Rabbi Dr. Raymond AppleRabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective.
While not refraining from its criticism of Eve, Jewish literature is far more appreciative of women than are other cultures, which regarded woman as simultaneously angel and demon.
Babylon had a mother goddess but routinely degraded women. Greek society was a man’s club. A Greek thinker, Hipponax, even said that woman gives only two days of happiness – her wedding and her funeral.
Roman law kept women subservient by reason of their “imbecility” (the Romans actually used this word). Islamic writings considered man had God-given qualities not shared with women.
These societies thought that what was wrong with women was their innate womanness.
By way of contrast, the Bible was not anti-woman. Eve sinned in a personal capacity, not because she was a woman. Biblical women had minds of their own and never hesitated to criticise their husbands’ judgement or actions. Sarah stood up to Abraham. Rebekah stood up to Isaac, and the commentators blame her for not being more self-assertive. Hannah, Deborah, Esther, Naomi and Ruth had opinions and common sense.
Rashi points out that the wives of the patriarchs were often cleverer than their husbands; Rav Soloveitchik says that it was the wives who often saved the situation.
According to R Yehudah HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah (Niddah 45b), “The Holy One, blessed be He, put more intelligence in women than in men”.
Why do women not have to keep all of the mitzvot? Not because of Eve, but because of their role in the home and family. They do not have to observe positive duties allied to a set time, but often they voluntarily assumed them. Many authorities say that a “distinguished” woman may override the general exemption, and “in our days all our women are distinguished”.
For too long the Jewish woman has been put down by anti-female prejudice and thought of herself as a chattel, handled at her menfolk’s whim. Throughout history some Jewish men have tried to denigrate their women, but have they ever asked God whether He agrees?