Live from the Jewschool contributors email list: Is Eshet Chayil a Hypocritical Prayer?

Contributors, if you want to claim your thoughts in this, leave a comment and I’ll adjust accordingly.
Yesterday, I emailed a post from The Forward‘s Sisterhood Blog to the Jewschool contributors list. The post, by Debra Nussbaum Cohen, reads:

At Shabbat dinner in traditional Jewish homes the hymn “Eshet Chayil,” meaning “Woman of Valor,” is sung to the woman who runs the household. It concludes with the line “Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.”
According to the mysterious group Jewish Women Watching, — the organization’s members remain anonymous “to focus attention on the issues, not ourselves,” according to the group’s mission statement — leaders of Orthodox organizations in the U.S., and leaders of the State of Israel, are hypocritical because they presumably sing this even as they deny women the ability to serve in positions of religious leadership, not allowing them to enjoy the “fruit of their hands.”
“Religious Jewish women devoted to Torah, worship, and communal leadership are victims of constant sexist backlash,” said JWW in a press release the group distributed as the High Holy Days began. The release went on to say, “In this season of reflection and repentance, JWW calls on mainstream Orthodox leaders to do teshuvah [repentance], atoning for their actions that suppress valorous women.”

And here’s what a few on the list had to say about this:
Jewschooler 1:

JWW has missed the point. Eshet Chayil isn’t about  actual human women, it’s a kabbalistic custom that refers to the Shekhina.

Jewschooler 2:

Except that it’s often used as a tribute to real women, or an example of how respect for women is inherent in the liturgy.  I’m not necessarily saying it isn’t, just that that is one of its functions.

Jewschooler 1:

Agreed, especially as to the second point (and IMO a case can be made for the second point, just not a general one).
But I’ve noticed it’s actually a problem with JWW’s criticisms that  they often don’t know what it is they’re criticizing….
IMO, it makes them look bad to criticize without actually understanding what they’re  talking about. I  like their premise, and generally speaking like what they do, so I wish they would find someone with a religious background to help them out when they plan their campaigns….

Aryeh Cohen:

…about twenty [years] after many liturgical alternatives to eishet chayil started to be used (including just not saying it) in the M.O. world and to the left, why exactly would it be a problem to criticise this publicly–unless JWW is composed of the wives of the Roshei yeshivah at Mirrer, Torah Vadaas, and Chaim Berlinl

4 thoughts on “Live from the Jewschool contributors email list: Is Eshet Chayil a Hypocritical Prayer?

  1. I think these comments also miss the point. JWW isn’t protesting the singing of Eishet Chayil; they’re protesting inequality in religious leadership. The Eishet Chayil connection is just a gimmick. Therefore, reinterpreting or eliminating Eishet Chayil wouldn’t be a satisfactory remedy to the issues JWW is addressing; fixing the real-world problems would.

  2. My wife never let me sing Eshet Chayil. Even when we didn’t live in community (where we don’t sing it, either). I love to hear folks do the lush harmonies on the Carlebach melody.
    The point is very different, however. There has been a SUDDEN Talibanization of Judaism over the last decade, probably actually the last half decade. I would say that the process began a long time ago, as a reaction to second wave feminism, but picked up speed about in the time since Facebook came into existence or at least caught on in the general public (2007). Kavei Mehadrin on Israeli buses, now segregated sidewalks – these things were unheard of only a decade ago – things that GO AGAINST THE EXPRESSLY STATED IDEOLOGY OF THE PROVERBS (whether we read it as King Solomon or as 2nd Temple period), AND OF THE RABBIS WHO ENSTATED THE RECITATION OF THIS PRAYER ON FRIDAY NIGHTS. JWW is using the text to point up that transgression.

  3. To Aryeh Cohen’s point — How cool would it be if the women behind JWW actually WERE “the wives of the Roshei yeshivah at Mirrer, Torah Vadaas, and Chaim Berlin”

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