On Jewish Women in Antiquity and Today. Different times, different tactics

Many women regardless of their life or career choices experience challenges that are unique to their gender.
To be sure, men have their own unique challenges, but over the history of mankind women’s challenges were largely overlooked, or at least were not detailed in stories or historic accounts just because the majority of learned and “important” people and writers were men.

Jewish history gives us ample opportunities to relate to many Jewish historical female figures in times of their rise to fame and their unique ways of overcoming obstacles, and using different tactics to achieve their goals, be they personal or communal.
In many cases these tactics had to include sexual appeal as the only ‘weapon of choice’ the woman was able to use.

Thankfully, the uniquely feminine side of חכמה (wisdom) was present at the crucial times for our heroines.

Esther, for example, appears at the right time in the right place against her own will. One doesn’t know if she was taken to the palace by being dragged there, or simply wasn’t asked about her wishes like any other girl in the Persian Empire. After attaining the top position as a queen, she finds herself between a hammer and an anvil facing death either as a Jew or as a person disobeying king’s decree. Yet, she has enough composure and willpower to recognize that at that crucial moment, she is no longer in total control of her uncle, but has at least some power. And therefore, after Mordechai’s explicit request to

לָב֨וֹא אֶל־הַמֶּ֧לֶךְ לְהִֽתְחַנֶּן־ל֛וֹ וּלְבַקֵּ֥שׁ מִלְּפָנָ֖יו עַל־עַמָּֽהּ
go to the king to beg him for mercy and to ask from him for your nation, she devises a plan that is although dangerous, has a chance to succeed.

While she invites her husband with his powerful vizier to her feast, she is pushing all the right buttons having observed the character of her husband, Ahashverosh closely, realizing as RASHI points out that

מָה רָאֲתָה אֶסְתֵּר שֶׁזִּמְּנָה אֶת הָמָן כְּדֵי לְקַנְאוֹ בַּמֶּלֶךְ וּבַשָּׂרִים, שֶׁהַמֶּלֶךְ יַחְשֹׁב שֶׁהוּא חוֹשֵׁק  אֵלֶיהָ וְיַהַרְגֶנּוּ
What Esther saw/perceived when she invited Haman was that he would be envied by the king and his ministers, and that the king would think that (Haman) was her lover, and that he would kill them.

So, she was ready to sacrifice her own life, but not without desired result – saving of her people.

Yael is another woman who was apparently ready to sacrifice her life, or at least her honor/womanhood for the sake of people not even her own.

Presumably, Yael knew about all kinds of atrocities Sisera’s army perpetrated on the local Jewish population. Whatever her motivation was for her actions, it is hard to imagine that she was on friendly terms with the general. However, as a man of war, an all-powerful warrior, he may not have even thought for a second that a woman would outsmart him, and he was sure that whatever he asked for would be done.

Just like Esther, to achieve her goal, Yael had to hide her intentions, and in her case, if we agree with the Rabbis in Yevamot, submit to his will to exhaust him and remove every trace of suspicion.

R.Yohanan said: seven (times) that wicked (man) (had) intercourse (with Yael) on that day.
As it says: “Between her legs he sank, he fell he laid down between her legs, sank, fell, there (where he) sank on his knees, there he fell exhausted.     Yevamot 103a קג        
אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: שֶׁבַע בְּעִילוֹת בָּעַל אוֹתוֹ רָשָׁע בְּאוֹתוֹ הַיּוֹם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״בֵּין רַגְלֶיהָ כָּרַע נָפַל שָׁכָב בֵּין רַגְלֶיהָ כָּרַע נָפָל בַּאֲשֶׁר כָּרַע שָׁם נָפַל שָׁדוּד״..
He requested water: Which is to say – understand the wisdom of Yael: Because Sisera asked for water, and she gave him milk – as it is written above (Judges 4:19), “and she opened a pouch of milk and gave him to drink.” And that was in order to bring him to sleep.   Metzudat David on Judges 5:25:1מַים שאַל. רצה לומר, הֵבינו חֹכְמַתַה של יעל כי סיסרא בִקֵש מים, והיא נתנַה לו חַלב, כמו שכתוב לְמַעלַה “ותְפְתַח את נאֹד הַחלב ותַשְקהוּ” וזהו בכדֵי להַביא עַלַיו תַרְדֵמַה

Both Esther and Yael realize that their sexuality and their women’s wit are the only two ways that can be used to find a solution that they are looking for.

By contract, Devorah is presented to us as a force of her own, accorded respect and honor as a judge and prophet.

We are not explicitly told that she was a married woman, although some say that she was indeed the wife of Barak/Lapidot and merited to become a prophet because of her good deeds raising her husband up.

Deborah as it is written explicitly: “And Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth” (Judges 4:4).
What is the meaning of “the wife of Lappidoth”? The Gemara answers: Because she used to make wicks for the Temple, and due to the flames [lappidot] on these wicks she was called the wife of Lappidoth, literally, a woman of flames. Megillah 14a:16
דְּבוֹרָה, דִּכְתִיב: ״וּדְבוֹרָה אִשָּׁה נְבִיאָה אֵשֶׁת לַפִּידוֹת״,
מַאי ״אֵשֶׁת לַפִּידוֹת״?
 שֶׁהָיְתָה עוֹשָׂה פְּתִילוֹת לַמִּקְדָּש  

On the other hand, she may have been such a fiery character that she was called a ‘torch/lightning woman’

I want to say, woman of valor, quick in her deeds, like a torch, and this a matter of description – that is what the people said Metzudat David on Judges 4:4אשת לפידות. רצה לומר, אשת חיל, זריזה במעשיה כלפיד אש, והוא עִנְיַן מֵליצַה, וכאשר יאמרו הבריות:  

Here is a woman that was not reduced to devising elaborate schemes in order to achieve her goal – in this case a victory over an oppressing enemy. She was completely within her right and understanding of how to proceed from the start.

Our sages praise her, and yet some criticize her for being ‘too arrogant’, and it is a sharp criticism when we are told that even the prophecy departed from her

If he is a prophet, his prophesy is taken from him from Deborah, as it is written: “The villagers ceased, they ceased in Israel, until I, Deborah, arose, I arose a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7). For these words of self-glorification, Deborah was punished with a loss of her prophetic spirit, as it is written later that it was necessary to say to her: “Awake, awake, Deborah; awake, awake, utter a song” (Judges 5:12), because her prophecy had left her. Psahim 66bאִם נָבִיא הוּא נְבוּאָתוֹ מִסְתַּלֶּקֶת מִמֶּנּוּ
מִדְּבוֹרָה, דִּכְתִיב: ״חָדְלוּ פְרָזוֹן בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל חָדֵלּוּ עַד שַׁקַּמְתִּי דְּבוֹרָה שַׁקַּמְתִּי אֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל וְגוֹ׳״, וּכְתִיב: ״עוּרִי עוּרִי דְּבוֹרָה עוּרִי עוּרִי דַּבְּרִי שִׁיר וְגוֹ׳״  

It seems to be that on the one hand the men writing most of the stories were trying to glorify women for their modest (womanly) behavior and even for the cases of submission to an evil man’s will for the sake of people.
On the other hand, women that make their positions known as Deborah and Hulda, for example, are frowned upon even as they are glorified. One wonders if the society is ever going to be ready to accept a woman as an individual whose wit, knowledge and leadership is remote from her gender. I am also wondering if this is even a desired outcome.

This story is all about gender, and not at all about gender to paraphrase Rabbi Steven Exler pointed out lately at a learning event I attended.

Maybe the reason our Rabbis go to such length at describing these disturbing stories where women play the main roles is not only their inability to grasp the woman-warrior character, but their deeper understanding of the human relationships. These stories may serve as cautionary tales to women and men showing on the one hand that if a man is not rising to the occasion, a woman certainly will as ‘a mother in Israel’ and on the other hand – that if a woman is pushed to step into the man’s shoes, she might lose something of herself by giving everything to the cause.

Our world was created with two distinct approaches to life – male and female. It is clear that the woman’s position was always more precarious than man’s because of natural factors that make a man a stronger physical being.

However, we live in an age when physical strength matters less, and intellectual and spiritual abilities more.
If we as a society are able to build a structure where woman’s sexuality is used only when she wants to use it in a relationship that is intimately meaningful for her, and not as a weapon or means of achieving her goal whether noble like in the case of the women we discussed or ulterior, we will be able to afford each individual the respect and honor they deserve based on merit and nothing else.

Whether this ideal is ever achievable is questionable, but we are not free to desist from the task.


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