Halakhah and Female Equality: The Real Obstacle?

- Aksa Saghir


Halakhah has a variety of definitions, but is usually translated as Jewish law, which many believe to be eternal (though this can be argued). Halakhah tends not to be from scripture alone, but has also been expanded over time under the influence of rabbinic literature and customs.

Asking for the "real" obstacle to the achievement of the full equality of women in Judaism is difficult. The "real" obstacle suggests, to me, the one that is the most difficult to overcome. Therefore, I will be taking the stance that while halakhah is an obstacle, it is not the "real" obstacle to the achievement of the full equality of women in Judaism because the halakhic rules that prevent women from full equality were informed by customs and tradition. Therefore, the "real" obstacle to the achievement of the full equality of women in Judaism is Jewish traditions and customs that many are unwilling to let go of.

Halakhah: the "real" obstacle

Many would disagree with me and suggest that halakhah is the "real" obstacle, for a variety of reasons. It is perhaps more accurate and nuanced to say that halakhah informs Jewish law. It is the law that means women do not have full equality in Judaism. As Greenberg (1981) states, "what was a sociological truth about women in ... previous generations ... was codified ... into halakhah" (p4). In other words, beliefs about women, such as their being the weaker sex and being exempt from certain commandments and rituals (such as circumcision), became Jewish law through halakhah in previous generations, which thus has influenced our own generation as it has been passed down. Therefore, some would argue that halakhah is the "real" obstacle, for it has informed the generations about how women should be treated. Yet I would argue against this. It is not halakhah that has informed the generations, it is custom; customs at the time of debate surrounding the topic became the halakhah through rabbinic literature, and that is what has been passed down. But the debate has not stopped and it could be argued that therefore current customs can lead to a change in halakhah.

Halakhah is not always explicitly listed in scripture (some is found in scripture, but not all). It has also been derived from scripture, and therefore, our society plays into the rules that are determined. If we are raised in a religious household that believes certain rules or ideas are intrinsically right then we will believe them without question. In earlier times, women were seen as the weaker sex so it was put into halakhah that they were different and there were different requirements, even though the scripture did not explicitly state this. Greenberg (1981) states that Judaism and feminism are "a religion and an ideology that under happier circumstances might have nurtured each other [but] instead have become antagonists" (p3).

As stated earlier, previously halakhah has been added to by rabbis and rabbinic literature. This raises the issue that if the rabbis in previous generations were able to interpret halakhah for their society and thus form the halakhah, surely the rabbis in our current generation can do the same for modern society. To stay attached to the eternal and unchanging halakhah of a previous generation is flawed when that generation adapted and added to halakhah themselves.

As Adler (2001) states, "the critique of halakhah and the efforts both to mend it where it harmed or excluded women and to supplement where it did not address women are among the earliest themes of feminist Judaism" (p8). Early feminist Judaism focused on halakhah, rather than the society. I believe this was the wrong approach. Halakhah is based on customs that were around at the time. Rabbinic literature informs halakhah, not just scripture. If women are to achieve full equality, traditions and customs relating to women would have to change and then, only then, could the halakhah be changed to reflect that.

However, it could be argued that we should perhaps be more concerned with halakhah compared to customs and traditions because it could be argued that achieving equality in halakhah would eventually lead to equality in customs and traditions in Jewish life. This approach suggests that halakhah is the "real" obstacle, because once halakhah is made accessible to women, they can start working on the bigger problems with less resistance. Yet, I would argue strongly against this. To be committed to the halakhah will not lead to the achievement of the full equality of women but rather "retain the traditional male-created and male-enforced rules" (Ner-David, 2009, p315). Traditional halakhah does not value feminine qualities, it values masculine ideals and to be committed to this would simply reinforce the idea that masculine qualities are to be desired and feminine qualities are not to be desired. This would not lead to the achievement of the full equality of women in Judaism but rather reinforce the patriarchal system already present.

Halakhah vs. Custom

In fact, it could be argued that halakhah is not the problem for many Judaisms outside of the Orthodox community. The Orthodox community argues that halakhah is eternal and unchanging, and this is perhaps the "real" obstacle: resisting change. Really it is not halakhah that does not give equal rights to women but custom that has found its way into Jewish law, as Dorff (2001) states: "custom determined the role of women ... if we are going to be true to that historical precedent, we must give custom a much larger role in determining our own practices as well" (p86). If custom was so important in the past, why can halakhah not be changed to fit the society at the time? In fact, surely that should be encouraged since our understanding of Judaism and its texts has improved since halakhah was established. It should be changed to reflect this and the new times we live in. Judaism needs to recognize that halakhah is not eternal and has been impacted by the society it was created in if it wishes to get to the point where women can achieve full equality.

Novak (1985) states, "an approach to Halakhah which is traditional as well as historically conscious is based on two principles: (1) Halakhah is fully authoritative ... (2) Halakhah is subject to change" (p1). If we are to suggest that halakhah is the "real" obstacle then we need to somehow validate the idea that it is eternal and unchanging because if it is not, then it is not really an obstacle at all, and rather it is the customs and the people who stick to these ideals that are the "real" obstacle. If we accept that halakhah can be changed by each new generation, then this does not mean the laws surrounding women will change. The laws surrounding equality are not necessarily centered in law, but in the customs and ideas about women that underpin the law, which in turn legitimizes the ideas. It is the ideas that are the "real" obstacle.

I believe the main reason that halakhah is not eternal and unchanging is because, "neither the written nor the Oral Torah is presented as a series of logically connected propositions, that is, a set of universals from which certain corollaries necessarily follow" (Novak, 1985, p2). Adler (2001) supports this by stating, "no text and no precedent explicitly forbid women"' (p10). She goes on to suggest that "rabbis regarded change as necessary, lamentable, evil" (Novak, 1985, p6). If the rabbis from previous generations recognize that change is necessary, why have the rabbis in the present society become so fixated on maintaining halakhah that change is no longer seen as a necessary way forward? Even if we take Novak's view that change is a necessary, lamentable evil then surely change now can be seen from that viewpoint. Furthermore, it would be a change to the law but it would be supported by the fact that the scripture does not forbid women from having equality. Therefore, the issue is that they have become so attached to the halakhah of a previous generation that they refuse to recognize that it will not and cannot work in a modern society.

It could be argued that the ethics of women's rights is an ethics Judaism doesn't agree with, however, there are many sources that run contrary to this argument. Women were exempt from commandments but encouraged to take part if they so wished. This brings up the question of ethics versus halakhah, and which one should be more important in the modern society, but as Novak (1985) says "such ethics [e.g. equal rights] must come from outside Judaism itself" (1985, p7). Ethics are not found intrinsically within Judaism. This may seem a strange statement but I would argue that Jewish ethics, while founded in the scriptures, have been molded by society and therefore this suggests to me that the ethics and ideals of Judaism come from the society it is present in. This again suggests that halakhah is therefore open to change, and is not eternal asnd unchanging. If the ethical ideals of the society change through time, then surely halakhah should change to adapt to this. It is suggested that "a modern notion of gender equality is foreign to classical rabbinic Judaism" (Novak, 2001, p58). Therefore, there needs to be a new imagining of classical Judaism to fit the new society and its ideals. In my opinion, doing this would give women the best chance to achieve full equality in Judaism.

Women in the Rabbinate

I am now going to focus on one issue in order to exhibit how women lack full equal rights: women in the rabbinate. The issue changes depending on which sect of Judaism we focus on, but it remains similar in its many forms. As Novak (1985) says, "the question of rabbinical ordination for women epitomizes a confrontation which in the broadest sense is political. Feminism is asking the Jewish religious community to reconstitute its political order" (p61). The idea of women in the rabbinate is not a small compromise that women want; it involves questioning a significant belief in Judaism.

The main issue is the idea that women are exempt from certain commandments, such as reading the Torah. If women cannot perform certain commands, then how can they lead congregations and study the Torah? However, it could be argued that just because women are exempt, it does not necessarily mean that they cannot take part in these rituals if they so wish, and there is a history of women participating in commandments they are exempt from. Exemption does not mean forbiddance and this is the idea that many women have latched onto and used to fight for their right.

There has been movement and many female rabbis have been ordained. The ideals that needed to be changed to accommodate this show that many are willing to reform their ideals to fit the society. Judaism is concerned with its survival, and in order to survive, it cannot afford to remain so committed to its traditions. Judaism was founded thousands of years ago. There have been many changes in society and our understanding of the world since that time, however, the rabbinic literature has remained untouched. Rabbinic literature is younger than the scripture but they both come from a similar mindset, particularly in regards to women. Rabbinic literature is considered to be eternal and unchanging. It almost appears that everything in the world changes and adapts for the better except religion, in this case Judaism, which has remained fixed in its traditions, which were made for a different society.


Overall, I believe that halakhah is not the "real" obstacle to the achievement of the full equality of women in Judaism. Halakhah is informed by the customs of the society it came from, rather than purely being a set of rules in scripture. Therefore, halakhah is not the "real" obstacle, but rather the "real" obstacle is the customs and traditions that informed halakhah then and continue to inform halakhah now. If we are to attain full equality for women in Judaism, then what need to change fundamentally are the ideas of women in Jewish society, and Jewish traditions. Then, and only then, can halakhah be changed to reflect this.


Adler, R. (2001) "Innovation and Authority: A Feminist reading of the 'Women's Minyan' Responsum" Jacob, W., and Zemer, M., (eds) Gender Issues In Jewish Law: Essays and Responsa, (USA, Berghahn Books)

Blu Greenberg (1981), "Feminism: Is it good for the Jews," On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America) pp. 3-20

Dorff, N, E. (2001), "Custom drives Jewish Law on Women," Jacob, W., and Zemer, M., (eds) Gender Issues In Jewish Law: Essays and Responsa, (USA, Berghahn Books), pp. 82-106

Ellenson, D and Rosen M. (2001) "Gender, Halakhah, and Women's Suffrage: Responsa of the First Three Chief Rabbis on the Public Role Of Women in the Jewish State," Jacob, W., and Zemer, M., (eds) Gender Issues In Jewish Law: Essays and Responsa, (USA, Berghahn Books) pp. 59-81

Ner-David, H. (2009), "Feminism and Halakhah: The Jew Who (Still) Isn't There," Goldstein, R, E. (ed), New Jewish Feminism, (Woodstock, Jewish Lights) pp. 312-322

Novak, D., (1985), "Halakhah in a theological dimension," Published in: Chico, California, Published by: Scholars Press