By Countess Rivka Elkaim
MyLife Essay Contest 2017
Are Women Equal to Men?—A Chassidic View
Quite often, people are curious to know the Orthodox Jewish view on the equality of the genders, especially the Chassidic view. This essay will attempt to shed some light on this matter. We will discover together why this concept, which is often thought of as a controversy between liberal and authentic Judaism, is actually not at all like the common misconception. We will first explore what the Torah says about women, as well as cite examples of righteous women extolled in the Torah, Neviim, and Kesuvim. Then, we will learn about the variation on Halachic obligations between men and women, and the misconception it caused among those not versed in Torah. Later, we will learn the Chassidic view on women and their roles, and finally, we will explore some of what our Rebbe said with regard to the women of our generation.
Women in the Torah
When Hashem (G-d) created the first human, He created both male and female in His image, as it is written1, “And G-d created man in His image; in the image of G-d He created him; male and female He created them.” This is a clear Biblical proof that from the outset, male and female were both equally created in the image of G-d, just as varying images, representing different aspects of the Divine Image. This notion—equal but different—has always been the authentic Jewish view on gender equality.
Later, in the Torah, we see numerous examples of righteous women on a higher spiritual level than the men who were their contemporaries, most notably, when Hashem tells Avraham to listen to his wife Sarah2, Yehuda who recognized his daughter-in-law Tamar was more righteous than him3, Tziporah who circumcised her son after her husband Moshe Rabbeinu had not done it4, and Miriam who convinced her father, the Tzadik HaDor (leader of the generation) to change his mind with regard to having more children, and which resulted in Moshe Rabbeinu’s birth, enabling the redemption of all the Jews in Egypt. This clearly shows that women are not only respected and their opinions valued, but the Torah does not shun from recognizing when women are on a higher spiritual level than men. In addition, during the giving of the Torah, women were addressed first and more softly than the men, and they did not participate in the making of the Golden Calf, but were the first to contribute to the Mishkan.
Women in Neviim and Kesuvim
In Neviim too, we have many examples of righteous and special women; the Prophetess Devorah who guided Barak into battle to save the Jews from the, Yael who killed the wicked general Sisera all by herself, and many other examples. In the Kesuvim, we see how Esther was the key to save the Jews from annihilation during the rule of Achashverosh in Persia and Media. Her mesirus nefech (self-sacrifice) is explained in detail, especially given the fact that she risked her life although she herself was not threatened by the decree, as no one knew of her Jewish origins.
Women in Halacha
In order to understand the root of the misconception regarding gender equality, we have to learn about the different obligations of men and women in Halacha. Women are not obligated in time-bound mitzvos, except a few, but they are obligated in all the prohibitive mitzvos. Women are not obligated in the mitzvah of Torah study, which means that unlike men, they do not have the obligation to study Torah at every moment of free time. This is not to say that women may be idle, but their priority should be taking care of their family and out of understanding that these demands take time, the Torah does not impose upon them the mitzvah of Torah study. However, women are obligated to learn all of the laws of the mitzvos they are obligated in, which is such a vast amount of knowledge that even a man would be considered a scholar if he were proficient in all the laws women are required to learn. Women are also obligated just as men in learning Chassidus, as it helps acquire faith, love, and fear of Hashem, constant mitzvos in which women are just as obligated as men.
Of course, women may fulfill mitzvos that they are not obligated in and consequently women say Brochos on Torah learning, and it has become the custom for them to listen to the Shofar, say a blessing on the Lulav, and many other mitzvos in which they are not technically obligated. When a woman learns Torah not to know the laws incumbent upon her but just to learn, similar to a man, for example Talmud, she receives schar (reward), but not as much as a man, as the reward for an obligation is always greater than something done out of one’s free will. This is why Avraham Avinu waited for his Bris Mila (circumcision) until Hashem told him to perform it, although he kept the Torah even if Hashem had not instructed him to. Unlike the other mitzvos, as he could only perform the Bris Mila once in his life, he waited for the obligation and its consequently greater value to Hashem.
Liberal Judaism does not recognize the value of many mitzvos, and then again, often as just a tradition rather than a G-dly obligation. However, they are quick to point out the mitzvos in which men are obligated but not women as pseudo-proofs that women are considered second-class citizens in the Orthodox world.
We will briefly explain some major points of the controversy as well as the simple reasons why religious women do not take part in these mitzvos.
Minyan and Alyios
Although women are obligated to pray (which prayers exactly they are obligated to say on a daily basis is a subject of disagreement amongst poskim, but all agree that women are obligated to pray daily), women are not obligated in the mitzvah of minyan, and thus may not be counted as part of a minyan. In addition to appearing similar to going in the way of those who do not keep Torah and Mitzvos, which in itself is an issue, a women-only minyan would be going against the spirit of women who nurturers, not conquerors, and prayer is a time of battle, In addition, many Brochos (blessings) would be said in vain as there is no obligation to say them, such as the Brochos on the repetition of the Amida and the Torah reading, which would be a grave prohibition.
Halacha requires that Tefillin be worn only in circumstances of complete purity, physical and spiritual. In addition, the wearer must not divert his attention from the Tefillin for even an instant. In bygone eras, many men used to learn Torah with the Tefillin, and wear them through a large part of the day. In later generations, as the spiritual level of people declined, the custom has become for men to only wear them during prayer, as they are obligated to wear Tefillin every weekday. For the same reason, women, who are not obligated to wear Tefillin, do not wear them. However, it is known that in the olden days, a number of righteous women did wear Tefillin, most notably Michal, Shaul HaMelech’s daughter and Dovid HaMelech’s wife, as well as Rashi’s daughters.
Semicha (rabbinical ordination) originally was given in an ubroken chain since Moshe Rabbeinu. After the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash, this chain was unfortunately broken and thus no semicha today has the same Halachic validity. Nevertheless, as the accumulation of Torah knowledge is principally the man’s obligation, as well as for reasons of tzniyus (modesty), as a being a rabbi is a very public role, while a woman’s primary focus should be on her home and family, and men would most probably unwittingly end up gazing at her while she is teaching them which would be a serious breach of the laws of tzniyus. Similarly, for tzniyus reasons, women and men may not daven or learn Torah together without a proper mechitza (separation), nor may they mingle in social settings. For this reason too, women were not accepted as witnesses in many cases, and certainly not because they were deemed to be intellectually inferior. Women were in fact able to testify in certain cases where women were needed to testify due to the nature of the case, and are of course trusted and believed with regard to many issues involving them, such as the laws of niddah, kashrus, etc.
Women in Chassidus
Kabbalah teaches that men have more Chochma (wisdom) and women a greater measure of Bina (understanding). Chochma is described as the original flash of insight, whereas Bina is its development into an idea that will eventually be concretized in Daas (Knowledge). Similarly, men are compared to the middos (emotions) of Zeir Anpin (Z”A) whereas women are likened to Malchus, which does not have light of its own but reflects the light of Z”A.
In Hashem’s Name Yud-Kay-Vov-Kay, the Yud represents Chochma, the flash of wisdom, similar to the point that is a Yud, the first Hey represents Binah, the development of Chochma, as the letter Hey itself is a letter that has breadth and depth, Vov represents the emotions, similar to the Vov itself which is a vertical line, bringing down the intellectual concepts into the emotions, and finally the latter Hey, which represents the development of the emotions through Malchus, sovereignty. Man, ish in Hebrew, and woman, isha in Hebrew, contain a Yud and a Hey in their names, respectively, hinting to their Divine origin. When they come together in marriage, they form Hashem’s Name of Yud-Kay. It is thus quite obvious that order to complete Hashem’s Name, it is crucial that both the man and the woman have different letters and thus roles. In addition, in the Divine plan of cosmic marriage, Hashem is the Chosson (groom) and the Yidden are the Kallah (bride). As we can see from this, it would be a total deviation of the purpose of men and women as well as the missions Hashem desires for them accomplish should all of a sudden, women attempt to imitate men instead of fulfilling their unique, different but equally important mission in this world.
Men are the conquerors, and women the nurturers. Similar to the physical counterpart of this idea, that the man goes out to the fields, plants, reaps, etc., while the woman is the one who takes the wheat her husband brings home (or money in our times) and converts it into nutritious and tasty meals for her family. Similarly, men battle the not-yet-good aspects of the world head on, conquering the world on piece at a time, converting evil into good. Women on the contrary work on the world through paths of peace and feminine warmth so that the world itself becomes incapable of being a home to anything evil.
Women are more about essence, and although the father determines a child’s tribal lineage, the mother determines the baby’s religion. That the woman is more about the penimi (innermost essence) is also why women have more laws of tznius (modesty), as it says in Tehillim, “All of the King’s daughter’s glory is within.”2
Women are the primary educators, especially in a child’s formative years. Contrary to what secular society believes, a woman’s role as educator and akeres habayis (mainstay of the home) are extraordinarily lofty tasks. Chana, Shmuel HaNavi’s mother, chose staying home with him instead of going to the Beis HaMikdash in Yerushalyim, and we are told by Chazal that this was the right choice. Imagine taking care of one’s child has a more lofty and spiritual mission that seeing the greatest revelation of G-dliness on Earth! A woman is considered the High Priest of her home a mikdash me’at (miniature sanctuary), and the mundane tasks she fulfills of keeping her home neat and tidy similar to the service of the High Priest, which was most of the time very mundane and involving animals.
Consequently, it is imperative for the correct functioning of the world the accomplishment of their respective missions that men and women remain within the roles they were given by Hashem, and that women not attempt to imitate men.
The following is take from a sicha of the Rebbe and summarizes the main points brought up above.
We have seen from the above how the argument that in Orthodox circles, women are treated as second-class citizens and disrespected is totally false, and not only that but in fact women are more respected and valued than in liberal factions and in any other religion or social system because they are respected and valued for the feminine and equal roles they lead, and not forced into adopting unnatural masculine roles in order to achieve equality in society. It is the author’s sincere hope that although due to the constraints of the length of this essay, it is impossible to delve into greater depth, that the reader will come away enlightened as to the true role of a woman in Judaism and that in order to accomplish her mission as a woman, it is imperative that a woman fulfill her mitzvos and not try to imitate those of a man, which would only sabotage the fulfillment of the feminine mission with which Hashem entrusted her. The women of our generation are the reincarnations of the women at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim who were the ones to bring redemption then and will also be the ones to bring the final Redemption in our times. Therefore, it is the author’s hope and wish that all women realize and embrace with pride the great mission that they were entrusted with, and may we have the Geluah Sheleima Mamosh NOW!
- Bereishis 1:27.
- Tehillim 45:14
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