The Status and Greatness of Women
It is said concerning Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the defender of Israel, that he once ordered his servant to buy him some beer from Jews in Berditchev on the day before Passover. His servant could not believe his ears, since beer contains chametz. How could anyone buy beer from a Jew on the day before Passover, especially at the command of the Rav! However since the words of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak constituted his orders, he went and knocked at the door of a Jew and asked him if he had some beer to sell. He replied clearly and without ambiguity, “We don’t have any beer on the eve of Passover.” When the servant heard this answer, he went from house to house asking for beer. Wherever he went, however, he received the same reply. He therefore returned to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak empty-handed.
The Rav addressed his servant once again, giving him a new order: “Go and purchase a large quantity of tobacco for me, as much as you can carry.” This seemed like a mysterious request to the servant, for the tobacco trade was outlawed in the region, and given the punishment that awaited those who broke the law, who would dare risk it? However since the Rabbi had given him an order, the servant immediately left for a new round of house calls in Berditchev, but this time to its non-Jewish residents. Not long afterwards, he returned carrying some carefully concealed bundles of tobacco, hidden from the prying eyes of the authorities.
The Rabbi looked at the bundles of tobacco, and with a smile of satisfaction on his face he raised his eyes to Heaven and said: “Sovereign of the universe, who is like Your people Israel? A fearsome and powerful Czar now rules the people, controlling judges and policemen, guards and prisons, and yet when he decides that selling tobacco is a crime against the state, do any of his citizens obey him?
“Your people Israel have neither judges nor policemen, soldiers nor courts, guards nor prisons, and yet because it is written in Your holy Torah that chametz must not be seen or found on Passover, You will not find the least bit of chametz among any Jew, for we could not find beer in even a single home within the city. Such is the uniqueness of the Jewish people, for although they have no supervision, they observe Torah mitzvot.”
I thought to myself that we find this same attribute among women. They constitute the essential part of the home, being responsible for everything pertaining to family purity and the integrity of the household, and who conduct themselves discreetly and with the utmost privacy. The very fact that women are completely entrusted to uphold their role by scrupulously observing Halachot – although nobody can truly know if they have observed them in every detail – demonstrates the importance and the greatness of women. It also demonstrates the tremendous honor and respect that is granted to them.
In the last few years, we have seen feminist movements sprouting like mushrooms, movements advocating equal rights for women. They loudly proclaim in every ear that the time has come for all women to feel equal to men. Just as men can assume important positions that demand special talents and great intelligence, women can imitate them and also take leadership roles without being seen as strange birds that have no business being there.
We must ask ourselves why the sounds of these feminist movements have suddenly begun to make themselves heard. What has happened in the past few years to push women into emerging from the privacy of their homes to hear these cries? It seems that this has happened because we have lost the deep sense of respect that we owe to Jewish women and mothers, who raise their children at home with devotion and unbounded love. This respect is disappearing, and all the foundations of the home have become shaken and warped, for whoever consults books of Torah and Halachah immediately senses the great respect and esteem that they demonstrate for women. Yet during these last generations, many among our people have turned their backs on our ancestral traditions, thereby losing the correct perspective on the status of Jewish women.
A home managed by husband and wife is like a government. Just as a government cannot have two leaders at the same time, a home cannot function properly with two people in charge who want to fulfill the same role. When a woman wants to imitate her husband in terms of strength and talents, the home is already doomed to fail. We know the Midrash in which the Sages state that during the first six days of Creation, the Holy One, blessed be He, created the sun and the moon as being equal in size. The moon asked Hashem, “Can two kings wear the same crown?” In other words, how can the sun and moon be of equal size and strength? There needs to be a hierarchy in place in order to govern the world, with the greater above the lesser. The Holy One, blessed be He, immediately reduced the size of the moon, telling it: “You were the one who questioned My creation, so your punishment will be to be made smaller.” However since Hashem agreed with the moon’s argument that two kings cannot wear the same crown, He gave the moon the hosts of heaven in the form of the stars. We must note that Hashem’s anger with the moon was not directed against what it said, for the moon had a valid point, but against the way that it had dared to question His creation.
In fact for a government to function properly, it needs both a minister of domestic affairs and a minister of foreign affairs, the two being selected according to their particular talents and characteristics. As for a minister of foreign affairs, we appoint a person who has ties with leaders of other countries, someone who is skilled in languages and diplomacy. As for a minister of domestic affairs, we appoint a person who is competent in dealing with the needs of cities and their inhabitants, and who knows how to maintain good ties with mayors. We need a wise and intelligent individual who knows how to run local economies. Without a doubt, in cases where the state relies on both two ministers at the same time, they should not hesitate to help one another, realizing that each needs the other.
It is exactly the same in a marriage: When spouses see their relationship as being like two people vying for the same role – like two people trying to be the head of one government – their relationship is doomed to fail from the start. Yet when each spouse recognizes their individual role and is aware of their status, they can be assured of success.
In looking at this more closely, we see that a husband’s role in the home is like a minister of foreign affairs. He is to supervise what happens outside the home, which is why the Holy One, blessed be He, created his body and soul in perfect harmony with this role. A man’s body is strong and robust; he has a deep voice, and although he seldom speaks, he speaks with authority. He also has a bolder character than a woman, and he is more stubborn as well. These characteristics make a man better-suited to act outside the home, to shoulder the responsibility of putting food on the table, and to fight when the nest is at risk.
On the other hand, a woman’s body and her character traits are fashioned in keeping with the kinds of activities that take place within the home. Her body is delicate, her voice soft. She speaks at length, but gently, and she possesses a refined esthetic sense. Her character is such that she takes more things into consideration, and she is more sensible, more pliable, and better prepared for change. All these factors make a woman better-suited for the role of a minister of domestic affairs in the home. She is better able to raise children with patience and unbounded love, and to contribute to a warm and loving environment in the home. She also possesses special flexibility and a tendency to forgo he own opinions for the sake of her husband, which promotes greater peace in the home and the creation of a strong relationship between husband and wife.
Male and female characteristics resemble those of animals in nature. In looking at the animal world, we immediately see that the Creator has given carnivores two eyes located at the front of their head, giving them the ability to spot their prey and pursue it until caught. Animals that are destined to serve as food for larger animals, however, have received eyes located at the side of their head, enabling them to see what is happening around them and to flee from danger.
When we begin from the premise that created beings were given characteristics that best suit them for their tasks, life becomes much easier to understand, for everyone is familiar with their own talents and that of the other. They do not try to imitate others or take their place, for everyone has received the characteristics and talents that best suit them for their respective tasks. Just as fish do not desire wings like birds, since their role is to live in the water and not in the sky, a woman should rejoice in her role and recognize her status and greatness.
Likewise, we can compare the relationship between husband and wife to that of eating utensils. It is obvious that the function of a knife is to cut food, while the function of a spoon is to hold food and carry it to the mouth. True, food can be cut with a spoon and carried to the mouth with a knife, but only with great effort. However this is not the normal way of doing things, so why would people eat in such a complicated manner when they can do so in a calmer and simpler way? Just as this example is clear and uncontestable, the same applies to the division of tasks within the home and to the role of each spouse.
Just as the function of a knife is to cut, a knife will sometimes need a fork to help with the cutting. Likewise we can understand that a husband may sometimes need his wife’s help to put food on the table, in which case she should do what he asks. For his part, the husband should also be open to the needs of the household and lend a helping hand whenever necessary, just as ministers of domestic and foreign affairs hasten to help one another in times of need, or when eating utensils need to be used in concert with one another.
Concerning a woman of valor we read: “She will be blessed by women in the tent” (Judges 5:24). This clearly teaches us that, first and foremost, she has the great merit of raising her children in joy and love, without protesting or trying to change her role. As we mentioned at the outset of this article, the fact that the Torah has appointed women to supervise the education of children, as well as to preserve the holiness and purity of the home, demonstrates the tremendous importance and greatness of women.