Perek 1, Mishna 5
The Mishna reads:
Yose b. Yochanan, a man of Jerusalem, says: Let your house be open widely, treat the poor as members of your household, and do not converse excessively with a woman. They said this about one's own wife, surely it applies to another man's wife. Consequently, the Sages said anyone who converses excessively with a woman causes evil to himself, comes to neglect Torah study, and will eventually inherit Geihinnom.
This mishna presents the other half of the first zug, the first pair of Rabbinic leaders. Last mishna we saw Yose b. Yo'ezer's discussion of the importance of having talmidei chakhamim (sages) in one's household. Yose b. Yochanan takes a different perspective of the same institution, the household. The Maharal has two basic questions in this Mishna. First, what is the connection among the three main elements: the open house, the poor, and the talk with women? Second, even if we explain the prohibition against talking with women, why should it lead to Geihinnom (perdition)?
FOCUS ON THE HOUSEHOLD
Maharal connects the three by looking back to the previous Mishna. Yose b. Yoezer had begun the discussion by teaching people how to develop ideal households - having talmidei hakhamim around. Now Yose b. Yochanan continues the lesson in running a household - have it be wide open in general. One of the dividends of an open house will be that the poor will feel comfortable there and will be willing to take advantage of your hospitality. If you didn't have an open household, however, they would know that the meal or food they are being given is alms, and the food would taste of charity, rather than friendship.
Focusing on the household opens the door to Maharal's discussion of women. Maharal suggests that the mishna means to limit talking to one's wife even about household matters; this is not a universal view. Since Maharal - as we will see in a moment - believes that a man should trust his wife's opinion in such issues, it cannot be that he thinks that women do not have anything worthwhile to say on household matters. The point of the mishna's limitation is that even in areas where women are the experts, Maharal thinks men should limit their conversation with them.
MAHARAL'S VIEW OF SPEAKING WITH WOMEN - INTRODUCTION
Before we study Maharal's view as to why men should limit their conversation with women, we offer some introductory comments that will mitigate what some readers may find offensive. First, let us note that Maharal is writing to explain a mishna. While there may be options in explaining this mishna other than the one Maharal chose, it is still true that he believed he was transmitting the mishna's intent in how we should conduct ourselves. Second, Maharal clearly believed men and women had different natures, with men being more focused on ultimate issues than women.
As an empirical statement, the difference between men and women is obviously open to debate, so that if someone wanted to deny that distinction, the underlying point would still be worth learning. That is, even if men and women do not divide along those lines, then Maharal's comments would be useful as a way for those concerned with ultimate issues, of whatever gender, to interact with those more focused on immediate and earthly matters (again, of whatever gender).
The point of these differing natures, in Maharal's view, was not for one to look down on the other, but for each to live up to their natures as best possible. Thus, in his view, men should work to develop themselves to the extent possible, as should women, along the lines that their natures prepare them. Note that Maharal's ideas are not sexist in the sense of looking to denigrate subjugate, or reflect any modern perspective on what sexism is. Rather, he believed (and presumably, experience had not provided any evidence otherwise) in certain innate differences between men and women, and Maharal thought they should structure their lives in such a way as to maximize their strengths.
For those who resent the notion of a priori assigned natures on the basis of gender, this claim will seem problematic, and I apologize. Nevertheless, it is Maharal's view and therefore worth pondering, even if some of us decide that we view the world differently. At the very least, it should stimulate some thought about the differences between the two genders, and how those differences should affect how each interacts with the other.
DIFFERENCES OF FOCUS BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN
In Maharal's view, men are less focused on material matters than women. I believe he means that women focus on matters having to do with physical existence more than men - having a decent house, wearing appropriate clothes, maintaining relationships with the neighbors, and so on. Men who are fulfilling their potential focus more on spiritual matters - cultivating a relationship with God, understanding the world and His mode of running it, and so on. By associating excessively with women, Maharal says, a man will absorb a woman's chomriut (material focus), distracting him from his more proper focus on spiritual matters.
Maharal does not a woman's focus or perspective as negative, for them. Indeed, he notes two statements in Bava Metzia about where a man should heed his wife's advice: in matters of the household, and in matters of this world (as opposed to spiritual matters). Maharal says that both statements are defining areas where the material has a greater role than the spiritual, so that a woman will more likely understand how to proceed.
In Maharal's scheme, then, this material world is the setting for spiritual development, but it operates on very different rules from the spiritual world. Women, attuned to the material, understand household and worldly matters more perfectly than men, and therefore their opinions should carry greater weight. Nevertheless, their focus on the material world means that if a man spends excessive time in conversation with women, their focus will prevent him from focusing on the spiritual. The flaw is not in the inherent activity, but in a man's involving himself too much in an activity not appropriate for him.
I am not trying to claim that Maharal sees men and women as separate but equal (my own personal feeling); as we will see in a moment, he clearly valued men's role over women's. Nevertheless, in his terms, he was not denigrating the act of talking to women (or the women themselves). Rather, he just believed that too much of such talk was inherently bad, since it would take men away from their specific role in life.
THE PARALLEL TO HOW THE SOUL SHOULD ACT TOWARDS THE BODY
How a man should interact with a woman, for Maharal, also informs us as to how a soul should respond to the physical body in which it is placed. While the body provides the environment necessary for the soul's development (so that the soul should certainly feel grateful and loving to the body), it should nevertheless not become a distraction from the soul's real purpose, the development of a relationship with God. A soul that gets too caught up with the body will spend its time eating, drinking, and indulging in other pleasures of the flesh, losing sight of the ultimate goal.
THE STRUCTURE OF THE ZUGOT - NASI AS AHAVAT HASHEM, AV BEIT DIN AS YIR'AT HASHEM
Looking back to Yose b. Yo'ezer, the first of this pair, Maharal notes that he had focused on developing ahavat Hashem, love of God, by creating a relationship to talmidei chakhamim. Yose b. Yochanan, on the other hand, focused on avoiding tzarut ayin, (stinginess) and excessive chomriut (material focus) which Maharal sees as a function of yir'a (awe of Heaven). Further, he suggests that Yose b. Yoezer offered methods to develop intellectually, through interactions with talmidei chakhamim, while Yose b. Yochanan offered ways of developing the nefesh, or soul, by avoiding negative character traits.
Maharal then generalizes this claim to their respective offices, saying that the nasi, the head of the Rabbinical court, was distinguished above the rest of the Sanhedrin (he generally did not vote in cases, unless there was a tie), so he focused on ahava, on love of God - a higher level of worship than awe. The av bet din, the second in command who worked on actual cases and real-world necessities, advised on the development of yir'a, awe of Heaven. Maharal also briefly connects ahava to mitzvot asei, commandments, and yir'a to mitzvot lo ta'asei, prohibitions, a thought others (such as the Rambam) had said before. In terms of the pair, that would mean the nasi was more concerned with positive acts of mitzva, while the av beit din was in charge of avoiding prohibitions.
Maharal's scheme from this Mishna ends up looking like this: the world has a material and a spiritual aspect to it, as do people themselves. While the material is necessary for the spiritual it must be carefully controlled (a notion we have seen before). Women naturally represent the material - which in one sense is good, since it gives them greater insight as to how to run this world, and the household in particular. Men - who are more connected to the Heavenly aspects of human beings - need to limit their involvement with women, so as to limit their involvement with the material. Similarly, internally, people need to limit their soul's involvement with the material aspects of existence. A model of this was the two leaders of the Sanhedrin, one of whom was aloof to a certain extent - symbolizing the higher elements of that body - while the other was more deeply involved with its daily workings.
Given each tendencies, the leaders focused on different aspects of human experience. The nasi, focused on Heaven and gave advice on how to develop ahava, the spiritual element of worship of God. The av bet din, on the other hand, who spent his life focused on real-world issues, advised on yir'a, the avoidance of the negative consequences of involvement in this world.
The whole picture supports my presentation of Maharal's view of women as not being sexist in the pejorative modern sense. Rather, women's being more chomri, more material, than men is in some sense analogous to the av bet din's greater focus on yir'a than the nasi. While ahava is a higher level of worship, yir'a is still necessary (for everyone, not just as a first stage before you reach ahava), and ahava will not stand alone successfully. So, too, the chomri, the material, is a necessary element of human existence and not just a preparatory stage for the ruchani, the spiritual. The half of a couple that attends to the chomri, then, would not be less deserving of respect than the one who focuses on the ruchani, just as we do not denigrate the av bet din by noting that he focuses on yir'a where the nasi focuses on ahava. The overall goal is to the divide the responsibilities according to natural tendencies of individuals and then synthesize the contributions to serve God.