Thursday, March 18, 2010

Eishes Chayil, Mi Yimtza?

It is often noted that traditional Jewish society is patriarchal, as the public aspects of the religion seem to be dominated by men. While it is true that public aspects of Judaism often include only men, and men themselves are required to participate in more religious acts than women, these rites and practices do not form the center of Jewish values and life. In Jewish belief, the purpose of a mitzvah (commandment) is to bring the person doing the act to a closer connection with G-d as a result of the Divine act. From a Jewish perspective, men are in more need of this connection and inspiration than women as men are innately on a lower spiritual level. As shown in Bereishis (Genesis), men were simply formed, while women were “built” (“v’yiven l’isha”). Chazal (ancient Jewish sages) note the connection between the word “build” (“banah”) and the word “binah”, which generally means “intuition” or “deep knowledge”, taking from this the notion that women have an innate knowledge of the world that men can only access through much trial and struggle. Because of their increased binah, women also have a closer natural connection to the shechinah, or the dwelling presence of G-d in the physical world, which itself represents the feminine qualities and values of G-d.

Though it may appear otherwise to many, women actually have a central place in Judaism and in the Jewish home environment. A women is meant to be the akeres habayis (foundation of the home), and while her role may not often be shown to the public, it is much more important than the role of men in our society. This is because the woman is responsible for the education of the children, who represent the next generation of the Jewish community. Without women, then, Judaism itself would fail to continue, and the community would find itself utterly lost. Because the redemption and completion of the world will come through the intense concentration and contemplation of religious life, which are taught primarily by the mothers in Jewish society, it is said that redemption itself will come because of the Jewish woman.

The differences between the outside world and the world of Orthodox Judaism often create many of the misunderstandings that lead to notions of Jewish religious sexism. Because the majority religion in America, and much of the western world, is one that does not include a complete lifestyle driven at every second by detailed religious laws, the services that take place during the week are perceived to be central to the religion. The same, then, is transferred to Judaism, with people expecting the daily services, culminating with the services on Shabbos (the Sabbath), to be the culmination of Jewish religious life and practice. In truth, though, the services were created as a way to induce communal activity and unity for the men, who are in much more of a spiritual struggle. The prayers themselves were created with a careful selection of verses from the Torah, in addition to other prayers written thousands of years ago by sages to force men to shift their concentration from the physical distractions to the spiritual realities of the world. Jewish prayer, then, is a sort of medicine for the male neshama (soul), and communal prayer serves as a sort of required group therapy. When seen from this light, women not often participating in public aspects of Judaism is a sign not of suppression, but of their spiritual elevation.

With this idea of public religious practice in mind, it is understandable why men serve as the spiritual leaders in Judaism. Those men who serve as rabbonim (rabbis) are meant to be men who have attained a piece of spirituality through long learning and struggle, and they then work to help other men achieve the same. If a women were to serve in this role, she would not have the same ability to help men elevate themselves, as she began her life at a higher spiritual level than many men will ever reach, and cannot begin to understand the complexities of the struggles than men face while attempting to overcome their spiritual shortcomings. For a woman to serve as the spiritual leader of a group, then, would mean one of two things: either the men of the community are not at all important (as we are only as strong as our weakest members) or this particular women is herself innately low and has had to struggle to meet her current (somewhat basic) spiritual level.

It is strange, then, that a “rabbi” who reports himself to be Orthodox has given a sort of rabbinic title to a women in his community, who also reports herself to be Orthodox. For the past several weeks, great debate has been going on in the more modern segments of the Orthodox community as to the religious basis and appropriateness of a women serving as a rabbi in the traditional Jewish world. The head rabbi of the religious school and synagogue that have been involved in the controversy is no stranger to Orthodox debate, as many of his previous opinions, comments, and writings have shown him to be on the extreme borders of what constitutes an Orthodox Jew. His latest personal “triumph” is simply the most recent in his long line of acts that call into question what it means to be an Orthodox Jew.

To be sure, women have played important roles as leaders in the Jewish community, specifically with regard to instruction (which has already been noted as the most important aspect of women in the Jewish community). However, in this case, something else must be at work. If she was simply continuing in the long line of Jewish educators that form the next generation of the Jewish community, I wouldn’t expect there to be such pomp and show associated with her addition to the staff at her particular congregation. The recent label of “rabbah” (supposedly the female version of “rabbi”) given to her by the head rabbi at her congregation seems to show the reality of the situation.

As a person of deeper leanings, I find this issue to have the possibility of saying a great deal about the state of the Jewish community today. If the rabbi in question truly felt that it was necessary to have a woman serve in a rabbinic role, and it was not simply a ploy to push the boundaries of Orthodoxy (which seems to have been the purpose of his previous controversial acts), this means that he feels that women (presumably particularly Modern Orthodox women), by virtue of their connection with modern society and the outside world, have come to think of themselves as on par with men in their low state of spirituality. If this is actually the case, and the women in these communities have been spiritually impacted by their closeness and intense involvement in modern society, the solution to the problem is hardly a legitimization of this fact by asserting the need for women in rabbinic roles, but in a reevaluation of just what side Modern Orthodoxy is on: the side of Judaism or the side of the rest of the world.


  1. There is a lot to digest here. I do like what you said, in essence,when the reason for a commandment is help draw us closer to G-d.

    With no disrespect intended, I have thought of the woman as the "weaker vessel" (First letter of the Apostle Peter 3:7) and that it was Eve who was deceived in the Garden. It seems that Adam was not deceived but chose to deliberate join her in her sin against G-d.

    No doubt, man is not complete without a wife. Both men and women have definite G-d given roles in order to accomplish His purpose and to expose His glorious nature and character.

    I will have to look at the Hebrew in respect to "formed" and "built." I do not recall having heard thatg distinction before.

    Lot to chew on and to attempt to digest. Thanks for helping me to think critically.

  2. With regard to Chava (Eve) being the one who was deceived, the whole reason she was (according to Judaism) is that Adam lied to her when he told her the issue regarding the tree. As she was not yet created as an individual entity whenever the command was given to Adam, he was given the responsibility to relay this message to her. As we see from her response to the serpent, he told her that she couldn't even touch the tree (Bereishis/Genesis 3:3, versus 2:17 when the command was given to Adam). As this was not true, the serpent used Adam's own relation of the rules against the woman, and showed her that since the first part of Adam's warning didn't take place, the second part probably wouldn't also. Therefore, it isn't so simple to say that she was deceived because of her own shortcomings.

  3. May I pose a two questions? Genesis 2:17 does not include a command not to touch the tree of knowledge, that I see, however:

    1) Could G-d on any other occassion of "walking in the garden in the cool of the day" have told either or both Adam and Eve to not touch the tree in further instructions?

    2) Is it not an asumption that Adam told Eve not to touch the tree? Could she not have advanced that statement on her own?

    I do think ultimately the fault lies with Adam. He was responsible for her.

    What I find interesting is it doesn't seem that Eve ate the fruit while the serpent was talking to her. It seems the serpent planted the seed for his disobedience, then when she and Adam were out togeher (Genesis 3:6) she took the fruit and ate it and then gave it to Adam who was with her the text says and he ate.

    I struggle with the idea that Adam "lied" to Eve. How would he know how to do that? It seems that they didn't know good nor evil at that time.

    Of course I struggle with the disobedience of both of them. Why didn't Adam knock the fruit out of her hand? Why did he let her eat it? Why did he eat it?

    I do not dispute the fact that Adam may very well have added to what G-d had said when he gave her the instructions. I have never crossed the idea that he may have "lied."

    Thank you for causing me to think on this.

  4. The imagery of G-d "walking" is clearly metaphoric, as G-d is not bound by physicality. The command to not eat from the tree was given as a form of revelation, and as G-d does not change, there would not be a "new revelation" to add to what was originally commanded. The notion that Adam relayed a more stringent command to Eve is one that has tradition going back to sages who received tradition that came directly from Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses), and was not just "assumed" by some random person at some point in time. As far as Eve being the one who added the addition to the command, this is clearly possible as well. It is a second interpretation of the verse that is given legitimacy by the Sages.
    I'm not sure why it is more difficult to believe that Adam would think to "lie" without "knowing the difference between good and evil," but it is not difficult to think that Eve herself would think to transgress a Divine commandment without "knowing the difference between good and evil." Both lying and transgressing the Divine will are wrong by our standards, but did Adam and Eve have any command regarding lying or telling the truth? The commentators explain that the reason why the text says, "they knew that they were naked" is because they realized that they were lacking in the single command that they had been given.

  5. Yes this is alot to think on. Shows how G-D gives us choices in life sometimes we make good choices and sometimes we make wrong choices. But whatever we choose we learn a lesson. Some are hard lessons some are life learning lessons. We are children and we tend to put ourselves in the way and make our path harder to stay on. Thanks and Love Ya Mom