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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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Question 8.4:
What is the Orthodox view of the role of women in Judaism?


The role of women in Orthodox Jewish life, like the role of men, is a complex and dynamic product of the myriad components of life. In Orthodox Jewish thought, religious observance encompasses a broad spectrum of areas including but not limited to observance of the Sabbath and dietary laws, contemplation, social interaction, personal development, business practice and charity. The role of the Jewish woman involves all of these areas as well as many others.

These general components of the role of the Jewish woman are constant throughout history. However, the particular manifestations of these components differ from era to era and person to person. Jewish law does not regulate every detail of life, but provides a basic structure within which each person may express their own personality.

Throughout the centuries, the occupations of wife and mother have been primary vehicles of religious expression and duty for Jewish women. Indeed, throughout history, the vast majority of women of all cultures and religions have focused their energies on these roles. While debate rages throughout contemporary society as to the origin and benefit of these roles for women, it is widely recognized throughout the Orthodox Jewish world that the roles of wife and mother afford tremendous opportunity for spiritual expression and growth. Home-life in Orthodox Judaism is a rich world of familial love, nurturing of others, prayer, intellect, and communal festivity. One could argue that it is a far more interesting and spiritually satisfying world than the corporate work-environment. Nevertheless, contrary to popular belief, women are not forbidden to hold jobs. Again, Torah law does not micro-manage people's lives. Torah philosophy does emphasize that occupations for material acquisition be secondary to higher religious activities such as family-life, prayer, and charity, but this principle applies to men as well as to women.

According to many classical Torah authorities, women are not required to get married. A woman could find a place in Orthodox Judaism without involvement in the roles of wife and mother. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Orthodox Jewish women in our times find these roles central to their divine service. The exact degree of centrality and manner of expression will differ from woman to woman. But it is recognized in Torah thought in general that dedication to others is a virtue. Family-life is an ideal setting for such dedication since the personal lives of family members overlap in myriad ways.

Thus, the role of the Jewish woman is not easily defined, as it will assume different forms as each woman develops herself in accordance with the general parameters of Jewish law and philosophy.

Many, when looking at this issue, have trouble reconciling it with egalitarian positions where women are viewed as having equal rights. When exploring the Orthodox view, there is an important distinction to be made: rights vs. obligations. Traditional Judaism looks at actions in terms of duties and obligations, not the modern socio-political notions of rights. Thus, in Traditional Judaism, men and women have different duties and obligations; the question of rights never arises.

You can find more on this subject in the book Male and Female He Created Them from Targum/Feldheim.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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