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Are Women Second-Class Citizens in Traditional Judaism?

Are Women Second-Class Citizens in Traditional Judaism?

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Question:

How can you seriously, honestly claim that Orthodox Judaism has any respect for women, and that they have the right view of them and seek true justice on their behalf?

Why can women not love G‑d but have self-respect, and free participation in our religion at the same time? Why can’t we be what He intended, and not what man wants to reduce us to? Why can religious women not see that it is simply religious manipulation on the part of men that keeps them content as second-class citizens within a third-world mentality?

Answer:

You sound upset and angry. You feel strongly that you want a connection to G‑d, but don’t see it in “religion” due to the supposed mistreatment of women.

I have much to say on the subject, and I really wish you could access a copy of my latest book, Tending the Garden, which addresses the role of women in Judaism and might just surprise you with some stereotype-breaking descriptions.

But I digress.

Let me tell you what I see when I look at free, Western society. I see women prancing in front of men as if they are pieces of flesh to grab on to. I see women leading unhappy lives in a career climb that doesn’t satisfy their natural instincts of being a woman. I see women stuck in miserable marriages with men who take them for granted, and who often leave them for a younger “chick,” or cheat on them. I see one out of two marriages ending in divorce, if not more, and who knows how many other unhappy ones. I see women who seem to have attained “freedom” and “emancipation,” but come home from a long day at the office to still do 90 percent of the housework. I see women in this free society who hit the glass ceiling far too often because they are women, and I see that those who succeed often have to drop every iota of their femininity in their climb up. I see women who are free to wear whatever clothes that they choose, yet parade around wearing as little as they can to get whatever recognition from the opposite gender. I see pregnant teens. I see teens who’ve lost their innocence before they could even understand what having any kind of relationship is all about.

And all this, I see in our “free” society. A society that supposedly recognizes women and treats them with some degree of respect.

My point is—what appears as freedom, isn’t always so. What appears as “women’s rights” can also lead women to the most degrading, self-humiliating behavior lacking any self-respect.

Unlike the Torah that you describe, the Torah that I know takes a balanced approach, bringing out the true essence of every individual, while respecting the uniqueness of both genders and setting parameters so that this boundary is not violated.

I wish that just for a short while you would be a part of a chassidic, Lubavitch community. I think you would be surprised with, for the most part, the degree of respect the women are given. You would hear the men speak about the greatness of their women. You would hear the Rebbe’s words quoted about the higher spiritual source and level of women, about the strength of Jewish women, about the vital contribution of the Jewish woman. But most of all, you would see husbands and wives working in partnership, looking at each other with respect, each doing their own part to bring more G‑dliness into this world.

Words are cheap. I just wish you could witness this lifestyle with your own eyes.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of five popular books.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Anonymous World Citizen April 13, 2017

It is said that G_d answers the prayers of a single woman whereas it takes nine men to get an answer to a prayer. Does this not show that in many ways the man is inferior to a woman? If a woman can get an answer to a prayer a lot quicker than a man, then why do men believe women must 'humble' themselves before men? If women are second class to men, why does G_d answer a woman's prayer so quickly? Reply

Anonymous BEULAH March 14, 2017

To Elaine and steven you suggest, that fanilies not have the right to pass on their faith, and that their faith is so restrictive their children never have the ability to know or want otherwise.
how foolish. Reply

Stephen February 26, 2017

Brava, Elaine Exactly, it is interpretation. How do we distinguish Halakhah from Minhag? The debate is noting new. Are you a follower of the school of Shammai or Hillel? Does, when you rise up and when you lie down have to do with your physical position or does it mean twice a day? Interpretation. Reply

Elaine February 25, 2017

To Annonymous You are quite right, if women want to choose a certain avenue they can, my objection is, when young girls are not given the freedom of choice, be it to find their own paths, or to wear a pair of jeans, or become an athlete or engineer. Not due to their religion, but due to those who've interpreted their religion for them. Reply

Stephen February 24, 2017

Change Perhaps religion doesn't change for "you", the individual, but does it change to meet the needs of society as society changes? Do you believe that we exist for the benefit of religion or does religion exist for the benefit of us? Do you believe that Judaism (Satmar, Lubovitch) or any other faction is practicing Judaism as it was in Temple times, or even 1000 years ago? Basic precepts haven't changed, The teachings of the Ethics of The Fathers remain (ethics and morals), however much ha changed and will continue to do so. Reply

Anonymous February 24, 2017

Dear Elaine, I think you are missing some crucial points. Religion doesn't change for you, you change for religion. The women who are subjects of that variation or following, are so because that is what they believe. It is not your right to incur a change within a belief system because of how you feel. I think that is the differentiation you are lacking, which is causing your upset. I think the same could be said of the original poster, you see, you don't have to be involved in that religion variation, you can choose another avenue to worship. They exist. To assume a whole group of women are less, because of man, must assume that they think they are less, which infers you think they are less, which is the same discrimination you claim they feel. We live in a world with over 25,000 versions of faith, and you think that your wants and needs to should change an entire gatherings. That is discrimination. It is how people have been persecuted for their faith all throughout history. Reply

Chana Weisberg January 18, 2017

Dear Elaine,
My point in this piece was to point out what I think should be obvious, namely that Western society has far to go in terms of truly respecting women and women's rights.
This article was written a long time ago, but I just reread it again to try to find where you see that I wrote women should not have careers. I am also shocked to read that you think I believe women should not learn Torah or use the many gifts and talents that G-d gave them to the fullest! Of course they should, just as men should!
Both men and women were created in the divine image and need to actualize our infinite, G-d given abilities. I believe this should be our focus too--seeing that divine image in one another. Reply

Anonymous August 8, 2017
in response to Chana Weisberg:

I see women leading unhappy lives in a career climb that doesn’t satisfy their natural instincts of being a woman.

This right here supports the posters opinion. If it's chosen to be interpreted (sp) that way.

I'll say this that was told to me by a woman I took care of " Know your value and develop your g-d given talents. Don't for one moment give countenance to any man or anyone for that matter who dismisses any of it just because you're a woman. Never forget you're g-d built and you are beautiful in our makers eyes."

Remembering this helps when doubts or sadness come into mind.

Thank you Reply

Elaine January 11, 2017

Such nonsense 1: You state you don't like to see women prancing around etc. But the point is, a woman or man should be free to prance about if they wish.
2: You state that a career is unnatural but a woman should spent most of her adult life looking after children and being pregnant, no better than a breeding machine.an animal or servant. So if we go down your route, the hospitals would have hardly any nurses, the schools much fewer teachers, and women would never reach their full potential in this world.
This is such nonsense, we are equal human beings and no one has the right to try and put the other in some sort of bondage telling them what they can and can't do. G-d gave me a brain, why shouldn't women study Torah, kiss the scrolls and use the gifts that G-d gave them to the full, be it in science, the arts or even theological/Judaic studies? It's no different from the Amish and others who have put G-d in a box, and kept it locked. Reply

stephen November 20, 2016

Not equal? No, the spiritual world isn't equal, or egalitarian. Really? I'm looking in Torah for that, but have not found it. We shall never agree and that is OK. To me, Judaism is alive and the constant of all that lives, is change. The Judaism of The Temple is not the same as 1000 years ago, nor 500 years ago, nor today. Reply

Sarah Masha W Bloomfiled, MI USA via baischabad.com November 18, 2016

Stephen, A lot of your questions are answered in the previous comments (notably, my comments.)

Secondly, remember that equal does not have to mean identical. If I want to give 5 pieces of fruit to 2 people, does it matter if I give apples to Jane and oranges to John? Unless we are talking severe imbalances (5 grapes?) no.

Now I will say something odd sounding: Imagine that prayer, and public prayer is not something we want to do occasionally. It is an obligation, and not one we always look forward to. And we have to do it Every. Single. Day. Rain, heat, cold, icy streets, men go to shul.

Women pray, often in private.When they pray on their own it causes the spiritual things to happen that a man can do only with 9 other men. No, the spiritual world isn't equal, or egalitarian.

The western world in particular is hung up on what we do in public, instead of what is really of value. Sad to say but many of the people who want to make men and women identical in shul forget to pray in private. Reply

steve (yes, a man) San Diego, CA November 18, 2016

Bravo! Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for Chabad.org November 13, 2016

Re: Women as equals It might be helpful to note that the author of this article is a woman, and a highly intelligent and educated one. So while you and I, as men, can feel that there may be some form of discrimination, I will leave it to the women themselves--particularly those well versed in this subject--to make that call. Reply

Stephen Spiegel Houston November 3, 2016

Women as equals I do not question the degree of respect given to wives by husbands within the framework of a chassidic, Lubavitch community. Respect is not the correct word as it doesn't answer the question of equality, in ritual. Therefore, my question(s) relate to why women cannot participate equally in prayer. I understand that the belief has been that if a man is sitting next to a woman his sexual drive will prohibit him from proper concentration on his prayers and on G-d. I find that to be foolish. Where, exactly is it written? With that in mind, where is it written that women may not read Torah? Not wear Tallit? Not don tefillin? Again, the age old oversexed belief that a woman's voice singing is sexually arousing? It seems that orthodoxy does have high regard and respect for women and very little for men. We are thought to be so over sexed and without control that we must be kept separated. Reply

myrna solganick middleton February 28, 2016

Thank you, Rabbi Adler. Reply

Rabbi Ethan Adler RI February 26, 2016

Equality for Women Re: comment by Judith Katz
"Men have a more difficult time by-passing their survival/sexual/ego type drives than women do." Do we really want to paint people with such broad strokes??? There are plenty of men who are upstanding, kind, non-sexual/ego types who are family men, teachers, friends, community members who are models of Tzelem Elohim. Also, your statement that "The smart kid doesn't need to sit in the front of the class" begs the question - is the smart child 'absolutely prohibited' from sitting in the front, should he choose to do so? And what about the smart girl who wants to be seated in the front?
It is time we come to understand that in the eyes of Hashem we are equal. However, in the eyes of Orhtodox men, well, not so much!
Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn February 25, 2016

Judith Katz i couldn't agree with you more Reply

Anonymous ny February 23, 2016

Sarah Masha WB MI USA you are right. on both accounts

i meant to write "...voluntarily participating, are spectators &..."

please don't read to much into my analogy, i only meant it as an example which in hindsite i admit was a poor example choice. i do hope that it will (flawed as it is) help readers understand the point im going for.

but as you said we are getting off track. Reply

Judith Katz February 23, 2016

Dear Rabbi Adler-In my experience, and it seems in the experience of many, past and present, men have a more difficult time by-passing their survival/sexual/ego type drives than women do. I think its part of the chemical-biological make-up of a male, and this affects society as a whole. Judaism is a way of life that tries to find a balance between the demands of material life and cultivating a sensitivity toward holiness. Women are given biological gifts that men do not have and so have certain advantage. They don't need to sit in the front, for same reason that the smart kid doesn't need to sit in the front of the class. Reply

Sarah Masha WB MI USA via baischabad.com February 22, 2016

George You used an interesting term "participating spectators." You then go on to compare them to being fans on the bleachers at an event. There is a big difference between the two. The fan on the bleachers has no intention of participating, she is only there to watch. A participating spectator is participating.

At this point the conversation seems to be all about shul and public prayer. Nobody is talking about private prayer, or other aspects of Judaism. Perhaps men should push to light candles, or take responsibility for the kashrut of the home.

Women are not men, and men are not women. Each needs to refine themselves with the tasks that will do the job. Neither is better, just different. Reply

Rabbi Ethan Adler RI February 19, 2016

Who decided that men are "required" to p[ray, while women are "voluntary" participants??? Men, of course! Reply