The Torah is the Jew's guide to achieving self-fulfillment that is balanced and enduring. Regarding the role of women, the Torah states, "All-glorious is the king's daughter within the palace…" (Tehillim 45:14)
This verse teaches that modesty behooves a woman to find her place within the walls of her "palace" – namely, the palace which she builds for herself and her family.
On the other hand, we find a verse in Proverbs which tells us:
"She is like the merchant-ships; she brings her food from afar. She rises also while it is yet night, and gives food to her household, and a portion to her maidens. She considers a field, and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. " (Proverbs 31:14-16)
The ideal woman leaves the confines of her house, locates a field and plants a vineyard on it, and brings bread to her home from afar.
How can we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory verses?
In addition, we find that the Torah praises the matriarch, Sarah, for remaining within her tent. In Genesis 18:9, we find that the angels inquired of Abraham: "Where is Sarah, your wife?"
The Sages of the Talmud comment that they knew full well where she was. Why, then, did they pose this question to their host? The Sages explain: "To make it known that she was modest in her ways, so as to endear her to her husband." (Bava Metzia 67)
The issue is further complicated by some of the personalities we meet in the Bible. The prophetess, Deborah, led the Jewish nation to victory when attacked by the king of Canaan and his general, Sisera. Deborah and her husband, Barak the son of Avinoam gathered ten thousand armed men and drove off Jabin and his army. The land was then peaceful for forty years, and Deborah continued to serve as the nation's head judge. (Judges 4)
Concerning the study of Torah, we also find an apparent conflict. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkonos teaches: "Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah is like someone who teaches her folly." (Sotah 20a)
In contrast, we find the opinion of Ben Azzai, "A man is under obligation to teach his daughter Torah."
In our times, all Orthodox Jewish girls receive a comprehensive, formal education. The rabbinate supports this development and lends its full support to it. This relatively recent trend was largely the result of the efforts of Mrs. Sarah Schenirer, an Orthodox woman who lived in Eastern Europe. She took note of the fact that the typical young Jewish girl in her times lacked a formalized system of Jewish education. Consequently, girls attended gentile schools. As could only be expected, the rate of assimilation was high, and continued to grow.
Mrs. Schenirer opened her first school in Krakow, in 1917, with the support of the leading Orthodox rabbis of the time. Furthermore, she established a teachers training seminary, and sent its graduates out to establish schools at the request of many Eastern European communities. Her network of schools received the full backing of the generation's leader, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, author of the Mishneh Berurah and Chofetz Chayim.
How do we reconcile these developments with the dictum of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkonos, quoted above?
The answer is that man must fill his role as such - as a man - or as a woman. This does not preclude the possibility that women may and sometimes should be active outside the home, just as it does not imply that a man should never help with household tasks in the home. The question that one needs to ask is "What is the major role played by each? What is the order of precedence?
It is not the woman's task to wait upon the family or to spend her days cleaning and polishing the furniture. Her responsibility is to see that the home functions smoothly and efficiently, so that it will serve as an efficient base from which the family can fulfill its goals. It is not easy to build a warm nest which generates contentment and enthusiasm for life. Neither is it a casual assignment to establish a family comprising different individuals, each with his or her own character, yet united into one, consolidated unit with affection for each one, consideration for his needs, and motivation to fulfill a common role as a unit. The successful home provides an optimal environment for children to grow and mature into happy, successful adults.
This is a long-term project that demands talents, strong character, and qualities in which women excel more than men. The Creator imbued the woman with the traits required for her specific task, in order that she be equipped to succeed fully in the role He assigned her. In some ways, the woman's task is more important than that of her husband. It is she who molds the coming generation; it is she who determines the nature of the family nest, and who weaves the inner fabric of society.
Indeed, we can easily find individuals who have no lack of financial means, professional training, and inborn talent, but nonetheless suffer greatly in their adult lives because they did not have the benefit of a warm, supportive home in their youth. This success or failure depends on the wife and mother far more than on the husband and father. The family unit is where life takes place, and no amount of knowledge, money, or skills is of value without a concurrent investment in the upbringing, education, and personality development provided by a successful home.
The key role played by the home is stressed again and again by professionals investigating social ills and the failings of Israel's educational system. In 1996, Dr. Nimrod Aloni, lecturer in the field of educational psychology at the Seminar Hakibutzim and Beit Berel School of Education, declared that "Science, technology, and efficient administration cannot substitute for morality… We must counter the common presumption of today's society that the goal of formal education is excellence in the professional arena."
The obvious conclusion is that the woman's spiritual contribution to society is no less deserving of our respect and admiration than material improvements made by others. It comes as no surprise that whenever we come upon a great personality, our Sages express their admiration by declaring "How happy is she who bore him!"
As the saying goes, "A great woman stands behind every man of distinction." In other words, it was the outstanding character of the mother that served as the basis for her son's achievements.
Despite the complexity of her assignment, in some circumstances a woman may find herself with the time and energy for additional tasks outside the home. There is no reason for her not to take up additional pursuits, and this is recommended. Outside interests can contribute to a woman's self-image, to her general feeling of well-being, and to her functioning within the home as well.
The fact is that Orthodox women study and work outside the home and occupy themselves with a myriad of projects. At the same time, they have a well-defined order of precedence; they do not lose sight of the fact that their primary need in life is to see that their families will have a healthy, warm, and supportive home.