Land of Israel is not Jewish people's birthplace
"The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped."
The opening statement of the Israeli Declaration of Independence stands in direct contradiction to age-old Jewish ethos, according to which: "The wilderness was the birthplace of the Jewish people, and in the Diaspora their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped."
Don't let the difference here be perceived as a minor one, as there is a gaping cultural chasm between the people of "the wilderness" and the people of "the land (of Israel)."
The wilderness has an important role in shaping the Jewish heritage and the Jewish sense of independence.
Four out of five of the five books of the Torah take place in the wilderness. The Torah is given in the wilderness and finishes the night before entrance to the land of Israel, and the Hebrew name of the fourth of five books of the Torah, the book we began reading on Shabbat, is "In the Wilderness" (the Book of Numbers).
Reckless like the wilderness
In one of the cryptic descriptions of the marches of the people of Israel in the desert, it is written (Numbers 21:18-19): "And from the wilderness to Mattanah; and from Mattanah to Nahaliel..."
The Sages of the Talmud choose to see in this description of the wilderness marches a parable for the inner world of those who study Torah (Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Nedarim 55A): "'From Midbar (wilderness to) Mattanah, and from Mattanah (to) Nahliel, and from Nahliel (to) Bamot.' - When a person makes himself reckless and available to all like a wilderness, Torah is given to him for a gift (mattanah)."
This midrash is offering paradoxical thinking, ethics of opposites. A person needs to give everything up, abandon and disown himself and his needs, in order to merit receiving the greatest gift of all - Torah.
Recklessness vs. conservatism
Literally, recklessness ("hefker"), is property which is not owned, exactly like land in the wilderness. A person who "makes himself reckless" is able to forgo the knowledge he himself and the world has collected. He is a person who exposes himself to a new body of knowledge and allows himself to be "an agent of the Divine will." The suggestion to find freedom in recklessness and abandonment opens the horizons for critical introspection of conservativeness and the tendency to do what is familiar and known.
Recklessness vs. modestyModesty stands in opposition to recklessness. Total openness to new learning conflicts with its opposite, closed-mindedness and concealing from the world. According to the image of the wilderness we have seen, the ideal student is a student not owned by preconceived notions. He renounces commonly accepted defenses and turns himself to a new type of observing.
And what is modesty?
A difficult to digest, yet fascinating tradition proposes a subversive perspective on the idea of modesty. In the Babylonian Talmud a lesson is given on intimate relationship given by Rav Chisdah to his two daughters (Masechet Shabbat 140B):
"Rav Chisdah says to his daughters: 'Be modest in front of your husbands; Do not eat bread in front of your husbands, do not eat vegetables at night, do not eat dates at night, do not drink alcohol at night, Don't go to the bathroom where your husbands go to the bathroom... He (Rav Chisdah) held a 'marganit' (pimpernel) in one hand and a 'kura' (term of uncertain meaning) in the other hand. 'Show (your husbands) the 'marganit' and do not show (your husbands) the 'kura' until they are sorry, and then show them.'"
According to Rav Chisdah's approach, female modesty is the key to successful relationships. His list of modest behaviors is specific, but not completely clear. It seems to me that the modesty which Rav Chisdah is talking about is modesty of female bodily excretions. Closeness and intimacy are fine and dandy, says Rav Chisdah, but there is a limit.
He tells and recommends to his daughters to be punctilious in hiding their bodily excretions from their husbands - not to eat in front of them and not to go to the bathroom where their husbands can see.
This is how Rashi explains Rav Chisdah's advice: Why not to eat bread in front of their husband? "Twice eat excessively and you will be degraded to him." And why not eat vegetables at night? "Because it causes bad breath." And what is wrong with eating dates or drinking alcohol at night? "It causes diarrhea and leads to belittlement."
Woman is actually the wilderness
Indeed, the body of the woman receives the man inside it, and from the female body the next generation is born. Were it not for the fact that I dislike the alarming linguistic associations, I would say that the essence of the woman is "breached and open like wilderness" (breached in Hebrew has the same root word as whore).
Frightened masculine culture distinguishes between the man and woman, as represented by Rav Chisdah, who requests that his daughters covers the "breaches" and "openings" of their bodies and encourages his daughters to convey to their husbands: "We are sealed and closed, wrapped like gifts. We are modest. We do not eat or excrete."
Since then and even until today, women are taught to exhibit their modesty in front of men and be glorified for almost not eating and certainly not defecating...
What is a 'marganit' and what is a 'kura'?
Rav Chisdah's final instruction is the most cryptic of them all, and Rashi chooses to explain it with explicit sexual content:
"When your husband is having sex with you and attempting to arouse your desire and is holding your breasts in one hand and the other at 'that place', offer him your breasts to increase his desire, and don't let him find your actual 'sexual site' too quickly, so that his desire increases until he wants you so bad it hurts, and then show him."
So 'kura' is the female sex organ and the 'marganit' is the breasts. And Rav Chisdah, according to this interpretation, offers his daughters explicit instructions for "foreplay."
Modesty is seductiveness
We must not mistake Rav Chisdah's words. When he suggests to his daughters that they be modest, he is teaching them how to be seductive. It is commonly acceptable to see the education of women for modesty as a cover and defense against sexual temptation, but Rav Chisdah explains that the opposite is true. Modesty, while it does close women off from the world, simultaneously creates curiosity and arousal for them. Modesty is a means of tempting men and not restraining them.
The light rail and the heavy Hasid
Lately I have been noticing a new (and still marginal) phenomenon in the behavior of ultra-Orthodox men on the Jerusalem light rail.
We have already gotten used to some of the ultra-Orthodox men standing up immediately when we sit next to them. We have gotten used to the embarrassment, insult and inner dialogue we have with ourselves (if I sit down, he will stand up and that will be uncomfortable... But on the other hand, why should I continue to stand? He should stand... Maybe he is one of those ultra-Orthodox whose is willing to sit next to a woman... But why should this even be my problem?)
But lately I have been exposed to ultra-Orthodox who get on the train and immediately stand at the front of the first car, turning their back to their fellow travelers and pressing their faces beyond the driver or the side panel. It is not enough for them not to sit next to women, they are prohibiting themselves from even seeing women.
Today I sat next to (at a distance of one empty chair) a very young man who, judging by his clothes, was extremely ultra-Orthodox, and he would not even lift up his eyes from the train floor. It pained me when I imagined the inner wars he must be fighting inside himself.
I wanted to say to him: "Boy, it is only a few women your mother's and your grandmother's age, and maybe two female students who are really not interested in you... What have they programmed into your young and tormented head? It is a shame to torture yourself. Stop obsessing and loosen up..."
A few hours before this train experience, I taught the words that Rav Chisdah said to his daughters, and the misery of this young man deepened my understanding of his words - modesty really is seductiveness. The more a person is preoccupied with matters of modesty, he ultimately excites himself more. The greater the growth in prohibitions, the greater the reciprocal growth in the belief in their necessity. Whomever wants to excessively increase sexual prohibitions must inevitably intensify the power of sexual arousal. The young man really was wrestling with demons and spirits on the train.
Bank to the wilderness' recklessness
The depiction of the desert really does encourage learners to dare to open themselves to new experiences. The sages, scheming for themselves boldness and innovation, asks to teach us that a reckless man will conquer new destinations, but a reckless woman?!
Women are educated to be terrified of the adjective "reckless," as they must be modest. Not tempting, not innovative, and not deviant. A creative reckless man is supposed to return after the conquest to his home. There waits his conquered wife who has conquered her will in order to allow his to flourish.
I am grateful to the students in the Israeli rabbinical program at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. In their wise and pleasant company I studied the words of Rav Chisdah and his daughters this week.
Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas.
Click here to read this article in Hebrew.