“A woman of valour who can find? For her price is far above rubies.” (Proverbs 31:10 JPS)
Eshet Hayil, A Woman of Valour,” the acrostic poem found in Proverbs 31, is a Jewish expression of appreciation for women. In many Jewish households these words are sung every Friday night, and they are also commonly sung to a bride during her wedding as a mark of her partner’s praise and appreciation.
The woman of valour has multiple talents: she sews, cooks, cleans, and tends to her own vineyards. Not only does she produce for her family, she is also a breadwinner, producing textiles to sell commercially. Of course, she is the foundation upon which her family rests. She is committed to taking care of all of her husband’s needs in order to ensure that he can spend his time studying with the town elders. She is also an excellent mother, rearing and carefully educating her ever-grateful children. A woman of valor is both wise and devout, speaking words of wisdom and devotedly serving God with her works. She is also kind, taking care of the less fortunate and giving generously to the poor. The proverb exclaims that many women have done well but the woman of valor has surpassed them all.
One might expect contemporary society to find this portrayal of the ideal woman archaic or in conflict with modern feminist sensibilities. Still, many of the core values found in this chapter of Proverbs are upheld as contemporary Jewish ideals. We still expect Jewish women to be hardworking contributors to the family and society. Moreover we still hold the value of the family unit in high regard and expect a woman to be a supportive partner who raises successful well-rounded children. Instead of tending to her vineyards and sewing her own wardrobe, the modern Jewish woman works nine-to-five, drives the soccer carpool, and then comes home to fold laundry and put a hot meal on the table. Just like an eshet hayil, the archetype of the modern Jewish woman gives back. She is not blind to the needs of her community, and she donates or volunteers to support those in need. The ideal Jewish woman both in ancient and modern times is determined not by her physical appearance but by her engagement with her community, her character, her loyalty to God, and her devotion to her family.
This summer I worked with Jewish Family Services of Cincinnati’s Adoption Connection. Jewish Family Services of Cincinnati is a Jewish nonprofit social service agency that addresses needs and challenges faced by the city’s residents. They offer aging services, tutoring and mentoring programs, a vital support center that provides food and clothing for homeless Cincinnatians, and an adoption agency that works to build families and find safe, secure homes for babies in need.
My choice to take this position was rooted in many deep-seated Jewish values like a commitment to help provide for those who have no family or resources they can rely on for support. Most importantly, when I envisioned myself working with the adoption agency, I felt like I was bringing myself one step closer to the ideals of my community and one step closer to the woman and leader I hope to become.
Ironically, while I was pursuing my community’s highest ideals of womanhood, I began working with women who seemed to me to be the antithesis of the eshet hayil. The women I worked with were not able to successfully meet the needs of their children, their partners, or themselves. They did could not cook, clean, and sew. They were not able to bring home a stable income or drive a soccer carpool. Regularly, I would meet with pregnant women who spent their days at the methadone clinic and struggled with various forms of addiction. In fact, some of their pregnancies were the product of a desperate quest to fuel their addictions coupled with the willingness of random men to take advantage of their desperation. Others were high school dropouts unable to hold down steady jobs or provide for themselves and their families.
At the beginning of my fellowship, I found it very difficult not to look down on the women I was working with. Whether they were victims of circumstance and societal flaws, or whether their own selfish choices were to blame, one thing was clear to me —these women were nothing like the models of womanhood Judaism had had taught me to value. Every model of womanhood I had encountered involved building a home and being a devoted mother. These women were unable to keep a home intact and were for all intents and purposes choosing to give up their children.
It was not until several weeks on the job that I really began to move past my judgments and start hearing the women I was working with. As I listened, I changed my perception of the women I had originally seen as helpless and selfish. I began to realize just how selfless is the act of placing a child for adoption. These women who had very little love and support in the world were giving up the chance to be needed and loved. Moreover, they were knowingly choosing to lose something they had grown attached to. They were bravely choosing the path of legally binding loss and the grief or remorse it might bring. These women were recognizing their own weaknesses and addressing them head-on. They were not shying away from the responsibility of motherhood, nor were they failing and quitting. In fact, they were genuinely trying to find a way to provide their child with the best opportunities and care possible even if that meant sacrificing their own place in the child’s life.
Like all the models of womanhood I had learned, these women were doing the best they could to support, educate, and rear good children. In their situations, the price of being a good, devoted mother meant turning over the childrearing to someone else and, in doing so, walking away from the glory and honor afforded to our ideal woman. Many of these women faced shame from their families, neighbors, and friends for making the decision to place their children.
As I look back on my summer, I am grateful for this work and the way it has expanded my horizons by challenging my perceptions and judgments of others. It has expanded my conception of what it means to be an eshet hayil. To be a woman of valor is to be courageous, brave, and selfless, to live a life that honors God. As I helped these women navigate the process of placing a child for adoption, I learned an important lesson: even with the odds stacked against them, in the face of stigmatization, loss, and pain, one decision can turn the most despondent members of our society into women of valour.
Isaama Stoll was a fellow at Cincinnati’s Jewish Family Services-Adoption Connection