Gender in Jewish Law and Thought

This text study sourcesheet from Oren Hayon of UW Hillel provides a range of traditional and contemporary Jewish texts that explore and complicate questions of gender in Jewish law and thought.

March 19, 2014

By Oren Hayon

Gender in Jewish Law and Thought

Prepared by Oren Hayon, UW Hillel


Human Gender: The Essentialist or Biological Component


And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.  God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it…”

Genesis 1:27-28


The first human being was created wholly female and wholly male at the same time. … And some say: The first human being was half male and half female, and was then split into two separate beings.  Still others say: The first human being was an infinite, genderless mass.

Genesis Rabbah 8:1 [ca. 400 CE]


Women, slaves, and minors are freed from [fulfilling the mitzvah of] sukkah.  A tumtum and an androgynous are obligated because of the doubt [concerning their status].  Similarly, a person who is half slave and half free is obligated.  A minor who does not require his mother’s [presence] – i.e., a child of five or six – is obligated [to fulfill the mitzvah] of sukkah according to Rabbinic decree, to train him in [the performance of] mitzvot.

Mishneh Torah: Shofar, Sukkah, V’Lulav 6, Halacha 1


Human Gender: The Cultural or Ascribed Component


They saw in thee both old age and young age,
With the hair of thy head now grey, now black:

Age in judgment day, youth in time of war,
As a warrior whose hands fight for him,

A helmet of triumph tied on his head,
His holy right arm bringing victory;

As though his head is drenched with dew of light,
And his locks are filled with drops of the night.

He glories in me, he delights in me;
My crown of beauty he shall ever be.

His head is like pure gold; on the forehead
He engraved his glorious holy name.

For grace and glory, beauty and splendor,
His own people has made a crown for him.

The locks of his head are such as in youth;
His curls, forming countless ringlets, are black.

Shir Ha-Kavod (or, An’im Z’mirot)

In a desert land God found him, /
in the wasteland and howling wilderness.
God shielded him and cared for him; /
God kept him as the apple of God’s eye.
Like an eagle that stirs up its nest /
and hovers over her young,
that spreads her wings to collect them /
and carries them on her wings.
God alone led him; /
no other god was with him.

God made him ride on the high places of the land /
and fed him with the fruit of the fields.
God nursed him with honey from the rock, /
and with oil from the flinty crag,
with curds and milk from the herd and flock /
with fattened lambs and goats,
with finest rams from Bashan /
and the finest kernels of wheat.
You drank the the grape’s foamy wine.

But Yeshurun grew fat and kicked; /
filled with food, they became heavy and thick.
They abandoned the God who made them /
and rejected the Rock of their salvation.
They made God jealous with foreign gods /
and provoked God with abominable idols.
They sacrificed to demons, to non-gods—
gods they had not known,
gods that recently appeared,
gods your ancestors did not fear.
You deserted the Rock who fathered you; /
You forgot the God who birthed you.

Deuteronomy 32:10-18

Can we speak of God’s “masculine” and “feminine” aspects?

  • The feminine Shechinah (or Malchut) and the masculine Tiferet
  • God : Israel :: Husband : Wife
  • Israel : Torah (or Shabbat) :: Husband : Wife

“The holy marriage of tiferet and shechinah is the most important task that the mystic assumes in his quest; while human sinfulness prevents their permanent union, human action can likewise reunite them and restore harmony and unity to the world…”

David Ariel, President, Cleveland College of Jewish Studies


“Any image that does not embrace male and female is not a high and true image. …  The Blessed Holy One does not place His abode in any place where male and female are not found together.”

Prof. Daniel Matt, translator of the Zohar


[The Mishnah states:] Even the poorest Israelite may not eat (on the evening of Passover) unless he reclines.

It was taught: A woman in the presence of her husband is not required to recline.  But if she is a prominent woman [“isha chashuva”], she is required to recline.

Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 108a


[The Mishnah states:] We may not house livestock in the stables of idol-worshipers, for they are suspected of bestiality.  And women may not be alone with them, for they are suspected of sexual immorality.  And a man may not be alone with them, for they are suspected of murder.

Shouldn’t the prohibition for women stand under the suspicion that idol-worshipers commit murder?  Rabbi Yirmiyah said: This is the case of a prominent woman, for whom people feel awe and respect.

Ibid., Avodah Zarah 25b