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Jonathan Sacks  
from Man, Woman, and Priesthood, pp. 27-44, edited by Peter Moore,
Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research SPCK London, 1978.

JONATHAN SACKS (b. 1947) is an orthodox Jewish rabbi who read Moral Science at Cambridge and then did research both there and at New College, Oxford. He lectured in moral philosophy at the Middlesex Polytechnic from 1971 to 1973, when he decided to become a rabbi, largely as a result of a visit to the U.S.A. and an encounter with a remarkable group of this-worldly mystics, the Lubavitch Hassidim. He qualified as a rabbi at the Jews’ College in 1976, since when he has been a lecturer there. For the last eleven years he has been continuously involved with Jewish student life.  

He served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013 after which he became known as the Emeritus Chief Rabbi.  In 2009 he became a Member of the House of Lords and took the title of Baron Sacks of Aldgate in the City of London



To speak of the ‘role’ of women—or indeed of men, for that matter—sounds to the modern ear at best anachronistic, at worst reactionary. We know that there are such things as roles, and that they carry with them certain specific duties and obligations. We concede that there is a sense in which the religious leader, the doctor, the scientist, or the politician has a role and thus a certain defined part to play in social situations. What is strange, and in need of explanation, is the idea that a man may have a role as a man, and that a woman may have a role as a woman. Where does the strangeness lie?

It lies, I think, in our sense that roles must be chosen. Perhaps it is this that above all characterizes the moral revolution of the twentieth century: that human freedom extends to the freedom to choose our commitments and obligations. In short—to the freedom to choose our roles. Since we do not choose to be a man or a woman how then can our being one or the other have any moral or religious significance?

This awareness has, of course, been both beneficial and liberating in a number of respects. In particular, in the area of racial tolerance, it has exposed a fundamental truth. A person does not choose to be black or white. Why then should his colour or nationality make a moral difference? Rightly, we conclude that it does not.

But at some point the argument breaks down, or at least leaves us feeling a little uneasy. A child does not choose to be born. Logically, therefore, he should have no special duties to his parents. His relationship to them is accidental, not of his making, and therefore it should make no special claim on him. Admittedly, there are those who would take the argument this far and claim that, indeed, the family is an authoritarian institution and that children should be liberated. But for many this would be a rejection of something we feel to be very precious—the family as a centre of human love and mutual obligation, where a child learns to trust, to respond, to become a being of moral sensibilities.

Judaism has believed, and continues to maintain, that within its religious life men and women have distinct and differentiated roles. Equally, as a full participant in a modern and pluralist society, the Jew feels that he must respond to each movement of the moral consciousness of his times. He must welcome every advance, fight against each regression, and do his best to diagnose what he sees as confusion. His history and traditions provide him with a rich resource of moral debate, stretching backwards through the millennia. Equally, they breed in him a reluctance to retreat from a challenge, either from his own or from the wider community.

He cannot, therefore, dismiss or ignore the question-mark set against the idea of a woman’s role. And in fact it has led to considerable self-searching in the Jewish community in recent years. This search has had of necessity to take a path through the facts of Jewish religious life to the core of its commitment. It is a journey from which many Jews have emerged with a fresh understanding of their faith, and one which I want, here, to take again.


For one very personal reason the Jew cannot accept the idea that the only significant roles are those which we have ourselves chosen. It is that his entire role as a Jew, the whole range of obligations that is placed on his shoulders, rests in the fact that he did not choose: he was chosen. A Jew is a Jew by birth, not by choice. And this is not a cultural or historical fact. After all, he may choose to turn his back on history, cast aside his religion, assimilate to some other culture or way of life. What it is, is a religious and moral fact. He has an obligation, a vocation to live in the light of the Torah—the command of God, the vision of the prophets, the teachings of the rabbis. This obligation is always his. He may accept it or refuse to fulfil it. But he cannot deny its existence. Being born a Jew, he is by that fact alone given a role. No act of choice or commitment is needed to acquire it. No contrary choice or commitment will abolish it. What he is, he has chosen. What he is called on to be, he has not.

Perhaps no fact about Judaism has been as regularly misunderstood as this: the fact of being chosen. And this misunderstanding has a direct bearing on the current controversy about the role of women. It is usually assumed that a role has something to do with rights, and with status. Accordingly, it seemed to follow that Jewish chosenness was a claim to superiority. In much the same way, though in the opposite direction, it has been argued that the idea that women have a special ‘role’ is a tacit assertion of their inferiority. But Judaism knows of no equation of roles with rights. Roles, in Judaism, mean obligations. It is an important distinction.


Rights, the Jew believes, have nothing to do with roles. Jew and non-Jew, man and woman, people of all colours and creeds have equal rights but different roles. Their rights are absolute and grounded in the sanctity of the individual. Man as such—and woman as such—was made in the image of God: ‘And God created man in His own image . . . male and female He created them’ (Gen. 1.27). It was the recognition of this that was to be the basis of the covenant between God and all humanity (Gen. 9.1-17). Violence against another human being was therefore an act of violence against God: ‘Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He made man’ (Gen. 9.6). The same is true of injustice.(1)

The rabbinic sages were emphatic in enunciating this idea and all its consequences. The equality of mankind is absolute: ‘Man was created alone for the sake of peace amongst men, so that one could not say to another: My father was greater than yours.’ The sanctity of life is absolute: ‘Whoever takes a life is as if he destroyed the world; whoever saves a life is as if he saved the world.’ The uniqueness of the individual is absolute: ‘If a man makes many coins from one die, they are all alike. But the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, made every man in the die of Adam, yet not one of them is like the other. Therefore, every single person is obliged to say: The world was created for my sake.’(2) Equality has nothing to do with choosing or being chosen. It knows no gradations or equivocations. It has to do with being human: that is, with being created.


Since to the Jew his chosenness has nothing to do with rights or status, he can understand what otherwise may seem paradoxical: that a man may be chosen for one kind of role in the religious life and a woman for another, without this carrying undertones of the superiority of the one over the other.

This concept of the division of roles has always characterized Judaism. The Jew had a particular role in the service of God, and the non-Jew another and different one. But righteous Jew and righteous Gentile occupied the same place in heaven. Not only in heaven: when Solomon dedicated the Temple, he prayed that all nations might worship there and have their prayers answered (1 Kings 8.41-3). And this hope was central to the messianic vision of the prophets (Isa. 56.3-8). The paradox is affirmed by the Jew three times every day, as he concludes each religious service with the Alenu prayer, a prayer in two halves, the first dedicated to the unique vocation of the Jewish people, the second to the hope and trust that ultimately all men will unite in the worship of God, each in his own way. It ends with the visionary words of Zechariah: ‘And the Lord shall be King over all the earth: in that day shall the Lord be One and His name One’

(Zech. 14.9).

Within Judaism itself, there were different senses of chosenness. The priest, or Cohen, was chosen to administer the rites in the Temple; the king to supervise the economic and military problems of the state. The Bible records a classic instance of the misidentification of chosenness with superiority. Korah, a Levite, protested against Moses and Aaron: ‘You take too much upon yourself, seeing that all the congregation are holy. Why then do you lift yourselves up against the congregation of the Lord?’ (Num. 16.3). The claim of Korah was the prototypical denunciation of chosenness in the name of equality. The biblical account makes it clear that he was mistaken: he too was, as was everyone, ‘chosen’ in his own way. Superiority, sensed or practised, does not belong to the Judaic vision. Of the role of king, the Bible explicitly warns that the monarch should constantly remind himself, by the study of the Torah which ‘shall be with him and he shall read therein all the days of his life . . . that his heart be not lifted up above his brothers’ (Deut. 17.19-20).

At a later period, when the axis of chosenness lay between the rabbi-scholars of the towns and the uneducated workers of the countryside’ the rabbis composed a kind of celebration of equality which stands as a commentary on all divisions of obligation in the light of Jewish attitudes:

I am God’s creature, and my fellow is God’s creature.

My work is in the town.

His work is in the field.

I rise early for my work

and he rises early for his work.

As he does not feel superior to my work

so I do not feel superior to his work.

Will you say—

I do more and he does less?

We have learned:

‘One may do much or little, so long as his heart is turned to heaven.’(3)


What, then, is the content of this ‘obligation’ in terms of which roles are defined, and for which people are chosen? It consists in mitzvah, ‘commands’, or what are generally and ambivalently called the ‘laws’ of Judaism. In a very real sense, the word mitzvah is untranslatable into English. We are used to the idea of law as restraint, limiting the freedom of action in the interests of society. The Jewish idea that a religious law, a mitzvah, is the opposite—a profound liberation—is not easy to fathom. It sounds like a contradiction in terms.

The answer lies in the idea of relationship. The command is God’s request of man. Its performance is man’s response to God. At the moment of fulfilment, man and God meet. The life of the Jew is a conversation with God. God has asked and man, in his actions, answers. An act becomes a prayer.

What the Jew rejoices in is his laws: the 613 biblical commands and their countless rabbinic ramifications. They cover every aspect of his life, from the intensity of prayer to the apparent commonplaces of eating, drinking, his relations with his wife, his telling stories to his children. He knows no area which cannot be sanctified, no action so insignificant that it cannot become part of his relationship with God. Marriage, the home, and the family are as important to him as the synagogue—perhaps more so. If God lives only in the synagogue, and not in the home or at work, then Judaism is malfunctioning. If ‘the whole world is full of His glory’ then there is nowhere he cannot be found. But not merely found: Judaism is dialogue, and the response to finding him is the mitzvah, the act which at once recognizes, celebrates, and demonstrates the ubiquity of God.

The result is a particular kind of affirmation of the world, its pleasures and possibilities. It was called in rabbinic terms the simcha shel mitzvah, the joy of the commandment. The idea, though, that rejoicing was the normal response to the command goes back long before that to its biblical origins: ‘You shall rejoice in your festival, you, your son and daughter, your man and maid-servant, the Levite and the stranger, the fatherless and the widow that are within your gates’ (Deut. 16.14). The greatest indictment of any failure to respond to God and the Torah is contained in Moses’ rebuke: ‘because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and with gladness of heart’ (Deut. 28.47). The Psalmist accurately catches the sense, which the Jew knows through long acquaintance, of the joy and inner liberation of the mitzvah:

And I shall keep Your law continually,

for ever and ever.

And I will walk at liberty

for I seek Your precepts . . .

And I will delight myself in Your commandments

which I have loved (Ps. 119.44-7).

The twelfth-century poet and philosopher, Judah Halevi, summarized Jewish religious experience as being divided into love, awe, and joy, each of which was a path to God. His description of the mood of the sabbath and the festivals in the home is perhaps the best expression of how the Jew feels at his table, surrounded by his wife and family, unselfconsciously sensing the presence of God: ‘It is as if you had been His guest, invited to His festive table. You thank Him, inwardly and openly. And if your joy leads you to singing and dancing, it becomes worship, and union with the immediacy of God.’(4)

This remark of Judah Halevi does more than just capture a mood. It also contains the heart of the Jewish understanding of commands and roles in the religious life. It is within the fact of being commanded, being chosen, being called, that the religious dimension lies. For this means that we have been, in Halevi’s word, ‘invited’ by God: invited, as the rabbis put it, to be God’s ‘partner in the work of creation’. In the religious dialogue, it is God who speaks first. Had we chosen, we might have invited God to become like us. Since he chose, he invites us to become like him.

In a sense, then, the idea that roles are things we choose is a secular conception. To the extent that we see them as things for which we are chosen, we endow them with religious depth. In a different terminology, it is the distinction between man as the inventor of his own meanings and man as the fulfilment of his meaning as God’s creation.

Thus it is that the Jewish man and woman can see the commands and the roles by which they are bound not as an infringement of their freedom, but as their invitation to answer God’s request: to be what he has called on them to be; to live a life which is as much a poem in acts as the Temple was a poem in stone, to the living presence of God.


Clearly, then, the primary distinction between men and women in their roles as participants in Judaism lies in their different commands. There are certain commands which, not essentially but in the course of time and custom, have become the preserve of women. And there are others by which men are bound, and from which women are exempt. Expressed in the technical language of Jewish law: women are exempt from positive commands whose performance has a specific time.(5)

In effect, this means that they are not obliged, as men are, to put on the phylacteries (tefillin)(6) or the fringed garment (tzitzit)(7) which are two of the outward signs the Jew puts on to serve as a visible reminder of his religious vocation. Again, according to some authorities,(8) women do not have to pray at fixed times of the day nor to use the standard forms of liturgy. Other authorities, however, disagree and maintain that the same laws of prayer apply to both men and women.(9) Even the rabbis who held that women were exempt from specific prayers at specific times nonetheless concurred that they still had a duty to pray daily. It was simply that they, unlike men, could choose their moment and their words. Men, in other words, participated in institutionalized, congregational prayer, while for women, prayer was something spontaneous and private.

Judaism is complicated, not given to summary by generalization. And this is true about the generalization in question— that women are exempt from positive commands with a fixed time. The Talmud itself points out that it is a rule with many exceptions.(l0) Thus, for example, sanctifying the Sabbath by reciting a blessing over a cup of wine should on this definition be a command inapplicable to women. But in fact women are included. The same applies to eating the special unleavened bread (matzah) on the festival of Passover; to the kindling of lights on the festival of Hanukka; and to listening to the scroll of the Book of Esther on the festival of Purim.

To complicate matters further, the commands from which they are formally exempt, they can—with one or two exceptions— perform voluntarily. And, paradoxically, they too recite over these actions the same blessing as do men,(11) despite the fact that it contains the phrase, ‘Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us to . . .’ On the festival of Tabernacles, for example, women eat their meals in the special booth roofed with leaves (sukkah); and they, too, wave the palm branch, citron, willow- and myrtle-leaves as do men. They are doing so voluntarily, the men as a matter of obligation; but there is no perceptible difference between their acts. Perhaps the most visible point of differentiation is that while religious men attend synagogue services two or three times a day, women tend to do so only on Sabbath mornings.


What is the meaning of this seemingly arbitrary distinction of duties? It has been explained in many ways by different thinkers, but perhaps the simplest way of understanding it is this. To the Jew, a command is the great gift to him from God. It is, as we have said, the way he can actively respond to, converse with, even imitate God in his actions. He is not relieved to think that Judaism contains so few obligations. He is happy that it contains so many. As an ancient sage put it: ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, wanted to make Israel worthy; therefore He gave them a copious Torah and many commandments.’ This, as it were, defines the content of the role of the Jewish man: he is bound by more commands than a woman.

But clearly, not all commitments or commandments have the same status. As a path to God, and as a sanctification of life, they are all equal. But sometimes duties conflict. And we have to decide which is to take priority. To take the most obvious example: the saving of life overrides all other commands. And in general, someone who is currently engaged in fulfìlling one religious duty is exempt from others.

In the Jewish tradition, the role of women in establishing a creative marriage-relationship, shaping the atmosphere of the home, bringing up children in a spirit of warmth and mutuality is regarded as vital. It is not that these things are female preserves. A husband is expected to do his share in the education of his children. It is an ancient custom that he too must play his part in the preparation of the Sabbath meals—one Talmudic rabbi used to do the shopping, another peeled the vegetables. The idea, rather, is that in these areas, though men and women share in the activities, the crucial influence is the woman’s. As the Talmud says of children: a father inspires fear, a mother respect.) She is the positive force of the family. And the family is the crucible of Judaism.

Judaism therefore unequivocally affirms this role. This is crucial to the understanding of the Jewish position. It does not raise a sceptical eyebrow at the idea of women pursuing careers. Many a man must have known that his wife would be better at work than he is. It is rather that Judaism knows of no higher career than raising a family and creating a home. And it suspects that if the roles were reversed, if the woman went out to work and the man looked after the children, he would make a worse job of it than his wife. The Talmud states: ‘God endowed woman with more understanding than man.’ And it is from this understanding that the sympathies and sensitivities needed to sustain a family flow. The inference is pointedly drawn in an old rabbinic cautionary tale: ‘A pious man was married to a pious woman. But being childless, they divorced one another. He went and married a wicked woman and she made him wicked. She went and married a wicked man and made him righteous. It follows that all depends on the woman.’(l7) Because of her role in the family, the sages said: ‘Greater is the promise made by the Holy One, blessed be He, to women than to men.’(l8)

It is in affirmation of this religious duty that a woman is exempted from others, just as in general the greater obligation overrides the lesser. Those from which she is exempted are precisely those which would take her away from her duties to the family, namely those which require a positive act at a specific time. Of course, not all women are married, and not all married women have children. Therefore, voluntarily, those with the time to spare may fulfil most of the commands from which, technically, they are free. But the law embodies the norm: that Judaism involves the sanctification of family life and that women must be free of demands on their time that would interfere with their pursuit of this calling—their own particular ‘chosenness’.


Marriage, in Judaism, must seem from a distance as something of a paradox. The marriage ceremony, as an event, is a simple one. Over the course of centuries it has been inlaid with the ornamentation of custom. But essentially, it is no more than a mutual undertaking of certain obligations. It does not need to take place in the synagogue, and the presence of an officiating minister is a matter of custom rather than of law.

But the state of marriage, the actual process of the relationship between the partners, unfolding over a lifetime, is in the Jewish imagination something almost sublime. Indeed, when the rabbis and before them the prophets sought for a metaphor to describe the close and special relationship between God and the Jewish people, they found it in the marriage-bond. God—in a striking rabbinic image—married Israel at Sinai, with the Torah as their marriage-contract. Each Friday night, in the synagogue, the Jew symbolically goes out to meet the divine presence as a bridegroom to his bride. The Jew’s traditional delight in marriage and the home is his highest this-worldly experience. From it he draws his religious inspiration; to it he contributes his greatest energies.

This contrast between the moment of the wedding and the process of a marriage encapsulates an important perception. In Judaism, what is important is not individual moments of great intensity: it is the conduct of life as a whole. There is nothing mystical in the fact of being married. The religious dimension lies in the continuous positive efforts of man and wife to create a shared life, rich in religious atmosphere and mutual respect.

Rabbi Akiva, almost two thousand years ago, summarized the stakes: ‘If they are worthy, the Divine presence rests between them; if they are not, fire consumes them.’(l9) The tragedy of marital failure and the destructiveness of negative emotions were acutely sensed. But at the other extreme, marital success took the partners into a realm of relation that was, in a very real sense, a religious experience of its own.


But how was this relationship achieved? It was and is achieved by the religious life of the home. We have analysed the theology of the commandments; but they have a psychology as well. Judaism does not believe that emotion, unaided, can serve as the basis for any lasting relationship. This is true of our relationship with God. If we were to pray only when we felt spontaneously impelled to, we would relegate prayer to rare moments or to rare individuals. It would cease to be part of the mainstream of daily life.(20) Therefore we pray three times a day, and according to a largely fixed liturgy. This then places the burden on us, to rise to the encounter with God. We are forced to grow, emotionally, to the challenge. We do not impose our personality on religion. Rather, we let Judaism educate our personality. The same is true of relationships in marriage. Love does not exist in a vacuum or last forever without reminders and expression. In exceptional cases it may do. But as the rabbis were fond of saying: the Torah was not given to the ministering angels, but to the ordinary man and woman.

The Jewish laws of home life do five things. They create a common bond, a shared activity of man and wife of great richness. They provide for regular expressions of love and family feeling and their celebration. They place the physical facts of the family— from sex to eating and drinking—in a religious context and prevent them from becoming déjà vu and commonplace. They form a link between parents and children in the setting of a common cultural heritage, and the mutual respect that grows from the love of continuous education. And above all, they confer on all these things a positive religious value, a sanctity without sanctimoniousness, an unselfconscious celebration of life.

The unknown early-medieval author of the Sefer HaChinuch— a systematic analysis of the commandments—says this time and time again in explaining a command. ‘A man is affected by his deeds.’ The least of men can become a saint by constantly acting in accordance with the commands. The most righteous of men can lapse into evil unless he acts out his righteousness in deeds. ‘The heart is drawn after the action.’(21) The conception of Judaism as the dry bones of law, lacking the living breath of love, could not be further from the truth. A religion which placed at the centre of its creed, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’(22) and declared this to be the essence of its faith;(23) whose rabbis constantly claimed ‘God requires the heart’, could not have remained indifferent to emotion. For precisely this reason, they sought to take from it its instability and caprice, and make love a constant presence. The laws of the home are a good example. They are an elaborate discipline and education of the emotions. They rescue affection from chance and change. They are the environrnent of love.


To the Jew, the Sabbath is an oasis in time. One day in seven he may do no work; he is liberated from the tyranny of the telephone and the television; from sunset to sunset his mind is at rest. Not only may he not conduct his business—he may not even speak of it. He is free in a way difficult to describe to one who has not experienced it. The rabbis said: he has another soul. He is free to pray, to study, and above all to celebrate his family.

Friday afternoon is like the frenzied preparation for a wedding. Everyone puts on his best clothes, a fresh white cloth is spread on the table, the finest food has been saved for now. Just before sunset, the wife lights the traditional candles, the symbol of shalom bayit, ‘peace in the home’. With this act, the Sabbath is ushered in. Activity ceases. Rest descends like a tangible presence So it has been in Jewish families, however poor, however oppressed, for millennia. The Sabbath—they called it their ‘bride’— was their freedom, their sanctuary in time.(24)

And the meal begins—at this moment of moments in the Jewish week—with a poem of love from the husband to his wife:

A woman of worth, who can find?

Her value is far above rubies . . .

Many daughters have done worthily—

But thou excellest them all (Prov. 31.1031).

It is the great point of truth. The husband has returned home from the synagogue. He blesses his children. He sings the praise of his wife. And then he sanctifies the meal, over wine and the special Sabbath bread, and rejoices in his family. For on this day, they are his riches. Work is another world. His possessions are useless. He cannot drive the car, spend his money, turn on his television or record-player. But he lacks nothing. He has music, as the family sing together the Sabbath songs. He has, forced upon him, the lost art of conversation. Above all he has warmth: today the whole family has drawn close together over the Sabbath table. No man or woman who has lived a Sabbath can feel that home or the family are secondary considerations, inferior objects of effort.


The Sabbath is the soul of the week; the festivals are the soul of the year. They take the Jewish family through an annual cycle of historical memory and personal rededication. Each of the great historical festivals involves a symbolic re-enactment of the past, as often in the home as in the synagogue. They are a kind of living education in Jewish consciousness, millennia deep. In them, Jewish parents painlessly communicate their values and aspirations to their children. There can be no generation gap when a shared culture so enlivens the atmosphere. Perhaps what makes this so successful an educational form is that parents and children are both learning, each from the other.

The best known of these events is the Seder on the first nights of Passover. At the family table, the story of the exodus from Egypt is narrated, in a form and with customs specifically planned to capture the interest of the child. The whole narration begins with the youngest child asking the questions: Why is this night different? Why the unleavened bread? Why the bitter herbs? But on Tabernacles, too, the whole family move out of the house for a week to eat their meals in frail, improvised huts, reminiscent of the Israelites in the wilderness. On Simchat Torah, the festival of ‘Rejoicing in the Law’, adults and children forget decorum and dance and sing around the synagogue in celebration of the ending of the yearly cycle of Torah-reading and the beginning of the new. Adults become children, as they do also on Purim, the festival of Esther and of the deliverance of Jews in the Persian empire. Purim is joy run riot. Even the normal sobriety of the Jew comes under heavy alcoholic pressure. And more quietly, on Hanukkah, the eight-branched candelabrum, the menorah, stands in each home for eight nights, lit as a reminder of the tiny miracle— the cruse of oil that lit the Temple for eight days—that we remember as the enduring symbol of the Maccabean uprising.

Through these, the Jew lives his nation’s past. Somehow, they have never become mere performances. If they had, they would never have survived, for the time and preparations they demand are far from inexpensive. Probably, what has kept them alive has been precisely that they were and are for children as much as for parents. In a subliminal way, it is the child’s wonder and innocent enthusiasm that have given new meaning and inspiration to the adults. Judaism’s religious concern for children and their education is a recognition that they are the inexhaustible source of its own renewal. The world survives because of the chatter of children, said the rabbis; and in Jewish terms they were right.


If Judaism is in one sense a religion of the kitchen, then this is true not only on Sabbaths and Festivals. On these special days, the woman’s role as the creator of the whole ambience of the family celebrations is most noticeable. But it is there, none the less, at all other times. For eating is never without its religious significance in Judaism. Over everything we eat we make a blessing before and afterwards, recognizing the sanctity of the world and our limited right to make use of it. And everything we eat has to be in accordance with the dietary laws, the laws of kashrut. Of these, the woman is the expert and the guardian.

Their details are irrelevant here. But like all Jewish law, they create a constant state of awareness that without this discipline could not be sustained. The Jew knows that his appetite cannot be sated without constraint. Certain foods, and certain combinations of food, are always forbidden to him. He knows too that a kind of divine permission must be sought, and thanks given, for the very act of enjoying the harvest of the earth. ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof—and so, inferred the rabbis, it must be used in a state of sanctify,(25) formally enacted in the blessings and in the washing of hands before bread. Thus eating itself becomes a form of worship. Since the destruction of the Temple—went the rabbinic aphorism—a man’s table atones for him.

There is one command he fulfils at his table that has particular significance—hospitality. The rabbis said: hospitality is greater than receiving the divine presence.(26) The very intensity of family life might have lent it an inbred claustrophobia. Man and wife must occasionally be saved from egoisme à deux. The open door, the shared meal, the table at which friends or strangers could be sure of a place are vitally important to Jewish tradition. Through them, especially, the family opened out into the community. Nowadays it is a command more difficult to fulfil, partly because of the geographical spread of suburban Jewry, partly because of the increasingly institutionalized forms of welfare. But still, it is rare for a Jewish man or woman to have to spend a Sabbath or festival alone. And far-flung families will re-gather for the major festivals over a single table, spanning the generations and cutting across cultures. The Jewish home is never a castle, built to keep intruders out.


There remains the final question: why are women not rabbis? And what significance does this fact carry? That this issue has been, within the orthodox community, largely uncontroversial lies in the particular nature of the rabbinate and its function.

A rabbi is not distinguished from any other Jew in terms of superior holiness, or of any special obligations or privileges. If the rabbi in many congregations performs certain specific functions in the synagogue—reading the Torah, conducting prayers, officiating at marriages, and so on—this is an accidental evolution of his role and peripheral to it. In fact, any qualified layman can, and often does, do these things. In this sense, Judaism has no ‘ministry’. If the rabbi has any prerogatives, then they belong to the logic of respect, which the community owes to its rabbi as it would, say, to any distinguished congregant who had earned it by age or virtue or learning. The office of rabbi is divorced completely from the idea of priesthood. Judaism, of course, knows of the institution of the priest, or Cohen. But it functioned primarily in connection with the Temple and for the last nineteen hundred years has survived in a vestigial and attenuated form.

Strictly speaking, the rabbinate is in another sense distinct from the idea of ‘ministry’: in the sense of the pastoral leadership of the congregation. Synagogues do tend to appoint rabbis as their spiritual leader. But a Jew can be a rabbi without holding any official religious position. He may simply be, say, a professional man whose qualification as rabbi was acquired merely as part of his religious education. Conversely, the minister of a synagogue may, on occasion, not be a rabbi.

What, then, is a rabbi? The term technically designates someone who has achieved a certain knowledge and mastery of Jewish law, together with the requisite moral and religious rectitude to apply it accurately, sensitively, and with conviction. The qualification needs long years of dedicated study in the intricacies of Talmudic dialectic and the nuances of its practical application. It also of course presupposes that its possessor lives and behaves in accordance with these laws.

The rabbi, in short, is someone who learns and teaches. Specifically, he alone has the right authoritatively to rule on matters of Jewish law.

Traditionally, then, the rabbinate is like so much else in Judaism: in an ostensibly formal religion, a very informal institution. A woman might take to the rabbi her questions about kashrut or, perhaps, some detailed point of the laws of family purity. But in fact Jewish women are themselves expected to have detailed knowledge of the complex laws surrounding their lives and in general tend to do so, rather more perhaps than men.

But of course in recent centuries, in Europe and America, the rabbinate has attracted to itself a number of pastoral functions: visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, overseeing charitable and educational enterprises, in general being at the heart of the variegated social activities of the synagogue community. In a very real sense, this is faute de mieux: these duties in essence fall on every Jew as such, and they have devolved upon the rabbi because laymen simply do not have the time.

And it is here that, in the general community, Jewish women have undoubtedly played their greatest role. The welfare, charitable, pastoral, and educational work done by Jewish women tends considerably to outstrip the contribution of their male counterparts. Many—most—synagogues have a number of women’s groups dedicated to study or raising funds for charity or visiting hospitals: the real heart of Judaism as a moral community.

Women’ too, have taken the lead in political consciousness, most strikingly in organizing protest against repression in the Soviet Union. The conception of Judaism as circumscribed by the synagogue and the home is a very false one, giving the impression, as it must, that men rule the synagogue while women rule the home. What it omits is the vital third area: of community concern, of the functioning of a group as a community, outside the times and boundaries of prayer. Here men and women act together. And it must be admitted that women have made the greater contribution, functioning alongside and invaluably assisting the rabbi.

The major area in which women do not take part is in conducting the services of the synagogue. This, as has been pointed out, has nothing to do with the rabbinate, for services can and often are taken by a layman. The explanation lies in a technicality of Jewish law. In order to conduct a service, a person must himself be obligated to say those prayers. And women, as we explained earlier, are—according to one authoritative opinion—exempt from fixed, congregational prayer and bound only to private, spontaneous worship. They have, in other words, a different tradition of prayer, one which reaches back to the most ancient records of prayer in Judaism, to the prophetic utterances of Abraham, Moses, and Jeremiah as well as those of Miriam, Hannah, and Deborah. This is marked in tangible form in the synagogue by separate seating of men and women, something which might seem anachronistic until it is remembered that their presence in the synagogue means very different things: for men, the fulfilment of an obligation, for women, a voluntary act. Each is independently valid. But each has its own spiritual logic. By praying differently (though this difference may not be outwardly perceptible) men and women affirm their differentness.


In this rapid journey through Judaism, I hope certain perceptions have emerged.

First, that Judaism accepts the idea of roles in the religious life which may be of the utmost importance without their being chosen. It is only in this context that the distinct roles of men and women can be understood.

Secondly, that although the role of the woman is closely related to the home and the family, it is neither limited to it, nor is it something outside the concern of the man. More importantly, it should by now be clear that the home is far from being of limited, minor significance to Judaism. It is in fact the locus of many of its most important religious activities and has historically been the crux of its survival.

Thirdly, the fact that women are exempted from some of the commandments does not mean that they are excluded from them. The exemption was intended to leave them free to pursue their role. And the domains that they have made their own are far more significant than those they have not. Their most conspicuous absence—from the conducting of services in the synagogue—is largely to be understood in terms of the different worlds of prayer that men and women inhabit in Judaism.

Fourthly, I hope that the sense has been communicated of the way in which the commandments, the mitzvot, serve to sanctify even the simplest and most inconspicuous aspects of daily life for the Jew. And in this women have a part to play at least as great as, probably greater than, men’s.

Liberation can be understood in two ways. It can be freedom from something or the freedom to do something. The religious Jew or Jewess does not find his or her role as something from which to seek liberation. From the outside, it can seem a burden, a constraint. From within, lived, affirmed, it can itself seem the greatest liberation. The freedom to be what one was chosen for. The freedom of knowing that one’s life has a meaning beyond one’s own arbitrary choices. The freedom that comes from knowing that the world is God’s question and one’s life is the answer.

(M = Mishna; B.T. = Babylonian Talmud)


1. ↑ B.T. Sanhedrin 56a-b; see Nachmanides, Commentary to the Torah, Gen. 34.13; see also The Pentateuch, ed. Dr J. H. Hertz, Soncino Press 1962, comrnentary to Gen. 9.7.[1]

2. ↑ All quotations from M. Sanhedrin 4.5.[2]

3. ↑ B.T. Berachot 17a.[3]

4. ↑ Judah Halevi, Kuzari, II, 50.[4]

5. ↑ M. Kiddushin 1.7.[5]

6. ↑ See Exod. 13.1-16; Deut. 6.4-9; 11.13-21.[6]

7. ↑ See Num. 15.37-41.[7]

8. ↑ Maimonides, Hilchot Tefillah, 1.1-2.[8]

9. ↑ This is the view of Nachmanides. See, for a summary of the two positions: Mishna Berura to Orach Chayim, ch. 106, note 4.[9]

10. ↑ B.T. Kiddushin 33b-34a.[10]

11. ↑ This is not, however, the custom among Sefardi Jews. See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim ch. 589.6 for the view of R. Joseph Karo. For a citation of the major sources, see G. Ellinson, Ha-Ishah ve-ha Mitzvot, pp. 50-4.[11]

12. ↑ M. Makkot 3.16.[12]

13. ↑ See B.T. Berachot 11a; 16a-b; Sukkah 25a-26a.[13]

14. ↑ B.T. Shabbat 119a.[14]

15. ↑ B.T. Kiddushin 30b-31a.[15]

16. ↑ B.T. Niddah 45b.[16]

17. ↑ Midrash Genesis Rabbah 17.7.[17]

18. ↑ B.T. Berachot 17a.[18]

19. ↑ B.T. Sotah 17a.[19]

20. ↑ See, for example, Judah Halevi, Kuzari, III, 1-19.[20]

21. ↑ Sefer HaChinuch, ed. C. Chavel, Mossad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem, 1972, Mitzvah 20, p. 73.[21]

22. ↑ Lev. 19.18.[22]

23. ↑ See the words of R. Akiva, Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9.4; and of Hillel, B.T. Shabbat 31a.[23]

24. ↑ On this concept, see A. J. Heschel, The Sabbath, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1963.[24]

25. ↑ B.T. Berachot 35a-b.[25]

26. ↑ B.T. Shabbat 127a.[26]

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