Sara Spielman, Brooklyn, NY
MyLife Essay Contest 2018
Jewish women are often seen as “inferior” or “second class citizens” by the world, since their innate roles are more often inside the home and they are obligated to fulfill fewer Mitzvahs than their male counterparts. This can be a major issue for people when considering a Chassidic lifestyle. However, quite the opposite is true. Chassidic teachings by the Chabad Rebbeim, particularly in modern times by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, raised an awareness of the special merits and tasks of women, especially when it came to child rearing and the future of Jewish children. Through his Sichahs, letters and talks, such as the ones regarding the future redemption, as in the Sichah of Parshas Bo and Bishalach 5752, the Rebbe placed emphasis on the great role of women, giving them an importance as great as men, or even above men, because of their unique mission. These teachings can continue to create a paradigm shift as the world realizes the feminine power within Judaism.
I was a raised in a world that held Jewish women to the highest esteem. We were powerful and enough in the very fact that we were women, the akeres habayis, keepers of the home. The home is where all of humanity begins and then goes out from that initial experience to effect the world. Countless amounts of people from all backgrounds have been uplifted by the selflessness of thousands of female leaders, shluchahs (emissaries), serving communities, running institutions and impacting lives. As equal partners alongside their husbands, these are women with leadership roles, a massive force behind a Jewish renaissance.
In contrary, many of today’s female leaders and activists are empowered by a wave of feminism whose message still lacks the true feminine quality held by the Torah and its central female characters as important. Modern day feminists still don’t quite get what a true feminist means. The struggle for “equality” somehow always comes back to living under the shadows of men – ultimately the very “thing” they are trying to achieve is to be more like men. Why isn’t being a woman enough?
Some of the rights they fight for – to have abortions, for example – goes against the most essential powers and beauty of being a woman. Also, the media and Hollywood today glorify women’s sensuality in a way that seems to defy the essence of womanhood, which is, namely, modesty.
How can a Chassidic woman be a feminist in today’s world? The Chabad Rebbeim and Chassidus teaches the true essential strengths of a woman and how the ultimate redemption – the entire purpose of G-d’s creation of the world – will be through the merits of women. In the Sichah of Parshas Bo and Bishalach 5752, the Lubavitcher Rebbe greatly established the uniqueness of women in our generation. He said that of the many initiations of his father in law, the Frierdiker Rebbe, was his involvement and investment in reaching women, as well as the men. He emphasized how they are the foundation of their homes and are the ones who influence their entire family.
In all matters essential to Judaism, it is the women that take precedence (as seen from Sichas Parshas Bo and Bishalach 5752). At Matan Torah, it was the women that Moshe addressed first. The women were also the first ones to donate to the Mishkan through their jewelry. And, with the Exodus from Egypt, as well as with the final redemption of this exile, it is in the merits of the women that we are redeemed. Being in the final generation of Golus (exile) and the first generation of Geulah (redemption), it is for this reason that the Frierdiker Rebbe spent huge efforts in reaching women; it’s their merits that will bring the Geulah. Even more than that, when Moshiach comes it will be revealed how the source of the Divine attribute of “Malchus” (which is likened to the female energy) is higher than all the other sefiros (attributes, which represent men).
There’s a growing sentiment and awareness that the world is waking up to that something major is shifting in the world, that a time of redemption is becoming more visible. As we approach the time of Geulah, Kabbalistic thought teaches that the feminine energy will dominate. Perhaps this is why so many women within Judaism and in the rest of the world are crying out for more “rights.” It just needs to be channeled right.
The Rebbe emphasized in many of his talks the importance of modesty, which is one of the merits of the Jewish women in Egypt that led to their redemption. In relation to the revelation of Moshiach, women are in a superior place compared to men because it is through their modesty today, too, that they can help harness the redemption. The Rebbe explained that women today are a reincarnation of their female ancestors’ in Egypt. We, too, can cause the entire Jewish nation and the world’s redemption.
With it comes responsibility. Modesty creates boundaries with the clothing we wear, meant to establish that the female body is too beautiful, too powerful and too sensual to be available to all. It quite literally creates a culture where men are given the opportunity to respect women, much the opposite than what we see occurring in Hollywood. It’s no wonder that they are all still demanding more respect.
A woman in the Torah who so essentially represented modesty was Queen Esther, who even in a position of power and royalty, hid what was meant to be hidden (such as her true identity) and, yet, whose feminine beauty and strength saved the Jewish people (because had she not won the pageant and gained that influence over the king, none of the redemption from Haman’s plotting would have transpired.)
The Rebbe writes in one of his letters (Letters from the Rebbe Volume 6, letter 42): “The actual deliverance from the hands of their would-be murderers, and the complete change of their position from sadness to gladness, came about through the efforts of a woman – Esther, in whose honor the Megillah is called after her name. Our sages emphasized the important role of the Jewish women in the Miracle of Purim, saying, “the women, too, had a part in that Miracle.” The Rebbe continues to write that every woman should consider herself, as Esther did in her time, as if the whole future of our Jewish people depended on her.
Growing up in the world of Torah, hearing stories of the wives of Rebbeim and Biblical Heroines, the women my culture celebrated were those like Devorah Leah, the daughter of the Alter Rebbe, who gave up years of her life in order to extend the years her father can have in this world spreading Chassidus, or the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s wife, Chaya Mushkah, who waited up to the wee hours of every morning so she could greet her husband when he returned home from spending hours with his Chassidim. Women who behind the scenes empowered, enabled their husband, or father, to be leaders who affected the world.
There’s so many references in the Torah to the important decisions righteous women made and the Rebbe focused many of his weekly talks about the Parshah on those women. Like G-d’s words to Avrahom to “listen to your wife Sarah’s words,” when she suggested they send away his son, Yishmael. Or how Rivkah advised her son Yaakov to get the blessings in disguise from his father Yitzchok (effecting the future course of the Jewish nation) and then to run away to her brother’s home for safety. It’s Rochel who the nation cries to in Golus, buried on the side of the road, in an unassuming, modest place, the designated spot for our prayers during the thousands of years of exile.
Women are held to the greatest esteem in Judaism. These stories illustrate women playing the most important roles, influencing magnificent outcomes for our people. Their power is not because they are like men or finally achieving the positions of men. It is in their unique abilities that they stand out and accomplish.
In Basi Ligani, the talk the Rebbe gave on the onset of his leadership, he spoke about how the Frierdiker Rebbe’s work in empowering women is further seen in the fact that he published the Mamer “Basi Ligani” in honor of his mother and grandmother’s yartzeits, who were the righteous women of our generation (noshim tzidkaniyos). Additionally, the Mamer speaks of the Jewish people’s role as being Hashem’s “bride.” Feminine energy is very connected to the Geulah. The whole message of “Basi Ligani,” that we are here to express G-dliness down in this world, is mainly done by women who are more involved in mundane matters (uplifting it to holiness).
The unfolding of the Geulah has been compared (starting from the Alter Rebbe’s teachings and especially stressed by the Rebbe) to pregnancy and birth. The Alter Rebbe said we as a Jewish nation are “pregnant” with G-d’s light and we need to “birth” it through contractions, which the Rebbe often called “the birth pains of Moshiach.” The opening up of a woman during birth is likened to the splitting of the sea, when all of G-d’s wonders and His revelation became visible to the world.
Therefore, the struggles for female equality, or those who believe we are still somehow “inferior” or “unequal” to men, are not true feminists. Because a feminist is someone who understands that the greatest power of a woman is one that no man can ever achieve. That power is held in the home, which produces the people of the world. That power is in the uterus, which creates and nurtures a child (something today’s “feminists” at times want to obliterate.) Men can provide the seed, the money, the wheat from the field, but it is the woman who turns it into something alive. The entire identity of the Jewish nation is held in the hands of the woman. If your mother is Jewish, then so are you – the simplest, most powerful requirement.
The uniqueness of women is seen in the Sichah of Parshas Bo as well. There Moshe is told, “Come to Paroah,” which was the revelation of the highest lights at Paroah’s source. The Rebbe teaches that it represents our job of illuminating the physical world with Torah and Mitzvos. That is seen most clearly through women who light Shabbos candles that physically light up the world. Their “light” is what prepares the world for the ultimate revelation of G-dly light at the time of the Geulah. It is for this reason that the Rebbe asked that children begin lighting candles at the young age of three because we need to add more light to the darkness of Golus.
All Mitzvos are compared to Shabbos candles, it’s an all encompassing Mitzvah; our arms we wave to the candles represent Ahavas and Yiros Hashem. Shabbos is a taste of Moshiach (“yom shekulo shabbos”); it’s also feminine, so women are the ones who practically bring in Shabbos. Children’s taste of G-dliness comes from their mothers.
The Haftorah of Shiras Devorah, “the song of a woman,” again is showing the merit of women. The portion relates how Devorah would make the wicks for the mishkan, showing a woman’s role in illuminating the home and the world with her Shabbos candles. And it recounts how Devorah would sit under a tree, emphasizing how it’s the modesty of the mother that is the foundation of the entire Jewish nation.
This is seen in the Sichah of Parshas Bishalach too. At Shiras Hayam, Miriam and the women sang and danced with tambourines at the sea, with a joy greater than the men’s. Miriam, meaning bitter, represents her deep embitterment in Golus. She prophesied about the Geulah, constantly yearning for it, therefore, it was in her merit that the prophecy was later fulfilled.
Even before Moshe was born she prophesied that he would redeem the Jewish people. She envisioned Geulah before anyone else. Golus pained her much deeper because she envisioned Geulah. So she felt bitterness and joy, embodying the duality most intensely. As seen with Rochel Imeinu too, Hashem says He will bring the redemption because of her tears. The depth of the joy comes from the depth of the pain, so it was specifically the women who were dancing with their tambourines with a greater happiness.
Women singing by the yam suf was greater than the men because the women were prepared with instruments because they knew they would have to sing. Miriam was still in reality, she knew the Golus, but held the paradox of tasting the future joy. The Sefirah of Malchus is a vessel (keli), it’s humble (bitul), it doesn’t have an agenda. It also creates the next world. The woman is unassuming and creates life, there’s no personal agenda, which can get in the way.
The woman’s ability to feel things in a real way and envision it before it happens is the formula we need to have practically today:
• Malchus is associated with speech, we create through speech the energy of the home and create the vessel for the future.
• We can picture the redemption and stay focused, making great things happen within our homes by 1) having more modesty and 2) joy, 3) lighting Shabbos candles, 4) raising children, 5) envisioning a better tomorrow.
All the teachings of the Rebbe is a lesson and empowerment for women now. In Egypt the women were so certain the Geulah was coming immediately that, already at the last moments of Golus, they sang with immense joy. The Rebbe teaches that women today should too. Yes, we should demand that G-d bring the Geulah and be deeply pained at the length of this exile. But all this must be permeated with a great happiness; a joy and trust of the redemption’s arrival, expressed through music and song.
Let’s not forget, as our sages tell us, that “in the merit of righteous women we were redeemed from Egypt, and in the merit of righteous women our future redemption will come.” What greater female power is there than that?