Women & Judaism

The Status of a Woman in Judaism – Rabbi Zamir Cohen

It is important to understand the status of the woman at home and within society according to the Divine instruction. These days, the wisdom of the Torah seems to be the only wisdom that is freely debated by people who lack proper knowledge and understanding, and nevertheless feel like they have a right to defame it. In an era such as this, clarification of these matters is of paramount importance.

Moreover, a correct understanding of the Torah’s stance concerning this critical topic, helps pave the way towards peace and the integrity of the home through solid partnerships that result in true happiness and pure mutual love.

One of the modern, progressive demands of our time with regard to women, which actually degrades them, is the demand to compare a woman to a man – as if she is imperfect until she is regarded as a man.

This is not to say that the efforts exerted these days to prevent the exploitation and abuse of women are not justified and legitimate. The problem is the way in which psychologists and many people in the media look at woman these days – aside from their physical anatomy, they are expected to behave like men in every aspect. 

This aspiration stems from the general tone set by Western society. It encourages excessive combativeness and aggression and sees the tough and mighty man as a model worth emulating. And since the woman is not like that, in order to raise her status and give her added value, they regard her as a man.

And the truth is, that even from the time that they are born, a male and a female differ from each other. Any experienced parent or preschool teacher will agree that in an overwhelming number of cases, when toddlers will enter a play room, the boy will naturally be inclined to the ball and the bike while the girl gravitates towards the doll and the baby carriage. And this is in complete contrast to modern psychology – especially until the sixties of the last century, in which it was believed that this kind of behavior is a result of habit and upbringing, that boys were taught to play with certain toys and girls with other toys, but at the core level, and without external intervention, boys and girls are identical in their inclinations towards the same toys in their childhood and to the same behavior in their adult life. This false approach led many people to view the woman as a man and attribute roles to her normally carried out by men. This “modern” outlook is applied to many places within Israeli society, it is seen in Kibbutzim for example, where women perform agricultural work that is physically demanding, or in certain areas of the military where challenging roles are assumed by women as well. As a result of this new ideology, many women began perceiving themselves through this distorted lens, and began exerting much effort in going against their character and abilities. It is interesting to note that in sports-related circles for example, like the army, they’ve always understood that women and men are different. However, just recently in the scientific world, after it was proven that this approach is unnatural and incorrect, psychologists began to realize that the female brain and personality function differently than the male’s, just as Judaism has been claiming for thousands of years.

Personality Differences Between Men and Women

In 2003, Simon Baron-Cohen – a professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, published a riveting book called; The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain.

In this book, Prof. Baron-Cohen proves that the brains of men and women are biologically different. The male fetus receives higher levels of testosterone and therefore develops a male brain, while the female who receives lower levels of this hormone, develops a female brain. The male brain is capable of methodically analyzing, breaking down and reassembling. The male intuitively understands how things work and thinks in terms of “if/then”; everything has a reason, every question has an answer. His brain can navigate better and create three-dimensional sketches of its physical surroundings. This brain does not immediately think about serving his guests a drink or asking about the welfare of their kids. And even if he thinks, offers, and inquires, he’s not really going to care much about the response he receives. The female brain on the other hand, can easily pick up on other people’s thoughts and feelings and act accordingly in the most appropriate way. Her brain can communicate with people on an emotional level and she prefers arriving at an outcome by means of negotiation as opposed to force. The female brain also has an instinctive interest in babies and an innate need to protect them. When a woman needs to remember directions, she creates landmarks in her mind, while a typical man would sketch a mental map. Male brains have certain interests such as cars or motorbikes, sailing, bird-watching, sound systems, ‘do it yourself’ projects, or photography. Female brains on the other hand, might engage in discussions over coffee about family matters or interpersonal relationships. They enjoy taking care of animals and doing volunteer work that involves tending to people’s needs. The average male will look at magazine stands dealing with computers, cars, photography, guns, tools, and nature, while the average woman will turn her attention towards fashion, self-help, and parenting magazines. Many boys grow up becoming reserved and non-verbose, while many girls develop a skill for language and social communication. Men prefer relationships based on power, politics, and competition, whereas women will prefer relationships based on mutual trust and altruism. Women cook as part of their care-taking nature – while most male chefs are simply amazed by the chemistry involved in cooking. In general, professor Baron-Cohen proves that men are “systemizers”, meaning, they are proficient system analysts, while women are “empathizers” – they are good at anything related to emotions and interpersonal communication.

Human brain scans show that the right lobe, responsible for spatial and systematic functioning of the brain is more developed in males, while the left lobe, responsible for language, communication and compassion is more developed in women. In an interview with the newspaper, Yediot Achronot[1], professor Baron-Cohen provides a summary of conclusions regarding the many biological studies included in his book. “For years, people assumed that the difference between the male or female brain is nothing but a consequence of life experiences, culture, and the way a person is raised. But now, although culture may play an important role, biology also holds a significant position”. The bestselling book written by the psychologist Dr. John Gray, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, was also based on similar principles.

With regard to the Torah viewpoint concerning this important matter, many people mistakenly believe, out of ignorance, that Judaism treats women with disdain. But in truth, besides for the law that a man must honor his wife more than his own body, as noted above, we will mention the simple and famous law that a woman becomes a Bat Mitzvah a year earlier than a boy becomes a Bar Mitzvah. The reason was explained in the Talmud:[2]

“G-d endowed the woman with more understanding than the man”. And Rabbeinu Asher explains in his commentary: “He gave her understanding prior to the man”. Meaning, according to Judaism, a girl becomes wiser a year earlier than a boy and is considered from that point forward to have the judgment ability of an adult. This is something that has clear implications in Jewish law. For example, the vows of a twelve year old boy are not legally binding, while the same vows spoken by a twelve year old girl are regarded as carrying the same weight as those of an adult. We see from here that regarding these fundamental matters, like the age a person is considered an adult possessing a mature level of understanding and responsibility, not only does the Torah not deem the woman inferior to the man, but on the contrary, she is considered superior to him!

According to Jewish law, when two independent parties, a male plaintiff and a female plaintiff come to Jewish court (Beit Din) to present their individual cases, the law dictates that the woman’s case must be heard first and the man’s second. This is because of the sensitivity they must have towards the woman, as she is likely to be embarrassed of being in Beit Din (even though she is the plaintiff and the initiator of the trial – see Tractate Yevamot 100a and Rambam Sanhedrin, 21:5-6). In the same way, when a poor man and woman come to ask for money, food or clothing, assistance must be provided to the woman first.[3] Same goes for male and female captives, the woman precedes the man.[4] Clearly, a religion that discriminates against women would not impose such laws. It is important to realize that Christianity originated the misconception that religion and science are antithetical – it even executed famous men of science at the stake. In the same way, people have a misconception about religion and its degradation of women and that it treats women as intrinsically flawed and inferior to men. This misconception comes from Christianity as well. It regarded women as harmful, provocative, inciting and alluring, so much so that people actually began to wonder if this ‘creature’ possesses a soul…In a conference of bishops in 583 AD, this critical question was posed but a conclusion was never reached. In 585 AD, it was unanimously decided after a public upheaval, that women indeed, possess a soul. Not too many people know that this approach towards women as being dangerously alluring is the premise that clerical celibacy is based on.

In Judaism on the other hand, the contrary is true, the completion of man can only achieved through marriage. An unmarried man is referred to as half a man. By marrying a woman, they are both completed and referred to as ‘man’.

The widespread notion that religion discriminates against women has caused many people to associate this idea with Judaism as well. Especially when a person studies certain laws in a superficial manner, he might mistakenly conclude that there is evidence for this…for example: A woman may not testify in court[5] and is not appointed for positions of authority.[6] She is exempt from Torah study and from positive mitzvoth that are bound by time such as; reciting the Shemah and the mitzvah of sitting in a Sukkah etc.[7]

Moreover, when read superficially, some statements made by the sages may seem insulting towards women. For example: “The mind of a woman is light”[8], “Ten measures of speech came down to this world, nine of which were taken by women”[9] and more. But when a person studies these concepts correctly in their full scope and depth, according to the way in which G-d designed men and women as described above, with full knowledge that the Torah was given by the Designer of man, this person will discover that these laws and teachings are not dealing with ranking or prioritizing men over women. G-d did not create any flawed creatures – rather, He created all creatures perfectly whole according to their purpose. The same goes for both parts of the human landscape, male and female. Each part was created in a perfect way according to its purpose. Therefore, anything that was said by the sages about the man or the woman was not meant to label them as virtuous or deficient, it was rather stated as a fact suggesting that each one of them received his or her individual instrument with which to fulfill his or her role in a complete way. The absence of a certain feature in one of them does not imply that they are now flawed or deficient, in exactly the same way that a surgeon does not use a hammer and a construction worker does not use a scalpel. On the contrary, if a person would try to arrange an art competition between the famous musician, Beethoven and the famous painter, Chagall, he would be causing an awful injustice to the musician! In the same way a music competition would be completely unjust towards the painter! Each one is an expert in his respective field. This is exactly how the Torah describes the male and female with regard to their wholeness. And a person who properly examines the complete Torah-based design of a man and a woman will be amazed and astonished at the clear truth of the Torah and its depth with regard to the inner workings of the male and female soul and the way by which it defines the instructions necessary for each one of them individually and collectively.


And now, let us explain the teachings of the sages:

A person who examines the common denominator of all the Torah laws that distinguish between a man and a woman, will discover that they are based on a lofty desire to preserve the gentleness of the woman and protect her rights according to her emotional needs – thereby allowing her to fully express her natural abilities as opposed to those opposite her nature. Let’s explain.

A man who possesses knowledge of a certain situation must testify in a Beit Din, a Jewish court – even if it is inconvenient or uncomfortable for him – as it says in the Torah:[10] “If he does not testify, he shall bear his iniquity”. This clear-cut demand is directed specifically at the man because the strong emotional tools that he received allow him to help his fellow man by testifying for him, without compromising his own character. The woman however, whose character is more delicate, may be negatively affected by making such an appearance in court, as it can be stressful or embarrassing for her to appear before judges and other people present at the trial. The interactions it entails and the tensions the losing parties may endure as a result of her testimony can also harm the general softness of her nature and her position as wife and mother. And we are not talking about temporary effects that will only last for the duration of the trial, rather, long-lasting repercussions conflicting with her feminine character. After all, a person is highly influenced by his actions and experiences.

In other words, a woman is not banned from testifying in Beit Din because the Torah does not believe her testimony, rather, because the Torah wishes to protect her and preserve her gentle nature so she can continue to fulfill her main role. A person who believes that the Torah forbade the woman to testify because of Judaism’s lack of faith in the woman, can be disproven by the fact that she is completely trusted when testifying in certain areas concerning severe prohibitions such as, family purity, Kashrut etc. And if she is ‘untrustworthy’ with regard to cases concerning money, then how could she be trustworthy concerning much more severe issues – like issues that are punishable by kareth (death)? In light of what we’ve said, the matter is very clear. A woman’s testimony is no less credible than a man’s, therefore, in some cases, she may give her testimony even if it concerns critical matters. Her testimony is accepted in matters that concern prohibitions, as well as other benign contexts such as home or work. But when it comes to issues threatening her nature such as money, her testimony is forbidden.[11]

A woman may not be appointed to public positions of authority for exactly the same reason, as this type of position demands aggression, which is in direct opposition to her nature. And if she attempts to stand against this nature, then even if she succeeds on a public level, she will still be compromising her character as a woman.

This is why she can’t be included in a minyan, a prayer assembly of ten men. If we examine the importance of praying in a minyan we will discover that even though many people would prefer praying in solitude so they can concentrate better on the words and have a stronger personal connection with G-d, men are nevertheless obligated to pray in a minyan for the sake of honoring the King, as it says: “A multitude of people is a king’s glory”.[12] A minyan also draws the Divine Presence to the place of prayer causing the prayers to be accepted with greater ease. But as important and virtuous as public prayer may be, it still does not justify damaging the gentleness of the woman, as “Every honorable princess dwells within”.[13] And certainly not when it involves an unholy interaction of men and women.

And since the Torah has exempted her from all of the above in order to protect her rights and unique character, even if she says she wants to join a minyan, be appointed for a public position of authority, or testify in Beit Din, she will not be able to do so. This is similar to the enforcement of diplomatic security laws, obligating high level officials to obey the orders of their security agents even when the matter conflicts with their personal wishes.

This is also true concerning time-bound positive mitzvoth (these are mitzvoth whose observance is bound by a specific time – for example: the mitzvah of tztzit and tefillin, sitting in a sukkah, the counting of the omer etc.) as stated in the Mishnah in the tractate of Kiddushin,[14] that it all stems from the same root – as the purpose of the mitzvoth was intended to shape and build the inner spiritual world of the person. The man, who received harsher tools with which to fulfill his unique role requires more mitzvoth that will refine his inner spiritual world and shape him appropriately. The soft-natured woman on the other hand, can attain a proper spiritual perfection even without the performance of certain positive mitzvoth, as long as she does the following: A. Avoids the prohibitions associated with the negative mitzvoth (the ‘do not do’s’) B. Observes the ‘do’s’ that are not bound by time, like reciting the Grace after Meals. C. Observes the ‘do’s’ that are bound by time that are attached to the ‘do not do’s’ like the Shabbat Kiddush for example.[15]

However, on the simple level, a woman is completely exempt from the positive, time-bound mitzvoth so that she can tend to her family’s needs without having to stop her daily activities fearing that the time for a particular mitzvah has lapsed.[16]

The woman is also exempt from the mitzvah of procreation. This is so she does not feel that she must be proactive in certain areas that may conflict with her gentle nature. As such initiatives, even if they are for the purpose of a mitzvah, may imbue her with unrefined characteristics that conflict with the sensitive tools that she needs in order to fulfill her unique role in the proper way.[17]

Furthermore, a woman is not required to study all aspects of the Torah and the roots of halacha at every available hour the way men are obligated to study. She is however required to study practical halacha in order to avoid transgression. In other words, the study of Torah for a woman is not a goal – to study for the sake of studying, it is rather a vehicle that allows her to observe the mitzvoth in the proper way. The man on the other hand, has a special need to increase his spiritual deeds in order to attain the proper spiritual perfection – this is something that was not demanded of the woman – as explained above. But as for a man, the study of Torah has an added element. 

For every new topic or situation that arises in every generation, there must be a deep and thorough understanding of the roots of the laws, their reasons and principles in order to determine the halacha. And based on this knowledge, decisions can be made regarding the practical applications of the law. In this context, the purpose of studying Torah is to provide a public service and therefore, it too, like other public activities is given to the man. The woman on the other hand, being the minister of the interior of the home, is exempt from this obligation and is free to perform her important tasks, channeling her strengths in a way that benefits her and her family alike.

After proper examination of this principle, the phrases expressed by our sages regarding women can be better understood. For example, “The minds of women are light”[18]. Those who are unfamiliar with the language of our sages will interpret this expression as a degradation of women’s IQ. But when every word is examined according to its proper definition, the phrase takes on a whole different meaning.

The mind of each person operates on three combined pathways referred to by our sages as, chochma, binah, and daat. Chochma refers to information – a collection of data. A person who possesses chochma is called a chacham – a knowledgeable person. Binah refers to the interpretation of the small details. It combines the details together with the data to produce a new idea. A person like that is referred to as being a navon – a perceptive individual. Some people may be knowledgeable but not perceptive. They do not know how to properly utilize the information they posses. Daat on the other hand, is the definitive conclusion that connects the person to a result (as it says in the verse: “And Adam yada ‘had known’ [from the word daat] Chava his wife”[19]). A man’s forte is chochma, and a woman’s is binah. “G-d had given women more binah than men”.[20]


Notes and Sources

[1] Yediot Achronot, August 29, 2003

[2] Niddah 45b

[3] Mishnah Tractate Horayot 3:7. Rambam on the laws of charity for the poor 8:15. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 251:8

[4] Mishnah and Rambam Ibid. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 252:8

[5] Shavuot 30a, Rambam Hilchot Edut 9a, Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 34:14

[6] Sifre Parshat Shoftim. Rambam Hilchot Melachim 1:5

[7] Brachot 20a, Rambam Hilchot Kriat Shemah 4:1, Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 70:1

[8] Kiddushin 80b

[9] Kiddushin 49b

[10] Vayikra 5:1

[11] This is besides for the fear that her gentleness will be exploited by negative factors that will cause her anxiety or that it will be abused by urging her to empathize with people who do not deserve empathy.

[12] Mishlei 14:28. You may also refer to the tractate of Brachot 43a

[13] Tehillim 45:14

[14] Kiddushin chapter 1, Mishnah 7

[15] Refer to the Maharal’s commentary on the Torah starting with the words Shuv amar, as well as the interpretation of Rabbi Samson Rephael Hirsh on Vayikra 23:43

[16] Avodraham Seder Tefilot Chol p. 25, 41 and Kolbo p.73

[17] These ideas are alluded to in the teachings of the sages on the verse: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it” (Bereishit 1:28) “It is the nature of a man to conquer but it is not the nature of a woman to conquer” (Yevamot 65b). Meaning, the end of the verse reveals the meaning of the commandment in the beginning of the verse. So why were we commanded in such a manner? It comes to teach: The two of you must procreate. But the mitzvah, the obligation of making sure that happens is up to the man; the one who naturally ‘conquers the land’. And since his character is befitting of the role of conqueror, his soul does not become damaged by the actions involved in the courting process.

[18] Shabbat 33b

[19] Bereishit 4:1

[20] Niddah 45b. Refer to the commentary of the ROSH in the beginning of this chapter. It should be noted that even based on new studies dealing with the human brain – the source of chochma is in the right lobe of the brain, while binah is in the left. The right lobe is more dominant and active in men while the left is more dominant in women, as noted above in the words of Prof. Baron Cohen. And that which was taught to us by the sages of Kabbalah many generations ago, was discovered by scientists in our time – that the root of the male in the upper Spheres lies in the Sphere of Kindness which is on the right, while the root of the female is on the left, on the side of Justice. That’s why it says: “A man without a woman is a man without a wall” (Yevamot 62b), as ‘kindness’ is an  uncontrolled form of giving, and justice limits its rampant nature (there is however a concept of justice within kindness and kindness within justice). A man may naturally help his friends without any boundaries – he may also stumble upon certain sins as a consequence of his negative giving (as it says: “It is kindness – and they shall be cut off” Vayikra 20:18) as kindness without justice lacks protection and inhibition. The woman is justice. She is the protective wall who stops the endless giving and says – enough! Also, the fact that the man is married means that he is more protected against negative impulses. 

Adapted from “The Keys to Life” by Rabbi Zamir Cohen


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