Merits and Demerits: Piety and Jewish Women - Berakhot 20
R. Papa is answered: other generations had greater faith – they were willing to die for God (Hebrew kidushat ha-shem, literally “sanctification of the name”), and we are not. Earlier rabbis risked great fines and shame in their zeal for the law – one even sat outside the baths telling women how to bathe! They were not afraid of the Evil Impulse (Hebrew yetzer ha-ra) or the Evil Eye because they knew they were holy, whereas later Rabbis were not so sure of themselves. And yet, despite this supposed "holiness advantage," they did have a blind spot - the role of women.
We find on side “b” of today’s page an explanation of the exemption of women from reciting the Shema and from wearing tefillin (prayer boxes). We noted earlier that women are placed in the same legal category as slaves and children – as Rachel Adler, a Jewish feminist, once dryly noted, slaves can be freed and children grow up, but women can never “graduate” from this status. What is the problem if they are exempt – isn’t it just one less obligation to perform?
The problem is three-fold. First, performing obligations (or mitzvot) is the means by which Rabbinic Judaism honors its God, so not having the opportunity to fulfill an obligation is to be of a lower status. Second, the general category of obligations from which women are called exempt – positive commandments of fixed time – are often the more prestigious. For example, all of Berakhot’s earlier discussions about how and when to recite the Shema are largely irrelevant to women. Third, as explained here, one who is not obligated to perform a mitzvah cannot do so on behalf of someone else, so women could not lead a congregation of men in praying the Shema. And even if they are of similar obligation, as for the meal blessing, the sages say “A curse light on the man whose wife or children have to say grace for him” because he doesn’t know enough to say it for himself.
The early battles of Jewish feminists to open up Jewish religion and culture to the equal participation of women began by challenging just such an approach. And I would argue that both Jewish women AND Jewish men are better off for the active and enthusiastic contributions of all Jews that have resulted from the opening up of Jewish life to full participation by all. Today women rabbis lead congregations, women teachers teach boys and girls and adults of both genders, and Jewish women can feel Jewish at home AND in the synagogue. And that is a great step forward.
Rabbi Adam Chalom
For Further Reading:
Rachel Biale, Women and Jewish Law.
Rachel Adler, “The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halakhah and the Jewish Woman” in Susannah Heschel, ed. On Being a Jewish Feminist.