The Real Discussion: Gender Roles

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Orthodox women continue to break down ritual barriers, or at least that is what we read in the Jewish media. This past week, the media turned a story about a local school allowing girls from Conservative homes to wear tefillin into one about Orthodox women wearing tefillin. Be that as it may, we continue to discuss women and public ritual and continue to avoid the real discussion. I am as guilty as the rest. In a re-post of an old essay, I argued that tefillin is a ritual for which women have less basis to adopt than others. While true, it is to some degree beside the point.

There are two main issues: change and gender roles. Let us discuss the latter, which I think is crucial to understanding all the current debates. The traditional texts clearly discuss men and women as categories, as entire groups, even though individual men and women vary. People are unique but generalizations are utilized (see Moreh Nevukhim 3:32 that the Torah deals with generalizations and not exceptions). The Orthodox worldview, as evidenced by the most prominent literature of the past two centuries, has been that men and women have different roles in Judaism. Women are the private, home-centered individuals and men are the public individuals. Women are more spiritual and connect to God with less ritual while men require more rituals. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (commentary to Lev. 23:43) writes:

Clearly, women’s exemption from positive, time-bound mitzvot is not a consequence of their diminished worth: nor is it because the Torah found them unfit, as it were, to fulfill these mitzvot. Rather, it seems to me, it is because the Torah understood that women are not in need of these mitzvot. The Torah affirms that our women are imbued with a great love and a holy enthusiasm for their role in divine worship, exceeding that of the man.

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik believed that men and women were given different inherent natures as part of Creation. He is summaried by R. Avraham Besdin (Man of Faith in the Modern World, pp. 84-85) as saying:

Two humans were created who differ from each other metaphysically, not only physiologically, even as they both partake of Divine qualities. This contradicts the perverse notion that Judaism regards woman as being inferior to man. It also cuts away another false notion that there is no distinction between them in terms of their spiritual personalities. Two sexes were formed not only for propagative purposes, but they constitute existential originals. They differ in their psychical natures.

In particular, this emerges from the halakhic roles allotted to men and women. The Oral Torah teaches us that women are exempt from time-bound positive commandments. Men are obligated in various communal activities while women are exempt. Many explain that women are charged with the religiosity of the home, with the continuity of the family tradition. While the publicity-seeking atmosphere of Western culture only values the public role, and therefore places the synagogue at the center of religion, Judaism traditionally values the home over the synagogue, the private over the public.

R. Moshe Meiselman (Jewish Woman in Jewish Law, p. 16), writes:

The Jewish woman is the creator, molder, and guardian of the Jewish home. The family has always been the unit of Jewish existence, and while the man has always been the family’s public representative, the woman has been its soul.

He writes later (p. 135):

The inner dimension of striving is the essence of the Jewish heroic act, and woman was enjoined to develop this trait of personality to its highest degree. Thus, she was assigned the private role while man was assigned the public role.

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik devotes a chapter of his Family Redeemed (“Parenthood: Natural and Redeemed”) to discussing primarily the differences between motherhood and fatherhood. He writes (pp. 114-115):

There is a distinction between mother’s and father’s mission within the covenantal community, since they represent wo different personalistic approaches. Father’s teaching is basically of an intellectual nature…. If the father cannot accomplish it all by himself, he must see to it that his child obtains the necessary instruction.

However, Judaism is not only an intellectual tradition but an experiential one as well…. There is beauty, grandeur, warmth, and tenderness to Judaism…. Experiences are communicated not through the word but through steady contact, through association, through osmosis, through a tear or a smile, through dreamy eyes and soft melody, through the silence at twilight and the recital of Shema. All this is to be found in the maternal domain. The mother creates the mood; she is the artist who is responsible for the magnificence, solemnity and beauty.

The current debate about women’s position in Judaism is mainly (but not solely) about gender roles. Some wish to reject the worldview distinguishing between gender roles, either because they believe it does not accurately represent the Torah or because times have changed. This second argument is often made by pointing out that women can reach great heights in the secular world. Implied within that argument is that we must change religious gender roles because secular gender roles have changed. I find truth in the statement because women have accomplished a great deal in the secular world but I reject the conclusion because we should change our religious values based on secular values. The first argument above–that separate gender roles does not truly represent the Torah’s view–is, in my opinion, a false attempt at revisionism. I accept the writings of the leading Orthodox thinkers of recent times.

Once we recognize this underlying premise, we can understand the practical attitudes on the different sides of the debate. Righteous women can and always have accepted additional practices. They are exceptions to the general rules. As long as they are not attempting to change worldviews, they will face little opposition. Of course, there may be technical impediments; men sometimes face those also. But as long as they–both men and women–remain within traditional worldviews, they have leeway for personal experimentation, to find their own places within the community. That is why we can sometimes find unusual precedents in the past. Some women–Michal, for example–may have worn tefillin. Some may have been great Talmud scholars. Devorah was a prophetess. But they did not attempt to unravel traditional gender roles.

In the Charedi community today, we see some experimentation among women. There are Tehillim groups and Amen groups, among other new practices. They are usually quietly opposed by some rabbis but only mildly. Because these are not revolutionary attempts to change communal worldviews, they are left alone. Leaders have to prioritize their efforts to change the community. These are small issues, at most.

Today’s challenge is beyond that. It is about changing the community’s worldview. Make no mistake; the rhetoric is explicit. As such, it is not just about the technical issues, or about women wanting to fulfill extra commandments. It is about breaking down barriers, egalitarianism, changing gender roles. The ordination of women as rabbis is about enabling women to adopt men’s roles, not about promoting the unique righteous women of our generation. The calling of women to the Torah is also about egalitarianism. Even if technically allowed within halakhah, which I believe neither prior examples are, they are certainly forbidden when done in order to change a Torah value. There is much more to Judaism than halakhah. We must not only follow the Torah’s laws but also its worldview, its hashkafah.

There are moderate rabbis who believe women should be given more ritual opportunities. However, they are still committed to traditional gender roles, which puts them in a difficult position. They want to oppose revolutionaries but must use nuanced language so as not to oppose minor experimentation. This often leaves people wondering which side they are on. If they oppose women rabbis, why do they say that women should have leadership opportunities but not as rabbis? If they oppose women wearing tefillin, why do they say that the issue is complicated? I believe it is because they approve of individual women using their talents and spiritual accomplishments in ways that do not undermine the Torah worldview. Personally, I think these rabbis are wrong in their tactical approach and underestimate the confusion they sow by publicly allowing any experimentation. They are indirectly empowering those attempting to change the community’s hashkafah.

People are unique and need to find their own places within Judaism, embracing both the Torah spirit and laws. But sincere individuals must not be used as pawns in an attempt to alter the Torah hashkafah.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. The current debate about women’s position in Judaism…

    In the Charedi community today, we see some experimentation among women. There are Tehillim groups and Amen groups, among other new practices…

    It is about breaking down barriers, egalitarianism, changing gender roles. The ordination of women as rabbis is about enabling women to adopt men’s roles…

    Virtually all these debates and upheavals are in the Modern Orthodox communities. This is virtually a non-issue in the so-called Chareidi communities. You hear almost none of this stuff in Chareidi communities other than some satirizing discussion of what is occurring in the left (MO).

    The “Tehillim groups” you reference, I don’t think is anything new to recent generations. I believe they’ve existed for a long-time pre-feminism. And in any event, I cannot understand how you fit Tehillim groups into this discussion. Tehillim groups are in no way mimicking what men do. I know of no “Tehilim groups” among Chareidi men.

  2. (1) It is convenient to focus on “the writings of the leading Orthodox thinkers of recent times” regarding gender roles. But surely you know that widening the lens would expose as incomplete, at best, statements like “Clearly, women’s exemption from positive, time-bound mitzvot is not a consequence of their diminished worth,” or “The Torah affirms that our women are imbued with a great love and a holy enthusiasm for their role in divine rowship, exceeding that of the man,” or that “notion that Judaism regards woman as being inferior to man” is “perverse.” In fact this view of feminine superiority, or the softer view of separate but equal, is a recent innovation, itself a response to feminism.
    I hope you can acknowledge this without getting into a source-citing match. Of course “the tradition” is not univocal on this or anything else, but I do not see how one can honestly say that these recent attempts at benign explanations for gender distinctions show the whole picture.

    (2) Today we have many men participating in what R. Soloveitchik describes as the “maternal domain” – singing lullabies, saying shma and modeh ani, and generally spending significant amounts of time caring for small children and teaching through modeling rather than intellectual instruction. What does that mean to you? Is it a problem that men are becoming more active in the “private” realm? And if men are able to do both, as it were, without disrupting the underlying premise, why not women?

    • 1. I intentionally focused on the people who contributed to defining the community which we inhabit and who spoke explicitly about this subject. Going farther back in time raises issues of interpretation and extrapolation.

      2. I’m not sure that the areas were ever completely mutually exclusive. The issue is the erasure of roles, not necessarily the occasional sharing of functions. As I wrote in the post, if we are not interested in breaking down gender roles then there is much room to be explored.

      • 1. Perhaps that universe of sources works for the less educated (ahem, women who need to be placated) but those who regularly encounter texts with less positive messages about the status of women – messages that can be both explicit and implicit – need not be convinced. I am curious, though, what you mean by “interpretation and extrapolation.”
        2. I am also not sure the areas were completely mutually exclusive, though I think there is a big difference now from at least a generation or two (I see this anecdotally comparing my husband, brothers in law, and cousins to their fathers in terms of involvement in home life). I don’t know what it was like before then. But if its not two really separate domains what are we talking about? It is hardly new for some women to be involved in the public lie of the community – there have always been wealthy women and money has always talked. If it’s really about social roles, why is it that ritual roles become the battleground?

        • 1. I’m not sure what you mean by less positive messages about women. Some are explicit, as are the more positive messages. Others are based on impressions — women are “acquired” by their husbands and the like. I think those are more a matter of attitude and approach. They need not be seen as negative, if taught by a teacher who frames it positively.

          2. Rituals become the battleground for two reasons. First, that is how Reform started and we can’t escape that history. Second, these changes are done with an explicit and public agenda of demolishing gender roles.

  3. I’m surprised at you Gil for spouting the apologetics. There is no Torah source that says women are more spiritual than men. The Maharal says in many places that the male is more spiritual and on a higher plane. See the Maharal in Tiferes Israel 4 and 28, Derech Hashem 1:5 and 2:9, and Chidushei Makos 23b for more on this. In all of these places he describes the male as being on the higher plane. The Magen Avraham says women are exempt because their yetzer TOV is SMALLER.

    Shmuel 1:1 And Chana prayed upon her heart.

    Yalkut Shemoni: Why were women grouped with children and slaves concerning mitzvos? Because they have but one heart, as the verse says, “And Chana prayed upon her heart.”

    Ziies Ra’anan (the Magen Avraham): Women with children: The explanation concerns the positive time bound commandments. One heart: The yetzer tov does not dwell in them sufficiently. Therefore, if the positive time bound commandments were imposed upon them, it is likely that they would not do them.

    As for Rav Hirsch, his does not say women are more spiritual. He says they have zrizus for mitzvos, specifically their mitzvos. Here’s what R Wenger had to say about that:

    To the Editor:

    The November issue featured a letter regarding the reason for the exemption of women from many mitzvos. The writer disagrees with Rabbi Yisroel ben Reuven’s rejection of the idea that “women are higher spiritually than men and are not in need of [time-bound] commandments;’ citing Rabbi S.R. Hirsch as a source for this concept.

    Rabbi Hirsch actually states that “women have greater fervor and more faithful enthusiasm for their G-d-given calling” and are less at risk than men, who must go out in professional and business pursuits. This is no way stating that women are spiritually superior. (He does not even say that women have more fervor and enthusiasm than men; he states that they have proportionally more zeal for their assigned tasks.)

    Rabbi Hirsch is explaining that women are naturally endowed with ernuna peshuta (unquestioning faith), and a woman’s role of living a sheltered life of v’hinei Sora ba’ohel (Sarah, in the tent) is removed from the many temptations that face man. Rabbi Hirsch explains that a woman’s position in a Torah life protects her from the temptations that abound and the risks that time-bound mitzvos were given to protect against. Therefore, she does not require those mitzvos.

    These characteristics should not be confused with spirituality. This is similar to the position of a king who has special mitzvos to protect him from arrogance and pride; his role is such that he requires the protection of additional mitzvos. Would anyone dream of saying that the king is lower spiritually than the rest of Klal Yisroel because of his need for additional mitzvos?

    With the above we can catch a glimpse of the perfection of the creation and the unity of Torah that guides it. The Abudraham explains that women are exempt from time-bound mitzvos so that mitzvos should not interfere with their family obligations. In other words, their main obligation and profession is to assist their spouse and raise a family. The Creator planned things accordingly, and gave them emotional and psychological characteristics to help them fulfill their purpose. Their emuna peshuta helps them prepare a proper environment for the next generation. Their enthusiasm and maternal instincts protect them from the desire to leave the home. Those same characteristics make them less susceptible to the problems that confront men which the constant reminders of certain mitzvos alleviates. The Creator endowed them with their specific makeup so that they should not require certain mitzvos, because they would not be able to fulfill them without encroaching on their primary mission.

    As we become aware of these insights in creation and its purpose, we can only marvel: Ma tabu ma’asecha Hashem – How vast are Your deeds, Oh G-d!

    RABBI YOEL CHONON WENGER, Montreal, Quebec
    Letter to Jewish Observer, February 1997

    Please do more homework before rendering opinions on this topic.

    • 1. I’m not sure how you define apologetics. If you mean people who cherry-pick sources to fit their views, then I think you are mistaken. These scholars–particularly R. Meiselman–quote and explain many of the sources you raise. If anything, I suggest that you are cherry-picking sources, although that could just be to make your point. Surely you recognize that there are at best conflicting statements within Chazal and Rishonim (and the Maharal himself!), or perhaps even statement that can be reconciled. The above approaches attempt to reconcile those sources. I only have sound bites, appropriate for this essay.

      2. As to Rav Hirsch, does not the letter to the editor directly contradict the quote from Rav Hirsch in this essay??? Even if not, I would appreciate a serious study of Rav Hirsch’s statements on these issues. I’m not normally a fan of Rav Hirsch but when he says something interesting, I find it worthwhile.

      • Actually Jewish Women in Jewish Law, whose author was a young man when he wrote it, either cherry picks or was uninformed. He says for example that no commentators address the Yalkut’s comment that women have but one heart. Meanwhile the Magen Avraham in his commentary Zi’es Ra’anan comments on it to say that women are exempt because their yetzer tov is smaller. This commentary is in the standard edition of the Yalkut. You can find it in nearly any shul. That same book says women are assumed to achieve higher levels than men and cites only the Maharal, Derosh Al HaTorah, 27 that says women are more tranquil than men and that tranquility makes them more ready for their eternal reward as the next world is a place of tranquility. One function of Torah study is to combat male aggressiveness to ready them for the next world. To say that women reach higher levels is an obvious misreading of this Maharal. The book fails to cite any of the half dozen Maharals that say men are on a higher plane than women and are more spiritual. In Gur Aryeh, beginning of parshas tazriah, the Maharal says that the final formation of Adam occurred after that of Chava and this shows that the male is on a higher plane. Here is his text: “There is to conclude that, just the opposite, the woman was created first. Even though concerning the matter that [Hashem] took the bone from [Adam’s] bones [to create Chava], and this occurred after the creation of Adam, in the final analysis [we can conclude] that Chava was created first. Behold, it is written, “Male and female [He] created them” and “[He] called their name Adam.” It appears that immediately before this [the formation of Chava], the female was created as a pair [with the male]. And then the female [as a distinct entity] was formed [before the male was]. The order of the creation is given as first the mammal, then the woman, and then the male. One sees that the working of the creation is always that the one at a higher level comes last. So here, the male is last since he is more chashuv. In this is the reason behind the saying of the Rabbis that the woman matures more quickly than the man – the girl at twelve and a day and the boy at thirteen and a day. This is the completion of their maturity. This all follows from the principle that each thing with more completeness, its completion comes last. There, the formation of the male is last and not first.”

        By apologetics I mean that the explaining the exemption to say women are above the mitzvos and above men. Find me a Torah source to say women are above men or mitzvos. Generally we say that obligation in mitzvos comes from holiness. This is what R’ Moshe says in Igeres Moshe, Orach Chaim IV, 49 This is the implication of Yevamos (5a) that discusses why the Torah contains a special verse commanding Cohanim with leprosy to shave their heads. The Rambam says the obligation of men in the extra mitzvos shows that men are more sanctified. Mishnah Horarios 3:7. However, I can find many that say the opposite. I am not cherry picking anything. Don’t assume there must be sources in every direction. There are not. There is no source that women are generally more spiritual or on a higher plane. There are plenty of sources that praise women. That’s what R’ Hirsch is doing. But he is not saying that women are better or higher as R’ Wenger explains. I don’t see where he contradicts himself. The book “Male and Female He Created them” examines R’ Hirsch there. You have to consider all of R’ Hirsch’s comments such as “The male sex is zachar, it is the depository of the Divine revelations and the spiritual attainments of the human race. To it has been entrusted the zicharon, the tradition of the human race as it has developed, in him is formed the spiritual chain which links together the beginning and the end of the human race; the male sex is the zachar, the bearer of history.” Would you give the tradition to the less spiritual person?

        We all scream about yeshivat Maharat but I have to wonder if the apologetics, ie saying women are superior, feeds into that. Why should the men be the leaders if the women are more spiritual? Consider the implications on shalom bayis.

      • I tend to agree w Dr. Tamar Ross that “apologetics is not a bad word.” That said, if you think that recent interpretations/harmonizations of the earlier sources are not limited by predetermined outcomes re: what would be acceptable to conclude about women’s spiritual status, I don’t really know what to say…

        • Apologetics is bad if it consists of untruths. Saying women are more spiritual than men or are on a higher plane than men is untrue in that it has no classic Torah sources to back it up. One is free of course to make their own conclusions as long as they label them as such. But to say, as I see in numerous kiruv books, that the kabbalah says it or the Maharal says it when they do not is deceptive and destructive. It’s called lying and Jews are not supposed to do that. We are supposed to believe in the Torah and what it actually says and go with it. The amazing part is that actually many sources say the opposite that men are the more spiritual ones. The conventional understanding is completely the opposite of the truth. And untruths always get you in trouble. Here they warp our understanding of spirituality, of mitzvos, of gender roles. They disturb marriages, shiduchim, and kiruv efforts. Their only accomplishment is make male speakers feel the thrill of having a room full of women stare at them in delight. It can get perverse at times.

          You want an explanation for the exemption? Go with that of Reb Moshe:

          1) It’s a chok
          2) Women are exempt so that they can take care of their families.
          3) Men and women are equal in holiness.

          That’s the best approach. You can say also men have a masculine spirituality and women have a feminine one. Men are more high flying and super charged. Women are more intuitive and spirituality stable. You need both types. The mitzvos correspond to these natures. You want to get somewhere (men) and you want to get there safely (women).

          If you want to get into a contest of who is more spiritual, it’s not going to look good for the ladies. So it’s best not to go there.

          • (I agree that “apologetics” is bad if it is untrue and/or unconvincing. That’s not because it’s apologetics, though, but because it is bad or false apologetics. And I agree with you that the “women are on a higher spiritual plane” falls into the category of bad and false apologetics. But I think that you are missing why it is popular, which is that it is fed primarily to women who are expected never to actually experience, first hand, the textual tradition that falsifies this trope. In other words, it is basically a useful lie.)

            • But it’s not useful. Is any lie useful in the long run? It turns off young men from Torah observance. I would call that a bad thing. Would you? Also it creates marital problems. Women tend not to respond well to men that they look down on. She wants him taller, smarter, and richer.

              • As for creating marital problems, you keep asserting this, I assume based on observations, but I have to say it doesn’t sound so plausible to me. Even women who buy the whole “you don’t have to do XYZ mitzvos because you are so special” don’t “look down on” men – any more than your average woman looks down on men for leaving socks on the floor or whatever. There is some cognitive dissonance required to simultaneously believe, for example, that women are spiritually superior and that a wife should support her husband’s torah learning as her best ticket to olam haba, but lots of people seem to do OK with that dissonance.

                • In response to prithee1, that while I agree that “women are more spiritual” is a misrepresentation of the mesorah, i still believe it is “useful” for attracting and keeping women frum, as evidenced by its apparent popularity. I also generally assume that most men are not expected to really believe it, but rather to learn enough to see it for the noble lie that it is, but leave well enough alone and not tell their wives.

                  • First of all, we are not allowed to lie. Kiruv will only be successful if Hashem makes it so. He tends to help us when we act faithfully.

                    As for the effectiveness of this little lie, I have my doubts that the men overlook it anymore. We live in an era with female Speakers of the House and Heads of the Fed. This isn’t 1950 anymore. In the old days, men might not have taken such a statement to heart. Today they do. They tell me so. You want a nice fry Jewish boy to become frum and take on all these extra responsibilities and to do it because he is inferior. This kind of talk is really starting to turn lots of people off.

                    I suspect the real popularity of the little lie is because it’s counterintuitive. It’s so radical and the opposite of what you’d think that there’s a certain kick to it.

                • You see, you are picturing women that already have some kind of respect for their husbands, or they wouldn’t have married them. Maybe they are good fathers or make a decent living. But I propose that they’d have more respect if they weren’t taught this female spirituality stuff. We live in an era where we don’t see much respect for men in general so the standard isn’t too high. Two generations ago women and children had huge respect for the man of the house. The endless male bashing of our generation, this idea included, has eroded that.

                  It’s also a problem for shiduchim. The last 12 shiduchim my wife and I tried to set up, 11 of them were prevented or ended by the women. If all men are inferior then the woman needs to best men so she can get her equal. I think logic like that plays into it.

    • According to the Maharal (Chidushei Agados, Niddah 45b) says that Chazal’s statement that “binah yeseirah nitena lah,” means that greater supernal intelligence was given to them, and is about spiritual superiority.

      The interesting thing about multidimensional objects (or concepts; davar or davar) is that two things can mutually be greater than the other, if you measure them in different ways.

      Returning to the Maharal “This is so because the woman’s wisdom comes from supernal intelligence which is more relevant to her than it is to the man. Therefore it says that in matters of heaven that one should not go after the counsel of his wife because wisdom required for such maters is not relevant to her, it being an abstract intelligence.” I presume this latter clause is related to “nashim daatan qalos.”

      Better in one way, for which we were redeemed from Egypt (Sotah 11b), inferior in another.

      And while the Tosefta says that men thank the Creator for making them such that we have more mitzvos (and thus opportunity for growth), the geonim coined a berakhah for women that says that they were created according to His Will (and thus less in need of growth).

      Simply greater in different ways.

      And just as I take pride in those things I can do better than most, you should take pride in those things you do well. So why not teach women in a manner that fosters pride in the skills that (in general) come to them more readily?

      • Certainly, each sex has its strengths. I don’t object to stating that. But to say “women are more spiritual” or “men are created spiritually inferior” is to tally up the score and pick a winner in general.

        On the Maharal and the brochos, I don’t know that “according to His satisfaction” means less growth is needed compared to the man. You are adding that little interpretation. According to R. Munk, it means her creation is positive, a good thing. But R. Munk doesn’t make any comparisons, any contest out of it as people today seem to need to.

        As for mitzvos being an opportunity for growth, that’s our new age generation talking. I would think Chazal talk more in terms of serving God. More mitzvos means different types of opportunities for serving God.

        • I added one point beyond saying each has their own strengths. I also suggested that it’s normal and proper for education to emphasize greatness of the ways in which the student is superior. And if the Maharal says it’s in “supernal thought”, it’s fair to say to a girl or a woman exploring Orthodoxy we consider them more spiritual, and not focus on the ways in which men are considered superior. Women should consider themselves superior to men spiritually because they should be considering the yardstick by which that is true to be the more important.

          My talk of growth comes more from a Mussar tradition than the zeitgeist. (Although it may be that aspect of the zeitgeist which made Mussar more attractive to me.) The Mesilas Yesharim is only the most famous of books that are structured as Jacob’s Ladders to holiness.

          But the phrasing wasn’t necessary for my point. Using service language. Saying “men need more harnessing than women for a reason” is a different model of roughly the same idea.

        • Also, I’m not sure when it became common to talk about the Jews in Egypt having descended to the 49th level of tum’ah. Actually, it is at least as plausible to think of it as describing 50 parallel ways to connect to G-d, and they defiled 49 of them, leaving only one gate, the tenuous connection of national identity (didn’t change their names, etc…) left.

          But whenever that statement was taken to be about depth, the notion of Judaism as ascent vs descent is at least as old. Not this generation.

  4. Maharal Tiferes Yisrael 28

    Rav Tachlifa says, it is fitting to proceed with women first. And this is because the

    decree and the command from Hashem, may He be blessed, to man who receives it, is the

    covenant and the connection of Hashem to man, who received the decree. And this is explained

    in many places. And since the man is more fitting to the covenant and the connection with

    Hashem, may He be blessed, since the woman is more physical, and the level of the woman is

    not like that of the man, therefore, the man was commanded first since his level was close to

    Hashem, may He be blessed. And because of this, the woman destroyed since the connection of

    the woman to Hashem, may He be blessed, is not like that of the man. Behold, her connection is

    lacking. And since the connection is lacking, it came from this destruction that damages the

    connection. And this thing is specifically by the man who did not receive the complete

    connection like all of Israel who received a complete connection. Therefore with regard to the

    man was the connection according to his level, the man went first and the woman after. All is

    according to the level of the person.

    Rather, Israel received a complete connection when Torah was given to them. And the

    proof of this is that Adam HaRishon received only a portion of the commandments and therefore

    the connection was not complete but Israel, since the Torah given to them was compete, their

    connection to Hashem was complete. Therefore it is fitting for the woman to be commanded

    first at the receiving of Torah since this thing was a complete connection. The woman is not at

    such a level when she received the decree but it was a complete connection. And afterwards the

    man was commanded his connection and his level are greater than that of the woman. Therefore

    the command of the woman preceded the man. The receiving of Torah by the woman shows this

    that the reception of all of Israel was complete. And this is a greater thing. Therefore she is

    mentioned first.


    Commandments solidify the connection of people to Hashem. However, a person must

    be equipped to handle the connection. Only a portion of commandments were given in Gan

    Eden, so the connection of man to Hashem made at that time was incomplete. Since Adam was

    naturally better connected to Hashem than was Chava, he was better able to constructively

    manage the incomplete connection made at that time. Chava’s initiation of the first sin is proof

    that her connection was lacking something that Adam’s did not lack. At Har Sinai, a full set of

    commandments was given and therefore a complete connection to Hashem was being formed.

    Under such conditions, the danger of giving Torah to women first was satisfactorily eliminated.

    The women are still at a lower spiritual level than are the men, but there was no danger at Har

    Sinai of their being at a lower level leading to destruction.

    With the danger eliminated, it was better to approach the women first for various other

    reasons. These reasons include their enthusiasm for commandments, to encourage them to lead

    their children in the ways of Torah, and to emphasize to them their reward for enabling their

    husband’s Torah learning. The enthusiasm of women mentioned in the first reason is an

    individual personality trait. It is not a comprehensive desire for commandments, but rather an

    initial desire. The Radal explains that this enthusiasm wears off when obstacles to the

    commandments appear (Radal on Midrash Rabbah, Shemos 28:2:4). The third reason relates to

    a fear that the women would prevent their husbands from accepting Torah since the women may

    not see what gain they have from Torah since only men are commanded to learn it. Speaking to

    the women first was a way of demonstrating to them their equal share in their husband’s reward

    for learning.

    • Prithee: You have clearly done more research on this issue than I have and I simply lack the energy to pursue it right now. I have asked an expert in Maharal to opine about his approach, because I claim little expertise in Maharal.
      I will say two things: first, the literature speaks about women in both positive and negative ways (as it does about men). This tells me either that the Sages disagreed about women’s status or, more likely, that they had a nuanced view. Second, your argument seems to be with the vague term “spiritual”. Without defining it, it is hard to argue that women are or are not more spiritual.

      • Yes, Chazal compliment and criticize men and women. So let us cite Chazal. That’s not what people tend to do today. What they do is cite generalities that they heard in an Aish Hatorah kiruv seminar and assume there’s a Chazal to back it up.

        Yes, spiritual is a vague term. That’s why people shouldn’t use it to make a contest between men and women. On that matter, they shouldn’t make a contest at all. Doing so with sound bites and without any backup is a kind of sinas chinum. It’s one thing to quote Chazal. It’s quite another to say “women are more spiritual” or “men are created spiritually inferior” (Eye of the Needle, Aish’s Kiruv Primer), vague sweeping statements with no citations.

        Men and women have a difficult time getting along in our society. We need to make peace between them. That’s why Reb Moshe, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and the Rav when talking about these matters stress equality (even though their followers don’t follow suit in many cases).

        Men who are used to getting a lot of kavod, rabbis for example, physicians too (a physician wrote one of the women-are-better books), don’t grasp that the average man gets very little and the women as superior notion causes lots of problems with shalom bayis and shiduchim. It causes problems in kiruv too. It’s amazing people don’t think about that. We are saying to young men, take on all this extra work that your sister doesn’t have to do and do it because you are inferior. I know men who have said about that,”Are you crazy?” We are not dealing with Kafka’s sister anymore (for those who have read the Metamorphosis). The typical young fry man can’t imagine that his sister is superior to him spiritually. She’s just as much of a mess as he is. I hear sometimes that there are more female BTs than male. I don’t know if it’s true but I wonder if it is true if this relentless misteaching about male inferiority is part of the reason.

        While the Maharal says men are more spiritual, he wasn’t writing for the masses, he was writing in an era before the 50% divorce rate, he was writing in a time when men and women were understood to be very different, and he didn’t reference spirituality the way we do. You see, all these things have a flip side to them. You can’t say that one type has a bigger yetzer hara and a smaller yetzer tov, as people today try to say about men. That makes no sense. It’s just male bashing – or woman worship, which is usually really just lust.

        You see the more complex dynamic in the Maharal’s analysis of the creation story. Women mature earlier. Isn’t that positive? It is a positive thing. But it happens because they are less spiritual. It takes longer to bake a roast than toast. I’m exaggerating with the choice of metaphors, but the words rhyme and the point is made. When he uses the term spiritual, I think he means a high flying spirituality. Women have a more down to earth one, which goes well with their role of care taker of the family. In my mind, R’ Hirsch and the Maharal don’t conflict. R’ Hirsch isn’t saying that women are more spiritual. He’s saying that their type of spirituality has special purposes. He’s filling out the other side of the story.

        These subjects are very complex. That’s why sound bites are bad, other than the sound bite, it’s a Chok.

        • To be clear, are you agreeing with the main subject of this essay, that men and women have separate religious roles?

          • Well obviously I’d say that. But I insist that we say it without making a contest out of it. The unconscious contemporary sentiment of “women good, men bad” destroys anything else you are trying to accomplish on the topic of gender.

  5. MiMedinat HaYam

    Without taking sides on the various halachic “gender” issues, is this the “real” issue?

    R Gil recently linked to an article pointing out that the only accomplishment (at least seemingly) of Conservative Judaism over the past twenty (or so) years is “women’s issues”, and this is what has led to the extreme disinterest of the rank and file in Conservative Judaism (and Judaism, ritual, community) as a whole, among Conservative jews.

    Are we (or at least those of us obsessed with gender issues) following them into this black hole?

    2. Can you run a couple of articles on Olympics and Judaism, various aspects of it, etc over the next few weeks?

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