Grandmother of Valor

Rav Moshe Aharon Stern, zt”l, explains that determining who has attained true greatness is no simple matter. “There is no middle way when dealing with the absolute truth. Either something is true or it is false. But how can one tell if someone is truly G-d fearing and whether he is a true scholar? We find an answer in an aggadata brought on today’s daf. In Niddah 33, we learn that when Rav Pappa visited a certain city and wished to determine whether there was a G-d fearing scholar to be found there, he addressed his question to a certain grandmother who resided in that place. He asked, ‘Is there a talmid chacham in this city?’ She immediately replied that there was. ‘There is a talmid chacham called Rav Shmuel. If only I could be like him!’

“Rav Pappa thought to himself, ‘Since she blesses herself to be like him, he obviously has yir’as shamayim.’ One may wonder why he chose to rely on this woman’s reply, of all the people of the town. We can understand this in light of a different statement recorded in the name of the sages. In Berachos we find that women tend to understand the true character of their guests more than men. G-d created women with a special sense to recognize falsehood immediately. This is why Rav Pappa asked a grandmother. He wanted a true answer and figured that, in that town, his best chance of getting one was from a woman!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Women’s Intuition”
Niddah 33

While you may assign little reliability to this commentary, I think there may be some truth in it. In this age of “everyone has to be equal,” we tend to interpret that statement as “everyone has to be the same.” Of course, there are obvious physical differences between men and women but even those are coming under scrutiny and being discounted as “not that different.” For instance, this recent article published at The Good Men Project, a website that supposedly gives us a “glimpse of what enlightened masculinity might look like in the 21st century,” (according to their About Us page) seems to say that “masculinity” can only be “enlightened” by “confessing” that men and women are almost completely alike, with only minor differences in mental, emotional, and physical structure and functioning.

Please understand that I’m not promoting sexism or exploitation of women by men in framing my comments this way. Quite the opposite. I’m saying that men and women can and should have equal opportunity to resources and be treated with equal honor and respect, but that doesn’t mean men and women have absolutely no intrinsic differences.

However, in the viewpoint of Christianity, Paul may appear to muddy the waters just a little bit.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. –Galatians 3:28 (ESV)

In certain areas of Christianity, the phrase “neither Jew nor Greek” (with “Greek” often interpreted to mean “Gentile” or “non-Jewish person”) seems to indicate that whatever roles, functions, and covenant differences that once existed between the Jewish and non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah were eliminated because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But did Paul also mean that the roles and functional differences between males and females were also eliminated?

Probably not, since in context we see that Paul is referring to different groups having equal access to being “Abraham’s offsprings” through the promise of Christ. Slaves were still slaves, freemen were still free, men were still men, and women were still women. It is interesting to note that since Paul declared both men and women having equal access to the “resource” of Christ, he may appear to be somewhat “feminist” in his approach to the men and women of his day.

That’s not how the Bible usually depicts him.

Derek Leman recently posted an article on this blog called, Now a Non-Jewish Messianic Female Rabbi/Pastor. This topic has spawned a lively discussion in the comments section about the nature of the rights of women in the early first century church. The rights and restrictions applied to women in the church today seem to hinge on whether we see the letters of Paul as eternal truths or as contextually limited instructions to specific groups. According to a series of Leman’s comments on his blog, he supports the latter interpretation.

You learned from your background to read the Epistles like unchanging halakhah. Guess what? They’re not. They are specific advice to specific congregations and in particular situations. There … is … no … unchanging … law … against … female … leaders.

(1) Letters from apostles to congregations do not establish new timeless commandments.

(2) Female leadership was accepted in Israel and by the apostles (Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia, Philip’s daughters).

(3) Apostolic instructions for various congregations are not uniform because there is no one model of congregational structure that is a pattern in heaven (an absolute divinely commanded model).

Okay, let’s start with your understanding of the epistles. You think they are new Torah establishing new timeless laws which must be followed for all time, right? I said they are not. I said they are letters about specific congregations in specific places and times.

So, step 1. Is there a law before Paul write 1 Timothy (and/or 1 Corinthians) that women may not have leadership? Please tell me where it is.

Step 2. So I am supposed to believe that God waited until one of Paul’s later writings before revealing a new commandment: woman, thou shalt not teach or have leadership?

Step 3. If you say that the letters of the apostles are timeless commandments, how do you understand numerous scriptures like: 2 Tim 4:13; 2 John 10; 1 Cor 7:8; 1 Cor 7:26-27 (are we still in that “present distress” Paul mentioned?); 1 Cor 11:5 (it means a veil over the face, not a hat); etc.

Step 4. Tell me how the epistles “command” a congregation to be structured. What must the leadership structure be? Are the various letters consistent?

Step 5. Or you could come to realize epistles are not “new Torahs” but advice usually based on Torah and the teaching of Yeshua to specific congregations in particular situations. We no longer live in a world where slavery is widespread (in the West, I mean); so 1 Cor 7:21 makes a little less sense now. There are no bad connotations for women not wearing veils in our society (so no Messianic or Christian burkhas necessary). So we should read epistles differently, as applications of Torah and Messiah to specific situations. We can learn from the way these were applied to specific situations. But, back to 1 Timothy 2, how do we justify the idea that God was laying down a new commandment here? Is this the way God gives commandments? Or is it more reasonable to assume this is something that fit the situation of Paul’s congregations in Paul’s time?

I’m not sure how this debate is going to turn out and my goal for this “meditation” isn’t to “join the fray.” I only want to show how devisive the issue of the role of women in the church and synagogue remains in the arena of religion.

Now let’s move one step backward from this debate and take a look at two related viewpoints of women in Judaism. The first is from Proverbs 31:10-31 which describes “the woman who fears the Lord.” This is the basis for the other related perspective of women in Judaism, referred to as Eishet Chayil or “Woman of Valor,” which is a blessing typically sung in Jewish homes on Erev Shabbat.

The English translation of the first part of the song says:

A Woman of Valor, who can find? She is more precious than corals.
Her husband places his trust in her and profits only thereby.
She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.
She seeks out wool and flax and cheerfully does the work of her hands.

This may not fit your picture of a completely liberated, self-actualized, feminist woman of the 21st century, but we do see that Judaism has a history of honoring and valuing women within the community. That “valuation” may have become distorted over time, relative to the history of patriarchal rule we find in both traditional Christianity and Judaism, but I think we should re-examine those assumptions. Regardless of your views about whether a woman should teach men or should lead a congregation, we have ample enough evidence to believe that women tend to be more sensitive to the needs of the family and community, including their spiritual needs.

When I regularly attended a congregation, I couldn’t count the number of women who would come to services bringing their children and, in some cases, grandchildren with them because they wanted the children to honor God, while their “men-folk” remained at home or were off doing some chore or playing some sport. Of course, this isn’t universally true, but the anecdotal evidence is so ubiquitous that it has become cliche. A classic example of this phenomenon on the web is the Spiritually Unequal Marriage blog, which provides a forum for Christian women to interact and share their experiences being married to men who don’t share their faith.

In a way, this seems to lead us back to our “story off the daf” and the grandmother who could immediately identify the most “God-fearing scholar” in her town. Consider that the fellow she identified might not have had the reputation of being the most “God-fearing scholar” in the eyes of the town’s populace, but even someone humble and unassuming in his piety wouldn’t escape the detection of a true “woman of valor,” especially one who has lived many years, raised children and grandchildren, and has the experience and wisdom to see past the surface of a man and into his heart.

The differences between men and women go all the way back to Genesis and reflect the design of God for each of us. While human beings have imposed different roles, responsibilities, and restrictions onto males and females over human societial and cultural history, I believe there is something that God programmed and hardwired into humanity that serves to define us as men and women. Modern secular, progressive thought sees sex differences (as opposed to gender differences, which can become much more complicated) as socially imposed and with those impositions removed, imagines that men and women are not only be equal but hemogenous, and exhibit few if any differences.

While I believe (I state this again for clarity) that men and women should have equal access to resources in society and have been designed under Heaven to have equal access to God, that equality doesn’t presuppose or require homogenization. Replacing “him” and “her” with “it” neither elevates women in a social and cultural context nor reflects the true honor of women as originally established by God.

Differences aren’t bad and being different doesn’t mean you are unequal. It can mean that you are special and have a purpose to fulfill that cannot be accomplished by anyone else.

Sometimes only a grandmother can tell you where to find a talmid chacham in her town.

5 thoughts on “Grandmother of Valor”

  1. Excellent post, James. I am married to a homeschooling mom, a stay-at-home woman whose career is our eight children. I love the choice our family has made, but I wouldn’t dictate to others that they must follow our example. It is a calling and I could give young couples twenty reasons why the calling my wife has chosen to follow is excellent. But I won’t make it into a law or rule. Meanwhile, those who take 1 Timothy 2 as a new commandment of Torah (“woman, teacheth not but be silent”) are constantly running into contradictions of their belief in religious life. Gifted women in the synagogue and church do end up teaching, whether formally or informally. They write books. They speak. The speak up in study groups and at community events. All the while the no-women people pretend this is consistent with their beliefs. But if we would read the Bible with attention to what it is about, we would not need this charade. Apostolic letters are not new Torah. People need a better method of reading. I have suggested Scot McKnight’s book The Blue Parakeet as a starting place for better understanding. MJ readers may need to bear with McKnight in a few of his statements about the Torah (we shouldn’t expect Christian theologians to understand our POV about Torah in this broken world). But there is much wisdom in his book about avoiding hypocrisy in our reading of the Bible.

  2. Thanks for dropping by, Derek. I agree that there are many different options available to families of faith, including the one you and your wife chose. Occasionally women who work outside the home give stay at home mom’s a tough time, but to be fair, my wife (who stopped working outside the home when our daughter was born but returned to work when all three of our kids started elementary school) has been the victim of a few homeschooling moms who said she failed the needs of our children, so sadly, just about anyone can play the “I’m superior” card. I’m hoping my little missive opens a few hearts in the world of religion.

    I posted this mainly to show that men and women can and are wired and programmed differently by out Creator but that “different” doesn’t mean “inferior”. In a lot of ways, women (most of them, anyway) have a much greater spiritual sensitivity than men. The first person who taught me to look at the Old Testament as “Torah” (sorry, but I can’t think of any other way to say it) was a woman. Suddenly, Abraham and Sarah came alive to me as real human beings rather than just characters in a “Bible story.” That casts the Bible in an entirely different light when you realize that it’s a story about God’s interactions with real people instead of ‘spiritual giants.’

    I’m sure the wisdom of many grandmothers is a great or greater as some of our latter-day sages.

  3. Hi Kittii,

    I tend not to have a lot of time for videos, but I’ve heard of the Women of the Wall and am aware that Orthodox Judaism is struggling with the issue of women desiring to study and take on some of the mitzvot that traditionally have been reserved for men. Messianic Judaism, for the most part, is somewhat more accepting of women in those arenas while Christianity is a “mixed-bag” as far as how to treat women, depending on denomination.

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