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Excessive innocence extinguishes the ethical Photo: Shutterstock
 
 
Dr. Ruchama Weiss  

 

When sages are wrong: Misogyny in Talmud

Two passages found in close proximity to one another in the Babylonian Talmud define a woman as 'nudity' and 'hell.' In these difficult sources I see the moral blind spots of my ancestors, and I am obligated to examine my own moral blind spots.

Published: 03.03.14, 00:07 / Israel Jewish Scene

Innocent moments in Jewish tradition

In this week's Torah portion, "Pekudei," the breastplate, a unique and valuable article of the high priest's dress, is described (Exodus 39:8-14): "And he made the breastplate, the work of the skillful craftsman, like the work of the ephod: of gold, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen. It was four-square... And they set in it four rows of precious stones... And the stones were according to the names of the children of Israel, twelve, according to their names, like the engravings of a signet, every one according to his name, for the twelve tribes."

 

 

Twelve precious stones were grafted on the breastplate attached to the high priest's vest, one symbolic of each of the 12 tribes.

 

Years and centuries passed, two Temples were built and destroyed, and t

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he high priest's breastplate became another charming legend of the Jewish people. As the rabbinic sages wanted to emphasize the importance of the mitzvah of honoring one's parents, they returned to the image of the 12 precious stones, and compared their value to the value of honoring one's parents:

 

"Rabbi Eliezer was asked: 'To what extant must one honor his parents?' Said he, 'Go forth and see what a certain heathen, Dama son of Nethinah by name, did in Ashkelon'.

 

"The sages sought jewels for the ephod, at a profit to the seller of six hundred thousand gold denarii... However as the key was lying under his father's pillow, he did not trouble him. The following year the Holy One, blessed be He, gave him his reward. A red heifer was born to him in his herd.

 

"When the sages of Israel went to him to buy it, he said to them, ‘I know you, that even if I asked you for all the money in the world you would pay. But I ask of you only the money which I lost through my father's honor'" (Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Kidushin 31A).

 

Cultural importance of sleeping pill

The story of Dama son of Nethinah belongs to the genre of "Yossi, My Successful Son," written by Israeli poet and children's book author Ayin Hillel. It is the story of a son full of good intentions, but who is not especially wise. I can imagine that when father Nethinah woke up from his sleep, he was simultaneously saddened and filled with compassion for his good-hearted, foolish son.

 

The Aggadah of Dama son of Nethinah is a cultural sleeping pill. We should not view this as minor matter, as one of the principle roles of all leadership is to "keep Nethinah sleeping." Sleepy citizens may not be especially interesting people, but it is exactly for that reason that they are easy to rule over and manipulate. Doma son of Nethinah is a representation of the perfect citizen – a conflict-free person whose affable obedience forsakes himself and his family for the arbitrariness of laws.

 

And the ruler? He of course wants to promise that there is a reward for the obedient, and teach us to believe that "every impediment is for an ultimate good" and other such similar and stupid sayings, whose real purpose is to slow our progress, and to sedate our critical sense. Stories like Doma son of Nethinah's inculcate a belief that those who walk the line will be positively rewarded and that the real hero is he who conquers his own sense of critical thinking. "Wise" leadership teaches us to applaud Doma son of Nethinah.

 

On the other side, a heritage hard to digest

This week I found myself teaching the following pearl from our Tradition: "Rav and Rav Yehuda were walking on the road. One woman was walking in front of them. Rav said to Rav Yehuda: 'Run and escape from Hell'" (Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Kidushin 81A).

 

This Aggadah is brought in the Babylonian Talmud in the framework of a discussion on the prohibition against "yichud," the seclusion in a private area of an unmarried man and women. A few sentences prior to this statement, Rav's position can be read and states that when leaving the city, the presence of two men and a woman is not enough to prevent violating the ban on yichud. He claims three men are needed.

 

Why are two men inadequate? "Lest one man need to step aside to urinate and leave the other secluded and alone with her nudity." And so it is that in two passages found in close proximity to one another in the Talmud a woman is defined as 'nudity' and as 'hell' (or at least as one who carries in her body the dangers of hell).

 

I wanted to relieve a little of mine and my students' discomfort and tell them that this is the most misogynous Talmudic text that I know, but I immediately remembered that last year I taught Masechet Nidah (that deals with ritual impurity from menstruation), and a few years prior to that Masechet Sotah (that deals with the trial by ordeal administered to the wife whose husband suspected her of adultery but who had no witnesses to make a formal case), and both of these have a world view and practice that is no less misogynous.

 

It is unfortunately impossible to be comforted by the thought that the texts that I taught this week are a one-time slip of the tongue, a strange and unusual product within Talmudic literature.

 

From sleeping pills to punches in stomach

The story of Doma son of Nethinah is a cute and slightly stupid story that does not really offer any serious ethical challenge to one who studies it. As opposed to it, the misogynous tradition that I taught this week felt like a punch to the stomach. Is there a middle ground? Is there a tradition that can offer a "light" shaking, a tradition that awakens a slight amount of ethical introspection that causes those who study it to feel "minor turbulence in the airplane" of their soul? Is there a moderate path between Doma son of Nethinah and Rav's misogyny?

 

I don't know. But I am pretty sure that if such a moderate path exists, it probably wouldn't interest me much.

 

Culture should challenge life

In the wonderful poetry of Finnish poet Eeva Karin Kilpi, she describes the challenging shake-up of the soul as the primary mission of the intimate relationship. I think that her description thereof also captures what the value of the meeting between a person and his or her culture can be:

 

"Let me know right away if I bother you,

He said when he entered from beyond the door,

And I am about to leave.

 

Not only do you simply bother me,

I answered him,

You disturb my entire existence.

Welcome guest."

 

Eeva Kilpi (translated to English from Rami Saari's Hebrew translation of the Finnish)

 

My friends the talkbackers ask me why every week I address Jewish issues that have at their center damage done to human dignity. Some claim that I want to defame Judaism. Opposed to them are those who claim that my choice to deal with these issues teaches that I have not yet been set free and choose to identify with the aggressor.

 

I cannot find in my soul even a slight echo of these two extreme explanations. I love teaching Talmud. And I definitely do not perceive of myself as a victim of my own culture. So why, despite all this, do I choose to dip my hands and soul in blood and placenta of damage done to human dignity? Certainly there are many good answers to that question, but Eeva Kilpi's answer accurately describes my feelings – I want my culture to "disturb my entire existence."

 

Doma son of Nethinah, with all of his cuteness, never awakened in me ethical insights of any value. Despite this the Talmudic traditions that I taught this week, caused me a powerful disturbance. They forced me to think and react; to think about mechanisms of power and control and about the ability to be free from them. To make an effort to find and highlight additional voices, earlier voices, buried and hidden in misogynist rabbinic discussions.

 

Most importantly, these difficult sources teach me a lesson in modesty; from them I learn that unequally talented and wise people with good intentions can bequeath to subsequent generations difficult and bad traditions. I see the moral blind spots of my ancestors, and I am obligated to examine my own moral blind spots. Bad and disturbing sources make me think. Doma son of Nethinah puts me to sleep.

 

When 'female nudity' and 'hell' study Torah

At the Oranim College there is a special women's beit midrash called Niggun Nashi ("Women's Melody"). Only a few months ago, when I was still hard at work preparing for a course that would deal with the fourth chapter of Masechet Kidushin in the Babylonian Talmud, a brave and impossible-to-adequately-describe book created at this house of study with the editing of Dr. Anat Israeli and Esther Fisher, landed on my desk.

 

The book, entitled "Demanding Good - A Collective Feminist Commentary on the Prohibitions of Yichud," expresses double bravery as the members of the group 'Women's Melody'" could have chosen to learn and expound on more comfortable topics that are easier to digest. On the other hand, they were able to very justifiably toss destructive ballistic stones at this awful topic. But they chose otherwise. They chose to write a commentary on it. If that were not enough, they chose to call their commentary "Demanding Good". They demand good of a topic that demands that they are bad.

 

But don't underestimate them. Their commentary is free of naïveté and self-righteous positions in relation to this difficult topic. "Demanding Good" means both demanding good interpretations and demanding that what is good is enacted. The book is clear, serious, creative, smart, an interesting read, and is equally appropriate for advanced as well beginning learners.

 

When the women that were defined in the texts as "hell" and as "nudity" choose to study the texts that damage their dignity, their response is twice as powerful. No cultural victory can be greater than the victory of the oppressed returning to themselves the right to interpret, to choose, and to create.

 

And in the beit midrash of talkbacks

Thank you to the many male and female responders. I take your comments seriously and therefore I would like to ask my critics: Please don't write that am boorish or uneducated, write nonsense, and other such comments. We are here to learn Torah, and therefore if you have new insights or a thoughtful claim, I would be happy to be challenged by them and respond. If not, then perhaps I may be correct after all.

 

I recommend that you all read anonymous talkback number 153 that proposes a political explanation for the oppression of women (the subject of his PhD dissertation): "The struggle between the sexes is not unique to the religious sector, but is happening throughout the entirety of Israeli society and is a symptom of a totally different control. If you look historically, every nation that finds itself in unsure political situations, and especially prior to difficult decisions there is a hardening of internal positions and control, is maintained through the control over the basic human desires..." I recommend reading the entire response (and definitely the PhD dissertation).

 

A picture was sent to me by Shlomo Kaplan as a response to last week's column that dealt with the women's "cage" at weddings. In this picture from the 1960s, one can see his father, a Gur Hasid, dancing with the bride. If you look at the picture you will understand what has happened to religious society in the past 50 years.

 

Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas

 

Click here to read this article in Hebrew

 

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