This week's topic is one that I've pushed off a couple times. It's one of the hardest ones to write for me. Although, since this issue was one of the major moral areas that I disagreed with the Torah (and Orthodox Judaism as a whole), I would be remiss if I didn't discuss it.
One of the difficulties I have with talking about this topic, is that I often butt up against a standard religious response. If I'm talking to a guy, he will say, "My wife/sister/daughter doesn't think Judaism is misogynous. Who are you (a male) to tell her otherwise?" Of course, a similar response is often offered by women, except they're able to use themselves as the example.
To this I have two responses. First, misogyny is not the sole domain of men. Women can be misogynous too! If I had time I could point our various psychological studies that point this out, but this is not the area I wish to discuss, so you reader, will have to do your own research if you don't believe me. The second response is specifically for the male religious people. I would say, perhaps they do think Judaism is misogynous, but they won't tell you because you are dismissive of their issues, as you currently are being dismissive of my issues. Then, if needed I can mention various female scholars, such as Rachel Adler who left Orthodoxy for the explicit reason of its misogynistic tendencies. Nevertheless, it is with some trepidation that I write about this topic, but I feel that I must.
While writing this topic it kept growing longer and longer. As such, I decided to split it into two weeks. In this week, we will look at the view of women in the Torah, and a little bit in the rest of Tanach. We will see that the Torah reflects a previous era of thinking in which women are automatically a lower class than men, a way of thinking that only has been overcome very recently and never completely. We will see numerous examples of women as lower class citizens. Next week, we will move into how traditional Judaism treats women. We will look at some Rabbinic statements on the matter and discuss some of the basic apologetic answers for the poor treatment of women. Then, we'll look at the treatment of women in various sects of Judaism today. I will note that while these posts will both be substantial, there is no way I can be exhaustive in any of these areas. I am guaranteed to miss some statements, even possibly highly relevant ones. Feel free to point them out in the comments!
Women are Subservient
We begin this topic, well, at the beginning. In the story of Adam and Chava (Eve) the Torah gives it's first value judgment for women as a whole. After they get kicked out of Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden) God tells Chava:
Unto the woman He said: 'I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy travail; in pain thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.'Clear and succinct, men shall rule over women. This type of subjugation is made clear throughout the Torah. For example, we will look at the laws of vows, which make it clear that women are the property of their husbands. First we look at what happens when a man makes a vow (Num. 30:2-3)
2 And Moses spoke unto the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel, saying: This is the thing which the LORD hath commanded. 3 When a man voweth a vow unto the LORD, or sweareth an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.Seems what you might expect. Surely one might expect the same behavior for a woman. Let's see what the Torah says on the matter (Num 30:4-7)
4 Also when a woman voweth a vow unto the LORD, and bindeth herself by a bond, being in her father's house, in her youth, 5 and her father heareth her vow, or her bond wherewith she hath bound her soul, and her father holdeth his peace at her, then all her vows shall stand, and every bond wherewith she hath bound her soul shall stand. 6 But if her father disallow her in the day that he heareth, none of her vows, or of her bonds wherewith she hath bound her soul, shall stand; and the LORD will forgive her, because her father disallowed her.Basically a woman's father has the right to overrule any vow a woman makes. After all, she is his property according to Torah law. But maybe this is only talking about a young girl who isn't mature enough to know what she's saying. The next verses shows that the right of revoking a woman's vows transfers from the father to the husband upon marriage (Num 30:7-9)
7 And if she be married to a husband, while her vows are upon her, or the clear utterance of her lips, wherewith she hath bound her soul; 8 and her husband hear it, whatsoever day it be that he heareth it, and hold his peace at her; then her vows shall stand, and her bonds wherewith she hath bound her soul shall stand. 9 But if her husband disallow her in the day that he heareth it, then he shall make void her vow which is upon her, and the clear utterance of her lips, wherewith she hath bound her soul; and the LORD will forgive her.The husband also has the ability to overrule a woman's vows. The next couple verses indicate that a widow or divorcee can actually have agency over her own vows, and then it repeats the married woman laws (Num 30:11-14)
11 And if a woman vowed in her husband's house, or bound her soul by a bond with an oath, 12 and her husband heard it, and held his peace at her, and disallowed her not, then all her vows shall stand, and every bond wherewith she bound her soul shall stand. 13 But if her husband make them null and void in the day that he heareth them, then whatsoever proceeded out of her lips, whether it were her vows, or the bond of her soul, shall not stand: her husband hath made them void; and the LORD will forgive her. 14 Every vow, and every binding oath to afflict the soul, her husband may let it stand, or her husband may make it void.There is only one reasonable conclusion in these verses. A woman is not an equal partner in marriage, but a minor one. Her husband enjoys significant control over her actions.
Another view showing the inequality between men and women in the Torah, comes from this week's parsha. Specifically with regard to rape, and rape victims. The following verses are oft quoted in the context of misogyny (Deut 22:28-29):
28 If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, that is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; 29 then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he hath humbled her; he may not put her away all his days.Religious apologists are quick to point out that "forcing" the guy to marry his rape victim is actually a positive situation for the rape victim. They assume that she has some choice in the matter and can nix the arrangement if it's not to her liking. This is the standard interpretation in Judaism today, but is not clear from the Torah. However, the biblical context is easily recoverable. In the iron age Israelite society, the rapist is treated as someone who stole something from the woman's father. And what he stole was his daughter's virginity. According to the Torah, the virginity was worth 50 shekels. There is no indication that the Torah cares at all what the woman lost with regard to her own well-being; the Torah only cares about the financial implications of a father who can no longer command a large dowry for his daughter! We'll look a bit more about the worth of virginity in the next section.
Indignities towards women
This week's parsha offers us a view to how the authors of the Torah were often oblivious to the plight or embarrassment of women. For example, let's look at the story of what happens when a man dislikes his new wife (Deut 22:13-19)
13 If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her, 14 and lay wanton charges against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say: 'I took this woman, and when I came nigh to her, I found not in her the tokens of virginity'; 15 then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel's virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate. 16 And the damsel's father shall say unto the elders: 'I gave my daughter unto this man to wife, and he hateth her; 17 and, lo, he hath laid wanton charges, saying: I found not in thy daughter the tokens of virginity; and yet these are the tokens of my daughter's virginity.' And they shall spread the garment before the elders of the city. 18 And the elders of that city shall take the man and chastise him. 19 And they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel; and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days. 20 But if this thing be true, that the tokens of virginity were not found in the damsel; 21 then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die; because she hath wrought a wanton deed in Israel, to play the harlot in her father's house; so shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee.The first thing to notice is that the Torah attaches high value to virginity, specifically the physical virginity (which based on an intact hymen). There is a specific value of a woman that is tied to her status as a virgin or not. The test requires "tokens of virginity" the Hebrew word used for this is simlah or garment. They're actually looking for a bloody bedsheet in the literal meaning. The next thing to notice is that there is no indication that the law cares about how the woman feels in the matter. The issue here is a breach of contract between the husband and the father of the bride. If the bride is wronged, it's the father that gets recompense. However, if the husband is wronged, the daughter is killed. It doesn't take an expert in biology to know that virginal sex will not always result in a bloody sheet. Yet the Torah would kill a woman over the absence of this sign.
I've probably already belabored how disgusting these verses are, but before we move on, we should probably directly compare them to the other story about a "cheating" wife. This is of course, the story of the sotah. I won't quote it in full, but it appears in Numbers 5:11-31. The basic story is that a woman is suspected by her husband of cheating, and she is forced to undergo an embarrassing public "witch-trial" on nothing but the husband's accusation. No evidence required. The trial results in the woman having to drink a magic potion, with the results that a cheating woman will die from it and a non-cheating woman will get pregnant from it. Again, the Torah doesn't even care if the woman even wants to be pregnant. Nor does the Torah provide any punishment for the husband who forced his wife to undergo the embarrassing ordeal. Several times it indicates that just jealousy is sufficient cause for this trial. Finally, as just a last jab at the absurdity of this all, if you happen to not believe in magic potions, you realize that only a cheating woman actually gets the "positive" outcome! The non-cheater will be under suspicion because she didn't get pregnant!
Moving on, it's necessary to discuss some of the laws of menstruation. It says (Lev 15:19-20)
19 And if a woman have an issue [i.e. menstruation], and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be in her impurity seven days; and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the evening. 20 And every thing that she lieth upon in her impurity shall be unclean; every thing also that she sitteth upon shall be unclean.This sections goes on for a while, it requires women to separate themselves from society for a week when they are menstruating, and another week afterwards. It finishes with (Lev 15:31-33)
31 Thus shall ye separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness; that they die not in their uncleanness, when they defile My tabernacle that is in the midst of them. 32 This is the law of him that hath an issue, and of him from whom the flow of seed goeth out, so that he is unclean thereby; 33 and of her that is sick with her impurity, and of them that have an issue, whether it be a man, or a woman; and of him that lieth with her that is unclean.The JPS translation is a bit lacking here, but it is possible to see that the Torah authors view menstruation as a negative stigma on a woman. Perhaps in a time period when women were always pregnant this wasn't such a burden on women, but in later times the idea of a woman having to completely isolate herself during half of her adult life is obviously problematic. Even today there is a fear among the right wing of coming into contact with a woman who is menstruating, so much so that far right wing individuals insist on separation of genders in all situations. We'll see some examples of this next week.
Finally, we'll look at one more instance of misogyny before moving on. Later in this week's parsha we learn what happens if a woman grabs another man's testicles during a fight (Deut 25:11-12)
11 When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets (i.e. testicles); 12 then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall have no pity.According to the Torah, the sanctity of a man's balls are of such importance that a woman who grabs them in self-defense loses her hand.
The Worth of a Woman
We've already seen that the Torah attaches a specific value to the virginity of women, but what about women in general? What assets or qualities does an ideal woman have according to the Torah authors?
The short answer is that the Torah authors, unfortunately in line with today, are always eager to attach physical attractiveness to their female heroes. Nearly every positive woman in the Torah is described as beautiful. These include Sarah (Gen 12:11), Rivka (Rebekah) (Gen 24:16), Rachel (Gen 29:17), or Esther (Est. 2:7). It's hard to come up with more examples, because prominent women are so rare in the Tanach. There is one notable exception here but we'll get to her later.
The second characteristic in which a woman's worth is important is in her ability to bear children, specifically male children. That there is a marked preference for male children is fairly obvious. The story of women struggling with infertility and feeling inadequate because of it is a common biblical theme, it occurs to Sarah, Rachel, Hannah (mother of Shmuel (Samule)). Of course, when a couple fails to conceive the blame is always attached to the woman and never the man. The usual biblical solution to infertility is to provide an additional woman for your husband to sleep with. This is the solution employed by Sarah and Rachel.
I noted there was an exception, and the exception I was thinking of is Devorah the Shofet (Judge). She is not described in physical terms, nor does the story really care about her child-bearing capabilities. Devorah is a leader, and while she only gets a brief time in the spotlight, we should acknowledge that she's there. In the next week we'll see how the Rabbis of later days ensured that it'd be impossible for another leader like Devorah to appear to the Jewish people.
Finally, there is another "possible" exception, Miryam. I say she's a possible exception, because in the story we have in the Torah, she doesn't really do anything exciting. She sings at Yam Suf (Red or Reed Sea) and she gets leprosy for badmouthing Moshe (Moses) but besides that she's not mentioned. However, being that in some Psalms and other places she's equated with Moshe and Aharon (Aaron) some have thought that she once played a more prominent role but was later removed from the story by authors with more misogynistic aims. Erasure of women's accomplishments in history is something that we see all too often, and while I'm not sure there's sufficient evidence to claim that happened with Miryam, I wouldn't at all be surprised if it happened.
When taken as a product of its times the Torah represents a view of women that is about what you might expect for an iron age middle east society. It was more progressive than some societies, but less progressive than others. We'll see something similar next week with Talmudic statements that fit well as a product of their time. The problem is when religions today take these proclamation as an ideal of how societies structure themselves, essentially reversing any societal progress we have produced since then. According to fundamentalists of all stripes, we should revert back towards a society we have since evolved from.
Next week we'll look at some views of Judaism from Talmudic times to today.