Sexism in the Commandments

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, A Sexual Reboot, She’s My Beautiful Sister,Kosher Incest?, How They Met, Male-Female Intercourse, The First Kiss, The Power to Transform, Onanism, Daughters-in-Law and Moshiach, Issues with the In-Laws?, The Undoing of Captivity, Shift Beds – Part II, Pharaoh’s Assimilation Policy, Passion vs. Pleasure, Loving in Reverse, Music is Female, and Fecund Fluids and Revelation.

Rated PG

After hearing “the big ten” in last week’s Parshah, the Israelites requested that Moses deliver a less dramatic exposition of the balance of G-d’s commandments. Enter this week’s Parshah: “And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them.” (Exodus, 21:1).

To whom were these commandments given? The men? The women? From the text itself, it is often unclear. For example, the opening commandment is not gender-specific: “Should you buy a Hebrew slave…” (Exodus, 21:2) The Torah does not define “your” sex.

Sometimes, the Torah does specify a gender – but we are taught that the Torah is simply picking the most obvious one, even though the commandment applies to both. For example, “One who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus, 21:12). This commandment is universally understood as applying to one who strikes a woman as well. And the sex of the murderer is left ambiguous – since both a man or women would be equally subject to the death penalty.

On the other hand, sometimes the Torah does specify that a particular commandment applies to both men and women. For example, a few verses later, we are taught that “one who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus, 21:15). In this instance, the Torah did not assume that hitting one’s mother would be punished the same as hitting one’s father, and therefore specifies that punishment applies to both. Similarly, “should a man strike his manservant or his maidservant with a rod” (Exodus, 21:20) and ” if a bull gores a man or a woman who dies” (Exodus, 21:28).

Sometimes the actor identified in the commandments is intended to be gender specific: “If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her” (Exodus, 22:15). Sometimes it is not: “If a man leads his animals into a field or a vineyard” (Exodus, 22:4); or “You shall not allow a sorceress to live” (Exodus22:17). In each of the latter examples, the commandment applies to an actor of either sex – it simply chooses to use the most typical one for the narrative. See Rashi, Exodus, 22:17 (“this law applies equally to both males and females, but the text speaks of the usual, and those who practice sorcery are usually women”).

Based upon the premise that the Torah was written with the utmost of precision, determining whether a particular commandment applies to men or women often requires a thorough analysis of the context, textual signals, the reconciliation of one verse with another, and sometimes an oral tradition. Generally, however, it is clear that the commandments were directed to both Jewish men and women.

There is one category of mitzvah that applies only to men, however, and those are “Mitzvot Aseh SheHazman Grama” – positive commandments that are triggered by a particular time. These include commandments like Tefillin and Tzitzit, which are day-specific mitzvot, or dwelling in a Sukkah, which is a mitzvah specific to the 15th day of the month of Tishrei. As with any rule, there are of course exceptions – women are obligated to eat Matzah and Maror on the first night of Pesach, and they are obligated in Kiddush on Friday night. And even when a woman is exempt from a particular commandment, she is still permitted and even encouraged to fulfill it. The Ashkenazic tradition is that women may even make a blessing when performing mitzvot from which they are exempt (even though mitzvah-blessings include the words “who commanded us to…”)

On a very technical and legal level, women’s exemption from time-bound positive commandments is derived in the Talmud from a comparison of various commandments. See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, 29a-b. It is, unfortunately, a common misconception that the “exclusion” of women from these commandments has something to do with a patriarchal system and a perceived inferiority of the fairer sex. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Kabbalah explains that the word “Mitzvah” derives from the word “tzavta,” which means to connect, to bind. Thus, the purpose of a mitzvah is to form a bridge and connect us with the divine. Without such a bridge, one would find it impossible to imagine that there could be any meaningful connection between the infinite creator and his/her/its puny and finite creations. G-d is infinite and omnipresent, transcending all limitations of time and place. Our world, conversely, exists in an entirely temporal and spatial realm. And when our souls descend to this world from their divine origin, they lose (to some extent) the open connection with their source, and become restrained by the same limitations as the world that we live in. By giving us commandments and tasks that are tied to our physical world, however, G-d creates a portal, a connection, between us and Him, notwithstanding our virtually contradictory states of existence.

The souls of women, however, originate from a much loftier spiritual plane than the souls of men. As a result, female souls emerge into this world without having lost the open channels to their source. Thus, even here in this world, women retain an open connection to G-d that transcends time. Whereas men’s opportunities to connect to G-d are clothed in a physical deed at a particular time, women have the ability to connect to G-d directly and constantly. Thus, time-bound commandments (again, with certain exceptions) are essentially a descent for women, akin to swapping 20/20 vision for a strong pair of eyeglasses.

This spiritual hierarchy is also hinted in the way the commandments were first broached to the Jewish people. When G-d told Moses to gather the Jewish people and to teach them His commandments, He said, “So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel.” (Exodus, 19:3). The Mechilta states: “‘Say to the house of Jacob’ – These are the women. Say it to them in a gentle language. ‘Tell the sons of Israel’ – the punishments and the details of the laws explain to the males, things that are as harsh as wormwood.” The women were spoken to more gently and generally – and they were addressed first (“the house of Jacob”); whereas the men, requiring a more structured system of connecting to G-d, were addressed more strictly and with greater detail, and only after the women had first received their instruction (and then the “sons of Israel”).

Thus, commandments do indeed treat men and women differently, commensurate with their differing spiritual origins and the power of their connection to the divine.