By Nurit Siegal
We often think of pious women as being devoted to kindness and charity. The stereotypical religious wife and mother today is a woman who gives tirelessly and unconditionally— a woman who would never dream of saying no to anyone who asks for her help. Yet this image lies in stark contrast to the righteous women of the Old Testament. The core examples of femininity in Jewish thought and scripture are strongly biased towards acts of boundary-setting, unpopular judgments, and difficult choices. Choices which required unimaginable strength to make.
From the perspective of Jewish mysticism, the actions of these women shouldn’t be surprising. In Kabbalah, femininity is associated with the act of judging while masculinity is associated with the act of giving. The male desire to give of himself, to influence, and to expand is complemented by the female desire to maintain boundaries, to strengthen, and to refine.
While it may seem as if the desire to give and the desire to set boundaries are diametrically opposed, one need not negate the other. On the contrary, the best way to understand boundaries is not as a rival to the act of giving but rather as its skillful guardian. Good judgment ensures that one’s time, energy, and resources are cultivated properly.
As the Talmud relates in an analogy: “When a man brings wheat from the field, does he chew raw wheat? When he brings home flax, does he wear unprocessed flax? His wife turns the raw products into bread and clothing.”
Despite the harmony that can be achieved between male and female energies, there also lies a tension we cannot ignore. Boundaries are inherently limiting and, when excessive, can repress and restrict unnecessarily. Understanding when and in what capacity boundaries become beneficial to us requires courage of conviction, skill, and wisdom. Perhaps no one exemplified this better than the matriarchs.
There are four matriarchs, or mothers of the tribes of Israel. These are Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel. Sarah was married to Abraham, Isaac to Rebecca, and Jacob to Leah and Rachel.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the patriarchs of Judaism.
While venerated as pillars of kindness, the matriarchs were also incredibly astute in their judgments of nefarious individuals who tried to harm their families and people.
In the case of Rebecca, for example, the nefarious individual happens to be her own son, Esau. Before Esau and his twin brother, Jacob, are born, Rebecca receives a prophecy that “two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body… And the older shall serve the younger”. Jacob grows to be virtuous, but Esau becomes impulsive and cruel. And while Rebecca sees through Esau, her husband, Isaac, does not. Isaac’s deep desire to give a significant blessing to Esau poses a crisis for Rebecca, who knows that Jacob is destined to become the greater leader.
Understanding when and in what capacity boundaries become beneficial to us requires courage of conviction, skill, and wisdom...No one exemplified this better than the matriarchs
Rebecca decides not to relay the prophecy regarding their sons to Isaac, however. Instead, she makes the difficult choice to outwit Esau, and by extension her husband, by arranging for Jacob to receive the greater blessing from their father, who is nearly blind. Why does Rebecca choose this course of action? The great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, explains, “she reasoned that because of [Isaac’s] love for Esau he will not bless Jacob… And she further knew that by this arrangement of hers, Jacob will be blessed from Isaac’s mouth by an undivided heart and a willing mind”. By arranging for Isaac to bless Jacob unknowingly, she maximizes the power of his blessing to Jacob and diminishes the influence and legacy of Esau.
Rebecca’s judgment of Esau speaks to the deeper role of all the matriarchs. In his renowned work Fear of Isaac, Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner explains that the matriarchs’ purpose was to create a fiercely exclusive environment around them. An environment in which evil suffocated and justice blossomed. The holy women of the Old Testament were strategic in how they came to achieve this, as different situations call for different approaches. Recalling the Talmudic analogy from before, turning wheat into bread requires an entirely different process than turning flax into clothing. The same is true for intrapersonal relationships. When someone is both destructive and deeply egotistical, as Esau was, sheer reason typically cannot persuade them to reflect on their actions. For those with good intentions, it can.
When the Israelites are in Egypt, a young Miriam questions the decree made by her father, Amram, for the Israelites to cease bearing children, lest the boys be killed by Pharoah. But Miriam reveals the flaw in his logic: “Father, your decree is more harsh for the Israelites than that of Pharaoh. Pharaoh decreed only with regard to the males, but you decreed both on the males and on the females.” The Talmud goes on to relate that “Amram accepted his daughter’s words and arose and remarried his wife, and all others who saw this followed his example”. To further secure the future of her people, Miriam takes on her next task: outsmarting Pharaoh alongside her mother to save the Israelite infant boys from death.
In chapter one of Genesis, women are famously described as being a “helpmate.” In Hebrew, the term used is “ezer kenegdo”, connoting a sense of opposition to her husband. What is this verse trying to teach us? The famous commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, explains that when a husband is righteous his wife will support him, but when he stumbles she will challenge him. An illuminating example of this can be found in the story of the wife of Ohn, whose name is not revealed to us. In this lesson, we find Ohn interested in joining Korah’s rebellion against Moses in the desert. While Ohn’s wife knows Korah is wicked, she does not rebuke her husband as we might anticipate. Instead, she appeals to Ohn’s deeper desire for power and validation. “What is the difference to you?” she asks him. “If this Master, Moses, is the great one, you are the student. And if this Master, Korah, is the great one, you are the student.”
Ohn realizes his mistake, but in turning his back against Korah he now requires protection. His wife reassures him and executes an effective plan: The morning Korah’s followers come by Ohn’s tent to gather him for the rebellion, Ohn remains asleep inside while his wife sits outside with her hair uncovered as if preparing herself to bathe, causing Korah’s men to turn away from her. In doing so, Ohn’s wife quite literally becomes the physical boundary with which to protect her husband from Korah’s followers, saving him from the death that awaits them later that day.
We learn from Jewish mysticism that God used both kindness and judgment when He created the universe and humanity. When these two traits complement one another, harmony is achieved. But such a balance can be difficult to attain. There must be a discourse between the masculine and the feminine and, at times, even conflict, so that one does not overshadow the other. Unfettered judgment can be stifling and repressive, while unchecked giving can lead to arrogance and corruption. However, in Judaism, conflict “for the sake of heaven” is sacrosanct. And, as we learn from the matriarchs, despite the challenges that may arise we must be willing to fight for justice and defend what is good. Such is the essence of femininity: To keep out the cold so that the warmth may be nurtured.
“She fears not snow for her household, for her entire household is clothed with scarlet wool,” King Solomon, Woman of Valor.
There must be a discourse between the masculine and the feminine and, at times, even conflict, so that one does not overshadow the other: Siegal