Elie's Expositions

A bereaved father blogging for catharsis... and for distraction. Accordingly, you'll see a diverse set of topics and posts here, from the affecting to the analytical to the absurd. Something for everyone, but all, at the core, meeting a personal need.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Coerced Cooperation

(Bumping this post from Friday afternoon back up for a 2nd chance. Perhaps it was buried too quickly by later posts? Or perhaps it's just not as interesting/clever as I fancied? Let's see...)

I generally try to steer clear of controversial and/or widely-discussed topics on this blog, both because I hate to stir up yet more contention in the J-blogosphere, and because I feel that I would have little to add to well-plowed ground. This post will be somewhat of an exception. It was inspired by a number of both recent and past discussions on Shira's blog, and relates to the subject of the separate roles of men and women in Judaism. Specifically, I'd like to present a theory I've been developing as to why the Torah exempts women from certain mitzvos.

The topic of women not being obligated in "mitzvos aseh shehazeman gerama" - the so-called "time-bound" positive commandments - is discussed in Gemara Kiddushin beginning on 29a and elsewhere in Talmudic sources. The key examples of the mitzvos from which women are halachically exempt are:
  • Shofar on Rosh Hashanah
  • Lulav and Sukkah on Sukkos
  • Sefiras Haomer
  • Most areas of Tefilah [prayer]
  • Learning areas of Torah unrelated to practical halacha. This definition is kind of vague, but the category exempted definitely includes the kerias hatorah [reading of the Torah] in shul.
  • Tallis and Tefillin
By contrast, there are several exceptions; i.e., time-bound mitzvos in which women are nevertheless obligated, including:
  • Matza/Seder on Pesach
  • Megillah on Purim
  • Chanukah candles
  • Shabbos kiddush, candles, and other positive commandments related to Shabbos observance
The Talmud provides detailed scriptural derivations for each of these examples. But taking a step back from exegesis, is there an higher-level commonality within each of these groups? Is there a fundamental basis for women's exemption from some time-bound mitzvos, but not others? I've seen three basic answers given to this question, none of which I find very convincing, even on the level of apologetics:

1) Women were exempted from these mitzvos to give them time to take care of children. The inadequacies of this approach are numerous: just to state the two most obvious, men and women are both obligated/involved in child-rearing, and this reason would not explain why unmarried/divorced/old/childless women are also exempt, while single fathers are not. Furthermore it doesn't fit the examples at all; if the issue is being too busy with the kiddies, why would women be exempt from Sefira which takes all of 15 seconds a night, but not from the Megilah reading (~40 minutes) or the Seder (hours on end)?

2) Women have an innate bodily sense of time and season due to their female cycles, whereas men require these time-related mitzvos to give them that same perception. There's a sort of cleverness to this explanation in that it does hinge on an objective difference between the sexes, and is consistent with the fact that both the Jewish calendar and menstrual cycle are monthly. But I highly doubt most women would claim to feel "innately in tune" with the Jewish calendar, or would agree that their periods substitute for hearing the shofar or the other mitzvos listed above. This explanation also falls flat for post-menopausal women and, like the last one, doesn't provide any basis for differentiating between the two sets of mitzvos.

3) Women are exempt from these mitzvos because their focus should be on the private sphere rather than the public. This does come closer to what I believe is a correct explanation, but has several issues. Firstly, there is no source in the Torah stating explicitly that women are to be, in a blanket sense, less publicly visible than men. (The midrashic explanation of the Psalmic verse "kol kvuda bas melech penima" is hardly pshat; it's an after-the-fact justification of a sociological phenomenon.) Furthermore, the concept of "public" and "private" is far too nebulous to provide a basis for choosing which mitzvos should be non-obligatory for women. Finally, if the issue were really keeping women from being publicly visible, they would not just be exempted from these mitzvos but would be forbidden to perform them; whereas in fact women are encouraged in most of these. It's just that unlike men, they are not forced to do them.

And that last line provides the key to what I think is the genuine explanation of why women are exempted from this particular set of mitzvos. For the question could really be restated, not as "why are these mitzvos voluntary for women", but as "why are they not voluntary for men"? My belief is as follows: the set of mitzvos that are compulsory only on the male of the species, are specifically those whose goal is to bring those men together as a social group and promote collaboration.

There is overwhelming evidence that men as a whole have a much greater natural tendency towards competitiveness and aggression than do women. Numerous books have been written about the male "competitive" style versus the female "cooperative" style, from the "Mars and Venus" series on down. Left alone, unencumbered by the rules and restrictions of society and religion, us guys would probably all kill one another - and often do anyway.

Therefore, halacha provides a fundamental counterbalance to this innate male trait: the institution of minyan. On a continual basis, three or more times a day, Jewish men have to work together, and not just with one or two other men, but with at least nine others. In a group that size, conflicts are bound to arise, and the group is forced to deal with them cooperatively in order to perform the minyan-related mitzvos. Little by little, slowly but surely, the natural male anti-social tendency is tamed.

Note that almost without exception, the mitzvos from which women are exempt are those primarily done in synagogue: tallis/tefillin, tefilah, kerias hatorah, shofar, lulav. Of course, many of these can be done by someone alone, but only bidieved [after the fact]. They are designed to be performed in a minyan, a group environment. And it is thus specifically males - those who halachically make up a minyan - who need to overcome their innate testosterone-driven aggressions through mandatory collaborative rituals every day. Women are welcome to participate as well, but they don't need to be coerced into doing so.

By contrast, the time-bound mitzvos which are binding on both sexes are essentially those intended to be done in the home: the seder, shabbos candles/kiddush, chanukah candles. In the family sphere, men and women both are equally involved and thus equally obligated in mitzvos, time-bound or otherwise.

There seem to be two exceptions to this pattern, one in each group. The megillah is generally read in shul, yet women are obligated in it. The reason for this seems clear: the prime mover of the events of Purim was a woman, Queen Esther. It would be absurdly illogical to exempt women from hearing the reading of the very book that bears their heroine's name. Another reason could be that most of the Purim-related mitzvos are home-centric; eating the seudah, sending gifts of food, giving money to the poor. Since those Purim mitzvos would certainly be incumbent on women, they are obligated in the entire set, including megillah.

The other apparent exception is Sukkah - a home-centric mitzvah from which women are nevertheless exempt. Perhaps this is because of the connection of sukkah with lulav, which as mentioned above is a shul-focused mitzvah and thus exempts women. But a stronger reason might be that the sukkah itself symbolizes the gathering of people together in a single enclosure. Thus, it intrinsically models the "coerced cooperation" goal that underlies the set of male-specific mitzvos. Finally, there may simply be practical reasons for exempting women from "living" in the sukkah in close proximity to the menfolk, which involves not just meals but also sleeping.

As per my introduction, I'm sure some on both the "right" and "left" sides of the religious spectrum will disagree with this theory. To me though, it is the only explanation for women's exemption from certain mitzvos that really relates to a universal, innately rather than societally-driven difference between the sexes, and also accounts for the distinction between the two sets of mitzvos. I'd be interested in knowing:
- Have you heard something like this before? Sources?
- Whether you personally agree with it or not, does it have the ring of truth?


At 5/7/07, 8:36 PM, Blogger socialworker/frustrated mom said...

Interesting I haven't heard this perspective before something to think about.

At 5/8/07, 1:20 AM, Blogger Hila said...

Wow. By far the best explanation I've ever heard. Especially as a Gender and Women's Studies major, it has been a tough pill to swallow that women are exempt simply because they should be at home with kids. It's like you said, that doesn't make sense for ALL women, nor does it explain why single fathers are not exempt.

Bravo. Bravo.


At 5/8/07, 2:55 PM, Blogger Elie said...

SWFM and Hila, thank you so much! Hila, your comments especially made my day!

At 5/8/07, 5:40 PM, Blogger Hila said...


No problem--You have no idea how interesting and exciting it was to read this post! Finally, an explanation that I can live with and not feel like I am subjugating myself to men or my religion. My feminist friends will be quite pleased ;-)


At 5/9/07, 5:17 PM, Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Hey, look what I found when I came up for air between bouts of major-project work at the office!

Wow, thanks! I don't believe that my writing has ever before been the inspiration for a post by someone else. Maybe I'm doing something right after all. :)

I think this August 2006 post is probably the one in which I addressed my befuddlement over the issue of women’s exemption from most time-bound mitzvot/commandments most clearly.

I've heard the minyan described, jokingly, as a "Men's Club." Your explanation, which takes that joke both seriously and literally, certainly makes more sense that any other explanation of which I'm aware. Neat!

At 5/9/07, 5:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I agree. If men didn't have to get together they never would. And women go ahead and develop the non religously mandated "sisterhood".


At 5/10/07, 10:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for this!

At 5/10/07, 10:40 AM, Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

very interesting, i like your theory!

At 5/13/07, 2:54 AM, Blogger Shira Salamone said...

For non-yeshiva grads (like me), here's a handy-dandy translation, swiped from one of my own posts (and yeah, I had to look it up), of the verse cited in # 3:

"("Kol k'vodah bat melech p'nimah, All the glory of the king's daughter is within." [Psalm 45, verse 18])."

I finally got around to linking to this post. I'm with Hila on this one: "By far the best explanation I've ever heard."

At 5/13/07, 10:41 AM, Blogger Elie said...

Shira, Steg, Esther, Anon. Quietann: Thanks!! Glad my theory resonates with you all.

Of course the issue still is that people are very skilled at finding ways to circumvent/pervert what's good for them. Thus, shul itself often turns into yet another competitive environment with politics, machers showing off their money, complaints like "why did he get musaf instead of me?", etc. I also remember someone telling a story about her father sitting next to someone in shul for decades and not even knowing his name!

At 5/13/07, 7:43 PM, Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Sun, May 13, 2007 (Elie, you might want to click on "Dashboard" or "Customize", click on the "Comments" tab, and, in the "Comments Timestamp Format" menu, consider re-setting your comments to show the dates, not just the times):

On the other hand, JTS Talmud Professor Rabbi Judith Hauptman, in her 1998 book, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman's Voice," comes to this conclusion (based on Talmudic law and reflective of the era in which the Talmud was written) on pages 226-7:

"The Talmud mentions the phrases "positive time-bound" or "non-time-bound" mitzvot only in connection with women. . . . Women were exempted from the essential ritual acts of Judaism, those that year in and year out mark Jewish time, in order to restrict their performance to men, to heads of household; only people of the highest social standing, according to the rabbis, does God consider most fit to honor or worship Him in this important way. This hierarchical arrangement is reminiscent of Temple protocol. Only kohanim, the individuals of highest social standing, as evidenced by their more stringent rules for marriage, ritual purity, and physical fitness (Leviticus 21), could serve as Temple functionaries. The point is that those who serve God must themselves be especially worthy. In rabbinic society this meant that only males were fitting candidates for the time-bound positive commandments, the highest form of ritual act. Women are exempt, although not forbidden, because they are individuals of lower social standing, who, therefore, honor God less when serving Him. This status argument, a variation of the previous one that women are controlled by men [by way of clarification (I hope), presumably, this refers to the fact that, according to biblical law, a woman whose father (if she were unmarried) or husband forbade her from fulfilling a vow was excused from fulfilling that vow because she was not free to do so without her (male) head-of-household's authorization], is, in my opinion, a reasonable explanation of women's exemption. The location of the rules of ritual performance in the tractate about betrothals and the meaning of the defining phrases themselves are the clues."

Sigh. What can I say, Elie? I like your explanation better :), but Rabbi Hauptman's makes more sense in the context of Talmudic rabbinical thinking, in my decidely-unlearned opinion. But nu, *you're* the one with smicha/rabbinical ordination, so what do *you* think of her explanation?

At 5/13/07, 9:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The Talmud mentions the phrases "positive time-bound" or "non-time-bound" mitzvot only in connection with women. . . .

I believe that quote is 100% incorrect.

Namely, an Eved Cnani is also exempt from tiem-bound mitzvot.

She might turn around and say it doesn't make a difference, still a hierarchial system, but her initial statement is incorrect, at least as quoted here.

At 5/14/07, 4:08 PM, Blogger Elie said...

Shira, besides the point that Former YU Guy makes, the core assumption of the theory you quoted doesn't fit the facts. There is no evidence that these mitzvos were ever viewed as incumbant only on the "head of the household". They have always applied to all adult males. Nor are there any statements by chazal (that I am aware of) viewing a woman's service as less "valuable" than a man's.

I would also have to suspect that a book entitled "Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman's Voice" was written with an "agenda", and would look to fit facts to a preconceived conclusion, instead of the reverse. Whether one agrees with my thesis or not, I can honestly say that I had no axe to grind in developing it. I enjoy looking for patterns in things (I come by that honestly!), and that's fundamentally what I tried to do here - uncover what this particular set of mitzvos might have in common, and what we can learn from that.

At 5/17/07, 3:22 PM, Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Elie, sorry it's taken me so long to reply. My personal impression was that Rabbi Hauptman was trying to understand and explain how the social climate of the time in which many of the laws were recorded affected the interpretation of the law. She, too, was looking for patterns. I strongly recommend that you read this book. You may not agree with it, but I think you'll find it rather more objective than you might expect.

At 11/19/08, 6:20 AM, Blogger Ilana said...

Very interesting! The explanation sounds believable and isn't offensive. Pretty good. I also appreciate that you took apart the other explanations and showed what was wrong with them.

Thanks for posting this.


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