Eshes Chayil (Woman of Valor)
Grace is elusive and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears G-d — she shall be praised.
Give her credit for the fruit of her labors, and let her achievements praise her at the gates.
She girds her loins in strength, and makes her arms strong.
The Rebbetzin of my local small-town Chabad House holds a Women’s Shabbos on a weekend when the Rabbi is away. As the only traditional Jewish community in my area, Chabad House has become a slightly uncomfortable yet welcoming place for me to spend Shabbos. Just as men sing Eshes Chayil even when there are no women around, women sing Eshes Chayil even when there are no men around. So tonight around the table 15 women sing the ancient words. I wonder if I am the only one who feels the power of a group of women singing this song together with no men around, singing this song to ourselves and to one another. I am sure I must be the only one who replaces the word “husband” with a gender-neutral concept in my mind while we sing. If I am lucky enough to share a home and a life one day with the woman I have been dating, I wonder if we will sing this song together on Shabbos. Will we replace a few of the words to better reflect our own realities? Or will we scrap this part of the Shabbos meal (it is only a custom rather than halacha, after all) because of its focus on the heterosexual marriage neither of us will ever be part of?
Many women have done worthily, but you surpass them all.
My partner and I are standing around the Shabbos table with the ultra-Orthodox family who is hosting us, and their other guests. My relationship with her has grown ever more serious as we begin to plan for our future together. Everyone has just finished singing an especially spirited Shalom Aleichem, welcoming the angels of the sabbath. As usual, we begin singing Eshes Chayil, a section of Proverbs that is one of our tradition’s most beautiful odes to women. “Eshes chayil mi yimtza ve-rachok mi-peninim michrah…” (A woman of valor, who can find? She is more precious than pearls…) This is a tradition that was not part of the Shabbos rituals of my childhood, and I love watching the men in the families I spend Shabbos with singing this song of admiration to their wives.
Tonight I want so badly to turn towards my own partner and look her straight in the eye as I sing this song directly to her. I hope she knows that as I sing, struggling with the words as our host sings faster than I can possibly read the Hebrew, I am thinking of her alone. We are in a warm Hasidic household where my partner is a beloved member of the extended mishpacha and where we are accepted as a couple, but where also make sure to keep physical space between us. We do this not just because we don’t want to make our hosts uncomfortable with our queerness, but because in this home couples of any orientation just don’t touch. This is a space where even holding this beautiful woman’s gaze for too long in front of everyone else would feel like too much intimacy to be appropriate. So I keep my eyes to myself, but I imagine that we are standing alone together in our own kitchen, where I could hold her hands in mine and look at her while I sing, and where I could tell her that this song is for her, that she is my Woman of Valor.
Her valor is the bravery to be who she is and her refusal to compromise her yiddishkeit or her ability to love and be loved. Her valor is her hard-won sense of self-worth and self-respect. Her valor is her refusal to internalize shame, and her outspoken defense of those who are vulnerable. Her valor is her love for children and her sense of ethics. In the coming years, G-d willing, her valor as an amazing wife and mother will have the opportunity to shine. Unlike in the words of the song, no husband is required for this particular Eshes Chayil’s strength, beauty and faith to illuminate the world.
Posted by queerbasyisroel.