The Rights of Women in Judaism

The role and rights of women according to the Torah (and the examples set in the rest of the TaNaKh) are important to me, and not only because I am a woman. The biblical portrayal of women has set the tone for the treatment of women throughout both Western civilization and the Muslim world. It has also served as the touchstone for what modern feminism reacts against. Unfortunately, both the action and reaction are based largely on misinterpretations (both deliberate and accidental) and tainted understandings of biblical content.

Nowhere has this fact been more clear to me than here in Israel (despite extensive historical research on the topic conducted over many years), where the role of women is incredibly dichotomous: secular women on the one hand call themselves liberated, simply because they have the right to “play the harlot” (to use a biblical turn of phrase), while orthodox Jewish women live in a context that is highly and explicitly misogynous and promotes sexual segregation to the point that any contact between a man and woman is assumed to be of a sexual nature. Neither side presents either a good example of what a woman (or a man, for that matter) ought to be, or portrays a clear understanding of what the Torah demands.

In the Parsha Pinechas (B’midbar [Numbers] 25:10-30:1) the issue of women and the right to inherit is addressed. When Moshe allots inheritances to the tribes of Israel, the daughters of Zelophehad (the head of the house of Gilead of the tribe of Manasseh) ask the elders at the Mishkan for the right to inherit since their father died without a male heir. G-d tells the elders that the daughters do have the right to inherit if a man dies without a son (B’midbar 27:1-11). Later, in the Parsha Masei (B’midbar 33-36), that right is further clarified, explaining what happens if a man dies without children or without any relatives (nearest kin, with preference to the male or to the tribe in general in the absence of kin) and how daughters who inherit are supposed to marry (within their tribe so the tribe does not lose property over time) (B’midbar 36).

The story of Zelophehad’s daughters is interesting on four main counts:
  1. Women do have the right to inherit. Yes, they are second to a male heir and their marriage choices are restricted when they inherit, but they do have that right under the Torah.
  2. Zelophehad’s daughters, who were all single at the time they approached the elders, brought a civil lawsuit to the judicial authority of their community. They did so under their own volition and representing themselves. That involved being present outside the Mishkan in exactly the same way that men would have brought issues to the elders at the Mishkan, and addressing a group of men without any chaperon or male representative. Yet the story is presented as though their act of going to the Mishkan to present their case is not out of the ordinary, just that the judicial decision was important.
  3. The case is presented in the Torah not as a clarification of the rights of women, but as a clarification of inheritance law.
  4. When the story addresses how inheritance necessarily changes how women marry, it explicitly says that the woman chooses her husband (B’midbar 36:6). While there were almost certainly customs regarding courtship and determining who was an eligible match, it is assumed that women have a certain degree of choice and self-determination when it comes to finding a marriage partner. This is also exemplified in the story of Yitzhak (Isaac) and Rivka (Rebecca), in which Rivka’s father asks her (B’reishit [Genesis] 24:57-58) if she wants to go with Eleazer, Avraham’s servant, to marry Yitzhak.
How different and how powerful women are portrayed in this precedent and resulting law compared to the common practice of so many religious an political institutions throughout history! It’s certainly a more egalitarian view than taken by most of the other societies of the time. And just compare it to the decision made by the modern-day chief rabbi described in a past post regarding women and public office.
A Christian commentator has also raised the point that the marital restrictions placed on Zelophehad’s daughters actually placed them on an equal playing field with men. Israelite men, because they inherited land, lived within their tribal boundaries, while women were free to live throughout Israel. When women inherit (take on a masculine role in one respect), though, they assume the responsibility of a man to live within their tribal boundaries.

Another example is also found in the Parsha Matot (B’midbar 30-32) regarding the issue of swearing in G-d’s name. While a man is bound by his oath without exception, women have a different role in society that makes swearing complicated. Is a woman bound by her oath when she swears in G-d’s name?

G-d’s decision is that she is bound, but there can be mitigating circumstances. If the head of her household (her father if she is unmarried or her husband if she is wed) can forbid her oath under specific conditions:
  • He has to witness the oath
  • He has to forbid it on the same day the oath was made
If the woman is the head of her household (a widow or divorcee) or her husband/father fails to forbid it in the allotted time or does not witness the oath, then she is bound to her word in the same way a man is. This is an excellent example of how women were viewed in ancient Israel:
  1. Rather than really limiting the woman’s ability to make an oath, this set of laws actually places limits on the power of a householder over the women in his charge–something practically unheard of in the ancient world.
  2. It makes it clear that under most circumstances women are held by G-d to the same standard as men. They don’t get a free pass to break commandments just because it would disagree with their husband or father.
  3. It does not say that women should agree with their householder. Women are not told to check with their husbands first before making an oath, nor are they forbidden from swearing. It is assumed that spouses and fathers and daughters will sometimes disagree strongly; that women will have strong opinions and beliefs; and that women will and ought to express and act on those opinions and beliefs, while still respecting the cohesiveness of their social unit.
In other words, men do not get to “play G-d” in their homes and over their dependents. Under such favorable circumstances for women, it is hardly surprising that Devorah (Shoftim [Judges] 4-5) rose to the position of Shofet (ruler/chieftain, often mistranslated as “judge”) despite her sex.

Shofet (chieftain) Devorah.

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