Class 16 - Questions and Answers
by Rebbetzin Leah Kohn
This week, "Women in Judaism" presents responses to course material from
our diverse cyber-space student body. We have also included our return
comments. Please feel free to write us with your own reactions to the
Dear Mrs. Kohn:
In regard to your class entitled "Sarah's Accomplishment: An Inheritance
for Every Jew"...
Please, explain why Sarah was heroic in Egypt.
Was a time sequence given for her length of stay with the pharoah, so
that her virtue could be better realized pertaining to endurance?
Also, is Hashem another word for G-d?
To answer your question about Sarah's heroism...her accomplishment was in
not being immediately seduced by Egyptian culture. To have remained
unaffected by a society so dedicated to immediate gratification is best
understood within the context of today's "consumer" culture. In both
cultures, once someone takes a second look, the less desirable underside of
the culture becomes apparent. But at first, one is hard put to resist its
pleasures. Not only did Sarah resist, she did not even experience an iota
of desire for the surrounding culture.
You also inquired about the name Hashem. "Hashem" literally means "the
name,"and is a common way to say "God" in both conversational Hebrew and in
Jewish books (not including the Bible). The term expresses the fact that
we do not know the essence o f God, and can only refer to Him in a more
general way. It's also a term of respect, in the same way one would
address a king as "his majesty".
Dear Mrs. Kohn:
Apparently I was wrong when I thought the Old Testament
was the same as the Torah. Can you please clarify the difference?
Thank you for your email inquiry re. Old Testament vs Torah. The word
"Torah", in its literal sense, refers to the 5 Books given to Moses at
Mount Sinai (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), often
called the "Chumash". The word "Torah" is also used in its broadest sense
to describe all of Jewish wisdom. For a good English translation of the
Chumash see the "Stone Chumash" published by Artscroll.
Dear Mrs. Kohn:
(In regard to your class on Body Image, Feminine Beauty & Torah)...it seems
as if you are saying a Jewish woman should take great care with her
personal beauty/image, so as not to defame the name of Jewish womanhood;
and also that this dwelling on her beauty can cause anorexia, etc. This is
a very sore topic, as you know. The groom should be the most learned; the
bride should be the most beautiful: so goes the shidduch routine. We don't
choose him because he's handsome; we do choose her because she is
beautiful, and that doesn't usually mean beauty of soul, although this can,
of course, come into play. So why are you skirting around the issue
instead of calling a spade a spade? Beauty does, of course, count. It's
good for the Jews for a woman to be beautiful. If she's not, it's not good
for the Jews. This is realty. Beauty of soul may count if a person gets
to know one; but first, one has to get by the outer appearance -- in males
as well as females...
Thank you for your email response to our class on beauty in Judaism. From
the focus of our article, I had hoped it would be clear that, while our
emphasis is on spiritual beauty, we Jews live in the physical world and as
such appearance counts, too. I now see that perhaps the article was not
explicit, and I appreciate your having brought this to my attention via
Certainly, the Jewish community struggles, alongside the secular world,
with the dangerous consequences of obsession with physical appearance. You
are probably aware that anorexia, bulemia and associated disorders have
become an issue, particularly amongst young Jewish women. In addition, you
are right that when it comes to shidduchim, one's inner beauty is not as
immediately apparent, compared to looks. Ideally, we are asked by Torah to
maintain a healthy perspective and balance between physical and spiritual
Dear Rebbitzen Kohn,
(In regard to your essay entitled, " The Story of Chana: Prayer With a
I am both troubled and inspired by your story of Chana. I think I am most
troubled by your attempting to "prove" that women's parity with men, or indeed
their superiority regarding matters of prayer is acknowledged and accepted by
the Sages. I wish I could buy it, but long and bitter experience shows me
that it would be
a foolhardy purchase!
But ultimately I am left with a deep sadness. Chana's entire energy was
channelled into conception and birth and ultimately she prayed for a male
child not simply a child.
She must have known, that in the ethic and the culture of her day, if God
opened her womb and gave her a female child it simply wouldn't have been
enough. I know that the resultant blessing was great indeed. A Samuel doesn't
come along too often. But I also know that his maleness was paramount to his
being able to be the influence he was.
Please, don't hit me with Hulda or Dvora. I have studied these, and other
remarkable women in our tradition and hope to continue to do so. (I learn from
the Hebrew text - Midrash, Chumash and Gemarrah) with wonderful teachers. I
suppose I am asking you simply to be aware of the pain and difficulty of being
a modern woman attempting to straddle the secular life and the Orthodox world
of my people. Simplistic revisionism is not enough. Nevertheless, I look
forward to your continued teaching.
My thanks and much respect for your ability to articulate the frustration
of many women who inhabit both orthodox and secular worlds. You raise
several painful issues, which I will try to address in this
correspondence. Nonetheless, I invite you to telephone me toll free at the
Jewish Renaissance Center 1(888) CLASSES, should my response feel
superficial, given the limitations of email.
The essay on Chana did not purport to prove women's superiority to men in
prayer. Rather, it set out to prove that the value of prayer lies in its
content and intention. Purity of heart and devotion are the barometers of
accomplishment in prayer. Chana was special in this regard. Her
outpouring established a new vernacular for prayer that altered our
relationship to the Almighty for all time.
In response to your observation that Chana prayed for a male child, Chana's
generation anticipated through prophecy the birth of a leader called
Samuel. Thus, every pregnant woman prayed for a boy, who would fulfill
that prediction and each new baby boy was named Samuel. Your frustration,
if I understand it correctly, is that this explanation may be satisfactory
insofar as it pertains to Chana, but it still leaves unresolved the
question of why so many women throughout Jewish history have specified male
offspring in their prayerful requests.
Based on this question I am compelled to go further, in an attempt to offer
you a deeper response. The reality is that Hashem did in fact give men a
greater number of mitzvot. Our sages tell us that men enter the world less
spiritually complete than women and, for this reason, they have been given
quantitatively more commandments with which to grow. Women come into the
world spiritually more complete than men. They have less to accomplish in
this regard and, therefore, they have fewer mitzvot. Being that we aspire
to have as many opportunities as possible to serve God, a woman might pray
for a son who would come into the world with the longest possible list of
commandments with which to serve his Creator.
If we go a step further, however, we realize that the playing field is more
level than it might seem. First, despite the fact that a man has more
mitzvot, neither man nor woman is able to complete his or her list of
duties in this world. Therefore, it would be a mistake to take a list of
potential opportunities and use them as a basis for actual spiritual
accomplishment. We are each here to serve Hashem in a distinct way,
through the mitzvot we have been assigned. This setup does not favor men
or women, since neither is able to study, develop and accomplish the entire
array of life's tasks.
And herein lies the source of each Jew's happiness, regardless of how many
mitzvot he or she has been given. Serving God wholeheartedly, with
inspiration and effort, engages us in a process of connecting with the
Divine. Through this we each gain a specific share in a universal totality
that is gratifying, in part, because it is so much bigger than any single
one of us. In order to fully participate in this project, we are must
accept our own limitations - as men, as women, as mortals. Contemporary
society is anathema to these prerequisites. But as Jews, they are key to
our spiritual growth and they remain at the heart of our self-esteem.
The process of spiritual growth never ends for either a man or a woman. In
terms of enriching one's understanding, enthusiasm, intention and the
overall quality of life's spiritual journey, one can remain well
engaged. Men and women, therefore, were granted equal opportunity to
invest in their relationship and enhance their connection to
Hashem. Nonetheless, each individual's opportunity is unique in
character. The challenge we face is to focus on our own work and to
understand what is essential to our own mission. One of the pitfalls in
this realm involves taking on challenges that are not assigned to us
specifically. This, in fact, was the mistake of first man who was asked by
God not to partake of what the tree had to offer.
In serving Hashem, it is our job to trust in His infinite wisdom, rather
than in our own assessment of what is best for us. Division of tasks has
been a reality in the Jewish Nation throughout history, as is evident in
the breakdown of duties between levites, kohanim, and the other tribes as
well as between kings, judges, leaders and amongst men and women. To
desire another's position or role is in essence to challenge God's wisdom.
As regards women, we have the opportunity to be as fulfilled in our roles
as any other members of the Jewish people. It is up to us to create
meaning, within the parameters given by God. This may take some effort,
especially since men's obligations are so clearly delineated, whereas those
assigned women are often more internal and less public. Nonetheless, it is
worthwhile to keep in mind the matriarchs, on whose merit we rely to this
day. These were women of great accomplishment in their female roles, not
to be upstaged by the patriarchs. When we ask God for assistance, we ask
Him to remember us in the name of both our foremothers and forefathers.
I hope I have been helpful.
Best Regards, Leah Kohn
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 1999 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and Project
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