'Equal Citizens of the Halakhic Nation' - Leeds Limmud 2014

Limmud Leeds
May 18th 2014

Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

‘Equal Citizens of the Halakhic Nation – women, men, rights and obligations’

This session will look at the tension between being a religious Jew and a Feminist. What do our ancient rabbinic texts say about the roles of women in prayer and leadership through the timebound commandments (ie tallit)? Is egalitarianism contradictory to Judaism or perhaps quite the opposite: a vision of being created in the Divine Image? By studying and discussing both rabbinic texts and contemporary experiences, we will make these important questions come alive in our own lives and communities and look at creating a more equal and inclusive Judaism.

Issues to consider:
-       Why are women exempted from timebound commandments?
-       Does this exemption make sense within the halakhic system?
-       Are tallit/tefillin ‘male’ garments?
-       What is the reward for doing ‘extra’ mitzvot? Is it virtuous or arrogant to do so?
-       What is the influence of modernity?
-       Is the category of ‘women’ today the same as ‘women’ in our textual sources?

Three possible approaches:
-       Reform (post-halakhic, driven by ethical arguments)
-       Masorti/Conservative (change within Halakhah)
-       (Open) Orthodoxy (re-reading of Halakha)

Advantage: ‘ethical elegance’: argue for egalitarianism in principled manner using moral imperative and ‘wissenschaft’: scientific understanding of textual sources.
Disadvantage: ‘breaking’ with textual tradition/Halakhah through radical re-reading.
Advantage: looking at historical development of Halakhah; both traditional & modern approach.
Disadvantage: attempt to reconcile potentially antagonistic principles (egalitarian versus sources).
(Open) Orthodoxy:
Advantage: maintaining ‘integrity’ of Halakhic process.
Disadvantage: cannot lead to ‘true’ egalitarianism. 

The Sources:

Numbers 15:38
Speak unto the children of Israel, and say to them that they make them throughout their
generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of
each corner a thread of blue.
And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the
commandments of the ETERNAL, and do them; and that ye go not about after your own heart
and your own eyes, after which you use to go astray;
that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your God.

Deuteronomy 22:12
You shall make for yourself twisted cords upon the four corners of thy covering, which with you cover yourself.

Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7
All the commandments of the son upon [or regarding] the father, men are obligated and
women are exempt. And all the commandments of the father upon [or regarding] the son, whether men or whether women - they are obligated. And all the positive commandments effected by time [timebound], men are obligated and women are exempt. And all positive commandments that are not affected by time [non-timebound], whether they are men or whether they are women - they are obligated. And all negative mitzvot, whether they are timebound or non-timebound, whether they are men or whether they are women - they are obligated. Except from the [prohibition regarding] the cutting of the beard, the cutting of the sidelocks and defiling oneself for the dead.

Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 34a
As the Sages taught in a baraita: what are positive timebound commandments? Sukkah and lulav, shofar and tzitzit and tefillin and what are positive non-timebound commandments? Mezuzah, [constructing a roof-] railing2, [returning] lost property and sending away [the mother bird from her nest]3. Is this a general principle?
Behold: matzah [on Passover], rejoicing [on Festivals] and Assembly [on every 7th Sukkot],
these are positive timebound commandments in which women are obligated. Also, behold, the study of Torah, procreation and the redemption of the first-born, these are not positive time-bound commandments yet women are exempt. Said Rabbi Yochanan: we cannot learn from general principles, even in place of a stated exception.

Talmud Bavli Menachot 43a:
As the Sages taught in a baraita: all are obligated in [the mitzvah of] tzitzit (fringes);
Kohanim, Levites and Israelites, converts, women and slaves.
Rabbi Shimon [states], women are exempt because this is a positive, timebound
commandment, and women are exempt from all positive, timebound commandments.

Midrash Tehillim 2:99:
Rabbi Hezekiah also taught: When the children of Israel are wrapped in their prayer-shawls, let them [ feel ] ... as though the glory of the [divine] Presence were upon them, for . . . Scripture does not say: 'That ye may look upon them' [the fringes], but That ye may look upon Him [Num. 15:391, that is, upon the Holy One, blessed be He.

Mishnah Makkot 3:16
Rabbi Hananyah ben Aqashya said: The Holy One, blessed is he, wanted to grant merit to Israel. Therefore, he gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance, as it is written, “It pleased the Lord for the sake of (Israel’s) righteousness to magnify the Torah and make it glorious”.(Isaiah 42:21)

Non-Talmud Sources:

Traditional Sources Justifying Women’s Exemption:
Dogmatic: contemporary Orthodox rabbi, Moshe Meiselman: ‘most authorities offer no
explanation for the exemption... but regard it as part of the basic fabric of Jewish law to
which the question “why?” is inapplicable.’
Apologetic: Samson Raphael Hirsch (d. 1888) and Judah Loewe of Prague (the Maharal, d.
1609): ‘women have greater fervor and more faithful enthusiasm for their God-serving
David Abudraham: ‘a woman is subject to her husband to attend to his needs’.

A Variety of Classical Sources:
According to the Talmud, and subsequently modern non-egalitarian denominations
(Orthodox), Women are not obligated to wear a tallit, since they are not bound to perform
positive mitzvot which are time-specific, and the obligation to wear a tallit only applies
by day. Many early authorities did permit women to wear a tallit, such as Isaac ibn Ghiyyat
(b. 1038), Rashi (1040–1105), Rabbeinu Tam (ca 1100–1171), Zerachya ben Yitzhak Halevi of Lunel (ca. 1125–1186), Rambam (1135–1204), Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel Halevi (ca 1140–ca 1225), Rashba (1235–1310), Aharon Halevi of Barcelona (b. ca 1235?), Rabbi Yisrael Yaaqob Alghazi (1680–1761), Rabbi Yomtob ben Yisrael Alghazi (1726–1802)). There was, however, a gradual movement towards prohibition, mainly initiated by the Medieval Ashkenazi Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (the Maharam). The Rema (R’ Isserles) states that while women are technically allowed to don a tallit it would appear to be an act of arrogance (yuhara) for women to perform this commandment. The Maharil and the Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel both view a tallit as a “male garment” and thus find that a woman wearing a tallit to
be in violation of the precept prohibiting a woman from wearing a man’s garment.
Rabbi Yisrael Yaaqob Alghazi and Rabbi Yomtob ben Yisrael Alghazi held that the observance of this mitzvah by women was not only permitted but actually commendable, since such diligence amongst the non-obligated would inspire these women's male relatives to be even more diligent in their own observance.

Rachel Biale, Women and Jewish Law
Turning to a detailed analysis of the rule that women are exempt from time-bound
positive mitzvot, we discover that there are more exceptions to the rule than cited
in the original mishnah... The exceptions are of such significance that the Gemara
itself begins the discussion of this mishna with a question about the validity of the
general principle... The Gemara does not doubt that women are exempt from these mitzvot but shows alternative ways of justifying their exemption... This discussion however indicates that there was some question as to the universality of the exemption principle. Otherwise, why would it be necessary to go through convoluted arguments to show that the principle is a principle.

Blu Greenberg, Women and Judaism:
Does halakhic stratification of the sexes explicitly serve a theological purpose, that is, relatedness to God? ... Must we say that God’s eternal plan for the sexes was a hierarchy, one dominant and one subordinate sex as law and ritual define us? Could it be that God, who loves all of His creatures, prefers and esteems the devotion of one whole class more than the other? Or can we say perhaps that the inequity is reflective of an undisputed socioreligious stance of ancient times? pp. 39-42

Jen Taylor Friedman, Should All Barbies Wear Tefillin?
Do I think all women should wear tefillin? No. For starters, I certainly don’t think non-Jewish women should be required to wear tefillin.
All Jewish women? No. Tefillin are traditionally a men’s thing; there are plenty of communities where gender roles are still rigidly defined and those communities are quite happy that way. Expecting these women to wear tefillin would be an alien cultural imposition. It would be like saying that Europeans should observe Thanksgiving – absolutely, ridiculously, acontextual.
All Jewish women in communities where gender roles are not so rigidly defined? Likewise no. There are plenty of egalitarian communities where the language of “should” is inappropriate. Any community which does not define itself as bound by the halakhic system will view the wearing of tefillin as optional. Expecting women or men in these communities to wear tefillin is akin to saying that Americans should celebrate Hallowe’en – clearly an inappropriate expectation since Hallowe’en is optional. It’s not your place or mine to pass comment on whether someone should dress up and pass out candy, and likewise it’s not our place to comment on whether someone who doesn’t see himself as bound by commandments should be observing this particular aspect of ritual commandment. Whether he does or whether he doesn’t, his choice is legitimate and deserves respect.
In communities which are professedly egalitarian and bound by halakha? Yes, I think women in these communities should be expected to wear tefillin.
The present practice of having egalitarian prayer but only expecting men to wear tefillin is shameful. The message is either that tefillin do not matter, which in a professedly halakhic community is resoundingly inappropriate, or that egalitarianism has different requirements for men and for women, which devalues egalitarianism.
So yes, in communities which accept halakha – including as it does the commandment to wear tefillin – as binding, and which aspire to accord equal rights and responsibilities to men and to women, I think that women should wear tefillin. The alternative is an egalitarianism which not only devalues egalitarianism but devalues Judaism, by demonstrating that egalitarianism is not much more than a feeble sop to women’s feelings, and a sop, at that, obtained by discarding ritual structure.

Reform Judaism:
...So the law is clear enough: one authority believes that a woman is actually in duty bound to wear the fringes. All agree that she may wear them if she wishes to, except for the limitation that it might look like the pride of extra piety... besides, in our Reform Movement, where special emphasis is placed upon the religious equality of men and women, there can be no real objection to young women putting on the Talit when they participate in the service.
- Solomon B. Freehof, Vol. LXXX, 1970, pp. 55-56, American Reform Responsa Ð Jewish
Questions, Rabbinic Answers ׀ Collected Responsa of the Central Conference of American Rabbis 1889 Ð 1983, ed. By Walter Jacob, Central Conference of American Rabbis, New York 1983, p. 7

Questions to Consider:
How would we argue in favour of women and girls wearing a tallit (or tefillin)? From the traditional sources or from modern sensibilities? What are the weaknesses and strengths of each argument?
Do you think that wearing a tallit is an important statement of participation and equality? Do you think this is the Torah’s intent?
Do you think it is necessary to redefine the tallit in a feminine or perhaps feminist way?
Why or why not?

Book suggestions:

Haviva Ner-David, Life on the Fringes
Susannah Heschel, On Being a Jewish Feminist
Judith Hauptman, Re-Reading the Rabbis
Rachel Biale, Women and Jewish Law
Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai
Tamar Ross, Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism
Kerry Olitzky, The Rituals and Practices of a Jewish Life

Website suggestions:



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