Feminine Issues:

The Jewish Feminine Dimension

"Jews are from Sinai, not Mars or Venus!"

Women on the Woman's Blessing


Jews are from Sinai, not Mars or Venus
Dr. Yisroel Susskind,  Pittsburgh

WHAT does Torah teach us about the inherent differences between men and  women?  An answer to this question can be found in our preparations for the Shavuos Holiday.

Before Passover, we go to great lengths to rid our homes of even the minutest traces of fermented materials or "chometz".   Chometz is symbolic of negative characteristics in general, and, more  specifically, of the prototypic and primordial personality defect, namely  arrogance.

In parallel fashion we are expected, during the seven weeks from  Passover to Shavuos, to do extensive internal housecleaning in our hearts and  minds.  For 49 days we count the "omer", that is we number of days that have passed from the second day of Passover, at which time the barley offering was brought to the temple and the new crop of grain became permitted for use.  On each of those days, we are supposed  to refine a particular personality characteristic.  Our goal is to arrive at Shavuos morally improved and advanced, so that we are ready to receive the Torah.

How do we know which personality characteristic to work on each day?  And if  men and women are different, do men and women work on the same set of characteristics?  To answer those questions, I will need to ask you to bear  with me in the next three paragraphs, as I summarize a little bit of  terminology from Jewish mysticism or "Kaballah".  We will attempt to  demonstrate that Judaism asks each of us to be multifaceted rather than  uni-modal in our emotional repetoire.  In particular, Jewish philosophy  advises each of us to draw on the advantages of both the feminine and the  masculine aspects of our soul.

Torah explains the structure of our personalities, and in fact of the entire world, by describing the 10 basic, elemental building blocks through which  G-D creates the world.  These building blocks are "emanations" from G-D, or  "sefirot".  Just as a physicist would describe aspects of the manifest  material world in terms of protons and electrons, Torah describes the  ultimate structure in terms of sefirot.  There are seven sefirot that are  immediately relevant to our personality traits.  For example, one of the  sefirot, "chesed", is characterized by gentleness and receptivity, while another, called "gevurah", is associated with severity and dominance.

On each of the 49 "days of the omer", we refine the personality trait  represented by the interinclusion of two of these sefirot.  Since there are seven emotional sefirot, we can generate 49 (or 7 times 7) pairs.  Thus, on the eighth day  of counting omer, we refine the personality characteristic represented by the  pair "chesed sheh-b'gevurah", that is " kindness that is in severity."  What  might that pair mean?  Well, there are times when we must be demanding of  someone, for example when we set limits on our teen age children;  nonetheless, we need to do so without anger, while simultaneously being in  touch with our love for our children, and while attempting to convey that  love in our words and tone, even though our actions may appear severe and controlling.

Why does Torah have us work on these characteristics in pairs? Wouldn't it be  more efficient to work separately on each of the pure, unalloyed seven  sefirot?  Torah answers that any characteristic that appears in extreme form,  unmodified and unmitigated by any other of the sefirot, belongs to "the world  of chaos" and not to "the world of order".  By way of analogy, the chemical elements sodium and chlorine, when they are in their pure form, are extremely  unstable and toxic.  However, when they combine as sodium chloride, or table salt, they become a stable ingredient that is necessary for human survival.  In the realm of personality, it can be harmful when a person is always gentle; sometimes love requires that we honestly confront the person we love.   Similarly, it is harmful if a person is always critical, under the guise of wanting to bring out the best in others.

Let us know return to our original question: What does Torah teach us about  the differences between men and women?

Torah clearly states that there are clear, inherent differences between the  masculine and feminine forces of the universe.  For example, the feminine forces have more of a connection to G-D through profound faith that is beyond  rationality, that is trans-rational.  In comparison, the masculine forces  achieve more of their connection to G-D through rationality and flashes of insight; the experience of ecstatic insight in learning Torah ultimately leads men to mystical faith.  Endurance and breadth are characteristic of the feminine forces, while intensity and focus are masculine.  In computer  terminology, parallel processing is feminine, whereas serial processing is masculine.  In football, the wide receiver is feminine, while the quarterback is masculine.  The transcendental number pi is feminine, while logarithms are masculine.  Analog is feminine, while digital is masculine.  My favorite  metaphor for the difference is that gravity is a feminine force, while  lightning is a masculine force.

Notice that in the preceding paragraph I used the words "feminine and  masculine forces" rather than "women and men".  On the one hand it is true  that a majority of women (but not all women) will tend to have more of the feminine forces, and a majority of men will show more of the masculine.  And  women's special contribution to the world tends to draw more on the female forces, such as enduring faith and symbolism, while men's offering draws more  on intensity and rationality.

Nonetheless, all of these characteristics are found in both men and women.   Our task as individuals is not to inflate gender differences, thereby becoming physical or spiritual Ken and Barbie dolls.  Rather, our task is to recognize the clearly different and complementary contributions of the male and female, while nonetheless integrating (and pairing) both types of forces within each of us.  Torah's cosmological instruction that the universal forces of male and female need to be paired is reflected in the physical realm by the commandments that we marry and have children.  Those two  commandments are among the very first to appear in the Torah (Genesis, 1:28  and 2:24), although they are listed in Maimonides' enumeration of the 613 commandments as # 213 and #212.

What does this mean on a practical level?  Historically, Jewish men have been  described as gentler and more spiritual than the general male population;  gentleness and spirituality are viewed as more feminine characteristics.   Similarly, Jewish women have been described as more assertive and  intellectual than the general female population; assertiveness and  intellectualism are viewed as more masculine characteristics.   Torah assigns women a major leadership role in the home, not in the rational task of deciding law, but in the emotional task of setting the spiritual tone for the family.   Torah says that we should be proud of this androgynous pairing of characteristics.

Yet, there are those in the general secular culture who mock Jews for those  very androgynous qualities. For example: What is the point of nearly every  Jewish American Princess (JAP) joke?  A  J.A.P.  joke is an anti-semitic  atttack on essential Jewish values, whether told by a Jew or Gentile, whether  by a man or a woman.  Those jokes ridicule Jewish men for being too gentle,  in the face of Jewish women who are characterized as too demanding and  sexually non-subservient.  The very same pairing of masculine and feminine forces that have been the pride of the Jewish people is distorted into ugly  caricature.

Such jokes can have insidious consequences for young Jews' self-image and behavior.  There are young Jewish males today who are probably less nurturing  than were their fathers, as many have assimilated the values of the majority culture.  They are more likely to admire being physically tough,  interpersonally demanding, and sexually exploitative.  The secular general  culture characterizes their gentleness as "being a wuss".  Similarly, many  young Jewish women are less trusting of men, less willing to serve the  family, because they distrust that they will be loved and respected for doing  so.  They may delay or avoid marriage.  Conversely, they may decide that in  order to attract a man they must subdue their intellectual or spiritual powers and hyper-project their sexual desirability; the secular general culture advises a young woman to "strut your stuff".  The negative  stereotyping of the Jewish genders has contributed to the fact that people  will blame their divorce on the Jewish ethnicity of their ex-spouse.  Thus, a  significant percentage of inter-marriage is due to Jews, who have divorced a  Jewish spouse, and go on to look specifically for a non-Jew as their second  spouse.

Torah tells us to work at integrating both masculine and feminine forces within ourselves.   At the same time Torah also tells us that there are  systematic differences between men and woman, and, as a consequence, to accept that the genders have arenas in which their roles are equal in  importance but different in substance.

Despite this equality in the male-female partnership, there appears to be an area in which one gender is superior to the other.  That is, the Lubvavitcher Rebbe has commented that ultimately it is the feminine quality of trans-rational faith that must guide the masculine quality of rationality.   The Rebbe quotes from Jeremiah's description (31:21) of the Messianic era,  during which "the female forces will be superordinate over the male forces"   ("u'nekayvah t'sovev gawver").

It is on Shavuos that we receive G-D's  word and revelation.  During the 49 days of the omer, we prepare ourselves for that revelation by refining our personality traits.  These traits are generated  by a pairing of the elemental forces of the universe.  One such pairing is the powerful fusion of  female and male forces.

May it be that we fuse the force of enduring, extensive, female faith with the energy of immediate, intense male insight, such that we experience a  personal, powerful, emotional connection to G-D, which then elicits G-D's desire to bring about the Redemption, with the coming of Moshiach, speedily  in our day, right now.

 Dr. Yisrael Susskind is a Pittsburgh psychologist (Ph.D., Yale '69) who lectures  nationally and who also counsels nationally over the telephone. His e-mail address is: eysusskind@aol.com . He is the producer of Soul and Psyche: Torah insights and family psychology.

The Jewish Feminine Dimension

Shulamit Tilles

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, ð"ã, greatly encouraged strong Jewish education for women. He once commented that one of the reasons for the large-scale assimilation of the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe around the turn of the century was the fact that the mothers were unable to answer the "Why?" questions of their children. They had great faith, but insufficient education.

Sometimes he would deliver special addresses in the main Lubavitch shul just for women. At those times, the women would sit downstairs. Any men who wished to listen had to crowd into the Women's Section upstairs.

While often he stressed the major role women play in the education of young Jewish children, many times he addressed the importance for women to be involved in reaching out to other Jews who are far from a Torah lifestyle. Since, in general, women are more empathetic and sensitive to emotional nuances than men, she can relate with greater gentleness and heartfelt kindness.

Moreover, as early as 1960 the Rebbe emphasized the great responsibility of the Jewish women in our generation to bring the Redemption. Just as the generation of Egypt was redeemed in the merit of the righteous Jewish women, so too, our generation will be redeemed in the merit of righteous Jewish women. He accentuated that as a preparation for Moshiach, each woman should strengthen Torah values and love of all Jews in her household.

The following is an extract of two of the Rebbe's talks to Jewish women. It is based on the pamphlet (published by Sichos in English) "Women as Partners in the Dynamic of Creation."


The very concept of redemption is intrinsically related to women. In Kabbalistic terms, it is explained that the Sefirah of Malchut ("sovereignty") reflects the feminine dimension. During the periods of exile, Malchut is in a state of descent and does not receive direct influence from the other Sefirot. Metaphorically, this condition is described as a woman in an enforced state of separation from her husband. Conversely, in the Era of the Redemption, "a woman of valor [will be] the crown of her husband" [Proverbs 12:4; see also Yirmeyahu 31:21 and commentaries]. The higher source of Malchut will be revealed, the direct bond between Malchut and the other Sefirot will be reestablished, and Malchut will become a source of vital influence, renewing the totality of existence.

These concepts have been reflected throughout Jewish history. The Talmud states that "In the merit of righteous women, the Jews were redeemed from Egypt." Similarly, the Sages associated subsequent redemptions with the merit of Jewish women. We have been promised [Michah 7:15], "As in the days of your exodus from Egypt, I will show you wonders." The Holy Ari [leader of the Safed Kabbalists] emphasizes that the Future Redemption will follow the pattern of the exodus and, thus, will also come as a result of the merit of the righteous women of that generation. Since the generation of the ultimate Redemption will be a reincarnation of the generation of the exodus from Egypt, the future Redemption will reflect the pattern of that archetypal redemption.

A Home for a Family: A Sanctuary for G-d

The present day emphasis on the education of Jewish women, over and above the various socio-economic reasons for such a change, must be seen as one of the steps which both heralds and hastens the coming of the Redemption. In this connection, it must be emphasized that a woman's study of Torah should not be superficial. She should probe deeply into Torah study without reservations or qualms about the restrictions that applied to studying certain subjects in the past. Moreover, this study should also include the Torah's mystic truths.

The greater role played by women within the world today should be mirrored in the activity of every woman within her own home. It is largely through the efforts of the woman of the house that every home is transformed into "a sanctuary in microcosm" [Ezek. 11:16], a place where G-dliness is revealed in a way which parallels and leads to the revelation that will permeate the entire world in the Era of the Redemption.

These efforts are reflected, not only in the spiritual influences which a woman instills within the home, but also in the manner in which she structures its interior design, for example, making sure that every member of the household possesses a Siddur, a Chumash, and a tzedakah box which is proudly displayed. Even the rooms of infants should be decorated with Jewish symbols, e.g., a shir hamaalot [usually in the form of a decorative poster including Tehillim 121 and sometimes additional texts]. These efforts mirror the way in which Judaism permeates even the material environment in which we live.

Lighting Up the Home: Illuminating the Sanctuary

In the Talmud, Shabbos is called "a microcosm of the world to come," and, conversely, the Era of the Redemption is referred to as "the Day which is entirely Shabbos." It is the woman of the house who introduces the atmosphere of Shabbos by lighting its Shabbos candles. Thus, it is the women who usher the light of Redemption into the world. The visible light which the candles generate reflects how every mitzvah and, in a wider sense, every positive activity a Jew performs, such as a friendly word or an act of kindness, increases the G-dly light within the world.

Women as Catalysts of Liberation

In the Egyptian exile, it was Miriam who communicated the prophecy that a redeemer would emerge. Further, when her mother was forced to place Moshe in a reed basket in the Nile, Miriam "stood at a distance to see what would happen to him." Our Sages explain that, in addition to her apprehension for her brother's future, she was also concerned about the fate of her prophecy. How indeed would the redemption come about?

In a metaphorical sense, this narrative is relevant to all Jewish women, those living at present and those whose souls are in the spiritual realms [see Jer. 31:14]. Concerned over the fate of the Jewish people, they anxiously await the Redemption: Ad Masai! Enough already! How much longer must the Jews remain in exile?

Celebrating in Advance

The anxious anticipation for the redemption felt by Miriam - and by all of the Jewish women - was paralleled in its intensity by their exuberant celebration when, after the miracles of the Red Sea, the redemption was consummated. After the men joined Moshe Rabbeinu in song, the women broke out in song and dance, giving thanks to G-d with spirited rejoicing which surpassed that of the men. Indeed, as they prepared to leave Egypt, the women were so confident that G-d would perform miracles on behalf of the Jewish people in the desert that they took small drums with them so they could rejoice when the time came! *

Although we are still in exile, the confidence that the Redemption is an imminent reality should inspire us with happiness. The experience of such happiness demonstrates the strength of our trust in the promise of the Redemption, and the expression of this faith will, in turn, hasten its realization.

* [ed. note: Many women are buying tambourines for the anticipated occasion!]

Shulamit Tilles is the organizer of ASCENT's "Jewish Femininity and Kabbalah" symposiums.

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