One of the great disparities between the modern Western mode of thought and traditional Jewish thought is the concept of egalitarianism. Modern thinking has blurred any form of distinction between classes of people; even the line separating male from female is too thick for many. Notions such as the priesthood, the rights of the firstborn, hereditary leadership, and restrictions based on gender are anachronistic at best, and more likely, viewed as immoral. And sadly, that is how many see traditional Judaism, with its somewhat rigid system of rights and obligations based on one’s birth.
There is little doubt that modern notions of egalitarianism have impacted on Jewish normative behaviour. The question is, where does one draw the line between mandated distinctions that must be maintained, and those that are sociologically or culturally based and therefore subject to change? It is for good reason that our Sages equated wisdom with the ability to make distinctions (Brachot 33a). As we discussed in a recent post, the Torah itself values merit much more than birthright, though it did maintain a double portion of inheritance for a male firstborn. Later generations, living in a different social climate, found halachic ways to equalize both younger brothers and sisters so that all would receive an equal share of the inheritance.
We must be very careful not to analyze historical norms using a modern lens. Much of what we might consider unfair today was well accepted and even celebrated in the ancient world. No doubt the ancients would find many of our socially “progressive” ideas anathema. While in some areas there has been objective moral improvement over the ancients—vicarious punishment comes to mind—in others, there is much we can learn from them. And sadly, we have perfected the art of killing people to a degree they could never have imagined.
With this background, perhaps we can appreciate the ruling of the opening Mishna of the 9th chapter of Bava Batra. “One who dies and leaves sons and daughters—when the possessions are abundant, the sons shall inherit and the daughters shall be maintained. If the possessions are sparse, the daughters shall be maintained and the sons shall beg [for support] from door-to-door” (Bava Batra 139b).
The Torah saw the man as the one responsible for the financial wellbeing of the family; until quite recently, it was no different even in America. This commitment is publicly expressed at every wedding as the ketuba is read, obligating the husband to financially support his wife with no requirement on the part of the wife to financially contribute to the family. The wife could choose to work outside the home if she so decided, but had no obligation to do so. And if she worked, she had the choice as to whether to put the money into the family pot administered by her husband, or keep it herself and accept responsibility for financing her own lifestyle.
Until what point monies must be set aside for the daughters is a matter of Talmudic dispute (Ketubot 53b), with Rav arguing the existence of the obligation only until they reach the legal of maturity, i.e., 12 and-a-half; and his colleague Levi arguing that it is until they are married (in Talmudic times, the discrepancy between the two was often not that great).
What is fascinating is Admon’s retort. “Admon says: Because I am a male, must I lose out? Rabban Gamaliel says: I see the words of Admon.” It is not fair, Admon argues, that just because there is little to distribute, the sons should receive nothing. Why he considered it fair that girls received nothing beyond basic maintenance when there was actually a lot of money is left unexplained. That is because in the ancient world, such a concept would have been unthinkable, and no explanation was needed. It was no different than, say, giving 19th century American women the right to vote. Certain ideas just do not enter into serious discourse. No doubt, future generations will look upon what the norms are today and find some of it totally out of touch with their reality.
Yet Jewish law adopts the approach of the Sages, and not of Admon. “Fair” or not, we cannot have women go begging for handouts if it should come to that. Much like the modern (unegalitarian) concept of women and children first, the first duty was to ensure that the women be taken care of. The men—much more easily than the women—can go to work. If that is not feasible—i.e., they are too young – sad as it may be, it is still better for a man to beg than a woman.
 One need not go back in history to see examples of the danger of using one’s own value system in evaluating those who live by a different set of values. While, for example, those with a more Modern Orthodox bent might find the norms of dating in the yeshiva community—and even more so, the chasidish community—outdated, those communities clearly see things differently. When one looks at the number of broken marriages and unmarried it is very hard, perhaps impossible, to say that the modern method works better. There is much to be said for the “traditional” method of matchmaking, and while it cannot work for those of us in the modern world, it works quite well for those who live in those societies.
 Strikingly, this support was—theoretically, at least—even greater than when the father was alive. In that case, the father was only legally obligated to provide for his children when they were very young (see Ketubot 49a). Nonetheless, the rabbis cursed those whose support did not continue until the males were self sufficient, or the females, were married and supported by their husbands. This is not dissimilar to the theoretical law that a child need not support a parent who is on welfare, but may make a donation towards this cause as part of his general tzedakah obligations. Nonetheless, woe unto the child who would choose such a despicable approach.