A well-known midrash introduces us to the wily wife of the biblical Korach. In the privacy of her home, she ridicules Moshe Rabbeinu and the laws of the single “cord of blue,” the techeiles component of the tzitzis cords that are required on a four-cornered garment. She sews a garment made entirely of techeiles and tells her husband to ask Moshe if this, too, requires a single cord of techeiles. When Moshe replies that it does, she laughs at the “illogic” of this law, unaware that her argument is built on erroneous premises. Ultimately she is responsible, say the Sages, for leading her husband, herself, and his rebels into the pit of sheol. (Cf. Midrash Tanchuma on Bamidbar 16 ff.)
Aha! A modern feminist might say. An early example of the patriarchy: blaming women. Here again is the anti-female bias of the ancient misogynist rabbis.
But wait! See the full midrash: Although Ohn ben Peles is listed as a leading rebel at the beginning of the narrative, his name is missing in the climactic scene when they gather around Moshe to taunt him. Where is he? Say the Sages: his wife dissuaded him from rebelling, and so he absented himself from the final confrontation and was saved from the destruction that met Korach and his malcontents.
Thus, Mrs. Korach was a force for destruction; Mrs. Ohn ben Peles was a force for reconciliation.
For good or for ill, women have always controlled the destiny of their families and the destiny of the people of Israel. The woman may seclude herself behind the mechitzah of modesty and tzniyus, but she wields a decisive power over men. Beginning with Eve and Adam, and the Matriarchs, Sarah, Rivkah, Rochel, Leah; and Bnos Tzelafchad and Rachav of Jericho and Yael and Devorah and Queen Esther — the narrative that Judaism denigrates the positive role of women is based on a superficial reading of the text.
Feminists counter: Yes, the Torah respects women, but the post-Biblical sages and rabbis distorted the Torah and somehow managed to downgrade women. This faulty premise is the basis for many of the innovations instituted by Reform and Conservative groups: let the Orthodox molder in their medieval anti-female darkness; we will restore the glory of women to its pristine sense.
Fascinating: Despite the supposedly liberating innovations of mixed seating during public worship; aliyos to women; female rabbis ,and other anti-halachic behaviors, it is precisely the non-Orthodox movements that have been fading away around the world, while the benighted Orthodox are today the most vibrant.
But prejudice is not concerned with facts, and thus the cant persists that the more Orthodox one is, the more anti-women one is. Thus, the most Orthodox — what people call the chareidim — are considered the most extreme anti-feminists.
Which is risible. As a pulpit rabbi for 40 years, I have seen all kinds of husbands from all kinds of backgrounds — and of course, in matters involving something as subjective as relationships, one can share only general feelings and intuition — but it seemed to me that somehow, the more Orthodox the husbands and the more “unenlightened,” the better do they treat their wives, by and large. Conversely, the more modern, the more sophisticated, the less sensitivity do they seem to have toward their wives. Where else but in chareidi enclaves do we find men unabashedly taking care of children, bringing them to school, wheeling their prams and strollers, folding laundry, helping their wives in myriad ways? And this applies even to those husbands who are the primary wage earners in their families. One rarely sees this in the non-chareidi Jewish areas of Manhattan or in North Tel Aviv.
I also found that if the wife wanted to move forward religiously, the husband went along. Be it mikveh or kashrus or shul attendance or tzedakah or chesed, she was the engine that moved her family. If she wanted it done, it was done.
It is no wonder that in the Creation week, whatever was created later was an advance, a step forward, over what was created earlier. The progression is from the basic to the most complex, from unformed chaos and emptiness all the way up to the climax of creation — Adam. But consider: Was not someone created after Adam? Was it not the woman we call Eve?
To imitate men, to be accepted like men, dress like men, fight in the infantry like men, wear a tallis like men: These seem to be the paramount goal of some contemporary feminists. They are apparently unaware that a) by imitating men, they are willy-nilly suggesting that they are inferior to men and that b) they are, in effect, rejecting the very uniqueness and differentness that makes a woman so powerful.
Furthermore, their efforts will obliterate their very superiority, for once they become just like men, they will lose their extraordinariness and will become merely ordinary — just like men.
For good or ill, both Mrs. Korach and Mrs. Ohn ben Peles understood this well.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 776)