By Chaya Engel
MyLife Essay Contest 2017
Women – What’s the issue?
In search of me.
I am a woman. What is my role in Judaism? How do I express myself? What is my worth? Does Judaism really appreciate me? Questions that plague so many minds today.
Understanding the role of the woman is one that has tormented society since the beginning of time. Both in the secular world and very much so within religious circles. (1)
It is a topic that has agonized and baffled both men and women alike, and in today’s society more than ever.
The two main issues we will discuss, in regards to the role of a woman are as follows:
1) Many women question why they can’t have leading roles in the Shul, such as Rabbi or Chazan.
2) Women believe they are viewed as inferior to men because they are not required to fulfil the time bound Mitzvot that are required of men.
Many modern day organizations have been established to ‘stand up’ for women with regards to these issues and fight for ‘their rights’. (1)
Judaism holds women in the highest esteem and clearly defines their role, thereby empowering them to fulfil their responsibilities with a great sense of conviction and strength.
It is known that the way one views oneself has a profound impact on one’s emotional and physical state, as well as one’s relationships and productivity. (2)
It is therefore imperative for questions such as these to be answered; in order for a woman to feel equipped and qualified to fulfil her mission and goal in this world.
In order to address these issues we will primarily explore the sichos (talks) and letters of the Lubavitcher Rebbe as well as the Tanya – classic Chassidic work of the Alter Rebbe.
Women in society vs. Women in Judaism:
We know that the view of the world in regards to the role and value of women has seen great paradigm shifts. Women were considered “second class”, believed to have been owned by their husbands. They were denied an education, the right to vote, and not offered equal pay as men in the workplace. The modern day world sees a very different picture. Women are believed to have assumed “more equality” with men. Society has seen much change.
The contemporary perspective of Judaism was revolutionized by Chassidus and specifically by its development by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Judaism’s views of the inner beauty and power of the woman have never changed. They have only been explained and revealed by the light of Chassidus.
Chassidus Defines Men and Women: (Masculine and Feminine Energies)
Prior to exploring how Chassidus addresses the contemporary issues regarding the role of women, we must first understand the outlook Chassidus has in regards to the makeup of a man and woman. It is of paramount importance to understand that at their very core and essence men and women are distinct.
In Bereshit it tells us that G-d created the world to include both male and female species – “male and female He created them.” (3) G-d desired both male and female. He wanted that they should be two separate entities with their own unique mission, but work together to produce unmatched results. Each is as dear to Him as the other. They are both created in His image – “And G-d created man in His image.”(4)
Not only did G-d physically create men and women, but in the spiritual worlds too G-d has formed masculine and feminine energies.
Chochmah (Wisdom) is a masculine trait. It is the first flash of an idea, the seminal point which is undefined and not developed, it is just an idea. It is just a point. This corresponds to the masculinity where the man biologically provides the seminal drop.
Binah (Understanding) is a feminine quality. It is the ability to take the seminal idea and explore and develop its length and breadth in order for it to be freely understood and internalized. This corresponds to femininity where biologically the fetus grows, develops and is nourished within the mother’s womb.(5) From the fact that in the spiritual worlds there are distinct masculine and feminine energies, with different characteristics and qualities we can similarly say that physically too, male and female possess very different characteristics and roles.(6)
G-d wants male and female separate, but just as with Chochmah and Binah, they are each incomplete and lacking without the revelation and strengths of the other.
The Rebbe brings a striking analogy. He explains that man and woman are compared to a head and a heart. Both are of equal importance. Although the heart and brain in some aspects depend on each other, neither is of greater significance than the other. They each have different, yet vital functions. One cannot exist without the other. So too man and woman each have been assigned their individual and exceptionally powerful roles, but neither being more important nor more significant than the other. (7)
The Contemporary Issues: Do We Really Have Answers?
Let us now address the key issues that women have today in Judaism.
When we clearly have the role of women defined, our questions and concerns of inequality fade away.
When we understand that women have their own beautiful and unique role, we no longer question, rather we value and cherish the tremendous effect and influence a woman can have.
Issue 1: Many women question why they can’t have leading roles in the Shul, such as Rabbi or Chazan.
Chassidus explains that men manifest holiness in a revealed and down to earth way. “In all your ways you should know Him” (8) “All your deeds should be for the sake of Heaven.” (9)
Women on the other hand represent the concept of the essence and core. They don’t manifest holiness – they are holiness.
We see this clearly within the context of Halacha. Being that the man represents Judaism in an outward almost superficial manner, the details of which tribe a person belongs to goes according to the father. For example, if the father is from the tribe of Kohanim the child is a Kohain, if he is from the tribe of Levi, the child is a Levite etc.
Because the woman is responsible for the essence, with her lies the determining of whether or not a child born is Jewish. The mother creates the core. The being. The essence. Therefore, whether or not the child is Jewish depends on her. (10)
We can now understand why men are responsible to fulfil the roles in a Shul and of general leadership. The whole identity of a man is a more superficial one. (See above Chochmah). He fulfils external roles in open and public places. i.e The Shul. That is his makeup. This is who he is. It is a natural expression of him.
The woman on the other hand is busy representing the vital and fundamental role of the essence. (See above Binah). We see this in the fact that she is responsible for building a Jewish home, a haven, and in the fact that she is the one to ensure a proper and pure education for her children – the next generation.
Through the woman building a Jewish home – one that is based on Torah and its Mitzvot, and by her giving an upright and strong education to her children she actually produces the leaders! We see this idea clearly with some of the greatest women in the Torah. – Our matriarchs. Sara empowered Yitzchak to the extent that he was ready to give up his life for G-d. She saw to it that Avraham would send Yishmael, the son of Hagar, out of the house when he began acting immorally. (11) Interesting to note, when Avraham was unsure what to do with regards to Yishmael, G-d told Avraham – “Whatever Sara tells you, heed her voice.”(12) Rochel empowered Yosef to the extent that he was able to not only survive the challenges and tumultuous times in Egypt, but he actually became the viceroy of Egypt and still remained a religious Jew! (13)
When a woman builds a Jewish home she transforms the physical into spiritual. “She seeks out wool and flax, and works willingly with her hands.” (14) She changes raw materials for consumption. Thereby transforming the physical into spiritual and creating a dwelling place for G-d. She creates a mini Beit Hamikdash, a mini temple, a mini home for G-d. (15)
In addition to the above, we actually see that through the women fulfilling their role, not only do they build and strengthen themselves and the next generation, but they actually enable the men to fulfil their roles and overcome their challenges and trials!
We see this with the first woman in all humanity – Chava. It is written that when Adam told Chava that they were not allowed to eat from the tree of knowledge he added to the words of G-d. G-d had said “but of the tree of knowledge…you must not eat there of…” (16) Adam added to this on his own accord – “but we may not even touch it.” (17) This added demand was what led Chava to sin and then Adam to sin too. The snake told Chava if nothing happens when you touch the tree, nothing will happen when you eat it. (18)
G-d learnt from the episode of the tree of knowledge: At the time of the giving of the Torah G-d told Moshe, “So shall you say to the House of Jacob and tell to the sons of Israel.”(19) Chassidus questions why G-d told Moshe to go to the women first. It is explained that G-d knew, if the women would be approached first, and they would show an excitement and enjoyment in keeping Torah and Mitzvot – in their domain, – the home, this would ensure that there would not be a repeat of the sin of the tree of knowledge. Because “…and tell to the sons of Israel.” – The women would ensure that their homes are lit up with Torah and Mitzvot, thereby affecting their husbands. – Ensuring and enabling them to ride and overpower the challenges in their lives. This guaranteeing there would be no sins! When the woman is anchored, so are the men! (20) This fills a woman with an empowerment. She feels strengthened and encouraged.
Connected to the above we can understand the second most key issue:
Issue 2: Women believe they are viewed as inferior to men because they are not required to fulfil the time bound Mitzvot that are required of men. (Women are not responsible for any time bound Mitzvot) (21)
Chassidus explains that the Hebrew word for command, (Mitzvah) is related to the word “Tzavsah”, which means connection or bond. (22) By doing Mitzvot we connect and bond with G-d. (23) According to Chassidus women have an innate and natural faith in G-d. By the giving of the Torah, Moshe went to the women first. “So shall you say to the House of Jacob and tell to the sons of Israel.” (19) Chassidus explains that Moshe went to the women first because he was sure the women would accept the Torah in a way of “We will do and we will listen.” (24) (20) No questions asked. A woman’s connection to G-d is unwavering. We know that in the merit of the faith of the Jewish women the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt! It is written, “In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt.”(25) Knowing this will help with a woman’s self-esteem. She will be more positive, and have a more upbeat view, knowing that she has qualities unequaled by anyone else.
When the Jews were bringing donations of different materials for the building of the Mishkan, we see that the men followed the women. “The men came along with the women.” (26)The women were eager and ready to donate, and it was their eagerness and enthusiasm which rubbed off onto the men to join them.
Women therefore don’t need so many reminders of their connection to G-d. They are in tune with it. A man on the other hand needs to wear a Tallit, Tefillin, a Yarmulka, Tzitzit etc as reminders of his connection to G-d. In general, a man needs more ritual to safeguard his spirituality. “Tzitzit for you, and you shall see it and you shall remember all the commandments.” (27) He needs to do Mitzvot to keep him in line. We can say that a woman does not need these time bound Mitzvot to show her spirituality and connection to G-d. It is obvious, it is her being.
The Three Mitzvot Gifted Specifically to the Woman:
Chassidus explains the depth and supremacy of the three Mitzvot that are primarily given into the hands of the woman. These beautiful Mitzvot are:
1. The Mitzvah of Challah – All food is called ‘bread’, since bread is the most basic form of sustenance. Therefore the Mitzvah of Challah refers to a woman keeping a Kosher home. The Rambam explains that “You are what you eat”. (28) When a woman keeps a Kosher home she is infusing her family with just the right type of fuel for them. Giving them the physical and spiritual food they need to go out into the world and stand against the tide.
2. Lighting the Shabbat candles – The Midrash tells us that a when a woman lights Shabbat candles she brings extra light into the world. This is in order to refill the world with the light that was lost when Chava sinned in the Garden of Eden. (29) Chassidus however explains more: A woman is not just fixing a sin by lighting Shabbat candles! When a woman lights Shabbat candles she fills her home with blessings for children, health and livelihood. By lighting Shabbat candles the woman is tapping in to incredible blessings, that only she can attain! (30)
3. Keeping the Mitzvah of family purity – A marriage between a husband and wife is analogous to the marriage of G-d and the Jewish people. When a woman fulfils the most beautiful Mitzvah of family purity – separating from her husband and visiting the Mikvah, she brings peace and harmony into her home and into G-ds home – the world at large. The added stress that this Mitzvah brings on the love and closeness that is created between herself and her husband in this physical world, brings forth the revelation of the same qualities, (that of love and closeness) between G-d and the Jewish people. (28)
Let us return to the questions we initially asked. (What is my role in Judaism? How do I express myself? What is my worth? Does Judaism really appreciate me?) Let us internalize and truly appreciate the true and meaningful answer of each one.
As one answers each question to oneself, based on all the teachings of Chassidus, any negative misconceptions fall away. The role and the distinctive qualities of women are clear. One rides above all negativity and instead is overflowing with positive and creative energy to fulfil ones mission set before them.
We see that the woman’s most precious mission is to build from within. She builds and cultivates her home and those around her, slowly but surely. First affecting her husband and children, and eventually lighting up and transforming the entire world. It is time for women to recognize their true femininity and their true beauty.
It is time for women to tap into their hidden, untouched, magnificent and wonderful G-d given powers to slowly but surely brighten up and enlighten the world, transforming it from a place of darkness to light. It is time for a true feminist revolution.
The practical application is clear: When a woman recognizes, appreciates, and follows the map which was written to navigate her soul and her body, she can reach unparalleled heights. As we mentioned above not only is she not concerned with being equal to men, she is empowered to focus on her mission and how to achieve her maximum potential. The questions, the problems the difficulties fade away. Her lens shifts into full focus!
How does she achieve her utmost? By recognizing her G-d given mission and fulfilling the Mitzvot that were given to her specifically! By building her home on the foundation of Torah and its Mitvot, by educating children in the Jewish path and by fulfilling the Mitzvot of Challah, Family purity and Shabbat with enthusiasm and positivity, she bring out the finest in her husband, her children and ultimately the entire world!
Sources and Footnotes
(1) See organizations such as: Merkaz Tzedek L’nashim, Shira Chadasha, Women of the Wall, Yoetzet Halacha
(2) Carl Rogers – Self-actualizing tendency
(3) Bereishis 1:27
(4) Bereishis 1:27
(5) Tanya Perek 3
(6) Hayom Yom 29th Tishrei
(7) Letter of the Rebbe 13th Iyar 5737
(8) Mishlei 3:6
(9) Avos 2:12
(10) Lekutei Sichos Parshas Vayechi Chelek Lamed
(11) Vayeira 21: 9 – 10
(12) Vayeira 21: 12
(13) Lekutei Sichos 25th Iyar 5743
(14) Eishes Chayil
(15) Toras Menachem Parshas Mishpotim
(16) Bereishis 2: 17
(17) Medrash Raba
(18) Bereishis Rashi 2:4
(19) Parshas Yisro 19:3
(20) Sicha N’shei Ubnos Chabad 25th Iyar 5743
(21) Mishna Brochos 3:3 Talmud Kidushin
(22) Mamer Veatah Tetzaveh
(23) Igeres Hakodesh Perek 5
(24) Parshas Mishpatim 24:7
(25) Medrash Raba
(26) Parshas Vayakhel 35:22
(27) Parshas Shelach 15:39
(28) Sicha Yartzeit Rebbetzin Chana Vav Tishrei 5740
(29) Bereishis Raba
(30) Torah Menachem Parshas Bereishis