The Superior Intelligence of Women
It is written, “Korach took…with Dathan and Abiram and On the son of Pelet, the offspring of Reuben” (Numbers 16:1).
Rashi states, “Korach took. He took himself to one side to dissociate himself from the congregation and to contest the priesthood.” Rashi points out that the members of the tribe of Reuben, including Dathan, Abiram, and On the son of Pelet, also participated in this rebellion.
We are familiar with the story of On, who agreed with Korach’s idea and participated in the rebellion against Moses regarding Elizaphan, the son of Uzziel. The Sages say that on the day of the rebellion, On the son of Pelet went home and told his wife to wake him up later so he could join Korach’s followers in protesting the authority of Moses. On’s wife was a righteous woman, and she tried to convince him to steer clear of this dispute, asking him what good it did to join the rebellion. When she realized that nothing could convince him, she resorted to action, uncovering her hair and sitting down at the entrance of their tent. When Korach’s followers came looking for On, they found his wife sitting there with her hair uncovered. Hence they immediately turned back, for they could not enter a place where a woman was sitting with her hair uncovered.
This righteous woman succeeded with her plan to save her husband, both spiritually and physically. When he woke up and wanted to join Korach’s rebellion against Moses, she described the evil and bitter end of those who had participated in it. She also told On that his life had been saved, for he was not swallowed by the earth like all the other rebels. From here we see the immense wisdom of On’s wife, who endured humiliation and was willing to lower herself in people’s eyes so as to save her husband from Korach’s rebellion and punishment.
Also with regards to women, it is said that the Jewish people were saved by the merit of righteous women at the time of the Exodus, and likewise their merit will save the Jewish people in the future. Exactly how? At the time of our bondage in Egypt, when Jewish men were enslaved and lost all desire for living, especially the desire to have children, the women would use their mirrors to adorn themselves. When the men returned home after a long day of forced labor, they would see their wives adorned in all their splendor, and they would be drawn to them. In this way the extension of the Jewish people was assured, and the chain of the generations was continued. By the merit of their offering, the basin for the Sanctuary was built using the very same mirrors that had helped them adorn themselves, which proves just to what point G-d appreciated this special act.
Furthermore, the Sages tell us that during the era of the spies, the entire Jewish people went and complained to Moses by saying: “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the desert?” They cried out before Moses and said, “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt,” which means that they preferred a life of suffering and slavery to an uncertain trek across the desert, and they were so immersed in sin that when they complained to Moses, they forgot to mention all the suffering and hardships that they had continuously endured in Egypt. They just mentioned the cucumbers and melons they ate! This time as well, the women maintained their wisdom and did not participate in the complaints of the men. On the contrary, they tried to discourage the men from complaining, for they extolled the virtues of the promised land. In reward for their courage and loyalty to G-d and to Moses His servant, these women survived the epidemic that spread among the people after the sin of the spies.
Scripture records that Yael, following the command of the prophetess Devorah, went out and killed Sisera, an act that saved the entire people. The Torah also stresses that as Abraham converted the men, Sarah converted the women and helped them to fulfill mitzvot. In fact Sarah was so great, Rashi states that when she reached the age of 100, she was as pure and innocent as a girl of 20.
In light of all that has been said, we must ask ourselves why women, despite their tremendous wisdom and lofty spiritual level, are not required to study Torah and are exempt from performing positive, time-based mitzvot. Do such exemptions not make women inferior to men, who have been chosen by G-d to study Torah and thereby give meaning to the world’s creation?
It seems that we must explain this by saying that initially, G-d created the first man in His image, just as He had conceived of him. G-d then put the man to sleep and from his side He fashioned the woman. In fact if G-d had created man and woman at the same time, with both occupying the same level, this symmetry would have created a disruption between them, for we know that two kings cannot wear the same crown.
Looking at this more closely, we see that the entire world was created in the same way – meaning without strict equality – in order to create a balance. For example, certain nations possess resources such as coal or oil that bring them wealth, while other nations have an abundance of water. In such a case, where each nation needs something that the other possesses, an opportunity is created in which various economic links can be established. If every nation was equal in resources and wealth, disorder on a worldwide scale would ensue, threatening a perpetual war for resources.
Some nations are more powerful than others, such as the United States for example (sometimes called the “world’s policeman”), while others are less powerful and need various forms of aid. In exchange, the latter acquiesce to the former and help to maintain order in the world. It is certain that if the world were to be composed of men who were all equal, they would eat each other alive, meaning that there would not be the slightest chance for people to live in peace.
Similarly, within each nation there are rich and poor individuals, white collar workers and blue collar workers. In this way a nation can harmoniously organize itself, for each group participates in the development of the whole. Alternatively, if everyone was wealthy and occupied a high position, nobody would want to dirty their hands or humiliate themselves by sweeping streets and collecting garbage. However when a nation is composed of individuals from different social classes, each class will work in line with its abilities and opportunities, in which case everyone will benefit.
Thus G-d created man at a higher level than woman, for man was created in His image, whereas woman was not created to the same degree of perfection, not as G-d’s flawless handiwork. Instead she was created from man. If man is at a higher level than woman, it is in order for her to know where she stands and to recognize the superiority of her husband, for in this way a life together can be possible. We easily see that if G-d had created man and woman as strict equals, she would have rebelled on account of her difficult role and the yoke that rests on her shoulders, since she is the focal point of the home. Yet from the fact that she recognizes where she stands, a woman can easily accept the role she has been assigned and willingly fulfill her mission in the world. Hence G-d commanded man, not woman, to study Torah. This enables a woman to recognize man’s importance and superiority, as well as for her to be available for her children and her home.
This is why the Sages said, “When husband and wife are worthy, the Shechinah abides with them. When they are not worthy, fire consumes them” (Sotah 17a). The explanation is the following: The letter yud in the word ish (“man”) and the letter hei in the word isha (“woman”) form G-d’s Name, and as such the Shechinah draws closer to them. In fact when a Jewish household lives according to the right guidelines, the Shechinah will descend and dwell there. However if a woman rebels against her husband and is unwilling to fulfill the tasks that are incumbent upon her – or if her husband tries to demonstrate his superiority by acting arrogantly with his wife – the Shechinah will withdraw from the couple and fire will devour them. Indeed, when the yud is removed from ish and the hei is removed from isha, the remaining letters are aleph and shin, forming the word esh – fire!
It is said, “Who is the kosher [upright] woman? She who does her husband’s will.” Why is the term kosher used in this context? Does it mean that if she fails to do her husband’s will, she is called treif – unkosher? Actually, the word kosher symbolizes perfection. A cow, for example, which is permissible to eat, is only called “kosher” after it has been properly slaughtered and checked for any defects (as well as all other Halachah requirements, such as being salted and so on). The word “kosher” therefore refers to a kashering process that is perfect in every detail. Hence a woman who does her husband’s will is described as being “kosher,” for she carries out her husband’s will to perfection.
How does a woman achieve such a degree of respect for her husband and the ability to carry out his will to perfection? It is by the superior intelligence that she possesses, which clears the way for her to make the right decisions in life. Because of this intelligence, she can look deep into her husband’s heart to determine what he wants, in which case she will achieve a level of perfection that is described as “kosher.”
Even during the bondage in Egypt, Jewish women used this priceless gift of theirs. Thanks to their intelligence, they knew how to comfort their husbands and perpetuate the chain of the generations. Likewise during the time of the spies, women recognized that G-d was guiding His people through miracles, and they tried to lead their husbands into seeing their mistakes. That is, they told their husbands that the report of the spies was far from the truth, and that G-d’s goal was to lead them to a land that had everything, a land flowing with milk and honey. Otherwise, they argued, He would not have brought them out of Egypt with a might hand and an outstretched arm, and therefore they had no reason to complain and yearn for the days when they were in Egypt.
Let us return to what we said about the superior intelligence of women. Such intelligence was given to them as compensation for the fact that men occupy a higher level. Due to this special intelligence, women benefit in two ways: First, a woman’s husband appreciates and respects her for this great ability, and second it enables her to do her husband’s will, in which case the description of “kosher” will forever be attached to her name. This intelligence endures in each generation, and because of it the Children of Israel were able to leave Egypt and tear themselves away from the sin of the golden calf, since the women did not want to give their jewelry for its making. It was their husbands who took their jewelry either by force or by deception. Finally, it was through their intelligence that women brought men to recognize their mistake during the time of the spies. The Sages teach that in the future as well, Israel will be delivered by the merit of wise and intelligent women, just as they were delivered from Egypt.
I remember that in Morocco, people used to say that it was through this power that a woman builds her home and helps her husband, and it is also by this power that she can ruin everything as well. In fact superior intelligence was given to a woman in order to help her along the right path, and if she uses it wrongly, she will be headed for disaster.
The Sages took the time and effort to teach us about the behavior of On’s wife so we could realize that when a woman makes good use of her intelligence, her actions will be elevated to an infinitely higher level. In the opposite case, when her intelligence is not oriented in the right direction, it will become an object of destruction in her hands.
Every Jewish man must acknowledge and appreciate a woman’s superior intelligence. As the Sages say in the Gemara: “Honor your wives, that you may be enriched” (Bava Metzia 59a). What is the connection between honoring one’s wife and spiritual and material riches? The answer is that when a woman feels that her husband appreciates and respects her, she will try to do even more for him, for that is her nature: The more she is respected, the harder she works to demonstrate that she is worthy of her husband’s respect. The benefits of such a dynamic in the Jewish home cannot be underestimated. A happy and radiant woman raises her children in peace and tranquilly, guiding them on the right path and giving of herself so that her husband can study Torah. She even provides him with good advice and clearly informs him of their finances.
However when a man feels the need to constantly remind his wife that he is at a higher level because he studies Torah, or because of some other intellectual pursuit, she will then misuse her superior intelligence, and woe to such a home! Rather, a man should tell himself that if his wife had been required to study Torah, she would do better than him due to her greater intelligence. A woman is not required to study Torah because G-d did not want her to completely abrogate the reason for man’s existence by surpassing him in Torah study, as was the case with Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir, a woman to whom the Sages asked the most difficult questions and who was given the exceptional right to don tefillin because of her lofty spiritual level. It is for this reason that G-d did not give women the mitzvah of studying Torah. However in principle, a woman can study Torah, perhaps even more than a man. This means that a man should not boast before her. On the contrary, he should appreciate her because his reward will be twofold on account of her intelligence.
The Torah states, “I will make him a helper against him” (Genesis 2:18). How are we to understand this? Perhaps there exists someone that helps man, yet at the same time is against him? The Sages answer: “If he is worthy, she is a help to him. If he is not worthy, she is against him” (Yebamot 63a). As we said earlier, a woman who enjoys the respect and admiration of her husband thereby becomes a help to him. She then uses her superior intelligence to do good for her husband without limit, not weighing the pros and cons of helping him. However if he fails to show respect for his wife, and if he only demonstrates a sense of arrogant superiority, she will act against him and they will be at war with one another.
Hopefully we all possess the intelligence to use the extraordinary abilities that the Creator gave us in order to establish a Jewish home that is “kosher” and pure, a home in which love, peace, and harmony come together as one. When “a man helps his fellow and encourages his brother,” we will have merited the Final Redemption, speedily and in our days.
- The wife of On saved him from Korach’s rebellion by uncovering her hair and sitting at the entrance of her tent, thereby preventing Korach’s followers from summoning On to their rebellion.
- The Sages say that it is by the merit of Jewish women that Israel was saved in the past, and by their merit Israel will be saved again in the future.
- The Torah mentions the strength of Jewish women in numerous places, such as by the fact that they did not participate in the sin of the golden calf or in the sin of the spies. It also mentions the fortitude of Sarah, who converted women in her time, as well as that of Yael, who killed Sisera and thereby saved her people.
- It is difficult to understand why women are at a lower level than men, since they are exempt from learning Torah and performing other mitzvot. The explanation is the G-d knows that if He had created man and woman as strict equals, they would have been unable to live in peace with one another. He therefore created man in His image, and from man G-d created woman.
- To compensate for this “inferior” position, women receive added intelligence that can guide them in the right path, and thanks to which they will be valued and appreciate by their husbands.
- A man should be extremely careful to demonstrate respect for his wife and not feel superior to her, for had she been obligated to study Torah, it is quite likely that she would have surpassed him.
Concerning man and wife, it is said: “If he is worthy, she is a help to him. If he is not worthy, she is against him.” How are we to understand this discrepancy – that she can help him while being against him at the same time? The explanation is that a woman can actually misuse her superior intelligence, for if her husband fails to respect her, she will place herself against him. However if her husband is concerned about demonstrating how precious she is to him, she will then be his helper. Thus it is written, “When husband and wife are worthy, the Shechinah abides with them. When they are not worthy, fire consumes them