How To Read Eshet Hayil
Explaining this ancient song for the present day.
Years later, as a mother, scholar, and feminist, I find myself returning to Eshet Hayil, wondering where I see myself in relation to this biblical uber-frau, who singlehandedly feeds her entire household, works her hands in wool and flax, clothes her children in crimson, all the while managing a business and various philanthropic endeavors. To what extent do any of us see ourselves in this A to Z list of what was valued in a woman in the biblical period? Are we amused by it or alienated?
In the context of our own times, when so many of us work outside as well as inside the home, negotiating on a daily basis a heroic set of professional as well as domestic duties, does Proverbs 31 provide inspiration or does it enshrine a set of unrealistic expectations? Nowadays, when husbands are more involved in child rearing, domestic chores, and Shabbat preparation, should they still sing this paean to their wives while wives sing nothing to their husbands? Given our awareness of the number of single women in our midst as well as couples and families who do not conform to this heterosexual norm, are we not concerned about trumpeting this image as an ideal?
In asking these questions, we exit the experiential mode in which the song wafts over us unthinkingly and begin a more critical set of deliberations that can lead to disgruntlement as well as rediscovery. What do we find when we look into the ways in which Jews read and understood this poem/song in the past? And what new readings can we offer as moderns and as feminists? . . .
Many of us are acquainted with remarkable men and women, though, who possess amazing and numerous virtues that inspire us and even arrest our imaginations. As feminists, we may not thrill to the list of tasks and traits enumerated in the biblical acrostic that is Proverbs 31. Yet, I still cling to the scholarly mission of searching out outstanding women of the past as well as to the belief in the real possibility of contemporary women of valor, however we define the term. Once again, I refer to the issue of context.
We typically ignore the fact that the Eshet Hayil poem is preceded in Proverbs 31 by nine verses of instruction offered by an unnamed Queen Mother to her son King Lemuel, in which she warns him against drunkenness and debauchery (with women), encouraging him instead to judge righteously and be an advocate for the needy. One way to read the Eshet Hayil, poem, then, is as King Lemuel’s eulogy for his valorous and wise mother, bearing in mind the genre of the eulogy, which often includes hyperbole and sacralizing of the lost loved one.
We all know, of course, that it is best not to reserve one’s appreciation for that ultimate occasion. Instead, why not sing it each week to others as well as ourselves? This past Friday night, after completing a draft of this essay as well as a dizzying array of other home-related tasks, I giddily joined in the singing of Eshet Hayil, adding in my own extemporaneous musical list of my accomplishments and those of the people around me--my kids had been remarkably cooperative that Friday, my husband survived another week on Wall Street and had managed to get home just in time for candle lighting--to the praised attainments of yesteryear. A better way to begin my Shabbat, who can find?
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