Too many Jewish women …view Judaism and their place in the Jewish community through the lenses of Western culture.
In the closing session of a semester-long course on the Megillot, I challenged my class to respond to excerpts from an article published in the 1970s which promoted the notion that Queen Esther is an anachronistic role model for the modern Jewish woman. Crudely restating the thesis of the article, I pointed out to my students that while we praise Mordechai for his intransigence, for his bold refusal to kow-tow to Haman, even at the risk of death for himself and other Jews throughout the Persian Empire, we unfairly condemn the same tenacity and pride when expressed by Vashti. The behavior so laudable in a male is deemed unseemly in a female. In contrast, the model of Esther reinforces quiet submission and blind obedience. Even at her greatest moment, Esther relies on subtle manipulation through seductive wiles as opposed to straightforward protest and persuasion.
Initially dumbfounded by the iconoclastic suggestion that a contemporary young woman might prefer to masquerade as Queen Vashti rather than Queen Esther, my students rapidly found their bearings and voices, and began a vocal defense of Megillat Esther and its implied message to Jewish women. I interrupted the free-wheeling and rather noisy protestations by continuing my stance as Devil’s Advocate, and extended the “attack” on Megillat Ruth as well. I posited that Ruth’s self-effacement and servitude are character traits inappropriate to an era in which women have finally begun to gain public recognition and positions of leadership. Thus, I suggested, the two books of the Tanach named for women promote role models that seem out-of-touch with the feminist agenda. The response to this “attack” was even more vociferous and vehement — much to my amusement and delight.
My class consisted of a divergent group of students of varying backgrounds and ages. Unlike the bulk of my teaching, which is directed at college-age women who have completed 12 years of day-school education, and have spent at least one year in a seminary in Israel, this particular course was offered in the Extension Division of our college, which is open to the Jewish community at large. While some of the participants were clearly mainstream members of the observant community and evidenced the knowledge and skills expected from a yeshivah education, an equal number were more versed in Western literature and culture than in Judaic lore. Yet, it was the “newcomers” to Torah learning who were most offended by the denigration of Ruth and Esther as role models in the post-feminist era.
One of my students, a middle-aged woman who is a professor of the arts in a prestigious university, noted that the premise of my argumentation (howsoever tongue-in-cheek) was that individualism is the highest value. She pointed out that feminism is nothing more than the logical extension of individualism, and that both share the same ethic. She correctly noted that at the core of our discussion are the underlying assumptions about critical issues such as what is a good person, who is a valued member of the community, and how one defines oneself. As a woman who had grown up under the guidance of wholly secular Jewish parents, whose identity embraced no religious practice and even less meaning, as one who came from the “outside” and was “looking in” she had the perspective to delineate and differentiate between the Weltanschauung of the Tanach, and the world-view of the feminist critic. This student, as so many others, opened my eyes to a clearer understanding of the problem.
The “problem” is that too many Jewish women, regardless of their professed affiliation and observance commitment, view Judaism and their place within the Jewish community through the lenses of Western culture. Their manner of thinking, their social conventions and aesthetic tastes, their scales for valuing are colored, consciously and unconsciously, by the pervasive culture in which they live. And while it is undoubtedly true that Jews in galut (both physical and spiritual) are pushed and pulled by the lures and demands of disparate and often incompatible cultures, the problem of achieving a coherent sense of self in the maelstrom is exacerbated when the lines in the kulturkampf become blurred.
In the increasingly “comfortable” galut in which we live, where the definition of “us” and “them” can no longer rely on external barriers and blatant persecution, the blurring of cultural lines can lead either to the synthesis which the “Torah u’Madda” proponents had envisioned, or to a sterile hybrid — a shatnez, if you will. There are elements of Western civilization which can readily be woven into the fabric of Judaic life, elements which do not come under the rubric of “u’bechukoteihem lo teleichu” [see Leviticus 18:3: “Do not follow their normative conventions”]. On the other hand, there are subtle strains from the “practices of the Canaanite and the practices of the Egyptian” that easily invade the way Jews live and think, and malignantly erode the nucleus of the Judaic value structure.
One of the more pernicious “viruses” that has taken hold in modern society is the concept of self-interest as a criterion for not only economic decision-making, but ironically as a gauge for ethical decisions. Indeed, the use of self-interest as a hallowed litmus test is the common denominator that has rendered contemporary ethics an oxymoron; and it is the common denominator that unites radical capitalism with materialistic socialism in their interpretation of human and social behavior as a struggle for survival. While socialism promulgates the sacrifice of the individual for the survival of the many, capitalism — and particularly the American version — sanctions the freedom of the individual over all other interests. When that standard of self-interest is coupled with the notion of the individual as a self-contained and self-sufficient entity, the mixture is an ascerbic toxin that eats away at the very heart of Judaic/Biblical thought.
While the integrity of the individual, the freedom of his choice and the responsibility each bears for those choices, are central elements of Judaic thought, it is also true that Jewish ethics presupposes from the beginning that “lo tov heyot ha’adam levado” [“It is not good that man is alone.”](Genesis 2:18). Without elaborating on the exegetical interpretation of that statement, it serves as a keystone in Judaic ethics, and is echoed in the dialectics of Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for me, who is for me; and when I am for myself, what am I?” For one immersed in Western culture, understanding this keystone requires a conceptual restructuring of the self, and redefinition of virtue.
Aside from specific behavioral imperatives (mitzvot) that guide the Jew’s day-to-day behavior, the Torah provides some moral principles in overarching statements such as, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), which serve in not only making moral/religious demands but also in crystallizing an interpretation of human nature. In this manner, the Torah asserts the Divinity of our souls, the power of human will and the awesome and holy responsibility of the Jew. As part of that responsibility, the Jew — male or female — sees himself as an irreplaceable, essential partner to the Creator in perfecting this world and in redeeming humankind.
Judaism broadens our sense of self. The individual’s identity — and hence, her self-interest — is not circumscribed by her body-space. In a more particularistic scale, each individual sees her identity linked in a family chain reaching from the present into the distant past and into the future. She, and what she is, is bound to her home, her community, her city, etc. Her children, indeed her people, depend on her for survival. Whether one sees these as chains of bondage, or of love and life, depends on the spiritual world-view one embraces.
For such a person, who understands that “If I am only for myself, what am I?” ethical choices and day-to-day behavior are circumscribed on what is good for us. Ethical virtue — “hatov v’hayashar” — is contingent on an understanding that all of our behavior has implications for others, both in the present and the future; religious ethics — “hatov v’hayashar b’einai Hashem” (Deuteronomy 12:28) — is contingent upon searching for God’s will and submitting to it.
In this light, my students came to understand why Esther and Ruth are not only appropriate role-models of heroic behavior, but that in their self-effacement and self-sacrifice they are imitating Hashem to perfection.
Esther M. Shkop, Ph.D., is the Dean of the Anne M. Blitstein Institute for Women of Hebrew Theological College in Chicago, and is Associate Professor of Bible.