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Do Women Matter
According to the Bible?

By Shlomo Phillips © April 03, 2014

This is my response to a question I received via e-mail:

... And I ask this with the most sincerest of hearts, but does the female soul even matter? Let me explain why I ask. And as a female, I hate to even approach the question. But here is how I arrived at the query. Through Noach down to Avraham, on down to the 12 sons os Israel/Jacob, the blessing HaShem has always been on the male. So why does the female soul matter? And why do the Jews count you Jewish if the mother is Jewish and not the father? These things don't make sense to me. It seems to me that, Biblically speaking, the female is what gets the males into trouble (eating of the forbidden fruit, the conception of Ishmael) the blessing is on the male, so the female is inconsequential to the plan, and the blood line is passed through the father (HaMashiach will be of the house of David, it doesn't tell us the maternal lineage just the paternal)...
Here's my reply:

This is a tough one for a lot of women, and for more men than you would probably expect.

There are many important women in the Bible of course. The Bible itself has certain focuses that it emphasizes. It presents characters and incidents for specific reasons. Not everything is to be found there, which is partly why we have the Talmud and other sources. I'll explain more on this below but considering the times and cultures of the Bible it is amazingly supportive of women and their importance. With regard to female souls I think the following from this online Jewish Encyclopedia might be of interest to you. While not all Jews would agree with this, I think it is essentially accurate:

"... Generally the souls of men transmigrate into the bodies of men, and those of women into the bodies of women; but there are exceptions. The soul of Judah, the son of Jacob, was in part that of a woman; while Tamar had the soul of a man. Tamar's soul passed into Ruth; and therefore the latter could not bear children until God had imparted to her sparks from a female soul..."
The soul is not as complete a unit as many suppose. The realm of the Spirit includes a fluidity that is unknown in the realms of matter.

Biblically speaking HaShem established gender roles for the human race so they could harmonize with His Will. As we have discussed, the Eternal ONE is neither male nor female, although we think of God in male terms. When men and women both fully embrace these roles there is peace in the home and beyond it. The problem is both men and women are unaware of HaShem's design and/or choose to live outside of it. We are very far away from the perfection of Eden and we must each determine how to live meaningful lives in this ongoing exile of the Olam Hazeh Torah guides us in this, but the personal and social factors can not be ignored.

I think its helpful to separate what we might call the 'ideal' from the 'real' world. Ideally there would be no sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, ageism, nationalism, egoism and so on. In reality however these things exist and we all must coexist with them (whether we embrace them, oppose them or try to ignore them).

The ideal reality would be that Adam and Eve chose the path of yetzer tov (righteousness). In that reality they are coworkers joyfully united in their service to HaShem. Note that Eve was created not from Adam's feet (as a servant) but from his side (arguably from left side where the heart is) as his partner. Together, if we take the story literally, they and their offspring were to spread Gan Eden outward blessing by blessing until the entire planet would be like their splendid Garden.

In reality, again taking the account literally, Adam chose yetzer hara (egoism). Note that God commanded Adam about the tree and he passed the order on to Eve. When Eve ate nothing bad happened. It was not until Adam ate that the negative consequences arose. People speak of the 'sin of Eve' but it was more properly the sin of Adam. He knowingly violated the direct order of HaShem while Eve disregarded Adam's instruction.

Whether one accepts this account at face value or as the metaphorical sharing of a common creation story in the region, humans chose the path of direct knowledge and responsibility over the path of child-like faith alone. This was a joint decision of both Adam and Eve. While Genesis attributes the decision to impregnate Hagar to Sarah, Avram was the authority. It was his decision to act upon Sarah's suggestion (Hagar was just a servant with no say in the matter). So again, while there was mutual culpability in that error, the 'buck stopped with Avram' not with Sarah or Hagar.

With that as a given, as the human family spread out farther and farther away from Eden (their point of origin) they developed their cultures as they chose. During these periods strength was paramount. Strength of arms, strength of defense, physical strength, social strength... the powerful always rule. In most ancient cultures the males ruled in all areas, within and without the home. Even in those domains where females sometimes had precedence, the healing arts etc, it was under patriarchal authority. This is how it worked in the 'real world' for better or for worse.

While there were many female prophets, seers and mystics this area too was dominated by men, in part because the male power structures dictated whose messages, visions, prophecies, etc. were to be heeded. Again, this is neither 'right nor wrong' its just how things were.

So as the male Moshe composed the Torah (i.e. Genesis - Deuteronomy) under the direction of HaShem, he wrote according to his world view and experience and what he wrote was carefully passed down through male scribes in a patriarchal society.

In the 1950's things began to really change (in part because of the fast changing roles of women during WW II -- Rosie the Riveter etc). Our desire for and conception of gender equality and inclusiveness is relatively new. Such changes seldom occur 'over night'. The Old World gender roles continue within much of Orthodox Judaism, although groups like Women of the Wall are chipping away at these ideas and customs. The non-Orthodox rabbis pretty much accept standard Western gender roles now.

We live today in 'the real world' and must determine how to survive within this reality. We must have the understanding that without women there would be no human life on the planet. Women are our mothers, our teachers, our healers, our wives, our lovers ... we disrespect and deny their equality at our mutual peril.

It is important to understand however that what may appear as gender inequality to modern sensibilities is viewed as honoring and respecting women by others. 'Casting women out of the traditional roles' is not viewed as liberating by many of the Orthodox men and women, but as abandoning them to a cruel and anti-spiritual world. More importantly the traditional views are seen as conforming with the design of HaShem. Such traditions are not lightly cast aside nor should they be. Many Jewish women prefer these traditions as the number and intensity of the women opposing Women of Wall attests.

Nonetheless the historic gender roles are being transformed and women are proving that they are neither more nor less important and capable than men in all areas of life. This ongoing movement toward 'gender equality' has its positive and negative ramifications.

As for tracing Jewishness through mothers, there is a bit of debate. In the Torah lineages are traced through the father. This was because, as cited above, men held the majority of power and the main function of the recorded lineages had to do with property and authority rights (including the calculation of the lineage of King Messiah). Unlike any other book of antiquity the Torah includes legal land right protections for widowed women. That was revolutionary. Torah is female positive.

During the time of Ezra and the Great Assembly (i.e. in the period from the end of the Biblical prophets to the early Hellenistic period) violence and widespread rape led to lineage uncertainties. In an attempt to affirm that one was born into the Covenant the emphasis on Jewishness was transferred to the mother (who could identify her offspring if not always their biological fathers) while tribal/house affiliation remained with the fathers. The ruling was made as a way to protect Jews (males and females) from having their Jewishness challenged if their father's identity were either debated (due to rapes etc.) or if they were deceased (due to anti-Semitic attacks, wars, etc). By that point most Jews were living outside of Israel. Within Israel tribe-based land ownership had ceased. Transferring those rights to the mother's side was deemed unimportant. Karaite Jews still base Jewishness on the father but they are a very small part of the Jewish people today.

Mashiach ben David (the final Messiah) will be of the House of David as will be confirmed by his royal tribal affiliation. His mother's lineage is unimportant in this regard since his authority will come from King David through the male lineage. Obviously his mother will be Jewish but we have no detailed prophecies concerning her.

Over the past 5774 years much has changed, but much has remained the same. In every generation Judaism must determine how to survive and secure the future. The elders of the Great Assembly made far reaching decisions but in every generation the elders have made tough rulings that altered our understanding of observance (driving on Shabbat, the use of electricity on Shabbat, what constitutes conversions etc). Doing this is an essential part of their biblical authority and one of the reasons Judaism has survived. In our times major changes are underway. Some of these concern gender norms, rights and privileges. There are by the way a few significant Orthodox rabbis and yeshivas today trying to figure out how to ordain female rabbis (for instance see this article). There are many female rabbis in the non-Orthodox Jewish world.

I hope this helps to clarify some of these issues.

Be the Blessing you were created to be
Don't let the perfect defeat the good

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