Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Will women's subordinate status be changed in Messianic Era?

Jewish Action Magazine review of The Moon’s Lost Light by Devorah Heshelis  -  Rabbi Mayer Twersky

Questions regarding the role and place of women within Judaism have spawned an ever-burgeoning literature. The questions themselves are no longer new. Are women equal to men in the eyes of the Torah? Why are there constraints regarding teaching Torah to women? Et cetera. Answers and perspectives, learned and insightful, have been offered from traditional points of view. In fact, the contributions, both books and articles, to this literature have been so plentiful and prolific that one would doubt if it were possible to offer a totally new, yet traditional perspective.

Mrs. Devorah Heshelis (which is a pen name) has done just that. Her monograph, The Moon’s Lost Light, is a remarkably creative and extremely erudite contribution to the Torah-and-women literature. Her monograph is important and delightful–important because it provides a comprehensive, conceptual framework for understanding the Torah’s treatment of women and delightful because of the intellectual excitement which her conceptual breakthrough generates.

Hitherto traditionalists have, in essence, argued as follows. Women are endowed with kedushat Yisrael (sanctity) equal to that of men.1 Moreover, the halachah of matrilineal descent and women’s primary role in childrearing mean that women guarantee Jewish continuity, et cetera. These representative facts simply belie the allegations of disparagement of women. Indubitably, these points are true and need to be emphatically asserted. Nevertheless, without doubting these truths, some people feel that while erroneous conclusions have been rebutted, some of the especially sensitive, crucial questions raised have not been adequately addressed.

The Moon’s Lost Light focuses upon such questions. The following are two of the questions Mrs. Heshelis undertakes to answer: “Why do women sometimes appear to have a secondary position in Judaism? Why are there some rabbinical descriptions of women that don’t seem to correspond to the reality we know?”2

[...] Man and woman were originally created equal, but because Chava (whose soul contained the souls of all future women3) led Adam to sin, woman’s “light” (i.e., abstract intelligence, capacity for studying Torah) was subsequently diminished. There were social and emotional changes as well. Because Chava abused her influence over Adam and led him to sin, she was punished measure for measure with “he shall rule over you.”4 This accounts for women’s secondary position in Judaism.

These punitive measures, however, were not ordained for all eternity. One aspect of the ultimate redemption, as prophesied by Yirmiyahu HaNavi,5 is that “nekeivah tesoveiv gever,” a female will turn into a man. That is, women will become equal with men (reversing the curse of “he shall rule over you”) and also “women will once again have [abstract] perception equal to that of men.”6 In particular, according to Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, nekeivah tesoveiv gever means that women will utilize their newly regained “light” to study Torah. Moreover, according to the teaching of the Gaon of Vilna, as recorded in Kol HaTor, starting with the year 5500 from Creation (1740 C.E.), the powers of redemption would begin to enter the world. “Everything that will be in the full redemption enters the world … little by little in this period.”7 Accordingly, in the modern era women have incrementally begun to enjoy equality and, in ever increasing numbers, demonstrate a high degree of abstract intelligence. Thus in our day, we have witnessed the initial, partial fulfillment of nekeivah tesoveiv gever, as interpreted by Yonatan ben Uziel. Women are studying Torah.

Mrs. Heshelis’ historical approach suggests that women are somewhat different today than they were throughout pre-modern history. This accounts for the discrepancy between the rabbinic depictions of women and the contemporary reality of women. The descriptions found in the Talmud were accurate at that time. We observe increasing numbers of women whose intellectual profile differs because “when the power of nekeivah tesoveiv gever started affecting the world, woman’s abstract abilities began to change.”8

The Legitimacy of Questions

Before we reflect upon the answers put forward by Mrs. Heshelis, we must first consider the questions that prompted her to write the monograph. Are the questions themselves both accurate and legitimate?

The first question posed is “Why do women sometimes appear to have a secondary position in Judaism?”9 I am uncomfortable with the description of women’s “secondary position.”10 Our gedolim have affirmed the axiological, ontological equality (i.e., equality of value) of men and women within Yahadut.11 “Secondary,” however, is easily misconstrued as to deny such equality. The question, if it is to be asked, should be re-worded to focus upon women’s supporting role.

But is either form of the question–secondary or supporting–legitimate? After all, not every question is legitimate. Some questions surpass the limitations of the human intellect. In this context it is worth quoting the timeless words of Rabbi Yehudah Halevi.12 The question he addresses is why was Torah not given to all of mankind? Would not that have been more appropriate for the Divine wisdom? In other words, why did HaKadosh Baruch Hu single out the Jewish people from the rest of humanity? Rabbi Yehudah Halevi’s response: “And would it not have been more appropriate that all animals be created as humans?” In other words, why did HaKadosh Baruch Hu single out human beings by endowing them with intelligence and free will? Clearly such questions can never be answered, and, accordingly, they are neither meaningful nor legitimate. There are fundamental facts and axioms within HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s creation. Man is able to accomplish so much with two hands. Imagine how much he would be able to do if he had been created with three hands! The response is kach gazra chachmato, this is what Hashem in His inscrutable wisdom decreed. We cannot question the basic facts of Hashem’s world. This, in essence, is Rabbi Yehudah Halevi’s response.[...]

Thus the legitimacy and appropriateness of the author’s first question is itself open to question. Moreover, ultimately Mrs. Heshelis must also invoke this teaching of Rabbi Yehudah Halevi. In her words, “The principle of nekeivah tesoveiv gever does not mean that women will become altogether identical with men … men and women will each have primary virtues, while also having abilities on the other side.”13 So writes Mrs. Heshelis, and, undoubtedly, she is absolutely correct. But why will they not be identical? The response, of course, is kach gazra chachmato. The initial “why” question–“Why do women sometimes appear to have a secondary position [supporting role] in Judaism?”–warrants a similar response.14[...]

The author’s second question, which focuses on the disparity between rabbinic descriptions and contemporary impressions of women, raises a different methodological issue. The question axiomatically assumes that not only rabbinic statements but also our impressions are sources of truth. Clearly if our impressions have no epistemological validity, the second question simply disappears. Thus the methodological issue is, are our impressions (especially when apparently in conflict with the words of our Sages) to be regarded as a source of truth or knowledge?

The answer from a Torah perspective, I believe, is “yes, but….” Rabbi Sa’adiah Gaon substantiates the “yes” component of the response. He writes in the introduction (par. 5) to his Emunot VeDeot that both sensory perceptions as well as logical inferences from these perceptions are sources of truth. We observe increasing numbers of women succeeding and even excelling in pursuits that require a high degree of abstract intelligence. Ergo, we infer that these women possess keen abstract intelligence. According to Rabbi Sa’adiah Gaon, both links in the chain–our perception as well as our inference–are epistemologically valid. Thus we know that women possess a high degree of abstract intelligence, yet our Sages seem to indicate otherwise. Accordingly, Mrs. Heshelis’ second question is entirely legitimate.[...]

The Moon’s Lost Light

Following are a few observations concerning the central thesis of The Moon’s Lost Light. The Talmud17 enumerates ten curses imposed on Chava; the loss of abstract intelligence is not included. Mrs. Heshelis, of course, does provide sources from Kabbalah to document this loss in the aftermath of the sin. Nevertheless the question is worth pondering: Why is this curse omitted from the Talmudic list? Does its omission preclude from a Talmudic perspective Mrs. Heshelis’ approach or is this simply an instance of tanna vesheyer,18 our rabbis not always intending to provide an exhaustive list?

Though the aforementioned Talmudic passage is inconclusive, three of the greatest medieval Talmudists–Ra’avad, Rashba and Rabbeinu Ya’akov Ba’al Haturim–do not subscribe to elements of Mrs. Heshelis’ approach. Mrs. Heshelis describes the partnership between Adam and Chava before their sin as follows. “There was wisdom that Adam, representing intellectual knowledge, perceived first and then passed on to Chava, who then absorbed this wisdom into her heart, adding her emotional understanding to it.”19 Woman’s supporting role, according to Mrs. Heshelis, emerges only in the aftermath of the sin.20 This appears to be at odds with the depiction of Creation provided by the aforementioned sages.21 In his introduction to his classic Ba’alei Hanefesh, Ra’avad states that Hashem’s original, ideal thought (bemetziut hamachashavah hakadmonit . . . ra’ah betovat ha’adam), which he implemented, was to create woman from man’s side (unlike all other species where male and female were created individually) so that she would have a natural affinity for her supporting role. (In the animal kingdom the female does not adopt such a role.) Similarly, in a responsum22 Rasba explains that the ideal plan for Creation was to create woman from man to signify her supporting role. He also approvingly cites Ra’avad’s explanation.23 Rabbeinu Ya’akov Ba’al Haturim, in his introduction to Even Haezer, also adopts Ra’avad’s explanation.24

Both Ra’avad and Rashba are interpreting Hashem’s “original thought” as to the ideal mode of creating man and woman. Thus both Ra’avad and Rashba indicate that woman’s supporting role was part of Hashem’s original plan, and was not imposed as punishment for Chava’s sin.25

On the other hand, in addition to the sources that Mrs. Heshelis cites, there are also other sources that buttress elements of her approach. One crucial element of Mrs. Heshelis’ approach is that “man and woman were originally created equal, but that woman’s ‘light’ was subsequently lessened.” 26 The Vilna Gaon explicitly says this.27 “Initially [Adam] called her ishah ‘because she was taken from ish’ to assist him in intellectual pursuits [muskalot], and the two of them were equal . . . . But after the sin she does not desire intellectual pursuits . . . .”

Another crucial element is the interpretation of nekeivah tesoveiv gever, that “a female will turn into a man,” meaning that women will then have “male capabilities and privileges.”28 Rabbi Yechiel Michel Zilber, building upon the Chatam Sofer, develops this very idea; he, however, interprets it as a purely futuristic prophecy, with no bearing on this world’s realities or developments.29

The time frame for nekeivah tesoveiv gever, women regaining intellectual, social and economic parity with men, is absolutely vital to Mrs. Heshelis’ thesis. The author herself, displaying the erudition and intellectual honesty which characterize her monograph, cites the Ma’or VeShemesh and Kli Yakar, whose time frame differs from hers. Ma’or VeShemesh says that nekeivah tesoveiv gever will happen only after the complete rectification of the world, while Kli Yakar says that this transformation will happen only after the revival of the dead. As noted above, Rabbi Zilber also interprets nekeivah tesoveiv gever as a purely futuristic prophecy. Mrs. Heshelis, however, suggests that, according to Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel, the prophecy of nekeivah tesoveiv gever is linked to the ingathering of the exiles to the land of Israel. Since the ingathering is already happening incrementally, the prophecy of nekeivah tesoveiv gever is also gradually materializing. Once again the argument is enticing and plausible, but questionable. As noted by Mrs. Heshelis, Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel himself does not give any time frame. Mrs. Heshelis, based upon the context of chapter 31 in Yirmiyahu where nekeivah tesoveiv gever appears, is arguing ex silentio that Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel accepts an earlier time frame, which is linked to the ingathering of exiles. She may be correct. But arguments ex silentio are often questionable. Specifically, in this instance, the context of chapter 31 did not preclude the views of Ma’or VeShemesh and Kli Yakar. Thus the context certainly does not indicate that Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel disagrees with them. Moreover, even if Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel’s time frame for nekeivah tesoveiv gever is linked to the ingathering of the exiles, perhaps this means the ingathering of all the exiles. As this has certainly not yet transpired, we would not be witnessing the beginning of the fulfillment of that prophecy.30

Mrs. Heshelis’ approach rests upon an assumption. Women have changed. In the second half of the sixth millennium there are more women who possess a high degree of abstract intelligence than at any other time in history. This is, prima facie, a reasonable assumption. It provides a very cogent explanation for the dissatisfaction that some contemporary women feel with a purely domestic role. Nonetheless, given the dearth of historical data, it does not seem possible to document or otherwise verify that there has been a change. Mrs. Heshelis’ assumption is entirely reasonable, but it is important to realize that it is, after all, only an assumption.31

Mrs. Heshelis maintains that the descriptions of women found in the Talmud were accurate at that time, but were never intended for our era, when the powers of redemption have started entering the world.32 This is definitely a plausible interpretation. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the sources themselves, 33 which contain these descriptions, do not hint at any such caveat.


Mrs. Heshelis’ approach is very effective in harmonizing our impressions with our Sages’ pronouncements. But, at first glance, it also seems potentially troubling. There are immutable34 halachot predicated upon the curses imposed upon Chava. “Rav Yehoshua son of Levi says, ‘A man is obligated to consort with his wife before embarking on a journey [as it is written] “and your craving shall be for your husband”–this teaches that a woman craves for her husband when he embarks on a journey.’”35 In several places36 the Gemara articulates a chazakah, presumption, about women’s attitude to marriage. “It is better to live as two together than to live alone.” Based upon this chazakah, we assume that a woman is very eager to marry and remain married (more so than a man). This chazakah has far-reaching, halachic repercussions. For example, because of this chazakah, “a divorce, even in a situation of conflict, is deemed disadvantageous to her, and if granted through an unauthorized third party the divorce does not take effect.”37 Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s emphatic words in identifying the source of the chazakah are especially relevant to our discussion:
Not only the halachot but also the chazakot which chachmei Chazal have introduced are indestructible. We must not tamper, not only with the halachot, but even with the chazakot, for the chazakot of which Chazal spoke rest not upon transient psychological behavioral patterns, but upon permanent ontological principles rooted in the very depth of the human personality, which are as changeless as the heavens above. Let us take for example the chazakah that I was told about: the chazakah “It is better to live as two together than to live alone” has absolutely nothing to do with the social and political status of women in antiquity. This chazakah is based not upon sociological factors, but upon a verse in Bereishit–“I will greatly multiply your pain and your travail; in pain you shall bring forth children, and your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you.” It is a metaphysical curse rooted in the feminine personality; she suffers incomparably more than the male who is in solitude. Solitude to the male is not as terrible an experience, as horrifying an experience, as is solitude to the woman. And this will not change kemei hashamayim al ha’aretz [forever]. This is not a psychological fact; it is an existential fact, which is due not to the inferior status of the woman, but rather to the difference, the basic distinction between the female personality and the male personality. . . She was burdened by the Almighty, after she violated the first [law].” 38

Thus, according to the Rav, halachot, by definition immutable, are rooted in the curse imposed upon Chava.

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, in his magisterial Meshech Chachmah,39 also invokes this chazakah in explaining women’s timeless exemption from the commandment of procreation.

A crucial question now emerges. Can it possibly be true that Chava’s curses have begun to ameliorate and, accordingly, women are different? Can this be reconciled with the fact that immutable halachot are predicated upon these curses? The author is appropriately very sensitive to these questions;40 in essence, she unequivocally responds that the partial changes in women’s reality in the pre-messianic period do not countenance changes in halachah. In other words, it is Hashem’s judgment that the incremental changes that occur in the pre-messianic period are not significant enough to warrant any change in halachah. Everything remains unaltered until the final redemption is complete. Moreover, our Sages also anticipated these changes. “They were simply describing the situation as it existed throughout most of world history, before the powers of redemption started entering the world.”41 [...]

The Moon’s Lost Light is an excitingly original and remarkably erudite monograph. The handful of critical points and differing perspectives contained within this review do not, individually or collectively, refute the author’s essential thesis and historical framework. They do, however, indicate that the author’s approach, though suggestive and enticing, is neither definitive nor exclusionary.60 Her approach clearly cannot lay claim to a consensus omnium. On some points, there are clearly contrary views. On the other hand, her monograph, even after scrutiny, remains unquestionably exciting, valid and important. I find myself in agreement with Rabbi Zev Leff’s comment in his approbation, “This [The Moon’s Lost Light] is definitely one valid Torah perspective on this [women’s] complex issue.”61[...]


  1. The problem with this article is that it completely ignores the fact the the matter of the role of women in Judaism/Halacha is just one (albeit one of the most public) of the many issues related to the general question of the eternal nature of the Torah and the statements of Chazal. These include, in addition to women, attitudes towards non-Jews, democracy, slavery, legal systems, property rights, animal rights etc.

    To discuss the status of women in Halacha without addressing the broader issue of how we should relate to laws and traditions codified thousands of years ago seems to me to be pointless.

  2. This is unacceptable. The Pasuk is being interpreted at the will of a modern woman with an agenda. The meforshim on the pasuk נקבה תסובב גבר don't say this pshat, and niether does the targum Yonasan which I saw quoted there. The Baal Hatania Says something but it is spoken in the context of kabbala, and being misunderstood and taken out of context, at best. This author thinks that she could take the deepest kabala concepts and be 'magshim' them and reduce them to a level by which she can toy with The Torah to present ideas to serve her agenda. I am chassidish, but I when I see people trying to use kabala to change The Torah, it makes me kind of understand what the misnagdim were worried about.

  3. I assume Chava led Udum to sin is referring to the snake story in Genesis. Is this to be understood as actual history ? Second, women are unfairly discriminated against both in the Torah and Halacha - see for example and and and

  4. yes it is viewed as actual history.
    yes women have different rights and concerns than men according to the Torah and Halacha. The term unfairly only applies if you don't think that G-d knows what He is doing. But if you accept that He defines morality and right - than it doesn't apply

  5. @Daas Torah - Thank you for your response, but I am still struggling with this dilemma.

    1) You are an educated man living in the year 2016. Do you really believe G-d planted a garden on Earth ? And those special trees actually existed ? And women came from Udum’s body part ? And a snake spoke to Chava ? Etc:

    2) It is not just that women’s rights are different. Women are treated poorly and unfairly relative to men under Halacha and Torah law. Saying the laws are from G-d does not make them less unfair !

    G-d defining what is right and wrong really makes no sense. See

  6. your problem obviously is not the issue of women - it is Judaism per se. This blog is for those who accept that Torah is legitimate and that G-d has the right to disagree with what you think is right or wrong.

  7. If, AND I SAY IF, Judaism includes codification of poor and unfair treatment of women, I will have a problem with "Judaism" and so will most caring people. If, Judaism requires me to accept G-d planted a garden on Earth, and those special trees actually existed , and women came from Udum’s body part, and a snake spoke to Chava etc:, I have a problem accepting such an unscientific story and so will most modern educated people. Shalom

  8. Sorry David - if you have a preconception of what a religion needs to be considered true - than you are simply creating G-d in your image. It is equivalent to telling a physicist that you are not going to accept science because you don't think that gravity is fair. There is a thing called reality and it is not determined by your personal preferences.

  9. @Daas Torah - Thanks for your comments. On the one hand I agree it is my personal feeling or preference that women should not be treated poorly and unfairly, (so I would reject any religion, culture or political system that advocates such.) On the other hand, my rejection of the Bereshis story has to do with my personal preference for reality and truth. It is extremely unlikely the Bereshis story is reality. It is most likely a false myth. I am surprised an educated man like yourself can believe the myth actually occurred. Shalom and nice chatting.

  10. Ah yes - what ever you think or feel must be true is true. You might read the history of science and medicine where such an attitude was the biggest block to progress in knowledge. I am glad you were open minded enough to read my blog.


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