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Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

An introduction to Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
What does the religion teach about how men and women should relate to each other?
by Howard Greenstein

In the ancient world, with only few exceptions, the political, social and religious leaders were men. Men enjoyed numerous legal and religious rights denied to women and a distinctly superior social status compared to women.

In ancient Israel, however, the position of women was notably superior to that of their peers in other cultures. In rabbinic law, for example, laws of marital infidelity make no distinction between husband and wife. A woman was permitted to dissolve a marriage if it took place under false pretenses, if the husband was immoral, if his profession was intolerable to her, if they were sexually incompatible, if he embarrassed her, denied her entry to their home, if his demands blemished her reputation, if he angered easily, insulted her, beat her or left her for an unreasonable length of time.

There were no double standards of chastity among Jews, as were common to the rest of the ancient world. The frequent biblical references to love and friendship in the marriages of Israel’s patriarchs and matriarchs are a far cry from the chattel relationship between man and wife among other desert peoples, and even in many instances among Greeks and Romans as well.

Outstanding qualities of leadership and wisdom were not infrequently attributed to Jewish women in antiquity. The judgment of Deborah was widely celebrated; Miriam, the sister of Moses, was prominent in any selection of biblical leaders. The Talmud later recounts with admiration the wisdom and scholarship of several unusual women. One of the most remarkable was Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir, whose insights into Jewish law sometimes outshone those of her famous husband.

Some Jewish women achieved fame as lecturers in medieval Europe in an age when the general community treated women as little better than serfs. Dulcie, the daughter of the eminent Rabbi Eleazer of Worms, in addition to supporting her family, was noted for her brilliant Sabbath discourses on Jewish law. Several other women of the fifteenth century were equally acclaimed as outstanding teachers and interpreters of the law.

In addition, as wives and mothers Jewish women have always enjoyed a position of such reverence and esteem that their implicit power often surpassed that of any male influence in the family.

In older Jewish communities, the training of children up to the age of six was vested in the mother’s hands. Consequently, the person most responsible for teaching them lasting values during their most impressionable years was the woman of the home. Even more crucial was her role as counselor to the entire family. The Talmud taught, “No matter how short your wife is, lean down and take her advice.” The sages reinforced that message by adding, “How can a man be assured of having a blessed home? By respecting his wife.”

The rabbis tell of a pious couple who, because they could have no children, decided to go their separate ways. Each remarried, and both selected wicked mates. In the end, the pious man was corrupted by his evil wife, but the wicked man was redeemed by his pious spouse. The moral of the story, the rabbis taught, is that “It all depends on the wife.”
A major consideration is that women were so fully occupied with their domestic duties, it was impossible for them to become deeply involved in the social and religious affairs of the community. Jewish law, for example, stipulates that women are exempt from any rituals that must be performed at a specific time, since their responsibilities to crying or hungry children or other family priorities preclude their participation.

In the western world, the social and communal role of Jewish women slowly rose to increasingly greater equality, along with that of their non-Jewish neighbors. In religious affairs, however, the changes have not been as universal. Today, in certain Orthodox circles, women are still not permitted to initiate divorce proceedings or to be counted in a minyan, the quorum of ten Jews required for all religious worship. In liberal circles, the status of men and women are virtually equivalent. Women are now ordained as rabbis and cantors, and their numbers are continually increasing. Both Reform and Conservative synagogues have extended religious honors and recognition to men and women equally. In Reform practice there is no longer even an insistence on an exclusively male minyan for worship.

Copyright ©2006 Howard Greenstein

Howard R. Greenstein serves as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation of Marco Island, Florida. He has previously served congregations in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein has been a Lecturer at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville University. He is the author of Judaism: An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism and Reform Judaism (1981).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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