I find it fascinating that most Jews in the UK and US are either secular - ie they see themselves as belonging to a "tribe" rather than needing to practise the religion of Judaism - or quite liberal in terms of religion. Yet somehow the Orthodox and Haredi seem to manage to impose their will on the many, particularly in Israel.
The latest Israeli anti-women crack-down is over women wearing payer shawls at the Western Wall:
Arresting women praying at the Wall is not a matter of faith but of power and politics - Israel News | Haaretz Daily Newspaper
Arrested at the Western Wall, British teenagers discover the limits of Jewish life in Israel - Israel News | Haaretz Daily Newspaper
Given that so many Israelis are quite secular, that women are allowed in the army, that Golda Meir was one of the most famous prime ministers of Israel ... it's hard to believe that this is going on in 2012.
We've just finished celebrating Hanukkah (at least those of us not invalided out by Waitrose), which celebrates the liberation of Jerusalem from the Seleucid Antiochus IV by the Hasmoneans, and the re-dedication of the Temple (I know some people say it's just the miracle of the oil celebrated, but it's not). Judith may or may not be an apocryphal heroine who slew a Seleucid general, but Salome Alexandra was a well attested Hasmonean monarch, ruling in her own right rather than merely as a consort.
I was invited to a Hassidic synagogue over High Holidays (aka 'shul' if you're from a Yiddish-speaking background), and they could not have been kinder or more welcoming. I had to sit with the other women in a section screened off from the men. Did it upset me? No, because my feeling was that it was their house, so their rules applied, and I had chosen to go there rather than elsewhere.
But the Western or Wailing Wall, one of the few remains of Herod's Temple, is public property, belonging to all Jews, and should not be governed by the whims of the increasingly fanatical Haredi.
My understanding is that although women were exempt from many time-bound laws, this did not mean that they were forbidden from performing them, and this was the ruling of many great Medieval scholars.
I've been looking at Judaism in the Greek and Roman period outside of Israel, and the evidence for women is hardly sparse - the construction of many synagogues were funded by women, for example. The percentage of the population that were Jewish in the Roman Empire is hard to calculate with any certainty, but many estimates for the east Mediterranean go as high as 20% (I'm dubious of one claim putting it at 40%). There were "religious" Jews, but many of those living under the Romans and Byzantines were also religiously liberal - see, for example, the many synagogues decorated with images, despite the Mosaic proscription of these.
There were also a lot of Jews living in the Persian Empire, and these seem to have been more conservative, although there is a great bias in those sources in that they were entirely written by rabbinical scholars, and at most 10% of Jews followed rabbinical Judaism at the time (plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose ...). Eventually the Babylonian Talmud, compiled by those rabbis living in the Persian lands, became more important to Medieval scholars than the Jerusalem Talmud. Sephardi Jews continued to be allowed multiple wives long after the practise had been banned for Ashkenazi Jews (circa AD 1000, at a synod organised by Rabbeinu Gershom).
In the West, as early as the Medieval period some Sephardi and Ashkenazi women were allowed to learn the Torah, perform time-bound prayers, and wear Tefillin, and so forth. In the East Mediterranean and North Africa, women could not only attend synagogues but they could fund them - oh, and rule a kingdom. Before that we have Deborah, who was not only a Judge, but led an army into battle.
Women were always more than just baby-makers in Jewish society. Whilst it's lovely for the Hassidim that they breed like rabbits and are increasing in number ... I strongly object to the way that they are trying to impose their anachronistic, shtetlnik theories (most of which go back no further than the 18th century) on Judaism as a whole - and I object even more strongly to the fact that the State f Israel is allowing them to do so.
If women can fight for the soil of Israel, as they have done since
Deborah, and continue to do today, they should be able to pray
in any way they wish.
This is a fascinating article by Dr. Rachel Adelman well worth reading about women, Judaism, and her heroines.
Very much worth reading is: Avraham Grossman, Pious and Rebellious - Jewish Women in Medieval Europe, Brandeis 2004 - with a good review picking up many of the points about women, learning and prayer in this review.