Challenging Women to Influence the Jewish Laws that Govern our Lives

Women and Jewish Law by Rachel Biale. Schocken Books, 1984. 293 pp.

The question of women’s role in Judaism has been approached passionately from all sides. Now Rachel Biale has succeeded in offering a lucid and dispassionate account of some of the major issues as they are represented in halacha (Jewish law).

Her book is well-researched and displays the pedagogue’s ability to translate difficult concepts and convoluted arguments into the language of the lay reader. In a year in which the discourse on this subject has deteriorated to sectarian politics, Women and Jewish Law can serve to raise the debate back up to where it belongs, on the plane of halachic dialectic and quest for knowledge.

Biale has concentrated on the areas of halacha that fall under the general heading of dinei ishut—the laws regulating personal status through matrimony. The chapter headings include women and the mitzvot (commanded actions), marriage, divorce, the agunah (“anchored wife”), sexuality and marital relations, niddah (menstruation), sexuality outside of marriage, procreation and contraception, abortion, and rape.

The great contribution of her book may be to move the English-reading public to acknowledge that these are the issues that often cause real pain and suffering to individuals, and that are often “resolved” by individuals without reference to the Jewish tradition because of their seeming intractability. These are the issues that may affect the future of Klal Yisrael (the total Jewish community) because of the doubts they will cast on future marriages—even more crucial a matter than the public, ceremonial issues—such as ritual observance, prayer, synagogue participation, and Torah study—which Biale treats in her first chapter.

The one significant problem area for Jewish women that is missing from this book is edut—testimony—which touches on many other issues, such as contracts, inheritance, law courts, and the functioning of women rabbis.

Biale is very careful to retain halacha as the focus of her discussion. While she does not profess a consistently Orthodox approach and does argue implicitly for change, she is not irreverent. This is particularly important at a time when it is often perceived as difficult to integrate the halachic process with a theology that sees our generation and its new concerns as discontinuous with traditional, normative Judaism.

The author’s favorite phrase is “balancing act,” and she does it well. Her tone is non-polemical, and her consistent interpretation of machloket, or learned controversy in halacha, as a tension between two legitimate sets of values—for instance, the primacy of procreation vs. the hazards of childbirth; or the assumption that men controlled sexual relations while women needed rights and protection—bespeaks an authentic search for the conceptual bases of Jewish law, often missing in works of this genre.

Many of the questions Biale raises are important: What is the “real” meaning of “acquiring a woman in marriage”? Do women who assume the obligation of mitzvot from which they are legally exempt share an equal status with men who are explicitly commanded?

Some of Biale’s insights are provocative, for example, her interpretation of the fundamental transformation of the laws of niddah from a connection to impurity in the arena of public cultic life to the arena of private family life, where they became attached to the laws regarding sexual transgressions.

As a semi-popular exposition that necessarily reviews the standard works, Women and Jewish Law makes the scholarly literature, including important works in Hebrew, accessible. A major use for this book will be as a starting-point for further research, and as a background text for courses in Women’s Studies and in Jewish Law.

Biale presents us with the important primary sources and explicates them in a fashion that is usually clear and systematic. In some of the chapters, however, she appears to be relying too much on the selections and interpretations of other authors cited in the copious notes. One would want to see the sources in their original contexts in order to uncover other layers of meaning.

My major criticism of this book is its title. It is time to acknowledge that none of these are solely women’s issues. Biale’s challenge to women to begin to influence the halacha that governs their lives is well-taken.

She criticizes, at least implicitly, the entire community that has stopped even dreaming of the consensus that might make it possible to use the halachic tools of takkana and cherem (post-Talmudic rabbinic legislation and excommunication).

This criticism must be taken seriously by men, too. The problems addressed here are human problems, and the search for their solutions, admirably advanced by Biale’s work, should be furthered in that context.

Beverly Gribetz is a doctoral candidate in education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She lives in Jerusalem, where she teaches Talmud at the Pelech Religious High School for Girls, and coordinates the Jewish Values Project of the Melton Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora of the Hebrew University.