Judaism is a religion, a thought-system, a tradition, a history, a community, and a way of life, all intertwined. The very richness of the tapestry makes it difficult to define or pin down the Jewish belief and practice system. There are many voices, many periods of history, many disputes and agreements to disagree. The story of women in Judaism is similarly complicated, constantly in flux, and even more so today.
We should probably begin to consider the experience of women in Judaism with the reflection that Judaism is a religion and lifestyle with a built-in “mommy-track.” Ever since the beginning of Judaism, and doubtless long before that, it had been assumed that a woman's life would be occupied with bearing and rearing children, providing for their economic and spiritual well-being. The Biblical poem “A Capable Woman” (sometimes called “A Woman of Valor,” Prov. 31: 11–21) shows an appreciation of women in this role and an assumption that women will fulfill it. In this poem, the woman of the house, wise and intelligent, is mistress of all the many economic tasks of women and an expert in buying and selling land. Because of her many capabilities, her husband praises her as he sits in the town gate. At this gate, the site of communal deliberations and legal judgment, the community made its decisions and adjudicated its disputes. The capable wife was not there—she was taking care of her household. It was her husband, together with the other men of the community, who engaged in these public affairs, and it was the strength and capability of the women that enabled their men to attend such matters. The division of labor was the ideal of the scribes and scholars who wrote the biblical Book of Proverbs at the beginning of the Second Temple. Later, the founders of Rabbinic Judaism further refined a system that had different expectations for women and men.
In many religions, one might ask: what do social arrangements have to do with religion? But in Judaism, society is at the core of