Does Judaism Require “Submission” within Marriage?

image“Submission” is a buzz word that I have heard around the net—not to God, but to one’s husband. The idea is that to maintain a happy marriage, the wife should put her husband first and allow him to make all of the decisions. Most women who write about being submissive appear to be fundamentalist Christians, but I’ve seen it on Orthodox Jewish sites as well.
One example is Anna T. of Domestic Felicity, a Jewish home-making blogger and self-described anti-feminist. She writes: “A godly woman submits to her husband joyfully and willingly, because this is what God calls her to. She isn’t bullied into it and she doesn’t do it because she only has half a brain.”

But is there a Jewish source for this? The Christian sites frequently refer to Genesis, as does Anna T.:

In Genesis 3, Eve is told: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you”. Notice that the word used here is “rule” —“ not “oppress”, “beat into submission”, or “boss around”.  Does it mean her husband gets the better deal? No. Ruling means the husband is responsible for the wife, her well-being and their family. The one who rules is supposed to be wise, responsible, to take care of those who submit to him. I’ll say more —“ with his kind and loving guidance, he is a servant of those who are under his rule. He is a protector.

Even when modified in this way, the terms “submission” and “rule” raise all kinds of red flags. Several months ago a reader who came across Anna T.’s site asked me to address the issue of submission within Jewish marriage. I put it on the back burner until last week, when I found this site called Married at 12. When you first go there, Google warns you about the content.

The blogger, who calls herself Dina, writes:

I was raised in a small but abusive pseudo-“Jewish” cult. I am a Jew by birth but the religion I was taught was far from authentic Judaism. It was torture, abuse & subjugation disguised as religion. I was married at age 12 and by the age of 26 I already had 7 children. Fortunately my husband and I ran away from the cult where we were raised and that’s when our lives truly began! This blog is about my discovering freedom for the first time, re-learning what Judaism is REALLY about, figuring out what I do & don’t believe, and struggling to raise my children in a different life than I was raised.

Dina writes a lot about submission to one’s husband. As I understand, she still considers it a Jewish value but not to the degree she was taught as a child. She even mentions sisters deferring to brothers, which I haven’t heard about. Dina has lots of questions and welcomes respectful feedback.

Noah Roth kindly provided me with a collection of sources and commentary on the topic of Jewish marriage and gave me permission to share.

Noah writes:

  1. The Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 29B discusses situations of conflict between two entities which one is commanded to honor. For example, one must honor parents, but may not listen if their parent commands them to violate the Torah because “הוא והם חייב בכבודי” both the son and the parents must honor God, and therefore the son honors his parents by observing the Torah  even against their explicit wishes, since they too must observe the Torah.
  2. Similarly, (Cited in Maimonides) a women must honor her husband’s parents ahead of her husband, since her husband is required to honor his parents, and she in effect honors him by fulfilling that commandment on his behalf. Another case is if a married mother and father simultaneously ask a child to do something, the son should respond to the father’s request first as both the son and mother must honor the husband. If his parents are divorced, he should honor his mother first, as neither parent is obligated in the honor of the other, and absent a requirement that your mother honor her husband, her honor comes before your father’s.
    These cases rest on the assumption that a woman owes her husband honor, though honor simply means temporal preference in this case rather than subservience. By way of example, God tells Abraham, “כל אשר תאמר שרה שמע בקולה.” (Gen. 21:12)”Whatever Sarah says, hearken unto her voice.” Women are clearly equal partners, entitled to disagree with their husbands, and husbands would be wise to listen.
  3. A woman is referred to as עזר כנגדו. (Genesis) Kinegdo means literally opposed to him. She is not merely meant to accompany and abide by him, but to actively partner and at times disagree with him, adding value through her different perspective. What you are describing is not a Jewish value.

But what about men ruling women (the translation is debatable), as quoted by Anna T.? This passage is referring to the state of the world after Adam and Chava (Eve) sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. It’s no more a requirement for men to rule over women than it is for women to have painful childbirth or for men to sweat in the field growing grain so they can eat bread, both of which are mentioned in the next few verses. The passage is descriptive, not prescriptive. There is no commandment that men should rule over women, nor is this held up as ideal that women should strive toward.

My husband brought up a couple of other relevant sources.

First, men do have control over women in important way, with their ability to nullify their wives’ vows (Numbers 30:13). Making vows used to be an important part of Jewish life. Nowadays we only think about it in the context of the Kol Nidrei prayer on Yom Kippur and a symbolic hatarat nedarim, or “release of vows” ceremony that many do before Rosh Hahashanah. Also, a person who ceases observing a long-held custom needs to go in front of a rabbinic court to be released from the vow.*

The ketubah, or marriage contract, specifies the husband’s obligations to his wife. It does mention honor, but that refers to a specific requirement to provide her with adequate food and decent clothing. The Talmud discusses a wife’s obligation to her husband, including cooking and baking, nursing his children, spinning, and making his bed. If she brings servants into the marriage, they may fulfill these obligations. Both have sexual obligations to the other. If the husband divorces the wife without grounds, he must grant her the sum specified in the ketubah.

So while there are ways in which marriage is unequal in the eyes of Jewish law, I have not found a source saying that a woman must submit to her husband or that only he makes final decisions. Within the context of modern Jewish marriage and Jewish law, couples are free to decide for themselves how they divide their responsibilities, childrearing, housework, decision-making,  bread-winning, and observance of customs and stringencies.

If a couple decides that the husband will make decisions for the family, both partners agree about when to consult, and the wife is genuinely comfortable with this arrangement, that’s okay with me. My problem is when this is represented as the Jewish ideal of marriage. When mentioning ideas such as the wife must always defer to her husband, put his needs above hers and never disagree with him publicly, I get even more uncomfortable.

Even if both spouses want to internalize some of the admittedly patriarchal attitudes in Judaism, the emphasis is misplaced. Jewish women have enough to do without wasting energy worrying about overstepping vague boundaries within marriage including submission, deferral,  contradiction or gender roles.

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Comments

  1. This is a fascinating post. While I have always known that Jewish women are not expected to submit their husbands the way that fundamentalist Christian women are, I have never before seen a textually-based halachic discussion of this issue.
    What kind of strange “pseudo-Jewish” cult does Dina belong to? Where are these people located?

    • Please understand I am NOT a member of a cult. I was RAISED in a cult – an extraordinarily abusive one. All I will say in order to protect my extended family is that it was in the U.S. and praise G-d no longer exists, at least not in the form it did when I was growing up. My father led it, and is now dead. In the many years since I left I have learned much more about Judaism and seen the ways in which many of my father’s teachings were absolutely contrary to Judaism. I say “pseudo Jewish” because a) my family is halachically Jewish and we were taught that what we were raised in was Judaism and b) it seems to me in retrospect it was very much inspired by Islam, Fundamentalist Christianity, and my father’s sadism. It was ritual abuse more than it was Judaism. As an adult I am now learning about Judaism and my husband and I are both trying to figure out where we stand about the many halachic questions that exist and where we fit in the wide spectrum of religious Judaism.

      • Dina- perhaps I should have been more sensitive when choosing my words. If I offended you, then I apologize.

      • Don’t let Dina’s words fool you. She is still very much a cult member who believes in ideas that have nothing to do with Judaism and everything to do with misogyny.

        • She just updated her blog with a lot of new information.

          • Well, I’ve been reading her latest posts, and her mindset is still cult-like if you ask me. Just look at her views on women and how delighted she is when she sees her daughters defer to their brothers – their BROTHERS!

            Look…I know I’m a controversial blogger, and you’ve probably read some of my stuff and disagreed with it. But I sometimes *do* read this blog (as well as other well-written frum ones), and I have to tell you that the comment-writers here are correct: Dina doesn’t seem to understand that her attitude about a variety of issues are the same as they were when she was a cult member.

      • Thank u very much to “A Mother Living in Israel” for writing this
        article. I have often wondered about the “role of subcomisión”in
        Judaism especially since I came from an abusive home and the
        Jewish Man whom i dated( but have been friends only with for
        Over 3 years now, PROFESSES
        quality and respect for me yet days that
        I am to be ” FORCED” to “agree with whatever he says” and while
        Dating told me (after coming over against my will) that I must”subjugatemyneeds
        To his” equality? I dont think so!!!!!

  2. My first thought was the “ezer k’negdo” argument – you are supposed to be a help against him – only by arguing (when necessary) do you help your husband become the best man he can be.

    I think that spouses should strive not to contradict each other in public, because it’s not attractive, but it should go both ways.

    I also think that there are spheres in which each spouse is the “primary.” When it comes to the kitchen, I’m the boss. When it comes to money management, my husband’s the boss. Every couple has their own needs and should have their own arrangements.

    It’s a partnership, though. I think you’re looking for trouble if both partners aren’t considered capable of decision-making and leadership.

    • Yes, contradicting was too strong a word.

      • What if both partners are capable of decision-making and leadership in DIFFERENT spheres of life? I do feel that submitting to my husband is important, and helps make for our strong marriage… but I also am “in charge” in the kitchen and make many of the decisions about parenting, gardening, shopping, etc. He consults me on many decisions and I consult him. But it’s not about capability – It’s about honoring our very different roles as a man and a woman, a mother and a father. I nurture my own femininity and that of my daughters – I feel that femininity (including feminine strength) is not encouraged enough and is seen as an inferior quality for a woman to have, even in the Jewish community. I don’t agree that arguing is necessary – Gently challenging my husband works just as well. I have no need to be a “boss” of anything just because I’m smart and capable. I am married to a man who is naturally a leader and I honor his nature by allowing him to lead. He knows I am smart and capable, and he knows that I am quite happy to be his helper and keep our home in order rather than having to take on more masculine roles. Unlike how I grew up (growing up complete obedience was required and our consent was not even a question) my husband and I are both consenting adults who find this to be the most spiritually meaningful and relationship-sustaining way to build a marriage.

        I completely agree re: arguing in public!

        • sara maimon says:

          “Unlike how I grew up (growing up complete obedience was required and our consent was not even a question) my husband and I are both consenting adults who find this to be the most spiritually meaningful and relationship-sustaining way to build a marriage. ”

          Dina I find your reply slightly less than honest. You have here presented it as an original choice that fits you and your husband as individuals. But on your blog you present it as an ideal suitable for all, one that you are indoctrinating your children to accept.

  3. Wow, great post! I know that during my first year of marriage I had difficulties understanding just how much and when to be mevater (B”H, I figured it out!) and it was stressful. I can see how in the wrong circumstances, or under the wrong guidance, such a concept could be twisted into “full submission.”

    IMO, it’s important to know when to back down in an argument, or when to assert yourself. It’s helpful if spouses take the time to discuss what each others’ expectations are (who should handle the finances, how much time with the in-laws, who takes out the trash, etc.) so that both spouses are on the same page. Also, it’s essential to know your own limits, which helps to know when to ask for help, or put your foot down.

    It seems to me that if a woman is only submissive to her husband, not only is she not being honest about her needs, she’s teaching her children that knowing and acting upon personal needs and preferences is not an option. Yikes.

  4. Wow…I never even knew such cults existed in Judaism.
    Fascinating post!

    • It’s debatable whether we really existed “within Judaism” given the outrageous (and frankly anti-halachic) views the cult I grew up in held on many issues. Cults exist in all parts of society, though, as does child abuse. Cults and abusers do a remarkable job of keeping themselves invisible from those who would most successfully challenge them.

    • When I had my second child there was a 16 year old girl in the next delivery room giving birth. This was in Jerusalem. She belonged to an American Haredi cult-Yishuv in Drom Har Hebron. She was married at 15 to the leader’s son (who was 28 at the time). They had to perform the marriage ceremony abroad since it is illegal in Israel to marry at that age.
      So Jewish Cults do exist.
      Dina, are 12 year old children permitted to get married in America?

      I am going to quote my grandfather (of blessed memory). At a party for his 40th wedding annerversary he said the following.
      I am going to tell you the secret of a successful marriage. When my wife and I got married we decided that I would make all the big decisions and she would make all the small decisions. After 40 years of marriage there have been no big decisions.

  5. Reading Dina’s blog it is hard not to feel that she simply has not escaped the core values of the cult she was raised in. This is not any form of Orthodox Judaism that exists today. Your children notice that your husband bosses you around, and that you have a relationship that is very different from their friends’ parents. . It is clearly hard for him to give up the feeling of power that he has over you and that is frightening for me to read. I fear for you and your children. You need to break the hold these distorted ideas have on your family.

    If you’ve seen the show “Big Love” you might have an idea of how people raised in abusive cults are drawn back to their teachings despite their better judgment.

    • DC, I am afraid I agree with you. Dina you are doing a remarkable job escaping your painful past. B

  6. Avraham the boat Saltoun says:

    as usual GREEEEAAAT post. the ketubah states clearly le pharnessa, he has to support, and baal a amea ball a dea, he HAS to support, so that means he has little say on the basics, he has to provide. at the very moment they have a common denominator of kedusha, such as raising kids or acts of chessed, who is in charged is secondary. A sukah must ha sachaar ( something above) to be a sukah.

  7. Julius Ngunjiri says:

    I am a Christian, raised up in Kenya. Age 55. For years, i belonged to a church where true individual freedom is kept in check by using dubious Bible verses. Women there, as in most Africa churches, are oppressed beyond measure. I have since left attending that church; attended scores of others in and around Nairobi , our capital city in the last 7yrs. i have even been to the Jewish Synagogue but was not allowed in, (security is prohibitive for any genuine seeker of our Lord). I Love Adonai, the God of the Bible. and strive with all i can to obey Him. Currently am not attending any church. I really wish any one would talk for me to the Jewish Synagogue in Nairobi so i can try it too. thanks. Julius

    • Julius;

      If U t TRULY seeking (and r NOT there to preach your beliefs
      about Jesus and Christianity) then that is what is needed
      However, they just might not trust u or your motives

  8. miriami says:

    first of all, of course 12 year olds cannot get legally married in the US.
    well of course I had to go to Dina’s blog and I found it very upsetting–hardly suprising because I find the notions of hyper-tzniyut and submission to be very upsetting. What she writes is heartbreaking. While she writes openly of the abuse in the past, it is shocking to me that her husband can enforce similar rules on his daughters. Even for those who are Orthodox, there are many interpretations about how to observe the laws.
    I hope Dina will gather the courage to assert herself and stand up for herself and her children. She deserves better.
    Thank you MII for addressing the question of submission. I hope women like Dina can use this knowledge to find fulfillment and equal partnership in their marriages (and separate but equal in marriage is fine with me-but someone who makes you quit a job, wear clothes that dredge up your own memories of abuse, etc. is not respecting you in any way–even in your own sphere of femininity)

  9. Many wives do have to work on submitting their will to their husband’s. All this means is that they shouldn’t browbeat or manipulate him to get their way all the time, but to let him take charge of the areas that are “his territory.” Let’s face it ladies, this is not always easy. A lot of us Yiddishe Mamas have strong personalities, and we run the risk of emasculating our husbands if we don’t work to keep our will reined in.
    But this is only true in NORMAL marriages, where both husband and wife are reasonably NORMAL.
    On the other hand, if a man is not capable of handling authority responsibly (i.e. he is mentally unstable or even slightly abusive), there is no mitzvah whatsover of submitting to his will, and all those shalom bayis books about being mevater should be thrown out the window. This is a different kind of situation.

    • Naomi,
      That’s not called “submitting” that’s called negotiating mutual respect and expectations and reining in one’s ego. That’s what every marriage requires and it can be expressed without falling back on sexist stereotypes of overbearing Jewish women and men who are at risk of being “emasculated” unless their wives give them a semblance of being in charge. There is no “mitzvah” of submitting at all. Those self-help shalom bayit books are-let me try to put this mildly- full of it. The only “mitzvot” recognized in rabbinic law as binding between spouses are 1) mutual financial responsibilities, 2) mutual sexual obligations 3) mutual responsibility of ensuring that each can perform the mitzvot they are required to do. And of course the number one mitzvah that spouses must uphold is “v’ahavta l’rei’acha ka’mocha” Or as Hillel restated it: that which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. If you don’t like getting bossed around, don’t do it to your spouse; if you don’t like being made to feel worthless, don’t do it to your spouse; if you don’t like being told what to wear and constantly criticized, don’t do it to your spouse.

      Dina,
      Remember, between you and your husband stands on central mitzvah of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha ka’mocha.” It is not for him to make sure that you are submissive and dressed the way he wants you to dress to be straight with God. That’s between you and Hashem. I think hat you two still need a lot of deprogramming if you want to raise children whose expectations and understanding of the world and Torah is in line with mainstream strands of Orthodoxy today.

  10. My understanding of this issue (i.e. how my parents’ marriage worked) is that while ultimately, in familial decisions, the husband has the final say,

    1) He should never reach his decision without consulting his wife.
    2) His wife should be given full allowance to air her opinion.
    3) If his wife feels strongly on the matter and the husband does not, the husband should follow his wife’s feelings even if her thoughts were not the way he was leaning.

    If a husband and wife have strong but divergent opinions on a regular basis (strong enough that it leads to constant arguing), then that generally means they have differing hashkafot and should not have married in the first place (this is, of course, distinct from couple’s feuding which is a normal part of any marriage).

    Husbands and wives should never, ever fight in public. Ever.

  11. I agree with everything you wrote, MII. I think your most important point about Judaism’s take on this is the need to distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive sources. It’s easy for anti-feminists to find sources describing wifely submission because that was a social norm for much of human history. But to twist that into a prescription for all Jewish wives is a complete distortion.
    Just to add one more Jewish source into the mix: the Torah describes the Ben Sorer Umoreh as a son who disobeys both of his parents and is brought to Beit Din by both parents. The Mishna explicitly infers from that that a child cannot become a Ben Sorer Umoreh if his father wants it but not his mother, or vice versa. Those sources present father and mother as joint heads of the family who must split the decision making.

  12. Nurse Yachne says:

    My husband, who is an awfully sweet sort, was reading this over my shoulder, chuckling. He is of the opinion that many men feel they do a lot of submitting on thir own terms as well within marriage. He’s grateful for my respect and defeence on the things that matter to him, and well, I am still very much my own woman. Neither partner should be a dishrag, but deferring, submitting to the others wishes and preferences can become a pleasure. Neither of us wants to hurt the other, and both of us desire the other’s best interest. We still “blow it” sometimes, and get crabby, butin the main…

  13. the dina story sounds like a pure fabrication. just my gut feeling. in any case, no religious source can justify an abusive, oppressive relationship. women who live in and accept such circumstances ought to know that there is no valid religious justification for it. those who cite scripture to validate such crimes are devils in the flesh.

    • Naomi and others,

      Having grown up in an abusive childhood home, there is
      STILL so much trauma that I have (like the more I read, the
      More I am convinced that I must have been hit in the face If I
      DARED to ‘talk back’ to my father, because I have OFTEN
      Found myself terrified to speak my own mindto a Man whom
      I was involved with. So ‘ submission’ was easy for me.

      Even, evidentally If I hated it. I HAVE had some healthyrelationships
      But it seems that now a days, that it is just too hard to find a decent
      Non-controlling Man, (or maybe my heart has just been too ‘into’ that
      19 year relationship with that one Jewish man, that I Havent been able to look
      At any others. I just always saw us as soulmates. At Shul,Keeping
      shabbos together, attendingconcerts, the opera, ……it was always him!

    • Tzvee;

      While I have not yet read Dina’s whole story ICAN
      Validate the reality of cults happening withinJudaism just
      as they happen in other ‘religions cultures and areas of the world
      They r done in secrecy.

  14. Ariella says:

    Just a note on a husband’s ability to negate his wife’s vows: that does not apply to all vows. And BTW the one instance we see of this in TaNaCh is of Chana telling her husband of her vow about their son, and he does not negate it. In that instance, a husband respects his wife’s wishes even though she had not consulted him in advance. The instances that Chazal bring up to illustrate “chochmas nashim bantha beytha” do not show women in utter submission but in coming up with strategies to thwart their husbands’ plans when they see they are wrong.
    However, on the other side, there is the incident of the woman whose husband got upset about her attending Rabbi Meir’s shir. He ordered her to spit in his eye. R’ Meir learned of this and told her he required the treatment of being spit in the eye 7 times and then told her to tell her husband that she had done 7 times what he asked. Of course, the woman would never have done this without R’ Meir’s own order, but the story there seems to favor giving in. Interesting in light of the fact that R’ Meir’s own wife was the independent Bruriah who has her own story with a rather unhappy ending.

  15. Interesting post MII. I held off comment, but came back after flipping through the radio channels on a Sunday and a Christian broadcast discussing submission happen to pop up on my dial. The source for submission is NOT a Torah source, but from the Christian bible in a book called Ephesians. I have little interest in researching the Christian idea of submission. Many take it literally, some seem to take it as a metaphor. I can think of no Torah source for submission to one’s husband and the women of Tanach often worked with cleverness when they had a certain clarity which was not shared.

    Making peace, giving in where necessary are Jewish values, but would be from wife to husband or husband to wife. I have my own commentaries on “feminism” as do others, but in the case of each blogger, I simply don’t see their outlook stemming from Torah, but from their own journeys, believes, and feelings.

  16. What a thought provoking post! Was sorry to read about Dina’s early challenges , but am encouraged that she has managed to come through the “eye of the storm” so to speak.(cheers to her freedom, and courage). Have enjoyed reading the insightful comments shared here. Ideally speaking, a mutual exchange of admiration, respect and love makes for a healthy partnership. Relationships–like anything else–require work, refinement. What a blessing though to share life with someone truly special…the “work” becomes play.

  17. I belive that the material brought by Anna, would be based anyway on an English translation of the bible done by christians (all translations are commentaries). I am afraid that it is very difficult for people brought in countries where chistianity of Islam is dominant not to be influenced to some extent by their religious values.

    In judaism things are mutual, while RAMBAM (I think) tells the women she should treat her husband as a king and herself as his handmaid, the same thing is told to the husband, to treat his wife as a queen.

    It is told about the Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, that when he was offered to be Chief Rabbi (I think) he said, I have to ask my wife..

    In Judaism many anecdotal stories are told that show the extent to which the husband should honor his wife.

  18. for the children's sake says:

    I am not sure what it is that’s so outrageous about the blog ‘domestic felicity’; I haven’t spent much time on it, but so far the articles I have read do echo my own intuitive feelings about family life, in as much as I aspire for it to be. Thanks for helping discover a new homemaking blog!

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