"And it came to pass in the evening that he took Leah his daughter, and brought her to him; and he went in unto her. And Laban gave Zilpah his handmaid unto his daughter Leah for a handmaid. And it came to pass in the morning that, behold, it was Leah; and he said to Laban: 'What is this thou hast done unto me? did not I serve with thee for Rachel? wherefore then hast thou beguiled me?'" (Genesis 29:23-25)
Readers of this story, its commentators and interpreters are skeptical as to the possibility that a man who desires a woman for seven years whom he knows well, will not realize over the intimate course of their wedding night that she has been switched with a different woman?!? The ultimate of all fears is laid out before us: How is it possible to so strongly desire a specific woman, but be so blind as to not realize she has been substituted for another?!?
To establish for them a memorial, to give them a voice
(The author has adapted masculine pronouns of this phrase to instead indicate the feminine gender)
Jacob knew Leah and Leah knew the truth. The more that Leah became "one flesh" (Genesis 2:24) with Jacob, the intolerable truth that she is the "other woman" drives them apart.
After the conclusion of the wedding night, the Torah reports to us that Jacob is angry and accusatory, that Laban is shifty and self-justifying, and that amongst themselves these two men concoct a new deal. However the voices of the women are missing from the affair. We will never know, for example, how a woman, sent as a false and ultimately disappointing substitute, passes the long wedding night in a bed with a man meant for her sister. Equally unclear is how, in light of this betrayal, did the sister whose beloved was taken from her and given to her sister, feel?
Voice is Rachel's voice but body is Leah's body
(Adapted from Genesis 27:22 when being deceived by Jacob, Isaac confusedly comments, "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.")
In its attempt to explain how Laban's campaign of deception succeeded, the Midrash (Rabbinic expansive interpretation) adds many altering and complicating details to this Biblical story of fraud in order to make it more plausible for the reader. For the sake of believability the narrator transforms Rachel from a passive object to an active character. This is how in the Midrash (Lamentations Rabbah, in the "Petichtot"), Rachel describes the events of our Torah portion:
"Jacob... Loved me with abundant love and slaved away for me indentured to my father for seven years. When he completed those seven years and the time came for him to be married to me as husband, my father advised me to replace myself with my sister to my husband. He strongly insisted and when he informed me that he would enact his plan, I informed my husband of it. I gave him specific signs that would enable him to distinguish between me and my sister so that my father's plan at substituting me would fail. Soon thereafter I comforted myself and bore the burden of my desire and took mercy on my sister lest she end up abused. That night not only did I pass on to her all the secret signs that I had shared with my husband in order that he think she is Rachel, but I hid under the bed where he was lying with my sister and he was speaking with her. She kept quite while I answered everything he said so he won't recognize my sister's voice. I did for her an act of loving kindness."
For the sake of explaining and anchoring in some sort of sense Laban's deception, Rachel is transformed from object to subject and her muted, internal world receives extensive expression. She is aware of Jacob's love. She wants Jacob. She weaves with him crafty plans and gives him secret signs for identifying her. Ultimately she gives up on this plan for her sister's benefit. She prefers her commitment to her sister over her commitment to her beloved. She does no less than lie under the wedding bed and fakes moaning noises as Jacob makes love to Leah.
The terrible laughter of fate resounds at the entrance of Jacob's tent: 'The voice Is the voice of Rachel, but the body is the body of Leah.'
Does rape as a reward for women sound familiar?
Leah has a daughter and her name is Dinah. Dinah is mentioned in the Torah only because she was raped by Shechem, son of Hamor and because her brothers violently avenged the injury done to the family's honor (just as Tamar, Amnon's sister is mentioned - she who is raped is rewarded to have her name mentioned in the Bible).
However this time the author of the Midrash goes even farther and he explains that Dinah's rape is, practically speaking, a reward for Rachel. According to the author of the Midrash, for not being concerned about her own honor and passing on to her sister the secret signs she set with Jacob, Rachel merits to see her sister Leah's honor trampled with Dinah's rape. Genesis Rabbati, Parashat "Vayishlach" reads:
"This is a Mitzvah and this is it's reward - This is Rachel's, Leah's sister's reward for passing on to Leah the secret agreed upon signs between her and her husband without embarrassment, I swear as I will give you an even greater shame than this: This is what is what the verse, "And Dinah the daughter of Leah...went out..." (Genesis 34:1).
'Your voice' - is Midrash's author treating Rachel kindly?
In the name of sisterly love, we readers of this rabbinic tale, are turned into partners to an embarrassing and painful act, in which the sisters connect to fake intimacy with a man. This ripens into sisterly jealousy and we get a tragic and terrible tale of revenge.
This Midrash's author adds words, thoughts, and life to the character of Rachel. (Interestingly even in the Midrash Leah remains passive. Leah remains Leah.) however the question is whether the breath of life that the Midrash's author breathed into Rachel's character kindly brings her to life, or does it "rape" her and force on her views and actions not her own. Would Biblical Rachel ever even consider giving up on her Jacob for Leah? Would she prefer to lie to Jacob, displaying loyalty to Leah? Would Rachel and Leah ever imagine on their wildest dreams the idea of a deceptive ménage à trois with Jacob? Would Biblical Rachel feel schadenfreude at Dinah's rape?
In other words, does the alteration of Rachel's character by the Midrashic author treat her kindly or reduce her existence by assigning her an estranged and trampled voice, doing violence to her character?
Challenges of feminist biblical commentary
It seems that the life that this Midrashic commentator blew into Rachel were not intended to magnify or to glorify her character. The work of the Midrashic commentator, even when he grants Rachel a voice, continues to objectify her personality. The Midrashic author alters Rachel's character, but he does this in order to continue using her as a coat rack on which to hang his own exegetical agenda.
Unlike the author of the Midrash's tendency, Feminist scholarship and commentary attempt to assign life to female Biblical characters, not as a means to toward some literary or religious claim, rather as an ends in and of themselves. However the road to exegetical hell is paved with good intentions. It is ultimately impossible to recreate characters from the past. We have no way of knowing how Rachel felt when her love was taken from her on her wedding day, or how Leah felt when she was given, against her will, to a man that did not desire her. At the end of the day it is our voices we hear from, and project into, the various commentaries that we propose.
So how can we save ourselves from the hell of self-projection? Are we Feminists also doomed to become objectifiers of women? I do not have any answers and I certainly do not have any guarantees. The little that we are able to do, and it seems to me also to be the best we can do, is as always:
- To be conscious of this danger.
- To be responsible. To be scrupulous archeologists. To scour through the sources. To filter out sand and background noise. And before we project ourselves and our lives on the Biblical characters, we need to attempt to find shards of life and voices from the past that can help guide our hands in the reconstruction of their stories, not just in the construction of our own.
- To be brave. To be prepared to make mistakes and to pay a reasonable price for those mistakes. To understand that in this case, the price of avoidance is higher than the price of lousy commentary.
Ultra-purple at Western Wall
For many years now I have no connection to the Bnei Akiva youth group, but thanks to my friends for the Facebook group, "I am a religious feminist and I don't have a sense of humor either," and thanks to the extraneous noise that the youth movement's funders make in the media. I get updates from the religious Zionist arena as well.
In this fashion I was notified that last Shabbat Bnei Akiva celebrated an "organizational Shabbat," a Shabbat that included exhibitions, presentations, and leaders. This year I heard for the first time that Bnei Akiva girls, in some of the youth group's branches, are allowed to appear before women only audiences or in modest, covering, black-and-white clothing and ultra-purple lighting that covers their bodies. Yes. Yes. In many Bnei Akiva branches, girls may only expose their socks and hands.
One of the problems with hands is that the day will come, and exactly like the women of the Bible, someone will want to compose a Midrash that will connect those hands to arms, to faces, to legs, to breasts, and worst of all - to personalities. One day women and men will rise up together that will want to believe that their sisters from the past had more than just a glowing pair of hands, and then the Midrashim will become problematic. Therefore instead of making every woman a seductive and complicated riddle, can we present them as they are? When that happens we will discover, for better or for worse, that women are really pretty easy to understand.
The demand that a young woman's body can be summed up in a pair of glowing hands, is added to my understanding to an additional, moot decision from the same beit midrash, or house of study – the decision of the Bnei Akiva Yeshiva's Center to encourage girls studying therein to protest against the Women of the Wall (that in some instances means inciting daughters against their mothers).
Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas
Click here to read this article in Hebrew