June 7, 2024
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The Importance of Women in Tanach

Reviewing: “Women in Tanach” by Rebbetzin Leah Kohn. Mosaica Press. 2021. Hardcover. 267 pages. ISBN-13:
978-1952370649.

Nowhere in literature or history can you read about women as determined and strong, yet selfless, as the women in Tanach. The stories are engrossing on their own but they are not written to entertain but to instruct. In each chapter of “Women in Tanach,” Rebbetzin Leah Kohn tells how the character traits of the women became part of the Jewish soul. She writes: “The actions of our forefathers have instilled a spiritual DNA in the Jewish nation, which gives us direction and power to overcome similar situations in later generations. Every nuance of the Avos and Imahos impacts the life of each Jew in every generation.”

The author’s overarching goal is to show us how our illustrious ancestors overcame challenges for the purpose of doing Hashem’s will, and subjugating their own in the process. We learn how they perfected their character so we can at least try to follow in their footsteps and refine ours. We are drawn to the women in Tanach for their dramatic stories. But the true benefit is in understanding that all their actions stemmed from an unyielding commitment to Hashem and how that informed all the decisions they made. Rebbetzin Kohn guides us down the paths they took and never swerves from showing us how their lives were all about trying to understand and do what Hashem wanted from them.

Rebbetzin Kohn has dedicated her life to teaching women how to get closer to Hashem, particularly women without a formal Jewish education, The book is a condensed compilation of classes she has given through the organization she founded, the Jewish Renaissance Center, and an approach she developed, HaKivun. She has taught weekly in Teaneck and now teaches primarily on Zoom. The essence of her teaching is that when you have an understanding of what Hashem asks of you, you can prioritize his will over your own and get a grip on desire or fear. You can stand fast in the face of humiliation or bullying, or take action that seemingly puts you in danger, and keep your dignity intact. Rebbetzin Kohn weaves her way through the lives of Torah giants like a master storyteller, but always explains the lessons to be learned.

A common thread of the personalities in Tanach is that they were tested by having to take action, or refrain from action, that was against their natural inclination when it would bring them closer to Hashem. Sarah’s decision to expel Yishmael could be perceived as cruel. It was her idea for Avraham to have a child with someone else, and then she throws the boy out of the house when her own son is born. But Rebbetzin Kohn explains: “When Yitzchak was born, she understood with full clarity that Yishmael could no longer remain in their household. Despite her inherently kind nature, her sense of carrying out what she understood was the will of Hashem prevailed. Once again, she acted on her higher understanding rather than on her natural impulses, which was extremely difficult for her to do.”

In the story of Rivkah, Rebbetzin Kohn shows how her upbringing in a home with Lavan and Besuel taught her to know wickedness so she could recognize and defeat its impact. “Our ability to remain spiritually firm despite the overwhelming temptations of the nations was inherited from Rivkah, who opened the way and gave us the ability to overcome the challenges of galus.”

The ability to remain positive despite the most dire circumstances is found in the story of Miriam. Rebbetzin Kohn calls her attitude an example for all generations. The Torah praises Miriam and Yocheved for their “fear of God” in taking the most dangerous action—they did not do what Pharaoh ordered, kill all male newborns, but kept the children alive. When the Jews left Egypt, rushing so fast they couldn’t bake bread, Miriam had the wherewithal to bring musical instruments. “She firmly believed that Hashem would perform great miracles for the Jews along their journey that would be celebrated by them with music and song.”

Rebbetzin Kohn holds our interest by challenging the storylines with provocative questions that she proceeds to answer. In Rus, Mother of Kings, she asks: “Why was Rus, who originated from Moav, chosen for this role? Wouldn’t it have been fitting for the kingdom of Klal Yisrael to come from a distinguished Jewish family stemming from a long line of great scholars and leaders?” Rebbetzin Kohn explains that chazal say the story of Rus was written to reveal the reward for acts of kindness, and Rus was responsible for many. She was also tested by acting against her nature. She is praised for her exceptional modesty yet she brazenly set herself down by Boaz’s feet, in order to have him, as her deceased husband’s relative, take chalitzah-like action, to free her husband’s soul from limbo. “It went against Rus’s entire essence, but she went ahead and did it anyway because it was the right thing to do.”

The theme of subjugating your own desires to fulfill the will of Hashem, is probably the most politically incorrect idea in current times. The motto of late 20th century secular culture was “If it feels good, do it.” And today the least slight against one’s chosen identity group is seen as triggering a feel of insecurity. Rebbetzin Kohn makes submission a character trait of strength and dignity—when it is done for Hashem. Making service to Hashem life’s priority, even when that means not doing what feels good or right in your own eyes, can be a shield against submitting to the less desirable aspects of modern society.

By Bracha Schwartz

 

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