Reprinted with permission from Olam.org
One of the greatest mystics of Jewish philosophy, the fabled Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehudah Lowe), defines redemption as "the ultimate purpose of both personal and collective existence, the freedom to be oneself".
We women are told by today's society that to be a "full person," one must adopt all of the attitudes and trappings associated with men. We are told to choose between two oppressive, unnatural options: to live a more masculine life, or to be considered less than fully actualized humans. To quote Wendy Shalit, one of today's most refreshingly liberated writers, "Only a woman can have this unique 'option.' Only a woman can be made to feel that being herself is not enough."
Judaism presents us with a third possibility. It encourages the woman to allow her femininity to be a part of her identity. No apologies for being a female are either offered or accepted. Yes, we as women naturally cherish and enable our beloved ones, build our families and ourselves. Our need to understand and to be understood is viewed in Judaism as no less than a source of blessing and empowerment.
The Creation narrative in Genesis presents us with a clear vision of what we are. "And G-d created Adam. Male and female He created them."
This is no typo. "Them," not "him," is a major statement. The description of the ultimate human cannot be applied to either the male or the female alone. As the Maharal points out, woman and man come from one same source, and are in fact one spirit divided into two bodies, each being fulfilled by giving and taking. Only together are they called "Adam," human. Each one of them must know him/herself well enough to believe in the power of their gift to the other, as they are each designed to give to the other. Biblically, man is made to give to the woman and the woman is made to give to the man. Independence from this gift is an illusion. None of us are independent of either G-d or each other. What we may perceive as independence could just be fear of vulnerability or limited perspective on human potential. Nothing could make us less free than living under the yoke of these illusions.
The Torah gives us a path of mutual respect and recognition which is empowering on the inside. Although it is a positive thing that women's talents have finally been recognized in the social arena, when we make trade offs that seem more empowering on the outside, we often lose. As the University of Chicago's Allen Bloom said, "In the new order women are isolated, needing men, but unable to count on them, and hampered in the free development of their individuality. The promise of modernity is not really fulfilled for women." For three thousand years the words of the Bible have called humanity to honor and raise the status of women in the world. A great Jewish Sage said: "a society is judged by one thing: how it treats women."
The Bible further refers to the woman's role as being "a helper parallel to him [the man]." The word "helper" here is taken to mean an almost messianic enabler (how easily women enter the role of "great healer"). The woman's natural faculties to soothe, to love and create harmony are part of her innate divine nature. When allowed that role, women flourish, and their surroundings are blessed. In such a woman, man truly finds a "helper," someone who helps raise his awareness, someone with whom he learns love, respect and temperance. When denied that role, women can become so crippled by subservience to man that what remains of their relationship is no different than slavery to an insatiable master.
The words "parallel to him..." used in this verse of the Bible is explained by an ancient parable presented by Sforno, one of the great Bible commentators of the Middle Ages. "When the two sides of a scale are of parallel height," Sforno says, "what this tells us is that neither side carries more load than the other. While the divergence of roles is a necessary channel for actualizing the specific natures of man and woman, it can be a failure for the relationship if either side is 'heavier' than the other - more empowered or more significant. The Torah's idea is that the scales must be parallel." This is why G-d gave them different missions.
Women and men may share direction, but their paths (literal meaning of the word Halachah, the idiom for Jewish law) must diverge. The practice of their connection to G-d must honor their difference.
They are obligated to observe the same negative laws. The same don'ts. Men and women both flourish when given the equal power to say no. The positive commandments, on the other hand (the do's), are opportunities for self-expression, and therefore they are different for men and women. If the positive precepts were identical, the only possible result would be that they would choke our distinctiveness and stifle our freedom. How do they differ? Let's focus on what are arguably the two most visible distinctions within Jewish practice between men and women.
Women are exempted from many of the commandments that demand external practice, such as wearing tefillin (phylacteries containing the Shema, the Torah's declaration of G-d's unity), and attending synagogue.
The effect of this exemption is to focus women on aspects of their lives that defy formality, and present these aspects as equally significant. As a woman, I can go to synagogue if I want, but I don't have to. I could do my prescribed prayers, but I don't have to. And unlike man whose numbers must be counted for the acceptance of prayer, women have a straight one-to-one relationship with G-d. It takes a minimum of ten men to make a minyan (the quorum needed for greater prayer acceptance), but the Talmud says that "the prayer of women and their tears ascend straight to the Holy One." Women are given the task - arguably the most important - to allow relationships to take place, deep relationships which are never communal, which are exquisitely specific and carry enormous spiritual weight.
The second most visible distinction made in biblical law between men and women is the halachic (traditional) dress code. To protect women from male lust, the Torah forbids men to behave toward women as hunters, and women to present themselves as prey. The Torah strongly emphasizes the sacredness of the woman, calling to attention again and again that she is the root of purity and holiness in this world. The reason for these warnings is that Judaism holds that defiling the woman is tantamount to insulting the Shechina, the feminine Divine persona. When woman and man learn to appreciate the sacredness that defines and unites them, both can finally be themselves.
By insisting that women and men understand and honor their difference, the way of life that Judaism has opened for countless women like me is a door that they had believed was closed. It is the door to respect and freedom - the very door of redemption.
Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller teaches at Neve Yerushalayim College for women in Jerusalem, where she is particularly well known for her courses on the role of women in Judaism. She has addressed Jewish audiences throughout the United States, Canada, England, South Africa and Israel. Rebbetzin Heller is also the author of "More Precious than Pearls" published by Feldheim.