Sisterhood Blog

Is Eshet Chayil a Hypocritical Prayer?

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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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.”

A JWW source who asked to be identified only as “Devorah,” told The Sisterhood that JWW mailed a similar statement, which can be seen here,](http://www.jewishwomenwatching.com/actions/eshet/) to the lay and professional leaders of the Rabbinical Council of America, National Council of Young Israel, and to leaders of the State of Israel.

About the RCA, the JWW statement reads:

Sara Hurwitz completed full rabbinic training only to have her title of Rabba stripped from her weeks later. The repositioning came by way of pressure from the Rabbinic Council of America who made an official statement rejecting the ordination of women and the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate.

About The National Council of Young Israel, it says:

In 1997, Gail Billig became the first female president of an Orthodox synagogue. Ten years later, the National Council of Young Israel ruled that women and converts are not permitted to be presidents of their synagogues.

And referring to the Israeli police, it reads:

On January 5 and July 12, 2010, the police fingerprinted Anat Hoffman, a leader of the group Women of the Wall, and threatened her with a felony charge. Women of the Wall have assembled for over twenty years at the Western Wall to read Torah, sing, and pray. The women who gather are harassed, arrested, and assaulted.

And about the “Woman of Valor,” the statement says:

You can find her…

…locked out of the rabbinate.

…barred from synagogue leadership.

…in handcuffs.

Asked if JWW had received any response to its mailing, “Devorah” said, “We did not hear back from them, but we don’t expect to. The role of our group is to get the fire started, to get the conversation rolling.”

Attempts to reach several leaders of Young Israel were unsuccessful. The RCA’s president, Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, said, “I don’t remember getting anything from them. It’s a very busy time” of year for rabbis.

Rabbi Leonard Matanky, who is an RCA vice president, said of the JWW mailing: “I remember getting it, but I have an old policy. I don’t’ respond to anonymous letters. When I see something anonymous all it says is the person doesn’t want to enter into dialogue, and I just throw it out. I’m always happy to talk, but there’s nothing I can do to respond to an anonymous anything.”

The group began its work 11 years ago with a Rosh Hashanah card, sent to about 1,500 Jewish community leaders, that had a vintage look with a modern message, saying that “Sexism is a Sin.’

Over the years the group has put out statements and run campaigns on a variety of issues, from sexism to anti-gay and lesbian stances in Jewish institutions, and also what it described as “Jewish racist voices.”

Its efforts have also been sporadically visible through “actions,” like the one it conducted last Shavuout, when four JWW members in owl costumes went to the all-night study session at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan to distribute literature critiquing the “Jewish community’s obsession with heteronormative partnership and procreation.”

“Devorah” declined to say how many members JWW has or how the organization is funded. “To me this organization is a source of cheshbon hanefesh, or self examination and judgment,” she said. “As we leave the High Holiday time, we keep that spirit of communal judgment in a constructive way alive.”


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