When the time arrived for the appointment of the first king of Israel - Saul - the Bible describes a divinely orchestrated series of events that led to his coronation (I Samuel 9). The donkeys of Kish, Saul's father, went missing and Kish asked his son to seek them together with one of his servants. Saul and his companion undertook a long search; their quest, however, bore no fruit and Saul was prepared to return empty-handed to his father.
Before returning, the attendant suggested a last attempt: "Behold now, there is in this city a person of God and he is an honorable person, all that he says is sure to come true. Now let us go there, perhaps he can show us our way that we should go."
After some coaxing, Saul agreed, and as they neared the city, they met girls going to draw water: "Is the seer here?" they enquired.
The girls responded: "He is. Behold he is before you; make haste now for today he came to the city, for the people are making a sacrifice today at the high place. When you come into the city you will find him, before he goes up to the high place to eat, for the people will not eat until he comes, because he blesses the sacrifice and afterwards those that are invited eat. Now go up, for about this time you will find him."
This long-winded answer intrigued the sages (B. Berachot 48b): Was such a lengthy response necessary? The Talmud presents three explanations for their drawn-out answer. First the Talmud suggests that women are generally chatterboxes; the girls were merely gossiping and there is no deeper meaning to be sought in the biblical exchange.
While this approach may offend modern sensibilities, it certainly goes against the grain of our understanding of the Bible where every passage contains some lesson.
A second approach explains that the girls wanted to gaze at the striking appearance of Saul. Indeed, the biblical verse describes Saul's physical features: From his shoulders up, he was taller than any of the people. As Saul's most prominent feature, his height was conspicuous at his coronation (I Samuel 10:23). Seeing this handsome man before them, the girls sought to detain Saul by engaging him in conversation.
This explains why the girls' lengthy response is recorded: It is part of the biblical description of Saul's eye-catching appearance, which is an integral part of the narrative. Alas, it still does not paint a positive view of women who are merely interesting by external appearances. In fact, a later midrashic compilation records a somewhat forceful rejection of this approach (Yalkut Shimoni, Samuel 108): "If this is your approach, then you have relegated the daughters of Israel to the level of harlots!"
The two approaches as to whether the girls delighted in Saul's beauty give rise to conflicting opinions in Jewish law as to the propriety of women looking at men. The issue is relevant in various contemporary scenarios: Can a mother supervise her son at a swimming pool during time set aside for men's swimming? Is it appropriate for a female photographer to photograph men?
The Talmud does not seem to condemn the girls, merely recording their conduct in neutral language. The Midrash, on the other hand, clearly deems women watching men as inappropriate. Thus the Midrash renders the law: "Just as men should not feast their eyes on women whom they are not permitted to be with, so too women should not feast their eyes on men who are not theirs." The symmetry expressed by the Midrash is taken up by later sources. The work of the medieval German pietists, Sefer Hassidim, states that just as a man should not listen to a woman's voice, so too a woman should not listen to a man's voice, adding that whatever is forbidden to a man is also forbidden to a woman.
Similarly the 13th-century Spanish work Sefer Hahinuch takes an egalitarian position asserting that women should not muse on men, other than their husbands. This path - states Sefer Hahinuch - is appropriate for upstanding Jewish girls.
Conversely, many halachists, following the rules of halachic decision-making, have opted for the position of the Talmud over that of the Midrash. Thus, for instance, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (born 1920, Baghdad) has written that women not looking at men is classified as a humra (stringency) rather than the requirement of the law.
Besides the halachic implications, the two renditions are commentaries on female physiological attraction. It is therefore unsurprising that our male sages expressed differing opinions on the matter.
Returning to our sages' discussion, a third approach is also suggested in both the Talmud and the Midrash: The delay was divinely arranged because the reign of one ruler does not encroach upon the reign of another, even by a hair's breadth. At that time the leader of the Jewish people was Samuel the prophet, who served as judge. At this meeting of Samuel and Saul, the mantle of leadership was to pass to Saul, who was to be appointed as the first king of Israel. Samuel's responsibilities, however, were as yet not completed and the time for the propitious meeting had not arrived. The Almighty placed a lengthy response in the mouth of the girls so that the encounter would occur at exactly the designated moment.
This approach is refreshing: Even if the girls were chatterers, even if they were intent on gazing at Saul's beauty, their actions were not for naught. While the girls may have been unaware, they were in fact fulfilling a God-determined role; the invisible divine hand was guiding every move, so that the first sovereign of Israel would be anointed at exactly the right place, at exactly the right time. Indeed the thrust of the entire biblical account with the lost donkeys seems to fit this approach.
We all - women and men - have a role to play in the divine plan, even if we are unaware of this destiny.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.