Some time ago I came across this most interesting site. Having grown up in the 20th century Western world, I never realized just how radical the teaching of Jesus was. As I read this article, it spurs my spirit to honor and respect women on a plane I'm not sure I've ever quite reached. Here I've included a chunk of the article as a teaser:
It is forbidden for dogs, women or palm trees to pass between two men, nor may others walk between dogs, women or palm trees (Pesahim 111a). Gentile women were considered even lower than a Jewish woman as she was designated an animal (Kerithoth 6b and Berakoth 58a). Women were to be shunned in public social contact. From the Mishna tractate Abot, 1,5: “Engage not in too much conversation with women. They said this with regard to one’s own wife. How much more does the rule apply to another man’s wife? As long as a man engages in too much conversation with women, he causes evil to himself, for he goes idle from the study of the Torah, so that his end will be that he will inherit gehenna.” Imagine living with this kind of attitude of fear of damnation for a conversation.
Women were not allowed to be taught the Torah publicly despite that it was allowed in the Old Testament period (Josh. 8:35; Neh. 8:2-3). Restrictions applied to any public reading of Scripture in the Synagogue (Megillot 73a) and they were unable to pronounce the benediction after a meal in the home (Mishna Bereshit 7:2). Women were restricted from orally communicating the Torah to others, even to children. From the tractate Sota, 10a: “May the words of Torah be burned, than that they should be handed over to women.” In Sota 21b it is written, “Rabbi Eliezer says: Whoever teaches his daughter Torah teaches her obscenity.” Women were not allowed to be educated in the same schools as men. They could not learn the Torah by themselves nor along with the men. This was practiced in the Second Temple period of Jesus’ time and in synagogues afterwards; they were separated from men in the service.
These religious limitations were not always found in the Old Testament. This is why Jesus reacted so strongly against the teachings of the fathers (elders Mk.7), because they were not Biblical. Women being accepted in Jesus’ ministry was certainly not the practice of the Rabbis of His time. “One is not so much as to greet a woman.” (Talmud bBerakhoth 43b). Jesus’ attitude toward women in His ministry becomes a liberating factor against these types of religious practices that were accepted in his day. Jesus often did the forbidden in the religious practice of the Pharisees by ministering to both women as well as men that were off limits. He conversed with the Samaritan woman at a well, (John 4:1-42 that was an unaccepted practice for a male and rabbi of His day.) Even his disciples in v:27 “came, and they marveled that He talked with a woman”, as they were taught not to talk to a gentile woman in public. He instructed her and revealed Himself to her as the Messiah and she went forth with the message.
The Rabbis (tradition of the elders) taught that women were intellectually inferior and incapable of studying the Torah. When Jesus was in the house of Mary and Martha, (Luke 10:38-42), as Martha went about her daily chores he instructed her that Mary had actually “chosen that good part” by sitting and learning (Luke 10:42). Jesus did not condemn Martha for going about her household duties, but commended Mary for a better ministry, her desire to learn the Word.
And there's more like this. Recommended reading.