Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Rambam Paradox: The Woman's Role

1. I don't like the whole "woman's role" or "women in Judaism" terminology, for reasons that should become clear below. I'm just using it for convenience, because people know what it means.
2. The following is not a true paradox; like "woman's role", "paradox" is just a convenient term.

So here's my "paradox": The Rambam opened the door for the whole idea of a "woman's role", but I think he didn't believe that there was such a thing.

One hand:
The Rambam is famous for promoting the idea of taamei hamitzvos, that we are meant to decipher a Divine Will behind the instructions Gd gave us. True, we won't comprehend everything, and failure to comprehend should not translate into failure to observe [see Hilchos Meilah 8:8], but we are meant to investigate mitzvos and discover Divine intent and philosophy behind them.

So it is that Kashrut may not be a set of disparate dietary laws, but a guide to healthy eating, or a unique diet setting us apart from the nations.

So it is that the laws of male haircuts may not be a set of grooming rules, but a way to distinguish ourselves from Egyptian priests.

And so it is that we look at a woman's exemption/exclusion from various duties, and deduce a greater philosophical picture of "How the Torah views women". It's an extension of the Rambam's approach to divining taamei hamitzvos.

The other hand:
The Talmud (Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7) declares that women are exempt from time-bound duties, unless we have an opposing lesson for a particular duty. Most authorities seem to view this as a prescriptive rule; when considering a woman's obligation in particular mitzvah, I can ask, "Is this time-bound?" And if the answer is Yes, then I can assume that women are exempt.

This rule leads to a taamei hamitzvos-style question: Why is the woman exempt from time-bound duties? Is it because the Torah's view of women is that they are dedicated to family and therefore they need their time free? Is it because they don't need the rigorous scheduling and structure that men need? And so we craft ideas of a "woman's role".

But the Rambam discounted the whole idea that this is a prescriptive rule. As he explained in his commentary to this mishnah, there are many exceptions to this "rule", and it is actually not a rule at all, but only a convenient-but-incomplete way to describe a set of duties from which women are exempt. The Rambam rejects the whole idea that we are meant to connect women and time in some philosophical way – undermining the "woman's role" that others have described.

This is probably wishful thinking, but I'd like to believe that when the Rambam dynamited the "time-bound duties" concept, he was really dynamiting the idea of a "woman's role" altogether. I find the concept of "woman's role" to be of the unhealthiest breed of taamei hamitzvos, placing a false face on the Torah's laws based on whatever fad is current, and so demanding that people come up with new roles that fit better with our zeitgeist, regardless of how well or poorly those new roles fit actual Torah, or actual women.

Sometimes a mitzvah is just a mitzvah, an exemption or exclusion is just an exemption or exclusion, and there are no roles involved.

[And speaking of role-busting, I made this three-cheese baked ziti with spinach for the kids the other night, and it was very good. I recommend the recipe.]


  1. You might be interested in the following post from the Talmud Blog:

    I haven't read the book under review, but here's a summary of the argument:

    "But in the Tannaitic period, Alexander argues, women’s exemptions from various mitzvot did not originally derive from those mitzvot being positive and timebound. Rather, the Mekhilta exempts women from the commandment of tefillin because of its link to Torah study. Alexander claims the Mekhilta passage preceded chronologically and was the impetus for other Tannaitic uses of the phrase. The phrase “timebound, positive commandments” functions almost as a proper noun, alluding to previously known rulings, rather than prescriptively generating new ones. Because the rule is not really a rule, it makes sense that there are many timebound, positive commandments to which women are subject, like tefillah and kiddush."

  2. Even the gemara (Kiddushin, 34a) uses this as the prime example of "One can't learn from a generality [Ein lameidin min Hakllalot)", that is that the rule (which has a large number of exceptions--kiddush, matzah and other Seder mitzvot, the three lavin to which woemn are exempt in the mishnah in Kiddushin, etc.) is really more of a mnemonic than a reason.

    Furthermore, anyone trying to explain the rule in terms of family roles must deal with the fact that the same Mishna in Kiddushin has another rule, namely, that mitzvot of child rearing (from Bris to Chuppah) are incumbent upon fathers, not mothers.

  3. I definitely hear what you are saying, and I've considered it from time to time. The problem is the flip-side: if there is no meaning as to why women were exempted but it is simply a "gezerath ha-Melekh," then it makes an entire sphere of life arbitrary. It is one thing to argue that a mitzvah should be observed as an ultimate act of service to Hashem, but the whole point of ta'amei ha-mitzvot is that the Torah is not arbitrary but is a wise system. It is every easy to see why someone would make the connection between gender roles and women's exemption from mitzvot aseh she-ha-zeman geraman, even if that is not the only explanation nor the most desirable one. For those of us who do recognize the Rambam's system, the question is what would be an alternative explanation?

  4. Anonymous 1:40 PM-
    Thanks; looks like it should be a fascinating read!


    For that I can offer you Hilchot Meilah 8:8, no?

  5. You're right - I didn't read what you wrote carefully. But, on the other hand, that only begs the question: if it's not gender family roles, then why is an entire area of life is left out for women?

  6. Joseph- Just a thought: Maybe it's not a composite picture, but each individual mitzvah has a reason of its own?

  7. Food for thought, thanks.