ישעיהו ליבוביץ - Yeshayahu Leibowitz
מצאתם טעות בטקסט המאמר? אנא דווחו לנו

The Status of Women: Halakhah and Meta-Halakhah
פורסם ב1980
וגם בספר Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State
פתח מסמך ב-Word

The question of Women and Judaism is more crucial today than all the political problems of the people and its state. Failure to deal with it seriously threatens the viability of the Judaism of Torah and Mitzvoth in the contemporary world.

Many people, religious women among then, perceive the problem in terms of the existence of a set of prescriptions which apply to men only. The most popular examples are Tsitsith and phylacteries, or the Mitzvah of Sukkah.[1]They regard the exemption of women from these prescriptions as a humiliation or deprivation; at the least, as downgrading the status of women within the religious context, distancing them, as it were, from the worship of God. This is a totally erroneous view. These Mitzvoth do not prescribe certain acts because they are of intrinsic importance. Their entire significance derives solely from the fact that the Torah prescribed them. Were it not for this, they would be meaningless. In other words, these acts do not constitute worship of God except insofar as man is instructed by the Torah to perform them. If a person who is not obliged to do so perform them of his own accord, he is not thereby worshiping God but engaging in something like a sport or hobby. If Tsitsith, phylacteries, and Sukkah were valuable in themselves, then deterring women from observing them would be discriminatory. Conversely, women's performance of these acts of their own accord - even if their sincere intention is to do so for the sake of God, and even if this is accepted throughout the entire religious community - would be religiously pointless, and would achieve nothing by way of bringing women closer to the life of Torah. In these instances, the position of women as compared to men is precisely like that of laymen compared to priests, who must obey certain laws which apply only to them, such as the proscriptions of touching the dead or of marrying a divorcee. Such discrimination does not detract from the worship of God by those who are not priests. Should the Israelites voluntarily begin observing the prohibitions applying to priests, this would not imply greater fear of God, love of God, or service of God. It would be totally pointless.

The issue of Talmud Torah, the study of Torah in its most inclusive sense, is an entirely different matter.

This too is a Mitzvah, one of utmost importance. The upshot of discussions throughout halakhic history was the general acceptance of the principle that women are barred from study of Torah at its higher level.[2]This is a grievous error and is likely to prove disastrous for historical Judaism. For besides its significance as the performance of a Mitzvah, Talmud Torah enables the Jewish person to share the Jewish cultural heritage and its spiritual content. One might almost say that is makes the student party to the presence of the Shekhinah in Israel.[3]Keeping women away from Talmud Torah is not to exempt them from a duty (as is the case with some other Mitzvoth) but is rather to deprive them of a basic Jewish right.

This deprivation renders their "Jewishness" inferior to that of men. The assumption, axiomatic in all cultures almost up to our own generation, was that spiritual matters pertain to men and not to humankind at large. Even the accepted Halakhah, which assigns women a very high status (much higher than they had in Classical Greece, for example) and holds their functions in the home and within the family in the highest esteem, does not grant women equal partnership in sustaining spiritual life. This is common to Judaism and the historical non-Jewish cultures, even modern secular culture. Only in the nineteenth century were secondary schools for girls established in the enlightened Western world, and until the end of the nineteenth century women did not set foot in the academic milieu.

The perpetuation of this attitude within Judaism and the Jewish religion is intolerable in the Jewish world of today. The religious Jewish public to whom these remarks are addressed belongs to a society whose culture is common to both men and women. Such is our mode of Jewish existence as well. Therefore, barring women today from Talmud Torah segregates Judaism from the spiritual reality shared by Jews of both sexes. This is likely to break up our religious community. A step towards rectifying this situation is the attempt to establish a Women's Beth Midrash (a place for study of Torah), the like of which already exists in the United States in affiliation with Yeshivah University, and in Israel in the form of Ulpanoth. But the goal ought to be a Beth midrash for both men and women. To the contention that women do not intend to devote themselves to Talmud Torah to the desirable extent and are unable to do so, one may reply that even most men, who are under the Halakhic obligation to study Torah, do not devote themselves to it, even though their participation in the community of Torah-observant Jews is beyond doubt. What is really important is that Talmud Torah should be available to the entire religious community, the duty and privilege of both men and women.

The same applies to the halakhic status of women in the public-political sphere. The prohibitions against appointing women to positions in government, the administration, or the military, and especially the judiciary, reflected a worldwide socio-cultural understanding of the place of women based on their nature; they were not perceived as mere rules established by legislation and amenable to legislative alteration. On this view, public and political life are naturally the exclusive domain of men and it is inconceivable that women should take part in them. After all, even modern enlightened and secular countries had no women judges or members of Parliament and, needless to say, no Cabinet ministers, before the twentieth century. The very idea was considered outlandish even among the educated and progressive. Even suffrage was not granted to European and American women until after World War I, that is, no more than two generations ago! The halakhic decisions in Judaism barring women from public office tell us more about what actually was the case than about what ought to be. It is not coincidence that many of the regulations in this connection are introduced by the words: "it is not the way of women to…" or "It does not reflect favorably upon a woman…" (for example, to sit in the courtroom, or be a "parnass over the community" that is, to head, by appointment or election, any governmental or administrative position).

This situation has changed completely. Nowadays even our religious society is part of the world in which all political and public issues are shared by men and women. Thus it is "the way of women" to participate in public affairs. Jewish religious society will not be able to survive if, for pseudo-religious reasons, we continue to deprive women of their due rights. This is the point at which we - those of us resolved to practice Torah - cannot perpetuate the halakhic decisions of our fathers dating from a social reality which differed radically from our own.[4]

Certain conclusions follow concerning social forms and manners. A religious community of Jewish men and women that undertakes to practice Torah in our day must not confuse its acceptance of the "yoke of Torah and Mitzvoth", of absolute demands reflecting acceptance of the "Yoke of Kingdom of heaven" that are not amenable to adjustment to natural or social factors, with practices which reflects given circumstances and the views shaped by them; in other words, between unconditional prescriptions and proscriptions and norms reflecting a given socio-cultural milieu and its prejudices. The first category includes the laws of incest, family purity, and so on; the latter includes whatever pertains to the broad concept of "modesty" and has implications with respect to dress (what is "man's dress" and what is "woman's dress"), coeducation, military service, specialization in the different professions, and so on.

All these considerations point to the need for discretion in halakhic decision - discretion, which would reflect our own deliberation rather than conformity with anything found in a literary source. In such matters, no literary source of the past could possibly apply to our situation and none ever has applied.

[1]Women are required to observe all halakhic prohibitions. They are exempt from positive duties, observance of which is restricted to certain occasions. For example, they are not required to eat in the sukkah (booth) during the feast of Sukkoth. They are exempt from wearing Tsitsith and Tefilin (phylacteries), as these Mitzvoth are performed in the daytime - Ed.

[2]The implausibility of barring women from any study of Torah troubled most of the halakhists. The exclusion is usually taken to refer only to the Oral Torah and, even then, not to such study as is necessary to acquaint a women with her halakhic duties - Ed.

[3]See Mishna Aboth, 3, 6.

[4]A considerable body of halakhic opinion in recent years, which has been ignored by the religious establishment in Israel, seeks to improve the religious and practical standing of women. For an important summary of recent halakhic discussions over the rights of women to active and passive participation in elections of public office, see the opinion of Justice Elon in the decision of the Supreme Court of Israel sitting as a High Court of Justice in the case of Leah Shakdiel vs the Ministry of Religious Affairs, 151/17 - Ed.