Mishpacha *

About this site Interact Parenting Community Lifecycle Holidays Practice Beliefs Navigation Bar

Memorial Foundation

Gender Roles

Judaism's shifting ground

No area in Jewish life has undergone as radical a transformation in recent times as that of gender roles. The issue of the roles of men and women in Jewish life have become a magnet for some of the most heated polemical discussions and deepest divisions in the Jewish world, and has become the issue that most visibly distinguishes the denominations from each other.

Classically separate

In classical Judaism, the Judaism of the Mishnah and the Talmud (the first few centuries of the Common Era), the religious roles ascribed to men and women are sharply defined, separated into public male and private female spheres. Men are required to pray daily in a minyan (quorum, or group of ten men) with tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries). Ideally they also spend long hours in the study hall.

 Conversely, the spiritual lives of women are focused on the mitzvot relating to the home. They are required to light Shabbat candles, recite a blessing over separating dough from the Challah, and observe the niddah laws which mandate a woman's separation from her husband during her menstrual cycle and immersion thereafter. Women do not count in a minyan, nor are they required to observe many of the time-bound mitzvot that are required of men.

Sanctifying sexuality

Mishpacha participants on mikvah



Modern revolution

 For hundreds of years the differences of these roles went unquestioned. But in recent times a revolution has occurred. Women in all the major Jewish movements have made inroads into public religious life, a realm previously occupied by men only.

In Orthodox Judaism, the separate roles of men and women remain a valued aspect of Jewish life. However, even in this movement where transformation in women’s roles are perhaps least expected, one can find profound change. Women in Modern Orthodoxy are increasingly entering the world of Torah study, a province heretofore reserved for men. In the last fifty years, more and more women have become Torah scholars. Furthermore, in the last few decades, Modern Orthodox women have formed women-only prayer groups where they can lead services and chant from the Torah.

The Conservative movement has increasingly accepted the view that women and men are now obligated by the same mitzvot that previously were reserved for men only (in particular the obligations of daily prayer in a minyan and of wearing tallit and tefillin), though it has left the decision to individual rabbis and congregations. In 1983, the Conservative Movement ordained women as rabbis.

Reform Judaism established the principle of gender neutrality several decades before the Conservative Movement. Since Reform Jews do not see themselves as bound by Jewish law, gender neutrality was a much simpler achievement for them than for the Conservative movement. Women were first ordained as rabbis in 1972 and services became egalitarian at an even earlier date.

Debate continues

While the positions range from maintaining gender roles to erasing all gender difference in religious practice,these positions do not always fall along denominational lines.

There are non-Orthodox Jewish feminists who are uncomfortable with women adopting what has always been --until now-- a male model. They believe that women should create new models -- not mimic the traditional male. Some see the concept of religious law as intrinsically a male domain.

First Person
Those of us who are interested in egalitarianism have to deal with Korach, who rebelled against Moses. Korach wanted to do things which he was not required to, pushed his way in where he wasn't wanted, and was punished. There are those among the traditionalists who view us egalitarians in the same way. The trick is to prove that we aren't forcing our way in where we don't belong, but merely taking our rightful place....

-- Hadass E.

Share your thoughts. Join our private havurah communities.

On the other hand, there are also Jewish feminists who believe that any distinctions between men and women in religious life represent sex discrimination.

Food for Thought:

What do you believe? Are gender roles valuable, useful or destructive? Do men and women have distinctive roles to play in Judaism or not? Should women take on the religious role of men -- or maintain their own traditional role? Or should both men and women transform traditional roles? Can they?
Discuss this in our private communities



Home Page
Back to top
A project of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture

Mishpacha is Hebrew for "family". So don't be a stranger: Send your comments to mishpacha@yudel.com

Mishpacha was initiated and funded by The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture.
Designed and hosted by YudelCom Communications. Full credits available here.
Copyright 1997-2005, The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and YudelCom Communications