birchot ha-shachar. Our communities and prayer books could make it a standard to recite a short line that adds clarification after reciting this beracha.
For example, men and women could say “petura kirtzono mi-mitzvot achadot,” meaning: “exempt, in accordance with His will, from some mitzvot.” If this, or something like it, became common practice, it might help assuage ill feeling.
II. A synagogue can choose to follow the practice of the many shuls where the recitation of communal prayers aloud begins at a later stage of the prayer service, after these blessings.20 This is common practice in Israel. In this way, we can naturally avoid public recitation of a beracha that can cause discomfort.
III. Men can use the recitation of this beracha as a daily opportunity to heighten awareness of the privileges they have in their lives, to thank God for the religious opportunities afforded to them while simultaneously committing themselves to be more sensitive to those who lack them.
IV. Men and women can remember that a quantitative advantage in mitzva observance is only one lens through which to view gender distinction in Judaism.
A beracha recited in recognition of the exemption from some mitzvot (or even advantages in social status) does not detract from men’s and women’s spiritual equality. Contemporary writer Devorah (Heshelis) Fastag makes this point in her book, The Moon’s Lost Light.21
Devorah (Heshelis) Fastag, The Moon’s Lost Light
Men say the blessing for not having been created a woman because this is the aspect of truth which is seen by people. The woman’s role, which entails exemption or exclusion from certain mitzvos,…is, therefore, from our human view, less desirable. Although this is true in terms of this world, it does not reflect objective heavenly truth, for it does not show a person’s true spiritual worth…But blessings are said on what is felt in this world, and not on objective Heavenly truth.
IV. Women and men can continue to communicate with halachic authorities about these blessings, in the hopes that new and productive ideas will arise.
How should we understand She-asani Kirtzono?
If a woman chooses to, she can keep in mind gender distinction in mitzva obligation when reciting “She-asani kirtzono.”
But if she so chooses, she can also see the beracha as a sort of rejoinder to the man’s, as if to say, ‘Mitzva obligation is just one part of the picture. My reality as a woman is broader than that. God’s vision is broader than that, and I am grateful for my role in it.’29
Or she can tune out the context and rejoice in the beracha as an independent affirmation of her knowledge that her being exactly who she is is a manifestation of God’s will, as Erica Brown does so powerfully.
Dr. Erica Brown, 'According to His Will: The View from a Pew'
And I happen to love reciting birkot ha-shachar daily and take particular comfort in the expression she-asani kirtzono. If there is a more beautiful blessing that embodies God’s love for the individual, then I do not know of it. I find the blessing stunning. And, for this reason, I feel sorry for men who do not recite it….It is an affirmation of what every single person is, a unique and special creation and manifestation of God’s will.
How can we understand women's exemption from a mitzva as fundamental as Shema?
It can be hard to fathom how women can be exempt from Keri’at Shema. Although it is a time-bound commandment, it is also an absolutely fundamental expression of our faith in God.
Bach’s explanation of the relevant Talmudic passage is attractive for precisely this reason—it leaves women obligated in reciting the verse “Shema Yisrael” in order to accept the kingdom of heaven, while exempting women from the time-bound extended mitzva of Keri’at Shema as it is commonly understood. But not everyone follows Bach here.
Perhaps Rambam’s position best explains the reasoning for those who uphold exemption despite the importance of accepting ol malchut shamayim. We saw that in Sefer Ha-mitzvot he counts kabbalat ol malchut shamayim as a separate mitzva from Keri’at Shema. On this logic, women are fully obligated in the mitzva of accepting ol malchut shamayim. Women are only exempted from the distinct mitzva to recite Shema, which begins with a formal act of acceptance.
There is no question that women must live lives animated by belief in God’s Kingship. Formal verbal repetition of that acceptance day and night is not the only way to accomplish this.
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