Does The Torah Say That A Wife Is Meant to Defer to Her Husband?
Dear Jew in the City,
I was told by a Jewish educator that my role as a wife is to defer to my husband because Chava came from a part of Adam and was supposed to be his helper. Is this actually based on Torah sources?
In a sense, yes, it’s based on Torah sources: it’s based on a particular reading of the verses that describe the creation of humanity. We are told that Hashem created Adam, proclaimed that he would do better with an ezer kenegdo, took a tzela from Adam, and created woman from it. If someone wants to focus on the word ezer, “helper,” as THE defining role of womankind – and if that same person believes the job of a “helper” is to defer to the one being helped – then sure, they can claim those pesukim as a basis.
But reading the text that way, and stopping there, is an overly simplistic understanding of an incredibly complex passage (the creation story) and an overly simplistic approach to an incredibly complex topic (gender roles).
(Even those commentaries who indeed read “ezer kenegdo” along those lines say other things in other places, that have to be taken into account in forming a full picture of how each scholar might view gender roles.)
First, the claim that a woman exists to be a “helper” to her man ignores half the phrase. She is not simply an “ezer,” helper, but one who is to be “kenegdo” – probably best translated as “opposite him,” though that doesn’t exactly clear things up.
What is a “helper opposite him”?
Many explanations have been offered (including some that use different translations of “kenegdo”). Possibly the most famous is that of Rashi. Echoing a midrashic tradition, Rashi understands “kenegdo” to mean not just “opposite” but “opposing” – and because opposition seems to be at odds with “help,” he further explains that she might be one or the other, depending on what he deserves. “If he merits, a helper; if he does not merit, opposite him, to fight.”
I can see two ways to understand Rashi’s interpretation. In the first, the woman is indeed intended to be a helper to the man – but if he doesn’t deserve help, she will instead be a hindrance, making his life unpleasant and stopping him from accomplishing what he tries to accomplish.
Alternatively, we might understand Rashi as saying that if the man is deserving – meaning, if he does good things and intends good things – then she will support and help him towards that; if he is not a deserving sort, she will become his opposition. In this interpretation, she prevents his intended accomplishments not because he’s being punished with an unpleasant shrew or an obstacle to success, but because his idea of success is not a positive one. His goals are not good – and so ultimately, by opposing them, she is helping him.
I find the second understanding of Rashi more likely, but really both make it fairly clear that the goal was not for her to simply be a subservient, deferential helper; rather, there are times it is appropriate that she be kenegdo, and argue.
In fact, that is exactly what we see biblical heroines doing. It amazes me that people can read the Torah – or our Sages’ midrashic interpretations – and come away with any one idea about a woman’s role, including the idea that women are tasked purely with honoring and obeying their husbands. When Avraham doesn’t see the danger in Yishmael’s presence and Sarah does, God Himself tells him, “All that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice.” Rivka sets up an elaborate plan to pull the goatskin over her husband’s eyes – and I’ve never seen a traditional text criticize her disobedience. Rachel and Leah, on one occasion that we’re told of, negotiate between themselves what Yaakov will be doing that night and with whom; Leah marches out at the end of the day to greet him and inform him of their decision, and apparently he honored and obeyed her instructions.
Do biblical husbands always tell their wives what to do? Do their wives always defer to them? Do their examples suggest that we should hand over control of our lives to our husbands, by virtue of the fact that they are men and we are only on this earth to “help” them with whatever they wish?
Or do our role models demonstrate the need for some push and pull in a marriage relationship, the need to step up and say or do something about it when we believe our spouse is headed down the wrong path? Do they show us that sometimes we must be an ezer, and sometimes, keneged – and that sometimes, the truest “help” comes in the form of opposition?
Defining a woman’s relationship to her husband simply as a deferential “helper” ignores both the fullness of the phrase at hand and the examples of numerous Jewish women in the Bible and beyond – not to mention the vast body of Torah scholarship and tradition beyond this one passage about creation or even the stories of our matriarchs. That tradition offers much more complexity in its views of marriage than we could ever hope to address here, and doesn’t deserve to be reduced to a sound-bite.
In fact, there’s plenty more complexity to be found within the creation story. For instance, I’m not convinced that even the full phrase, “ezer kenegdo,” is intended purely as a description of the woman vis-à-vis the man; I’m also not convinced that it’s particularly significant which sex was created from part of, or presented as an “ezer kenegdo” for, which.
This point requires much more discussion, but in a nutshell:
The Torah states in Genesis 1:27 that “God created the Adam in His image; in the image of God, He created him; male and female He created them.” Perhaps we can understand the switch between singular and plural by using “it” rather than “him” – i.e. a reference not to one man, but to the human species as a whole. “God created humanity in His image, namely, a male human and a female human.” This is the story not of creating a man (lower-case, referring to the male sex) named Adam, but of creating Mankind as a species – male and female simultaneously, both in His image and fundamentally equal to one another. (See also the beginning of chapter 5.)
In chapter 2, we find out that “it is not good for the Adam to be alone” – but is the point that a man needs a woman, or that a human needs another human? “It is not good for man” – male – “to be alone”? Or “it is not good for there to only be one solitary human”?
Perhaps the idea in this account is not to show that man is first and woman is second, but to highlight the importance of society and partnership to humanity. God’s ultimate plan for “goodness” in His world could not be achieved without diversity – a diversity that rests on the fundamental fact of equality. “In the image of God He created them.”
Which means the intent is not to idealize a one-directional relationship in which one (the woman) always plays assistant to the other (the man), but a sense of coming together to complement and help each other. In fact, the Kli Yakar seems to say just that: the intent was for “each one to help and benefit the other.”
(I felt quite validated to come across this line in Kli Yakar decades after delivering a bat mitzvah speech in which I argued that Adam was supposed to serve as a “helper opposite her” to Eve, just as she was to be for him. A family friend commented half-teasingly about my “feminist” speech – but I’m sure the Kli Yakar, in the 16th century, wasn’t influenced by feminist sensitivities.)
Do, or should, men and women have different roles? That is a much bigger question, with complex sources and ideas to work through and many societal changes to consider. But it seems clear to me that from the dawn of humanity, it was never the plan that one spouse must be subservient to the other; such deference wouldn’t actually do anyone any good, without the balance of “kenegdo,” and it is not a model demonstrated by those women we hold up as worthy of emulating.
Instead, “a man will leave his father and his mother and will cling to his wife, and they will be one flesh.” Two puzzle pieces fitting together, each filling in what the other is missing, to return to a state where singular and plural are meaningless – indeed, emulating God Himself in whose image we all were made.
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