The Torah-True Woman
“Mrs. Berkovic, can I ask you a question?”
The voice comes from the back of the classroom. It’s our World Issues class – a class where we talk about anything and everything happening around the globe – and questions and comments are always welcome.
“Sure,” I say, leaning back in my chair. I’m expecting a question about President Trump’s ties with Russia or North Korea’s missile tests, and I’m ready.
But that’s not what I get.
My student takes a deep breath and fires a shot.
“I read an article in the local paper, talking about how religion subjugates women. It was mostly focused on quotes from the Torah about women and how for Orthodox Jews, women are second class citizens. How are we supposed to respond to that? How would you respond to that?”
Bam. Didn’t see that coming. I sit up straight in my chair.
My first thought is to say, “Wouldn’t you rather talk about North Korea? That seems easier.”
My second thought is to say, “That’s a great question, one that really matters.”
Then I am the one who takes a deep breath.
It’s not that I don’t have an answer.
I just need to deliver the answer in a way that my girls can hear it.
I have had the privilege of teaching high school seniors for more than a decade, and sitting with them – learning and schmoozing with them – both keeps me young and makes me feel incredibly old.
It keeps me young because hearing my students’ struggles enables me to keep my finger on the contemporary teenager’s pulse. I know what skirts are in. I know that the word “random” has nothing to do with probability. I know that those white sneakers they’re all wearing – the ones I thought were so nerdy – are actually the ultimate fashion statement. (Who knew?).
At the same time, teaching high school makes me feel old because many of my students’ struggles feel foreign to me, because their world is exponentially more confusing than my adolescent world once was. The moral decline around us has seeped into their worldview, and it can be difficult for them to reconcile what the world is saying with what the Torah says.
Hence the question just posed to me, asked with sweetness and not with cynicism, but badly needing an answer.
As I grapple to formulate my response, I fortuitously (thank you, Hashem!) notice an ad for an upcoming school cheesecake sale in honor of Shavuos.
Shavuos! Now there’s a conversation starter!
On Shavuos we read Megillas Rus, leined not just for the women – but for the men.
Everyone standing in shul listens to the story of a woman – a woman who epitomizes the beauty and fortitude of Torah-true femininity.
Ever since we performed the story of Rus in my third-grade class play (I had a supporting role as a bikurim basket. My mother must have been proud), I was drawn to the character of Rus, not unlike the way I am drawn to characters in a book.
A princess who gives up everything out of loyalty and love – and then becomes the matriarch of kings!
It has all the makings of a fairy tale.
Now, as an adult, I appreciate that Rus was real – a living, breathing embodiment of everything a woman can be.
For me, Rus is the story of strength in the face of challenge, of grace in the face of sorrow, of a modesty that in no way detracted from her worth.
She felt a deep great compassion for her mother-in-law, who had lost not only her husband, but both of her sons. Her loyalty led her to leave the land where she was a princess, where she was destined to live a life of wealth and luxury, and instead travel to a foreign land and a foreign life.
Her fierce, unyielding loyalty to Na’ami led her to insist, “Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you will live, I will live.”
Even if that meant gathering wheat from the fields together with the poor people of the generation.
Even if that meant that she – a princess – would demean herself by working long hours in the brutal sun, to shield her mother-in-law from crippling shame.
She didn’t feel sorry for herself or worry that she was being subjugated.
She didn’t bemoan the unfairness of it all.
Instead, she kept her regal bearing even as she struggled; she bent down with modesty while many women harvesting did not.
Her modesty did not make her invisible, forgotten in the pages of history.
No, her modesty – her quiet strength – made her memorable – worthy of being the mother of kings.
This, I tell my girls, is the Torah’s view on women.
But it’s not just the Torah that is full of women who were heroines.
The Torah world is full of women who are heroines.
I think about the women I know, and they are hardly shrinking violets in the face of adversity.
I tell my class of about a former coworker of mine who is a single mother after having experienced a very challenging divorce.
She will never say a bad word about her children’s father in front of them, no matter how difficult their father is, no matter the awful things their father says about her.
She carries blame she doesn’t earn, takes insults she doesn’t deserve, but she does not flinch.
She made a commitment to her children, and she refuses to allow another person’s failings to cause her to fail.
The newspaper might say she is a classic example of the subjugated woman, waiting years for her get, still chained to a man who has no mercy.
But the newspaper cannot see what the Torah sees: she is not subjugated – she is empowered. She is not belittled – she is always growing.
She is not the only heroine who comes to mind.
There is a woman I know who has achieved tremendous success in the business world.
In her bearing, I see the regal mien of Rus.
She doesn’t need to be exalted by others. She leaves her authority at the office; she leaves the accolades at her desk.
At home, she is a mother and a wife, not a CEO.
People call her a Momtrepreneur, and I cannot help but think it is an apt title.
Mom first. Entrepreneur second. Far second.
She doesn’t see herself as subjugated because, even with her pedigree, she is the one who changes diapers at night. She knows that real glory comes from giving to others, from raising children who will one day give to others.
So I tell my students, “Forget what the newspapers have to say. Instead, look around.”
Look around at the phenomenal, courageous, loyal, selfless, kind, dedicated, regal women who fill the lines at the supermarket. Who sit behind their desks at work. Who run chesed agencies outside their homes and chesed empires within their homes. Who seek neither fame nor attention. Who don’t worry about what the feminists write or what the “liberated” women say.
I don’t see subjugation.
I see exaltation.
I don’t see suppression.
I see pride, empowerment, achievement – cloaked in the fine silk of modesty.
I couldn’t be prouder to be Jewish woman.
I couldn’t feel more grateful for the role I have been given
I hope the girls in my classroom – and the girls in all corners of the world – will always be able to say the same.