The Book of Ruth: Part 3, Gibor Hayil

My friend, the late Rachel Held Evans, popularized the Hebrew phrase eshet chayil, from Proverbs 31, translated as "worthy woman" or "woman of valor." In the Jewish tradition it is great praise to call a woman eshet chayil. And because of Rachel, many women began to praise each other with those words. 

As noted in Part 1, it's noteworthy that Ruth, a non-Israelite, is the only woman called eshet chayil in the Bible. And of interest for this post is that Boaz is a described as a match for Ruth. Where Ruth is described as an eshet chayil, a woman of valor, Boaz is described as a gibor hayil.

As Robert Alter notes in his commentary of the book, the original meaning of gibor hayil was "warrior of valor." But in the context of the book of Ruth, gibor hayil functions as the masculine equivalent to Ruth's description as a "woman of valor." Thus, Alter translates gibor hayil as "man of valor."

So, eshet chayil is a "woman of valor," and gibor hayil is a "man of valor."

I highlight the parallel because it has become difficult and treacherous, for a variety of reasons, to speak positively and affirmatively about masculinity, about what it might mean to be a "man of valor." In fact, the very descriptions "woman of valor" and "man of valor" will be deemed problematic by some as it reinforces a gender binary.

And yet, women thrill to calling each other eshet chayil. Would it be similarly appropriate, then, for men to call each other gibor hayil when they see a man behaving as we see Boaz acting in the book of Ruth? 

Of course, feminist scholars could do a number on Boaz, describing his benevolent sexism and paternalism. The gender norms of ancient Israel are not our gender norms. And yet, Boaz is a man who places his influence, privilege, and power on the side of the vulnerable. And as fraught and problematic as it might be for me to say, that seems to me to be a good thing. And after the #MeToo movement don't we want to see more men acting like this? And if were to see such a man, or a woman, it seems proper to cry out Eshet chayil! Gibor hayil!

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