The Torah Attitude toward Women

The Torah Attitude Toward Wome

Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson
Radio Show Transcript – May 14, 2000

Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Good evening. This is Simon Jacobson and welcome again to Toward a Meaningful Life. We’re on every Sunday evening (WEVD 1050AM) from 6-7pm. It’s been very gratifying to receive emails and communications from you, particularly in light of last week’s show which was touching a pretty controversial issue: the Torah view on homosexuality. This show is only possible and only successful due to the synergy and the cooperative give and take effort of the listeners and myself, so I continue to welcome your calls and communications.

In the spirit of generally dealing with contemporary issues, and particularly ones that we hear a lot about—and as it also happens to be Mother’s Day on the secular calendar—I felt it would be appropriate to do a show on women. After looking for a really extraordinary guest who can discuss the issue in a way that sometimes a limited male perspective like my own could not (as a male discussing women’s issues sometimes lacks complete credibility), we asked Rebbetzin Leah Kohn from the Jewish Renaissance Center to be our guest and we’re very honored to have her here. Thank you for coming on.

For those who may not know her (I hear about Rebbetzin Kohn from so many people that I know many already do know her), but there’s always one or two who may not, so Rebbetzin Leah Kohn is the director of the Jewish Renaissance Center, a unique institute that is focused entirely on Jewish studies devoted to women. I find that extremely encouraging because of the many different misconceptions and attitudes about women in Judaism—and to have something that really focuses on women and their particular issues is just a testimony to the universal and relevant appeal of Torah in general.

I’ve also heard rave reviews of her classes. The Renaissance Center does offer a complete range of classes for women, afternoon and evening, summer and winter. I see from the program here that it covers the entire gamut. And there will be a Jewish Women’s conference taking place next Sunday, May 21st at the New York Bar Association, which I’ll give you more details about later on.

But the main thing is that I’m honored to have Rebbetzin Kohn here, and I thought that it would be really valuable to have a discussion with a woman who lives in the modern, 21st century, coming from a traditional background, but at the same time able to communicate so well to women, and for that matter to men as well who are interested and want to know about this important issue: the role of women.

The topic doesn’t need too much background and explanation because I don’t know if there’s anyone on this earth who hasn’t been affected by women’s issues, whether in the United States as the search and aspiration for equal rights, the ERA movement and the general feminist movement, or in other societies and communities where people feel that women have not been treated properly or in an equal fashion.

So it’s a topic that is personal (and not just a theoretical, philosophical topic) and I’d like to begin first by introducing Rebbetzin Kohn.

To set the tone, when you talk about this issue of women, in general, the perception that people have of women in Torah is somewhat of an archaic, old-fashioned one. So I would begin by asking you, how would you articulate the role of a woman in contemporary society from a traditional Torah perspective? How would you define that, particularly taking into account the many misconceptions and stereotypes that this usually evokes?

Rebbetzin Kohn: I would say that the role of the woman in many, many ways is not any different from the role of the man. We are here to live a life that has meaning and a life of self-development, of contributing to others—and in this way there is no difference between a man and a woman.

According to Torah, though, there is a division of responsibilities, the concept of a team, where certain responsibilities are distributed more to men and others to women. This doesn’t mean, however, they cannot help each other or shouldn’t be involved in each other’s areas of responsibility, but in every team, each member is responsible for a particular part.

As any Jew today can be involved in any part of society and at the same time be a Torah observant Jew, it is true for women as well.

Jacobson: I was reading today that Mother’s Day was instituted in the beginning part of last century as a result of some of the feminist activism. Reading that I realized that growing up in my own home, coming from a Torah background, every day is Mother’s Day. The value and the preciousness of a woman’s role and a mother’s role is always apparent. You don’t need one day in 365 days to make that point.

Yet at the same time, when many women see, so to speak, a traditional Orthodox Jewish woman, their attitude is that they dress in an old-fashioned way, their role is seemingly exclusively motherhood, and they look down upon them as being career people. Living in a masculine-oriented society, many women feel that if they’re not treated as a man, with equal jobs or equal opportunities, they essentially become second class.

And many feel that Judaism has done that. Many women have shared that with me about growing up in traditional homes where the girls were always treated as the ones who didn’t have to be educated and so on. So I’m glad to hear that it’s not that way, and I know it’s not that way myself. So how do you speak to a person like that, because I’m sure many of our listeners have that attitude. What do you say to a person who has such an experience?

Rebbetzin Kohn: I think we have to understand a little bit some historical background. Jewish women, during history, definitely concentrated more on home and raising children. But let’s understand that raising a Jewish child is not just taking care of his physical needs, but it’s being a psychologist, a person who takes care of his spiritual development, and that is very, very challenging.

I always say at my classes, “You know, I have one daughter, and she’s wonderful, but still, I was challenged by her much more than by any of my students, ever.” Because when you’re with somebody for 24 hours and it’s your sole responsibility to make sure that he or she grows up to be a good, productive human being and a good Jew, it’s a very, very challenging mission.

During generations, this was very valued, and not only by Jewish people but by non-Jewish people too. Unfortunately, in our time, family is not valued as much as it should be, and we suffer for it in society. But it doesn’t mean, on the other hand, that the woman has to be in the family all the time, at home, and not have a career outside.

What we would emphasize is that family is important, and raising the next generation to be a healthy, productive and good generation is essential for us, for society, and there is no greater contribution. But it doesn’t mean that the woman has to do everything. Technical things could be delegated to others. There are different stages when children are at home, different needs of children, and the woman can definitely develop herself and her career side by side with the family. At certain points she may develop her career part-time or do it in a way that won’t interfere with the major task that she has at home—and this is not necessarily the cooking or the cleaning, or this aspect, which can be done by somebody else—but making sure that her children will grow up to be good human beings. This is a very challenging job.

Jacobson: I couldn’t say it any better than that, but my question is, we do live, as you said, in a society that doesn’t value home the way it should. And this is especially true in New York, where they call it an epidemic of single life (the mecca of singles). Being in the situation that we are, where family is not honored the way it should be, and therefore the woman’s role is also seemingly undermined and compromised, how do we address that? How do you begin to turn the tide and address it once society has fallen into that type of situation?

Rebbetzin Kohn: I think the secret is education. In order to do the job properly, a woman has to know her stuff, and this was taught all throughout history. But in history, this was transmitted by osmosis, mother to daughter, but you cannot be a good Jew without knowledge. Women, men, it doesn’t matter. You have to know what you believe, what’s your view of life; you have to know how to live a Jewish life, you have to know current issues in order to know how to relate to them and react to them. You cannot be separated from the reality and be a good Jew at the same time.

It’s only within the last hundred years that life for women in general has changed a lot, and we have to respond to it in the Jewish way of life as well. And that’s why Jewish education for women today is a prime concern of every Jewish community and a lot is invested in it.

I, myself, even though I grew up traditionally all my life, I am teaching already for over 30 years, all ages, not only in the framework of school but after college as well, all ages of women are encouraged to come and study in a stimulating way. You can’t do your job as a mother, as a wife, or if you’re single, as a member of a community, and live Jewishly properly if you’re not inspired yourself, if you don’t know what it is all about.

So being that today the way to educate is formal, women have to get a formal education as well. And you’ll find that women today are very involved in learning. Wherever they are in every society, even the most right-wing societies in Judaism put a very strong emphasis today on Jewish education for women.

Jacobson: You were born and grew up where?

Rebbetzin Kohn: I grew up in Jerusalem. My family is there for 12 generations on one side, six on the other side. It took my family a year to come from Europe to Israel with a lot of self-sacrifice. Here I am outside of Israel only because I feel that it’s a mission to teach outside of the land of Israel where assimilation is more of a threat than it is there. But it was not a simple decision for me to leave Israel and come here.

Jacobson: Did you ever face any resistance from traditional men to what you do, essentially as a woman leader?

Rebbetzin Kohn: I don’t think it’s a problem in any way today. Maybe 60-70 years ago when it was new, but women were leaders in the community even before. Maybe not in terms of teaching and educating, but they were always leaders of many organizations that helped in the community, like helping the sick or the poor, or helping people to get married or in any way or fashion, women were leaders but in a different area.

Today they are leaders in education as well.

Jacobson: I do find sometimes that men are intimidated by that, not necessarily for any good reason. Now I’m sure you hear this as well: Women go into certain synagogues and they feel uncomfortable. They don’t feel that they’re treated equally, whether it’s an issue of an aliyah, which means a traditional way of calling someone up to the Torah, or some other things.

First of all, it’s very encouraging to hear, Rebbetzin Kohn, that you teach. That in itself makes you a role model and shows that you are at the forefront of the single greatest crisis which is the spiritual crisis, the educational crisis, knowledge of why we’re here on this earth. This is not exclusively men, in many ways I’m sure women can contribute in some ways even greater than men, but at least equal, this is really a joint effort.

So women have these experiences of going into the synagogue or Jewish life in general, where they do feel condescension, of not being treated quite the same way as men. I hope that tide turns, and the more success you have the more that will change.

But what do you tell someone who goes into a synagogue like that and says, “I can’t have an aliyah,” and gives a list of questions that you usually hear: “I can’t put on tefillin,” or “at some synagogues they lock me up behind a mechitzah,” (which is a partition like in the back or locked up some people call it in a cage). I don’t want to put you on the spot—there are so many questions and it’s hard to answer every one in detail—but how do you respond to that, particularly of course when the issue here is not an academic one, but an emotional one.

Rebbetzin Kohn: Well, first I would generalize the question to go beyond the synagogue. All experiences that women have when they feel that women in Judaism are treated as secondary are real and need to be explained.

I once had a student who knocked on my door at 10:00 at night with red eyes. She just happened to read something and it seemed to her that it was very discriminating against women. I opened the door and she told me, “Mrs. Kohn, let me tell you. If I would have been a man, I would have had no problem with Judaism. Being a woman, I don’t think I can make it.”

So obviously I hear a lot about all those issues, and the reason I take it beyond the synagogue is that we have to first understand something before we go into the topic itself.  I’d like to tell a story that I heard once from Rebbetzin Heller from Israel. She once said in a lecture the following analogy: Somebody was on a train and next to him was sitting a person by the aisle, and a huge suitcase was next to him in a way that was really an obstacle for people to go by. One person went by and almost fell down and then another person. So the person next to him told him, “Please move it a little bit so people can pass by.” But he didn’t respond.

Once, twice, three times, and the person really got angry. He said, “Listen, you see what’s going on. If you’re not going to take the suitcase away, I’m going to throw it out the window.”

Anyhow, another person came and he also stumbled over it, so the neighbor picked up the suitcase and put it halfway out of the window hoping that now he’d move it. No response. So he really meant business and he threw it totally out the window.

And he looked at him and he’s still totally indifferent so he said, “Now you also don’t say anything?” And the man replied, “No, because it’s not mine.”

She gave this analogy to explain that many times women judge Judaism and the place of the woman in it based on what makes a woman important in the secular world: fame, money, equal salaries to man, and so on, positions that they can have.

And even though those are important issues (I’m not minimizing the fact that if a man and a woman work in the same positions, they should get the same salary) but this has nothing to do with judging the place of a woman in Judaism, because what Judaism is all about is spiritual growth, bringing G-dliness into this world, the connection to G-d.

And if they want to check if men and women are equal in this, we have to ask, do they have an equal opportunity to be close to G-d? And they do. Because the highest level of connection to G-d is prophecy, and there have been both men and women prophets in our history.

So if this is so, why is it that when we go into a shul, many times we feel secondary?

We have to understand that the synagogue in Judaism is not really the heart and soul of Judaism. It’s an obligation for a man to pray three times a day in a group of ten men. It’s an obligation for a woman to pray every day, but she can do it individually between herself and G-d.

There are reasons for it that are beyond our scope of discussion. We cannot discuss it in five minutes, but there are reasons for it. Judaism, in other parts of the synagogue, in other parts of Judaism is really what Judaism is all about. It’s the place where all Jewish activities are taking place, and besides going to the synagogue, there are very few obligations. So when a woman comes with this perception to Judaism, and sees that in the synagogue she’s not treated exactly the same as the man, to her it means that she’s secondary in Judaism.

But if we remember that praying in the synagogue is a very small detail in the Jewish experience of a woman, it will take on a different perspective. Even more than this, a few hundred years ago, there were no women’s sections altogether. It’s a new phenomenon which is to be encouraged, because with changes in the women’s place in history in general and in society in general, they need it today. Being that it is okay according to Torah to be there, why not? And I definitely agree that a women’s section in a synagogue should be respectful and she should feel comfortable there. I think this is changing in many synagogues already and will change more in the future.

If you walk into a synagogue where you don’t feel comfortable, try to create a connection with the people. Maybe through this you’ll feel better, and if not, just change to another synagogue where you do feel comfortable and where the women’s section gives you a really good feel.

Jacobson: The problem is that some people don’t have anywhere else to turn for their religious needs so they go to their local synagogue. I know that when Yom Kippur comes, many people who are not necessarily members go to the closest synagogue they see and just walk into it. Sometimes it’s not even a synagogue. But they may think it is.

Obviously it’s an issue, I assume, of creating that awareness because your point is very well taken. What is the center of spiritual, religious life? But what do you tell someone who did walk into such a synagogue? If you are going to tell them, you should know that this is not the center. So where should they go?

Rebbetzin Kohn: To a place of study. And there are places of study today all over the country. If you are in a place that doesn’t offer learning, there is learning over the web, there are tapes, phone numbers that you can call for a class which cost only one local call, there are partners in learning over the phone, and many, many other opportunities of learning that use modern technology if you don’t have real learning in your area.

If you need information about learning in your area and what is available, you can call us at the Jewish Renaissance Center. We are in touch with many different organizations that teach all around the country, and if you call 212-580-9666 we’ll be very glad to direct you to a learning place in your area.

Anyone can call from any background. We know about more advanced classes and beginner classes.

Jacobson: What do you do when men call? Do you treat them equally?

Rebbetzin Kohn: We try!

Jacobson: Listen, I have to represent the underappreciated male. So that’s great to hear. As a matter of fact, I’ll be referring plenty of people to you.

What would you say about the actual concept of an aliyah? Should I assume that you answered that question because an aliyah is just an extension of the synagogue?

Rebbetzin Kohn: Right. And what I would say is as follows: As I said before, the obligation of prayer is also put upon a woman. With men it’s only the form of prayer that is the different for them, and it goes together with the role as it is perceived for a woman and a man.

There are two aspects of spiritual growth. There is the person’s spiritual growth. Every human being needs to materialize his potential spiritually to the utmost, and grow constantly in his life as long as he is alive.

There is also the aspect of the community or the Jewish nation as a whole and its relationship to G-d. Both are important for every human being, meaning, every Jew has to grow personally and also interact with society, with the community, with the nation, and with mankind at large.

But being that not everybody can be in charge of everything at the same time, we’ll accomplish more if we divide responsibilities between a team, so men are more responsible to the communal, national aspect, while women are more responsible for the personal development of themselves, people around them, whether it’s their own family or people in the community.

Being that this is the case, there will be some differences in the performances of mitzvos, commandments, between men and women. And in prayer it will express itself as well. While a woman is obligated to pray individually in front of G-d, men are obligated to pray three times a day in a form of ten, what constitutes a community.

But obviously, men should approach G-d personally as well, and women, whenever they desire, or if it gives them a better connection to G-d, should obviously go to the synagogue as well and pray in this fashion too.

But everything that has to do with the communal service, according to Jewish law, is given to men. Now I know that women sometimes feel really bad about the fact that they don’t go up to the Torah and read from it. They are going very sincerely in order to have a spiritual experience and feel deprived by not having it.

Let me tell you, a woman might have many, many other spiritual experiences that men don’t experience, or other things that are mainly for women, like giving birth to a child. Nursing a child is definitely not just a physical experience; it’s definitely an experience on a spiritual level that can change a person’s life. You really stand in front of G-d at that moment and see His wonders first hand.

Man cannot have this, so obviously we are a team. It’s not a matter of being better or being less, but everyone is responsible for his area and we are all together. We refer to ourselves as one body. It’s not two sides, where one is on one side of the table and one is on the other side and we try to get the best for ourselves.

We are working together, harmoniously, hopefully, on a job. And we are very happy that we have our own assignment that we are doing, and somebody else takes responsibility for something else, as long as the job is working well and we interact with each other and make sure that we communicate and that we do the job as a whole properly.

This is also true of the Jewish nation, not just of men and women. We have kings, we have Kohanim (priests), we have the Levites, we have the regular Jewish people, each of whom has a different role. Everyone is responsible for his own role, and together we accomplish our mission.

Jacobson: I think a big issue is that once roles have become distorted in a society, and it’s become already a second and third and fourth generation, not just for Jews, but religious, spiritual values in general, and who does what and what does it mean to have a relationship with G-d. I guess once it becomes distorted, it becomes so difficult to sort it out. How do we get it back?

Some people say, maybe we shouldn’t get it back. Maybe we should just start some new order, like creating a philosophy based on an illness instead of seeing it as a symptom.

It’s just frustrating because as I hear you speak, and I relate obviously coming from an education that teaches what you’re saying, at the same time, the frustration is, how do you capture that in a short show like this?

There may be people who are listening to this show for the first time. They may never have heard anything like this. I think it comes down to, if anything, to try just to shake somebody up that there may be a different way of seeing things from the perspective that most of us are accustomed to. Because that’s what growth is ultimately all about, that there is some opening.

Rebbetzin Kohn: Right. I would also suggest, maybe, not to go by the stereotype, but to check for yourself. And it doesn’t have to be just through education, which is obviously the best route, but just to meet Jewish women who are lawyers, doctors, teachers, bankers, in any profession, who are definitely successful in their jobs, who are totally involved in American life, and at the same time lead a Torah way of life in the traditional way.

When you speak to them, they’ll tell you that the real meaning of life, as important as their job is, is not their job but their role as a Jewish woman in Jewish society. And I think just seeing it is an opening and a way to maybe see it in a different light and have the desire and the stimulation to learn it on a different level.

Jacobson: What I’d like to do now is to open up the phones and invite the listeners to call in and ask Rebbetzin Kohn a question, whether it’s a topic that we’ve touched upon or something we haven’t touched upon, or some particular challenge that you may have, particularly if you’re a woman. The number here is 212-244-1050.

We have Leslie on the line.

Caller (a male caller): I always thought the Jewish woman was higher up on the ladder than the male, and I really don’t see the argument of aliyahs other than once a month a woman is impure. I don’t know who’s making the argument and why they feel it’s so important. Is it the Conservative or the Reform Movement that’s making that argument? I know it can’t be Chabad or Ultra-Orthodox. Can you please explain that to me?

Jacobson: You’re asking why people have a problem…

Caller: With a woman not being called up to the Torah for an aliyah.

Jacobson: It’s hard for me to answer that Leslie because I don’t have a problem with that. We need to get someone else on the phone who does have a problem. The Rebbetzin explained it quite well and so it’s hard, we’re all on the same team here.

I think, Leslie, to be honest, the reason people have a problem is due to a misconception. The fact is, if you know nothing about the issue at hand, you come to a stadium, for instance, you walk in and one person is honored and one person is not, and you have no idea why, then of course you can be offended. The same with Judaism: If you have no idea what Judaism is, as Mrs. Kohn pointed out very clearly, then of course you’d be offended that some people get an aliyah and some do not. How come I’m never invited to come up to make a blessing, or whatever it is. So I think it’s a result of a misconception, and it shouldn’t be judged, because a person who asks that question sincerely—there are many who do—it may be out of ignorance, and it may be out of limited experience.

We’re not trying to address malicious people, someone who has some other agenda. And the answer to that, as Mrs. Kohn said, if I could sum it up, is that we have to have a better understanding of what Judaism is and what the synagogue is. Yet, of course, if you’re invited to the White House and you’re not honored like a Senator is honored, you wouldn’t be offended because you’d know that that’s a Senator’s position and you’re a guest in that type of situation.

The comparison is not exact, but the point is you have to have perspective when you come to a place like that. That’s the issue. So thank you for the call.

Today, every generation has its unique challenges and everything is Divine providence. I’d like to believe, and I think any thinking Jewish person likes to believe, that even sometimes things that seem like negatives turn out to be challenges for the positive.

In a way, the fact that there’s a call to women today to assume that type of leadership position you described, the need for education on all levels, is ultimately a blessing we have to believe, because although 50-60-100 years ago it may not have been necessary, today it is an absolute necessity.

How would you define the unique challenges of our time, and how can the woman take not just a passive, but really an active leadership role once they do of course get some education?

We live in a global village. Twelve generations ago in Yerushalayim, they knew about their little shtetl. I’m sure my grandparents had their little place. Today we live in an environment where both women and men can have influence on countless people due to technology, communications, people know about things. Information flows freely. So my question is, how would you define (I don’t want to lock it to one challenge—I’m sure we have many challenges) a way that women in particular can play a role in shaping the future?

Rebbetzin Kohn: I think that even though the feminist movement has had some very positive achievements, like opening up positions for women, giving equality in terms of salary and other things as well, I think there is one thing that did not change, and this is that women are still perceived as an object, being other than a human being with a personality, etc.

I think maybe that’s the calling today of Jewish women, because as much as we are out there and can get to the highest level in terms of career, still, when a car has to be sold, a woman is placed next to it in the advertisement as if that’s the selling point.

And we still have sexual harassment and all the other issues as we had before, and maybe even more, because there is more access on some level.

I think if there is a place were the woman is appreciated for who she is, for her personality, for her essence, for her attributes and not just for being an object, it is in Judaism. I think that’s the contribution that we can make with education through discussions with people that we know. Each discussion with any friend or co-worker is an opportunity and your personality comes across. I think that if there is dignity to women, it is in Judaism because one thing is for sure, by the way Jewish women dress, even if it sometimes looks old fashioned, we emphasize what is revealed, not what is covered, and what is revealed in a woman is the face, the reflection of her soul, of her intelligence, of her personality. We make sure in Judaism to give the woman the place that she deserves as a builder of the nation and I think this message could be transmitted to the rest of society through Jewish women today.

That’s why it’s essential that women study about Jewish role models. Our first foremother, Sarah, was already a teacher to tens of thousands of people. When Abraham and Sarah came to the land of Israel, they came with tens of thousands of people and they taught them about monotheism and changed their way of life, and we still feel that contribution until today. We all can do it, each one in her way in her society in her environment in one way or another.

Jacobson: Okay, let’s go to the phones again.

Caller: Hi. My struggle for women in Judaism is my perception that it’s disempowering in terms of marriage—that they are acquired, and in terms of divorce, that their power in getting divorced in Jewish marriage…

Rebbetzin Kohn: It definitely is a topic that needs to be discussed. It’s perhaps one of the most painful issues, the issue of women who are locked into a marriage. Their husband does not want, for whatever reason, to give her a divorce, sometimes just because he’s not a good person, and he’s definitely taking advantage, and they cannot go ahead with their lives because they depend on him to give a divorce.

Now, first we have to say that the same way that the woman cannot go ahead with her life if her husband does not divorce her, today, a man can also not go ahead with his life; it depends on the agreement of his wife to receive the get, the divorce.

But yes, you are right, there is a difference in Jewish law between men and women.

Let me explain a little bit that the problem we have today is not on the same scale as it was in the past. In the past, a woman was unable to remarry usually when her husband disappeared, sometimes in a war or in any tragic way and there were no witnesses. So being that she could not get a divorce, and she did not have any evidence that her husband was not alive, she could not remarry. It was obviously a very rare situation but it did happen.

Today we have big numbers of women who are married and who cannot receive a divorce, and their husbands definitely take advantage, either from money or some way to take revenge that they will not give a divorce.

We have to understand why is it so, why it is so common today, or so much more common today than it was in the past. We have to understand that the Jewish community today is not what it was in the past. In the past, the community had the authority, sometimes even given to them by the non-Jewish authorities. The Jewish community was a close-knit community, and when a person did not want to do what he was supposed to do, there were ways to bring him to it without force.

The problem according to Jewish law is that the divorce cannot be forced. It has to be dealt with very delicately until the husband does want to give the divorce. Communities today are not communities. We live among many Jewish people but it’s not one community with one authority that has the ability to enforce things that have to be enforced and it’s a sad situation.

But we have to understand that much of it came because of our own choice; not necessarily the choice of the women who are suffering, but we went through different changes some of which were chosen by us because we wanted more freedom and we have the consequences, meaning, the fact that there is not enough structure in the Jewish community is the choice of the people who make the community and that’s unfortunate.

Now, coming back to the woman. We can say that that’s what the Torah says and that’s the law. Obviously, the solution is not by changing the law because that’s not in our hands; it’s G-d’s law. We have to understand only that if we live according to Torah will there be more emphasis on educating people not to do something that is wrong. Maybe that’s the way to work on it. Especially we women as mothers, we have the education of the next generation in our hands, and I think it should start at a very young age that no matter what you have against a person, it does not allow you to do something that will hurt.  You have to teach that you don’t have to have a connection to the person if you don’t want. You can get divorced. But you cannot take revenge or treat a person in such a way.

Now why is it that the Torah did it in this way? Maybe one way to look at it is as follows. Torah does tell us that marriage is not a trap,  meaning, under certain circumstances, when it’s not working, when you tried, tried hard, and it doesn’t work, you should go out of the marriage and you don’t have to be locked into it.

On the other hand, when a way out is given, it’s also important to make sure that it won’t be taken lightly or that people won’t try hard enough. So by making sure that one person can give the way out and the other person cannot, maybe the Torah wanted to tell us that at least one of the two people in the marriage should be more concentrated on keeping the marriage. Yet, even with this being the case, there is still an option to get out.

Jacobson: Well, the last call was definitely a great call and I think it’s an important question. I just want to qualify that in a show like this, it’s hard to exhaust such a topic. I’d like to see this show as a stepping stone, leading to further dialogue either through the Renaissance Center or, if somebody wants to write to us, I’ll give you some numbers as well.

If a topic is brought up here, I’d like to see it turn into a larger dialogue, because you have to remember, Jewish thought is 4,000 years of scholarship. Literally hundreds of books have been written on just these and related topics, and there are many explanations, addressed on many levels particularly on this issue of who acquires whom in a marriage and the rights of divorce and who can get out of it. And ultimately, in a way, the question is addressed to G-d.

Would G-d, who created human beings in a fair and equal manner, create inequality where one person has power over another with the potential to abuse another? The question could also be asked about parents who can hurt their children. That’s a fact. Children are vulnerable naturally. Why would G-d put children in a situation where the parents can abuse their children?

So when you take it from a Torah perspective, one really has to understand and go deeper into the mind of G-d, so to speak, to understand how G-d’s system works. And I find that these questions are very important, because the controversial questions force us to dig deeper. And as the Mishnah says, if you dig deeper you’ll find the answers; and you’ll find deeper understanding of the dynamics and the psychology of men and women. As Rebbetzin Kohn said, to tamper with the law itself because we may not fully understand it is like tampering with the DNA of the universe.

There are many things that scientists once thought were so logical and they played around with it and it actually created a lot of damage. I think this is a great opportunity to really understand what is the dynamic of a man, what is a woman, and why would G-d make it that way that a man, so to speak, acquires a woman? Why can a man initiate more in particular areas of marriage, and of course there are other areas where women initiate, and I think just to round it out, this is really an opportunity for more discussion on the topic and by no means should anyone think that we’ve closed the issue. There will be much more said on this.

Let me just take a small break to reidentify who we are. This is Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. I’m here talking to Rebbetzin Leah Kohn from the Jewish Renaissance Center. You can call us here live at the studio at 212-244-1050 or you can send an email either on the topic of this show or any show to or visit our website at and I would really love to hear from any listener who has some issues or questions to address on the topics that we’ve discussed.

The Jewish Renaissance Center, which focuses on Jewish education for women, makes available an extensive array of classes. You can call them at 212-580-9666 and I should also mention that if any of you are looking to have a true woman Torah experience, as a leader in our generation, in being part of shaping the future in a very profound way, the Jewish Renaissance Center is having its third international Jewish women’s conference this coming Sunday, May 21st, at the New York Bar Association and you can get more information for that at 212-580-9666.

Let’s go to Sarah on the air.

Caller: Hello. Mrs. Kohn, I want to tell you that I totally disagree with your position. I do not attend a synagogue even though I’m an educated Jew. I left the synagogue because I’ve always found it a demeaning experience. I can give you many examples but there isn’t enough time for that obviously on the phone. But I’ll tell you briefly I’ve been to synagogues where women sat so far away from men they could not even hear the cantor, so that the women among whom I sat began to chat among themselves and the men would shush them. It was very annoying.

I’ve been to a Rosh Hashanah service where I sat behind a dirty curtain, I don’t even want to call it a mechitzah, and I saw one woman, a very pious woman, placing a romance novel on top of her machzor and reading it, because we couldn’t hear what was going on. And there too the men said shh! because the women chatted.

I don’t see why a woman who is Jewishly educated, who knows Hebrew, cannot have an aliyah, whereas a man, who has to read the berachot from a card with the English transliteration, because he’s so abysmally ignorant gets an aliyah and a woman doesn’t.

These are just two or three examples that I’ve given you. That is why I don’t attend service and I would love to but I don’t know where to go and many women feel the same way I do.

Jacobson: Sarah, thank you for the call.

Rebbetzin Kohn: I would love to try to help you to find a synagogue that would give you a very positive, wonderful experience. I’ve been in synagogues like this too and I can relate to what you’re saying, but I’ve been in others as well that gave me a great experience. I invite you please to call me at 212-589-9666 and after you tell me where you live, I would try to direct you to places that I’m sure will change your feeling about it.

The aliyah has nothing to do with Jewish knowledge. Men can really not know Hebrew and still get an aliyah. It has to do with responsibilities that the Torah divided between men and women. It’s the idea of a team effort and it has nothing to do with qualifications or connection to G-d or importance in Judaism. Please do call me tomorrow or any other day and I will give you some addresses so that you can have a very positive experience.

Jacobson: So we have Sam on the air.

Caller: I would like to make a comment on the aliyahs. Not only do I feel that women are classified according to obligations, I’m a man and I’m Jewish and I can if I want to feel like a third-class citizen. You know why? Because I never, ever can be called in the first place to the Torah. I have to be the third one. Because I’m not a Kohen and I’m not a Levi, and I’m a peshutah (simple) Yid, Yisroel. I can never go up to the bima to bless the congregation because I’m not a Kohen. So we have it not only in the world of women, we have it in the world of men also. There are differentiations in the whole world. Why can women not accept it? And that is my comment.

I believe it should be emphasized. It was touched a little bit but the differentiations are all over. Thank you very much.

Jacobson: Thank you Sam. I couldn’t agree more. I’m sure the Rebbetzin agrees as well.

Rebbetzin Kohn: Yes, but I still can relate to the negative experiences that women have and I think they have to be addressed. They come from a painful place and there are explanations that need to be given and more has to be understood.

Jacobson: But clearly Sam, there’s no question that on a philosophical level, diversity is what makes life beautiful, and unity doesn’t always mean everything is the same. Beauty means that there’s diversity, but there’s harmony within that diversity, which has been the eloquent message of Rebbetzin Kohn throughout the show, which is that in the relationship with G-d, everyone has his or her particular path.

There are many areas where we’re similar, but there are many areas where we’re unique, and to compromise that uniqueness would be to undermine who you are as an essential human being, whether it’s a man or a woman.

We have a few more minutes. So many questions come to mind and one thing leads to the next. But I’d like to first thank the sponsors of this show, Ivan Stux and James Garfinkel and James and Anne Altucher and some of the others who make this show possible. It’s made possible only by grants and your donations so I encourage anyone who finds this show interesting and wants to have future such programming to please call us at the Meaningful Life Center at 1-800-3MEANING (1-800-363-2646). We offer classes for men and women, and I welcome anyone wanting to attend every Wednesday night at 346 W. 89th St., corner of Riverside Drive in Manhattan at 8pm.

I would definitely encourage the women listening to this show or if you have friends, to join or participate in some way in the Jewish Renaissance Center headed by Rebbetzin Leah Kohn. You’ve heard her live on the show so you know what kind of sensitivity she has that would welcome any person from any background, whether a skeptic or a seeker, whether you’re a believer, whether you’re questioning or you have no questions, you are definitely welcome at the Jewish Renaissance Center.

We have time for one more call. We have Ronnie on the air.

Caller: My question is that we have been recently hearing a lot that there’s some Reform Rabbis who are approving gay marriages. I want you to comment on that.

Jacobson: Actually Ronnie last week I dedicated an entire show on that and that was the Reform movement’s approval or endorsement of gay unions. I addressed it somewhat last week and the truth is, there’s really not enough time to address it here. I could just say this. That the Torah, if you want to see it as a Divine blueprint for life, is basically as if somebody would tamper with your computer: you buy a computer and you come home with the computer manual. The manual tells you how to operate your computer. The Torah tells one how to live one’s life. And whether someone calls themselves a Rabbi, or a layman, we cannot tamper with that Divine manual or that blueprint.

More discussion on that would really require more time and I would really welcome you to call or leave your number here with us and I’ll call you back or email us at

As we wind down, Rebbetzin Kohn, would you like to say anything to the women or men listening? You know, we live in difficult times but at the same time we have radio to communicate.

Rebbetzin Kohn: I think it’s a very interesting observation. On one hand we are bombarded with information. We have computers, we have email, we have the Internet, and we are bombarded with information. We know a lot today and we have access to unbelievable amounts of knowledge. Women and men are really educated today and can go as far as they want with their education. On the other hand, when it comes to Judaism, many times all that we had the opportunity to have was an education on a child’s level. Most of us, when we come to the age of bar or bas mitzvah, that’s the end of our Jewish education and it will be really a pity, that we have a limited education in what is essential in life.

I really encourage you—it’s fascinating—to delve into the wisdom of almost 4,000 years of Jewish wisdom. It addresses every aspect of life, including being a woman and acting as a woman in modern life, as interesting as it is. Even though it’s an ancient Torah, it does address all the modern issues, and I would encourage anybody and everybody to seek Jewish knowledge. And as I said before, I would be very happy to connect you to places of Jewish learning wherever you are.

Jacobson: Thank you very much Rebbetzin Leah Kohn. This has been Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson.


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Ritu Banerjee
7 years ago

Thank You so much.
It’s really helpful.

6 years ago

what are the exact roles of women in judhaism

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