On December 4th, 2018, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Israel demanding that authorities act to curb sharp increase in violence against women. This is the time to remind ourselves that Jewish tradition honors strong women. Let us look in depth at Eshet Chayil, the proverbial woman of valor – what are the qualities she is praised for?
The book of Proverbs ends its pages with a remarkable tribute to what it regards as the “ideal woman.” The acrostic poem (Proverbs 31:10-31) is commonly referred to by its opening words, Eshet Chayil, ‘the woman of valor,’ and is traditionally sung at the Friday night dinner table to the woman of the household. The Eshet Chayil is a successful business woman who buys fields and uses the profits for further investments (verse 16). She gives charity to the poor (verse 20) and articulates a teaching of wisdom and love (verse 26). Her praises are sung in the gates of the city (verse 31).
Perhaps the most famous line of this poem is that of verse 30 – “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” It is striking to note that the ancient Greek translation of this verse reflects a different version of the text: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a wise and successful woman (=sunete; משכלת) is to be praised.” Many scholars believe that this actually reflects the original text of the poem. After all, nowhere else in the poem do we find any clear mention of God or the keeping of Mitzvot. The Eshet Chayil works hard and enjoys great financial success. She is wise and kind but not clearly “religious.” Furthermore, she could even be seen as a bit too confident in her own powers, for according to verse 25 she “laughs at the future.” This contravenes a more religiously oriented passage in Proverbs, which warns, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you never know what a day may bring.”
It thus seems likely that late editors found the original poem problematic and sought to “correct” it. The idea of praising the ideal Jewish woman as overly independent, confident, wise and successful had to be at least partly suppressed in favor of a more pious feminine ideal – that of “fear of the Lord,” which, in this context, probably implies greater obedience, passivity and humility. Similar signs of this kind of “religious” editing are found in other places in the book of Proverbs as well.
How are we to deal with this issue today? I would suggest that both versions must be embraced. Today we must recognize that the Jewish woman does not need to choose between religious piety and independence, wisdom and success. There need not be any contradiction between the two.
Perhaps, then, we should start singing a combination of both versions on Friday nights – “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a wise and successful woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”