By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
The Vestal N.Y. Reporter 

Marriage and equality


Although her book “Tradition and Equality in Jewish Marriage: Beyond the Sanctification of Subordination” (Continuum International Publishing Group) focuses on Jewish marriage laws and tradition, Melanie Landau is really considering a much larger question: Is halacha (the rabbinic legal rulings of the past) binding for eternity or should sociological factors be taken into consideration in order to acknowledge contemporary sensibilities and ethics?

Landau notes her own conflict with these issues: In her introduction, she writes that her work “reflects my own ambivalence about the binding nature of the tradition and the extent to which I would follow traditional norms when they conflict with other values I have.” Attempting to determine the intent of the ancient rabbis can be difficult, if only because they were also a product of their times. This leads Landau to wonder if their rulings should be considered proscriptive (in that they apply no matter how social norms have changed) or treated as descriptive (which would allow people to revise them in light of societal changes).

Liberal Jewish movements have already considered these options and most vote for viewing Jewish practice as a product of its times. When it comes to women’s rights, this viewpoint allows them to ameliorate what they see as sexism in Jewish law. For example, many liberal rabbis don’t perform the parts of the marriage ceremony that so distress Landau. Yet, these changes—which take place outside of the halachic system —don’t satisfy the author. What she wants to do is reform the system with the permission of contemporary halachic authorities.

As Landau notes in the subtitle of her book, she believes that Jewish marriage sanctifies the subordinate status of women. Her discussion looks at several areas of inequality:

The fact that marriage is non-reciprocal: While a woman must consent to a marriage, this consent is passive. If she does not actively object, the marriage is considered valid. In traditional ceremonies, the active aspects (for example, placing a ring on a finger and reciting the marriage vow) are performed only by men.

The question of whether or not a woman can refuse to have sexual relations with her husband: Landau looks closely at the rabbinic idea of a “rebellious woman.” The author sees her as a woman trying to control her own life, while rabbinic authorities punish her for the attempt.

The problem of kiddushim (the betrothal part of the marriage ceremony): Some describe the ceremony as that of a man purchasing a wife and Landau discusses the implications of such an arrangement.

That a divorce may only be given by a husband: If a husband refuses to give his wife a get (a divorce document), she can never remarry in a Jewish ceremony. For Landau, this means the law places the woman in a subordinate position.

Landau not only discusses why she believes Jewish marriage should be changed, but offers several options for that change. Yet, she is not only concerned with the marriage state. She first discusses the place of women in other aspects of Jewish practice, for example, noting women’s exceptions from time-bound mitzvot and how women were forbidden to participate in Torah and Talmud study. She believes these objections to women’s participation have been shown to be irrelevant in the contemporary world.

Landau then looks more closely at kiddushim, reviewing rabbinical sources from ancient to contemporary times, something she also does when looking at the question of divorce.

The author does recognize that halachic rabbinic authorities are not eager to revamp the traditional marriage ceremony. What she offers are several options—including committed partnerships, concubinage and quasi-marriages—that she feels side-step the elements of the traditional ceremonies she dislikes.

All her suggestions, which are too complex to explain in a short review, have supporters and detractors whose opinions are discussed. Landau feels strongly that it’s important to consider these options if only because many modern Orthodox singles are having sexual connections before they are married. Ignoring this reality leaves those young men and women without halachic guidelines on a variety of issues, including the laws of family purity and the use of the mikvah.

Much of the material Landau covers will be familiar to feminists who have read extensively on Jewish marriage and law. Those unfamiliar with the topic will find “Tradition and Equality in Jewish Marriage” a good place to begin since Landau does an excellent job explaining the opinions and arguments of different rabbinic traditions over the ages. The book speaks to traditional women looking to understand Jewish law in light of their contemporary sensibilities. However, liberal Jews who have already rejected halachic authority may find the arguments irrelevant.


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