(פִּיהָ פָּתְחָה בְחָכְמָה וְתוֹרַת־חֶסֶד עַל־לְשׁוֹנָהּ (משלי לא:כו
She opens her mouth with wisdom, the Torah of Chesed is her language (Proverbs 31:26)
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A recent news article tells of a Montreal orthodox synagogue, in a revolutionary and highly controversial move, hiring a woman in a clergy role. While this is, indeed, welcome news, the fact that it is news at all, in other words that it’s still newsworthy that a woman be recognized as being qualified to fill this kind of role in an orthodox community, is both sad and exciting. It’s sad in that movement in this direction has been so long in coming, but it’s exciting in that this glacially-paced change presages an even more radical and long-awaited transformation in reality.
Historically, most women’s lives were comprised of the cycle of pregnant, nursing, pregnant, nursing, pregnant, nursing….. often ending in early death. Only when our physical world progressed, mainly in terms of science, medicine and hygiene, did many women have realistic opportunities to actively pursue other goals. When that began to happen, the orthodox world should have immediately embraced the opportunity learn as much as possible of those realities which are not part of male perception and experience. Unfortunately, this opportunity was not merely missed, it was rejected. This was, and remains, a tragedy similar to but much greater than the rejection of the ancient spiritual wisdom of our fellow Jews from Ethiopia and, even earlier, from Yemen. It’s heartening to see, albeit slowly, this tragedy reversing. (Hopefully we’ll eventually open ourselves to these other traditions as well.)
There’s a beautiful Shabbat custom which, unfortunately, is often performed without any awareness at all of the meaning behind it. And, worse, it’s increasingly being eliminated by many contemporary observant folks in the mistaken cause of egalitarianism. It goes like this: One of the two challot (special Shabbat loaves), the nicer and fuller of the two, is lightly scored with a knife, designating it as the feminine one. In the evening, it’s held under the other, masculine, challah. At lunch, however, the fuller, scored challah is held above. The symbolism, and the actual progress we both mime and, to an unknown degree, we actually bring into reality, is the rising of the Shechina, the Feminine Divine Presence, also referred to as the Sefira, holy emanation, of מלכות, Malchut, Kingship (Malchut is also the actual material world we consciously function in). Each Shabbat we both re-enact this motion and bring our world closer to the rebalancing of the masculine and feminine.
The quotation that heads this article is familiar to many as a verse from the Shabbat song, Eishet Chayil, often translated A Woman of Valor. While on the surface this song seems to praise the woman of the house, it’s really much deeper and is a verbal/chant technique to unite the highest Sefira, כתר, Keter, Crown, and the lowest, מלכות, Malchut, Kingship, integrating the spiritual realm into a holistic unity, representing the ultimate, rectified reality to which all Creation is aimed .
The verse itself reveals a necessary step in our journey. We men are instructed to change our vision of a woman’s mouth from only an object of sensual desire to the portal of wisdom. In other words, our ultimate goal will only begin to be reached when we’re able to see a woman’s mouth as more than something to kiss, but also as something to seriously listen to.