Judaism: The Advancement of Women's Status in Halakha
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
In recent weeks, I discussed the status of women. We learned that the world was arranged in such a way that initially, man’s influence is more apparent – he is the innovator, establishes the principles and strengthens them – and afterwards, the inner side of the woman is revealed, as she develops and deepens the initial principles, integrating them into a whole. Man sanctifies his wife in marriage, and is charged with the mitzvah of Talmud Torah; however, the implementation of family life and Torah-living in a full and complete way is achieved to a greater degree by the woman.
Consequently, as time goes by woman’s value in the family becomes more apparent, and her status rises above her husband’s. This is true in the framework of each individual family, and also in the process of history; in the present world, man’s status is higher; in the future, there will be equality; and in the World to Come, the status of women will be higher. This does not mean that men will lose their role of initiator – courting his wife and sanctifying her, etc, rather it will be clear that the wife’s development of her husband’s initiatives is more important.
As a result of the Sin of Adam, there was an enormous decrease in the status of women. The need for hard, physical, and taxing labor to bring forth bread from the ground caused woman to become totally dependent on her husband. Without him, she could not survive. This was necessary for tikkun olam (as I have previously written). Simultaneous to the world’s rectification from its curse, the status of women also gradually rises, and this is reflected in halakha (Jewish law).
How Can the Torah Sanction Inequality?
According to the Torah, a man can marry a number of women. Kiddushin (sanctification or dedication, also called erusin (betrothal), the first of the two stages of the Jewish wedding process) requires mutual agreement, however the man can divorce his wife without her consent.
However, it must be clarified that the Torah does not impose upon a person to go against nature, seeing as nature, with all its faults, is also a Divine creation which gives man a platform on which he can perfect and complete himself. For that reason the Torah does not intervene in the financial market forces, but rather allows it to conduct itself on its own, while setting moral boundaries and giving direction for spiritual elevation.
Today’s Tikkun Must be According to the Morals of the Torah
The Torah’s Permission and Reservations of Marrying Two Wives
The Torah, though, commanded that even if a man marries an additional wife, he must take care to make his first wife happy and provide her with all her needs, as it is written: “[Similarly], if [the master] marries another wife, he may not diminish [this one’s] allowance, clothing or conjugal rights” (Exodus 21:10).
Additionally, our Sages further established an important ordinance that a man could not marry a woman without a ketubah (a Jewish prenuptial agreement), committing himself upon getting married that if he divorces his wife, he will compensate her monetarily with a sum of money sufficient for her to exist for at least one year, so the option of divorcing his wife would not be a light matter (Ketubot 110b; Rambam, Laws of Marital Relations 10:7).
The Talmudic Custom was not to have Two Wives
In the Talmudic period, roughly 1,400 years ago, the custom of men not taking a second wife was so clear, that the Amoraim were divided on the question of whether a man could actually marry another woman. According to the opinion of Rabbi Ami, it is forbidden because every woman who agrees to marry her husband does so with the knowledge that her husband will not take a second wife. Therefore, a man is permitted to take a second wife only if his first wife agrees, or if he pays her ketubah and divorces her. Nevertheless, the halakha was determined according to the opinion of Raba, that the norm is not binding, and therefore in principle, a man is permitted to marry an additional woman without his first wife’s consent (Yevamot 65a).
Approximately 1,000 years ago, Rabbeinu Gershom Me'Or Hagolah ("Our teacher Gershom the light of the exile”) made a takana (an institutional reform) in Ashkenaz, that forbade a man from marrying more than one wife. He further instituted that a man could not divorce his wife without her consent. Only under a special permit of one hundred rabbis from three countries, would a man be permitted to divorce his wife against her will.
How Could Marrying Two Women be Prohibited?
Our guide and teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Hakohen Kook ztz”l, explained that from the context in which the Torah states that marrying two women is permitted, it can be understood that it is not desirable, as it is written: “[This is the law] when a man has two wives, one whom he loves and one whom he dislikes, and both the loved and unloved wives have sons, but the first-born is that of the unloved one” (Deuteronomy 21:15). The first problem is that one woman is loved and the other unloved; similarly, we find that in the Torah, two women are termed tzarot (trouble, or distress) for one another. Such a situation leads to disputes over inheritance which is liable to tear the family apart, to the point where the Torah needed to warn: “He must not give the son of the beloved wife birthright preference over the first-born, who is the son of the unloved wife. [Even if] the first-born is the son of the hated wife, [the father] must recognize him so as to give him a double portion of all his property. Since [this son] is the first fruit of [his father’s] manhood, the birthright is legally his”.
Immediately after this, the Torah presents the case of a rebellious son, and our Sages said this comes to teach us that the son’s poor behavior is a result of the man having two wives (Rashi, Deuteronomy 21:11; Sichot of Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Hakohen Kook, D’varim, pg.361). We see then that the heter (a dispensation from the normative prohibition pertaining to a given matter) to marry two women is b’diavad (less than ideal), because it was a necessity that could not be condemned. But when the necessity no longer existed, it was customary among Jews not to marry two women.
In other words, it was not the growing economic power of women that caused our Sages to determine new takanot raising women’s status, but rather the improvement of the economic situation of the population as a whole. Therefore, from the time in history when it was possible to support all women without having to rely on the heter, it became totally forbidden to marry two women, or extremely rare. The same holds true in regards to the ketubah – from the time it was instituted, it became the accepted rule.