In the Name of HASHEM, G-d Eternal
In the Name of HASHEM, G-d Eternal

A UNIQUE CARE AND RESPECT FOR WOMEN

HALLMARK OF THE HEBREW NATION

FROM THE DAYS OF AVRAHAM UNTIL TODAY

 

Beth Avraham, the house of Avraham, was a flowering Noahide community.  It was a camp of numerous families of servants and students of the prophet-warlord (Avraham), that must have spread out over a sizeable area.  Surely there were young girls among those families of “ba`alei teshuvah” (returnees to the observance of HaShem‘s commandments) for YiS’Haq to marry.  Yet, incomprehensibly, Avraham had his eyes set on the family he had left behind in Aram Naharayim, who remained with their idolatry and teraphim (which were the product of child sacrifice [murder] according to Sepher ha-yashar).   If Lavan’s behavior is indicative of the values (or lack thereof) of the degenerate family Avraham left behind, they would be no strangers to lying, cheating and theft. 

 

What then did he see in them?  What  was there in Aram that convinced Avraham that the root of his dynasty could only be found there?  And why is it that, in the same Torah that sums up phases of several decades in the lives of great men in few words, this story is described in vivid detail?  What eternal message does it have for us?

 

In perspective of all the stories of Lavan, from Avraham’s time to Ya`aqov (Jacob), it becomes clear that the house of Bethuel was a home in which women were not only cared for and protected, but respected as intelligent human beings. 

 

First, note how Eli`ezer (Avraham’s faithful servant) tells the story of his mission and its miraculous fulfillment to the household of Bethuel (hoping to impress them that the match was clearly from Heaven).  One of the small changes he makes to the story is as follows: 

 

Before he left, Avraham had told him as follows (B’reshith [Genesis] Chapter 24)¹: 

 

ח  וְאִם לֹא תֹאבֶה הָאִשָּׁה לָלֶכֶת אַחֲרֶיךָ וְנִקִּיתָ מִשְּׁבֻעָתִי זֹאת…

8 And if the woman will not be not willing to follow you, then you shall be clear of my oath…

 

Avraham knew that his brother’s family would not arrange a marriage for their daughter without her consent.  Eli`ezer, however, expecting a different attitude from the house of Bethuel, related Avraham’s words differently to them:

 

מא  אָז תִּנָּקֶה מֵאָלָתִי כִּי תָבוֹא אֶל מִשְׁפַּחְתִּי וְאִם לֹא יִתְּנוּ לָךְ וְהָיִיתָ נָקִי מֵאָלָתִי.

41 then you shall be clear of my oath, when you  come to my family; and if they will not give her to you, you shall be clear of my oath.

 

On the contrary, the family’s nobility in this regard (which again, must have been known to Avraham) comes out loud and clear.  The elders in the family are even willing to put the whole transaction in jeopardy (and this was an agreement that would bring them considerable wealth) in order to keep her home for just another year.  Ultimately, when Eli`ezer presses them, they leave the matter to the girl’s own decision:

 

נה  וַיֹּאמֶר אָחִיהָ וְאִמָּהּ תֵּשֵׁב הַנַּעֲרָ אִתָּנוּ יָמִים אוֹ עָשׂוֹר אַחַר תֵּלֵךְ.

55 And her brother and her mother said: ‘Let the girl reside with us for a year or ten months; after that she may go.’

נו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אַל תְּאַחֲרוּ אֹתִי וַיהוָה הִצְלִיחַ דַּרְכִּי שַׁלְּחוּנִי וְאֵלְכָה לַאדֹנִי.

56 And he said to them: ‘Do not delay me, seeing that HaShem has made my mission succeed; send me off so I may go to my master.’

נז  וַיֹּאמְרוּ נִקְרָא לַנַּעֲרָ וְנִשְׁאֲלָה אֶת פִּיהָ.

57 And they said: ‘We will call the girl and ask her opinion.

 

Here we see that Rivqah’s intelligence was respected: she was not being treated as a mere object to be married off.  Their parting blessing to her also carries the message of their high regard and hopes for her:

 

ס  וַיְבָרְכוּ אֶת רִבְקָה וַיֹּאמְרוּ לָהּ אֲחֹתֵנוּ אַתְּ הֲיִי לְאַלְפֵי רְבָבָה וְיִירַשׁ זַרְעֵךְ אֵת שַׁעַר שֹׂנְאָיו.

60 And they blessed Rivqah, and said to her: ‘Our sister, may you be the mother of thousands of ten thousands, and may your offspring possess the gate of their enemies.

 

 

 

 

This pattern holds true even through later in the story of RaHel (Rachel) and Leah, and it puts the stormy relationship between Lavan and Ya`aqov in an interesting light:  Pushing Leah into marriage with Ya`aqov might well have been Lavan’s way of saving her from the fate of marrying the wild and G-dless `Esau.  When Lavan pursues and overtakes Ya`aqov in his flight homeward, consider the opening words of Lavan’s scourging attack, and then his parting message to Ya`aqov:

 

כו  וַיֹּאמֶר לָבָן לְיַעֲקֹב מֶה עָשִׂיתָ וַתִּגְנֹב אֶת לְבָבִי וַתְּנַהֵג אֶת בְּנֹתַי כִּשְׁבֻיוֹת חָרֶב.

26 And Lavan said to Ya`aqov: ‘What have you done, that you deceived me, and carried away my daughters as though captives of the sword?

כז-כח  לָמָּה נַחְבֵּאתָ לִבְרֹחַ… וְלֹא נְטַשְׁתַּנִי לְנַשֵּׁק לְבָנַי וְלִבְנֹתָי...

27-28 Why did you flee secretly… and didn’t leave me to kiss my sons and my daughters?

 

נ  אִם תְּעַנֶּה אֶת בְּנֹתַי וְאִם תִּקַּח נָשִׁים עַל בְּנֹתַי אֵין אִישׁ עִמָּנוּ רְאֵה אֱלֹהִים עֵד בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶךָ.

50 If you will afflict my daughters, and if you take wives beside my daughters, no man being with us; see—G-d is witness between me and you.’

     

 Blind to his own selfishness and unfairness, Lavan sees in Ya`aqov’s action his worst nightmare: his daughters being carried off as captives of war.  He is deeply emotional about losing them.  Yet, despite his character flaws, I believe that his zealous caring for them is the very quality that made his home the root of the nascent Hebrew nation. 

 

In order to appreciate how rare that must have been in those times, consider how latent and widespread child abuse is today, in a world infused on certain level with basic Torah values, however diluted, through Christianity and Islam. (The RaMBaM’s teaching regarding the temporary role these two religions are playing in HaShem’s world can be found in ‘hilkhoth Shof’`tim’ [Laws of Judges] 11:11).  One can only imagine how rampant child abuse of every kind was in those times, especially abuse of girls.  To this day, there are traditional societies in which girls are still viewed chiefly as objects of family wealth to married off for a good bride price.

 

Attitudes such as these do not end with the perpetrators; they are passed on to the victims:  Modern statistics show that children who were abused themselves are far more likely to abuse their own offspring.  Perhaps that is the reason Avraham couldn’t entrust his beloved son to a girl from the families he had converted to the Torah of NoaH and Shem.  In a world where life for most women was “poor, nasty, brutish and short”³ the house of NaHor would have been a special exception.  

 

This message couldn’t be more critical in our own homes in these times.  In a world culture in open revolt against traditional values, women are objectified in the worst ways.  On the opposite extreme, Orthodox Jewry, seeing the clear dangers in modern feminism, must be very careful about the honor of our wives and daughters as intelligent human beings.  In this regard, loyal students of the Rambam have reason to take great pride in our authentic tradition: In the Mishneh Torah, our heritage of respect for women is no less than codified Law.      

 

The myth that RaMBaM condoned wife-beating must be done away with.  It is nonsense and a dangerous misunderstanding.  Just as there are instances in which a cruel husband might deserve to be punished with stripes by a court of law, so can a woman in other instances.  However, this can only be in the context of an ordained court, and there is none in our generation.  Never is a husband allowed to strike his wife, G-d forbid!  One need only skim the pertaining laws in hilkhoth Hovel u-maziq (Laws of Injury and Damages) to see an entire system of punishment in place for one who as much as pushes, kicks, or insults another person—no distinction is made between men and women.  In fact, to prevent marital abuse, the sages forbade us to give our daughters in marriage to ignoramuses:

 

כט  )לב( …ולא ישיא בתו לעם הארץ שכל הנותן בתו לעם הארץ כמי שכפתה ונתנה לפני הארי  מכה ובועל ואין לו בושת פנים.  ולעולם ימכור אדם כל מה שיש לו ויישא בת תלמיד חכמים שאם מת או גלה בניו תלמידי חכמים וכן ישיא בתו לתלמיד חכמים שאין דבר מגונה ולא מריבה בביתו של תלמיד חכמים.

 

…A man may not marry his daughter to a simpleton, for whoever gives his daughter to a simpleton is like one who binds her and feeds her to the lion:  he strikes [her] and then has sexual relations, and he has no shame.   A person must always [be ready to] sell all he has in order to marry the daughter of a Torah scholar [lit. “a student of the Sages]… And likewise one must marry his daughter to a Torah scholar, for there is nothing improper and no quarreling in the home of a Torah scholar.   Hilkhoth Biah 21:29 (32)

 

One key ingredient of that peace in the home is honoring one’s wife (and her honoring her husband as well, of course).  Again, a wife’s honor isn’t an ideal by us; it is law.

יט  וכן ציוו חכמים שיהיה אדם מכבד את אשתו יותר מגופו ואוהבה כגופו ואם יש לו ממון מרבה בטובתה כפי הממון.  ולא יטיל עליה אימה יתרה ויהיה דיבורו עימה בנחת ולא יהיה עצב ולא רוגז.

Likewise, the Sages commanded that a man honor his wife more than himself, and love her has himself.  If he has money, he must increase his provision for her according to her needs.  He must not cause her unnecessary fear.  He should speak gently with her and not be depressed    or angry. (hilkhoth Ishuth 15:19)

The list of supporting sources and quotes goes on and on, and could well be the subject of a whole book. 

  It is clear from Laws of Foundations of Torah 4:21, that RaMBaM viewed the study of halakhah (Jewish Law) by both men and women as an ideal.   Unfortunately, quotes that are (mis)understood out of context upset people needlessly:  In the laws of idolatry, when women are included among the simple folk who tend to believe in magic and superstition, this is not a statement regarding women’s abilities or potential, G-d forbid.  Rather, it is a description of the reality in the RaMBaM’s day.  What offended people don’t realize is that RaMBaM’s opinion of the men of his time was not much higher.  In hilkhoth De`oth 6:2, he makes it clear that, “bizmanenu zeh” –”in our times”, no place in the world he knew of was on the proper path.  He was referring to Jewish communities the world over, which were generally run, of course, by men.   

I will end with the most vivid example of the positive legacy of the house of NaHor.  It remains to this day as codified law in Mishneh Torah and it is an echo of our ancestor’s covenant with Lavan: 

ו  לפיכך ציוו חכמים שלא יישא אדם יותר על ארבע נשים אף על פי שיש לו ממון הרבה כדי שתגיע להן עונה פעם אחת בחודש.

Therefore, the Sages decreed that a man not marry more than four wives even if he has a lot of money, in order that they might enjoy the marital obligation [at least] once a month.  (hilkhoth Ishuth 14:6)

In the merit of our zealous love and honor of our wives and daughters, may we be blessed with success in raising a new generation that will be redeemed as the generation that left Egypt: in the merit of righteous women.

 

Written by Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron, Beith Midrash Ohel Moshe

Based on his article O”M 6 of the original Ohel Moshe series, parashath Hayye Sarah 5767

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¹ Quotes from Bible are according to the authentic Yemenite manuscript edition posted on www.mechon-mamre.org.  The English translations in my articles are original.  The Bible translations often bear influence and occasional borrowings from the JPS Bible based on the electronic text (c) by Larry Nelson, and the The Living Torah: The Five Books of Moses by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Maznaim Publishing Corporation, New York, 647 pp.

 

 ²  Quotes from Mishneh Torah, Mishnah and Talmud are manually copied from the authentic editions posted on www.mechon-mamre.org, without use of their unique punctuation (providing a commentary) or hyperlinks.  The English translations are original. 

 

³  Borrowed from the words of Thomas Hobbes, written in another context.  From Wikipedia article on Thomas Hobbes  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Hobbes

 

4 Responses to “A UNIQUE CARE AND RESPECT FOR WOMEN”

  1. Andy Says:

    An excellent teaching barukh HaShem! People, B’nei Noach included IMO, must study Hilkhoth Chovel wuMaziq in order to know the how severely the Torah regards striking other people. It even lays out heavy penalties for spouses who strike one another.

  2. Eli Maimon Says:

    Glancing through your article but I spotted that you or Machon Moshe translate Am haAretz as “simpleton”. An Am ha’Aretz can be an observant Jew but he is just unschooled.
    Being respectful towards women is an attitude which is expressed in everything, and the word simpleton has a despising connotation.
    Amey haAretz could very well be a majority, but simpletons are rare.

  3. Yochanan Says:

    “To this day, there are traditional societies in which girls are still viewed chiefly as objects of family wealth to married off for a good bride price.”

    Hope this doesn’t rub you the wrong way. But, isn’t this exactly how the Jews of Yemen practiced marriage? From what I’ve heard it was the norm to “marry off” female children pre bat mitzvah.

  4. barron Says:

    It’s a fair question, and I’m sorry for not having answered it earlier. In Yemen, women were married off early because of the ruses and tricks the Muslim authorities would use to force Jews (such as unmarried girls, or Jews found breaking Shabboth or having cut off their “simonim” [side curls]) to become Muslim. In other words, they did this to protect their daughters, not to treat them like chattel. Blessings

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