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Can We Honor Women?

Every year, synagogues, schools and organizations honor people for their contributions and accomplishments. Is it appropriate to honor women or does this violate the norms of modesty? Of course, practice has a voice in this matter and many of these institutions already honor women. Let’s look at it from a different perspective.

Often, when a married couple is honored, only the husband’s name is mentioned. In Hebrew, this looks something like “Reb Yosef Schwartz ve-ra’ayaso, Mr. Joseph Schwartz and his wife.” Why not mention the wife’s name also? This might be a matter of etiquette, similar to “Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Schwartz.” While in some circles this form of address is considered old-fashions, it is still common in many more traditional communities. Maybe the omission of the wife’s name can be attributed to old-fashioned formality. However, this omission of the wife’s name is not required.

The Gemara (Ta’anis 5b) says that in biblical times, merely hearing the name Rachav was sufficient to have a romantic reaction. This would incline us to omit a woman’s name, in order to avoid this reaction. However, that was an unusual situation. And despite this, the Bible still includes Rachav’s name. Generally speaking, the Bible only names people who deserve mention, whether for good or bad. For example, the Gemara (Megillah 15a) says that whenever a prophet’s father’s name is mentioned, the father was also a prophet. This statement implies that the Bible would not mention a name unnecessarily. Within the Bible, we find many women mentioned by name, from Chavah to Sarah to Yocheved to Devora to Esther.

The Gemara mentions women less frequently. The more common reference is to a woman or a wife without naming her (and sometimes to a man without naming him). But some women are mentioned by name. For example, R. Meir’s wife Beruriah, Rav Nachman’s wife Yalta and R. Akiva’s wife Rachel are all mentioned by name. Each woman was worthy on her own merit of mention in the Talmud.

It seems that there is no concern that mentioning a woman’s name violates the rules of modesty. To bring this closer to current times, I include a picture of the invitation to the wedding of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik’s son, Rav Moshe, published in Rav Moshe’s daughter’s memoirs, The Soloveitchik Heritage by Shulamit Meiselman. Note that the invitation is from Rav Chaim and Lipsha Soloveitchik.

While a woman may be honored with her husband and mentioned by name, may she be honored alone? There is a rule that Eishes chaver ke-chaver, a Torah scholar’s wife must be honored just like the Torah scholar. The Gemara (Shevu’os 30b) tells of a time when Rav Huna’s widow was called to a rabbinic court. Rav Nachman, one of the judges, was unsure how to handle the situation. On the one hand, he was obligated to rise when she walked into the room. On the other hand, the other litigant might think there is collusion and fail to articulate his claims properly. Rav Nachman resolved the problem by asking an assistant to unleash a goose in the room just as the woman entered the room. In that way, Rav Nachman could rise for her while the other litigant would think he stood out of surprise over the goose. We see from this story that it is proper to show honor to a woman who deserves it. Birkei Yosef (Choshen Mishpat 17:5) quotes a dispute whether this display is rabbinically obligated or merely a proper — but not required — practice. Either way, it is certainly not forbidden.

However, that only addresses a woman who deserves honor because of her husband’s achievements. Is it modest to honor a woman for her own achievements? Yad Shaul (Yoreh De’ah 144:2) quotes the Sefer Chasidim (578) who says that the biblical obligation to stand for an elderly person applies also to an elderly woman. We show honor to a woman for her age. The Minchas Chinuch (257:4) rules likewise but adds that the obligation to show honor to a Torah scholar applies only to a man who is obligated to learn Torah. According to the Minchas Chinuch, we do not have to honor a female Torah scholar because women are not obligated to learn Torah.

Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Yechaveh Da’as 3:72) quotes many authorities who implicitly disagree with this Minchas Chinuch and rule that you are obligated to show respect to a female Torah scholar. He quotes the Pri Chadash, who writes: “It seems obvious to me that we are obligated to rise for her, because of her wisdom. Even though she is not obligated to learn Torah and does not receive as much reward as a man who is obligated and does, that makes no difference to other people. Just like we are obligated to rise for a Torah scholar’s wife, we are even more obligated to rise for a woman who is wise of her own accord.”

Rav Mordechai Eliyahu (Responsa Ma’amar Mordechai 3:YD:9) adopts a middle position, based on his interpretation of a statement by the Arizal. According to Rav Eliyahu, we should value and respect a female Torah scholar. However, the outward signs — such as rising for her — are not required.

It seems that it is proper to honor a woman — by name — for her own achievements. According to Rav Ovadiah Yosef, it is proper to demonstrate that honor in person while, according to Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, we can respect her without necessarily displaying that honor publicly. The recently published Pesakim U-Teshuvos (242:32), written by the son-in-law of the author of Piskei Teshuvos, adds that whatever is done must follow proper modesty. Every community must honor women within its own standards of modesty and propriety.