1. The Bible

Although the focus of this article is modern Israel, let us begin with a brief survey of the place and the role of women within the broad Jewish historical story. As we survey Jewish history in general, there is no question that it is seen largely as a history of men and their deeds. Starting from the Tanach, the number of women who are mentioned in central roles is extremely small. There are indeed a number of women who are always mentioned as being important in the Biblical account, but even a brief appraisal will reveal the obvious fact that most of them play secondary and minor roles, receiving their importance by virtue of their influence on the story of the men who are the central characters in the story.

The matriarchs have a significant role in the early Bereishit stories but they are hardly the movers and shakers of those stories. It is true that with them, we have full three dimensional pictures of female characters but their importance is primarily, if not exclusively, in their influence on the continuation of the male line down which the axis of continuity will be passed. Sarah, for example, derives importance from her status as the wife of Abraham, but Abraham’s status is in no way conditional upon his role as Sarah’s husband.

As we go down the chronological line we encounter the significant figure of Miriam, the sister of Moses, but once again it is hard to resist the conclusion that her importance in the story as it has come down to us derives primarily from her role as the-sister-of rather than as a person in her own right. The only real leader or significant woman in her own right in the early historical record is Devorah, and it is hardly coincidental that she comes to the fore at the time of the Judges when the whole traditional leadership structure is thrown into chaos by a serious of local wars with which the established leaders are unable to cope. Only in such circumstances, it might be suggested, is there a chance for individuals to be accepted in leadership roles without reference to their role in the usual social hierarchy. Thus, only now would it be likely to find a woman in such a leadership role.

In the later books of the Bible we find the important figure of Esther. In the Jewish tradition, she has traditionally been seen, together with Mordechai as a leader and a saviour of the Jews, and there are many who continue to see her in such a light. However, once again there are those modern critics – not only women – who have questioned this seeing her as an essentially passive girl who manages to break through the stereotype only for a few brief moments of glory. When compared with Vashti, her predecessor, there are many in the feminist camp who see the former Persian queen as a stronger model of impressive female action.

All in all, the Bible gives few models for Jewish women of later generations to be more than the-sister-of, the-daughter-of or the-wife-of somebody else who is decidedly and significantly male! The Biblical record tells us a lot about men, while our glimpses of women are invariably viewed through the cracks and interstices of the male stories.

One interesting exception to this is found in the last chapter of the Book of Proverbs – Mishlei – where we find the text that we call Eishet Chayil (Woman of Valour) which has become integrated into the domestic liturgy on Friday night, Erev Shabbat. Here we see a picture of a “woman of valour” who is a leading figure both in her own domestic “kingdom” but also in her work as a merchant. This is a significant development, comprising the most detailed description that we have until now of a woman engaged in an important economic role, independent of her husband. We will return to this later.

2. After the Bible

The general tendency of male dominance of the sources continues in the next period: the second Temple. We have some significant stories about women to be sure, in the Book of Susannah and the Book of Judith, (the latter of which is seen by some historians to have been expressly written as a counterpoint and alternative model to Esther). However, these are minor episodes or stories, brief interludes in the larger male- dominated picture. For every significant woman, such as the unnamed mother of the seven martyred sons at the time of the Maccabees, we have the names of a hundred significant men. (1)

Things are no different in the rabbinic society of the Talmudic period, which is ushered in by the Temple’s destruction. The stories that have come down to us are almost exclusively told about – and usually told by – Rabbis. Through their stories we have a picture of a whole complex Jewish society. However, once again, women are left on the sidelines, invariably mentioned in a supporting role in relation to a male character. Indeed, how could it be different? The central activity of status in the rabbinic period, the activity that provides the key to status in Rabbinic society, is that of textual learning - the very activity which is specifically denied to women. The Batei Midrash (study houses) and Yeshivot, the central institutions of status within rabbinic society, are exclusively male preserves.

Indeed, we are told that an important dispute took place between the two leading and contesting schools of thought, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, over the question of how many children a man must have in order to fulfill the commandment to be fruitful. Shammai opts for two sons as fulfilling the obligation while Hillel talks of the need for one son and one daughter. There are those who will point to the fact that the “winning” opinion here is that of Hillel (as nearly always in such disputes!), in order to counter the charge of bias in favour of males. But in fact, the truth is very different. A society in which one of the two leading schools of opinion could side with such a strong preference for boys as the key to fulfilling the Halachic (legal) obligation, is a society where the issue is very much alive and kicking!

The apologists might – and do – point to the presence of women like Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir,Imma Shalom, the wife of Rabbi Eliezer and Yalta the wife of Rabbi Nahman as examples of women who have an independent status, praised for their wisdom, their knowledge and their good deeds independently of their husband. But once again, in almost every case their stories come through to us as part of their husband’s larger and far more complete stories, and without in any way taking away from their importance, these women are only known because they are so exceptional in their time.

Thus, as we come to the long medieval period in Jewish history, we have very few models of active, central women from preceding periods that could guide later women. Within the framework of Rabbinic and Halachic society, it was very hard, if not impossible, for women to break out of the constraints of their traditional domestic roles. The one major role where we do occasionally find women playing significant roles is in commerce. In some Diaspora centres, such as Spain and the Spanish Diaspora, we hear of women who are engaged in significant independent economic activity, returning us to the aforementioned model of Eishet Chayil, the Woman of Valour. One exceptional woman, Donna Gracia Mendes, even played a formative and independent role in developing the idea of using Jewish economic power to help oppressed Jews.

This role of the Jewish merchant-woman actually becomes accentuated in certain places as the trend develops for men to involve themselves in full time Halachic study, leading to a more important role as primary bread winner for many women. This latter tendency should not be undervalued. Nevertheless, it is important to remember as a corrective to any over-idealised picture, that the reason for the development of the role of woman as the central bread-winner is that men are involved in the high-status task of study which is closed off to women!

1. There are those who will no doubt protest saying that the mother in question has a name - Hannah - but the truth is that that name was only given to her in the sixteenth century when the story was rewritten by a contemporary writer. Some of the later rabbinic books gave her the name Miriam, but the original mentions of her were all anonymous!



Share           PRINT   
27 Apr 2015 / 8 Iyar 5775 0