Are Women Better Than Men?

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In a recent essay, I quoted authors who say that women are spiritually equal or even superior to men. A reader, writing under the pseudonym Prithee1, responded with extensive quotes from the Maharal contradicting the theory that the Torah considers women superior to men. I asked R. Moshe Zuriel, author of Otzeros HaMaharal among other books, for his opinion on the Maharal’s view. He wrote the following in explanation of the Maharals approach, which reflects the Maharals use of symbolism and categories. Please note that the translations below are my own. Due to time limitations I did not translate all the Hebrew, only what I thought is necessary for the reader. -Gil
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Which is better, male or female? According to the Maharal, both. From different vantage points, when dealing with different aspects, both the male and the female are each superior to each other.

The Maharal views the male as superior because in the marital relationship the man is the Tzura, the Form, a term the Maharal borrowed from Medieval philosophy. The male delineates; he casts the mold; he creates differentiations of actions. In this field he is superior to most women-folk. He initiates changes in life.

However female is superior as Chomer, the Substance, the ability to receive which is the complement of Tzura. The woman is less susceptible to wicked actions. The great wars, where untold millions of people were killed, were waged by males. Imperialism, with its unfathomed misery to subject populations, was imposed by males. The evils of politics, with its innate corruption, is a contest (largely) between men. Therefore the Maharal and Rav Hirsch say that females do not have as great a need as men for inhibiting restrictions.

True, males have Limud HaTorah, which according to Maharal and classical sources is primarily for men. However, that was due to a great deficiency. See Beitza 25b:

תנא משמיה דרבי מאיר מפני מה נתנה תורה לישראל מפני שהן עזין תנא דבי רבי ישמעאל מימינו אש דת למו אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא ראויין הללו שתנתן להם דת אש איכא דאמרי דתיהם של אלו אש שאלמלא (לא) נתנה תורה לישראל אין כל אומה ולשון יכולין לעמוד בפניהם והיינו דאמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש שלשה עזין הן ישראל באומות כלב בחיות תרנגול בעופות

It was taught in the name of Rabbi Meir: Why was Torah given to Israel? Because they are stubborn….

Males have an argumentative tendency. Therefore the sublimation of that trait is via the Pilpul de-Oraisa, lively and confrontational Torah debate. See the Even Shleima (chapter 2 paragraph 5), quoting the Vilna Gaon:

לימוד האגדה טוב לכבוש בו יצר הרע של תאוה. ובלימוד הלכות המשולים לאש ונצרך לה חימום רב, טוב לכבוש על ידו הכעס.

The study of Aggada is good for conquering the evil inclination of desire. The study of law, which is compared to fire and requires great heat, is good for overcoming anger.

Therefore there is no contradiction between the many quotes from Maharal’s words. In Drush HaTorah (p. 27), he states that women are superior to men when fulfilling their capacity of inner serenity, of devout faith, of dedication to Jewish life. They are the quiet waters that run deep, the Chomer of Judaism.

In contrast, Maharal explains in Gur Aryeh (Vayikra 12:2) that males are superior in combatting the evils of the world, in the give and take of the marketplace, of civic life. Males are turbulent, foaming and seething currents, even capable of moving heavy rocks. They are superior as Tzura.

In explaining the Mishah’s teaching not to deal in idle conversation with women (Derech Chaim, Avot 1:5), Maharal is careful to add:

ואין זה פחיתות באשה עצמה כלל, רק כי דבר זה מה שהאדם יורד ממדריגתו להיות נמשך אחר האשה ברבוי שיחה, הנה הוא נוטה מן המציאות אל ההעדר, ודבר זה חסרון ורעה אליו כאשר נוטה האדם ממעלתו הוא מעלת הזכר אחר דבר שהוא חסר בערך ממעלתו. ובשביל זה לא בא התנא למעט אהבת האיש לאשה, דודאי יש לאהוב אשתו כגופו ומזה אינו מדבר כלל, רק רבוי השיחה עם האשה שבמה שיש לו רבוי שיחה עם האשה הוא יורד ממעלתו של זכר ונמשך אחר החומר שבו דבק ההעדר, ובשביל זה גורם רעה לעצמו.

This is not derogatory to women at all. Rather, when a man descends from his level to engage with a woman in extended conversation, he departs from existence to absence. When he descends from his level, that of a male, for something lacking value for his level, it is a deficiency and bad for him. The Tanna does not come to detract from a man’s love for his wife. A man must certainly love his wife more than himself. The Tanna is not discussing that at all, just extended idle conversation with a woman. Because by engaging in extended idle conversation with a woman, he descends from his level of a male to engage with the Chomer and connect to the absence. For this reason, he brings bad on himself.

While at first reading this explanation seems derogatory, when we take into account the term Chomer we see Maharal’s complete view. He believes that men are Tzura and women are Chomer. They are psychologically and metaphysically different. When a Tzura leaves his level to engage extensively with Chomer, he is departing from his true purpose in life and bringing bad upon himself.

A woman who is a successful Chomer is fulfilling her purpose in life and is on a higher level than a man in the Eternal World to Come, as as we shall soon see. Maharal only teaches here that if the Tzura, the active innovator of flux and change in life, alters his position to be aligned with Chomer, with latent receptive material, he is losing his innate value, and will be punished for forsaking his task in life.

The Maharal explains that a female is Chomer, a recipient, in his Tiferet Yisrael (chapter 28):

ולנשים תחלה מפני שהם ראשון לקבל יותר מן האנשים, כי הקרוב אל החומר הוא מקבל כאשר ידוע כי החומר מוכן לקבלה וכמו שבארנו כמה פעמים. והנשים הם חומריים ביותר, ולכך הם מוכנים אל הקבלה, ובשביל זה סדר הענין נותן כי אשר הוא ממהר לקבל הוא יותר קודם ממי שהוא מְאַחֵר כך הקדים הנשים תחלה, וזה שאמר שהם מזרזות במצות דהיינו שמקבלים המצות עליהן. דבר אחר בשביל שהנשים הם התחלה לתורה ועם שאינן בני תורה הם התחלה לתורה שהם מוליכין את בניהן לתורה, והרמז בזה כי האשה הכנה לתורה, כי האשה נותנת לבן החומר וכאשר תתן לו חומר טוב הוא בעל תורה ושכל זך, וכאשר החומר אינו טוב אז החומר מונע אותו מן התורה והשכל, הרי האשה היא הכנה מוליכתו לתורה שהיא מביאתו על ידי הכנתה לתלמוד תורה, וכל הכנה הוא התחלה והוא קודם ולפיכך הקדים הנשים. ואמר ר’ תחליפא ראוי להקדים הנשים תחלה, וזה כי הגזרה והצווי שבא מן השם יתברך אל אדם המקבל דבר זה הוא הברית והחבור שיש אל השם יתברך עם האדם אשר מקבל הגזרה ודבר זה התבאר בכמה מקומות

[“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob (the women), and tell the children of Israel (the men)” (Shemot 19:3)] Women [are mentioned in the verse] first because they receive more than men. One who is closer to Chomer is a recipient, as is known that Chomer is more receptive, as we explained many times. Women are more Chomer and therefore more receptive. Therefore, the order [in the verse] is that the quicker to receive precedes what takes longer. That is why women are first. What it says that they are more zealous in commandments means that they accept (receive) the commandments on themselves…. R. Tachlifa said: It is appropriate to [mention] women first. This is because the decree and command from G-d to man-the-recipient is the covenant and connection between G-d and the person who receives the decree…

Maharal continues to explain why G-d commanded Adam HaRishon first (Bereshit 2:16), according to Rav Tachlifa, which is that a man connects to G-d more than a woman does. However, this and women’s greater receptiveness are two sides of one coin. Each gender is a “face” of the same coin. Each is “superior” in his fashion. Neither is the absolute superior, just only in a relative way, as one vantage point. The other side is also superior, in his perspective.

Additionally, Maharal teaches that women have the upper hand regarding eternal life in Drush Al HaTorah (p. 28):

אמנם יש לך להבין זה ממה שאמר הכתוב שהביא נשים שאננות, כי האיש במה שהוא גבר איננו בעל שאנן והשקט מצד התגברותו והתפעלו, בכן אינם מוכנים גם כן כל כך אל השאנן והמנוחה הוא העולם הבא שהוא המנוחה בעצמו. אבל הנשים ראויים ומוכנים לה מצד עצמם שאינם בני פעולה והתעוררות מצד עצם בריאתן, לפיכך גדולה ההבטחה שהבטיחן הקב”ה יותר מן האנשים מצד השאנן ושלוה אשר המה מוכנים לו כי זהו חלק הנשים וראויות לזה ביותר. ובמעט הסיוע שמסייעים לתורה שכרם גדול מאד כאשר כבר הם מוכנים אל השאנן, וכל המוכן לדבר מה בנקל ישיגו מצד תכונתו. אבל האנשים צריכים מצד זה שיהיו עמלים וטורחים בתורה מבלי מנוח לילה ויום, וזהו גופו ותגיד לבני ישראל דברים הקשין כגידין הוא העמל הגדול הזה. אמנם לנשים בלשון רכה כי אינם צריכים כל כך, ואעפ”כ הם ראויים לשכר יותר גדול עד שלזה גם כן הקדימן הכתוב לאנשים כאמור. ועוד היה ראוי להקדימם בשהם ההתחלה והכנה לתורה, כי מן זריעת האשה נוצר גוף ובשר של הילד כדאיתא בנדה (דף ל”א) בענין חלוקת הג’ שותפין. וידוע שהגוף הוא הוא ההתחלה וההכנה לקבל השכל בשהוא חומר זך ודק, ואי אפשר זולת התחלה זאת מצד בני אדם. בכן הנשים כשהם צדקניות הם הם ההתחלה להוליד בן זכות החומר שיהיה מוכן לקבלת שכל התורה, וזהו באקרויי בנייהו לבי כנשתא שהן המוליכות ומכינות הבנים לכך. וכן באתנויי גברייהו וגו’, רצה לומר כי בהיותה חומר מוכן לכך אזי מתאחדת ומתקשרת בתורה לגמרי בהשתוקקות היותר נפלא עד שמתוך כך מתנויי גברייהו וגם מנטרי להן וכו’. שבהשתוקקות רב מצפין ומשתוקקין לבעליהן בעלי התורה עד דאתי מבי רבנן, ומצד החבור ודביקות היותר גדול שיש להם בתורה מצד הכנתם מתאחדין עמם לגמרי. והוא מה שאמר התם דפלגינן בהדייהו כי הם מתאחדים עמנו לגמרי לכן פלגינן בהדייהו זהו שהקדימן:

You can understand this from the Bible’s reference to “women that are at ease” (Yeshayahu 32:9). A man is not tranquil or quiet because of his overcoming and active nature. Men are therefore not ready for the tranquility and peacefulness of the afterlife, which is the true rest. However, women are inherently prepared and ready for it because they are not active in their nature. Therefore, G-d’s promise to women is greater than that to men because of the tranquility and peace for which they are prepared. This is women’s portion, for which they are greatly prepared. With the little help that they assist to Torah, their merit is great because they are already prepared for the tranquility, and whoever is prepared for something will easily acquire it. However, because of this [nature], men need to toil over Torah without rest, night and day…. It was also appropriate to place [women] first because they are the beginning and preparation for Torah. The body and flesh of a child comes from the woman’s semination, as it says in Nidah (31). It is well known that the body, which is pure and fine substance, is the beginning and preparation to receive the mind, and this beginning is impossible without people. Righteous women are the beginning for the birth of children of pure substance who are ready to receive a mind of Torah…. Since a woman is Chomer, ready for it, she is able to completely unite and connect to the Torah with such great excitement that she… waits excitedly for her husband to return from the beit midrash and through their great connection and attachment to Torah due to her preparedness, unite completely with him….

According to Maharal, women are much superior to men in Ahavat Torah. Therefore they have a greater ability to attain eternal life. It is impossible to suggest that, according to Maharal, women are inferior in an absolute sense. One can only say that in regard to a certain aspect the females are inferior, and in the same breath you must admit that in a different aspect the males are inferior.

Before I conclude, I want to explain why man say the benediction Shelo asani ishah (Menachot 43b). Rashi writes that men have more mitzvot to do. However, we all learned in yeshiva that Rashi does not include superfluous words. All his words are well reasoned to prevent a mistaken understanding of Chazal. If, as many people think, women are innately and completely of less value than men, why did Rashi have to add his explanation? Isn’t this a common understanding that males are superior in life? To avoid this pitfall, wise Rashi teaches us that the blessing is on one point alone, the matter of kiyum mitzvot aseih, fulfilling positive commandments. But in all other matters, there is no reason to be thankful for being created a man.

About Moshe Zuriel

Rabbi Moshe Zuriel is the retired mashgiach of the Shaalvim Hesder Yeshiva and the author of over two dozen books on Jewish law and thought.

3 comments

  1. I keep trying to get my mind around this penchant in the frum world to label a gender superior. Why do we talk that way at all? So here, to say each is superior in different ways, I guess it’s better than saying women are superior, but still, is it really productive? Seems to me a kind of sinas chinum. It’s much better to say that we each have our strengths than to say that we each are superior in a different way. One can argue that this whole line of thought – who is superior – is a very male way of looking at life, an attempt by men to explain the Torah to women in a way that really only would appeal to men.

    I don’t object at all to the idea that women excel at being women, at femininity and its many spiritual components. One of the great features of femininity is that it isn’t competitive. For example, my wife doesn’t have the slightest interest in sports or university rankings or the many ways that the competition obsessed American society ranks every last component of life. Contemporary frum Jews have taken this to the most absurd level by ranking souls.

    It seems to me as well that this post suffers from the usual impulse to apologize on behalf of the Torah to women. Accordingly, it picks its Maharals very selectively. It quotes extensively from Derosh Al HaTorah 27 which says that Torah study tames male aggressiveness, which undeniably is real and needs taming. But it doesn’t mention Gur Aryeh parshas Tazria which says that the male was formed last and is at a higher level and has more completeness. It doesn’t mention Derech Chaim (on “more wives more witchcraft”) which says women are more inclined towards witchcraft because of their lower spiritual level. When it mentions Tiferes Yisrael 28, it leaves out the part about Adam being closer to Hashem and this being the reason he was entrusted with a single commandment in Gan Eden. The Maharal says that the woman’s initiation of the first sin is proof she couldn’t function with a single commandment. The book Jewish Women in Jewish Law also does this selective quoting.

    As for this statement, “The great wars, where untold millions of people were killed, were waged by males. Imperialism, with its unfathomed misery to subject populations, was imposed by males.” – that’s the author of the post talking, not the Maharal. It’s a political theory. One can argue that war is waged by the ruling classes for financial profit that benefits their men and women. Generally, young men are dragged into war – they are the ones that die and get maimed, even in the most recent American wars – and polls show male support for war is about 10% higher than women. But it’s not as if 100% of men want war and 0% of women do. To suggest that men love war and women love peace is not even pseudo intellectualism, it’s something worse.

    This line “The woman is less susceptible to wicked actions.” also is the post author talking. In Tiferes Yisrael 4, the Maharal says men and women both are obligated in the 365 lavim because both are capable of inflicting harm on the world. Where does the Maharal say that “The woman is less susceptible to wicked actions.”? Maybe he does, but where? If we are coming to explain the Maharal, to pose as experts on the Maharal, then quote the Maharal. See Vilna Gaon Even Shelaima 1:2 where he says women were created closer to the Satan and therefore have to work harder to do good. I believe there is a Maharal like that too. It notes that you don’t see the letter Samech, which is the first letter in Satan, until the women is created. It might be useful if somebody would translate R’ Kook on the blessing “Hast not made me a woman.” I believe he says there men go higher and lower, which makes sense.

    As for Limud Torah being due to a great deficiency, I think it’s more correct to say that ONE aspect of it is due to male aggressiveness. Does a great Talmudic genius study more Torah because he is more inferior? There are many aspects to mitzvos. Are we still going with this idea that the only purpose of mitzvos is to fix our flaws? Will you say that about niddah? Does that correct a flaw in women that men don’t have? I haven’t seen a niddah book yet that dares talk that way. And they shouldn’t. Mitzvos have many aspects to them. They correct flaws and they engage pre-existing spirituality.

    The Maharal does not use the word “superior” in derosh Al-Torah 27. He just says women are more tranquil and men more aggressive. Superior is the word that the author of this post insists on using over and over again. Is superiority implied in the Maharal over there? Maybe, in a way, but again, I don’t think it’s productive to keep talking like that. The Maharal didn’t. We are supposed to be getting along, men and women. That’s not going to happen if we keep thinking of each other in terms of competition. We are getting to a point where these discussions become indistinguishable from sports radio.

    So what about the Maharal? Isn’t he doing the same thing? I argue, no. First of all he wasn’t writing for the masses who misunderstand these things. He was writing in a vastly different era that didn’t suffer from a 50% divorce rate. Lastly, he’s speaking esoterically. If I could offer my own interpretation on it, I believe he’s saying that men are more super-charged. They have more “chochos hanefesh” says the Maharal (Derech Chaim 2:9), another reference that the author of the post neglected to mention. The Maharal says that some parts of the soul lean towards the spiritual and some to the physical. Men have more parts that lean towards the purely spiritual. This gives them a kind of rocket fuel with which they will travel in the higher realms. Women are more earthly. That’s why they are charged with taking care of the family. The posts author was getting at that when saying women are “superior” at chomer. You want to say that women are superior at being helpmates, at being nurturing, at translating spirituality into practical family lessons? If you insist on that language, I can’t stop you. But don’t say that the Maharal says it. He, I believe, is saying that men are more inclined towards the purely spiritual (Torah study goes with this) and women at the physical (where they do spiritual work). It’s all Hashem’s doing so it’s all good.

  2. R. Yaakov Menken commented about this issue, “…I brought it up with our local expert — Rav Adlerstein suggested a passage in his Drush al haTorah in which he says that women are closer to Olam HaBah. He also said that understanding all of the Maharal’s statements together might be the subject of a 500-page book.”(Comment to “Where The Boys Aren’t”, Cross Currents, 10/06).

    While not a 500-page book, R. Adlerstein related R. Kook in Olas Harayah (pp. 71-2)to the above-quoted Maharal re chomer and tzurah(Mail Jewish Volume 28 Number 10, “Male and female souls”, 11/98).

    In “Torah Perspectives on Women’s Issues”, R. Mayer Twerski writes,”The Torah values men and women equally. “And the Almighty created Man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.” The Torah is emphatic: man and woman alike are created in God’s image, which is the source of their majesty and places them at the pinnacle of creation. Therefore, taught Rav Soloveitchik zt”l, men and women are endowed with equal ontological-spiritual worth. In the footnote, “My recollection of a public lecture delivered by the Rav zt”l. Cf A.R. Besdin, Reflections of the Rav, Vol. II, pp.84-5. Vide also Rav Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, vol.4, 49.”

    Other sources I’ve seen quoted online on this issue are Yalkut Shim’oni I Sam. 1:13; Maharal Hidushei Aggadot I, Kol Kitvei Maharal; RSRH in Judaism Eternal,chapter 2: “The Jewish Woman, pp. 49-96; RAS in Logic of the heart, logic of the mind,  “The Torah’s View of the Role of the Woman”, pp. 92-97; “Male and Female He Created Them: A Guide to Classical Torah Commentary on the Roles and Natures of Men and Women” by Yisrael Ben Reuven(Targum Press).

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