A debate exists about women’s spiritual status in Judaism — are women spiritually equal to men or are they on a lower level? For example, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch writes (Lev. 23:43): “Clearly, women’s exemption from positive, time-bound mitzvot is not a consequence of their diminished worth: nor is it because the Torah found them unfit, as it were, to fulfill these mitzvot. Rather, it seems to me, it is because the Torah understood that women are not in need of these mitzvot. The Torah affirms that our women are imbued with a great love and a holy enthusiasm for their role in divine worship, exceeding that of the man.” Some take it a step further and argue, based on the Maharal’s various statements in different works, that women are greater in some aspects and men are greater in other aspects.
I have seen the argument made that since Chavah was created after Adam, she is on a higher level. I recently came across relevant discussions of this issue in sixteenth-century texts.
In discussing the sequence of Creation, the midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 19:4) says that order counts:
“R. Yehudah bar Simon said: Everything that was created after its fellow rules over its fellow… And Adam was created after all to rule over all.”
Ostensibly, this would imply that women should rule over men since female was created after male (Gen. 2:21). However, Rav Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi, in his Yefeh To’ar commentary, questions why the midrash does not say that people rule over land animals. He suggests that the midrash is only addressing the days of Creation. Things created on a later day rule over things created on an earlier day. However, that implication does not apply within the same day.
Therefore, people do not rule over animals. Similarly, the ten things created bein ha-shemashos, around sunset on Friday, do not rule over man. Based on this, the Yefeh To’ar would reject the suggestion that women are better than men because they were created later. Since they were created on the same day, the order lacks that implication.
The Maharashdam — Rav Shmuel De Modena — was a rabbi in Salonica in the mid-sixteenth century. After his death, his son collected his sermons and published them as Sefer Ben Shmuel. The book was only published once, in 1582, until its recent republication. In 2015, it was published in a new, corrected edition as part of a fourth volume in the new edition of the Maharshdam’s responsa.
The eighth sermon addresses this question at length. The Maharshdam points out that Shem Tov Ben Shem Tov asks why women were created last if they aren’t the highest level (Derashos, Bereishis, Derush Le-Chupah).
Maharshdam gives his own answer — if woman was created before man, it would seem like her task is to serve man like all the animals that were created before man and are intended to serve man. This is not the case — a woman exists for herself, not for her husband. Rather both man and woman are created for themselves, to subjugate their physicality to their intellect. Since a woman is more physical by nature, if she overcomes this she reaches a higher level than man. “A woman, with all her flaws, can perfect herself like a man and more.”
Maharshdam is not some proto-feminist, as you can see in his language. He believes that women are different from men. Women are associated with physicality. Remember that in his time women spent most of their time doing menial work in the home. Men worked, as well, but generally spent at least some time engaged in intellectual pursuits. However, both men and women can overcome their physicality. Since women are more associated with physicality, if they overcome it they reach higher levels than men.
It is unclear what these higher levels mean. It could mean merely that women receive more reward for overcoming their greater challenge, as Maharshdam says in one place in this passage. Or it could mean that women reach higher spiritual levels because they succeeded in a greater challenge. While not directly equivalent to twentieth century approaches, Maharshdam’s maintains important parallels that serve as an intellectual support to the later thinkers.
As we have seen, the disagreement over this subject that we see today existed 500 years ago in Turkey, when it was a great center of Torah.