I saw a fantastic meme the other day: “When I say I want a biblical wife…
What people think I mean: I want a wife who is passive and subservient.
What I really mean: I want a wife who is totally willing to drive a tent spike into a tyrant’s head should the opportunity arise.”
What really made this “pop” for me is the comment by someone named Ariel Hardy, “If you can’t handle me at my Judges 4-5, you don’t deserve me at my Proverbs 31.”
Obviously, this is an inside joke for feminist Bible scholars and clergy, so let me explain. Judges 4-5 refers to the passage where Yael, wife of Heber the Kenite, drives a tent peg into the head of a sleeping Canaanite general, winning a battle for the Israelites, led by the prophetess Deborah.
Proverbs 31 refers to the biblical poem Eishet Chayil, or a Woman of Valor, recited at the funerals of righteous Jewish women and, in Orthodox households, at the Shabbat dinner table. It begins:
“A woman of valor, who can find?
Her worth is far beyond that of rubies.
Her husband puts his confidence in her,
And lacks no good thing.
She is good to him, never bad,
All the days of her life.”
Having spent four years attending Hillel Shabbat dinners at Brandeis University, which boasted a large Orthodox population, I became quite familiar with the melody, though not so much with the text. I had a vague sense that it was patriarchal and unfeminist. It wasn’t until my first year of rabbinical school that I took the opportunity to really study it. And it didn’t say what I expected it to say.
The woman described in Proverbs 31 may be “clothed in linen and purple,” but she is no shrinking violet. She cares for her family and her household, of course. She is also a seamstress, a vintner, a businesswoman and a philanthropist. While her husband is prominent and well-respected in the community, she is also known for her strength, wisdom, and generosity. Her life is a fulfillment of my weekly blessing for our Religious School students: she is strong, wise, and kind…. And busy.
“She girds herself with strength,
And performs her tasks with vigor.
She seesthat her business thrives;
Her lamp never goes out at night.
She sets her hand to the distaff;
Her fingers work the spindle.
She gives generously to the poor;
Her hands are stretched out to the needy.”
Even more interesting to me than the poem itself is its use at the Shabbat table. In many traditional households, Eishet Chayil is recited to the woman of the house by her spouse and children, partially in gratitude for the beautiful Shabbat meal she is about to serve, and also in recognition of all of the work she does throughout the week to keep the household running.
As much as I appreciate the idea of recognizing the emotional labor of running a household, I don’t love how the ritual reinforces traditional gender roles.
Some households balance this custom by reciting Psalm 112 in honor of the man of the house:
“Blessed is the man who is loyal to G-d, who greatly delights in the Eternal One’s commandments!
His descendants will be honored in the land: the generation of the upright will be blessed.
His household prospers, and his righteousness endures forever.”
One egalitarian prayer book created a patchwork of biblical verses that honor both men and woman, while contemporary liturgist Marcia Falk creates an ungendered hymn to partnership based on passages from Song of Songs.
“One partner: How fine
you are, my love.
How fine you are.
The other partner: How fine
are you, my love.
What joy is ours.
Together: Of all pleasure
Is the taste of love.”
But after months studying this hymn and all its variations, I realized that if we truly want to modernize this custom, we must expand our definitions of love, partnership, and family, so that everyone who is present at our table—literally and metaphorically—can be recognized and appreciated for their contributions to our lives. In doing so, we also need to recognize that everyone’s table looks different, and that there are many different types of relationships that are worthy of praise.
What would it look like if words of praise and gratitude passed not only between romantic partners, or between parents and children, but also teachers and students, mentors and mentees, siblings, neighbors, and best friends? What would it look like to say “thank you” even to the people who play supporting roles in our daily lives?
Back when we used to have Shabbat meals together as a community, in the place where one might recite Eishet Chayil, I would encourage people to turn to their family members and say, “You’re awesome.” I now realize that even this left some people out in the cold, people like me who often come to synagogue alone. What might it look like if we created a blessing for the people who sit next to us—physically or virtually—when we are gathered as a community?
There’s a big love holiday coming up next week in the secular world, and most of the time, I resist it. Each year my mom and I have an argument about it. I believe it’s a silly made up holiday designed to make us buy more stuff. My mom believes that we should take every opportunity that we can to tell the people in our lives that we love them.
Honestly, we’re both right. But no matter how we view these customs, I hope that we will consider the larger constellations of love, friendship, and chosen family that enrich our lives. And when we do, I hope we will find the words we need to offer praise and gratitude to all the ones we love.
Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz