Beliefs and Concepts Community Education Jewish Identity

Rabbi addresses women’s role

Rabbi Saul Berman discusses the struggle between equality and role differentiation as it relates to Orthodox Jewish women at the University of Manitoba recently. Rabbi Saul Berman discusses the struggle between equality and role differentiation as it relates to Orthodox Jewish women at the University of Manitoba recently.


WINNIPEG – The struggle between equality and role differentiation as it relates to Orthodox Jewish women was the basis of a talk given by Rabbi Saul Berman recently at the University of Manitoba (U of M).

Berman, a long-time associate professor of Jewish studies at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, also teaches Jewish law at Columbia University and was the first fellow (2009-2010) of the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization at New York University’s law school.

The rabbi spoke with Winnipeggers about the existing tensions between equality and sharp role differentiation in traditional Jewish law and culture. These tensions currently play a powerful role in the adaptation and integration of Orthodox Jewry.

“Every legal system starts with a set of truths, virtues, and values, which are the heart of what the culture wants to achieve – the framing of the cultural goals for a society,” explained Berman. “They give rise to both law and ethics.

“Law is essentially the evidence of speech, acts, personality qualities and beliefs...[and] an attempt to regulate these areas [is made] by establishing that which is minimally required of every citizen.”

The rabbi noted that an example of this is that Jewish law does not mandate that women marry (although it does for men), procreate, or have a household role, “allow[ing] for a freedom of contract in the marriage.”

But something has shifted within the last 50 years, conveyed Berman.

“A revolution has begun concerning the role of women when it comes to discretionary laws. We must be careful not to draw the line of the law too extensively, because people will resist that.

“Most people aren’t interested in achieving heroic ideals in their lives, just in making due. The more extensively the system requires you to go beyond what things you’re engaged in, in your day-to-day life, the more irrelevant it becomes to you and the less you’re interested in responding to it.”

The rabbi said what’s needed is to create a base of that which is required of every individual. Without this, he explained, “we’ll never achieve anything close to our desired goals.”

According to Berman, the realm of discretionary is very important. “It’s where the law says you’re not required to do [something], and it doesn’t call it either ‘desirable’ or ‘undesirable.’

“The Torah starts with a fundamental assumption of the desire to maximize equality. Most of the Torah is formulated in gender-free terms. Biblical Hebrew doesn’t have masculine and feminine markings in the way we know them today. The unmarked form can be used for men or for both men and women. The presumption for rabbinic literature is that whatever is under discussion pertains to both men and women.”

Further to that, the rabbi added that of Judaism’s 613 mitzvot (good deeds), women, due to gender, are exempt from priestly functions (totalling 14 mitzvot). These priestly functions are considered to be in the realm of the discretionary, a category in which Berman said exists “a broad variety of opinion by the rabbis.”

The rabbi’s talk was presented by the U of M Judaic Studies Program and Department of Religion in cooperation with Herzlia-Adas Yeshurun Synagogue and Limmud Winnipeg, and made possible by the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba’s Marion Bookbinder Fund.

Berman was also in town to conduct Limmud workshops on Plural Judaism or Plural Jewry – Can We Remain One People? and Organ Donation: Forbidden or a Jewish Imperative?



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