By Malka Touger

One Woman’s Thoughts

This overview came to be written shortly after Gimmel Tammuz. I found this timing significant, because for the entire year after the Rebbitzin Chayah Mushka נ"ע passed away, the Rebbe recalled the verse,1 והחי יתן אל לבו — “And the living shall take it to heart.” Writing this overview thus turned into an opportunity to take to heart the values the Rebbe endeavored to implant within women and the goals which he brought within their sights.

It is also significant that the overview and the essays that follow it are being published in English. In an expanded sense, the concept of translation has a lot to do with the way we relate to the Rebbe’s thoughts. The Rebbe’s ideas often have to be translated — and not necessarily because of a language barrier. Even when a person understands the Rebbe’s words, effort is needed to take his thoughts to heart, and to integrate them into our own thoughts. The Rebbe never intended his thoughts to remain abstract. On the contrary, his thrust has always been directed to applied wisdom, that ideals be given expression in our lives. This requires thinking over and thinking out the themes which we have heard from the Rebbe until they become personally relevant.

The very fact that ideas have been taken from the language in which they were initially articulated and transposed into another, represents the first stage in such a process of thinking over and thinking out. The following personal insights and thoughts are offered in this spirit. Obviously, they do not profess to be an authoritative statement on the Rebbe’s message to women. Instead, my intent has been to think creatively about these subjects, in the hope that others will be stimulated to discover and be enriched by more of the colors that emerge from the same prism.

Beyond Gender

I have often been asked: Why wasn’t there a woman Baal Shem Tov? Why isn’t there a woman Rebbe? Why should women rely on male insights with regard to their development as females?

I always answer that these questions don’t bother me. Were there to be a woman Baal Shem Tov, I would admire her as a teacher and as a spiritual guide because of her insight and the depth of her character, not because she was a female. For me, the profound insight and spiritual purpose that the Baal Shem Tov and the Rebbe communicate make the above questions seem out of place.

We have been taught to2 “accept the truth from whoever says it.” The insights which the Rebbe has shared with us help us grow in all dimensions, enabling us to become more of ourselves. For a woman, that means cultivating a greater awareness of all aspects of her personality, including those which express her femininity.

The Woman’s Voice Within Us

There are thus two ways to conceive of women’s liberation: (a) seeking equality within the masculine world; (b) liberating the feminine aspects of our personality and manifesting them. The latter conception reflects the thrust of the Rebbe’s directives for women. The Rebbe has always seen every individual as a full person, to be gently but firmly encouraged to fulfill herself or himself.

In times like ours when people are struggling to find a true sense of self, and are feeling a need to go beyond themselves, this message is vital. Without discounting the need for equity within the workplace and within society, it is the microcosm, the individual person, who influences the macrocosm, society at large.3 And in seeking self-fulfillment ourselves, and in endeavoring to build a society which encourages such efforts, it is important to hear the woman’s voice within us, and to let the world at large hear it, too.

In the works of our Sages, and particularly in the Kabbalah, certain qualities of character are described as masculine and others as feminine. These definitions are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, our character traits are interrelated.4 Nevertheless, though every masculine trait has within it a feminine dimension, and every feminine trait has a masculine side, the basic concept remains, that there exist feminine and masculine ways of thinking and feeling.5

Which traits are defined as feminine? Our Sages tell us6 that women are more richly endowed with Binah than men. Generally, Binah is translated as “understanding”. More particularly, it refers to one’s ability to interlock ideas and connect them, thereby developing a concept in all its particulars. But more important than the fact that the faculty of Binah allows us to see all the pieces of a puzzle, Binah brings these pieces close to our attention and enables us to identify with them.

Connected Knowledge

This feminine approach to thinking is becoming increasingly important in our lives today. The intelligence revolution exposes us to an ever-surging sea of information. Formidable waves of data come upon us cold and impersonal, and the constant and ever-more-urgent need to process it on a day-to-day basis, dwarfs our sense of self. We all feel the need to balance the technological advances that have become part of our lives, with growth on the human side.

And this is where a woman’s added dimension of Binah is most significant. It gives a woman a greater tendency toward empathy and what sociologists call “connected knowledge.” A woman arrives at knowledge by establishing a personal bond with the idea she wants to discover; she makes it part of herself, instead of treating it as merely an abstract construct.

All around us, we see people looking for this type of change. The success of Outward Bound and other wilderness groups (and the appeal they have for women as well as for men) indicates how strongly people desire to get back into touch with nature. The pet industry is flourishing, as people seek to somehow tap into the life-force of animals. And in our families, in our workplaces, and with friends, the importance of communication skills is being increasingly stressed.

A woman’s nature gives her the potential to exercise leadership in this area, and to engender warmth and trust in human relations. And as we strive to be more human, we will also develop a sensitivity to concepts which transcend humanity and thus attune ourselves to the spiritual.

A Lasting Contribution

Women have made great advances in the last generation, achieving success within the traditional roles offered by contemporary society. We have gotten a greater share of the pie, only to ask ourselves whether the pie is spiced to our tastes. As women experience a wider range of employment options, they often wonder if they want to continue at jobs which have mounting pressures and time demands. Indeed, many men are opting out and seeking to simplify their lives and devote more time to their families.

The busy routines we follow should not be allowed to rob us of the flexibility to rethink our priorities and, if necessary, redefine them. Our culture extols wealth and power, but in the midst of their pursuit, many of us realize that some of the most important things in life have absolutely nothing to do with these factors.7

We all have a desire for achievement, to make our mark on humanity, and to contribute something to posterity. Be it a building to design, a book to write, or an advance in medical technology, all of us, men and women, want to add something to our world. Women, however, have the unique potential to focus on the human being who lives on the 24th story of the building, on the person who will read the book, and on the quality of the life that the medical advance will save.

My mother-in-law understood this well. She used to smile and say, “I brought four children into the world and raised them to be healthy in mind and in body, and well-adjusted. Now, that’s a lasting contribution to society.”

Breathing humanity into the lives of our families is a self-perpetuating cycle. For well-adjusted children grow into well-adjusted parents who will raise well-adjusted children. And this is true outside the home as well. Touching the human side of a person makes him or her more capable of touching the human side of others.

It isn’t an either/or choice; ours is a world of multiple options. Whether she pursues a career outside the home, or makes her home her career, or fuses the two, a woman’s unique gift is to develop the human potential that she possesses, together with the potential which is found within her husband, within her children, and within all the people with whom she comes in contact.

I am not suggesting that women should forfeit the opportunities which contemporary life presents. What I would like to encourage is that we advance as women, use the unique gifts which we have been granted to enhance the humanity of our lives and the lives of the people around us, and make ourselves more sensitive to the inner spiritual truth that is present in every element of existence.

Our Sages8 describe how during the time of Korach’s rebellion against the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu, Ohn ben Peles found himself involved in this unproductive public controversy. His wife is held up for praise as having saved him. She had the foresight to look beyond the immediacies of his predicament; scorning a life of prestige, she even risked her own reputation in order to secure a life of meaning with her husband and family. Summing up her wise choice, the Sages pay her the ultimate compliment by applying to her the verse,9 “The wisdom of a woman builds her home.”

Woman’s wisdom of this kind is particularly important today in building our homes and families. Women have an inner sense of their own future and that of their families. Navigating according to this sense, they endeavor to inculcate lasting meaning and purpose in those around them.

Homemaking And Housekeeping

Back in the mid-’70’s, a Rabbi I know was speaking to a group of students about women’s issues. In the middle of the discussion one lively young woman confronted him sharply: “Rabbi, what does your wife do?”

On the one hand, there may not have been room for that question. After all, they were talking in the abstract, about how women and men should live their lives; surely there was no need to touch on the personal affairs of anyone involved. On the other hand, what the woman was really saying was, “Rabbi, if your abstracts are not reflected in your personal life, then I’m not interested!”

The Rabbi answered her that his wife managed a home for eight unwanted children. To these children she was everything — mother, counselor, teacher, social worker.

His listeners glowed. Here, at last, was a Rabbi whose wife had a career. She was not shackled to her home. As they continued talking, however, they realized that those eight children were the Rabbi’s and his wife’s, and the home she managed was their own.

They protested. Firstly, the Rabbi had misled them. Secondly, his wife did fit the stereotype — a typical Rabbi’s wife, stuck at home with nothing to do but care for the children.

The Rabbi listened and smiled: “When you thought that my wife ran a home for others, it was okay. But when she runs her own home, it’s no longer good enough.”

Homemaking is a career, and mothering is a career. And both — or either — of these two careers can contribute to a woman’s sense of fulfillment.

Homemaking is not housekeeping. Homemaking means determining the atmosphere of the house, defining its rhythms, its basic thrust and character. Housekeeping means keeping it neat and tidy. Housekeepers, either male or female, can be hired. Homemaking is a challenge which every individual must face personally.

One couple, both academics, began their careers as traveling lecturers. They would journey from campus to campus, staying at each destination for only a short while. Rather than invest in buying a house, they made their home in a trailer.

They had a child, who shared in both the positive dimensions of their living experience, and the challenges it presented. Once at a get-together of their extended family, one of the little girl’s uncles asked her: “Honey, aren’t you sorry you don’t have a home?”

To which she replied: “But Uncle Sam, we do have a home. We just don’t have a house to put it in.”

Homemaking is a combined effort to which both husband and wife must contribute. Nevertheless, it is the woman who is called10 akeres habayis, a term which can be understood as ikaro shel bayis — “the mainstay of the home.” For the heightened Binah and the connected knowledge that women possess enable them to weave abstract values and spiritual principles into the palpable fabric of the home environment. Without minimizing the role a man must play in cultivating the environment of his home, it is a woman who nurtures and shapes that environment on a day-to-day basis.

As an example of this, the Sages11 point out that though a man may give a pauper money, his wife’s charity is superior: by sharing her handiwork with the pauper, she is the first to satisfy his hunger. In other household dynamics likewise, it is the woman whose skill shapes raw materials into beneficial products.

This contribution is not necessarily dependent on whether a woman stays home, or whether she has a career outside; it has to do with how much of herself she invests in her home. There are women who are at home all day and yet cannot summon up the inner energy to be homemakers, and there are others who give of themselves both at home and in their workplaces.

Investing In Children

On the verse,12 “A man will... cleave to his wife and they will become a single flesh,” Rashi explains that it is in the birth of children that the union of a man and a woman is consummated. And so, having and raising children is a fundamental component of the way a couple shape their home environment.

This is a natural drive within a woman. Caring for your own baby inspires an inner satisfaction that rings true. Children have always been considered one of the greatest blessings a couple can be granted. And the more children, the greater the blessing.13

Mothering is a continuation of homemaking. If homemaking means investing yourself in your environment, mothering means making such an investment within our children. And the two go hand in hand; as a woman molds her own home environment, she is shaping that of her children.

It is in mothering that the difference between homemaking and housekeeping becomes crucial. True enough, a child needs a housekeeper, someone to make sure he is fed, clothed, and kept clean. But together with these material things, his parents must invest in his character, and endow him with values, principles and purpose. If their tangible gifts are not coupled with intangible ones, the children may grow up deprived. And this kind of deprivation in a child’s formative years is very hard to compensate for in later life.

Gently and patiently, a mother nurtures her child’s self-assurance and growth as a person from the tiniest age. For the child’s education begins far before she or he enters a schoolroom. Her or his character and personality are being molded from the moment she or he emerges into the world and begins interacting with the environment. Indeed, even within the fetal environment of the womb, education is taking place.

Here the reassuring love of a mother is all-important. A mother’s loving bond with her baby convinces that child that the world can be a rewarding place to live in. The absence of such love can leave a child with the sense that the world at large is unsatisfying, challenging, and even hostile.

Without a mothering influence, even when their rearing is entrusted to professionals, children grow up lacking. This has been documented in studies of children raised on kibbutzim and communes. Indeed, on the basis of these studies, the kibbutz movement has rethought its ideology towards home and family.

G‑d Needs Homemakers

The art and skill of homemaking is metaphorically relevant beyond the individual sphere of our own homes. Indeed, our Sages explain14 that G‑d created the world because He desired a home.

What does this analogy mean? A home is where we relax and express ourselves. This is possible outside our homes as well, but it is not the same. There are always social conventions, personal reservations, and the like. But when we’re at home, it’s different. That’s where we can really express who we are.

G‑d created our world to be His home, the place where He expresses who He really is. Nevertheless, the headlines of any newspaper make it clear that, as of yet, this is merely a potential. It is a sizable challenge to make the world we live in fit to be a dwelling for mortals, let alone for G‑d. It will not be until the Era of the Redemption that we will actually be able to see just how the world is His home.

G‑d has left the task of cultivating the environment of His home to mankind, to become His homemakers by refining our conduct. And just as the major role in modulating the environment of our own homes has been entrusted to women, so too, womanly traits — the insights of connected knowledge inspired by a woman’s heightened measure of Binah — are vital in the task of transforming the world into a home where G‑d can express Himself.

The Marriage Of G‑d And His People

The male and female aspects of the relationship between G‑d and the Jewish people, and their respective roles in the dynamic of perfecting the world, are reflected in the Song of Songs. Our Sages explain15 that the lyrical resonance of its classical Hebrew communicates more than a message of sensuous love: it is a saga of the ongoing relationship between G‑d and His people. The love depicted there, now waxing, now waning, serves as an allegory for the alternating states of exile and redemption that our people have experienced over the years.

Though at the superficial level of analogy this is a description of human love, in this case the analogy and the analogue are one and the same. For in composing the Song of Songs, King Solomon intended to motivate the full range of our personalities, not only our minds. He wanted us to know how deep and powerful is the relationship that the Jewish people share with G‑d.

The Zohar16 teaches that G‑d created our world “in order that we know Him”: everything He brought into being is a bugle to awaken within us a deeper understanding of our relationship with Him.

The objects and people in our physical world thus mean more than what meets the eye; they are merely palpable echoes of spiritual realities. It is not only that they enable us to gain an awareness of the spiritual; the truth of their existence is the spiritual truth that they echo. Their physical existence is merely a garment that enables these spiritual truths to be expressed in material terms.17

If this is true about creation as a whole, it is surely true of the fundamental element of creation — man. Thus, for example, the relationship between a man and a woman mirrors the bond between G‑d and man.

In essence, a husband and a wife are one being; indeed, the Zohar18 describes their union as the joining of two half-souls. Nevertheless, this deep-seated oneness does not always surface. As husbands and wives live their lives from day to day, they often see themselves primarily as separate entities who still need to cultivate and nurture the love that should join them.

Similar concepts apply with regard to G‑d and His people. Every element of existence contains a spark of G‑dliness. In particular, our Jewish soul is19 “truly a part of G‑d above.” Nevertheless, we are usually conscious of our own individual personalities, and not of that G‑dly core. Developing a bond with G‑d requires effort.

The Song of Songs tells us about a process of developing harmony — on one level, between a man and a woman, and on a deeper level, between G‑d and His people. It explains how sometimes it is the man (in the analogue, G‑d) who takes the initiative, and sometimes, it is the woman (the Jewish people), and how sometimes their periods of closeness are disrupted by an inability to communicate. It concludes with an allegorical promise that ultimately, in the Era of Redemption, the loving bond between G‑d and His people will blossom into fulfillment.

Seeing The Future In The Present

In the Torah,20 love is called “knowledge”. This implies looking at one’s partner up close, seeing him (or her) as he really is, and opening oneself to him. Significantly, however, when the analogy in the Song of Songs speaks of a deep and lasting love, it often describes not a state of closeness, but a love that thrives despite distance and separation. The same applies in the analogue. The woman in the analogy says,21 “I am asleep, yet my heart is awake.” In this verse the Sages22 hear the self-assuring words of Israel during the time of exile: “I am asleep from the Redemption, yet my heart is awake to G‑d.”

This ability to feel a powerful love despite separation, comes naturally to women. Women are plainly in touch with the reality in which they live. Nevertheless, the scope of their conception is not narrowed by this awareness; they are able to see beyond the immediacies of their environment.

This potential is exemplified in the narrative of our people’s exile and redemption in ancient Egypt. Our Sages relate23 that, wearied by the pressures of forced labor, and in despair because of Pharaoh’s decree to drown their sons in the Nile, our forefathers would have refrained from bringing more children into the world. Their wives, however, refused to resign themselves to such a situation, and gently awakened their husbands’ love.

They knew how hard their husbands worked — indeed, they too were forced to perform hard labor; they also knew of Pharaoh’s cruel decree. But they understood that the exile was only temporary, whereas the love between a husband and a wife, and the conception of children, are permanent values. And they knew that ultimately, what was of permanent value would prevail.

Our Sages teach us,24 “In the merit of righteous women, our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt.” What was the women’s merit? — That they were able to look beyond the darkness and suffering around them. For them, redemption was not a promise of the future; it was a real factor in their lives. This gave them the inner strength to raise children who were able to “recognize G‑d first” at the Sea of Reeds.25 In the same way, every Jew possesses faith — not as a learnt trait, but as an inherent expression of his true identity. Since his soul is a spark of G‑d, every individual’s awareness of spirituality rings true within his or her inner being.26

A woman’s nature makes this goal particularly attainable. This does not mean that she will not face challenges and require effort to overcome them. Rather, her unique tendency to be in touch with her inner self, enables her to focus on values that are true and lasting and ultimately to bring them into expression.

A Responsive Heart

Our Sages have told us that the time before the coming of Mashiach will be a time of paradox. On the one hand, we will be able to perceive a glimmer of the future light. On the other hand, this era will be weighted down by a darkness so palpable that it will prevent the light from being properly perceived.27

Our Prophets28 allude to this state by referring to the struggles which will precede the Redemption as chevlei Mashiach, the birthpangs of Mashiach. All women who have given birth will agree that the exhilaration of bringing new life into the world dwarfs the intensity of the pain, however great. The birth itself is the most powerful dimension of the entire experience, and the most lasting.

The changes taking place throughout our society on both the global and the individual planes point to a transition of awesome scope. As in the experience of giving birth, women focus on the ultimate goal of this transition, the coming of the Redemption, and are not overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges this transition presents. Moreover, a woman’s sense of forevision enables her to bring the awareness of the Redemption into her life today. For the essence of the Era of the Redemption is the fusion of the material and the spiritual — that we do not see the world as an independent physical entity, but appreciate its inner spiritual content. And such an approach is natural for a woman.

In this spirit the Prophet Yeshayahu tells us that when Mashiach comes,29 “The world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the ocean bed.” We will know G‑d, not as an abstract, spiritual entity, but as an integral part of every dimension of our lives.

When speaking of the Jewish people at the time of the Redemption, the Prophet Yechezkel says:30 “I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh.” What the prophet is saying is that a sensitive heart, a heart that responds to what the mind knows, is the key to the change in our feelings that will take place in the Era of the Redemption.

We do not have to wait for the Redemption to begin developing such sensitivity. We can begin removing the hardness from our hearts already.31 Indeed, living with the Redemption — anticipating its effects by sensitizing our lives right now — serves as a catalyst that will make the Redemption a foreseeable and manifest reality.32 Thinking over the Rebbe’s insights and applying them in our lives are fundamental elements in this process. Each of the essays to follow heightens our awareness of the potentials we possess as women, and points towards realistic goals for the expression of these potentials. In this way, they spur us to summon up and channel positive energies to enhance our lives and those of our families and friends, making Redemption a reality.