In Women in tents (and maybe in pictures), Mrs. Sarah C. Rudolph revisits the biblical verses and interpretations I cited in my recent blog post, and basically attempts to work around my statement 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).
Mrs. Rudolph commences by noting, “First, Rashi actually cites several midrashic interpretations of that verse; only one of them says anything about Sarah’s modesty” – implying that the other explanations presented by Rashi might reject the modesty concept of his first explanation. Aside from the fact that there is no evidence thereof, Rashi’s brief stand-alone remark in his second textual comment on that same verse (“She (Sarah) is in the tent” – Rashi: “For she was modest”) affirms that the modesty concept is unchallenged and is fully endorsed by Rashi; the fact that Rashi offers various interpretations in his first textual comment on the verse in no way implies a rejection of the modesty concept. Furthermore, this same exact modesty concept appears many times in aggadic literature, without dissent, and is clearly a broadly accepted principle, rather than a disputed or novel proposal.
Rashi’s objective and stand-alone affirmation of Sarah’s modesty in his second textual comment, cited above, also answers Mrs. Rudolph’s proceeding conjecture (point #2 of her article) that “one wonders whether Rashi views the allusion to Sarah’s modesty as prescriptive or as descriptive”; Rashi maintains a prescriptive position.
Mrs. Rudolph continues:
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.
As explained by Rashi, invoking the Midrash, the angels were making known Sarah’s sense of modesty to Abraham (only), in order to endear her to him. Additionally, no one claimed that there is anything objectionable about publicizing positive attributes of women! That is not the issue at hand.
Mrs. Rudolph then writes:
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.
For sure, but this in no way detracts from Rashi’s clear remarks about Sarah’s modesty, which reflect the views of Chazal (the Sages of the Talmud and Midrash).
Mrs. Rudolph concludes her argument about Sarah by (surprisingly) stating:
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.
I noted that Mrs. Rudolph’s assertion here is surprising, for this Midrash refers specifically to Sarah not wanting to expose her bodily “nursing area” and flow of milk when she nursed Isaac, who had just been born (Gen. 21:7), whereas Abraham insisted that Sarah not conceal this, in order that others witness God’s incredible miracle of the elderly Sarah nursing with a bountiful supply of fresh milk. Please see the Midrash yourself; it is obviously not arguing with anything stated earlier, but is addressing an extremely unique and totally different situation, in which being very modest by not wanting to expose one’s upper private parts is the “normal” thing for any woman to do. (This Midrash also seems to demonstrate that women should not expose their private areas when nursing in public, as the Midrash emphasizes that it was done in that specific case only for a hugely exceptional, miraculous reason.)
The closing section of Mrs. Rudolph’s argument turns to Yael, whom the commentaries praise for her modesty, in the verse “May Yael, the wife of Chever the Kenite, be blessed from among women; from among women in the tent shall she be blessed”. (Judges 5:24) Mrs. Rudolph explains that the verse can be read as “Yael shall be blessed more than women… blessed more than women in the tent”, and implies that the verse perhaps downplays these other women in comparison with Yael. Mrs. Rudolph offers support for this idea:
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.
This explanation of Rashi does not downplay the import and ideal of the “women in the tent,” but rather states that if not for brave activists like Yael, ordinary citizens who live in comfort and tranquility could not do so; it is not in any way a value judgment on the “women in the tent.” Please see Gen. Rabbah 48:15 – Rashi’s source for this interpretation – which is clear about this, as it praises the “women in the tent” to dizzying heights.
Central to the greatness of our holy Matriarchs and the preeminent women who followed in their path is that their overwhelming accomplishments, which impact us to this very day, were achieved modestly. These amazing women did not seek attention (they actually shunned it), but rather sought success. Whether it was the Hebrew women in Egypt, who defied Pharaoh’s orders and placed their lives at risk to have children and raise them as Jews, or the righteous women of the Generation of the Desert, who refused to sin and yearned for the Land of Israel, or the women throughout our history who fought with body and soul for Torah, for Jewish values in the home, and for our physical survival – it was done modestly and so often behind the scenes. Similar to Moses and Aaron, who were exceedingly humble, eschewed attention and credit, and assumed their public assignments under compulsion, yet were activists at all times, the sacred way of the Jewish woman is to focus on getting things done rather than on one’s persona or public standing.
How starkly this contrasts with today’s world of social media, in which those who are devoid of meaningful accomplishments and real credentials are so often the stars and the authoritative voices, as they squander massive chunks of their precious time and energy sharing with “followers” an endless stream of videos, trivialities and crass pontifications about every irrelevant thing conceivable – whereas those who truly accomplish and “do”, treasuring the time God grants them, use it to serve Him in a myriad of ways, achieving for others and becoming holy in the process.
This is the way of the Jewish woman. We must all learn from her.