Jewish woman, who knows your life?
You come in the darkness and never see the light,
Your woes and your joys, your hopes and desires,
Are born within you and you die unfulfilled;
Daughters of other people and tribes
Enjoy some pleasure and comfort in this life
But the fate of the Jewess is eternal servitude.
(Y.L. Gordon, "Kotzo shel Yod."
Translated by Michael Stanislawski in For Whom Do I Toil
[Oxford University Press, 1988], p. 125)
THE FEMALE STRUGGLE FOR SELF-dignity in the latter part of the nineteenth century did not bypass Eastern European society. Indeed, the secular Jews of that era, seeking to adopt non-Jewish cultural traits and values, also sought to incorporate the changing status of women into their ideologies. This secular Jewish view is well represented by authors and poets of the Jewish East European Enlightenment such as Y.L. Gordon(1) and Y.L. Peretz,(2) who argued for the emancipation of the Jewish woman.(3)
This developing advocacy for female emancipation confronted the halakhically observant community with a new challenge, although this was a predicament no different from other new secular issues facing the Jews of the time, such as the new technology manifested in the industrial revolution. The question of change in the Jewish woman's role and status could not be isolated from the total Orthodox weltanschauung. The Orthodox community was forced to respond, although it did not cease to polemicize in favor of "the mythic structure of rabbinic Judaism."(4) The problem that challenged the halakhically observant community was whether the values espoused by modernity were to be incorporated into halakhic Judaism. The issue was whether the boundaries between the Orthodox community and the rest of society were to be demarcated more sharply, with a demand for even greater attention to traditional behavior, or whether it was possible to consider social and religious modification, in view of a changing reality. The resolution of this issue would have to be manifested through halakhah. More clearly demarcated boundaries would mean more stringent rulings and the disregard of new social realities in favor of halakhic decisions from earlier periods in history. On the other hand, the endorsement of the new social reality would be expressed by permitting it to be incorporated into the halakhic decision process as well as through halakhic leniency.
Most rabbinical authorities of late 19th century Eastern Europe adopted a stringent halakhic position that, in most instances, ignored modern developments and innovations.(5) Their traditional stance regarding the female role and status did not alter. Her place was in the home as an uneducated wife and mother.(6) Women were considered "lightheaded" and not capable of dealing with issues relevant to the man's world, especially halakhah and its logic. Women were considered physically inferior even in areas such as hygiene. Brayer(7) describes the observatn East European woman as, "usually referred to simply as the wife of her husband." There were, however, rabbinical authorities who had the boldness, while not deviating from the normative Orthodox halakhic system of adjudication, to accept and incorporate the changing social reality. Representative of this view was Rabbi Yehiel Mekhel Halevi Epstein (1829-1908), the author of Arukh Hashulhan, an eight-volume legal text dealing with all sections of the Shulhan Arukh.
This essay will examine the attitude of Rabbi Epstein toward the female role and status, as expressed in Arukh Hashulhan. Methodologically, in approaching the analysis of the issue of women in the Arukh Hashulhan, one cannot isolate this topic from the overall world view of Rabbi Epstein. For example, Rabbi Epstein did not accept rulings that he felt ignored the prevailing time dependent culture. In those instances where the halakhah discussed issue where social reality would make a difference, Rabbi Epstein differentiated between the conditions of "those" times and his era. In his rabbinic rulings, we find that his view of the role of the woman represents his understanding and attitude toward a community in a time of change. In addition to the ideologies of the Haskalah and socialism, which unquestionably exerted a liberalizing influence on Rabbi Epstein's social outlook, his cognizance of, and sensitivity toward, women (representative of modern issues in general) appear to have been rooted to a large degree in his personal history.(8) Although Rabbi Epstein did express a sensitivity to the status of the Jewish woman of his time, one cannot call him in today's terms a "feminist." Rather, he attempted to express his social reality within the strict framework of Jewish law, and not argue for theoretical issues that were not relevant to his time and milieu.(9)
Rabbi Epstein's weltanschauung concerning women is depicted in his writings -- implicitly through the structure of his rhetoric, and explicitly from the content of the codes. To examine Rabbi Epstein's teaching on women, I have selected representative cases, explicit and implicit, from his work, the Arukh Hashulhan. Furthermore, I have classified Rabbi Epstein's rulings into two categories. First; there is his halakhic rationale, where he offers alternative interpretations for decisions, but does not differ from his rabbinical peers in his rulings as such. Second, there are those cases where he differs from other contemporary halakhic legislators not only in …