People talk a lot about societal changes over time, how perspectives and norms evolve – for instance, the idea that centuries ago, the sole accepted role for women was to birth and raise children. While there is truth to this sense of history, it is not the whole picture.
I was amazed recently to come across a commentary, or midrash, that addresses the core of today’s “mommy wars” – and that reflects a perspective as balanced and “progressive” as any I have heard expressed in modern times.
In chapter 4 of the Book of Judges, Deborah—unique in her position as a female prophet and judge—and the soldier Barak engage in battle against a Canaanite army, which is led by a general named Sisera. As the Jews gain the upper hand, Sisera flees and is given refuge – so he believes – by Yael, the wife of a Canaanite ally. After instructing Yael to stand guard, Sisera falls asleep – at which point, Yael picks up a handy tent peg and drives it into his skull, thereby securing the Jewish victory over this enemy.
Deborah’s song of victory in the ensuing chapter includes high praise of Yael: “Blessed above women shall Yael be, the wife of Heber the Kenite, above women in the tent shall she be blessed.” (Judges 5:24)
Who are these “women in the tent,” above whom Yael shall be blessed? And why is she blessed above them?
For some, the association of “women” and “tent” might conjure thoughts of a well-known midrash about Sarah’s modesty (see Rashi on Genesis 18:9). However, Bereishit Rabbah 48:15 provides a different interpretation – one that carries (other) surprising implications.
This midrash cites two similar perspectives on the identity and significance of the “women in tents:” Rabbi Eleazar suggests “women in the tent” refers to the women of the generation that wandered in the desert, where they lived in tents; Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman says the “women in the tent” are the four matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. The two sages agree, however, about the underlying meaning of Deborah’s praise of Yael:
“They [women in tents] gave birth and maintained the world (“קיימו את העולם”) – and what would it have benefited them? For without [Yael], [the Jewish people] would have been lost [at the hands of Sisera]!”
From their tents, these women contributed to the Jewish people by birthing children necessary to perpetuate the [Jewish] “world.” Without the matriarchs’ children, there would have been no Jewish people; and without the children born in Egypt and in the desert, there would have been no growth for the fledgling nation.
However, without Yael’s attack on Sisera, the women’s contributions could have been for naught, as Sisera might have ultimately destroyed the Jewish people.
The message in this midrash is both surprising and obvious.
The battles in today’s “mommy wars” tend towards two opposite extremes. One side maintains that previous generations held a one-dimensional view of a woman’s place and role, and that it is our job as enlightened modern women to overturn that perspective, going out into the world and serving in active leadership roles, with or without having children along the way. Or, declares the other side, the women’s movement went too far, and it is our job as postmodern women to return to our biological roots and focus on our maternal roles, where we will find the greatest personal fulfillment and make the greatest contribution to the world.
This midrash demonstrates that the rabbis of old weren’t as one-dimensional in their perspectives on women as either side of this argument– and neither should we be.
The passage does reflect an underlying assumption of the value of bringing children into the world: women who choose to focus on putting their bodies to the task of perpetuating humanity are indeed “maintaining the world.”
However, that is not the only role that can – or should – be served by women. Because what would become of those children without individuals who take initiative in other areas of life? Perhaps one might argue that the world COULD be saved by men alone– but the examples of Deborah and Yael, and of other women in the Bible, demonstrate that there is no reason for it to be so. Some situations require a woman to step out of the home and respond to a different kind of calling, because women as well as men might have the necessary skills and drive to make that sort of contribution.
Mommy warriors, take heart: These ancient, progressive rabbis think you’re all right.