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An Unmarried Woman

Alone among the Bible’s heroes, the prophet Devorah, my namesake and the hero of this week’s haftorah, didn’t need a man to make her complete. But what can a modern single woman learn from her?

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(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; skyline: Moche Fedor/Flickr; Devorah: Wikimedia Commons)

This week “Blessed Week Ever” welcomes a guest columnist.

I first learned about Devorah—the judge, prophetess, and heroine of this week’s haftorah—as a fourth-grader at an all-girls yeshiva in Brooklyn. Sharing a name with her, and learning of her successful military campaign against the Canaanites, made me tremendously proud. Even at 8 years old, I was familiar enough with the Bible to recognize that her story was unique: a woman in a leadership role with no male significant other, a woman who didn’t need a man to be complete.

This was a reassuring discovery. My parents had split up a year earlier, and my father, embittered by illness and divorce, had moved to Florida, leaving my mother, my sister, and me by ourselves. We were a small tribe of women, with my mother at the helm, frequently stressing that I’d need a career in order to be able to support myself. “God knows, you can’t rely on anyone else,” she told me. By “anyone” she meant “ any man.” From my mother, I learned that it was possible to be independent. From Devorah, I learned that independence could be effortless, or at least seem that way.

Not that this was the lesson stressed by my teacher, Mrs. Goldberg. She did not emphasize Devorah’s origins or lack thereof, did not explore how the prophetess appears virtually out of thin air, unlinked to any prominent man. Instead, Mrs. Goldberg cited rabbinic arguments claiming that Devorah was, in fact, married: The text refers to her as “Eshet Lapidot,” which can mean the “wife of torches,” but can also mean “wife of Torches,” with a capital T, if you believe, as several rabbis do, that such a name was ever in fashion.

And even though I loved Devorah the self-made woman, I had no trouble accepting this interpretation or the myriad other arguments that the rabbis conjured to wed Devorah. I knew that my own, never-remarried mother was something of an unwanted anomaly in the Orthodox Jewish community, and while I admired her self-sufficiency, I didn’t want to share her fate. I wanted a career but a companion, too. I didn’t want to stand alone on my accomplishments. Singleness was survivable but not preferable.

This was nearly 20 years ago. Now, as I once again think of Devorah, I see the rabbinic attempts to marry her off as laughable. Some rabbis, for example, posit that Devorah was married to the only other man of note in the story, her general, Barak. How do they figure this? Observe: Since her name evokes fire, and Barak translates to lightning, and both terms have something to do with fire, then Devorah must have been married to Barak. Other, more progressive sages have come up with other, more progressive explanations, explaining that “lapidot” might suggest the prophetess’s fiery personalty. This certainly seems apt for a woman who brushed off her general’s almost romantic entreaty to join him in battle. “If you will go with me, I will go,” Barak tells Devorah. “But if you will not go with me, then I will not go.” It’s almost a marriage proposal, to which Devorah responds with a hearty dose of emasculation, telling him that the glory of victory will not belong to him. “For God,” she clarifies, “will have delivered Sisera into the hand of a woman.”

Devorah, then, has angered at least one man. But what of the women? Where are her sisters in arms? It’s hard, after all, to imagine a single Devorah brunching with her girlfriends. The Torah rarely depicts conversations, let alone friendships, between women. They are present in the text either as helpers or hinderers of men. Not that I even imagine that Devorah would’ve desired this sort of camaraderie. To me, she’s an early incarnation of Margaret Thatcher, more comfortable in the company of men and uninterested in the status of women.

Where does that leave Devorah? Accomplished, yes, but also alone. I think about Devorah, my namesake, each time I bemoan my own status as a single woman to my friends. Frequently, they advise me to work on myself some more. They mean well, but the implication is that I’m lacking something and am therefore without mate. Devorah, I believe, suffered the same fate: The Torah, with its knack for tragedy, assigns a flaw to each judge (Ehud was a southpaw, Samson vain, and so on), except for Devorah; her cardinal sin, we’re left to assume, was being a woman. And an impudent one at that: Devorah, the rabbis explain, sinned when she summoned Barak, her subordinate yet a male, to her, thus ignoring some ancient take on The Rules and waiting for the man to come to her. Her punishment appears in the following chapter when she seems to suffer a momentary lapse in prophecy.

Watching Devorah in her moment of weakness, the Israelites cry out to her to awaken and sing. In my dark days, I see this as a bit of taunting, the patriarchal community putting the vulnerable, single female in her place. When I think like that, I can’t help but think about my mother, still single after all of these years, who every week anxiously awaits an invitation from her neighbors to a Shabbat meal. It doesn’t matter that she raised two daughters on her own, was the first in her family to go to college, and spent decades teaching. When it comes to the Jewish community, she falls short. Without a husband, she is not enough.

But on my best days, reading about Devorah, I see a strong but flawed woman and a community eager to engage with her. The prophetess might’ve been single and seemingly unattainable, but her peers wanted to connect to her.  To them, Devorah was not invisible.

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Lapidot is a name still in use today, albeit as a last name, and with an Ashkenzi pronunciation: Lapidus.
Nothing laughable about that.

J Carpenter says:

“You can’t rely on anyone else”—yet Devorah relied on the troops to follow her lead into battle. Single or partnered, she inspired others to action. It is a flawed community which cannot recognize unique gifts of individuals, whether they are inside or outside the prescribed box of expectation.
God works in mysterious ways with all of his people, the more “flawed” (apparently not in God’s eyes) the better.

Devorah is a good example for married, women, too. And your mother was right. I am fortunate to be with my husband for 34 years, but I don’t HAVE to be, and it makes a difference.

Evelinsche says:

In George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” a tiny “Jewess,” Mirah Lapidoth, in her way, also rescues the nation. Eliot wrote her book as a reaction to Fagan in Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.” Dickens accepted the reproof and later wrote a sympathetic Jew into “Our Mutual Friend” in apology! Eliot didn’t choose the name lightly. DD was on PBS/BBC should you wish to miss one of the best reads ever (sex, lies, money, scary paintings and Torah study). Thanks, Dvorah Myers and Tablet, it’s my granddaughter’s Haftorah next year.

Rachel Port says:

I have come to think of Deborah and Miriam (another link between the parsha and hartarah) and Rebecca are leftover stories from the time before we became a patriarchal people. All three are prophets and the song and dance of Miriam, and Deborah’s song hint at some earlier rites.

It was my haftarah! With not one but TWO women not to mess with: Yael with a tentpin.

Without wanting to be disrespectful in anyway, I have to say that I’ve met many “Devorahs”. In my faith, we called them “nuns”.

Yael Taubman says:

I am happy to be named for Yael, eshat Hever ha Hinite, tevorach mi nashim, Yael, mi kol ha nashim b’ ohel, tevorach. Devorah and Yael were heroines, women that all women should have as a
role model!

Victoria says:

You say “the Torah, with its knack for tragedy,” but all of your examples are from other books. Anyway, spend less time bemoaning your status and more making your life as full as possible. Engage with people; don’t wait to be engaged with. “Im ein ani li, mi li” has nothing to do with whether you are single or married.

vacciniumovatum says:

I am a Deborah too (not my English name, however). I always figured that she was married and that had a mature enough husband to let her have her own life and identity, even in that era. I was so glad that I was not named after a matriarch or one of the other biblical women whose identities were based on their fathers, husbands or sons. And she was a judge too!

sorry to be picking … D’vora’s article was such a lovely read. But I must point out that Devorah was not a prophetess nor a heroine. The “ess” ending tacked on to those words defines them as as a female prophet and a female hero, the male being assumed the norm. Let’s call her what she really was… a prophet and a hero.

Devorah is like so many of the female shoftim – exciting, gallant….a true leader. Be it of men or women we can learn if we only looked closer that she tackled the problems before her and the people with skill, instinct & courage. Shame of the (male) Rabbis who pass over study of her. The almighty gave her gifts so that we should ALL learn from. Am currently co-writing / directing a ballet featuring the female matriarchs. My havruta / co writer is author and scholar Miki Raver (‘Listen to her voice’).It’s obvious from the start that the story of the men of their lives and indeed our lives as Jews would be a very different and end worse off were it not for the courage and faults these women showed. This article reflects this very perceptively Well done for writing the piece and Tablet for publishing it. Charlie Salem (www.iamcharliesalem.com)

READ SONG OF DEBORAH

It’s not just progressive rabbis who explain the meaning of “aishat lapidot” to mean “fiery woman.” That is also the interpretation of Ralbag (Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, better known by his Latinised name as Gersonides) who lived in the 14th century. It is also the interpretation of Metzudot David (Rabbi David Altschuler, 18th century).

Seeing Barak’s refusal to go to battle without Devorah as “almost a marriage proposal” is deeply anachronistic, if not a tortured interpretation. In that time and culture, a marriage proposal was directed to the woman’s father (or brother), not to her. [I'm not endorsing that approach, just giving the historical reality.] The traditional understanding is actually far more complimentary to Devorah. Barak felt that he could not persuade 10,000 Israelites to follow him unless Devorah was with him, because they would doubt that he was honestly reporting her prophetic command to go to war. The Israelites had confidence in Devorah, however, and they would go if they were assured that the order was based on her prophecy.

The author also writes, “Watching Devorah in her moment of weakness, the Israelites cry out to her to awaken and sing.” What is she talking about? There is no mention of this in the text. Moreover, the text clearly states that Devorah and Barak both sang the song.

A more interesting aspect of the interpretation of this story is the prissy translation one finds in the (otherwise) excellent Artscroll translation. Perhaps it’s in other translations too. There we read (Judges 5:27) concerning Sisera that “at her feet he knelt, he fell, At her feet he knelt, he fell; where he knelt, there he fell, vanquished.” The Hebrew words “b’nai raglaiha” could as accurately be translated “between her legs.” That gives a completely different, if not shocking, view of how Yael weakened Sisera to the point that she could kill him. (This more explicit interpretation is brought by Rabbi Yochanan in the Talmud, Nazir 23b.)

Roguemale says:

You have it altogether backwards. Deborah would have achieved nothing without Barak. No male judge or other leader is depicted in Bible as needing a female alterego, counterpart, or partner. But Deborah is. In other words, female, no matter how competent, capable, and blessed, cannot achieve without a male. The two are partners. All the rest is 21st cent. correctitude.

maria rubinstein says:

did you know that “deborah” means “bee”? i like to think of the biblical deborah as the “queen bee”.

Actually, the Torah portion is filled with women who are not necessarily connected to men. Miriam? Unmatched, though the mid rash has other ideas. Deborah was either Mrs Lapidus or as I woud prefer a fiery woman. Yael? Unmatched. (see my book Righteous Gentiles in the Hebrew Bible for a look at her life). And let’s not forget the mother of Sisera at the end of the haftarah, who is most likely a widow.

Eshkol Hakofer says:

Yael Taubman says: Jan 14, 2011 at 3:27 PM I am happy to be named for Yael, eshat Hever ha Hinite, tevorach mi nashim, Yael, mi kol ha nashim b’ ohel, tevorach. Devorah and Yael were heroines, women that all women should have as a role model!

that’s great yael
though it should read as in the verse:
tevorakh minashim yael eshet (not eshat) chever haqeni (not ha hinite) minashim (not mi kol hanashim) baohel (not b’ohel) tevorakh (not tevorach ch being the ashkenazi way of transliterating the letter het, better yet 7et, both incorrect).
otherwise kol hakavod. u get a +++ for effort by me. :-)

Lindsay says:

To Evelinsche:

George Eliot did not necessarily write her _Daniel Deronda_ as a response to Fagin specifically. The British literary tradition boasts a number of less-than-sympathetic Jewish characters. Many critics believe that DD is meant to atone for them all, but it is virtually impossible to determine ONE source of inspiration. Works by William Baker, including _George Eliot and Judaism_ will clear up that simplistic assumption for you, as he points out that GE’s Jewish interests extend beyond Dickens.

As the story goes, Dickens wrote Riah, the Jewish character in OMF, in response to a letter from a Mrs. Eliza Davis. In 1863 Davis wrote to complain about Fagin’s characterization. OMF appeared in 1864. Aside from the fact that it is generally accepted that Dickens wrote Riah in response to Davis, OMF couldn’t possibly be a response to DD, as DD appeared in 1876, 13 years after OMF.

That BBC film is fantastic, though, and Mirah Cohen is a fantastic character

I’ve said that least 4003192 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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An Unmarried Woman

Alone among the Bible’s heroes, the prophet Devorah, my namesake and the hero of this week’s haftorah, didn’t need a man to make her complete. But what can a modern single woman learn from her?

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