While the rabbis of the Talmud–consistent with the times in which they lived–prescribed limited roles for women in religious and communal life, rabbinic law and attitudes, more often than not, granted women higher status, greater freedom, and more expansive legal rights than other ancients societies.
Excerpted and reprinted with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from
The Encyclopedia of Judaism
, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.
Women as Other
Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 62a expresses the basic rabbinic conviction that “women are a separate people.”
Despite the egalitarian vision of human creation found in the first chapter of Genesis, in which both male and female appear to share equally in the divine image, Rabbinic tradition is far more comfortable with the view of Genesis 2:4ff., that women are a secondary conception, unalterably other from men and at a further remove from the divine.
This certainty of woman’s ancillary place in the scheme of things permeates rabbinic thinking, and the male sages who produced rabbinic literature accordingly apportioned separate spheres and separate responsibilities to women and men, making every effort to confine women and their activities to the private realms of the family and its particular concerns.
Women in the Public Sphere
These obligations included economic activities that would benefit the household, so that undertaking business transactions with other private individuals was an expected part of a woman’s domestic role. Women also participated in the economic life of the marketplace, worked in a number of productive enterprises, trades, and crafts, brought claims to the courtroom, met in gatherings with other women, and attended social events.
But whatever women did in public, they did as private individuals. Not only by custom but as a result of detailed legislation, women were excluded from significant participation in most of rabbinic society’s communal and power‑conferring public activities. Since these endeavors had mostly to do with participation in religious service, communal study of religious texts, and the execution of judgments under Jewish law, women were simultaneously isolated from access to public authority and power and from the communal spiritual and intellectual sustenance available to men. […]