Parashat Mishpatim 5781

10 February 2021 – 28 Shevat 5781

Rabbi Margaret Jacobi

The Development of Women’s Rights

This week’s Torah reading might seem a strange place to start talking about women’s rights. It talks about a father giving his daughter away as a slave, and then having the power to marry her to his son. He can then take another wife if he wishes. Yet it does mark progress. The woman can’t just be rejected if she doesn’t please her master, let go with nothing, sold again as a slave or treated cruelly. Instead, she has to be redeemed and set free, recognising that she has not been dealt with fairly. And if the master does take another wife, she retains certain rights: conjugal rights and rights to food and clothing.

And yet, as long as he deals fairly with her, she remains her master’s property. It is the same with slaves. The Torah is remarkably advanced in its treatment of slaves. They, too, must be treated fairly. If they are harmed by their master, then they must be released. However, if they wish to remain with their master because they feel secure, and because they do not want to leave their wife and children, they are treated harshly, with their ears pierced so that they are marked as slaves, and they remain slaves forever.

The Book of Exodus marks the first stage in a long process of development. Whereas slaves and women had been treated previously simply as property, which could be used in any way their husband of master chose (and it is no coincidence that the Hebrew for ‘husband’ and ‘master’ is the same), now they are also considered to have rights. They are beginning to be recognised as people with feelings too.

It has been a long journey. There has been progress throughout our history. The Talmud enshrined in Jewish law the women’s right to a dowry which she could take with her should her marriage end, so that she would not go out penniless. She also had the right to consent to marriage and to divorce. In the 10th century, a ruling attributed to Rabbenu Gershon prohibited polygamy in Christian countries. But still, the great and authoritative books of halachah, the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides in the 13th century and the Shulchan Arukh of Joseph Caro in the 16th, continue to discuss ‘women, slaves and minors’ as a single category. Moses Maimonides, a man of great wisdom and understanding, nevertheless saw women as inferior and incapable of attaining intellectual heights. Gradually, slavery slipped away as an institution within Judaism, although sadly it is still very much a reality in our world. And still today women are too often seen as inferior.

Women still do not have full rights within Orthodox Judaism. Although some Orthodox synagogues have moved forward in allowing women’s participation albeit in women’s or partnership minyanim, in ultra-Orthodox areas of Israel women often have to cover themselves up almost completely and keep away from the public space as much as possible. Of course it is not only in Judaism that women face discrimination. In Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries, their rights are few and they are controlled by the men in their lives, their husbands, fathers and brothers. And, as Malala Yousefzai has spoken of so courageously, in many parts of the world girls are denied an education, seen as taking second place to boys. Women face discrimination, violence and rape across the globe and millions are trapped in forced marriage, slavery and prostitution. Yet studies have shown that if women are educated, then their children will be healthier and better educated.

Even in our country, women are not equal. There is a gender pay gap amongst top earners, but more appalling is that women have suffered disproportionately from cuts in welfare payments. Although men suffer terribly too, it is women who most often struggle on their own with children and who are in the lowest paid jobs, for example as cleaners and care workers. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this gap has widened further, as women struggle with childcare and low paid work in often vulnerable occupations. Although domestic abuse affects men as well as women, the vast majority of victims are women. In 2019 there been a shocking fall of more 60% in the number of available places in shelters for victims of abuse since 2010. Now, as domestic abuse has spiralled during lockdown, the situation is even worse. It is as if, even in the UK, women’s lives matter less.

It is nearly 3,000 years ago since those first steps were taken in recognising that women and slaves were people too. Although we now see the laws as oppressive of women and slaves, for its time, the Torah was progressive. Rather than taking the words of Torah at face value, we should see its words in their context, as the start of a process that has still not ended, of recognising every human, of whatever gender, as a human being made in God’s image. May the time come soon when we value every human being for what they are, recognising the divine image in every person.

One successful way of applying the commandment ‘do not covet’ is to look at others as if they were not different from us, with all our flaws and faults. This is the essence of the most important of all commandments, and the one missing from the grand list of Ten, but ever present in all ethical rules: ‘Love your fellow as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18).

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