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Men and Women: Beyond Perfunctory Equality to a Spiritual Covenant

Dr. Einat Ramon
| 12/10/2009

The Rabbis taught: “Sins between man and God are atoned for by Yom Kippur; those between man and his fellow, Yom Kippur does not atone for, until he appeases his fellow.” (Mishna Tractate Yoma 8:9). But how does one atone for an ideology that has failed to achieve its aims? How does a worldview atone for its errors, how is it to be forgiven? Our generation, born after the Holocaust and birth of the State of Israel, had hoped to bring to the Jewish world, through feminism, increased mutual respect and closeness between men and women. Have we succeeded?

At the beginning of the Hebrew New Year, Judaism presents to the People of Israel an idealized vision of male-female relations and a clue towards overcoming the challenges inherent in these relations. We encounter the amazing character of Hannah, mother of Samuel, in the Haftara read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and on Simhat Torah, marking the end of the holidays of Tishrei, we read the Portion of Genesis which describes the combined creation of man and woman.

Our moral gender consciousness develops through these readings in the synagogue in what appears to be a reverse process: The character of Hannah returns us to the dawn of male-female relations at the moment of their creation in God’s Image. The order of the readings takes us from the familiar, real and complex human relationship – with its upheavals, conflict of wills, pain and joy shared by man and woman – to the simplified ideal. That original ideal envisioned by the Creator was “and God created man in His Image, in the Image of God He created them; and God blessed them and commanded them, Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land and conquer it…” (Genesis 1:26).

The season of repentance ending with Simhat Torah teaches us that we must learn, understand and put into practice the way man and woman were intended to be blessed together, to reproduce and behave together in the world as an image of God, united in their distinctiveness.

This underscores the importance of examining the relationship between Hannah and her husband Elkana. In despair and despondent at being barren, jealous and contending with her rival Peninnah, suffering humiliation and scorn by Eli the High Priest – from out of this desolate state is forged a revolutionary figure who bequeaths the power of quiet prayer to her people, prayer that serves as a channel for the yearning to bond with the Divine Presence that fills the world. The strengthened soul transforms a “woman of sorrowful spirit…who spoke in her heart but her voice could not be heard” (Samuel I 1:13) into “a woman standing upright who prays to God” (1:26) and praises Him for “raising up the needy” (2:8).

What was Hannah’s emotional and spiritual state such that she “cast her words upwards” (Tractate Berachot 31b) and was answered? What brought about the derivation of many important Halakhot based on Hannah’s prayer (Tractate Berachot 31a)? This spiritual and intellectual greatness was preceded by an emotional profundity and deep covenant between Hannah and her husband Elkana. “Why do you weep, and not eat, and grieve so?” (Samuel I 1:8), wonders the man who witnesses her suffering. He reminds her of his unconditional love for her, which consists of emotional closeness, empathy for one who suffers, accentuation of joy in what there is that mitigates anguish over what is lacking.

Over the past decades we Jewish feminists have focused either upon technical Halakhic equality, or on understanding the ways in which the Jewish man has confined the Jewish woman. We failed to consider that wallowing in these issues also served to conceal the tremendous alienation between men and women. If holding egalitarian marriage ceremonies, counting women in a minyan or calling them up to the Torah does not bring about an increased emotional closeness between men and women, a decrease in the phenomena of bachelorhood, divorce, sexual licentiousness and loneliness; if it does not strengthen us against addictive self absorption, and encourage respect for the sexual difference between boys and girls and a greater effort to reconcile the two (a challenge akin to the Splitting of the Sea among today’s youth); if we do not take responsibility to provide work for women who are older or more frail; what have we gained by these Halakhic rulings?

We have transgressed in focusing upon technical equality over the years instead of directing ourselves and our sons and daughters towards developing relations characterized by friendship and fraternity, between man and wife in the home, men and women in the workplace, the study hall and the synagogue. If we thought that equality was the standard by which the opposite sex measured us, we have erred. If we have scorned the value of our need for one another in support of mutual enrichment and our shared walk through life, we have missed opportunities. If we have, in the name of equality, adopted a one-dimensional view of man and woman, in which there is no meeting ground or discourse or attentiveness to the pain of loneliness, then we have distorted the vision of the creation of humankind.

I pray that the New Year opens the gates of peace between men and women, and brings with it a covenant of closeness and partnership between man and woman created in the image of God.

Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon lectures at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. In 1989, she became the first Israeli-born woman to be ordained a rabbi. Ramon served as Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical School from 2005-2009. Her book, A New Life, on the religious philosophy of A.D. Gordon, was published in 2007.

Image Credit: Song-of-Songs, Aharon April

Einat Ramon is a senior lecturer in Jewish thought and Jewish Women’s Studies at Schechter and one of the founders of professional spiritual care in Israel (she is the writer of Israeli spiritual caregivers’ standards and ethical code.)  In 2012 she founded the Marpeh program – the only academic program for the training of spiritual caregivers in the context of pluralistic Jewish studies, where she teaches and supervises chaplaincy students and Israeli pastoral education supervisors-in-training. Dr. Ramon writes academic and popular books and articles about contemporary Hassidic spirituality, the philosophy and methods of spiritual care , Zionist and North American Jewish thought, and modern Jewish women’s theology and ethics— particularly concerning family and bioethics issues. She is a third generation native Jerusalemite, received her doctorate in Religious Studies from Stanford University, she is married to (Reform) Rabbi Arik Ascherman and is a mother of two.

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