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Role of Women Within Orthodox Judaism

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The Role of Women within Orthodox Judaism


Since the beginning of the Jewish religion, women have had what seems to be a marginalized role that encompasses almost every facet of life. In many cases within the body of Jewish texts, clear misogynist statements and commentary are made dealing with every aspect of what it means to be female. Within the Orthodox movement, these restrictions appear to be the most prevalent. Through examination of the role of women within the key elements of the Orthodox Jewish life cycle: birth, adolescence, adulthood, and death, I hope to discover whether the female discriminatory point of view of Jewish Orthodoxy is founded or if the traditional ways of the Orthodox community are simply misunderstood.


It is difficult to understand the role of women within a religion without a basic understanding of the religion in question; especially if talking of Judaism. It is now important to recognize that for faithful Jews, everything, whether within religious or secular life, revolves around religious laws or mitzvot (singular mitzvah).(1) The Jewish way of life encompasses every aspect of human endeavor. There is a verse in the Book of Isaiah: God desired for his righteousness' sake to make the Torah great and glorious." (Isaiah 42:21) This verse was interpreted in rabbinic Judaism to mean that God provided many opportunities for people to acquire righteousness by giving them a multitude of commandments covering every situation in life. Orthodox Jews recognize 613 mitzvot. Whether a Jew is conducting business, preparing a meal, or doing any other thing a person might do, there is a mitzvah to give direction to that activity. In understanding this, it becomes clear why it is so difficult for women to question Orthodox Jewish beliefs.

Historically, Judaism began around 2000 B.C.E -1600 B.C.E. during what is commonly called the Age of the Patriarchs. It began in the Middle East around the present day state of Israel. Since then, it has spread to every corner of the globe. Today, there are about 18 million Jews world-wide. Jews believe in one God (often referred to as Adonai or Yahweh in Jewish texts). God chose the Jewish people to carry out his laws and beliefs and to share them with the rest of the world. God sought the Jews for an ongoing relationship of rewards in return for recognizing the sovereignty of God--a relationship known as a covenant. It is believed that the Jews were not chosen because they were perfect above other peoples, rather that they were chosen because they agreed to take on the burden of faithful service to God. This relationship has proven to be a source of strength and hope through the most turbulent times of Jewish history.

The Jewish Bible or Tanakh, is the sacred book that interprets history as the Jews have experienced it. Although it is proper to think of the Bible as a single book of scriptures, it is more accurate to describe it as a library of books assembled under three major headings. The most important is the Torah, which means "devine instruction and guidance." Torah is also known as the Five Books of Moses; the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. The second portion is the Nevi'im meaning writings of the Prophets. The third section of Tanakh is referred to as Kethuvim or "the Writings."

By the late Middle Ages, there was a distinction between what is known as Written Torah, the Tanakh, and Oral Torah. Oral Torah consists of commentaries and instructions written by rabbis concerning how to follow Written Torah. Examples of Oral Torah include Talmud, Halakhah (the body of rabbinic law), and Mishna. Today, it is only the Orthodox Jewish movement that believes that both Written and Oral Torah are valid to the practice of Judaism.

Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism is on of four movements of Modern Judaism including Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist. All of these movements trace their origins to traditional Judaism as it was practiced in pre-Enlightenment Europe. They arose principally in Germany during the 19th century as part of the civil emancipation of the Jews in that country as well as a response to the process of modernization. Jewish immigrants brought these differing viewpoints with them to America and today, over half of Jews define themselves based on one of these movements.

Orthodox Judaism is the closest to traditional Judaism. Today, 2 million Jews consider themselves Orthodox; 1 million of those being in the U.S. Unlike other Jewish movements, Orthodoxy in America is not a unified movement. There are many degrees of Orthodoxy. Each Orthodox movement has it own day schools, yeshivas (Jewish schools), seminaries, rabbinical, and congregational organizations. As discussed earlier, law is a large part of Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is rigidly based on the total of 613 mitzvot which cover every aspect of Jewish life. They believe that the Torah was given to Moses at Mount Sinai and cannot be subject to historical analysis, since it is the divinely inspired word of God. This is also true for the Oral Torah. This would account for the difficulty Orthodox feminists have in contesting many of the misogynist statements found in these text; even though their points of view may be dated, they are still considered binding.

Many Orthodox sects feel that it is necessary to limit contact with the Gentile world in order to preserve their traditional beliefs. The Hasidic sects keep themselves segregated as much as possible. English is only learned to conduct any necessary business with the outside world. Men wear the traditional black and white attire worn in Europe. Women must dress modestly with the head covered at all times. For the purpose of this analysis, the basic principles and general beliefs binding to all Orthodox Jews in terms of the roles of women will be discussed.


The beginning of the life cycle of a Jew and devotion to faith is the ritual dealing with birth. The very moment a Jewish child is born, an immediate distinction is made between the sexes. In a ceremony known as b'rit milah is performed on a son's eighth day of life. (Wylen 1989, 71) At this ceremony, the newborn male is circumcised and given his Hebrew name which consists of the child's name, plus ben (son of), plus the name of the father. This name is only used for religious purposes in the setting of the



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