In a recent Times of Israel post, Rabbi Gordimer states that “the traditional Torah attitude… has been one of women avoiding exposure and not seeking to be center stage, as explained by Rashi concerning our matriarch Sarah, who remained in her tent when the angelic guests were hosted and served by Abraham, in conformity with her sense of modesty. (Gen. 18:9) The same praise was heaped upon Yael, who heroically killed the evil Sisera and was lauded for her aversion to public exposure (Judges 5:24, with commentaries).”
There is so much to discuss with regard to the traditional Torah attitude towards women, as well as to its application to the issue of women’s visibility in today’s Orthodox world. There is also a great deal to say specifically about the value of printing pictures of women, and whether advocating for such pictures, is indeed a simple matter of “demanding publicity,” as Rabbi Gordimer’s piece seems to suggest.
For the moment, though, I’d like to explore a particular aspect of these discussions that Rabbi Gordimer mentioned, but that tends not to get enough careful attention: the nuances of those biblical sources about our biblical heroines.
For instance, Rashi indeed quotes a midrashic tradition that asks why Abraham’s angelic visitors would need to ask where his wife was (didn’t they already know?), and concludes that they asked the question to call attention to the answer: she was in the tent, an indication of her modesty. While this comment is often quoted as a lesson in feminine modesty, a closer look might call our attention to several more nuanced points.
First, Rashi actually cites several midrashic interpretations of that verse; only one of them says anything about Sarah’s modesty. (The others include a view that the angels actually asked each spouse about the other, as a matter of common courtesy, and a suggestion that they wanted to know where she was so that they could include her in the “cup of blessing.”)
Second, when exploring that one out of three suggested explanations, we should let Rashi finish his sentence: “…in order to endear her to her husband.” Rashi doesn’t say they highlighted Sarah’s whereabouts in order to teach generations of women that they should remain in the tent as much as possible; rather, he says that they wanted to call a particular quality of hers to the attention of her particular husband. One wonders whether Rashi views the allusion to Sarah’s modesty as prescriptive or as descriptive – recognizing that within their societal reality, a woman’s choice to remain “in the tent” might be a positive quality that would endear her to her husband.
Third, we might also note that, according to this explanation, the angels were “making known” this positive attribute of Sarah’s — which means publicity is not always bad, even for women.
Fourth, it seems appropriate to discuss Sarah’s being “in the tent” in the context of the rest of her story, in which we often see her assert her viewpoints.
And fifth, we might also consider that midrashic tradition alongside others, such as the one that suggests that Sarah was inclined towards “too much modesty” (Genesis Rabbah 53:9), and had to be taught that there’s a time and a place for, ahem, remaining in her place. One should be careful to avoid taking even a positive quality, such as modesty, too far; drawing those lines is a complex endeavor, and it seems the lines can move in accordance with different situations.
Rashi’s comment about Sarah’s modesty offers so much to discuss, in fact, that I fear I haven’t left enough space for the other heroine Rabbi Gordimer mentioned.
There is, after all, never enough space in one online article to fully explore any topic — and so I’m sympathetic to the constraints that led Rabbi Gordimer to reduce his reference to Yael to the statement that she “was lauded for her aversion to public exposure” and the brief citation, “(Judges 5:24, with commentaries).” However, those very commentaries offer space to consider that perhaps the “modesty” of the traditional Jewish woman is more complex than we might think, and I’d like to offer the space to at least begin to explore them.
The verse in question comes from Devorah’s “song.” (It is not my intent here to discuss Devorah herself as a model of visible modesty, but will just note her existence and table that discussion for another time.) It is difficult to translate because of an ambiguous “mem” prefix, but two basic options are:
“Yael shall be blessed by women… blessed by women in the tent.”
“Yael shall be blessed more than women… blessed more than women in the tent.”
Embedded within each translation, of course, are multiple possible interpretations. Who are these “women in the tent,” and what do they have to do with Yael?
Rashi, for instance quotes a midrashic suggestion that, like the midrash above, links Sarah to the tent – and not just Sarah this time, but all our foremothers. In this midrashic approach, the point seems to be that Yael should be blessed “more than” those women: they remained in the tent and birthed and raised children – but without Yael’s act against Sisera [which stands out as a whole different kind of endeavor], all those Jewish children would have been destroyed, all their mothers’ efforts for naught.
(It is always worth exploring the original midrashic texts for further context and nuance; see Nazir 23b and Genesis Rabbah 48:15.)
In an alternate explanation, Rashi notes that Yael herself was a woman of the tent – which of course makes the entire discussion all the more intriguingly complex. In what ways was she and wasn’t she like other women who “dwelled in tents”? Why is she praised “more than” the others?
Radak suggests, along the lines perhaps of that second explanation in Rashi, that Devorah is highlighting Yael’s zeal for the sake of G-d “in the place where she was, in her tent – and she is more blessed than other women who dwell in tents.” We might deduce, therefore, that there is space in the tent of womanhood for acts of religious zeal that transcend the typical box of what we tend to call modest.
On the flip side, Metzudas David reads the verse as saying Yael should be blessed by “the righteous and modest women who dwell in the tent – by these women she should be blessed.” Why is it so important that “women in tents” offer Yael their blessing?
Perhaps because it can be hard for those with a narrow concept of idealized conduct to see the value in those outside the box; as Abarbanel speculates, “perhaps this action that Yael did will anger the modest women in the tent, and therefore [Devorah] commanded that they not curse her or denigrate her, and that they not say it was a cruel act, but they should bless her for it because she did it in service of G-d and not for another purpose.”
It is often hard to see past our differences and realize that even if someone behaves in a way we wouldn’t have imagined, it may not be because their values differ from ours but because their definitions of those values differ, or because they see a more pressing need in the moment – and that they act for the same ultimate goal, not another.
For once again, as Rashi mentioned and as Malbim also points out, Yael herself was actually in the tent when she took action (she used a tent peg, of all things!) – meaning the apparent dialectic between her and “women in the tent” is, to some degree, an illusion. The point, Malbim suggests, is that Yael was in her tent and she did something there – unlike the people of Meroz mentioned alongside her, who sat at home and did nothing.
Perhaps, then, the real test of a woman’s character (like a man’s) is not where one is but what one does there and for what purpose. And the only true judges of anyone’s conduct or motivations are G-d and the prophets who carry His messages – such as His prophetess, Devorah.