Women of Valor: an Evolving Role Model
JWA has an enlightening poster series dedicated to 16 women tagged as Women of Valor. The exhibit introduces itself explaining, “Women of Valor recognizes and highlights the lives and accomplishments of sixteen trailblazing Jewish women, each of whom had the courage and conviction to overcome the social, cultural, and religious barriers she faced in creating a more just and equitable world.”
The exhibit has me thinking—about the concept of valor, about the traditional hymn, and about whom we might tag as contemporary Women of Valor.
The word itself, valor, can be defined as personal bravery—when I think of valor I think of someone who not only speaks, but also acts with a just intent, who is able to keep the needs of others in perspective to her own needs, and is dedicated to improving the world in both small and large ways. But, valor hasn’t always held this connotation in traditional Jewish Biblical literature. To understand how we define women of valor we must first take a look back at where the phrase originated.
Woman of Valor, or Eishet Chayil in Hebrew, is a hymn that rounds out the book of Proverbs. The poem speaks of a woman of valor as one who is strong and righteous—and also capable of keeping a good, Jewish household. A husband traditionally sung the hymn to his wife, with the words “her husband's heart relies on her and he shall lack no fortune,” speaking to the importance of having a capable wife to care for the household.
I’ve had a few personal experiences with the traditional hymn, all of which have given me cause to stop and think. When my grandmother passed away, the hymn was recited at her funeral. My family, like many Jewish families, does our best processing through humor. The reading just did not seem to sum up the true worth and meaning of Grandmother, and so when the words began flowing we all avoided eye contact at the risk of laughing out loud. There were a great deal of things to celebrate about my grandmother, but her housekeeping and cooking where not at the top of the list. Leaving the cemetery that day, I wondered if we were unique in our squeamish discomfort with the hymn. I have since found out that we are not.
I recently had the fortune to read through a sermon given in 1972 by Martha Hadassah Ribalow Nadich, wife of Rabbi Judah Nadich. Rabbi Nadich was an early outspoken advocate for women’s rights—his synagogue was one of the first synagogues to call women for aliyot and count them for minyanim. When Rabbi Nadich was president of the Rabbinical Assembly he advocated for women being rabbis in the Conservative movement, years before it happened. A line from his obituary in the New York Times spoke of his support for women within Conservative Judaism; “Shuly Rubin Schwartz, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said that Rabbi Nadich pushed the edges of modernity ‘when the movement was struggling with how and to what extent to grant women equality in Jewish ritual.’”
I’m lucky enough to know Rabbi Nadich’s daughter, Nommi, quite well. She’s a former boss of mine, and remains a mentor and trusted friend. (If we are redefining women of valor, Nommi would be at the top of the list.) Nommi shared her mother’s sermon with me—which was the only time she ever preached publically about the role of women. The sermon takes the traditional idea of Women of Valor to task, stating “clearly, the ideal Jewish woman (of the Psalm) is she who served her husband and her children, and is the instrument for their fulfillment.” Martha Hadassah Nadich continues on, pushing women to redefine their worth and their standing in the community.
When I told Nommi that I wanted to write something about the hymn, she informed me that her mother insisted that her father stop singing the hymn to her each Friday night, as she hated it so much. She found it to be patronizing, instead of affirming. She didn’t want her worth to be summed up in a bit of token public recognition for slaving away in a kitchen, making yet another meal. Martha Hadassah felt that she—and other Jewish women—should be recognized for not just their cooking and beauty, but for their intellectual interests, their contributions to the community, and their accomplishments in the world. She wasn’t alone in this thought process—other women have balked at the idea of being related to the hymn.
One of my favorite aspects of Judaism is that it is a religion capable of growth and change. Definitions, language, even ideas of inclusivity, have all grown as new times have challenged old ways. In fact, Martha Hadassah Nadich reminds us in her sermon that the very term of Jewish law, halachah, literally means movement, or “a going forward.” We aren’t bound to traditional definitions of valor, and as our community evolves, women have found a way to reclaim and redefine the term as something uplifting, not restricting.
My charge to you is to think about what valor means to you and to your community. Take this time to conjure the image of a Jewish woman who embody a definition of valor like that of Martha Hadassah Nadich, someone dedicated to making a safe Jewish world—both inside and outside of the home. Who are your personal women of Valor?