Adapted from an essay by Rebbetzin Sara E. Freifeld
“All Israel has a share in the World to Come, as it is said: And your people are righteous; they shall inherit the land forever; a branch of My plantings, My handiwork, in which to take pride (Isaiah 60:21).
Each year as I open Pirkei Avos, the classic Jewish book of advice which we customarily study on long, lazy afternoons through the summer, I ask myself, “What is its particular message for women?”
The title of this little volume, roughly translated as “Ethics of the Fathers,” might seem to focus on men, yet this book is one of my favorites. In fact it’s a favorite of many Jewish women, who both study and teach its maxims. How – and why – are Jewish women integrating its advice into their daily lives?
The “Ethics” instructs us by means of reducing our moral choices to a minimum. All wisdom has been compressed, so that the essence of God’s
teachings is before us. We are challenged to live life at its greatest pitch, at its deepest depth and at its most sublime height. We might well be awed by the demands that the text places on us. How can one ever fulfill these standards of conduct? There is so much wisdom to learn, so much examination to be done of oneself, of one’s motives. Who can bear up to such scrutiny?
The very first sentence of Ethics of the Fathers responds to our doubts about whether we are capable of the accomplishments it lists. “All Israel has a share in the World to Come, as it is said: And your people are righteous; they shall inherit the land forever; a branch of My plantings, My handiwork, in which to take pride” (Isaiah 60:21). Consider how much love is in these words. They seem to say, “Take heart, be of good spirit. Trust in yourself.
You can succeed. You have the potential to triumph in this world and to inherit eternity.” God affirms us by seeing us all as righteous. He offers the Jewish people the greatest possible reassurance of our worthiness and our potential for success in the process of perfecting ourselves. We are the flower of God’s plantings. What more encouragement could one ask?
Words of encouragement in the first sentence of “Ethics” are followed by a demanding set of standards for character refinement. This method of positive reinforcement first, demands and responsibilities second, is key to the successful moral education of every Jew. This approach can be considered “indirect,” in terms of its subtle delivery of a difficult challenge by prefacing it with words of support. An approach such as this is the instinctive and divinely endowed specialty of the Jewish woman. Whether at home, at work or in the community women have the potential to influence the development, behavior and moral choices of those around them. Ethics of the Fathers offers the methodology and the specific tenets of moral conduct. As such, it is a perfect manual for the naturally “influential” Jewish woman who seeks direction for her inherent ability to communicate, influence, nurture in this world.
For thousands of years, Judaism has attested to a woman’s unique power to influence the development of those around her. Her ability to shape those in her world far exceeds a man’s, as the Talmud attests in the following parable: The sages of the Talmud tell of a righteous couple who divorce. The righteous man then marries a wicked woman, and the righteous woman a righteous man; the virtuous woman in turning her new husband into a virtuous man. The Midrash concludes that all depends on the woman (Midrash Bereishis Rabba 17:7).
In a more modern account the Chazon Ish, a Torah giant of the last generation, was asked by a community with limited resources whether they should build a seminary for the girls or a yeshiva for the boys. He told the community leaders to build the girls’ school, because without women dedicated to Torah and the Jewish way of life there would be no need for yeshivot.
As Jews, and especially as Jewish women, Ethics of the Fathers teaches us to believe in ourselves. The text makes clear that this positive attitude, cultivated by reinforcement from others, and ourselves, is a prerequisite for life’s difficult process of self-examination and personal growth. For women, who are charged with the heavenly assignment of helping others to grow, “Ethics” is invaluable.
Keeping in mind the essay, please share any stories you have of women who have influenced others in a special way. Did these women inspire others to accomplish something they might otherwise have not? What was the nature of the influence exerted – was it subtle or direct? psychological? Did it require great compromise or sacrifice from the woman exerting influence? Do you imagine that the influence might have been different had it been exerted by a man?
Please respond to [email protected]. Our next class wil feature a selection of your responses.
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2000 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and ProjectGenesis, Inc.