Inequality in Marriage

Rabbi Arthur Waskow


A discussion of the roles of women and men in Orthodox Jewish marriages:
(1) Are women equal in marriage?: Some parts of the Halakhic arenas of Jewish life have in fact begun to shift their everyday lives in the direction of equality, despite the assumptions of halakha that women are supposed to be subordinate.
(2) the constant reports of women who have been treated as radically unequal in some Orthodox circles reminds us that the rosy picture is by no means all there is.
But I want to raise a somewhat different question. I think we are being asked to fool ourselves if we are to think that in those parts of the Jewish people that assert a totally God-given, basically unalterable halakha, women are equal partners in marriage.
1) The reason the ketuba becomes the property of the wife in a halakhic marriage is that she is assumed to be the one without independent income or property -- therefore the one who needs protection in case of divorce. There is no provision for such a ketuba protecting a man whose wife may have a larger independent wealth or income -- even if that happens to be the factual case sometimes nowadays.
2) The reason Orthodox wedding cereminies do not include a double-ring ceremony is that the giving of a ring to the woman is halakhically an act of acquisition -- in fact, the acquisition not of the woman's entire being, as with some versions of slavery, but the acquisition of the exclusive right to her sexual relationship. Double-ring ceremonies are not permitted because of (a) the fear that the exchange would nullify the purchase aspect of this acquisition; and (b) the woman is not in fact acquiring exclusive rights to the man's sexual relationship.
If she after this wedding were to have sex with an unmarried man, she would be committing adultery and any children born from this union would be mamzerim -- debarred from marrying any jew except another mamzer.
But if after this wedding the man were to sleep with an unmarried woman, he is NOT committing adulteery and any children would not be mamzerim.
3. If a husband disappears with no adequate evidence of death or refuses to give a gett, the woman is irrevocably imprisoned as his wife. This is simply not so in regard to a man whose wife similarly disappears or refuses to accept a gett. Despite the prohibitions on polygamy, there are ways -- not easy, but available -- for him to end his attachment.
For all these reasons, Rachel Adler -- who grew up as a liberal Jew, who lived for decades with her then Orthodox rabbi husband as a Orthodox Jew, who wrote one of the most brilliant apologetics for Orthodox ways of dealing with menstruation (which she later recanted, saying she had come to realize that those ways were after all irredeeemably rooted in male domination) and who then has lived again as a liberal Jewish scholar and writer and liturgist for decades, has written an extraordinary analysis of Judaism and the roles of women and men, titled *Engendering Judaism*, published by the Jewish Publication Society.
Among other things, the book proposes some changes in the ceremony under the chuppah intended to transform the entire marriage from the world of acquisition to the world of covenant. I have now taken part in two wedding ceremonies that have used this work of Adler's, and know of a third.
I strongy recommend reading the book. For me, the changes Adler urges are not absolutely necessary IF --
(a) there are conditions written to the ketubah that provide for either party to initiate a gett and to make a gett both necessary and valid in Jewish life even if the other party refuses to accept it or has disappeared, so long as there has been a valid civil divorce;
(b) the ceremony itself is egalitarian (e.g. exchanging rings, two-ended vows, etc)
These deep inequalities written into the nature of halakhic marriage are, as one would expect, microcosmic reflections of the macrocosmic reality that just as within the household, so within the Jewish people as a whole, in halakhic assumption men rule.
In the halakhic world, one shapes the future of Judaism in great part by "poskining" -- making binding rulings of law rooted in Torah. Women are not recognized as having the authority to do this.
It is not surprising that these two worlds -- the household and the People -- mirror each other.
I should add that for me, Orthodox Jews are and should be free to make these family arrangements in any shape they choose --so long as they do not try to impose them by the use of State power.
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Director, The Shalom Center

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