This essay starts on a personal note.
I heard the sad news a few days ago of the passing of a person I have known and loved virtually all of my life, “Auntie” Miriam Elias ע"ה. She was truly a remarkable human being – one might have called her a “Renaissance Woman” – as she excelled in so many different areas. She was first and foremost an educator and teacher of thousands of students over her long career. She was also an extremely gifted and prolific artist, a published author of many books, and a scholar who was the first student at the famed seminary in Gateshead. In short, she was a role model and trailblazer for many women, using her rare combination of wisdom, grace, and spunky sense of fun to light up the lives of all who had the privilege of knowing her. I could go on and write a whole hesped and full description of how sorely she will be missed . . . but that is not the point of this essay.
Rather, I was moved to write this essay by the obituary that was printed upon her death in matzav.com, a Chareidi website. I will not recount the entire obituary here, but it was fairly typical of many hespedim and obituaries that I have read and heard in the Chareidi world over the years. Here is a synopsis:
“It is with great sadness that we report the passing of Mrs. Miriam Elias a”h . . .Mrs. Elias was the devoted wife of Rav Joseph Elias zt”l, renowned mechanech, noted author, and . . . one of this generation’s most distinguished mechanchim . . . serving at the forefront of chinuch in America for the last 70 years . . . [He] was principal at . . .Mrs. Elias was a true eizer kenegdo, supporting Rav Elias as he devoted his heart and mind all his life the chinuch of Klal Yisroel‘s children, authoring many bestselling works, most notably the classic ArtScroll Haggadah … It was thanks to the wisdom and support of Mrs. Elias that Rav Elias remained fully engaged … She was a true aishes chayil, a picture of royalty and a role model for bnos Yisroel. . .Mrs. Elias leaves behind a family of talmidei chachomim and marbitzei Torah. . . Yehi zichrah baruch.
As if there was basically nothing worthy of mentioning about this great woman except that she was the devoted wife of a great man and mother of terrific children, which of course is wonderful.
And yet . . .
(To be fair, an obituary that appeared in HaModia did cite more of her own accomplishments, although (in my opinion), it was more about her role as her husband's wife than about herself. It was written by S. Cohen, about whom I know nothing except that she is a woman, or her first name would have been cited.)
At the funeral, various speakers (besides her children, who spoke beautifully and movingly) extolled some of her other virtues, and Baruch Hashem she was given a fitting tribute. But I write today not because of my personal kvetch that she was slighted in the published obituary. I write because that obituary is symptomatic of many such statements that I have heard about women over the years. For some reason, and almost without exception, when women are written or talked about at all, it is almost always in their roles as wives, mothers, and enablers, having played a role in the accomplishments of their husbands (and in producing daughters who have done the same.) It is rare – very rare – that a woman is celebrated for her own accomplishments and for the impact that she made on the world in her own right. The only such woman whom I can think of who was thus properly appreciated in recent years was Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky zt”l, and even for her, the first facts that are usually cited are that she was the daughter of Rav Elyahsiv זצ"ל and yebodel l’Chaim, the wife of Rav Chaim Kanievsky שליט"א. Great women and their accomplishments are mostly unknown.
I know that some will have already raised their eyebrows at the sentiments expressed thus far. Regular readers of my rantings perhaps did not take me seriously when I wrote recently that I consider myself a feminist; they might now assume that I have gone off the deep end. But I am quite resolute in my opinion that women ought to get a lot more equality in our communities, and that we should not be content with extolling platitudes that claim we honor women more than men, and that women are at a higher spiritual place than men, and so on. If we want women, especially young women, to feel truly valued in traditional roles in our community, then we need to back up that talk with actions that show that we take this seriously. This is true not only in equal pay for equal work, and equal opportunities for promotion and advancement, but in truly equal valuation of the wonderful accomplishments of those women who have led lives of excellence, and are paragons of tzidkus, achievement, and true worth.
There is much discussion recently over the propriety of granting semicha to women; about the legitimacy of Maharats and partnership minyanim, and even about toanot and yoatzot Halacha. Without discussing these, it is clear to me that they signal a deep desire, among many women, to give expression to their talent, ability, and longing to make their mark in the world and to live a life of significant accomplishment.
Clearly the traditional model is, and remains, that the greatest goal of a Jewish woman ought to be the building of a Jewish home – a home in which she creates an atmosphere of warmth, love, and Torah values that will produce wonderful children who are Yir'ei Shamayim, together with a mutually supportive husband. That is and should be her greatest desire.
But then again, that should also be the greatest desire of a Jewish man.
And yet, men are encouraged and celebrated for achieving additional great goals, while too often, women are not. While it certainly true that the woman is the “Akeret HaBayit” and that many women might be perfectly content to have their homes and families be their exclusive focus (and may they be blessed to be able to do so), many others want to accomplish other great goals as well, and not be hidden away from any public acclaim.
Perhaps if more young women would see that the traditional Jewish community gave them great opportunities for achievement and recognition in roles that are well within our Mesorah – of being not only great wives and mothers, but as educators, artists, writers, scholars, doctors, business professionals, therapists, scientists, attorneys, and so on – who create Kiddush Hashem by the way they conduct themselves with integrity, dignity, professionalism, and kindness, they would be less eager to seek non-traditional public Jewish roles that too often lead away from a respect for our Mesorah and great Tamidei Chachomim. It surely is time that the more right leaning segments of our community recognize the reality that more and more young women are engaged in pursuits that – while completely honoring the ways of their mothers and grandmothers – are different than what was available in previous generations, due to our rapidly changing world, and that they should be honored for doing so in the proper way.
On Tisha B’Av we will all be called upon, once again, to consider why is it that we cannot seem to shake off the plague of sinat chinom that has dogged us for thousands of years. I believe that part of it is undoubtedly caused when people justifiably feel that they have not received the honor that they are due, and begin to resent that others do not value their efforts and accomplishments. It is, of course, not only women, but all too often it could be anyone that does not share my hashkafah (worldview) or particular values; we find it too easy to write such people off and give them the respect that they genuinely deserve. Perhaps this area is one piece that we might consider in bringing greater harmony and less machloket in our community.
Certainly. let us look forward to a time that our women will deservedly be celebrated for their achievements, as the verse concludes :
תְּנוּ לָהּ מִפְּרִי יָדֶיהָ וִיהַלְלוּהָ בַשְּׁעָרִים מַעֲשֶֹיהָ
Give her of the fruit of her hands,
and her deeds will praise her in the gates