’A Nation Unto Themselves’


In the feminist classic, “The Second Sex,” Simone de Beauvoir, the French feminist writer, opined that men cast women in the role of the Other. That “othering” emphasized the differences between men and women who might otherwise be categorized simply as “human.” Since “othering” is a means of constituting self-identity, it generally results in one seeing oneself as the norm and the Other as deviant. Thus for de Beauvoir, women would always be the deviant “second sex” as long as “male” was the norm.

“Othering” seems to be a built-in feature of rabbinic Judaism. For example, one of the overarching topical units of the Mishnah is called Nashim (Women). There is no unit called “Men” since, for the rabbis, a male elite group, it appeared obvious that men were the self-understood norm. It was women who represented the unwieldy, somewhat mysterious and deviant Other. As R. Yosef remarked, “Women are a nation unto themselves.” Hence, like anthropologists, the rabbis studied them.

This kind of study led some rabbis to portray women as their Creator’s failure. God created them to be modest rather than arrogant, inappropriately curious, busybodies, chatterboxes, jealous or gadabouts, and by possessing all these characteristics they undermined all of God’s plans. Other rabbis opined, “There are four characteristics of women: they are gluttons, busybodies, quick to anger and chatterboxes. R. Levi said, ’[They are also] thieves and promiscuous.’”

Even women’s bodies were “othered”: “[The students of R. Joshua] asked, ’…Why do women need to perfume themselves, while men need not perfume themselves?’ He replied, “Adam [i.e., the archetype of all males] was created from the earth, and the earth does not smell. Eve [i.e., the archetype of all women] was created from bone, and if you leave meat for three days without salt, it reeks.”

These are typical “othering” statements: woman is inferior in character, less civilized, even deserving of loathing simply because she is the Other.

The “othering” of women is not a vestige of the past. It has left its mark on contemporary Judaism. In the Orthodox world there are some who erase women from advertisements or news photos thereby totally suppressing “the Other,” and one “rabba,” or female rabbi, is one too many for most Orthodox Jews, even those who do not define themselves as fervently Orthodox.

Within the Conservative movement, which views itself as empowered to make halachic change, scholars and congregations debate whether to include the names of the Matriarchs in the Amidah, the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy. The Conservative movement has made changes to this prayer, even in benedictions that traditional halacha says are unchangeable, but somehow mentioning women engenders argument.

One would have imagined that given the egalitarianism of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements that they would be “othering”-free, but the small number of women rabbis who serve as the religious heads of major congregations suggests that the glass ceiling remains intact. Within Reform circles there is discussion about the “problem” of the feminization of the synagogue and how it drives men and boys away from shul. Despite political correctness, women remain for some the problematic Other who must be controlled so that men can define themselves as men, and we need to face this.

Emmanuel Levinas, a major French Jewish thinker (1905-1996) developed a philosophy of the Other quite different from de Beauvoir’s. For Levinas the Other is, when infinite, God. Human Others are “revelations,” appearing as our neighbors. As such, we immediately have ethical duties to them.

Does woman as Levinas’ Other ever emerge in rabbinic teachings?

The Torah without rabbinic interpretation views men as subjects and woman as objects. Biblical divorce law is a good example of this objectification of women. As the Torah says, “A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her and sends her away from his house.” Clearly the right to divorce rests with the husband, and he may dismiss his wife for cause or on a whim.

By the rabbinic period, however, the marriage contract (ketuba) was commonplace. Rabbinic sources explain this development as an attempt to restrain husbands from divorcing their wives. Classical rabbinic sources note that this was accomplished by placing a lien on all of the husband’s property in order to pay the sum stipulated in his wife’s ketuba. Divorcing her would entail a considerable financial loss, one that would make a man think twice before discarding his spouse over a spat.

Further a woman could have the court physically coerce her husband to divorce her and pay her ketuba if she was repulsed by him due to disease symptoms or because of bodily odors generated by his work. Thus we see that ethical obligations toward women as Other, more or less in Levinas’ terms, are part of the rabbinic mindset. This ethical impulse informs rabbinic dicta like, “One who loves his wife as himself and honors her more than himself … of him Scripture says, ’And you shall know that your house is at peace’” or “I call heaven and earth as witnesses that whether one is gentile or Jew, man or woman, slave or maidservant, the holy spirit rests on one according to one’s actions”

This ethical impulse led three 10th-century Ashkenazic communities to enact a regulation prohibiting divorce against a woman’s will. This ended the unilateral control over divorce granted to the husband by the Torah and Mishnah. This regulation, known for its 10th-century French author as “the enactment of Rabbenu Gershom,” soon became law in many Sephardic communities. Today this prohibition is universal.

Why did this development take place? The 13th-14th-century Rabbenu Asher explains, Rabbenuu Gershom “found the generation to be unruly, devaluing the daughters of Israel by divorcing them [on a whim. Therefore] he made an enactment to equalize the power of the woman to that of the man: just as a man divorces only according to his will, so a woman is divorced only according to her will.”

As noted above, negative “othering” of women left its mark on Jewish life; but the rabbinic recognition that the Other generates ethical obligations also has had its impact. While modern developments cannot claim direct formative rabbinic antecedents, certainly the sense among many later rabbis and rabbinic Jews was that the rabbinic Jewish tradition was an ethical one. By the modern period virtually all Jews viewed Judaism that way.

This understanding of the Jewish tradition is, I believe, responsible for the recent flourishing of deep and expansive institutionalized Torah study for women in the Orthodox community, including a training institution for spiritual and halachic leadership for that community’s most open sectors. These institutions have moved well beyond the utilitarianism that generated Jewish educational opportunities for women at the turn of the 20th century. Rather, they recognize women as spiritual and intellectual equals in the enterprise of Jewish learning.

That women in the liberal movements can aspire to the rabbinate and cantorate, whether the glass ceiling has been shattered or not, is also the result of those movements’ ethical ideals. This all means that the Jewish community in America and abroad is getting closer to engaging the full spectrum of its human resources for its spiritual needs and growth. In Jewish religious life, many see the “equalizing of the power of women to the power of men” as a desideratum whether it takes the form of partnership minyanim with mechitzot or full egalitarianism in liberal Jewish liturgical settings. Further, now that Jewish women’s position in spiritual leadership has been established, women have also become leaders in secular Jewish settings. Hence, more than ever before women direct Jewish community centers, federations, schools and university Jewish studies programs. There is a way to go, but the journey has begun.

The rabbinic tradition is of many voices about women, as it is about virtually every topic. Thankfully that diversity continues today, now with women’s voices added to the tradition. Not unexpectedly some contemporary women sages have said things about men that are as hurtful as some dicta found in traditional rabbinic sources. But true to the tradition, other contemporary women sages have spoken about their relationship to men with Levinas’ ethical loving concern. It is my hope that men and women Torah scholars with respect for the Other will in our time contribute to Torah study that will lead us to a “community that includes men and women.”

Michael Chernick is Deutsch Professor of Jewish Jurisprudence and Social Justice at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He received his ordination and doctorate from Yeshiva University.