Women and the Law
Everybody’s Gotta Serve Somebody is a song by Bob Dylan from his 1979 studio album Slow Train Coming. In it he sings:
“You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance.
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed,
You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord,
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
This week’s parashah is a forceful demonstration of this truth. Pharaoh is the “ultimate heavyweight champion of the world”. He is the most powerful character in the most powerful civilization on earth. He has total control over the lives and destinies of the least powerful people – who turn out to be our people; the Israelite men and women who have become his slaves.
And then everything changes. A miracle happens and Pharaoh loses his absolute power over the Israelites. Israelites gain their freedom and begin a slow rise to power once again, but this time not the unmediated power of Pharaoh but a power tempered by laws. Before this encounter described in Exodus Chapter 10, there have been only three mitzvot given. (Be fruitful and multiply, circumcise your sons and don’t eat the sciatic nerve.) From here on in, the mitzvot come thick and fast. There are twenty given in this parashah alone. At this moment of freedom from the yoke of Pharaoh, the yoke of mitzvot is laid down. These Torah laws become the interpreted basis of the laws of Rabbinic Judaism, which grows in power and creates the edifices of the Mishnah, the Jerusalem Talmud and then the Babylonian Talmud, and beyond.
By the time of the Babylonian Talmud, the law is seen to be divided into D’Oreita (Torah law) and D’Rabbanan (laws interpreted by the sages). There is great creativity in interpretation of the language of the Torah. It becomes a vast and negotiated system with rules of its own which aren’t always kept. A distinction is made between positive laws that you have to do and laws that prohibit certain actions. Some laws have to be done within a certain
time and some laws are not timebound. There are distinctions between ritual laws and civil laws. While the law is created by the powerful, in general it carries within it an idea of justice for all and protection for the powerless.
For example, a well-known law created by the Sages is that we drink four glasses of wine at the Seder table. There are many, many theories for why four glasses, but the fact is that it is first mentioned in the Mishnah in Mishnah Pesachim 99b, where its purpose seems to be to include the poor in the joys of the Seder. Even a poor person becomes king for a night:
“On the eve of Pesach, close to the time of Minchah, a person may not eat until it becomes dark. And even the poorest man may not eat until he reclines. And they must not give him less than four cups of wine, and even if he is supported from the charity platter.”
Hundreds of years later, women, too, are included in this powerful mitzvah. Although drinking four glasses of wine at a Seder table is both positive and time-bound, a category that usually excludes women, women are now obligated to drink four glasses of wine. The reason for this is given in the Jerusalem Talmud where it says: “Women are obligated in these four cups [of wine on Pesach eve], for they, too, were included in that uncertainty (of annihilation).” Women too, become kings for a night because they too suffered in this period.
That reason for inclusion becomes transformed in the Babylonian Talmud to: “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated in these four cups [of wine on Pesach eve], for they too, were included in that miracle.” (Talmud Bavli Pesachim 108a). When I was growing up in South Africa over a thousand years later, drinking the four glasses of wine at the Seder table, I didn’t imagine for a minute that I wasn’t included in that miracle, or that I wasn’t included in the miracles that followed, including the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai.
As the tide rises for women around the developed world, it rises for Jewish women too. As women begin to have more power, with equal access to education, Jewish law slowly evolves too. How can it not? The law is there to serve us all, and not the other way round. Jewish men and women are free like the Israelites, but we are not entirely powerful like Pharaoh. We all have to serve the laws that are in all our hands to interpret.
Janine Stein is a member of New North London Synagogue. She has an MA in Jewish Studies and is currently working as a copywriter for Norwood.
The Masorti Women’s Forum will be holding its fourth annual study day on March 11 between 2pm-6pm at Belsize Square Synagogue. The theme this year is Women and Power, and you can find out more at masorti.org.uk/forum18