|Ezer or Kenegdo: The Vanishing Teaching of Woman’s Creation (Ideas #128)|
When Chava, the first woman, is created, she is immediately described in relationship to her husband, Adam. We are told that she is to be an ezer kenegdo, a helper parallel to him (Bereshit 2:18). This is a very confusing description – so much so that many commentators interpret one of these two words at the expense of the other. Some focus on the first word, explaining that she is a helper, thereby making her subordinate to man (see R. Y. S. Reggio), while others focus on the second word and explain that she is man’s complete equal (see Kli Yakar). The rabbis (Yevamot 63a) try to take both words into account and say that these words are referring to two different possibilities, depending on the righteousness of the husband. If he is righteous he will marry a woman who will help him. If not, he will marry someone who will be at cross purposes with him. While this view is adopted by Rashi as being more complete, it seems to be deviating from the simple meaning of the verse, since both words are ostensibly relating to the same person.(1)
What none of the explanations cited so far suggest is that this new creature could be both at the same time. Indeed, there seems to be good reason they avoid such a suggestion – being simultaneously subordinate and equal does sound like a contradiction. At the same time, perhaps G-d’s Torah reflects a different perspective – one that sometimes challenges us to stretch beyond our usual way of thinking.
If Man is slow to accept the possibility of apparent contradiction, he cannot be entirely blamed. From the moment Man was created, he was told to subdue the concrete physical world. Therefore his coming to think in concrete ways cannot be an unforeseen consequence. For in the physical world that became Man’s laboratory; what is black can’t be white and what is solid can’t be liquid. Seeing the world that he dealt with in this way, it is not surprising that he felt that non-physical categories would follow such a categorization as well: What is good could not be bad. What is heroic could not be cowardly. And what is hierarchical could not be equal.
In this context, it is interesting to note that women are apparently less prone to think in this way.(2) They were not given the task of subduing the physical world. But even more important, their ability to avoid such a pitfall may be linked to their very essence, as indicated by the paradoxical phrase we are trying to understand. Thus, it is no surprise that all of the commentators who have difficulty explaining this phrase were men.
If we think about it further, however, we would realize that the paradox of the ezer kenegdo is built into our very existence, especially when it comes to understanding G-d Himself. After all, being both a G-d of judgment and a G-d of mercy at the same time also seems contradictory. Likewise, He is everywhere while inexplicably removing Himself enough for us to have our own distinct and meaningful existence.
Moreover, when not applied to women, the Biblical term ezer is almost always referring to G-d. One could now recoil and say that the term could not possibly imply subordination, but I think that would be a mistake. The various usages of the word show that its’ nearly universal translation as helper is correct and it seems axiomatic that one who helps is following the needs of someone else, thereby making one subservient.
Of course, in the case of G-d, the paradox is even greater, since it is obvious that G-d is actually superior to those that He helps. This alone should make us understand that subservience is really not something that reduces us and makes us inferior. On the contrary, what we see is that by being subservient to others, we actually emulate G-d. That is to say, by helping and putting the needs of others first, we paradoxically show our true superiority or, at least, our Divine nature. In fact, this notion is actually embedded in Woman. Though she helps her partner and remains his equal, she literally nurtures her children and remains, nay perhaps thereby becomes, their superior.
It would then seem that by being given a paradoxical nature, Woman may be just a bit closer to the image of G-d than Man. If so, it should follow, as many have suggested, that women relate more easily to the spiritual world than men.
At the same time, all of this doesn’t mean that men are shut out from the unity of opposites manifest in the non-physical world. As mentioned in a previous essay (Ideas 117), arriving to such a perspective may be exactly what occurred when Ya’akov was given the name Yisrael and was yet still able to be known by his former name. In more recent times, Rav Kook’s constant reference to the often symbiotic coexistence of opposites within G-d’s world also shows such an appreciation.
Unfortunately, instead of men adapting a more feminine understanding of the spiritual world, we find just the opposite happening. As women have entered the physical world that used to be the near-exclusive domain of men, they are coming to understand the spiritual world less correctly. This has left some women trying to force themselves into male choices in their self-definition and making the decision to be either subservient or equal, or at least to sometimes be one and at other times the other but no longer both simultaneously.
I am not sure if this was an inevitable result of historical forces. In any event, I suppose it is part of our very makeup that it is women who would be envious of the opportunities that have traditionally only belonged man and not visa-versa. After all, men don’t have the dual essence of the ezer keneged, which means that men don’t have an existential connection to helping.
Whatever the reason, however, it is one more way in which mankind is getting further and further way from the spirituality that is at his (and especially her) very essence. And for that reason, it would serve us all well to appreciate the reality of the ezer kenegdo.
(1) To be fair, this has sometimes been understood to refer to two different responses of the same woman, which would then make it better fit the text’s simple meaning.
(2)I am indebted to Tamar Ross’s summary of feminist theories suggesting that women internalize information without the sharp categorical distinctions described as a hallmark of male thinking (Expanding the Palace, pp. 8-11).