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What Judaism Has Done for Women

September 21, 1893 — World’s Parliament of Religions, Hall of Columbus, Word’s Congress Auxiliary Building, Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


Briefly, the whole education conferred by Judaism lies in the principle that it did not assign to woman an exceptional position; yet, on the other hand, by taking cognizance of the exceptional position assigned to woman by brute force, and occupied by her on account of her physical constitution and natural duties, Judaism made that education effectual, and uninterrupted in its effects.

In the tangled maze of history, let us single out the thread that marks the development of Jewish woman. In Jewish history, as in that of the rest of mankind, leaders are only milestones.

Our question calls for the spiritual data about the typical woman whom Judaism has prepared for nineteenth century work. To discover them, we must go back to twice nineteen hundred years ago, to the woman that presided over the tent of Abraham.

In that tent, whatever incipient Judaism did for man, that precisely it did for woman: it made man, created male and female, aware of his human dignity, and laid it upon him as a duty to maintain that dignity. With the defining of man’s relations to his family, begins the refinement, the humanity of civilization.

Abraham stands out in a historic picture of mankind as the typical father. He it was of whom it was known that he would “command his children and his household after him, that they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice.”

What was Sarah’s share in this paramount work of education? Ishmael was to be removed in order that Isaac, the disciple of righteousness and justice, might not, by bad example, be lured away from “the way of the Lord.” In connection with this plan, wholly educational in its aims, it is enjoined upon Abraham: “In all that Sarah may say unto thee, hearken unto her voice.”

The next generation again illustrates, not the sameness in function, but the equality in position, of man and woman. Isaac and Rebekah differ in their conception of educational discipline and factors.

Yet whatever may have been the difference of opinion between them with regard to interference in their children’s affairs, before their children, father and mother are completely at one, for when the first suspicion of displeasure comes to Esau, it reaches him in Isaac’s name alone. We are told that “then saw Esau that the daughters of Canaan were evil in the eves of Isaac, his father.” Isaac, the executive, had completely adopted the tactics of Rebekah, the advisory branch of the government.

In Rebekah we are shown the first social innovator, the first ‘being to act contrary to tradition, and the iron-bound customs of society. She, refuses to yield to birth its rights, in a case in which were involved the higher considerations of the guardianship of truth. And this reformer was the traditionally conservative woman, Rebekah.

Such are the ideals of equality between man and woman that have come down to as from the days of the Patriarchs. Such, furthermore, was the basis upon which the position of woman in Judaism was fixed, and such in turn, the ideal towards which the Jewish woman was to aspire.

Women continued to be held in high esteem. We hear of the mothers of the greatest men, of Jochebed, the mother of Moses, and of Hannah, the mother of Samuel and the sole director of his career. We still hear of fathers and mothers acting in equal conjunction, as in the disastrous youth of Samson. The law ranges them together: “If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, who hearkeneth not to the voice of his father, or to the voice of his mother, and they chastise him, and he will not hearken unto them, then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him.” We have evidence of woman’s dignity in the parallel drawn by the prophets between the relation of Israel to God and that of a wife to her husband, most beautifully in this passage which distinguished between the husband of a Jewish woman and the lord of a mediaeval Griseldis: “And it shall happen at that day, saith the Lord, that thou shalt call me Ishi (my husband), and shalt not call me any more Ba’aii (my lord). And I will betroth thee unto me for ever: Yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness and justice, and in lovingkindness, and in mercy. And I will betroth thee unto me in faith fulness.”

But Israel was a backsliding nation. Even its purity of family life was sullied, as for instance at Gibeah, and by David. Yet it remains true that through good and evil times the ideals were maintained, and in the end practice was influenced into conformity with them. Subtler signs than gross historic events show both truths — show that practice degenerated, and show that it was reconstructed on the basis of never-abandoned ideals. Emphatic assertions of the exalted position of women are dangerous. They involve the concession that man has the authority to establish or refuse, instead of leaving the economy of the moral world as God has ordained it. Any tendency to create an inequality, be it to the detriment or to the aggrandizement of woman, is fatal to her true dignity.

The prophet Malachi sets forth the whole misery of those later days, culminating in disregard of woman, and on the other hand, the Jewish principle and ideal of woman’s co-equality with man, as well as the cause of her dethronement from his side. He says: “The Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth against whom thou hast indeed dealt treacherously; yet is she thy companion and the wife of thy covenant.”

The last of the prophets, the contemporary of the Scribes, ushers us into the halls of the Talmud. Here the prophet’s utterances still reverberate: ‘He who forsakes the love of his youth, God’s altar weeps for him;” “A man should be careful lest he afflict his wife, for God counts her tears.” Less suggestive of disordered affairs is: “He who sees his wife die before him has, as it were, been present at the destruction of the sanctuary itself, around him the world grows dark.” “Love your wife like yourself, honor her more than yourself,” smacks of the equivocal distinction of mediaeval times, and of a convulsive desire to hide the existing condition of affairs. “If thy wife is small, bend down to her to take counsel from her.” indicates a return to natural, unstrained relations. “He who marries for money, his children shall be a curse to him,” is a practical maxim applicable not only in ancient times, and finally, the early ideal is realized, in “A man’s home means his wife.”

The question arises, How came it about that early realities turned into fit subjects for poetry, aphorism and chivalrous sayings, but were absent from every-day life sufficiently often to justify the prophet’s wrath? It all lies in this: Israel’s sons married the daughters not of a stranger, but of a strange god.

It was the Israelite’s crown of distinction that his wife was his companion, whose equality was so acknowledged that he made with her a covenant. But this crown was dragged in the mire when he married the daughter of a strange god.

Direst misfortune taught Israel the folly of worshiping strange gods, but the blandishments of the daughters of a strange god produced the enactment of many a law by the rabbis of the Talmud. Here was the problem that confronted them: Israel’s ideals of womanhood were high, but the nations around acted according to a brutal standard, and Israel was not likely to remain untainted. They solved it in a truly Jewish way, — both in the Jewish spirit and on a Jewish basis As always in Judaism, they dealt with a condition, and strove, by modifying it, to realize the ideals of their theory. Judaism had taken cognizance of the fact that the practice of the nations about, with regard to woman, varied widely from Jewish ideals. Clear of vision, the Lawgiver-Prophet could not fail to see that Israel, stiff-necked, unmindful of its mission, participating in the human fault of asserting brute strength over the physically weak, would soon adopt the lower standards unless restrained by iron-handed law Thus Mosaic legislation recognizes the exceptional position occupied by woman, and profits by its knowledge thereof to lay down stringent regulations ordering the relation of the sexes. We have the rights of woman guarded with respect to inheritance, to giving in marriage, to the marriage relation, and with regard to divorce. But woman’s greatest safeguard lay in the fact that both marriage and divorce among the Jews were civil transactions, connected with a certain amount of formality.

An authority describes the Jewish view of marriage as standing between that of the common law, which, according to Blackstone, “considers marriage in no other light than as a civil contract,” and that of the Roman Catholic Church, which “holds marriage to be a sacrament and as such indissoluble.” He says: “Between these two extreme views stands that of the Jewish law.” The act of concluding marriage is there certainly also considered as a contract, which requires the consent of both parties and the performance of certain formalities similar to other contracts, and which under certain circumstances can be dissolved. But, inasmuch as marriage concerns a relation which is based on morality and implies the most sacred duties, it is more than a mere civil contract. In such a contract the mutual duties and rights emanate from the optional agreement of the contracting parties, while those who enter upon the state of married life must submit to the reciprocal duties which have been imposed by religion and morality. Adultery is not merely infidelity toward the conjugal partner, but a violation of a divine order, a crime which cannot be condoned by the offended party; it invalidates the very foundation of that marriage, so as to make its continuation absolutely impossible. ‘Under Jewish jurisdiction the husband was compelled to divorce his wife who had been found guilty of adultery. The laws and regulations of divorce are full and detailed. A passage often quoted, in order to give an idea of the Jewish divorce law, is the following: “The school of Shammai” — inclining to Biblical ordinances — “says that a wife can be divorced only on account of infidelity. The school of Hillel says that the husband is not obliged to give a plausible motive for divorce — he may say that she spoiled his meal. Rabbi Akiba expresses the same idea in another way: he may say that he has found a more beautiful woman.” And those that wish to throw contempt upon the Jewish law add that the school of Hillel, the milder school, is followed in practical decisions. This is one of the cases in which not the whole truth is told. In the first place, a woman has the same right to apply for a divorce, without assigning any reason which motives of delicacy may prompt her to withhold. The idea underlying this seeming laxity is that when a man or a woman is willing to apply for a divorce on so trivial a ground, then, regard and love having vanished, in the interest of morality a divorce had better be granted, after due efforts have been made to effect a reconciliation. In reality, however, divorce laws were far from being lax. The facts that a woman who applied for a divorce lost her dowry, and in almost all cases a man who applied for it had to pay it, would suffice to restrain the tendency. Rabbinowicz remarks about a certain law, that it shows that the rabbis sought to diminish divorces as much as possible. Moreover, and this is the clinching fact, divorces were very rare.

The important points characterizing the Jewish divorce law, and distinguishing it far beyond that of other nations of antiquity, are these: A man, as a rule, could not divorce his wife without providing for her; he could not summarily send her from him, as was and is the custom in Eastern countries, but was obliged to give her a duly drawn up bill of divorcement; and women as well as men could sue for a divorce.

Besides these important provisions regulating woman’s estate, there are various intimations in the Talmud of delicate regard paid to the finer sensibilities of women.

These and such are the provisions which, originating in the hoary past, have intrenched the Jewess’ position even unto this day. Whatever she may be, she is through them. But what is she? You have heard of the Jewish custom which bids the Jewish mother, after her preparations for the Sabbath have been completed on Friday evening, kindle the Sabbath lamp? That is symbolic of the Jewish woman’s influence on her own home, and through it upon larger circles. She is the inspirer of a pure, chaste family life, whose hallowing influences are incalculable; she is the center of all spiritual endeavors, the confidante and fosterer of every undertaking. To her the Talmudic sentence applies: “It is woman alone through whom God’s blessings are vouchsafed to a house. She teaches the children, speeds the husband to the place of worship and instruction, welcomes him when he returns, keeps the house godly and pure, and God’s blessings rest upon all these things.”



Source: “What Has Judaism Done for Woman? in The World’s Parliament of Religions, An Illustrated and Popular Story of the World’s First Parliament of Religions, Held in Chicago in Connection with the Columbian Exposition of 1893, (Chicago: The Parliamentary Publishing Co., 1893), pp. 1052-1056.