One of the major issues of Jewish religious life has always been the equal participation of women in religious decision making and ritual. Although this seems to be an issue of the modern world, it is really an ancient issue from the very beginnings of human civilization in general, and in Judaism specifically.
We moderns tend to overlook many sources that point to an awareness of this issue in all of our classic texts including the Torah. But, in last week's Torah portion of Bo we read the following account:
Exodus 11:7 Pharaoh’s courtiers said to him, “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship the Lord their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” 8 So Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh and he said to them, “Go, worship the Lord your God! Who are the ones to go?” 9 Moses replied, “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe the Lord’s festival.” 10 But he said to them, “The Lord be with you the same as I mean to let your children go with you! Clearly, you are bent on mischief. 11 No! You menfolk go and worship the Lord, since that is what you want.” And they were expelled from Pharaoh’s presence.
The plain text is clear, and we need no commentary to see that the natural expectation that only men could participate in “worship of the Lord”, is not the position of Moses. Indeed, Pharoah takes it as a sign of “mischief” that Moses thinks that women and children, including daughters, are to be involved in the worship of God.
When Israel undergoes the acceptance of the covenant we read:
Deuteronomy 29: 9 You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, 10 your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—11 to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; 12 to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 13 I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, 14 but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.
The covenant with God is entered into by all, including women and children. Indeed, this source sees the covenant as binding on “those who are not with us here this day”, which is usually understood to mean all future generations.
The Torah is for all generations of Jews, not only for those who received it originally at Sinai. If women are not to be equally included as agents responsible for study and keeping of the Torah, then neither are future generations! It is clear that even at the beginning of the Jewish nation and religion there was a clear idea of equality for women in religious life.
Sociological constructsNow it is commonplace to say that the patriarchal antipathy, or worse, to women’s participation was a sociological construct of highly patriarchal societies of the past.
This is no doubt true, and yet one wonders if this is so clear cut, how is it that the Torah itself in its most basic texts reporting the revelation of God to Israel and the responsibility of covenant that came with it allows for egalitarian status?
It seems to me that male ambivalence towards women is part of this phenomenon. There is a basic recognition of the need for Jewish life and religious practice to be egalitarian, as witness our texts above.
And yet, men did control society, and they did define the role and status of women in a way to suit their needs. Indeed, even the rabbinic language which “exempts” women from certain mitzvot indicates that basically women are just as liable as men to perform all of the mitzvot, but they have an “exemption” which again is explained by appeal to sociological standards.
The very language of “exemption” implies obligation which has been waived for a particular reason.
In any case it is obvious that the attempts of the last 200 years to apply the basic approach of egalitarianism to Jewish religious life are not a “modern” notion, but rather is part and parcel of Torah from the beginning.