Are Women Second-Class Citizens in Traditional Judaism?

By Chana Weisberg


Question: How can you seriously, honestly claim that Orthodox Judaism has any respect for women, and that they have the right view of them and seek true justice on their behalf?
Why can women not love G‑d but have self-respect, and free participation in our religion at the same time? Why can’t we be what He intended, and not what man wants to reduce us to? Why can religious women not see that it is simply religious manipulation on the part of men that keeps them content as second-class citizens within a third-world mentality?

Answer:You sound upset and angry. You feel strongly that you want a connection to G‑d, but don’t see it in “religion” due to the supposed mistreatment of women.
I have much to say on the subject, and I really wish you could access a copy of my latest book, Tending the Garden, which addresses the role of women in Judaism and might just surprise you with some stereotype-breaking descriptions.

But I digress.

Let me tell you what I see when I look at free, Western society. I see women prancing in front of men as if they are pieces of flesh to grab on to. I see women leading unhappy lives in a career climb that doesn’t satisfy their natural instincts of being a woman. I see women stuck in miserable marriages with men who take them for granted, and who often leave them for a younger “chick,” or cheat on them. I see one out of two marriages ending in divorce, if not more, and who knows how many other unhappy ones. I see women who seem to have attained “freedom” and “emancipation,” but come home from a long day at the office to still do 90 percent of the housework. I see women in this free society who hit the glass ceiling far too often because they are women, and I see that those who succeed often have to drop every iota of their femininity in their climb up. I see women who are free to wear whatever clothes that they choose, yet parade around wearing as little as they can to get whatever recognition from the opposite gender. I see pregnant teens. I see teens who’ve lost their innocence before they could even understand what having any kind of relationship is all about.

And all this, I see in our “free” society. A society that supposedly recognizes women and treats them with some degree of respect.

My point is—what appears as freedom, isn’t always so. What appears as “women’s rights” can also lead women to the most degrading, self-humiliating behavior lacking any self-respect.
Unlike the Torah that you describe, the Torah that I know takes a balanced approach, bringing out the true essence of every individual, while respecting the uniqueness of both genders and setting parameters so that this boundary is not violated.

I wish that just for a short while you would be a part of a chassidic, Lubavitch community. I think you would be surprised with, for the most part, the degree of respect the women are given. You would hear the men speak about the greatness of their women. You would hear the Rebbe’s words quoted about the higher spiritual source and level of women, about the strength of Jewish women, about the vital contribution of the Jewish woman. But most of all, you would see husbands and wives working in partnership, looking at each other with respect, each doing their own part to bring more G‑dliness into this world.

Words are cheap. I just wish you could witness this lifestyle with your own eyes.

By Chana Weisberg
Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.Artwork by Sarah Kranz.

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