Women in Judaism and the Bible

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Orthodox couple on Shabbat in Jerusalem
Jews have traditionally regarded women as inherently inferior. Only men have traditionally been allowed to study the Torah. According to traditional Jewish thought, a woman’s responsibility is to maintain a Jewish home, an important element of Jewish life, and raise children in a traditional way. The Bible says women are property of men. Some Jewish women are supposed to cut their hair short so as no man will find them attractive.

The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria said, “The harmonious coming together of man and woman and their consummation is figuratively a house. And everything which is without a woman is imperfect and homeless.” For Orthodox Jewish women having children is critical to identity. “Not having children is unheard of,” a New York psychiatrist who deals with many Orthodox families told Newsweek. “The continuity of the covenant is bedrock. Couples that have trouble conceiving enthusiastically try every reproductive technology open to them.”

There is a Hebrew legend inspired by the purported existence of dual accounts of the creation of the first woman which have led some to conclude that Adam had a partner before his union to Eve. Eliezer Segal of the University of Calgary wrote: Adam's original mate was the demonic Lilith who had been fashioned, just like her male counterpart, from the dust of the earth. Lilith insisted from the outset on equal treatment, a fact which caused constant friction between the couple. Eventually the frustrated Lilith used her magical powers to fly away from her spouse. At Adam's urging, God dispatched three angels to negotiate her return. When these angels made threats against Lilith's demonic descendants, she countered that she would prey eternally upon newborn human babies, who could be saved only by invoking the protection of the three angels. In the end Lilith stood her ground and never returned to her husband.

The story implies that when Eve was afterwards fashioned out of Adam's rib (symbolic of her subjection to him), this was to serve as an antidote to Lilith's short-lived attempt at egalitarianism. Here, declare the feminists matronizingly, we have a clear statement of the Rabbinic Attitude Towards Women! There is only one slight problem with this theory: The story of Lilith is not actually found in any authentic Rabbinic tradition. Although it is repeatedly cited as a "Rabbinic legend" or a "midrash," it is not recorded in any ancient Jewish text! The tale of Lilith originates in a medieval work called "the Alphabet of Ben-Sira," a work whose relationship to the conventional streams of Judaism is, to say the least, problematic.

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library jewishvirtuallibrary.org/index ; Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; torah.org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; BBC - Religion: Judaism bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica, britannica.com/topic/Judaism; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research yivoinstitute.org ; Jewish Museum London jewishmuseum.org.uk ; Jewish History: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Aish.com aish.com ; Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish History.org jewishhistory.org

Low Status of Women in Judaism

Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: In consonance with biblical and rabbinical views, Orthodox Judaism is unambiguously patriarchal. Women not only are strictly separated from men in the synagogue and houses of study but also occupy a lower position in the religious life of the community. They are not counted in the minyan, or quorum, required for communal prayer, nor do they take an active part in the worship service, such as reading from the Torah or serving as a cantor and leading the congregation in prayer. Reform and Reconstructionist, and to a lesser extent Conservative, Judaism have adopted gender-inclusive positions, removing barriers to the full participation of women in religious life. [Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all have rules and ideologies constructed by men to keep women down. In Judaism the birth of a boy is celebrated with a ritual circumcision while the birth of a girl is recorded with a simple blessing during a synagogue service. Boys undergo a coming of age ritual (Bar Mitzvah), girls traditionally have not. Every day men thank God in the liturgy that he did not make them women while women simply thank God that they were created according to his will.

The stereotypical Jewish mother is overprotective, overbearing and overly involved in her children’s lives. She have been a a central figure in jokes, Yiddish theater and Woody Allen films.

Women in the Old Testament and the Bible

Women are definitely given a short shift in the Bible. Of the 3,000 individuals named in the Old and New Testament fewer than 10 percent of them are women. In the Hebrew Bible, of the 1,400 people given names only 115 are women and several book mention no women at all.

In the first account of Creation, God created men and women at the same time: “So God created man in his own image...male and female created he them” [Genesis 1:27]. The story of Eve, the forbidden fruit and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden appears late in Chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis. Genesis 3:16 has been described as the "curse of Eve" passage: "To the woman he said, 'I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.'" The association of the serpent with the devil is a concept was not implicit in the original story. The notion of "original sin" was first suggested by St. Augustine in the A.D. 5th century.

The story of Dinah is a shocking tale of a woman who is raped, forced to marry the rapist and then widowed thanks to her brothers’ murderous rage to protect her honor. After that her father scolds the brothers for ruining their reputations. Through it all Dinah is silent.

Other women that are presented in a positive way include Rahab, a prostitute who helps deliver Jericho into Israelite hands; Miriam, Moses' sister, who sings the victory song after the parting of the Red Sea and defied a the pharaoh to rescue her brother from a death decree; Judith, who killed the enemy general Holoferes and brought back his head in a bag; and the prophet Deborah, who led her people against the Canaanites. Although Deborah is featured prominently in the Old Testament she is largely absent from the Torah.

Moses’ sister Miriam is referred to as a prophet. Some feminist have suggested that male-dominated “the party of Moses” suppressed stories of her prophetic acts. In the 1st century Jewish writers created prophecies for Miriam because they didn’t want holes in their sacred texts.

Bad Rap Women Get in the Old Testament and the Bible

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Ruth and Naomi
The few women that are there are usually depicted in negative terms. Eve's perceived sexual curiosity in the Garden of Eden is regarded as the source of original sin. Samson loses his strength because Delilah tricks him into cutting off his hair (she was offered 1,100 pieces of silver for betraying the secret of Samson's strength). One the lessons he learned from Samson and Delilah, David Plotz wrote in “The Good Book”; “1. Women are deceptive and heartless” and “2. Men are too stupid and sex-crazed to realize this.”

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: The problem isn’t just that the women of the Bible are largely presented as temptresses, whores, and chattel; it is that they are also depicted as liars. The biblical seductress Delilah embodies this understanding of women when she leads astray and emasculates the heroic Samson. Delilah is both a whore, as she is paid by the Philistines to discover the secret of Samson’s power, and a liar, as she pretends to care for Samson in order to extract his secret and render him impotent. The upshot of the story, which is entrenched in ancient near eastern mythology in general, in that beautiful women cannot be believed, especially when it comes to the bedroom. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, November 26, 2017]

In another, often overlooked passage from the Bible, the daughters of Lot seduce their own father. After surviving the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and realizing that they now have no possibility of marriage and offspring, Lot’s unnamed virgin daughters get their father drunk and become pregnant by him. In the modern world this is rape, in the biblical one it is coded as seduction. If the women are evaluated negatively here it is not for sexual assault it is for deceit and seduction: they misled him. (Side bar: it seems only fair to note that several chapters before this Lot was eager to turn his daughters over to an angry mob to be gang raped to protect the angels he was keeping in his house).

In the biblical chronology this idea goes all the way back to the first humans: in the Garden of Eden, after being expressly told not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Eve is persuaded by the serpent to take the fruit and offer it to Adam. She does and the rest, as they say, is primordial history. Eve does not actually lie to Adam just as the serpent is not actually the Devil in the story. But the idea of women as a deceptive and dangerous somehow sticks. Connecting the nature of women to the Garden of Eden and Satan, the thirteenth century theologian and saint Albertus Magnus argues, “What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. One must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil.”

Part of the problem is that the texts that make up the Bible do not treat women as autonomous human beings. Several years ago world-renowned paleographer Christopher Rollston wrote an article about the marginalization of women in the Bible for the HuffPost. In his article Rollston pointed to numerous instances in which women are treated as, at best, second class citizens; for example, the daughters of prominent biblical heroes (Noah, Lot, etc) often go unnamed. In the Ten Commandments he notes that “The wife is classified as her husband’s property, and she’s listed with the slaves and work animals.” While there are stories in which the rape of a woman leads her relatives to avenge her through war, the legal texts insist that the consequences of rape are marrying one’s victim and paying a fine to her father.

Creation of Woman and the Serpent

Genesis read: 2:21 And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; 2:22 And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. 2:23 And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. 2:24 Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. 2:25 And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed. [Source: King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org]

Genesis 3:1 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? 3:2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: 3:3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

3:4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: 3:5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. 3:6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

Sarah and Hagar

Hagar and Ishmael in the Wilderness
Sarah was the wife of Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam who is said to have lived around 1800 B.C.. When Abraham was 99, God changed his name from Abram to Abraham and announced,Sarah was Abraham's wife. Sarah was originally names Sarai. She received her name Sarah from God. When Abraham was 99, God announced, “I will also give you from her [Sarah] a son.” Upon hearing this “Abraham flung himself on his face and he laughed, saying to himself, “To a hundred-year-old will a child be born, will ninety-year-old Sarah give birth?”

After many years Sarah still had not bore Abraham any children despite repeated promises by God that he would be the father of a great nation and have many descendants. Worried that she would never have a child, Sarah encouraged Abraham to have a relationship with Sarah's Egyptian slave Hagar. When Abraham was 86, Hagar gave birth to a son, Ishmael.

Reverend John Bell, a minister of the Church of Scotland, wrote for the BBC: “The relationship that Abraham has with Sarah is very interesting, she's a bit of an odd puss, she can be quite nippy, particularly in her relationship with Abraham's concubine Hagar. She also does a great thing in giving God a name that has not been mentioned before - God's been seen as a creator and she gives God the name Laughter Maker because when her child is born she calls him Isaac which means 'he laughs'. She says 'I'll call him Isaac because God has made laughter for me.' [Source: BBC]


The Story of Ruth is a fable of how good things will happen to those who have faith and devotion. An ancestor of David, Ruth was a widow who showed great devotion to her mother-in-law and was rewarded by God with a second marriage and lots of children.

The Story of Ruth takes place during a time of famine that kills Ruth’s husband and the husband of her sister Orpah. Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi decides to return to her hometown of Bethlehem. Ruth begs to go with her but Naomi tells her to stay behind.

In a famous speech Ruth says: “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go: and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will be buried.”

One day in Bethlehem Ruth goes to work in the fields. There she is noticed by Boaz, a member of her husband’s tribe. Her devotion to her mother-in-law impresses him and he orders his reapers to drop grain from their bundles for her. Boaz later marries her. They have a son Obed. He becomes the father of Jesse, the father of David.

Story of Esther

Ruth and Boaz
The story of Esther — the basis of the holiday Purim — takes place in Shishan, the winter capital of Persia. Esther was a beautiful Jewish woman who lived there with her uncle Mordechai, who had adopted her. The leader of Persia was Emperor Akshashversus (also known by the Greek name Xerxes). After dismissing his wife Vashto because she refused to follow his orders, the emperor selected Esther as a new wife. She had been a member of his harem. Akshashversus didn't know she was Jewish. Shortly after she became queen, she warned the emperor of a plot to kill him after being told of the plot by Morechai. Akshashversus was grateful.

Haman, one of the king's favorite ministers and a fanatical anti-Semite, became enraged when Mordecai refused to bow to him and decided to vent his anger on all the Jewish people in Persia. He asked for and received permission from Akshashversus to exterminate the Jews on the false charge of treason.

Esther and the Triumph of Mordecai Mordechai pleaded with Esther to plead with Akshashversus for help but she could only communicate with the emperor if he called her. If she called him she risked being put to death. After fasting for three days she appeared in the inner court. There Akshashversus asked her what she wanted. She said she wanted to invite the emperor to a banquet. He agreed. That night he couldn't sleep and asked that book of records be read to him. From the records he learned that it was Mordechai who uncovered the assassination plot and saved his life. At the banquet, Esther pleaded with the emperor to spare the Jews.


Grace after Meals, as they Pertain to Jewish Women

Elka Klein wrote: “This text has three layers: a short legal statement found in the Mishnah (2nd century, Palestine), an exerpt of the discussion of the Mishnah found the Bablylonian Talmud (3rd-7th centuries, Babylonia), and the commentary of the Tosafists (12th-13th century, France and Germany). It is of interest for the method which the Tosafists use, but also for what it tells us about contemporary perceptions of the relative level of education of men and women. [Source: The Status of Jewish Women, from Berakhot, chap. 7 translated by Elka Klein elka@yossi.com, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]

Mishnah 1: Three who ate together are obligated to invite one another [to say grace after meals] . . . Women, slaves and minors are not included in the invitation [zimun].

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Sign regarding the segregation
of sex on buses in Israel
BT Berakhot 45b: Come and hear: women by themselves or slaves by themselves invite one another [to say grace], but women, slaves and minors may not invite one another, even if they wish to. Now a hundred women are no better than two men [in that neither constitutes a quorum for zimun and yet [we already mentioned the teaching that] women by themselves or slaves by themselves invite one another: [is this not a contradiction?]. No, this is different, for each [woman] has a mind of her own.

Tosafot, ibid, s.v. "No, this is different:" From here, we learn that women join to form a zimun by themselves. The daughters of Rabeinu Avraham, the son in law of Rabeinu Yehuda did so in accordance with the teaching of their father. However, in general, this is not the practice. It is difficult to understand why it is not done, since from the statment "invite one another [=form a zimun]" we understand that they are obligated to form a zimun. (The tosafot continues by bringing an opinion that the statement in the Gemara reflected permission rather than an obligation to form a zimun, despite a passage in the first chapter of tractate Arakhin (3a) which might suggest the opposite. The text continues with a subsidiary question:)

“Further investigation is needed to determine whether women's obligation is fulfilled [yotzot] by the zimun of men [1], since they do not understand [the words of Grace]. There are those who offer as a proof that their obligation is fulfilled from what it says below, "if a scholar makes the blessing, an ignoramus has his obligation fulfilled;" from this is appears that even the obligation of women for grace is fulfilled. As for our own [women] however, it is possible to rebut that proof, since there is a difference between an ignoramus, who understands Hebrew and some of what is said [in Grace but just does not know how to say Grace himself], but as for women, who do not understand at all, it could be said that they are not satisfied. . . . (The text concludes with another tangential matter, leaving the question of women's status hanging). [1] Note the implication that they do have an obligation of some sort.

Jewish Segregation of the Sexes

Women are restricted and segregated in Judaism according to Jewish law and the traditional “division of roles.” Women have traditionally been segregated from men in synagogues during prayers by partitions and prevented from reading the Torah aloud at the Western Wall (which men can do). Orthodox rabbis have ruled that its inappropriate for women to wear skullcaps and prayer shawls and sing during worship or even pray aloud. Their voices are considered to be “provocative and rude.”

According the Talmud the segregation of the sexes is based on a precedent established at the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, where most religious duties were carried out by men and women were regarded as a distraction. Unlike men, women are not obligated to attend daily prayers and their presence, except among Reformed Jews, does not count toward a “minyan” (congregation)

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Rules and Women

Haredi girls
Women are treated by ultra-Orthodox Jews almost the same way women are treated by Muslim extremists. They are excluded from religious and non-religious activities, and required to remain sequestered inside the home and cover themselves when the go outside. The primary duty is raising children.

In the Ultra-Orthodox world women can not become rabbis, serve as witnesses in rabbinical courts, nor obtain a religious divorce without permission from their husbands. There is no Hebrew word for a female rabbi because Orthodox Jews insist there is no such thing.

Ultra-Orthodox believe it is unclean for men to come in contact with women when they are having their period. In some ultra-Orthodox societies menstruating women are not allowed to leave their room or touch anyone or anything lest they make it unclean. For their entire period the women stay in their rooms. Food and drink are brought to them in specials dishes on special trays. Before their period they are required to take a ritual premenstrual bath.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Encyclopedia.com, Library of Congress, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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