From ‘eshet hayil’ to ‘isha hashuva’

The contemporary traditional Jewish woman has achieved a new identity, and it behooves us to apply new terms to reflect the current reality.

Women of the Wall prayers at Western Wall370 (photo credit: Hadas Parush)
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.
“Eshet 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 hayil’ speech.”
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.
In my 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 Kotel.
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 provocateurs.
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 self-determination.
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.