I’ll never forget how I felt the day my gender studies teacher made the claim that there are absolutely no differences between men and women. I looked around, shocked at the proposition, and wondering if anyone else felt the same.

For most of the semester, we had it pounded into our heads that all distinctions between those of different races, geographical locations or habitats were really meaningless, and that it was merely society that tried to push that there were actual differences.

Why were women born with a womb, and men were not?

Perhaps she was right, we all thought. Maybe we had really just bought into society’s definitions and desire to separate. Perhaps it was racist to claim that, generally speaking, black men were taller than Asian men. And sexist to feel that men were physically stronger than women.

But then, one day, when I could resist no longer, I had to ask a question. If we were really the same—I mean, practically the exact same—then why were women born with a womb and the ability to carry and bear a child, and men were not? And if the physical differences were so clearly undeniable and apparent, then how could it be so farfetched to assume that, perhaps, alongside these physical differences were emotional or psychological or spiritual differences as well?

I’m not sure that my question did much other than infuriate my professor, who couldn’t believe that I was still so ignorant as to attribute anything more to physical differences than physicality. But for me, that question was a turning point in my life. If I had abilities and capabilities that the male sex did not, then I found it imperative to discover the power of those parts of me, why I was endowed with them and what they meant. While my professor’s idea of a powerful woman was one who could hardly be distinguished from a man, I wanted to celebrate the differences inherent in the sexes, rather than diminish them. And not only did I want to unravel the mysteries of what it meant to be a woman, but even more importantly, what it meant to be a Jewish woman.

And so my journey began . . .

What does it mean to be a Jewish woman? What does it mean to be a woman in Judaism? I began my search with the first woman in the Torah. That woman’s name is Chavah in Hebrew, translated as “Eve” in English. Chavah is referred to as “the mother of all life.” We are told that she was created—after the creation of the first man, Adam—on the sixth day of creation, immediately preceding Shabbat. And woman was created, we are taught, with the purpose of being an eizer kenegdo, which can be translated in one of two ways—either “a helpmate to him” or “a helpmate against him.”

The commentaries explain that in a relationship, there are times when one is most helpful by being supportive and alongside one’s spouse, and there are times when the help that is needed requires going against the desires and position of one’s spouse. The goal is to know when each action is appropriate.

It would appear, then, that a woman was created for the sole purpose of helping a man. One may ask: “Is being a Jewish woman defined solely in terms of her relationship with another?” And, practically speaking, how would this be accomplished? The obvious responses would be: through being married and having children.

What does it mean to be a Jewish woman? What does it mean to be a woman in Judaism?

Yet we find something fascinating. In halachah (Torah law), a woman is obligated to do neither. She has no legal requirement whatsoever. But the man does. He is required to both marry and have children. It is pretty clear that he can’t do this without a woman to be his wife and the mother of his children, but she is in no way obligated to do so. The only way he can fulfill his responsibilities, then, is if a woman would be willing to help him and fill these roles.

According to the Torah, and specifically Chassidic and Kabbalistic philosophy, human beings were created in two categories, as men and women. Yet when characteristics are defined, they most commonly refer to masculine and feminine traits, as opposed to statements about men and women. Why is this significant? Because both men and women have masculine and feminine traits. Generally speaking, a man is predominantly masculine, and a woman predominantly feminine. Generally speaking. There are always exceptions, and this is why not every woman will naturally desire what is considered a feminine property, nor a man a masculine property.

The differences between the masculine and feminine are great. They are vast. And these differences affect the way men and women think, feel, speak and act. The differences are psychological, emotional, physical, spiritual and intellectual. And, while we may be a combination of both these masculine and feminine traits, at the end of the day we are either a man or a woman. And our differences are not meant to cause distance between us, but to bring us closer together, to balance one another and bond as they become points of celebration, not separation.

The greatest difference between a man and woman—or, more appropriately, between the masculine and the feminine—can be seen in the first two of the intellectual qualities of a human being. Chassidic philosophy teaches that there are three intellectual properties alongside seven emotional properties. The first of the properties is that of chochmah, translated loosely as “wisdom,” which is a male principle.

Chochmah is compared to a flash of insight. Physically speaking, it is compared to the seed of a man. It is the beginning of all life, the foundation. Without it, nothing will ever be able to come into existence. And yet, like seed, it is invisible to the naked eye. It has no shape, no form, no meaning. Not yet. It has potential, incredible potential, but it cannot develop or grow or form by itself.

The next property, that of binah, is the feminine property. Binah, loosely translated as “understanding,” is the desire to attach to the wisdom and give it meaning. Binah is the formation process, the bonding, the development. In a physical example, binah is the pregnancy. It literally houses the seed, and then, as the seed is within it, causes it to grow, develop and form, until it is ready to be born and exist on its own.

Both men and women have masculine and feminine traits

The word in Hebrew for home, bayit, is a yud between the letters that form the word bat, daughter. The concept is that the yud, the smallest of all the Hebrew letters, represents the seed (we are even taught that it looks like a drop of seed in its shape) and yet it is housed within the bat, the daughter. This is why there is an additional statement which says, “Beito zu ishto,”, a man’s home is his wife. It is not that his house is his wife or that his wife represents the house, but that his literal home is housed within his wife, on a spiritual and emotional level. A woman need not be in the home. A woman is the home.

It is the binah quality that desires to receive the potential of the seed and cultivate it into something tangible and meaningful. While it is not compelled to do so, it wants to do so. It is a situation where each is dependent on the other to create a reality. The seed cannot become anything in and of itself. Likewise, without the seed, binah cannot create anything, for it has not been given the potentials with which to work.

Spiritually, a woman also has the masculine property of chochmah, just like a man has the feminine property of binah. In actuality, or on the most physical of realms, a woman cannot produce seed, and a man cannot house or give birth to a baby. But, while the physical is in many ways the lowest and most external of all levels, it is nonetheless the world in which we live, and the most tangible to us. The physical creation of a baby is the most profound and everlasting representation of the love and the bond between a man and a woman. This child is the culmination of the chochmah of the man and the binah of the woman. It is the best of both worlds, and is the representation of the future, the actuality of the potential of its mother and its father.

Physically, the reproductive organs of a woman are internal, whereas that of a man are external. This ability to internalize and to develop within is, once again, understood as something much more than merely physical. One of the clearest indications of this is the difference between the halachic (legal) obligations of men and women.

For the most part, a man is required to observe all timebound mitzvot, and his commandments are also greatly external and physical as well. For example, a man is required to wear tzitzit, the fringed garment that represents the 613 commandments through its strings and their knots. Furthermore, while it began as a custom, a man wears a kippah, a headcovering, to remind him always that G‑d is above. And another primary example is that a man prays three times a day in a quorum of ten others. All of these are very physical, very external commandments. In essence, all of these mean that there are others who can testify or be witness to whether or not a man is fulfilling his obligations.

A woman’s commandments, however, are private and internal. In almost every case, they are done within the home; in some cases, no one other than she is aware as to whether or not she is doing them. One example of this is keeping a kosher kitchen in the home. The woman is trusted by her husband, family, and those who eat in her home. Even if one were to look through her products to check if they all have a kosher symbol, no one other than she is aware as to how she cooks, and if she is properly keeping the standards of kashrut. Ultimately, her word must be trusted.

A woman’s commandments are private and internal

Perhaps the most powerful example of this is in regards to the laws of family purity (see Acts of Transformation: Mikvah for more material related to this), which involves the times that a couple is not allowed to be physically intimate or physical in any way. This separation begins from the moment a woman sees the flow of uterine blood and verbally informs her husband of this. This is a situation where not even her husband is aware of this reality, and must completely depend on her word. These laws, which are considered the foundation of the marriage, the children and the home, are completely placed in her trust. Her word creates a new reality, and only she and her Creator know if what she is saying is the truth.

Therefore, unlike the masculine, which is the side of our self that is external, which can be viewed by others and is not private, the feminine is the polar opposite—completely internal, involving no one else and entrusted to the individual alone.

Because the masculine properties are external and seen by others, the man is in greater need of rectification. Unlike a woman, he is not given that same time and opportunity for reflection, internalization and contemplation. This is the feminine process of binah, the bein, “between,” of what is in one’s mind and what emerges through one’s action. This is the stage of pregnancy, the in-between of conception and birth. And this is the time for development and rectification.

For this reason, we are taught that just as the woman needs the man for conception, so the man needs the woman for the pregnancy, the development. This is not merely a physical reality, but a spiritual one as well.

This is why it is stated that a role model of a woman is one who osah retzon ba’alah—a Hebrew phrase that has a few different layers of translation. The first is: “she does the will of her husband.” But in Hebrew, the verb osah can be translated either as “to do” or “to make.” Thus, the phrase can also be understood that the woman is the one who “makes (i.e., determines) the will of her husband.” But neither of these possibilities are terribly healthy in a relationship. If one partner is required to do the will of the other, with no choice involved, then that isn’t a relationship; it is a dictatorship. Likewise, if one makes the will of the other, it similarly implies that there is no sense of communication or balance between the two, since one is deciding for the other. The main difference between these two is merely who is the one commanding the other—whether it is the man to the woman or the woman to the man—both of which are problematic.

This brings us back full circle to the beginning of our discussion, the meaning of eizer kenegdo. Is a woman a helpmate for him, or opposite him? When we translate osah as “to do” or “to make,” she is opposite him.

Chassidic teachings explain a very beautiful meaning of this saying. The foremost Talmudic commentator, Rashi, shows that the term osah, when used in the Torah, has another meaning, and that is “to rectify.” Rectification is actually the balance, the in-between, the binah of what it means “to do” and what it means “to make.” The true meaning of this expression, then, is that when a woman is using her potential in the proper way, she is able to connect to her spouse and help rectify him. Through her ability to develop, she can take his ideas, his talents, his potential, and internalize them, becoming impregnated with them, until they are ready to be birthed in a public, external way. And this is how she is a proper eizer kenegdo, a helpmate to him.

Is it true that a woman is defined in terms of her relationship with a man?

And this brings us back to one of the first points that was raised: is woman defined in terms of her relationship with a man? And so, the answer is both yes and no. If each human being is a composite of both masculine and feminine traits, then within each and every one of us we must come to understand how these two extremely different qualities can coexist and complement one another. If our masculine side has an obligation to “marry” and “bear children,” even though our feminine side does not, we recognize that the two must work together.

This teaches us that the true way that we define ourselves, and come to understand and reveal our potential, is through the focus on the other. Sometimes this is an “other” within ourselves; sometimes it is the “other” outside of ourselves. For every woman, single or married, with children or without children, is able to bear fruit, is able to be an eizer kenegdo. How is this accomplished? When we use our G‑d-given talents to create, to be creative, through whatever means we can—through our art, our writing, our poetry, our song, our dance, our words—this is fulfilling the commandment of “to be fruitful and multiply”; this is creating and bringing more light into this world.

When we are in a marriage, when we are able to physically bond with another, this is our opportunity to fulfill this law, the first law given in the Torah, in a physical way. But it is not fulfilled only when we give birth to children, for unfortunately, not every woman is physically able to. But in the Zohar we are taught than whenever a husband and wife are lovingly intimate, souls are created. Sometimes those souls come into a physical body, other times they remain spiritual, but they are created.

And every time we create, a process of giving and receiving must take place. One part of us must be able to let go, to release, to give to another; and one part must be able to make oneself open, to receive, to accept and nurture what has been given.

When our concern is not about what we are obligated to do, but on how we can help another fulfill his or her obligations, this is when we shine forth and reveal our true power. But we must begin by looking within, by understanding ourselves, our strengths and our weaknesses, and helping ourselves both from within and from those around us.

And when we acknowledge that we are able to both give and receive, and that both are very active roles, then we can rejoice in the qualities and attributes that are uniquely ours as women, and start celebrating who we are, while bonding and building, rather than competing, with who we are not.