Overview: Women in Traditional Jewish Sources

The diversity of the Bible‘s depictions of women begins in its opening chapters. In Genesis, the creation of humanity is described in two different narratives. In the first, man and woman are created together from the dust of the earth. In the second, Adam is created first, and Eve is a secondary creation, molded from Adam’s rib in order to provide him with companionship.

In biblical law, women were subordinate to either father or husband. Though, as a general rule, women did not have property rights, a woman with no brothers could inherit her father’s land–a rule established after the daughters of Zelophehad successfully petitioned Moses (Numbers 27).

traditinal jewish women

Attitudes toward women changed over the biblical period. According to Carol Meyers, women and their traditional roles were valued less once the monarchy was established, religious life was shifted to the Temple cult, and Israelite society was no longer centered on agriculture and the home.

Nonetheless, the Bible depicts many strong female characters. The prophet Deborah was the foremost religious leader of her time, and figures such as Hannah, Ruth, and Esther play pivotal roles in the biblical narrative.

Rabbinic literature contains more explicit opinions about women. It is said that women are greedy, lazy, and jealous, but also more compassionate and more naturally intelligent than men. Women are associated with witchcraft, and said to be foolish and dishonest, but a man without a wife is said to be without joy and blessing. The ancient rabbis taught that a woman’s body and voice were indecent, but also that a man should respect his wife more than himself.

woman in the subIn rabbinic law, women have fewer religious responsibilities than men. As a general rule, they are exempt from positive time-bound commandments, such as fixed prayer at particular times of the day. According to scholar Judith Hauptman, this ruling also reflects female subordination. If a woman were compelled to fulfill time-bound commandments, this, “would lessen her husband’s dominance over her because she would have to cease temporarily from serving him, and instead serve God.”

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