“Why are you wearing red shoes?”
“Madame Wu told me that on the day I will meet my future wife, I’ll be wearing shoes.”
“And have you been wearing red shoes ever since?”
Why yes, certainly.”
“Then of course it’s going to come true!”
“You really think so? I can’t wait to meet her!”
The other day I was reading a post from a pastor explaining what the Bible says about women, why they must be silent, and why they can’t preach sermons or teach men. I tried to explain to him that the Bible was written in an extremely patriarchal era of history – one in which women had limited mobility, limited influence in the public sphere, and limited rights – it was inevitable that such ideas would be present in books and letters written in that time. The teachers of the day also taught that women who were talking in public and not wearing a head covering in public had both done offenses worthy of divorce. Women weren’t even supposed to be taught about spiritual matters – the sacred texts were reserved for men. It was believed that women were under the authority of their fathers until they married at which time they were transferred to being under the authority of their husbands.
Christianity teaches much the same things – either as confirmation of the correctness of the original teachings from which they were based – only slightly kinder or gentler, or as a subversion of those teachings meant to replace them with something different by destroying the original teachings. We have to remember that the Written Law is the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Oral Law is the commentary that’s been discussed and passed down verbally by religious scholars. It’s the 600+ laws that the Pharisees believed in as equally binding, deduced from the Oral Law, debated, discussed, and taught by word-of-mouth. So let’s take a look at what we’re dealing with here:
“Samuel said : A woman’s voice is to be regarded as nakedness ; as it is said, “For sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely” (Cant. ii. 14)” from: Berakhot 24a referring to Songs of Solomon 2:14: ” O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.”
“[To listen to] a woman’s voice is indecent.’” (Another translation: “Samuel said: ‘Hearing a woman’s voice is indecency,’ and is therefore prohibited].”) from: Kiddushin 70b
“R. Joseph said: When men sing and women join in it is licentiousness; when women sing and men join in it is like fire in tow.41 For what practical purpose is this mentioned? — To abolish the latter before the former.42″ (Commentary: 41 – A woman’s singing aroused sexual passion. The latter is more serious, because it implies a wilful act on the part of the men to listen to the female voices. 42 – If both cannot be suppressed at the same time, the latter should receive more attention as being the worse of the two.”) from: Sotah 48a
Our Rabbis taught: All are qualified to be among the seven [who read], even a minor and a woman, only the Sages said that a woman should not read in the Torah out of respect for the congregation. (Commentary: This baraita teaches that anyone can have an Aliyah, even a woman or child. However, the rabbis consider it to be disrespectful to the community for a woman or child to have an Aliyah because it suggests that the men could not read the Torah themselves. We hear of this in other areas as well—birkat hamazon and Hallel. It is not respectful for it to seem that men cannot recite these texts.) from: Megilah 23
These are considered unfit [witnesses]: gamblers with dice, those that lend with interest, pigeon racers, those who trade in the produce of the Sabbatical year, and slaves. This is the rule: all testimony that a woman is not fit to give, these [above] are also not fit to give. from: Mishnah Rosh Hashanah
ואמר אבי הנערה AND THE DAMSEL’S FATHER SHALL SAY [UNTO THE ELDERS] — although both parents appear before them, yet the father alone shall speak — this teaches that a woman is not allowed to speak in the presence of her husband (if he, too, is concerned in the matter) (Siphre). – from: Rashi on Deuteronomy 22:16
A scholar should not … converse with a woman in the marketplace, even if she is his wife or his sister or his daughter. from: Mishneh Torah, Human Dispositions 5
MISHNAH. THESE ARE TO BE DIVORCED WITHOUT RECEIVING THEIR KETHUBAH: A WIFE WHO TRANSGRESSES THE LAW OF MOSES OR [ONE WHO TRANSGRESSES] JEWISH PRACTICE … AND WHAT [IS DEEMED TO BE A WIFE’S TRANSGRESSION AGAINST] JEWISH PRACTICE? GOING OUT WITH UNCOVERED HEAD,14 SPINNING IN THE STREET15 OR CONVERSING WITH EVERY MAN. from: Kethuboth 72a
These are just a portion of the laws, but the pattern is clear, women are not the equals of men, rather, they’re subordinate. One commentator put it this way: The Written Law assumes that everybody knows that women ought to be silent, and so there’s no need to write it as such. The Oral Law confirms this by writing that women ought to be silent. One of the reasons why women were not considered to be witnesses is because the masculine form of the word was used – but it’s notable that everywhere a word can be used of either either, it’s always the masculine word. We see this in the New Testament with the tendency to use: brothers / brethren as opposed to brothers and sisters. This attitude had been extended into the idea that a woman shouldn’t sing to anybody who isn’t related to her, after all, all sirens are females who sing and nobody who met one had a good end.
Given that such beliefs were prevalent, that men often prayed “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a woman.” Then it’s not surprising that these ideas and beliefs would also appear in the New Testament:
A woman[a] should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;[b] she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women[c] will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. – 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (a – wife, b – over her husband, c – she)
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. – 1 Corinthians 14:34-35
But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. – 1 Corinthians 11:5
So it seems that …
On the issue of headship (authority), women submit to their husbands – pretty much the same basic idea. Sarah submitted to her husband and called him lord, this was upheld as an example of proper respect in the New Testament. So they’re pretty much the same. No difference before or after Christ.
“Thus the sages laid down that a man shall honor his wife more than his own self and shall love her as he loves himself, and shall constantly seek to benefit her according to his means; that he shall not unduly impose his authority on her and shall speak gently with her; that he shall be neither sad nor irritable. Similarly they laid down that a wife shall honor her husband exceedingly and shall accept his authority and abide by his wishes in all her activities…” (Maim. Yad, Ishut 15:19–20).
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. … Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … – Ephesians 5:22-25 (also 1 Cor. 11)
On the issue of speaking and silence: the Oral Law considers a woman’s voice as nakedness (Kol Isha) and forbids women from speaking in Public, threatening women with divorce for doing so. This means that women are not allowed to teach and is why their religious education was a limited one, as it was disrespectful for women to know things that men do not – like how to read. The New Testament requires women to be quiet, to learn in silence. They can be as educated as the men are, even asking questions of them – just not in church. Of course, in that women are forbidden from teaching, what good does it to be learners? Then we have the example of Priscilla and Aquila, who together taught Apollos. So we have contradiction – instances where women are forbidden from speaking, but allowed to pray and prophesy. Women are forbidden from teaching, but are allowed to learn. It is progress, however slight.
Like a ripple in a pond, Church History shows that these teachings and ideas continued to fluctuate as the centuries passed by. Sometimes women rose to prominence as teachers in their own right, or leaders in their own fashion, some who did remarkable things that were supposed beyond what was proper – opening hospitals, teaching, preaching the gospel, sometimes having their own ministry. We know some of their names Grapte, Marcella, some were more legendary than others like Thecla. We see women who are definitely speaking, certainly teaching, and most probably leading in the centuries after the Bible and well into our own time.
But what about the trajectory of Scripture? What if these ideas were carried out to it’s logical conclusion? With the issue of slavery, society decided it was a moral evil that the Bible permitted. We decided that we would not tolerate it. We went against the explicit commands of the Bible to treat our slaves well, by setting them free and treating them as equals. Should we return to slavery to keep the biblical dictates intact? Or should we apply the same logic: the idea that of course there was disrespectful attitudes toward women thousands of years ago, but God had set us on a path toward equality and mutual respect by giving us the tools we needed to move past ancient morality and create a modern morality that gives women their voice, restores them to leadership, allows them to be teachers and treated with the utmost respect the same as anyone and everyone else. It may not be clear that Jesus’ words and actions were intended as a subversion and that’s why so many see it as a confirmation of existing attitudes – but as long as we continue ancient ideas that subordinate women to men, we continue this pattern of considering women as lesser – even accidentally. I’ve heard the idea that women’s voices are lesser than men’s. That a woman who is a teacher is worse than a man who is a teacher just because she’s female – and like Eve, easily deceived. All women who teach must therefore teach in an inferior manner to men. Why is why women can’t lead, because they’d lead in an inferior way to men because they are women and not men. Only men can lead like men, and all other kids of leaders must be inferior. That’s why women have to be subordinate, though they might be equal as a person, there’s some defect, some quality, some trait in them that disqualifies them from being the equal of men in every way and therefore able to do the same functions as men. Such an idea wouldn’t be out of place in a two-thousand year old book, in a patriarchal society. But is this what Jesus wants as the standard until his return? That we go only so far and no further? That we return to the morality of days gone by, sell ourselves back into slavery, just to maintain the limits the Bible prescribed? Or do we choose to believe that Jesus initiated a change he wanted us to continue – to subvert what was to change our world into a better one?