Pride, Prejudice and Perfection

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Shabbat Candle Lighting
11 May 2011

As a post-script to Mother’s Day, and given today’s cultural manifestation of the Orthodox Jewish “superwoman”, what do King Solomon and Jane Austen have in common? Well, how about the following bit of repartee from Pride and Prejudice:

Darcy: “I cannot boast of knowing more than half-a-dozen (women), in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.”

Elizabeth: “You must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman.”

Darcy: “Yes, I do comprehend a great deal in it.”

Caroline: “Oh! certainly…no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.”

Darcy: “All this she must possess…and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

Elizabeth: “I am no longer surprised at your knowing ONLY six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing ANY.”

Elizabeth Bennet’s wonderment sounds awfully familiar to Proverbs, “A Woman of Valor Who Can Find?”. No wonder there, Ms. Austen, whose father was a clergyman, would most likely have been acquainted with those words.

In any case, it was Mrs.Yael Weil who pulled the dialogue from one of English literature’s most beloved classics and used it as an unexpected introduction to her workshop, “How Perfect Must a Woman Be? In Search of the Real Eishet Chayil” (OU’s One Day Conference on Jewish Life). Mrs. Weil, who happens to be the OU Executive Vice President’s Woman of Valor, is also the mother of a large family and an experienced professional educator, so she knows her subject well.

Considering the stress and pressure that today’s women feel, the workshop’s title poses a question that’s on the minds of many. Not only are orthodox Jewish women expected to be virtuous daughters, wives, and mothers who possess the culinary skills of a Cordon Bleu graduate (a souffle by any other name would still be a kugel), they’re also required to polish it off with a career or two. This has nothing to do with a husband who may be in kollel or graduate school, because even if he’s the primary breadwinner, the cost of day school tuition alone can provoke the need for a dual income.

Added to all that is balabusta-ism’s gold standard, the Eishet Chayil. Who needs post-it notes as a reminder? Every Friday evening, families gather around the Sabbath table and sing King Solomon’s description of Jewish Wonder Woman. I wonder how many Wonder Women are constantly wondering which attributes they can lay claim to and which ones they fall short on.

Which is why, after all this time, it was a relief to hear Mrs. Weil’s extensive analysis of Eishet Chayil, based on Midrash. King Solomon had not been describing one “perfect” woman, rather he had been describing how each one of our historical role models (Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, so on and so forth…) had contributed in her own unique way to the precious values that Jewish heritage holds in such high esteem.

No one woman did it all and no one woman is expected to; King Solomon and Mr. Darcy don’t really have that much in common as it turns out. While Darcy “comprehends a great deal” in his idea of an accomplished woman, our wise leader comprehended that each individual woman should be held in high regard no matter what her particular talents or strengths may be. And contrary to popular culture, beauty and charm aren’t part of the value system.

So relax, all you Jewish Wonder Women out there, because you are all truly wonderful! And too bad for Hallmark Cards, FTD Florists and Godiva Chocolates. Mother’s Day only shows up on the secular calendar once a year. On the Jewish calendar, we believe the “balabusta” deserves recognition at least once a week.

To listen to Rebbetzin Yael Weil shiur, please visit: How Perfect Must a Woman Be? In Search of the Real Eishet Chayil

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