You might be surprised. Some believe that religion subjugates women and casts them as inferior. Far from it. Presented here are excerpts from laws and guidelines about marital relations, argued by Jewish legal scholars and sages for over 3,700 years. (Write to me if you want the actual text citations.)
The laws and guidelines presented below, although presenting an optimistic picture of respect for the woman, were born out of a situation in which the woman was considered less privileged in society and in need of protection. In the past, women did not go out to work and depended on their husband’s good will for their livelihood.
Today, with the rising trend of equal rights for women, women in careers, and women attaining financial self-sufficiency, the demand for respect still exists, but for mutual respect between spouses as equals. Thus, the laws and guidelines presented below can and should be interpreted as applying equally to wives and husbands to protect and respect each other’s dignity and well-being.
Physical respect for one’s wife: The requirement of the husband to respect his wife more than his body tells him to take his wife as seriously as he takes the needs of his own body. The needs of his body are primarily physical and hence we understand that he must fulfill the physical needs of his wife. This includes sexual fulfillment. The husband must also respect his wife’s personal needs, and it is a duty of the husband to be sensitive to them so that she does not condemn him.
Showing dignity to one’s wife: A husband has to work to prove that he respects his wife. He is obligated to do this in tangible ways that are visible, in addition to expressing love which is from the heart. One measure of human dignity is by how we dress. A man should dress according to his ability, but respect his wife by dressing her more than himself, and through more beautiful dress.
Prohibition to shame one’s wife: To protect her dignity and avoid shaming her, the woman should be first and foremost in certain actions for a man. This refers to situations in which a man is obligated to first tend to the needs of a woman if she is in a less privileged position in society (e.g., poverty, no one to take care of her). This is a call for social justice for any one in need.
Social status: While some believe that women were treated as property, on the contrary, it was the husband who had to earn the privilege of being wed to a woman of high status. The great sage Maimonides considers “giving a husband to a wife” according to his financial ability, especially if she is of high status, an expression of respect for her and an interpretation of an expression of great respect.
The wife’s happiness: The law says that a husband’s obligation, or mitzvah, is to contribute to the woman’s happiness, or at least not to cause her to be grieved (unhappy, resentful, depressed), and that this is more important than Torah study. The consequence for failing to first take care of the woman’s dignity is punishment from heaven. For fulfilling the mitzvah, the rabbis decreed: Honor your wives for you to get rich; a man who is careful in respecting his wife will benefit from this financially.
Preserving the wife’s rights: The wife’s right to independence, to freedom of movement, to meet with people from the family and in social circumstances, all these testify to her free status and the respect given to her. Denial of these rights harm her dignity. It is stated that a husband who denies his wife these rights must grant her a divorce, unless he argues to a court to justify it; his own opinion is insufficient to deny her rights.
Respect for her is also expressed in the autonomy given to her in decisions regarding home and children. Today, respect for her autonomy is extended to career and all family decisions. For example, in an argument between a husband and wife about breastfeeding the baby (i.e., childcare in general), the wife’s opinion is accepted and there is an expression of respect for her. To promote the ability to listen and engage in constructive cooperation in the marriage, Maimonides wrote that the man should prepare before entering his house so that he may enter it when he is calm, and he should not impose authority on his family through fear.
Protecting the status of women: There is a regulation prohibiting polygamy that has existed for over a thousand years. There is also a regulation prohibiting a woman from forced divorce or expulsion from the home. These laws protect a woman from becoming destitute, and were considered so important as to be equal to the status of the Torah given at Sinai (God’s law).
Prohibition against violence against women: Jewish law does not allow a husband’s violence against his wife. The law classifies violence in two categories: Mental violence and physical violence. Mental violence against the wife shows disrespect for her feelings and desires, and necessitates a divorce. Physical violence, beating, is clearly forbidden in the Torah, and the commentary explains that the law about beating a woman is the same as the law about beating a friend or a man: The wife is not the husband’s slave or property, and if he beats her, he should be punished and forced to give the woman a divorce.
When there are conflicts between spouses, these should not result in violence. When that happens, it is a matter of denying the dignity of the woman. If violence occurs, the wife has recourse to the court, and the court will grant her permission to leave the marriage with financial means from her husband even before the court has investigated and decided the matter. The sages recognized the need to protect women physically and financially.
When a court forces the husband to grant a divorce to his wife, and he refuses, the court can apply sanctions on him such as expulsion, imprisonment, revocation of a license (i.e., terminate his livelihood) and more. And he can be forced to pay her alimony.
The duty of the husband to respect his wife and to refrain even from verbal violence against her, is a legal obligation. Verbal violence and material or physical violence (e.g., withholding money, food, resources), contradict the duty of what the husband must provide for his wife.
Prohibition against adultery: The first proscription against adultery is in the 10 Commandments. The scholars expanded the interpretation to apply to the preservation of dignity for both spouses, and to the maintenance of the family unit. Violation of this law can be used (but does not have to be) as cause for divorce by either spouse.
Conclusion: Jewish tradition praises and encourages the relationship between man and woman as a system of mutual respect and love. The central principle in Judaism ” love your neighbor as yourself” begins with one’s spouse.
Which of the guidelines above do you find most important in your marriage or relationships?
When working with couples who wish to improve their relationships, I often suggest that they maintain a journal of what is working well, and what is not working in their relationship. We then look for the opportunity to create guidelines that can clarify roles, reduce conflict, and facilitate collaborative communication. Keeping a journal helps them manage feelings and track what is working and where improvement is needed. I invite them to use our CaseKeepers electronic journal.