Lately it seems that I am being sent “signs” that I should look more into my Jewish roots, but I am reluctant to because of Judaism’s repressive attitude toward spirituality for women. I would appreciate any insights you can offer me on this topic. Thanks.
That fact that Judaism advocates different venues for men and women to serve G-d doesn’t mean that one is superior to the other; rather they are intended to be complementary. While great things are said about men and the ways in which they express their spirituality, just as many great things are said about “women’s” spiritually. In fact, at the risk of sounding apologetic, women are often viewed as being spiritually higher than men.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh explained the verse, “It is not good that man should be alone” as follows: “This, i.e. the Creation, is not good, man being alone”. Accordingly, the completion of good in the Creation was attained only after woman was created. For this reason, only after she was created did G-d say about the Creation, “behold it was very good”. In fact, in her ability to impart life, woman most closely resembles G-d.
G-d created the world in a sequence of increasing importance: space, time, energy, inanimate matter, plant-life, fish, birds, animals, man, woman, Shabbat. In the spectrum of Creation, woman was created after/above man and before Shabbat. Therefore, in the hierarchy of spirituality, man is closer to the mundane while woman is closer to sanctity. This is one of the deeper reasons why women are exempt from time-bound commandments. Because of their spiritual elevation and sensitivity they have less need for temporal obligations to come close to G-d.
Our Sages explain that Eve’s being taken from the side of Adam refers to the idea that Man was originally created as a unified composite of both male and female aspects. G-d then separated these complimentary facets of Man in order that they should regain this unity and harmony through their own efforts. This is the idea behind the verse, “Because she was taken from man, that is why a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife….” However, this raises a difficulty: If she was taken from him, shouldn’t the unity be re-established by her returning to him? Rather, we see from here that he is secondary to her, and harmony is attained through his elevation to her. Thus our Sages taught, “He who has no wife has no joy, no blessing, no good” (Yevamot 62b).
There are many examples that indicate women’s spiritual one-upmanship over men:
In Genesis 18:9 the angels ask Abraham “Where is Sarah your wife?” He answers, “She’s in the tent”. Rashi explains that this illustrates her modesty. Lest you think this is sexist, illustrating her inferiority, our Sages declare that she was in fact spiritually higher than Abraham. On the verse, “All that Sarah tells you, hearken to her voice” (Gen. 21:12), Rashi comments “this teaches that Sarah was superior to Abraham in prophecy”.
Recall Isaac’s intention to bless Esau. Rebecca counters Isaac’s plan and secures the blessing for Jacob instead. Her spiritual insight and sensitivity ensured that the blessing would pass through Jacob and his twelve sons, eventually engendering the Jewish People.
During the exile in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed that all Jewish male children be thrown in the Nile. Amram separated from his wife Yocheved to avoid bearing children to the decree. His daughter Miriam reprimanded him saying, “Your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s. His is only against boys, yours is against boys and girls”. As a result, he returned to his wife who later gave birth to Moses, the redeemer of Israel.
In the desert, the women didn’t worship or contribute to the golden calf. Rather, the men had to literally pull the jewelry off them. Lest one say, “Perhaps that was because the women didn’t want to give up their gold”? That’s not the case, since later we find that the women donated generously of their riches to the building of the tabernacle.
Similarly, only the men feared fighting for the Land of Israel while the women encouraged them on. A cynic might claim, “That was easy for the women to say, they weren’t doing the fighting.” However, consider what would happen to a woman whose husband died – she’d become a widow. And if all the men died, what would have happened to the women taken captive? Nevertheless, despite the possible consequences, and because of their great trust in G-d, the women urged the men to do the Divine bidding.
We see from all these ideas and examples that far from repressing women’s spirituality, Judaism recognizes women’s spiritual elevation, sensitivity and insight. Of course, this was only an introduction to a very expansive topic — namely the role of woman in Judaism — but I hope this will help you be more open to following the signs leading you toward your Jewish roots.