When Chava, the first woman, is created, she is immediately described as an ezer kenegdo to Adam, a helper parallel to him (Bereshit 2:18). This is a very confusing description – so much so that many commentators focus on one of these two words at the expense of the other. Some concentrate on the first word, explaining that she is a helper (see R. Y. S. Reggio), while others concentrate 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, saying that they are referring to two 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 more complete, it seems to deviate from the simple meaning of the verse.
None of the explanations suggest that this new creature could be both ezer and kenegdo at the same time. But perhaps the commentators limit themselves unnecessarily. Perhaps God’s Torah reflects a different perspective – one that sometimes challenges us to stretch beyond our usual way of thinking.
From the moment he was created, Adam was told to subdue the concrete physical world. And in that world that became man’s laboratory, what is black can’t be white, and what is solid can’t be liquid. Seeing the tangible world like this, he has been tempted to think of non-physical reality in the same way: What is good could not be bad. What is heroic could not be cowardly. And what is hierarchical could not be equal.
Some contemporary feminist thinkers claim that women are less prone to think in this way. From a Biblical perspective, this can follow from their not being given the task of subduing the physical world. But maybe even more important is that their very essence is indicated by the paradoxical phrase we are trying to understand. Indeed, 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 God Himself. After all, being both a God of judgment and a God of mercy at the same time also seems like black and white together. Likewise, He is everywhere while inexplicably removing Himself enough for us to have our own distinct and meaningful existence.
When not applied to women, the Biblical term ezer is almost always referring to God. The various usages of the word show that its nearly universal translation as helper is correct. Yet it seems axiomatic that one who helps is following the needs of someone else, thereby making them (the helper) subservient. Of course, in the case of God, the paradox is even greater, since it is obvious that God 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 God. 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 God 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, this doesn’t mean that men are shut out from the unity of opposites manifest in the non-physical world. But unfortunately, instead of men adapting a more feminine understanding of the spiritual world, we find just the opposite.
As women have entered the material world that used to be the near-exclusive domain of men, many try to define themselves with male choices and decide to be either subservient or equal – or at least to sometimes be one and at other times the other – but no longer, both simultaneously.
Whatever the reason, 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.
Rabbi Francis Nataf