Women of the Wall prayers at Western Wall370.
(photo credit: Hadas Parush)
The contemporary traditional Jewish woman has achieved a new identity, and it
behooves us to apply new terms to reflect the current reality.
hayil,” a “woman of valor,” is the famous Jewish term co-opted from the Book of
Proverb’s many-versed description for the industrious and capable Jewish woman.
In many observant circles, eshet hayil is limited to describing the married
woman who builds a strong and loving Jewish home for her family. She is
appreciated by her husband and children as the bulwark of the home, the akeret
habayit, who oversees the family’s daily logistics and spiritual wellbeing in
equal parts. While the original meaning, as understood in its narrower textual
context, may have implied accomplishments outside of the domestic, that’s not
what the term means now.
I was reminded of this at my son’s bar mitzva
last week. As my husband gave public thanks for my work pulling together the
complicated event, a well-meaning friend whispered in my ear, “Here’s the ‘eshet
To be considered such a woman is high praise indeed,
family being the lynchpin of Jewish life. The home must be maintained with
abundant care, warmth and concern.
However, given the particular confines
of today’s colloquialism, the term falls frustratingly short of fully describing
the modern Jewish traditional woman. That is why we should be co-opting a
different idiom, this one rabbinic, to communicate her more complex role: the
isha hashuva (“woman of consequence”).
Hundreds of references throughout
the corpus of rabbinic literature discuss the isha hashuva. Depending on the
context, this broad term can encompass various meanings, among them a woman of
scholarship, bearing, acknowledged public importance, or wealth. An isha hashuva
is respected – regardless of her marital circumstance – as a dignified person
who has proven competence outside of the domestic sphere.
We need to move
beyond the limits of the eshet hayil to accommodate the many contemporary Jewish
women who are independent thinkers, Torah scholars and leaders.
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mother’s generation, the proud eshet hayil would turn to her husband to address
a halachic question. Today, the isha hashuva can research the topic as well as
most men with commensurate resources and backgrounds. She often has enough
substantial Torah education to be consulted on many issues herself. I have so
many Orthodox Jewish female colleagues and friends who are accomplished and
proven Torah scholars, public servants, physicians, lawyers, and professionals
of all stripes. They are all women of consequence – indeed, all women nowadays
are such, proclaims the Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserles), quoting the Baalei
Hatosafot (medieval commentators).
Tomorrow, conflict at the Kotel is
forecasted to usher in the new month of Elul. For the past several months, the
prayer service of Women of the Wall (WoW), a liberal women’s prayer group that
has been meeting for nearly 25 years, has been disrupted by the newly-founded
Women for the Wall, dedicated to the preservation of traditional prayer at the
Their clash forebodes a significant setback to all of the nashim
hashuvot who champion common sense and moderation, who respect each other’s
dignity and right to approach the Divine in the way they have determined for
themselves to be correct.
Sacred spaces have been desecrated by women who
have foolishly shifted focus away from urgent and necessary conversations on
important issues that affect us all, such as the agunah crisis, abuse in our
communities and families, and the deep chasms in our society. Their obdurate
efforts to channel national focus on the small-minded issue that they personally
deem so critical sabotage and shame us all, and have galvanized thoughtful
people everywhere to distance themselves from association with either group of
In the Talmud (Tractate Pesachim), the isha hashuva is
commanded to lean along with the men while drinking her four cups of wine at the
Passover Seder. She is not to demonstrate subjugation, but freedom and
The time has come for all neshei hayil to claim the
title isha hashuva and to let our thoughtful and independent voices be heard
loudly in the Jewish marketplace of ideas.The writer is a founding
member of Chochmat Nashim.
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