Q. Isn’t it True that Women are Chattel in Jewish Law, and a Man Buys His Wife at the Wedding Ceremony?
A. No, not at all. During the wedding ceremony the man is acquiring various responsibilities. Among those are: to feed his wife, to clothe his wife, and not to deny her conjugal relations. One beautiful thing about Judaism is that we attain holiness by fulfilling our legal and religious responsibilities. And thus, all things holy are legal and religious responsibilities.
Therefore, when a man gets betrothed to a woman, he must make a legal acquisition of his future marriage responsibilities. One of the ways that the man does this is by giving the bride something of value. Actually, the exact Law is that the groom must give the bride either a coin (meaning something of value) or a betrothal document (Mishnayos Kiddushin 1:1). The betrothal document is not done these days. However, many Sefardic Jews today use an actual coin, and do not use a ring. (Though the groom later gives the bride a ring, I guess because brides want that.) I have no idea where or when the Custom began of using a ring.
Note that the giving of the ring is not the marriage — it is the betrothal. Betrothal is not engagement. Betrothal is a legal status wherein both man and woman are tied exclusively to each other, but they are not yet married, and they may not yet live together. Yet if they wish to separate after betrothal, the man give the woman a get, which is a Jewish divorce. The ring, or coin, or the document they use to use, is the sign that the man has made the legal decision, and will now begin to arrange for support of his wife, as well as his other responsibilities to her.
In Judaism, the ring is not a sign that the woman is married. After all, by giving her the ring they do not yet become married. In Judaism, the ring could be her way of reminding him that he has taken on the responsibilities pertaining to marriage.
Q. Does a Man «Inherit» his Brother’s Wife When the Brother Dies?
A. No, not at all. You are referring, I assume, to the Leverite marriage. The Torah commands that when a man dies without children, his brother should marry his brother’s widow and raise up children to her and his brother.
When a man dies without children, the wife feels more pain because she has no child of his to carry on the name of her husband. The Torah therefore commanded the husband’s brother to marry her, if both he and she desire it, and give her children to carry on his brother’s name.
However, no one is forced into this. If she refuses, a small ritual takes place (I don’t at this time recall the nature of the ritual), and both are free to marry others. If he refuses to marry her, the Torah mandates a special ceremony to take place in which she removes his shoe, and she spits on the ground in front of him for refusing to create children for his brother. Then both are free to marry others.
Q. Does Judaism Consider Women Unclean or Disgusting?
A. Heaven forbid! Not at all! Quite the contrary. Women are considered very special, and very attractive.
If anything, Judaism considers women on a higher level than men, in many ways.
Remember, woman was created after man. Humanity was created last because we are the purpose of Creation. All other creations were created before humanity. Take note, then, that woman was created after man. This certainly implies a more advanced development. This is the reason that only women are allowed to recite the blessing «Blessed are You, Hashem, G-d of the universe, Who made me according to His will.» Women are the final, complete creation.
Furthermore, consider the fact that woman was taken from man. Man was created with the input of all of creation. Every existing product of Creation gave something towards the creation of man. (This is one meaning of why Hashem said «We shall create man in our image.») Therefore, man is a refinement of all of creation. Woman was created from man, so therefore woman is a refinement of man.
And if that’s not enough, let me also mention something I heard many years ago from a classmate. The Torah commands us to take challah, which is a portion (sort of like at tithe) out of every large batch of dough we knead and give it to a Kohen. When we remove this portion of dough, it automatically becomes holy. This classmate of mine claimed (from I don’t know what source) a similarity between challah and woman. Just as the challah removed from mundane dough becomes holy, so is the woman, removed from the man, holy. (Of course, what this would probably mean is not that she is automatically holy, since no person is automatically holy. It would probably mean that a woman’s potential for holiness is greater than that of a man’s. Or so I surmise.)
Q. Why, then, do men stay separate from women, and refuse to touch them? Are they afraid of getting contaminated?
A. No, of course not. Speaking in modern terms, the separation of men and women in public places and such have prevented virtually any teenage pregnancy in the Orthodox-Jewish communities throughout the world. (I’m not saying there is no illicit, secret activity at all, but incidents are one in a million That’s how good the situation is, and that’s how good the system works.)
Judaism teaches that protection against illicit misconduct is an integral element of holiness. Staying separate from a man or woman who is forbidden to you helps you be less likely to sin with that person. Judaism demands holiness, and it is impossible to be holy while sinning. And the sin of illicit behavior is one of the most tempting, therefore we need greater deterrents against it.
In Judaism, men and women who are not married to each other do not touch each other, because touch is a very exciting and arousing experience. Men and women married to each other experience only each other, and this raises the experience of touch to an even more exquisite event. This is heightened even more by the fact that the Torah forbids a married couple to touch each other during the woman’s menstrual period. During that time, husband and wife are forced to view each other as partners, and not as means of satisfying their physical lusts. This also has the effect of intensifying the rest of their time together.