Men and Women – Mutually Complementary
Essentially, men and women are created equal and both are graced by
the divine image through which every human being is created. Likewise,
the unalterable chosenness of the Jewish people and their innate
holiness embraces men and women alike. The Torah was given to the
entire nation of Israel regardless of sex. The Sages learn from the
verse, “These are the laws which you must place before them” (Exodus
21:1) that “Scripture made man and woman equal with regard to all of
the laws in the Torah” (Kidushin 35a).
However, one cannot disregard the specific differences between man and
woman. Physically and mentally, God made each unique, and their
obligations as far as religious observance is concerned are also
disparate (women, for example, are exempt from positive time-bound
commandments). These differences allow man and woman to compliment one
In order to allow divinity to become manifest in the world, it is
necessary that there be two complementary channels at work. Each
individual creature is limited and therefore lacks the capacity to act
as a vessel for divine perfection. But through the body of the
congregation of Israel, divine perfection becomes disclosed in the
world. This is what makes the unity of Israel so important. Only the
nation of Israel with all of its component parts is capable of
receiving the Torah and using it to rectify the world.
Because of the difference between the souls of individuals different
meanings may be derived from the words of the Torah, as it is written,
“God spoke one, I heard it as two” (Psalms 62:12). It is also written,
“Like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces” (Jerimiah 23:29), and
on this verse the Sages explain that “just as [the rock] is split into
many splinters, so also may one biblical verse convey many
teachings” (Sanhedrin 34a). They also explain that “just as a hammer
is divided into many sparks, so every single word that went forth from
the Holy One, blessed be He, split up into seventy languages” (Shabbat
88b). And as they said with regard to the disputes between the schools
of Hillel and Shammai and all other disputes between the Sages, “Both
[opinions] are the words of the living God” (Eruvin 13b).
Existence’s most significant expression of reciprocation is that which
exists between male and female, by which man is able to reveal the
inner divine image and to achieve consummation. This is true not only
of humanity but of all realms of creation; from the most sublime and
lofty spheres down to our own worldly existence there is a division of
male and female and each sex is unable to exist independently without
being complemented by the other.
This fundamental principle is dealt with extensively in Kabbalistic
literature. This is what Rabbi Elazar meant when he said that “any man
who is without wife is not a man, as it is written ‘Male and female
created he them. He blessed them and named them Man’ (Genesis
5:2)” (Yevamot 63a). The Sages similarly teach us that “any man who is
without wife lives without joy, without blessing, without
goodness . . . without Torah . . . without a [protective]
wall” (Yevamot 63a).
Just as the differences between male and female are what allow them to
marry and reproduce, so do their spiritual and mental differences
allow them to unite, complement, and stimulate each other spiritually.
In light of all this, it is possible to understand somewhat the
fundamental reason for the differences between men and women with
regard to religious observance.
Exempt from Time-bound Positive Commandments
The plain and accepted explanation for the fact that women are exempt
from time-bound positive commandments is that this dispensation allows
them to fulfill their role – to build the family household. The woman
bears the great responsibility of building up and sustaining the
family, and it is the family upon which our individual and national
future rests. This responsibility stems from her inborn nature, the
woman’s capacity to give birth and breast-feed. Their feminine and
motherly nature also contains the special traits which make them
suited for building and nurturing the family.
Often, the responsibility of running the house and raising and
educating the children demands a devotion which continues all hours of
the day and the night. Were women given the responsibility of
fulfilling time-bound commandments, the fulfillment of which calls for
stopping one’s ordinary flow activities, they would not be capable of
duly caring for their families (Abudraham and Sefer Hasidim).
It is possible in this manner to explain also the reason that women
are exempt from the commandment to study Torah. Torah study demands
extreme self-sacrifice, both in the early years of life when one is
busy acquiring the fundamentals of study, and also later throughout
ones entire lifetime when one must set aside ample time each day for
studying Torah. Were women obligated to study Torah, they would not be
capable of dedicating themselves to the building of the family.
While clearly women must study so that they be able to live according
to the Torah, they are not obligated to learn Torah analytically and
scrutinizingly in order to achieve theoretical depth. Thus, women are
relieved of the ongoing pressure which accompanies the men who are
commanded to dedicate themselves to constant progress in the
understanding of Torah.
From here we can understand just how important the family is. Women
have been exempted of the obligation to study Torah and of all of the
positive time-bound commandments in order to nurture the family.
It should be added that the very ruling which declares women exempt
from the study of Torah and all of the positive time-bound
commandments implies that women are by their very nature less in need
of them, and that they are able to achieve spiritual consummation
without them (see Yalkut Shimoni, Shmuel 78). Accordingly, it is
possible to understand why even a woman who bears no domestic yoke is
released from these commandments