“Extol Her for the Fruit of Her Hand”: An Alternative Perspective on Female Leadership

As the drive for formal women’s religious leadership continues to manifest itself with greater force and momentum in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community, one senses an opportunity. Here is a chance to celebrate women, to show how we value contemporary women’s voices and perspectives, as well as unsung female leaders of the past who influenced the course of Jewish history both directly and indirectly. Yet, instead of this movement for female leadership expanding our collective sense of the many forms leadership can take, we are asked to view events through the paradigm of victory or frustration: a woman has been assigned this or that position, or such a position has been denied or declared off limits. These milestones may in fact have some significance, but there is also something retrograde about a religious conversation that places so much stock in the acquisition of titles and authority. Although great leaders are identified and praised in the Jewish tradition, most of them male and some female as well, in many cases their authority is interrogated, critiqued and ultimately viewed as besides the point. In stark contrast to the epic heroes of other traditions, Jewish heroes, even as they achieve external greatness, are praised for their humility and devotion to God. Some may say, first give a woman a seat at the table, and then we can begin the conversation about the quality or texture of her particular leadership. Or some might contend that female Jewish leaders would not be prone to the same foibles that plague traditional male authorities, rendering our tradition’s critiques of those foibles irrelevant. Yet, the ways in  which we discuss this issue as a community matter, and a singular focus on giving women greater formal authority, even within the realm of Torah, is profoundly lacking from a religious point of view.

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Sabbath Rest

Sabbath-Ruhe auf der Gasse,  1866, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim
Sabbath-Ruhe auf der Gasse (Daniel Moritz Oppenheim, 1866)

This painting, by 19th century German Jewish painter Daniel Moritz Oppenheim, depicts a Jewish family relaxing on a Shabbat afternoon. While the patriarch of the family sits at the center of the tableau, the light in the painting shines on the two women who are reading. There is no way to tell what the women are reading, but art historians assume that the older woman in the foreground is reading a traditional Jewish tome, perhaps a siddur, or the Tzena u’Rena, while the younger woman in the rear is immersed in a contemporary German novel. It’s this assumption, as well as the inscription “1789” above the door mantel, that leads the Jewish Museum catalogue to say the following about the painting :

“Grandmother, hair covered, reads a traditional prayer book for women.  Through the doorway symbolically leading to the future, her modern, bareheaded granddaughter enjoys the latest novel…”

“Seemingly peaceful, this scene harbors dynamic undercurrents.  It honors a political revolution and contains seeds of feminist action.”

While the museum chooses to focus on the discord present in the painting, I am struck by the continuity between the young woman reading a novel, and her perhaps more religious counterpart. Their bodies are hunched in similar positions, and they also share a look of intense absorption that distinguishes them from the rest of their family. Together they present a vision of the Jewish Sabbath that is both vibrant and serene, their absorption in texts is a dynamic alternative to both political action and actual slumber. I suspect that Oppenheim leaves the question of whether they are reading sacred or secular texts intentionally open, it is the act of reading itself that seems to define their experience of the Sabbath. Despite the winds of change that are alluded to in the painting, there is the possibility that this is one tradition that will endure.