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.

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