Gender & Feminism 101
In the last thirty years, debates about the role of women in religious life have raged across the Jewish denominations. Influenced by trends in secular feminism, Jewish women have sought out ritual and leadership opportunities formerly restricted to them. And even as more traditional communities grapple with the marginalization of women in an unprecedented way, the history of female exclusion in Judaism continues to linger.
The Bible is a compilation of numerous books written over several centuries, and thus cannot be said to present a single view of women. Women are sometimes presented as men's equals--as in the first creation story in Genesis--and other times as secondary in status--as in the laws which place women under the authjority of their husbands and fathers.
The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash were more explicit in their discussions about women and their status in Judaism. Rabbinic sources describe women as foolish, licentious, and light-minded, but also compassionate and intelligent. Judith Hauptman has shown how the rabbis self-consciously tempered biblical laws to improve conditions for women.
In the Middle Ages, women's lives continued to be scripted by Jewish law, but the general cultural setting of Jewish communities also had significant impact on the way women were viewed. In Muslim lands, women tended to be more sheltered than in Christian areas. However, there are suggestions that in certain cases, Jewish communities in the Islamic world were more accommodating. For example, documents from the Cairo Geniza--a storeroom of Hebrew texts--show that the right of a woman to instigate divorce--established in the Talmud--was upheld, whereas certain European rabbis tried to restrict this right.