Medieval Jewish Attitudes Toward Women

In the Middle Ages, a Jewish woman's social well-being was considered important, but her life was strictly guided by Jewish law.

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The better known of the movements, the Kabbalah, included a great deal of speculation about the nature of God. One of the earliest kabbalistic works, the Sefer ha-Bahir--which first appeared in France in the 12th century--is the first to have emphasized that the Shekhinah, a word used to describe God's presence, is feminine, and to speak about a female aspect of the divine being. The Torah, in the abstract, also is viewed as a feminine offshoot of the divine, sent into exile in the physical world.

However, the inclusion of the feminine in the divine realm did not extend to an inclusion of human women among those who interact with the divine. The Zohar--which appeared in 13th century Spain, but claims to be the teaching of Simeon bar Yohai, a rabbi of 2nd century Israel)--is the kabbalistic work with the greatest impact on Jewish mysticism. In its commentary on the Torah portion of Shelah in the book of Numbers, the Zohar describes the arrangement of the afterlife.

Whereas men ascend to God regularly on Sabbaths and festivals, the women are arranged in six halls. Each hall is presided over by a woman who is religiously important, either because she gave birth to or aided a religiously significant man. These women praise God and study the Torah which they could not study while alive, and like the men, they wear garments of light, but ones that are less bright. In two of the halls, the women see the images of the men they helped, and bow to them. At night, the men and women are joined for sex that is infinitely more pleasurable than in the physical world. While women are included in this afterlife, and even allowed to study Torah, their relationship with God is always mediated by and inferior to that of the men, and their sexual and procreative functions are emphasized.

Women were certainly viewed as part of the Jewish community during the Middle Ages, but were frequently peripheralized, especially in religious matters. To some degree they were seen as equally entitled to the protection of the law, but they were viewed as naturally suited to a different social role than men, and at times as inferiors.

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Alexandra Rothstein has an A.B. summa cum laude in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Jewish Studies. She is currently a PhD student in Rabbinic Literature and Islamic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.