Why does Judaism puts-down its women?…ask the rabbi

September 5, 2016 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple tackles the question of how Judaism put-downs its women…


Q. Why does Judaism put down its women?

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

A. I don’t agree that it does. There are uncomfortable things said about women, but there are also wonderful poems in their praise in both the Bible and rabbinic literature.

Social mores denied a broad education to many women and tried to limit them to the domestic scene. Yet tradition (inspired by the famous chapter 31 of Mishlei) constantly praised women’s wisdom and understanding.

In answering your question the thought of my own late mother vividly comes to mind. An educated woman, an acclaimed high school teacher, after she got married she concentrated on her home and family… but at the same time she had a good brain and her businessmen brothers came to her for her advice and ideas. I don’t know whether she knew of Donna Gracia or Glueckel of Hameln, but Gracia and Glueckel were examples of what a Jewish woman could do.

These days women occupy high profile roles in society, and in Judaism there are outstanding woman scholars of Torah.


Q. Why is the shofar blown during the month of Ellul?

A. There is a danger that people will not be ready for Rosh HaShanah. Hence the whole of the month of Ellul is a time for spiritual preparation.

This includes commencing the spiritual wakefulness that the shofar symbolises. The prophet Amos says, “Shall the shofar be blown in the city and the people not be afraid?” (Amos 3:6).

To leave it to Rosh HaShanah to be shaken by the sound of the shofar may be too late for adequate introspection. We need the extra time beforehand to get our affairs in order, to recognise our sins, to repent and to perform deeds of lovingkindness and charity.

There is a historical precedent that reinforces the value of hearing the shofar in advance.

When Moses went back up Mount Sinai to secure forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf, the shofar was sounded in the camp to warn the Israelites not to sin again.

Since it was 1 Ellul when Moses went up the mountain the second time, it was during Ellul that the shofar was sounded, and it was only because the Almighty saw the sincerity of the people’s penitence that he sent Moses back on 10 Tishri (Yom Kippur) with the message, “salachti”, “I have forgiven”.


Q. I know you are against mixed marriages, but do mixed marriages really not work?

A. Some do, some don’t, but a mixed marriage can encounter special strains.

It is not only that Judaism is weakened when a Jew marries out of the faith but the marriage itself can be more fragile. Marital stability is more likely when a couple have the same religious and cultural commitment.

Even if religion means nothing to them, mindsets and attitudes which arise out of their background can create tensions. In moments of stress there is sometimes an almost total inability to understand where the other is coming from.

There are additional problems caused for the children of mixed marriages. Who are they? Where do they belong? How do they negotiate the differences between two cultures, two ways of life, two sets of commitments?

70% of children from mixed Jewish/non-Jewish marriages are not brought up to regard themselves as Jews.

The more mixed marriages there are, the less Jews there will be, and that imposes additional pressures on the Jews who remain.

Obviously the majority of Jews believe Judaism is a great asset for them and for the world, and we should all be doing everything we can to ensure that the Jewish way, the Jewish idea, and the Jewish heritage will not come under threat.

There are some who argue that we should be breaking down the barriers between human groups and cultures. In reply, Lord Jakobovits wrote, “What we place before the world is not an effort to divide brother from brother. Certain things we share in common with everybody, and other things are unique to our people, to our community, and to the family.

“It is only through this diversity of existence, without breaking down all barriers, but retaining distinctions and expecting different faiths to make their separate contributions to the overall enrichment of human society, that we can ultimately reach the goal of what we understand by the brotherhood of man.”

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.


10 Responses to “Why does Judaism puts-down its women?…ask the rabbi”
  1. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    Thank you for your considered reply, Otto, and it warms my heart (and if I’m being honest, feeds my vanity) to think that discussion with me might be inspiring to you.

    It’s true that the practices to which I have referred do not affect all Jewish men and women under the Orthodox umbrella, nevertheless they do affect many – too many. And they are an aberration, offensive and limiting in nature. The problem exists everywhere, but is far worse in Israel. If the areas of behaviour I cite are not necessary to the Jewish mode of observance, let us rid ourselves of them. It is up to Rabbis and Jewish leaders in the communities to lead the way. And it is up to women to refuse to abide by these ridiculous, disempowering edicts. Indeed, some of the Ultra-Orthodox women are almost vicious in their own support of them. Others, though, are becoming more than restive.

    The good Rabbi Apple says that these days there are outstanding women scholars of Torah – it is one thing to recognise that and quite another to allow active room for it with all the connotations that suggests.

    I am passionately aware of our spiritual inheritance and ethical responsibilities as Jews. Men and women can share that equally and should be able to. To make that possible will only serve to strengthen both individual development in that regard as well as unity. What a beautiful thing that would be.

  2. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    Ah, Otto, but how lovely when the pure spiritual and the ‘not so pure sensorial cum passionate “detractive” faculties’ come together (as inferred in ‘Shir HaShirim’), as they can, and in the best of circumstances do. Yes, that’s what Judaism allows. It most certainly celebrates human sexuality. And encourages active spirituality. Although, Judaism being as realistic as it is, and concrete in exposition of its values, does not come down so heavily on ‘purity’. That’s Christianity and Jesus speak. Surely, we believe more in redeeming ourselves after making mistakes, rather than chasing some kind of pure perfection. The lower you fall, the higher you may climb back up, thereby becoming special indeed.

    So, why, as an Orthodox Jewish man, separate the two things with such a distinction as to disallow healthy, respectful man/woman contact? Why be so afraid? That is still my question. And you haven’t answered it. Ordinary day to day contact of men and women does not necessarily involve sexual desire, and need not. Please do not go running to the Good Book for validation of this issue because you won’t find it. (For example, you won’t find anywhere an instruction from G-d that men and women cannot pray together.) And please stop hiding behind the more general banner of ‘Judaism’ when putting your case. You need to be more specific than that to get to the roots of the problem. And problem there is.

    I’m not sure how imaginative or empathetic you are as a person, but even if highly developed in these areas, you’d be hard put to have any idea of what it feels like as a woman to be subject to these imposts, as well as to realise the full extent of what it can mean to the shaping of a life lived each day if abiding by them. And here I am only speaking of what some might consider the more minor aspects of it, such as those I’ve already listed as segregation. Silencing in the form of women not being able to speak on the radio (although that’s illegal in Israel in regard to public broadcasting, still the very religious try to impose it through influence) or singing in front of men; anonymity in the form of women not being included in photos displayed publicly – being blanked out (even female world leaders!); the policing of what women wear in the streets – all of this has its impact. Can’t you see that? – open your mind to it and imagine it, even hypothetically if that allows more access for you. We can upgrade the act of oppression to abuse in the form Vivien Resofsky speaks of, which is an area I’ve left untouched in my discussion. Whether minor, or major, patriarchal power is having its way. I know, I know, there are some truly lovely Orthodox Rabbis … humane, erudite, humane people … BUT we still have these problems that need to be addressed. So let the best of the bunch get their heads together and make some changes.

    • Otto Waldmann says:

      Dear Liat

      it’s 1 a.m. where I am now and I shall serve you just a vorspeis for my reply.

      I do not consider the reflex parade of dovening and many other mechanical mores as related to the Judaism I am attached and devoted to nor do I approve of some of the stuff you mentioned as being absurd , although you did not specifically use the term, as they do NOT relate to the necessary modes of Jewish observance. It is the exacerbated fear of loss and betrayal replacing wisdom and the ACTUAL understanding of Judaic values. It sends us by contrast immediately to the kind of Jew Gershom Sholem was, almost perfection – as only almost may be attained anyway – and not at all given to those unnecessary restrictions/oppressive practices. Those extremes are not that widely spread as to really affect the smart, neighbourly Yid not given to such highly inflated notions of farcical devotion. I have known lots of people with impeccable Shule mannerism and with not so appealing of vices outside the Shabboss frumm pretence.
      I will talk mostly of what I believe we should follow as we use healthy incisive reflexions upon our spiritual inheritance and the ethical responsibilities thereof. Best proof I’m talkin’ toya and find it inspiring, itself considered an avera by the people you referred to….what, a woman inspiring a bloke !!!

  3. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    Hello there, Otto,
    Really good to have you back in the thick of things, and I hope your reference to me as your mate was not uttered through gritted teeth thereby giving it inverted meaning.

    I’ve looked everywhere in my posting and can’t find the least sign of the oppression you accuse me of. It seems to me a forthright, assertive piece, not without a touch of friendliness thrown in. Perhaps have another read of it; you might receive it differently after a cooling off period. And I do not say this in a patronising way. Words can often be received differently when you’re not seeing red and rising up in hardly tolerable angst at the sight of them.

    A question, Otto: if there is no sign of gender segregation in Judaism, then why are females segregated from males at HaKotel and in Orthodox synagogues? Why are females and males not allowed to dance together at festivals and celebratory events? Why are males not supposed to look directly at females passing in the street, or sit next to them in buses, on planes, not allowed to shake their hands on introduction (all of which makes females feel sub-human)? I know the stock answer to the latter situations posited, and I do not accept it. Let the male be responsible and strong enough within himself to resist the surge of desire that may afflict him on seeing a female or shaking her hand! – if he can’t manage that, then let him sequester himself in his home, never to see the light of day. Good heavens, what rubbish.

    None of this is due to opening the pages of the Good Book, as you put it, it’s due to some Jewish men’s interpretations of the Good Book, interpretations that isolate women and take from them the right to exist more liberally as human beings, forever having to shape up to the decrees of men. NOT ALL MEN, Otto. I did not say or imply that. And I also showed a degree of recognition of Rabbi Apple’s difficulty in discussing the topic within the framework that has been constructed for Orthodox adherence. Good on him for trying; he’s up against it with the present structure of things. I am not a man-hater – never have been. Wouldn’t want to do without them. But would run a mile quickly and immediately from those who would seek to tell me or remind me that I cannot pray and live as he can.

    Please stick to the facts that exist as a result of restrictions for women within Orthodox Judaism, Otto,(and they do, but perhaps you’re not aware of them due to the rare atmosphere in which you abide – it’s difficult to sniff out the subtlties of female discontent and easy to turn a blind eye to them even if they’re more overt) instead of personalising and generalising. I am even more concerned at Ultra-Orthodoxy than Orthodoxy, however I know you do not accept the former as a categorisation, even though there is such a big difference. This is not an attack on men. It’s an attack on a system that precludes women and men behaving sensibly and healthily with one another, while preserving quite severe patriarchy. There are many forms of oppression, some more recognisable and blatant than others. It is not a ‘wise social arrangement’ if all members of a society do not have the same options on reaching adulthood. I, too, love Judaism, and would love to see it expand to include me and all women in the fullest of ways, but so many men don’t want that. And those that don’t, persist with closed minds.

    While I am curious about your next instalment and the hell inflicted upon you by those female ‘slaves of Judaic terror’, bear in mind that it might not really have a bearing on the facts of the situation discussed here. A man and a woman can inflict harm and oppress one another whatever their ethnicity or religion. That’s called being human.

    my warmest regards to you.

    • Otto Waldmann says:

      Dear Liat
      the rare delights of reading your mind , the irresistible logic therein almost seductive if not for the substantive wrongs – not same as errors – make for a valiant guardian of needles causes.
      I almost read again your initial comments but, after you listed all grievances against the same tyranies I rested satisfied that my own mind is almost as reliable as yours, which is good enough for me.

      The classic retort to your kvetching is that, as you alluded but only in jest – simply because we are not discovering here any magic chochma stones – men in Judaism do not detach themselves from certain practices OTHER religions follow as a matter of oppressive principles but as a necessary, as they see it distinction between the purest spiritual observance and the not so pure sensorial cum passionate detractive “faculties” known to man. As intimacy of gender is not forbidden in Judaism, quite the opposite, imposed rules of strict concentration on matters of the grey matter unrelated to emotions of kind, is the acceptable to me reason for all those objections you listed.
      If real oppression were to be complete, then the same set of rules would preserve genuine instructions for physical redress cum abuse, a condition imperative for the preservation of all those non existent modes of segregation in Judaism, but – alevai – such allowances do not exist, do they now !!! Separation , distinct mannerism, social discipline do not necessarily mean segregation and/or oppression.
      My interpretation is that in Judaism we see for the first time a more concrete attempt at determining that human behaviour is genetically designed or allowed to manifest against it own necessary “nature” of rational behaviour consistent with balanced societal norms and restrictive rules must be imposed. You explained precisely the same reasoning when trying to exclude, deny the same.
      Once again, the afforded liberties in expressing claims of plight in our practices offer literary delights more in the fiction genre, but that’s about all and all completes the formidable edifice of a Judaism which not only allows for such virtues from the “other” human side but makes them necessary. To patronise, I hope in an acceptable way, I am grateful to you for enhancing “our” creed with your exquisite passages.

  4. Otto Waldmann says:

    For starters – and don’t get me started……..oy vey , it’s too late !!! – the question of Judaism doing or saying one thing or another is quite farcical. Mr , Mrs or Ms Judaism seems to “say” whatever the author of the opinion piece reckons, has managed to gather, has been” instructed” to say. In a good very old but still very much alive Jewish tradition, anyone is allowed, indeed encouraged, to penetrate the Gven wisdom and, just as traditionally, venture HIS and of late – another oy vey – HER opinion of the virtues of the free for all Judaism.

    To mine, MY Judaism is reflected by the wonderful Jewish women I’ve known and even some of the married.
    At this juncture we may not dare say that Jewish women are being ANYTHING from oppressed ( I wish ) to , has Vsholem, told what to do or say anywhere in the Jewish world.
    Me mate Liat HAD to offer her cholent of indictments against all and sundry men in OUR little mental shtetl and so had the other expected suspects of the same Yenta Brigade ( I had to say it somewhere and it’s not intended to offend ) .
    If I felt like it, I could open the Good Book at any page and demonstrate in spades that THERE is no trace of gender segregation in Judaism and that ours has been the most inspired, time infinitely impeccable source of the MOST egalitarian, fairest social order in terms of respect for everyone human, woman, man, child, alter so and so. Judaism provides for wise social arrangements with an epochal suitability that NO other conceptual system could fathom.
    Want an immediate example, ladies, read your own chutzpah ridden, utterly oppressive pieces and recall when did yourse EVER open the front door and did NOT abuse your poor, dignity deprived men in your lives !!!
    In the next instalment I shall start with my own hell at the hands of those slaves of Judaic terror .

  5. Vivien Resofsky says:

    I disagree.

    According to Jewish Women International, 1996, Shalom bayit part of the reason why many Jewish women stay in abusive relationships … in that a victim of domestic violence may be reluctant to seek help because she may feel she failed at her role to maintain the peace in her home … she may be fearful of bringing shanda, or shame, on her family and the community.

    Michelle Myer, Tzedek CEO, acknowledges the imposition of gender segregation within Orthodox Jewish communities: “In these communities, a woman’s voice is second to that of a man. The voices of the women are still very much marginalised within the community. This may well make it all the harder for women in the Jewish community to speak out against their perpetrators and/or institutions where they were sexually abused.”
    In an article entitled: The Catch 22 of Case 22, a female victim discussed her plight as a victim of child sexual abuse. http://www.jwire.com.au/child-sexual-abuse-female-voice/

    “In the public arena, the right words are being uttered. Permission to disclose and report child sexual abuse has been granted. However, there is still a prevailing undercurrent of pressure to remain silent. The community may have indeed become alert to the possibilities of grooming and sexual abuse, but this has not changed a deeply seated cultural stigma around these issues.

    This victim goes on to share her experience of abuse in the Ultra-Orthodox community.
    “The reactions I have experienced when talking to family members and others in the community have been far from supportive and encouraging. I have received comments such as: Shoin (okay), so your life was wrecked, you’re damaged goods, but why go out of your way to wreck other peoples’ lives? Why would you speak out? Why would you go to the police or to court? You will besmirch the family’s name! How can you even think of doing this when you know it will affect the marriageability of the others in your family?

    My voice, my wellbeing and my empowerment have been taken away over and over again. It started with the sexual abuse perpetrated on me from the age of 15 and it continues every time I am told, explicitly or implicitly, that I have no right to talk, no right to redress, no right to justice. This reinforces the dynamics that sex abusers count on to avoid being exposed or held accountable for their crimes.

    Other Jewish women’s group are working to change the status quo in relation to the role that women play in Orthodox communities. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance seek to use education to counter what it describes as ‘soft bigotry’ of the community’s low expectations of women.
    Julia Baird, host of ABC 24’s ‘The Drum links the problem of family violence in the Church to the fact that the Church as a patriarchy failed to raise the position of women in society. “Is there a direct relationship to domestic violence?” she poses, “Of course not. Does it create a culture in which we do not hear the voices of women? Of course it does.”

  6. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    Dear Rabbi Apple,
    You have discussed issues in relation to women in Judaism and mixed marriages as best you can within the strict framework you find yourself in as an Orthodox Rabbi. And you most certainly haven’t been strident about it. However, until the time arrives where Orthodoxy and Ultra-Orthodoxy practised as Jewish life shifts to allow a degree of pluralism and the richness of other, it will strain at the leash to prosper in fuller terms. There is no reason why respect for the Jewish tradition and Torah cannot co-exist with better inclusion of women and some acceptance of difference.

    You gave us the story of your mother, who of course was in her prime of life in a different era. If a woman then, or now, wishes to devote herself entirely to family and giver of advice to family members, that is fine. However, it is time that women have more definite options to be actively Jewish in a religious sense if they wish to and to partake of other activities outside the home if their talents or wishes dictate that. Without the kind of dissent and aggression we see in Israel vis-a-vis the women who want to pray at HaKotel. It is no longer good enough to be acknowledged for understanding and wisdom, yet disallowed active use of those qualities in a public and broader arena. It is not for men to tell women they are not ‘obligated’ to pray or attend synagogue. It is not for men to assign to women the job of lighting candles and throwing candies at Bar-Mitvahs, but little else except domesticity and the preparation of food for festivals. It is not for men to consider that the ode to women in the form of ‘Woman of Valour’ is enough in the way of commendation and appreciation to show what’s what. If one reads those words in a concentrated way they amount to an almost inhuman expectation of what a woman should perform in her Jewish life for family, due of course to her ‘strengths and qualities’. There is absolutely no room for her burgeoning self. I say this with the full realisation that women do have those strengths and go to extraordinary lengths to nurture, protect and consolidate their family. I have done it myself and I have also done other things. For, that is not all there is, Rabbi. We can do all of those things and still enrich ourselves further with a fuller, active spiritual or religious life. We can also write poetry, paint, research science et al, even with a family. I can well understand why a man would love the idea of A Woman of Valour, because he is supported so fully and unequivocally. Today’s young men, in the main, do not have a problem with contributing more time and energy to house and family and creating a more equitable situation. And that’s a good thing. It needs to inhabit the lives of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men too, to release the slave the women can become in such circumstances, or to at least provide options.

    I have just been reading of one of three female rabbis in France, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur (in The Times of Israel). She grew up within an Orthodox environment and loved learning Talmud along the way. Now she is a Liberal Rabbi. Obviously, she is in the Jewish Diaspora, and so the fact that she believes that creativity and ability to reinvent yourself anew and live between worlds is a great strength, can be expected. There is no reason why this could not also be considered a strength within the Jewish world in Israel. For life means ongoing learning, change and development, and that need not be a threat to maintaining and respecting ancient practice of tradition and knowledge associated with it.

    The world at large would be a healthier place if there were more understanding on a deeper level of the belief and practices of others. A journal providing that in the way of art, science and Jewish thought, as well perhaps space for inclusion of other perspectives could be a way towards this. I believe Rabbi Horvilleur has been involved in such a publication. It’s a small start, a bridge, yet doesn’t weaken the core. I understand what you say about the protection of ongoing Jewish population, however such hard and fast rules that cut people off from other humans in an intimate sense not only narrows their sense of being a human being (in the universal sense), but also creates ground for lack of understanding of Jewish people. A mixed marriage will not prevent a Jewish person, aware of the Jewish soul in them, from being Jewish.

  7. Hilary Rubinstein says:

    I take the rabbi’s point about Judaism not putting down its women as much as the questioner may be implying, but the quotations from Lord Sacks would sit better for the egalitarian argument if he had employed gender-inclusive language. Brothers are male, and no amount of apologist acrobatics can gainsay that fact or deny the psychological effect it has on we neglected sisters!

  8. Lynne Newington says:

    As far as Jewish women being put down, never in the company I keep.
    Can mixed marriages work?……if one is a Catholic, only if it is agreed the children are reared into the faith and the interference with ones sex life where contraception is banned.
    Then try getting an annulment if it doesn’t work altogether!

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