Ask an Orthodox Jew…(Response)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Last week we had over 100 questions come in after I introduced my friend Ahava as this week’s guest and invited you to ask her your most pressing questions about Orthodox Judaism. Ahava has been a fantastic source of information and friendship as I’ve trudged through my year of biblical womanhood; I’m so happy for the opportunity share her with you!


Thanks so much for joining us today, Ahava. I mentioned in my introduction that your explanation for how the Jewish community regards Proverbs 31 really changed my perspective on that passage. A lot of folks were interested to learn more about that.  Can you share a little about the meaning of “Eshet Chayil”and how it is used in Jewish culture?

Eshet Chayil is a blessing sung every week at the Shabbat table. (Listen to an example on YouTube.) 

Here's the thing: Christians seem to think because all the Bible is inspired that it all should be taken as literally as possible also. Jews don't do this.  I get called an Aishet Chayil (virtuous woman, Prov. 31 woman) all the time.  Make your own Challah instead of buying? Aishet Chayil!  Do work to earn extra money for the family? Aishet Chayil!  Make Balloon animals for the kids on a holiday?  Very Aishet Chayil!! You see, even though [Orthodox] Jews take the TORAH very literally (all 613 commandments!) the rest is seen differently, as a way to understand Our Creator, not as literal commands.  Every week at the Shabbat table, my husband sings Aishet Chayil (right after blessing the kids) and it's special, because I know that no matter what I do or don't do, he sees everything past the minimum needed to survive as me blessing the family with my energy and creativity.  All women CAN do that, and many do already. 

The photo on the right shows the women’s entrance to a shul near our home. Eshet Chayil is done in silver. It’s gorgeous and a good reminder! 

From EZK: What is the best way for a Christian who is interested in understanding the Jewishness of Jesus to learn about Jewish culture and tradition? Can a person just go visit a synagogue? 

Most places you could probably go visit a synagogue, but you might not get much out of it until you understand a bit more about how the service runs and what is being said (most likely the majority will be in Hebrew).  If you wish to visit a synagogue, you should probably call first and also understand that there is usually separate seating for men and women.  That being said, I think it is best to learn about Judaism from authentic Jewish sources, not Christian ones.  Many Jewish/Christian groups put out very skewed information trying to lead you to their interpretation of what things mean.  I feel like this is very disingenuous.  If one must draw conclusions, I think it is best done from purer sources. and are very good starting places for information about Judaism.  You can also feel free to contact me with questions through my or my husband's blog

From Bethany: As a Christian who sees the Old and New Testaments as sacred texts and the history of my faith, I feel a connection with those of the Jewish faith, as though we are part of the same family. I've always been cautious to say that to a Jewish person, wondering if that would offend him or her. Your thoughts?

They may not understand what it is that you are trying to express, but I think you wouldn't offend them, either, as long as you keep Jesus out of it.  It really depends on the person.  Some Jews have very negative feelings about Christians, others are more open.  I guess it would be best not to walk up to random (identifiable) Jews on the street and express this sentiment, but rather to establish a relationship with someone and then express your feelings.  I'm thankful that you feel close to me, as part of the family, so consider it said at least once!

From Julia: What is the role of women in your culture? How much of a woman's role is dictated by culture vs scripture and how much is there an overlap? Are you comfortable within that role? Or in other words do you feel hindered by gender bias at all?

I would say that almost all of a woman's role is determined by Jewish texts (Torah, Talmud, Shulchan Aruch) and the culture is almost completely from the scripture.  

Modesty is a trait that is very much encouraged in both sexes, but more so in women.  I often hear mothers telling their girls what is the most modest way to act.  I don't have a problem with that, if the  point is to develop humility in a person.  Humility will serve you far better in life than bravado, I think.  

I also think there is an important difference between gender bias and gender difference.   Does it bother me that women can't lead prayer service, lay Tefillin, etc.?  No, not really, as I don't desire to do those things.  I'm happy with being in charge of my home, family and other "women's  commandments".  Some women do want to do those things, and do feel hindered, I suppose. But I have seen the benefits of men and women having "safe" places to express themselves spiritually, without feeling judgment from the other sex. 

In a few communities, women are treated poorly, but in the majority of communities, women are treated very well, and are responsible for many important things, especially having to do with religious practice.  Education, location, Kashrut (dietary laws), nidd— all of these are almost completely the woman's responsibility and they are very important aspects of Jewish life and practice.  In fact, two of these are benchmarks for determining if one's practice is Orthodox or not (kashrut and nidda). So, in a nutshell, I would say it is considered a woman's role to oversee all that goes on in the home, the education of the children and  to generally make life run.  She assigns the tasks, determines the family structure (how many children she will have), and is the overall manger and spiritual guide.  

Here are two good stories about how Jewish women are treated/what roles they have: The first is something I watched in our own Rabbi's home.  On Friday night each child is blessed with a specific blessing by the father.  Many also have the custom for the mother to bless her children.  Our Rabbanit (rabbi's wife) had each of her huge grown sons (many married and big rabbis in their own right), plus all her younger children come and bow their heads before their mother to receive her blessing.  The mother can say whatever blessing she chooses, and I could tell by their reactions that these children were blessed!  

The second is a story told of Rabbi Mordechai Shirabi, the previous Rosh Yeshiva (head of the school) where my husband attends.  He was having a dinner at his home and another big Rabbi had been invited to attend.  Before the meal got really underway, the visiting Rav announced that he did not eat with women, implying that the wife of Rav Shirabi and the other women present needed to make themselves scarce.  He calmly told his wife to set up a small table in the kitchen.  When she returned and told him it had been done, Rav Shirabi told the visiting rabbi he was welcome to go and dine in the kitchen, because his wife always dined at her own table.

From Kellen: Can you explain the Jewish perspective of what happens when we die? I've heard a few different things always explained by Christians, so I'm not sure if they've been Christianized or not.

I'm going to let my husband handle this one, as he knows all the sources, etc. 

Michael says:  What happens when we die is a fairly complicated question in Judaism.  One of the thirteen fundamental principles of faith is that there will be a resurrection of the dead.  However what happens from the time one is planted in the ground until the resurrection of the dead is a different story.  I am going to go with the mainstream Jewish opinion today, and leave the dissenting opinions aside for the sake of clarity.  

When a person dies he undergoes a series of judgments in order to purify his soul from his unrepentant sins of this life.  The first of those is the judgment of the grave.  Soul stays with the body for 1yr and suffers as the body undergoes the initial stages of decay.  This is a judgment that even most of the righteous go through.

After that there are a series other judgments dependent upon one's deeds.  If one was not completely righteous, but is fortunate enough to be mostly so, he will be beaten a certain number of times by an angel with a fiery rod, in order to purify his soul, and then be able to ascend into Gan Eden to await the resurrection.  If one was in between, or even wicked, he will descend into hell for one year. After which he will be given the choice of either being reincarnated into another body for a second go, or he can choose to descend into hell again for the full expiation of his sins.  A wicked person(who is wicked in each subsequent life) will only be reincarnated three times, a person who improves each incarnation, up to 1000 times.  

Even then one may still need to have one's sins expunged through the sufferings of hell. Then there are two grades of the wicked. The first spend one year in hell.  They are in a sort of dirt nap until the resurrection, at which point they are resurrected, slain again, and their souls burned to ash which is trampled upon by the righteous.  The greater gradation of the wicked are those who will suffer eternally, even after hell is abolished, they will continue to suffer. 

From Laura: Christians have strong convictions about Jesus being the Messiah based largely on foreshadowing and prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Psalm 22. How are we viewed when we interpret your Holy Scriptures in that way? Is it insulting to you?

Ahava: I wouldn't say it's insulting at all, but Jews definitely think that your understanding is flawed.  You understand Jesus to have fulfilled all the prophecies of Messiah based on a "second coming" and establishing a "kingdom" as the church, not as an actual kingdom.  However, Jews see that not all the prophecies were met at the time of his death, so he couldn't be the messiah.  In the end, when the Temple is re-built, we will see who is right, but you can't expect Jews to understand or give credence to a belief that is in their minds, flawed. 

From Eric: What's the consensus view (or is there one?) in the Orthodox community about the person of Y'shua / Jesus himself? Prophet, false prophet, elephant in the room, just for Gentiles, "not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy," other? Which aspects of His teachings do you admire? Which do you not like as much? 

Michael’s response: I think you will find that the vast majority of Jews have no idea about the teachings of Christianity or Jesus.  It is forbidden in Jewish law to study the texts of other religions or even to mention the deities of other faiths(Shimon Agasi's Yesodei HaTorah 5:5 for one example).  However some of our great thinkers have thought this through, and have come to a variety of answers.  

There are views that he was a false prophet, and hater of his own people.  You will find this view most often expressed by Jews of Eastern European descent who have suffered under Christianity for the better part of the last 1700yrs.

The second view, which is what I would call the middle of the road view, is that of the Rambam who felt that the whole point of Christianity was to prepare the way for Mashiah in the greater world.

The third view expounded by the Yaskil Avdei and a few others is that he was a failed messiah.  Essentially he had the potential to be the messiah, but his death ended those hopes.  And that what followed and became Christianity was an unfortunate development in which his increasingly non-Jewish followers increasingly departed from his teachings.

Ahava’s response:  I think many of Jesus' teachings were  based on the Torah, particularly from the school of thought of Hillel.  I think what he said was mostly thoughtful and full of mercy.  How some people have chosen to apply it over the centuries is certainly misguided, but it is the case with any religion that it would be so.  I would particularly like to see in modern times reconciliation between Catholics and Jews, with apologies made for various atrocities throughout the years and the return of certain artifacts of Jewish origin given to the State of Israel.  

From Russell: At the risk of hitting a sensitive issue and the way many Americans view it, how do you approach the "Middle-Eastern Conflict" as an Orthodox Jew? Feel free to express yourself freely.

Ahava: The Middle East conflict is a very touchy subject and there is no consensus view among the Orthodox as to what ought to be done.  There are, of course three major camps, two  large ones and a smaller but vocal minority.  The largest two are the "It all belongs to us" crowd and the "land for peace" crowd.  Secular Israelis tend to be in the second group.  The third group is the people who believe that no Jewish state should exist without Messiah as leader and king and a Temple to worship in.  These are the ones you see shaking hands with the PA, encouraging the dissolution of the State of Israel. Personally, I feel we are at an impasse with the refugees.  They were certainly treated poorly by the state of Israel initially, but they have since become the pawns of radical Islam.  The land-for-peace experiment has most certainly failed, as evidenced by the hundreds of rockets launched into southern Israel from the Gaza strip since its becoming independent, as well as the continued holding of the captured soldier, Gilad Shalit, who is being denied his Geneva Convention rights.  

I think the basic problem is that it's hard to negotiate with so many voices shouting what ought to be done, and with a group that doesn't consider it necessary to stick to the agreement.  If there were some way of enforcing the peace agreement, I would be for it, but as for now, I don't think there is.  Of course I want peace, everyone wants peace.  Nobody wants to live where they're in danger of rocket fire, terrorism, invasion or worse.  However, not everyone sees the road to peace the same.  It's important to note that I don't think every Muslim is against the state of Israel, but if even the 10% identified by Saudi Arabia as being extreme (an already extreme government, they don't let women drive, for Pete's sake) that's 120 million extreme Muslims in the world. That's almost half the population of the USA.  It's a sobering thought.  For a bit of humor about the middle East, and something MANY Israelis find funny, search for "Latma" on you tube. I think it's often better to laugh about the impossibility of it all than to be morose.  

Also, I'd like to note that life in Israel is hard.  Like, really, really hard.  The cost of living is unbelievably high, while the standard of living is very low, compared to America and other Western countries. (a cup of cottage cheese costs $2, gas is almost $10 a gallon)  We decided to live here to have better opportunities for spiritual growth and to raise our kids in a positive environment, but there are trade-offs.  We don't have a car, smart phones, an entertainment budget (including eating out), and are unable to get together enough money to own a home here (40-60% down payment required, average cost of a 3 bedroom apartment-$1million).  I'm not complaining, it's our choice, but often media portrays Israel as this place where we all live off the fat of the land, and it's just not true.  More than 1/3 of Israel's children don't eat 3 meals a day.  Many retired people are barely surviving and are forced to beg on the street to feed themselves.  The poverty index here is actually higher than Gaza, yet Israel still provides free fuel, electricity, and water to the Gaza strip.  Just remember, no matter where you get your news from about the middle East, it's skewed, and you can't always apply western logic to an  Eastern culture.


Michael and Ahava will be available off-and-on to respond to your follow-up questions, so feel free to add a few more. (But keep in mind there are only two of them...and there is a time difference!)

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