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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?

Dvora Meyers
January 14, 2011
(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; skyline: Moche Fedor/Flickr; Devorah: Wikimedia Commons)
(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.

Dvora Meyers is a journalist and author based in Brooklyn.