A Woman’s Place, In and Out of the Tent

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19 Mar 2018

I happened to notice that last week, the 26th of Adar, was the yahrzeit of Sarah Schenirer, the founder of Bais Yaakov. I didn’t go to Bais Yaakov, but my mother did, and if the light in her eyes when she told stories about her school and principal weren’t enough to instill me with an appreciation for the institution, the fact that she named me after its founder would certainly have made me feel a connection. (“And also for your great-great-grandmother, Sarah – but really for Sarah Schenirer.”) My parents both placed a huge emphasis on the value of education, particularly Jewish education and particularly for girls. (Which made sense, as they had three girls to educate and no boys.) I inhaled those values throughout my childhood, taking pride in my namesake, but my personal appreciation for Sarah Schenirer’s role in working towards those values didn’t really develop until I was 18.

In preparation for a trip to Poland with a group of participants from a number of American post-high school girls’ schools, I was assigned to learn the first three chapters of Mishlei in preparation for a siyum Tanach at the site of the first Bais Yaakov. I was also honored to be asked to give one of three divrei Torah for the occasion. I was to speak on Neviim, and naturally gravitated towards the story of Devorah and Yael. As I learned my assigned section and investigated my chosen topic, apparently unrelated to each other, I found ideas coalescing that linked the ideal of tznius (modesty) and the quality of binah (understanding) – two characteristics our traditional texts often relate specifically to women – and that offered insight into the actions of almost every major heroine in Tanach as well as, I believe, Sarah Schenirer.

What does it mean to be tzanua? One common approach is expressed by a midrash on Bereishit 18:9, when Avraham’s visitors ask “Where is Sarah, your wife?” As quoted by Rashi in the second of three explanations, “The angels knew where our mother, Sarah, was [i.e. in the tent]; rather, [they asked] to make known that she was tznu’a, in order to endear her to her husband.” Somehow, I don’t remember learning the other two explanations in school, but this one definitely made an impression. Many of us are taught that modesty for women is exemplified, metaphorically and perhaps literally, by Sarah as portrayed in this midrash: the demure woman remaining passively in the home, in the background. Never mind that Rashi doesn’t actually say this is an ideal, but only that Avraham [within the societal norms of his time] would have found it endearing; somehow, this model of modest femininity seems often to be presumed as both a description of how our foremothers always lived and a prescription for us to emulate.

But there is a problem with that picture, because when I read Tanach, I don’t see my female ancestors and heroines remaining passively in the background. While it could certainly be that women in Biblical times functioned primarily in the privacy of their own homes, that is rarely what is highlighted by Tanach or Midrashic tradition. On the contrary, time after time we hear stories of women who step out of the tent, metaphorically and/or physically. They are not passive, but active: they see problems that perhaps have been overlooked by the men in their lives, and they do what they must to address the situation.

Sarah, for instance, is the one to observe to her husband, “Behold, G-d is stopping me from having children” (Bereishit 16:2) – Enough of this, Avraham! Let’s do something! She suggests that Avraham marry Hagar, that they be active rather than passive in anticipating fulfillment of G-d’s promise that he would father a great nation. And then later, when it has become clear that Yitzchak is the true heir, she is the one to realize, and insist, that Yishmael must go. In the next generation, we find that Rivka went behind her husband’s back, taking decisive action to make sure the right son would get the right blessing: she perceived a problem and acted to solve it. Rachel, according to one midrashic version, actually hid under her sister’s marital bed to answer Yaakov so he wouldn’t recognize Leah’s voice and know he had been tricked (Eicha Rabbah Petichta 24) – and does anyone condemn that lapse of modesty, or are we taught to honor her sacrifice in putting her sister’s shame above her own interests? Miriam, little Miriam, took it upon herself to leave home and go stand watch over her baby brother, and even spoke up with unsolicited advice to the princess herself. Miriam also had the chutzpah (and I mean that in the best way possible), according to various midrashim, to speak up to her father when she believed he was doing something wrong: Father, what you’re doing is worse than Pharaoh! (Sotah 12a)

These women didn’t just remain in the background while the men made the big decisions and took the important actions. Even if they did usually remain “in the tent,” they stepped up and spoke out, often in surprising ways, when they saw a situation that needed it.

One of my favorite examples is in the story I chose to speak about in Poland.  Devorah is introduced in Shoftim 4:4 as “a woman, prophetess… she judged Israel at that time”: though such a public leadership role was not typical for women, at that historical moment she was exactly the judge Israel needed. At the same time, she is described in midrashim as having conducted herself with the utmost propriety, making sure not to be secluded with men (Megillah 14a). Because what we really learn from all these stories is that acting outside the home is not, in fact, in and of itself a divergence from any ideal modest femininity; there is no requirement to remain always “in the tent.” Devorah’s public leadership was not a deficiency in her modesty, but the role she was meant to play in a thoroughly appropriate, though unusual, way.

As my 18-year-old self considered these stories and these women, and wondered how to balance what I had been taught about modesty, on one hand, with what I saw in our heroines on the other, I was also learning my assigned chapter of Mishlei with Malbim’s commentary. Mishlei 2:9 describes a person coming to “understand (binah) righteousness and justice, meisharim and every good maagal.” It was the second half that really caught my attention. Malbim explains that “meisharim” are the straight (yashar) paths of conduct and are always good, while a maagal is a circuitous path that might sometimes be a divergence from the road but is, at other times, “good” – i.e. a necessary detour in order to ultimately remain on the proper path.

Meisharim, then, might be described as the expected, typical course of proper conduct. One with enough binah, however, understands that sometimes there are obstacles in that path that must be avoided. Sometimes there is a moment with a problem, and even if onlookers don’t see it, even if they will think one is leaving the path and doing something awful, the person who sees the obstacle and has the insight will know that the moment requires stepping aside from the expected and doing something bold.

Devorah expresses this notion when she praises Yael, who killed Sisera and decided the battle conclusively for Bnei Yisrael. “Blessed is Yael… more than women in tents” (Shoftim 5:24, according to many readings). If remaining “in the tent” is really the highest ideal for Jewish women, why would a pasuk in Tanach expressly praise a woman “more than women in tents”? Perhaps because women who simply remain passively and blindly “in the tent,” all the time, are not actually the ideal. Because while some women shine in the realm of the home, most of the time, it is no virtue for a woman with a more public destiny (like Devorah) to remain there, nor for any woman – for any human – to stand back when there is a moment that requires action. Yael is praised, says Radak, “because she was zealous to help G-d… more than other women who sit in tents.” More than women who sit in their tents without that zeal.

The other striking element of Devorah’s praise for Yael is that Yael was a “woman in a tent”: she was literally in a tent at the time, and even used a tent peg to kill Sisera! If we must think of being “in the tent” as a metaphor for female modesty, then we can also perhaps think of Yael as a metaphor for understanding (binah) how to take a maagal without leaving the meishar.

It was very scary, delivering a dvar Torah that was basically about women’s roles to a (relatively) diverse group of young women. I was afraid of implying that women fundamentally belong “in the tent,” and offending the more modern-minded students present; I was simultaneously afraid others would dismiss me as the sort of feminist who doesn’t appreciate the beauty of a woman’s role in the home. Neither side was exactly what I meant. What I wanted to convey was complexity, and balance, and the need to adjust our ideas of “ideal” based on the individual person, place, and circumstances. The moment. As I looked around the group, I was gratified to see a lot of smiles, a lot of nods, as I quoted my sources and offered my thoughts – from students across the spectrum, and even more so from our teachers. The women who had lived something more of life than we had, who were working to balance their interests outside the home with their roles within it, who appreciated the value in both realms. Finding those balances can certainly be a struggle for men as well as women, but women have a particularly long history of being told to be one way, yet often, as I began to see in so many examples from Tanach, doing something else.

And that, of course, brings us back to Sarah Schenirer. Formal Jewish education for girls may not have been typical in her world, but she saw a moment in history that demanded it, and she went ahead and did what she had to do. It may have looked odd to many at the time, but decades later we can appreciate how essential her innovation was to the flourishing of Torah learning and living. Standing at the site of the school she began, I was filled with awe. One woman had the nerve to step off the beaten path and take action, creating something some viewed purely as a divergence from tradition and therefore wrong. She had the binah to realize it was not a divergence, but the only path to maintain our traditions.  Because of that woman, my mother grew up with a love for Torah and a commitment to Jewish education for girls, and because of my mother and that heritage, I have been blessed with many privileges in learning and teaching Torah. Because of all those women, I will teach my children the same.

There is a passage in Bereishit Rabbah (48:15) that explicitly connects Sarah, and other “women in tents” with Yael. There, Chazal assert that women who remain “in the tent,” focused on raising their families, are essential; they “maintain the world.” At the same time, they point out that without Yael, all those women’s efforts would have been for naught; they would all have been destroyed. Both models are the most important; both models sustain the world.

So I will teach my children that everyone is different, that some flourish “in the tent” while others make their biggest contributions outside of it. And I will teach them that whichever path is the right one for them most of the time, they should never be afraid to act when their G-d-given insight tells them there is a bump in the road and they’ll have to take an apparent detour, just for (because of) a moment.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.