Thursday, August 31, 2006

Women's role in Judaism: servant of Hashem or servant of her husband?

In response to some of the comments on the post on female role models and to comments here, I decided to do a quick summary of what I think are basics about women's role in Judaism:
1) The focus of a women’s life should be fulfilling the ratzon Hashem – same as men. A woman is a servant of G-d, not a servant of her husband.
2) The way women fulfill the ratzon Hashem is by avoiding the 365 lavim and performing the mitzvos aseh she’ain hazeman gerama which they are obligated in. They also have the opportunity to glean additional schar (albeit a lesser schar than one who is metzuveh) from performing other mitzvos on a voluntary basis.
3) For women (as well as men) the only way to achieve dveikus with Hashem is through Torah and mitzvos. Vague feelings of subjective “spirituality” are not a substitute for the objective performance of mitzvos.
4) A woman (like a man) is subject to personal schar v’onesh based only on the degree to which she does mitzvos and learns Torah. One cannot attain reward based on someone else’s mitzvah performance, except to the degree that enabling someone else to perform a mitzvah is itself a mitzvah.
5) Even though women are not obligated in Talmud Torah, because the mitzvah of Talmud Torah is crucial to attaining the ultimate reward of Olam Haba, women have the ability to glean its complete reward by enabling their husband and children to learn. This does not supplant or minimize their obligation for their own spiritual growth and mitzvah performance, but supplements those obligations (Pnei Yehoshua, Brachos 17).
6) It is impossible for women (or men) to fulfill their obligations as a Jew in ignorance of halacha (Bais haLevi, hakdamah), Jewish thought, and knowledge of Torah. Although in previous generations the home provided the minimum level of knowledge needed to fulfill one's religious obligations, in our times this is no longer sufficient (Chafeitz Chaim, Likutei Halachos Mes. Sota). There is disagreement as to how expansive a women’s study curriculum should be and whether it should include Torah sheBa’al Peh, but it is indisputable that for the study of Torah sheB’Ksav, mussar, machshava, and halacha, a women receives schar as an aino metzuveh v’oseh (Rambam, Hil T”T) and this study is invaluable in enabling her spiritual growth and correct performance of mitzvos.
7) Women (like men) must strive for a balance between personal growth as a Jew and fulfillment of obligations to family and career aspirations. Halacha does not mandate specific roles for either gender; however, halacha does demand that women (and men) arrive at an individualized balance which best enables their personal growth as well as the growth of those around them in avodas Hashem.
Most of this is basic halacha, yet, many of the comments on previous posts indicate that not everyone is comfortable with these ideas. Some examples: The comment (made on my wife’s blog) that “the focus of a women should be noshim b’mai zacyin and eizhu isha keshara [osah retzon ba’ala]” contradicts #1, #4, and #5. The attitude that as long as the house is neat and the kids are encouraged to learn a women has met her spiritual obligations denies #2, #4, and substitutes a vicarious experience of Judaism through one’s offspring or through one’s husband for what one is personally obligated to achieve. The thought that since our bubbes could not read and were tzidkaniyos (which is itself probably a myth) women need not trouble to learn denies #6. The idea that halacha delegates the kitchen to the women and the workplace to the man ignores #7. The pursuit of “spirituality” without Torah learning or objective mitzvah performance contradicts # 3. You get the idea. My bottom line: women are responsible for their own spiritual growth through Torah and mitzvos independent of their roles as mothers, wives, homemakers, or their place in the workforce. So why do so many disagree? Why for boys are the role models roshei yeshiva and gedolim, but for daughters it suffices if they aspire to roles of ignorance of halacha and machshava, Judaism without intellectual growth and with an economy of mitzvah performance? What of the above (items 1-7) do you take issue with and why?


  1. Anonymous10:30 AM

    You're saying that there are no differences between women and men. None.

  2. Anonymous10:45 AM


    I agree with all of your points and your conclusion and my wife does as well (and lives her life in manner consistent with your points). But just to clarify (I would imagine that you would agree with what I write below -- but if you disagree, let me know where and why):

    1) Women are not mechuyav in talmud torah. Men are.
    2) There is a limited amount of time -- especially if one works and/or has children.
    3) Given #1 and #2, women often handle the lion's share of the housework/taking care of children to enable men to do #1. Often, as a practical matter, this is to the exclusion of women themselves being able to learn (or to learn any significant amount on a regular basis).
    4) Thus, although in a vacuum women should learn in addition to enabling their husbands to learn, sometimes (read: very often) it becomes an either or choice. At that point, women enabling their husbands to learn - instead the women learning themselves --seems to be the correct decision.
    5) Although it is less glamorous and less interesting to be in the kitchen than in the beis medresh, given that is often the role of women, some people make a point of encouraging the women to recognize their enabling of men --- given the very common circumstances that I described above --- is meritorious and the right thing to do (and arguably taking from the limited time available for the women to learn in these circumstances would be incorrect).
    6) Assuming work, family time, etc. are all taken care of and the men are learning as well, I would agree women should be encouraged to learn. However, ultimately women are not mechuyav to learn and therefore, so long as they know enough as what to do (i.e. halacha lemaaseh) they cannot be faulted for not learning more. I recognize that even knowing halacha le-maaseh is an endless task as well, but I would imagine that you too would agree that women are not mechuyav to burn the midnight oil to get in another siman of shulchan aruch (as opposed to men, who arguably would be).
    7) As for deveikus, I think things are little more complicated. Deveikus can involve learning Torah but doesn't necessarily (see R'Chaim Volozionher in Ruach Chaim beginning of perek 6, and shaar daled of Nefesh ha-Chayim, that deveikus is tied to mitzvos and not Talmud Torah). The Rishonim and later meforshim argue what the pshat is of the mitzvah of le-davka Bo/ uvo tidbak, but none (that I am aware of) say that it is limud Torah. Limud Torah may be a component but is not synonmous with deveikus. If mitzvos do lead to deveikus, then her being mesaya her husband for the mitzvos of talmud torah, pru urevu (remember she is not chayeves there either but bears the lion's share of the burden), tefilah be-tzibur -- by doing the necessary housework and child rearing, are all extremely important and appropriate mitzvos. Why then cannot the performance of these mitzvos (the integral siyua of her husband and recognition of her role in that siyua) lead to deveikus? I am not saying that other, more formal, mitzvos cannot and should not also lead to deveikus but again for a man, I would argue that if you asked him to name the two largest components of daily avodas Hashem he would argue talmud Torah and tefilah be-tzibur. Given that married women with children are often precluded from those activities -- due to being mesaya their husband to do them, shouldn't they look for the significance in what they are doing on a daily basis? Not that challah baking per se is a manner of achieving deveikus, but given the circumstances, she is doing the right thing and enabling talmud Torah.

  3. Arthur, please reread point #2 and #5.

    Anon1 - I agree with everything you wrote. With respect to dveikus, I meant any mitzvos, not specifically Talmud Torah or tefilah b'tzibur, so I am sorry if that was confusing.
    I would only add one point that that you did not address. I have a regular job and have limited time and energy to learn. I do not idealize my situation, but simply make the best of it for what it is. True, the pressure of keeping a home falls mostly on women's shoulders (for my wife as well), but it seems to me that this is often portrayed as an ideal rather than our 'best effort' attempt to do the most with the time allotted. Without pointing a finger anywhere, at least where I live a woman who devoted 2 hours a week to attending a gym or book club or some other such thing would not be looked upon askance, but if that same woman took that time to learn, it would be. It is not viewed as women's 'place' to be involved in avodas Hashem in that way, and it is toward that attitude my thinking is directed.

  4. Are the obligations different for a woman who is:

    1. Single and working
    2. Widowed, not working outside of the home and there are no children at home

  5. The obligation of men and women is to do their best given their situation - everyone is unique, and l'fum tzara agra.

  6. Anonymous11:52 AM


    I agree 100% with your last comment. Again I dont think you can fault women who dont push themselves to learn after expending much effort in housekeeping/child rearing (maybe a job as well!), but I totally agree that the concept that a woman can and should learn and have an independent existence in her avodas Hashem is correct.

  7. Anonymous11:52 AM


    I agree 100% with your last comment. Again I dont think you can fault women who dont push themselves to learn after expending much effort in housekeeping/child rearing (maybe a job as well!), but I totally agree that the concept that a woman can and should learn and have an independent existence in her avodas Hashem is correct.

  8. Anonymous1:38 PM

    Chaim-You didn't adress the point that chazel do say eizho isha keshare etc.and that does imply it should be a womens focus.A focus of course is not the sum total of her obligations.Also how do you feel about the responce Bove Ben Butta gave the women who bashed 2 candle sticks on his head.Should he have given her a shiur about mevazeh talmid chochom and ain shloiach l'dvar avera intead?

  9. >>>You didn't adress the point that chazel do say eizho isha keshare etc.and that does imply it should be a womens focus.

    1) Immediatly before the halacha (Ishus 15:19-20) of a wife treating a husband like a king, the Rambam quotes that a husband should respect and honor his wife, etc. Is the FOCUS of a man's life the honor and respect he must show his wife, or is this just one aspect of his life that relates to shalom bayis? Why must it be the entire focus of a woman's life?
    2) Do you think that perhaps these halachos, like much else in hilchos deyos, might be relative to cultural environment - or are you also makpid not to let your wife leave the house without a veil, or do you personally follow the medical advice of the Rambam in deyos ch 4? Taken at face value, you have robbed a women of any ability to have a personal opinion or make any choices in her life that contradict her husband. She must be completely submissive to his will and whim. I think most people who are married recognize that this idea is completely incompatible the reality of our society.

  10. Anonymous8:02 PM

    Yehuda, the woman who broke the candles over the head of the talmid chacham is recognized for her good intentions. However, her situation, in which she cannot understand the language her husband speaks, certainly, does not represent an ideal marriage. She was not carrying out what he said to her but what she thought he said (due to the language barrier.) Actually there is another story. In that case the hsuband actually ordered his wife to spit in the man's face. (Was it R' Meir?) So R' Meir solved her problem by pretending to need a woman to spit in his eye to cure his ailment. Apparently, though, it would not have been right for the woman to do ratzon ba'ala in this case, and her sense prevented her. So R' M came up with a creative solution to allow both the husband and wife to save face.

  11. Anonymous8:04 PM

    One more point Why would Isha kshera osa retzon ba'ala preclude an interest in learning halacha, tanach, machashava, and whatever else inspires the woman in question in her avodas Hashem.

  12. Anonymous12:28 PM

    Chaim-I'm asking from a gem and you respond from the Rambam?I definitly don't think one can base that gem on social norms (I won't discuss that assesment in relation to the Rambam)And it's not that gem alone. Ariella-Yes I realize That women was in a bad marraige and don't idealize her situation or actions.My main point was focusing on BB'Bs response and him seeming admiration for a women willing to go such lengths for her husband even if it meant doing such an action.Chaim does not seem to agree with his attitude.The story of RM is different in that it is highlighting how far RM want for someones sholom bayis.The BBB story was praising the lady for her actions.I have no objections to a women learning halacha Tanach or musser and machsova unless it comes at the expense of her family.At that point she must make a proper balance.

  13. Anonymous12:44 PM

    Ariella -I hope you don't take offense or misunderstand my attitude.I'm not saying women are inferior or slaves or that a women should obey her husband regardless of what he says .I am saying that women have different mitzvos and focuses then men.

  14. >>>Chaim-I'm asking from a gem and you respond from the Rambam?I definitly don't think one can base that gem on social norms

    Either way, same response. 1) Social norma, not prescriptive l'halacha 2) does not mean this is the focus of one's life. You are confusing nice things to do for shalom bayis with the purpose of one's existance. The purpose of all creation is to serve Hashem - I thought that was basic Judaism, but you seem to place females in a different category.

    >>>him seeming admiration for a women willing to go such lengths for her husband even if it meant doing such an action.

    Entirely irrelevant. The issue is NOT whether or how much one should respect a spouse. The issue is whether a woman has an obligation to engage in Torah and mitzvos for personal growth or not. As to how to work that out between herself and her husband, please see point #7.
    Focussing on the issue at hand: are you denying that the primary purpose of a woman as a Jew is to serve Hashem and that she has an obligation to see to her own personal growth in Torah u'mitzvos to accomplish that?
    It's either Yes, she does, or No, all her religious obligations are secondary to supporting her husband.

  15. >>>I'm not saying women are inferior or slaves or that a women should obey her husband regardless of what he says

    But what about 'isha ksheira osah retzon ba'alah'? Why in your view should she not have to listen to every thing he says? Isn't that the focus of her life? As one sefer written by a supposed talmid chacham puts it, she must 'subjugate' herself to her husband. My dictionary defines subjugate as 1. to bring under complete control 2. to make submissive or subservient, enslave. So suddenly you draw a line and are not willing to live up to the letter of chazal's statement - why, and where is the consistancy in what you are saying? You clearly do not take the 'isha ksheira' statement at its literal face value, yet seem critical of me when I do the same. You can't have your cake and eat it.

  16. Anonymous2:32 PM

    Ther is also a chiyuv of kibud av and I've seen one noncontemprary sefer say one must percieve themself as being an eved to their parents yet the halacha remains that one may not listen to a parent to do an aveira and there is also a shaalo if one must listen to a parents command if the parent gets no benefit from it.There are other times in addition when one isn't required to listen to a parent.I still take kabed es oveicha v'es emech at face value.

  17. The chiluk between this and kibud av is obvious. By kibud av the exceptions you note are mandated by halacha. In the case of women, there seems to be no exception made by chazal. Lets say the husband likes hamburger for supper and the wife likes fish. For her to insist that one night a week he make an exception and allow a fish meal violates 'isha ksheira osah retzon ba'alah', does it not? The husband should remind his wife of her place and she should not allow her wishes to intrude on his happiness. You have 2 choiced: either find a source in chazal to limit the husband's authority somehow (like by kibud av), or accept that social norma have inflenced how we implement this idea. I choose the latter. If you have sources for the former, then I would like to hear them.

    In any case, this has little to do with the original point. Given that a woman must adjust her workload based on her family committment (#7 in my list), does a woman have an independent obligation to attain personal growth in avodas Hashem? Do you think that idea is given sufficient emphasis in society today?

  18. Anonymous12:35 PM

    I'm not so sure the there is a difference between this and kibud av in the sense that both are mitzvos s'ain l'hem shiur and there are halacos in SO as to both.There are minimum requirements of a women to do for her husband (and vice versa)-The more the better.(Eizhu isha ksare is quoted by the Haghos Maymones as well as the RMA OH69:7)I agree a women has an independant obligation to grow in avodas hashem and #7(though we disagree as to the degree of 'me nidcah m'pney me'.)I wish society emphasised more the importance of growth in avodas hashem for men and women alike.

  19. Ben Torah3:51 PM


    So what does the CHAZAL of eizhu isha keshara osah retzon ba’ala mean to you? Something that has been repealed for the 21st century?