The role of women in traditional Judaism has been grossly misrepresented and misunderstood. The position of women is not nearly as lowly as many modern people think.
In traditional Judaism, women are, for the most part, seen as separate but equal. Women’s obligations and responsibilities are different from men’s, but no less important.
In Judaism, G-d has never been viewed as exclusively male or masculine. Judaism has always maintained that G-d has both masculine and feminine qualities. We refer to G-d using masculine terms simply for convenience’s sake.
According to traditional Judaism, women are endowed with a greater degree of “binah” (intuition, understanding, intelligence) than men.
There can be no doubt that the Talmud also has many negative things to say about women. Various rabbis at various times describe women as lazy, jealous, vain and gluttonous, prone to gossip and particularly prone to the occult and witchcraft. Men are repeatedly advised against associating with women, although this is usually because of man’s lust rather than because of any shortcoming in women. It is worth noting that the Talmud also has negative things to say about men, frequently describing men as particularly prone to lust and forbidden sexual desires.
Women are discouraged from pursuing higher education or religious pursuits, but this seems to be primarily because women who engage in such pursuits might neglect their primary duties as wives and mothers. The rabbis are not concerned that women are not spiritual enough; rather, they are concerned that women might become too spiritually devoted.
Women have the right to be consulted with regard to their marriage. Marital sex is regarded as the woman’s right, and not the man’s. Men do not have the right to beat or mistreat their wives.
There is no question that in traditional Judaism, the primary role of a woman is as wife and mother, keeper of the household. Women are exempted from all positive mitzvot (“thou shalts” as opposed to “thou shalt nots”) that are time-related (that is, mitzvot that must be performed at a specific time of the day or year), because the woman’s duties as wife and mother are so important that they cannot be postponed to fulfill a mitzvah.
In Jewish tradition, there are three mitzvot (commandments) that are reserved for women: nerot (lighting candles), challah (separating a portion of dough), and niddah (sexual separation during a woman’s menstrual period and ritual immersion afterwards).
To understand the limited role of women in synagogue life, it is important to understand the nature of mitzvot (commandments) in Judaism and the separation of men and women.
Women are not required to perform certain mitzvot – their observance of those mitzvot does not “count” for group purposes. Thus, a woman’s voluntary attendance at daily worship services does not count toward a minyan (the 10 people necessary to recite certain prayers).
In addition, because women are not obligated to perform as many mitzvot as men are, women are regarded as less privileged. It is in this light that one must understand the man’s prayer thanking G-d for “not making me a woman.” The prayer does not indicate that it is bad to be a woman, but only that men are fortunate to be privileged to have more obligations. The corresponding women’s prayer, thanking G-d for making me “according to his will,” is not a statement of resignation to a lower status. On the contrary, this prayer should be understood as thanking G-d for giving women greater binah, for making women closer to G-d’s idea of spiritual perfection, and for all the joys of being a woman in general.
The second thing that must be understood is the separation of men and women during prayer. According to Jewish Law, men and women must be separated during prayer, usually by a wall or curtain called a mechitzah or by placing women in a second-floor balcony. There are two reasons for this: first, your mind is supposed to be on prayer, not on the pretty girl praying near you. Second, many pagan religious ceremonies at the time Judaism was founded involved sexual activity and orgies, and the separation prevents or at least discourages this.
The combination of this exemption from certain mitzvot and this separation often has the result that women have an inferior place in the synagogue. Women are not obligated by Jewish law to attend formal religious services, and cannot participate in many aspects of the services, so they have less motivation to attend