The role and the status that women have in Judaism has been largely misunderstood and misrepresented in recent times, and the confusion that women have in the world at large about their role and place in society has only made things more complicated. This article is my attempt to bring a little clarity to the subject.
But, before I go on… If you have come to this page with only a basic background in Judaism, then there are several great articles I recommend you take a look at first. All of these articles do a good job of explaining, in a very clear and down-to-earth way, the role and importance that traditional Judaism places on a woman:
For this article, I want to look at the question of a woman’s role and significance from a deeper perspective. What follows is the answer that I’ve personally come to after a lot of searching. It’s an answer that has continued to develop and expand over the years.
I know it’s a bit long. There are many levels and nuances to this important role, and I’d rather risk being too wordy then leave something out. Every section could really stand on it’s own, but when taken together, it reveals a fuller picture, a beautiful tapestry that only the Robbon Shel Olam could have created.
My Unanswered Questions
When I was starting out my journey as a Torah-observant Jewish wife and mother, there were two unanswered questions that kept bothering me:
First, if women are not obligated to learn Torah (which is the Instruction Manual to life, a Jew’s guide to maximizing his or her spiritual potential and impact this world), then how are we supposed achieve personal growth or advance spiritually? Is our role as women primarily a physical one?
The reality is there are few holy books that carefully lay out the spiritual side of a woman’s avoda. Most of the sefarim hakedoshim that we have past down from previous generations– the ones that many girls and woman learn today– are written for men and their avoda. Now, of course I don’t mean we can’t take out lessons from these holy books and apply them to our lives. My point is they were never intended for women, and a Jewish woman’s struggles and path in this world are different to a man’s- as can be plainly seen.
Yet, consider also that there are six constant mitzvos that men and women are equally obligated to fulfill:
- To know that HaShem exists
- To know that He is one
- To love Him
- To fear Him
- To sanctify His Name
- To have no other gods… Chazal tell us on this last mitzvah that anger and pride are a form of idol worship
Each of these mitzvahs have countless levels, and we, both men and women, are obligated to work on constantly progressing in their fulfillment. But, how does HaShem expect a woman to do this– especially when she is busy raising her children and running her home and maybe even holding a job as well as fulfilling other countless obligations, all at the same time… and she’s not even required to spend time pouring over G-d’s Instruction Manual?
Second, given that the role of a Jewish woman revolves around her marriage and her home, then where do single women, almonas (widows), algunas, or divorcees fit in? It would seem that a Jewish woman without a family is left without a purpose. But that can’t be true because if someone is in this world and he or she has bechira (the ability to make free will decisions), then every moment of life has an important purpose. A Jewish woman without a husband and/or children still has a spiritual tafkid to fulfill– every single day.
So, there must be something more to the role of a Jewish woman.
The Two Roles of a Jewish Woman
Towards the end of parshas Noach, Chazal give us some important insight into the unique nature and role of a woman. A woman, unlike a man, enters this world with two missions- a personal one, and a second, higher one that she later acquires and shares with her husband. Her spiritual development and success in fulfilling her purpose in life is dependent on how well she uses that first mission to support and enhance the second one.
Sarah Imeinu’s Three Names
וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם וְנָחוֹר לָהֶם, נָשִׁים: שֵׁם אֵשֶׁת–אַבְרָם, שָׂרָי, וְשֵׁם אֵשֶׁת–נָחוֹר מִלְכָּה, בַּת–הָרָן אֲבִי–מִלְכָּה וַאֲבִי יִסְכָּה
And Abram and Nahor took themselves wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and the father of Iscah.
Rashi on this possuk calls attention to the fact that Yiscah is really Sarah:
This is Sarah because she would see (סוֹכָה) through Divine inspiration, and because all gazed (סוֹכִין) at her beauty. Alternatively, יִסְכָּה is an expression denoting princedom, (נְסִיכוּת), just as Sarah is an expression of dominion (שְׂרָרָה).
The Maharal in his sefer Gur Aryeh then offers some interesting commentary. He starts with the possuk:
כל הנושא אשה לשם שמים כאילו ילדה
Any man who takes a wife for the sake of Heaven, it’s as if he gave birth to her.
The Maharal goes on to say that women go through two “births” as it were- one to her father (and mother) and one to her husband. From her parents, she gets the “building material” (חומר) that makes her who she is. This would include the spiritual genes and personality traits that she inherited from her parents as well as her innate strengths and weaknesses.
Part of a Jewish woman’s mission in life is to spiritually refine this raw material. This involves a very personal process of relying on her innate intuition, emunah, inner strength and her natural ability to call out HaShem in order to connect to the emes in every situation she finds herself in. Through this she ultimately comes closer to HaShem and her spiritual potential. This is her own path in life; it never leaves her.
But, this process is only one part of the equation. Her second, and higher goal is to use who she is and all that she will become to aide her in her joint mission with her husband. Upon marriage the husband gives her a “shape” (צורה). After marriage, her personal role takes on a new direction and context, and this, states the Maharal, is like a second birth since it brings a kind of completion to a woman’s existence and tafkid in this world.
It can be compared to a piece of clay or wood- all the material is there. But, it takes a sculpture to come along and turn it into something more- a plate, a cup, a jar. It now has a higher purpose.
The Maharal continues that the name Sarai represents who Sarah became after marrying Avraham. As Avraham grew in his Avodas HaShem, she was uplifted along with him (Thus, when the letter “hei” was added to Avraham’s name, Sarah also received a letter hei). After marriage, Sarah was exclusively called by her later names, but in deference to her personal greatness, the Torah also mentions the name Yiscah.
So women really have two parts to them or missions: one is personal that she gets when she is born and continues throughout her life, while the other is the joint mission she gets upon marriage to her husband.
Things are a bit different for a man. Chazal tell us that a man and his avoda in the world are to a certain extent incomplete and unfulfilled until he has found a wife. In other words, his avoda doesn’t really start until he is married. Everything up until that point is basically preparation. As our Sages state:
Any man who has no wife lives without goodness, without help, without joy, without blessing, and without atonement… To which Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi adds, any man who has no wife lives without peace. R’ Yehoshua of Sakhnin in the name of R’ Levi said: Even without life. Rabbi Cheya says that a man is not whole without a wife.
Midrash Rabbah Bereshis 17:2
[In] Eretz Yisrael, they say: One who lives without a wife is left without Torah, and without a wall of protection. He is without Torah, as it is written: “Is it that I have no help in me, and that sound wisdom is driven from me?” (Job 6:13), indicating that one who does not have a wife lacks sound wisdom, i.e., Torah. He is without a wall, as it is written: “A woman shall go round a man” (Jeremiah 31:21), similar to a protective wall.
The Light of the Moon
Chazal tell us that the sun is compared to a man, while the moon is compared to a woman. When the sun and the moon were first created, they were equal in stature and power:
On the fourth day He connected together the two great luminaries, of which one was not greater than the other. They were equal as regards their height, qualities, and illuminating powers…
Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 6:1
But the Midrash records a conversation between HaShem and the moon that changed this balance:
Simeon b. Pazzi pointed out a contradiction [between verses]. One verse says, And God made the two great lights, and immediately the verse continues, The greater light…and the lesser light. The moon said to the Holy One, blessed be He, “Sovereign of the Universe! Is it possible for two kings to wear one crown?” He answered, “Go then and make yourself smaller“. “Sovereign of the Universe!” cried the moon, “because I have suggested that which is proper must I then make myself smaller?” He replied, “Go, and you will rule by day and by night.” “But what is the value of this?” cried the moon. “Of what use is a lamp in broad daylight?” He replied. “Go. Israel shall reckon by you the days and the years.” “But it is impossible,” said the moon, “to do without the sun for the reckoning of the seasons, as it is written, And let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and for years.” “Go. The righteous shall be named after you as we find, Jacob HaKatan (the small one), Samuel HaKatan, David HaKatan.” On seeing that it would not be consoled, the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “Bring an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller.”
Talmud, Chullin 60b
Chazal tell us that the intrinsic nature of a man is like the sun. He is the “great luminary,” whose bright light radiates over the earth to provide warmth and illumination. A man by nature is a giver and an influencer, a doer, a builder, and a leader. Just as the sun shines forth the light that the moon then reflects back, so too the husband is the primary spiritual mashpia, or influence, in the marriage regardless of how learned or spiritual he is.
But in the moments of darkness, when the way forward seems hidden, obscure, and full of seemingly unbearable obstacles, it’s very hard for a man to reconnect to his innate light, strength, and spiritual clarity. Having emunah in challenging times is something that is very hard for a man to do. It could be said that it’s one of the most difficult parts of a man’s work in this world.
A woman, however, is compared to the moon. Specifically in those moments of doubt, confusion, and obscurity, that is when women have the innate ability to shine bright. A woman’s strength is that she takes the light she receives from her husband and then gives it out: for comfort, chizuk, and clarity. She turns the harsh, searing rays into an essential, soft and radiant light that illuminates the darkness, making it easier for those around her to bear.
In fact, our Sages repeatedly point out that women intrinsically have greater emunah than men.
So, women are meant to find and reflect the light around them. But, to the extent that a woman is internally connected to HaShem, to emes, and to who she is, to the extent that her mirror is refined and clean, to that extent the reflection she gives out will be accurate and clear. If she is off, then so will be the reflection- just like a mirror that is warped or unclean.
A woman can rely on her innate abilities to help her do her job effectively. She can personally strive to refine herself and her connection to HaShem so that the reflection that comes back is as clear as possible. But, it’s the light itself that she receives from her husband which gives her the clarity and ability to positively influence her family and those around her. In the process, she helps others shine their own inner light forth into the world.
If, however, a husband is not giving to his wife to the best of his abilities, both physically and spiritually, then her light will “contract” so to speak. In other words, her sphere of influence will be limited both within her home and outside of it. Even if she receives a little light from other sources, such as a Rebbe or a Rav or other women, if she’s not receiving from her husband she won’t have the spiritual or emotional cailim, the vessels, to hold it properly. Just as the moon cannot generate light all on its own, to a certain extent, neither can a woman. In fact, the word קטן doesn’t just mean “small,” it also means to be a receiver.
But being a receiver doesn’t mean being passive. She receives in order to give and she receives in order to influence those around her. As the gemara relates, “Go, and you will rule by day and by night.” She has the power to “rule by day,” even when the sun is shining bright, but it happens from the background. It’s she who often pulls the strings, but from behind the scenes.
HaShem also says to the moon, “Go (לכי), and make yourself small.” The word לכי refers to spiritual movement and growth. Her smallness is a temporary situation, an example of a descent to make possible a future ascent. HaShem was hinting to her that by diminishing herself, it would allow her to reach greater heights- both in this world and in the next- than she previously would have been capable of.
This then is the nature and role of a Jewish woman at the most basic level: she takes the light that she picks up, that she senses, and receives from those around her, particularly from her husband, and she projects it back in a way that gives them clarity, builds them up, encourages them to move forward, and helps them to properly see the challenges that lie ahead. It doesn’t matter in what setting or in what way this comes out, this dynamic always exists when it comes to a woman whose basic needs are being met. We can see this even in the world at large.
But it should be stated that just as every physical birth is painful, yet some births are certainly more painful than others, so too is marriage and raising children. How much pain and difficulty a woman experiences in these two areas in her life depends on her mazel and unique path in the world.
Sometimes a husband may not be able to give what he needs to- whether it’s due to his own internal blocks or other external circumstances. In this case, a woman’s job is to try wisely to draw it out of him.
Bringing Out the Best in Herself and Others
While there were many things that the women in Egypt were praised for, one of the biggest and perhaps most well-known is that they had the emunah to continue family life, and even more importantly, they were able convince their husbands to join them. Everyone in that generation knew of HaShem’s promised redemption, but the men were very disconnected from that knowledge. They were busy fighting through waves of depression and exhaustion.
The women helped their husbands to see rays of truth and renewed hope. These men were then emboldened to not only continue on, but also continue giving of themselves.
Interestingly, what were the instruments that they women used to encourage their husbands?
They didn’t just use them to beautify themselves, either. The midrash tells us that they took these mirrors and showed their husbands their reflection.
They did this figuratively as well. They offered a reflection of hope and light in the darkness, and because of this they were able to encourage their husbands to continue family life. In fact, Chazal tell us that our descendants were redeemed in the merit of the women of that generation, and that these same women were able to reach the level of tzadikim.
To summarize, there are two main points that define a woman’s role:
1. The importance of constantly working on your personal growth. This process continues even after we are married. Since we women are constantly giving to our husbands, children, extended family members, and to the communities we live in, our personal work can easily get pushed aside. We can also feel that there is little for us to do spiritually since our husbands are out there “doing all the avoda.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The more connected we are to HaShem, the more we can help our loved ones reach their own potential. Period.
2. The relationship you have with your husband is there to give you direction, to bring you closer to yourself and to HaShem. Some couples are blessed with Shalom Bais. Even though they have to work on their relationship, and there are plenty of ups and downs along the way, there is a healthy connection based on love and mutual respect as well as a healthy give and take. In this case, the woman has the space and support to help herself and those around her even through extremely difficult times.
But as some of my readers may know, it doesn’t always work out that way…
Avraham Avinu was a spiritual giant, so when he married Sarah Imeinu, she was instantly uplifted. As he went up, so did she. But in these days of hester and galus, we have to work much harder to bring out the best in our husbands and to help them and our children in their avodas HaShem. We have to work harder at a time when depression, anxiety, confusion, materialism, and a lack of spiritual clarity is running rampant in our communities… and in our homes.
What this means is that we as woman have to pay particular attention to our personal path of growth. We have to be stronger, more connected to ourselves, to truth, and to HaShem than ever before in order to do what we need to. We have to live in the spiritual darkness of Mitzrayim and wake up every single day with our emunah in tact.
Another Aspect to the Role of a Jewish Woman
Up until this point, I have been primarily answering the first of my two questions about the role of women in Judaism. Now, I will also address the second question…
After Adam and Chava fell from their lofty level by eating from the Eitz HaDaas (the Tree of Knowledge) Chava was given two specific sets of punishments:
- Having difficulty with pregnancy, childbirth, and raising children
- Being dependent on her husband
Interestingly, according to Rashi, the second punishment means she will struggle with not being able to directly ask her husband for intimacy.
What I find surprising is that the order of these punishments seems backwards considering the nature of things. Why didn’t HaShem first mention the new dynamic Chava will have with her husband, and then tell her about the pains of childbirth and raising children?
Of course, we could explain it by the fact that she first ate herself and then gave to her husband. So, HaShem was simply stating the punishment according to the order of her actions.
But, perhaps there is something else over here. We know that actions are also “children.”
In parshas Noach, it states:
These are the generations of Noach. Noach was a righteous man…
אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק
Chazal tell us on this possuk that “the main descendants of the righteous are their good deeds.”
HaShem could have been hinting to her, that from now on her “children”– her personal avoda and growth, her connection to HaShem, her spiritual legacy, her Torah– will primarily come through the way she responds to her circumstances in life, particularly the pain and hardship.
Before eating from the Eitz HaDaas, both Adam and Chava only experienced, saw, and knew of טוב (good). The concept of רע (evil) was something that lay totally outside of them and their existence. After they ate, however, both טוב ורע became mixed together, so that what seems to be good is in fact often bad, and what seems to be bad is in fact often good.
According the Baal Shem Tov, part of man’s rectification after the chait is to once again separate טוב from רע, by finding and uplifting the sparks of kedusha and spirituality that are hidden in his mundane world. Every single Jew is tasked with this mission, but women have innate the ability to accomplish this goal through the very pain and hardship that are an inseparable part of their lives. They have the innate ability to sense and find HaShem where ever they are, much in the way Dovid HaMelech was able to come to the perceptions of Godliness that make up his Sefer Tehillim. The pain itself is part of the solution.
Any woman, without exception, whether she is single or married, has many children or is barren, can still use her natural abilities to connect to HaShem through the ups and downs. She can still be involved in drawing out and reflecting the light of those around her and in the process being changed herself, because this dynamic can happen outside of the context of a home, as well, even if it’s not at the most ideal level.
Since, according to Chazal, we know that a person’s deeds and even good thoughts are also considered children (see Kiddushin 40a), that means any woman with bechira has the opportunity to create offsping in this world that will greet her in the next one. Consider the example of Sarah Schenirer a”h. She was not blessed with children of her own, yet she is a mother to the thousands and thousands of women who have attended a Bais Yacov.
There are many ways to have spiritual children. For example, Chazal also say that if you teach a person Torah or bring a person closer to HaShem, that this is also an aspect of birth. So, too is providing financial support or sustenance to someone.
Interestingly, the Gemara (Brochos 17a) asks: How do women earn merit in this world that will stand by them in the next world? The gemara then answers: By making their children go to chaedar and their husbands to the Beis midrash to learn Torah and then waiting for their husbands to return.
Here again we have the same question: Why not start with husband? Shouldn’t he be the priority? Why is he listed as the second thing?
One possible explanation could be that children lack the free will of an adult, so she has more responsibility to them. But this Gemara could be yet another hint to the fact that by “children” we really mean two things: one on a spiritual level and one on a physical level. The spiritual children exist for all women regardless of their situation in life, and it’s over here that all women are required to start their personal journey.
Thus, single women and those without children can be paying particular attention to their thoughts and actions. Are you doing things that bring you and others closer to HaShem? Are you connecting yourself, like a marriage, to that which brings Cavod Shamayim into the world? Shabbos, gemilas chasidim, tefilla, your level of tzinus?
So, to summarize: a woman is meant to refine herself and her connection to HaShem. This happens on a personal level through the hardships she experiences and on a higher level through the her marriage. Her job is to take out the light hidden in her experiences and the people she knows and meets, and then reflect it back out in a way that builds up those around her and reveals HaShem’s Presence in this world.
While the most ideal situation for a woman is to receive and reflect the light within her family, she also has a role outside of the home. In the case where a woman does not have a family, then the second aspect will take more precedence.
May we be zoche to recognize who we are and what we are capable of, may we come closer to HaShem and ourselves and in the process lift up those around us.