Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Sexism and the Sages

This week, we began the second chapter of Avot d'Rabbi Natan, with still more discussion of "fences" around words, in this case, the fence the Torah made around its own words. The example given is that, in the purity laws, the Torah says that a man should not "come close" to a woman while she menstruating, because if it had forbidden only sexual contact, we might think that hugging, kissing, chatting or sharing beds fully clothed are permitted. As an aside, we also learn that women should not wash their faces or put on makeup while they are in niddah, because the Sages are pleased with those women who neglect themselves during menstruation. One possible reason for that is that, while sexual contact is forbidden, they don't want the women to make themselves attractive.

Continuing on the menstruation theme, we have an extremely disturbing story: Once, there was a man who studied Torah and Mishnah and assisted many great Torah scholars. He died tragically young. His wife took his tefillin into the Houses of Study and Worship and screamed and cried, asking the scholars how it could be that her husband died so early, since the Torah promises long life to its students. No one could answer her.

So far, this is an really interesting story.  It's very similar to the well-known story of Elisha ben Abuyah, who saw a young boy die while performing two of the mitzvot that promise long life to those who obey them, and was driven to abandon Jewish tradition, but I found it interesting to have it told this time through a woman, especially since she's apparently learned enough to use a prooftext to back up her criticism of Torah. In addition, all the scholars seem to agree that there is no good answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people-- all they can do is be silent in the face of tragedy. It seemed like it might be one of the stories that make me feel good about the way Judaism relates to both women and doubt.

Those of you who know the story are probably wincing at my naivete right now, because, unfortunately, the story continues. The woman met Elijah the prophet, who asked her why she was crying. When  she told him, he asked "When you were menstruating, what did he do?"

She replied, "Sir, God forbid; he didn't touch me even with his little finger. Rather, he said to me 'Do not touch me at all, so that we can avoid all doubt of breaking the prohibition."

Elijah asked, "And in the last days (meaning the seven days after she had stopped menstruating, when there is a Rabbinic extension of the menstruation rules, in case she is not actually done), what did he do?"

"Sir, I ate with him, and drank with him and slept in the bed with him with my clothes on, and we touched but didn't mean anything by it."

He said "Blessed is God who killed him, for it says in the Torah 'Do not approach a woman while she is impure with menstruation.'"

(If possible, it only gets worse from there. We also learn that men may not be alone with women, even their close relatives in an inn, or even walk around in the marketplace with their own wives for fear of public opinion, and then some general statements about avoiding small transgressions, because they may lead to bigger ones, and then finally, a slight concession-- a man may choose whether to cohabit with his wife while she in menstruating: no one but God can judge him for his decision.)

Stories like this make it very difficult for me to see myself as an intellectual inheritor of Jewish tradition. I really do think I am, most of the time. I study with teachers who studied with teachers in an intellectual lineage that goes back to the sources we're studying, and I think that's an amazing and beautiful thing. I like to think that everyone in that line would have thought so too, but sections like this remind me that that really is not true. Chazal, our Sages of blessed memory, were misogynists. Not worse than anyone else of their time, maybe even better, but they wouldn't have liked me very much, and that bothers me because I really love them.

A lot of the time, it helps to think about them historically; to say "Wow, look what people thought in the 9th Century. That's so interesting." Or to think of them as crochety older relatives whom we love and listen to, but don't really take seriously. But neither of those does justice to the rabbis as real founders of a tradition that I live in and engage with. I don't feel any obligation to let other Medieval sources influence my life or have my social values dictated to me by my great-aunts, but I do want to live in the system created by Chazal. It feels to me more like acknowledging that America was founded on slavery and massacre, and working to fix the parts of the system that still enforce that, rather than throwing out the whole idea of America and starting over more equitably. Like America, Jewish tradition has enough really excellent values and ideas that it is worth facing the unpleasant parts of its unpleasant beginnings.

Monday, October 3, 2011

As if He had destroyed the world...

We had to end last week in the middle of a section, so I will pick right back up. As Avital wrote, last week’s learning concluded with the sad fact that, as a result of the expulsion from Gan Eden, we lost special magical/helper scorpions. A verse from Tehillim is then quoted: “V’adam bikar bal yalin nimshal ka’behemot nidmu, Man doesn’t last even a day in honor, he is like a best that perished”. The classic “point followed by proof text” formula is reversed here, as the pasuk is first quoted and then examples are given to back it up. The text goes on to emphasize that on the same day Adam’s form and limbs and innards were created, his soul was given to him, he stood on his own two feet, he named the animals, he was joined with Chava, he entered into Gan Eden, God commanded him what to eat/what not to eat, he sinned, and he was banished from the Garden. All in a day’s work. Adam, as recounted in Tehillim, did not last for even a day in honor. (The first thing that came to mind when we learned this part was the line from The Crucible by Arthur Miller in which Reverend Hale states: ‘Man, remember, until an hour before the Devil fell, God thought him beautiful in Heaven.’ I have tried to banish that image from my mind, though, because it is definitely not how I want to think about either God or Adam.)

We are then told that ten punishments were given to both Adam and Chava, although we are never given the full list of these ten. Basically, it explains that Adam will have to work the land to provide food, and Chava will have to endure various types of pain (there is a lot of detail about this) in bearing children. The word used for punishment “gzeirah” is reminiscent of the High Holiday liturgy we read this past week: “U’teshuva u’tfillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roa ha’gzeirah, And repentance, prayer, and tzedakah lessen the severity of the decree”. Maybe if Adam and Chava had known these three we wouldn’t still be under the gzeirot given to them…

My favorite part of the text comes next: “At evening time, Adam HaRishon saw that darkness was coming onto the western part of the world. ‘Woe is me, because I have sinned the Holy One Blessed Be He is darkening the whole world!’ And he didn’t know that this was the way of the world. At dawn, when he saw the world lighting up from the East, he was gladdened with a great happiness.” He then builds an alter and sacrifices to God. “At this time, three groups of ministering angels came down, and in their hands were violins and harps and all the instruments of song. They sang a song with him: ‘Mizmor shir l’yom HaShabbat tov l’hodot l’Hashem, A song for Shabbat, it is good to praise God’”. (This is the traditional psalm of the day for Shabbat.) I was particularly struck by the fact that, in this story, Adam thinks that Hashem is ending the world because he has sinned. He believes in a God that punishes directly and harshly. But he doesn’t yet know that the darkness is a part of how the world works, not the work of a malicious God conspiring against him. It makes sense that in the daily Maariv prayers, we praise God as “ha’maariv aravim, the One who evenings the evening”, as a sort of reminder of Adam’s fear of a God who “machshich alai et ha’olam, darkens the world to me”. Adam’s joy upon waking up to a world of light is very real and gives a nice context to the line in Shacharit “ha’meir l’aretz u’l’dvarim aleyah b’rachamim uv’tuvo mechadesh b’chol yom tamid maaseh breisheet, In compassion, He gives light to the Earth and its inhabitants, and in His goodness continually renews every day the work of creation”. After Adam’s personal journey of sorts through the long night, the angels coming down to praise God with him is a lovely image of Heaven and Earth working together.

The text sees the fact that the Psalm for Shabbat has just been related as a perfect opportunity to go through the psalms for each day of the week and explain the connection between that day’s psalm and what happened on that day in creation. The perek closes with the statement that if God hadn’t punished the serpent, Adam, and Chava, it would have been as if He had destroyed the whole world. That is something interesting to ponder as we contemplate justice and mercy during these Days of Repentance. Feel free to comment with thoughts!

This is the first perek that we have finished, right in time for Rosh HaShanah, so we were quite excited.

Gmar chatima tova!