Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss


The Jewish tradition sees seventy faces or dimensions of the Torah representing an open multifaceted text. Now that women are studying and becoming scholars might we see another seventy dimensions of the Torah?


The basis of Jewish religious feminism is that revelation is not static and fixed but interpretive and cumulative. Judaism more than Christianity and Islam has a tradition accepting that idea. Feminism regardless of religion is based on equality, particularly regarding patriarchal versus matriarchal issues. Tamar Ross, an Orthodox Jewish Feminist believes that a conflation and not a revamping of the dominant Patriarchal tradition to changing circumstances, particularly regarding women can be made. 1 As we shall see below the text of the Torah is intended to be fluid and to blur the boundaries between the divine and the human. Furthermore some of the rules of the Torah are based on history. Maimonides did not believe that in the Messianic Temple animal sacrifices (elaborately described in the Torah and the Talmud) would begin anew; for him it was a custom of the age when the Texts were written. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazik Chief Rabbi of Israel and a vegetarian also believed that.

A Midrash tell us that when Moses came to collect the Torah the angels said to God ‘Are you not afraid that he made add to it on his own? God answered ‘Heaven forbid, but is he does, he is trusted throughout my household’. Human participation is part of the text.

Feminist ideology for Orthodox women does not wish to overcome halakha (Jewish law) but must be in conformity with it. Halakha can be changed but it must be within the Orthodox tradition. As Ross has stated it must be a ‘bloodless battle’. 2

There is a problem, the writers of the Tnakh and its commentators until very recently were only men. Men’s culture differs than women’s.  Women may see a greater significance in the present and the passing moment as a continuum than in the transcendent future. And perhaps see less of a duality than men see.

When Moses came down from the Mountain of Sinai and saw the Golden Calf he smashed the Tablets of God. A Midrash describes them as have been ‘white fire engraved upon by black fire. It is fire mixed with fire, cut from fire, and given from fire’. The white fire represents God’s transcendent  mind and the black fire a reflection of the shadows, infinite, awesome and inchoate to the finite human mind.’

Moses then wrote on the second Tablets a set that included the ‘oral Torah’ and a place where for ‘arguments for the sake of heaven’ were to take place. The first Tablets are part of the God-centered Bible, while the second are part of the Human-centered Bible. Jewish mysticism considers that God created a ‘primordial Torah (Torah kedumah).  Perhaps the original Torah of God included a level of spirituality beyond humanity.  

A text never ‘speaks for itself’; the reader reads and then the text becomes known. The whole idea of Midrash is to create an ‘open ended dialogue and the need to study Midrash in all of its multiple and contested cases . . . Midrash is not method but form of life . . . even the principle of majority rule was rejected [in terms of Midrash not Halakha] by many rabbis as alien to the whole idea of Midrash. . . there is always room for another interpretation, or for more dialogue . . . If the Torah is to have any force as a text, it must always be situated in a culture of argument’. 3   

Rabbi Babya ben Asher (a thirteenth century commentator whose written Torah is the one approved by Maimonides and the one we Jews read today) stated ‘The scroll of the Torah is [written] without vowels, in order to enable man to interpret it however he wishes . . . without vowels man may interpret it [extrapolating from it] several [different] things, many marvelous and sublime.’ 4  

Midrashim aim to motivate the reader to interpret the Bible in light of contemporary  issues. ‘Let the Torah never be for you an antiquated decree, but rather like a decree freshly issued, no more than two or three days old . . . Indeed, Ben Azzai said: not even as old as a decree issued two or three days ago, but as a decree issued this very day.’ 5  

We today read the Bible after the Holocaust and after the establishment of the State of Israel, an independent state after almost 2,000 years. How can we possible be as a reader in medieval times or even the first decade of the twentieth century. The modern educated reader not only reads through his own tradition and history but a tradition modernized and secularized. As

the Talmud said ‘we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.’  

Some readers like Gabriel Josipovici will not ask ‘what is the text saying’ but ‘what is happening to me as I read?’ 6 This may be what Bruns meant when he said ‘think of yourself as belonging to the text’. 7  

Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz a seventeenth scholar, known as the ‘Shlah’ stated ‘every day a voice goes out from Mount Horeb . . . we find that God gave the Torah and He continues to give the Torah at every moment’. 8

God’s will is difficult to decipher. It can only be deciphered by human beings and in the past only men processed these determinations; in the near future women will also process and decipher and tomorrow it will be different. And as God said to the angels about Moses adding to the Torah, if the community of believers sees the halakha differently today than yesterday He will trust His household.

Who preserved Judaism during the millennium and a half of exile; was it the great Jewish scholars Rashi in the Ashenazik world and Maimonides in the Sephardic world? Or was it the women who made certain of Kashrut in the home, making the festival foods for Shabbat and the festivals, baking challah and gefiltah fish, keeping the niddah (laws of sexual intimacy) and raised the children to love and appreciate Judaism. Who made a Shabbat a restful day and who cleaned and scrubbed the house for Passover – it certainly was not the men.

And yet in Orthodoxy women cannot be called up to the Torah (aliyat haTorah) , do not count for minyan (a quorum of ten men required for communal prayers) and are not required to say the kaddish (a mourners prayer) for her dead mother or father. If her mother died a women’s chevra kadisha; will clean the body before burying but only a men’s chevra kadisha will say the prayers over the dead. When mourners leave the funeral only men will walk between other men; women are simply ignored.

Marriage law still considers a man buying his wife and divorce can only be initiated by the husband. If he refuses the woman is an ‘aguna’ and can never marry in an Orthodox marriage ceremony.  

Today thousands of modern Orthodox women study Torah and Talmud. This is not acceptable to the ultra-Orthodox. The tradition of women being taking care of the home and caring for children became Halakha by Tradition. Since studying Torah is such an overwhelming Mitzvah that the Ultra-Orthodox belief it justifies not serving in the Army Forces why should it not be available to women?

Let us take two examples of problems where change is taking place: women’s being allowed to go up to the Torah, making the blessings and have the Torah text read for them, an ‘aliya’ and family law, marriage and divorce.


Rabbi Mendel Shapiro (an Orthodox Rabbi) wrote in the Orthodox Journal Edah that women can under halakhic principles be called to the Torah. Rabbi Shapiro is at least to some Orthodox Rabbis an authority. Rabbi Yehuda Henkin responded by accepting Shapiro’s argument but that ‘women’s aliyot remain outside the consensus, and a congregation that institutes them is not Orthodox in name and will not long remain Orthodox in practice.’ Henkin continues that if done without fanfare, an occasional aliyah by a woman in a private minyan of men on Shabbat in a home . . . perhaps can be countenanced or at least overlooked.  Despite Shapiro’s Halakhic argument being accepted by Henkin aliyot for women is still not acceptable because it impinges on others sensibilities.  9 It would seem that should Orthodox communities accept this halakhic innovation Henkin’s concern would be alleviated. Is the question what is God’s will or what is the Orthodox communities will? Some laws that may not be strictly mandated (as Shapirio claims about women and aliyot) but become so traditional a part of Orthodoxy that diverging from that tradition is considered transgressing the law itself. That is what Henkin claims.

At least one Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem (Yedidya) when the Torah is removed from the ark for reading removes two, the second is taken upstairs, the women in the synagogue go upstairs and men and women read the Torah separately both stating the appropriate blessing.


Family law under Orthodoxy is controlled by the Rabbi’s, they are all male; how can family law be equal for men and women when no women are permitted into the controlling hierarchy? No democratic country in the world would exclude women from political power; how can Orthodoxy claim to treat women equally without allowing them into the corridors of power.

Thousands of years ago women may have agreed to a Patriarchal bargain based on a division of tasks; man hunted and brought home food and women agree to exclusive sexual fidelity and took care of the home and children. Men were never bound to exclusive sexual fidelity; the double standard was required (in the view of men) to be certain of fatherhood. Women were essentially possessed by their husbands.

That there was a double standard is clear from the Torah. If a man simply jealously accuses his wife of infidelity with no evidence she is required to drink of ‘bitter waters’. If she is guilty ‘her thighs shall fall away and her belly swell’. If she is innocent the waters will have no effect (Num. 5:21). All the husband has to do is accuse his wife and this procedure will take place.  If a wife should accuse her husband of infidelity nothing is required of him; apparently it is not even a sin.

That bargain if ever valid clearly no longer applies. It no longer applies because marriage is a legal contract and many women would simply refuse to accept the basis of such a contract. In religious communities there is enormous pressure or coercion to accept the prevailing thousand year old rules about marriage and divorce.

As an example only a man can sue for divorce, a woman can never start a divorce proceeding. Under Judaism a Rabbinic court (consisting only of Orthodox male Rabbis) is required to approve the divorce agreement (called a ‘get’). A women who refuses to accept the terms of a divorce become an aguna – a living widow – she can never remarry and never have kosher children again. If a man separated but without a ‘get’ lives with an unmarried woman and has a child the child is kosher. If a women does the same with an unmarried man the child is not ‘kosher’; she is an adulteress.

If a man refuses to give his Jewish wife a ‘get’ she is also ‘agunah’ who can never remarry. The Rabbis can solve this problem as Rabbis Emanuel Rachman, Eliezer Berkovits and Ze’ev Falk have done. But the tradition is so strong that their methods have not in general been accepted.


The technological changes of modernity – economic independence, medical research separating reproduction from sexuality, increased importance for self fulfillment and autonomy, women working outside the home and freedom of choice have raised a backlash in all the world.

Marshall Berman described modernity as follows:

“great discoveries in the physical world, changing our image of the universe and our place in it, the transformation of scientific knowledge into technology creating new human environments and destroying old ones, . . immense demographic upheavals, severing millions of people from their ancestral habitats .  .  .  cataclysmic urban growths, systems of mass communications . . .  mass social movements of people . .  striving to gain some control of their lives’ and globalization. (All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity.)

These events have resulted in a Jewish (as well as Christian and Muslim) backlash. Jewish Modern Orthodoxy has become more hardline as a result. In the Talmud there were two schools: the school of Shamai and the school of Hillel; the former was more hardline and the latter more liberal. The Talmud ruled that in general the Halakha – the law – would go according to the school of Hillel. The Talmud writes ‘always be as gentle as Hillel and not as impatient as Shammai’ (BT Shab. 30b).  

A bat kol ended a three year debate between the school of Rabbi Hillel and those of Rabbi Shammai. ‘ Then a bat kol sounded saying ‘These are and those are the words of the living God, but the Halakha is in accordance with Bet Hillel’ (BT Erubin 13b).  After the Bat Kol, the Halakha is almost always in accordance with the words of Bet Hillel. ‘Anyone transgressing the words of Bet Hillel is guilty of death’. (JT Yebomoth 1:6). After this the school of Bet Shammai was dissolved. In the Talmud the sages note "he who observes the teaching of House of Shammai deserve death" (BT Berachot 1a and JT Berachot 1:4).


Today the school of Shammai has succeeded in moving Modern Orthodoxy closer to Ultra-Orthodoxy than ever before. Those favoring more stringency seem to believe it will protect them from the perils of modernity. The inclusion of women as scholars actively interpreting the halakha contradicts this backlash.

These schools studying texts written by men will interpret them differently.

These movements are growing in the centers of Jewish life, in Israel and America. But because of an official and governmental role Chief Rabbinate made up of Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis the connection between the later and Modern Orthodoxy is getting closer than in America. In America Modern Orthodoxy is less related to Ultra-Orthodox Halakha and discourses. In addition secular modernity in America can be partially accepted or not, the secularists are Christians. In Israel the secularists are Jewish and vote for the Israeli government.

That government can and does impact halakhic issues. The government of Israel has defined being a Jew for identity purposes and civic reasons differently that halakha. What if the Knesset votes on a civil marriage; what impact will that have on halakhic marriages? None! Would it erode Jewish marriages? Of course not, since those who cannot or choose not to, do not have Jewish marriages anyway.

It simply continues the Rabbinates monopoly of marriages. The Minister of Interior already recognizes marriages performed abroad by non-Rabbis. Many in Israel simply live together without marriage and are recognized by the same ministry. Is that system better?

Some of these studious women do not find the need to change their position; but some do and will. Some will create their own women’s only synagogues but some will be content with the male dominated synagogues and find sufficient satisfaction with the learning centers. It will take decades to see how many will fit into each group and whether the former group will increase.

In the only recent study of these movements in Israel Tamar El-Or (Hebrew University) concluded that the women studying in these yeshivas have begun to be unsatisfied with the typical male dominated synagogues and stringencies in rituals 10

As an example ‘Kolech’ an Israeli women’s Orthodox movement coming from these Yeshivas wrote to the Chief Rabbinate (controlled by the Ultra-Orthodox) rejecting a paternalistic observation in the Talmud (not a halakhic ruling) that ‘women prefer to be married to any man rather than live alone’. This observation is used by the Rabbinate in divorce proceeding. The Kolech observation received visceral opposition.

The basis of women’s not being required to adhere to many commandments that men are is based on women not being independent entities which was true 2000 years ago. However in the modern world some women clearly are independent (a category not considered in ancient and medieval halakhic discussions) and therefore would be equally required to adhere to commandments. Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun following from Rabbi Z.Y. Kook believed such a category now exists. 11 If a new category exists for those in it the commandments are a requirement. An Orthodox synagogue (Shir Hadash in Jerusalem, that the author has attended) requires a quorum of ten women in addition to the usual ten men requirement to begin the praying although women and men sit separately. In another Orthodox synagogue (Yedidya, also in Jerusalem, that the author has attended) women occasionally give the talk about the Torah section, again despite sitting separately from the men. These synagogues come closer to blurring the distinction between some “Conservative’ denomination synagogues.

The women scholars and those involved in these new type synagogues are very weary of creating a schism in Orthodoxy and thus move very slowly in this direction. In that way they differ from non Orthodox or non Jewish feminists.

While there is a gradual erosion of the Patriarchy by women scholars the real change will come only when a critical mass of Orthodoxy recognizes Jewish Women Rabbis who then will be part of the process of halakhic deliberation. (See my ‘Clerics and Gender’). Tamar Ross asked whether the halakha may be considered to be ‘a wounded system in need of repair’. 12

Women’s involvement as with yoatzot (advisers or halachic guides                                                                                                                               ) and female legal advocates in rabbinic courts that deal with family law primarily divorce have already had effects of religious law including wife abuse and to a lesser extent agunot (women not granted divorces by their husbands – on a husband can grant a divorce under halakha).  Would in vitro fertilization or surrogate motherhood (based on a women’s fertility problems) be reviewed differently if women were included in the Halakhic discourse? Might moral and ethical consideration become equally significant to ritualistic formality if women were involved in the discourse? Or even the pragmatism of the law itself the way Rabbi Hillel in fact ruled?

Most cultures and religions have ideologies with practices regarding gender; in the vast majority of these cases women are disadvantaged. Judaism is no different. Within these ideologies men have traditionally held more powerful positions and thus have been better positioned to determine and articulate the groups beliefs, practices and rights. Ideologies that are Patriarchal are by definition sexist.

As Laura Adler recently wrote (Les Femmes qui sort dangereuses) for women holy books are not mere objects. ‘We are connected to them by a current of warm air, a secret bond, a strange and unique attitude, laced with prohibitions, interwoven with efforts of appropriation and containment. . .  a secret marriage encompassing violent tempests, a passion for a world of your own, for a world that stands by itself, for myself, and is therefore remote from men . . . To drink them in like mother's milk, almost to feel that to live is to read."

The Jewish tradition sees seventy faces or dimensions of the Torah representing an open multifaceted text. Now that women are studying and becoming scholars might we see another seventy dimensions of the Torah?

1 Ross, Tamar, Expanding the Palace of Torah (Hanover, N.H. : Brandeis University Press, 2004) pg. 163.

2 Ross, pg. 178.

3  Bruns, in Schwartz, pg. 198, 200. in Schwartz, Regina, ed. The Book and the Text, (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1990).

4 Quoted in S. Parpola, The Assyrian Tree of Life: Tracing the Origins of Jewish Monotheism and Greek Philosophy, JNES 52, 1993, pg. 206.

5 Bruns, Schwartz, pg. 191

6 Josipovici, Gabriel, The Book of God, (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1988) pg. 93

7 Bruns, in Schwartz, pg. 202.

8 Horowitz, Isaiah, Shnei Luhot Habrit, quoted in Ross, pg. 197.

9 Ross, pg. 180.

10 El-or, Tamar, Next Year I will know more: Literacy and Identity of Young Orthodox Jewish Women. Detroit: Wayne State Univesity Press, 2002.

11  Ross, pg. 236.

12 Ross, pg. 245.