A discussion about the position of Jewish women in Israel, should begin with a survey of the position of women in Judaism – an extremely contentious issue. In the last generation or so, the position of women in the Jewish tradition has become a veritable battlefield for modernists and traditionalists. People on both sides of the issue have come to see the issue itself as a barricade that must be stormed in order to save Judaism from the grasp of the forces (the other side) who would undermine it and potentially destroy it.
Many aspects of Judaism have been seen as a battleground over the last two hundred years. Since the coming of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, the fight over the modernisation of Judaism has been joined on a whole host of different issues. Different generations have embraced and emphasised different causes, depending on the specific historical circumstances. Each generation has fought its own battles, and the forces of tradition and modernity have faced off against one another over many different things. Indeed, it was the Haskalah which first put the question of Jewish education for girls centrally on the agenda of the Jewish world.
However, there is no denying that despite some important changes that have developed over the years regarding the question of a woman’s place in Judaism, it is really the last generation that has seen the topic turn into one of the cutting-edge issues within the Jewish world. The world of Jewish feminism has developed strongly and enormous changes have been felt in both the Orthodox and non-Orthodox worlds.
The very question of the role of women in Judaism continues to arouse strong emotions; to many people, the subject itself is taboo. In the last thirty years, especially since the rise of the Jewish feminist movement that has often attacked the traditional culture of Judaism as being sexist and unjust, dozens of books and articles have been written about the role of women in Judaism. Many of these are apologetic in tone, seeking to justify the tradition. The approach of this school of thought is, broadly speaking, that women are “separate but equal” in the Jewish tradition; that men and women are relegated to different realms of activity within Jewish life, and that within the separate realms the man is a king and the woman a queen. In other words, difference does not mean that one group is preferred over the other. Rather, it is stated, both genders reflect the work of G-d, who intended different spheres of activity and complementary roles for them both.
Many have criticised this position. There are those who criticise from within the world of belief in G-d. Their argument, they say, is not with G-d but rather with what men, as the primary interpreters of G-d’s word, have done with the word of G-d. The argument goes that they have abused and misrepresented the instruction book that they were given, namely the Torah. They point out that in the division of roles according to gender, almost all the prestigious ones have been assigned to men.
Men are the almost exclusive stars of Jewish history in the public arena; all public functions within Judaism and the Jewish community have traditionally been seen as the exclusive preserve of the male sex. Moreover, the scholarly arena that has been the centre of prestige and respect within the Jewish community since at least the destruction of the Second Temple, has once again been assigned exclusively to the realm of the man. Men are responsible for the development of the liturgy where, for example, they are required to recite every day the blessing to G-d “who has not made me a woman.” The problem, according to this perspective, is sociological rather than theological.
Less traditional critics have brought G-d into their argument, seeing the divine texts as man made and arguing that the very concept of G-d and G-d’s deeds that has developed within Judaism is a result of male dominance and male construction of the sacred texts. All the inequalities that have developed within the Jewish tradition according to this approach must be seen as the responsibility of the men who both wrote and interpreted the traditional texts.