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The majority of Ashkenazic communities hail from (majority-Christian) Eastern Europe, while most Sephardic communities come from the (majority-Muslim) Middle East and North Africa.

Islam seems to take a rather strict view on the role of women. According to a strict interpretation (such as is followed in modern-day Saudi Arabia), women are not allowed to leave the house on their own, must be (fully) covered, and are generally required to submit to their "dominant male".

Christianity gives women some more free reign. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Christianity#Women_in_church_history, it appears that while women historically were not appointed to high positions, they were certainly considered people in their own right, and did not have the restrictions mentioned above. See also What is the source for Rav Soloveitchik's assertion that 1st Century Christians introduced mixed seating for prayers?

Now that we've clarified some of the surrounding culture, let's move on to the Jewish sources.

The classic position held by Ashkenazim is that even if women are exempt, they are still allowed to make the bracha. Sefardic poskim hold that she should not make the bracha. The classic source for this is SA OC 17:2, where the Rama has to point out that women should say the bracha on tzitzit.

(Interestingly, this position seems to be sort of reversed when it comes to women wearing tefillin - Ashkenazim discourage them from wearing it (while still allowing the bracha if she does), while Sephardim don't discourage it (but also without allowing a bracha).)

I don't have a source for this, but i have heard that while Ashkenazi women are supposed to follow the standard text of davening, Sfardi women just make up a prayer from the heart once a day.

Based on the two things i just mentioned, and there are probably more, it seems that Ashkenazi women take a bigger role in communal/religious life than Sfardi women.

Are there any sources that indicate that the positions on women were influenced by the surrounding culture?

  • I think you answered your own question. It is reasonable to say that – Daniel Jan 27 '15 at 22:48
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    @Daniel It is not at all reasonable given those two piece of evidence. – Double AA Jan 27 '15 at 22:48
  • The biggest proponent of women not saying a Bracha on Mitzvot which they are exempt from is none other than Rashi (Ashkenazi). Additionally, the first person to suggest that women need to just make up one prayer daily (in order to explain the custom in his area that women didn't pray) is none other than the Magen Avraham (Ashkenazi). (I'm not sure if <<<< is an answer....) – Double AA Jan 27 '15 at 22:50
  • The Ramma is the one who said women should never leave their house as a matter of decency,not the Mechaber. In general a theory distinguishing their reactionary rulings towards their women and societies would be universally accepted. The way your claim is phrased can get you banned with R' Steinzalts:) Not bad company, just saying. You would of course have to become famous first:) – user6591 Jan 27 '15 at 23:56
  • Did independent-minded Jewish women exist in Islamic societies? We have archetypes like the tough Yiddish market-seller supporting her family. Is that a known historical type from Egypt, Yemen, or Morocco? – Mike Jan 28 '15 at 2:01
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Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer debated this point (or at least the extent of it) with Rabbi Dov Linzer of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah.

In the course of the debate, as a further example of his methodology, Rabbi Linzer discussed the permissibility of women reciting berachos on mitzvos aseh she'ha'zman grama. This is the subject of a machlokes between Rabbeinu Tam, who permits, and the Rambam, who forbids. This machlokes is formalized in current practice, in which women affiliated with Ashkenazic communities do recite berachos on mitzvos aseh she'ha'zman grama, while women affiliated with Sepharadic communities do not.

Rabbi Linzer explained the machlokes thus: The Rambam lived in the misogynistic environment of countries dominated by Islam. Accordingly, his psak reflects the attitudes he absorbed from his environment. Rabbeinu Tam, on the other hand, lived in the more enlightened (proto-feminist) environment of Christendom. Accordingly, his psak reflects the attitudes that he absorbed from his contrary environment.

I countered that the machlokes is very straightforward: Whether the nusach of asher kideshanu b'mitzvosav v'tzivanu applies to the individual – in which case it does not apply to women, and who therefore may not be – or whether it applies to the nation as a whole, in which case a woman may recite this nusach on a mitzvas aseh she'ha'zman grama.

(I also noted that the psycho-sociological analysis is flawed, as Rabbeinu Tam is responsible for the most regressive “anti-feminist” law in our system [overturning, in the process, the law as hitherto established by the Gaonim] – viz., that a woman cannot compel her husband to give her a get on the basis of the simple her assertion that she finds it impossible to live with him, for perhaps she is lying and only initiated the divorce proceedings because eineha nasna b'acher.)

  • +1 Interesting analysis. I would not call it flawed. It is perfectly possible for the European and Levant societies to be different as explained and have infuence on the Jews living there, but yet still have Rabbeinu Tam's opinion from Europe. Just because a society has a tendency does not mean everyone falls into line with its opinions. There are always outliers with different opinions. – Mike Jan 28 '15 at 1:56
  • Honestly the Rabbeinu Tam example rather supports R. Linzer, as long as you don't have the expectation that poskim were pseudo-modern feminists who viewed the more independently-minded women through rose colored glasses. RT saw women as independent enough to not see their lives as determined by their father marrying them off to their husband, with whom they had no choice but to make their life. They could take the chance of divorcing this one and hoping to get the next one. Thus he viewed the claims of such a woman with the appropriate skepticism that this reality demands. – Yishai Jan 28 '15 at 2:42
  • @Yishai Wow, very insightful point. – Mike Jan 28 '15 at 3:42
  • @Mike agreed. I think the question is how readily do we turn to a "psycho-social" explanation vs. a more Talmudic-theoretical one -- what's our default. – Shalom Jan 28 '15 at 7:13
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    The Rashba (Islamic society) thought women could say those blessings, while Rashi (Christian society) thought they couldn't. How does R Linzer get away with arguing this? – Double AA May 6 '16 at 16:41

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