Tag Archives: feminism

Sinning for God

Esther’s Purim message and how women save the world

Using Esther and other Biblical heroines we explore a feminist take on a Rabbinic theme of women sinning for the sake of heaven and for a greater good….

Listen to the madlik podcast:

The podcast was recorded in front of a live audience at a Kavanah session at TCS – The Conservative Synagogue of Westport, CT.

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notes:

Esther

Esther sent a message to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night and day; I also and my maidens will fast likewise, and so will I go in to the king, not according to the custom” (Esther 4:16). Rabbi Abba said: It will not be according to my usual custom, for every day until now when I submitted myself to Ahasuerus it was under compulsion, but now I will be submitting myself to him of my own free will. And Esther further said: “And if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). What she meant was: Just as I was lost to my father’s house ever since I was brought here, so too, shall I be lost to you, for after voluntarily having relations with Ahasuerus, I shall be forever forbidden to you. (Babylonian Talmud Megillah 15a)[i][ii]

לך כנוס את־כל־היהודים הנמצאים בשושן וצומו עלי ואל־תאכלו ואל־תשתו שלשת ימים לילה ויום גם־אני ונערתי אצום כן ובכן אבוא אל־המלך אשר לא־כדת וכאשר אבדתי אבדתי עד אשר לא כדת אמר רבי אבא שלא כדת היה שבכל יום ויום עד עכשיו באונס ועכשיו ברצון וכאשר אבדתי אבדתי כשם שאבדתי מבית אבא כך אובד ממך

Tamar

Ulla said: Tamar engaged in licentious sexual intercourse [with her father-in-law, Judah (see Genesis, chapter 38),] and Zimri ben Salu also engaged in licentious sexual intercourse [with a Midianite woman (see Numbers, chapter 25).]  Tamar engaged in licentious sexual intercourse and merited that kings descended from her and she also merited to be the ancestor of prophets [e.g., Isaiah, who was related to the royal family]. Conversely, with regard to Zimri, several multitudes of Israel fell due to him.

Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: Greater is a transgression committed for its own sake, i.e., for the sake of Heaven, than a mitzva performed not for its own sake.

The Gemara questions this comparison: But didn’t Rav Yehuda say that Rav said: A person should always occupy himself with Torah and mitzvot even not for their own sake, as it is through acts performed not for their own sake that good deeds for their own sake come about? How, then, can any transgression be considered greater than a mitzva not for the sake of Heaven?

אמר עולא תמר זינתה זמרי זינה

תמר זינתה יצאו ממנה מלכים ונביאים זמרי זינה נפלו עליו כמה רבבות מישראל

אמר ר”נ בר יצחק גדולה עבירה לשמה ממצוה שלא לשמה והאמר רב יהודה אמר רב לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ובמצות אפי’ שלא לשמן שמתוך שלא לשמן בא לשמן

Yael

Rather say: A transgression for the sake of Heaven is equivalent to a mitzva not for its own sake. The proof is as it is written: “Blessed above women shall Yael be, the wife of Hever the Kenite, above women in the tent she shall be blessed” (Judges 5:24 Etz Hayim p 425), and it is taught: Who are these “women in the tent?” They are Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Yael’s forbidden intercourse with Sisera for the sake of Heaven is compared to the sexual intercourse in which the Matriarchs engaged.[iii]

Rabbi Yoḥanan said: That wicked one, Sisera, engaged in seven acts of sexual intercourse with Yael at that time, as it is stated: “Between her feet he sunk, he fell, he lay; between her feet he sunk, he fell; where he sunk, there he fell down dead” (Judges 5:27). Each mention of falling is referring to another act of intercourse.

אלא אימא כמצוה שלא לשמה דכתיב (שופטים ה, כד) תבורך מנשים יעל אשת חבר הקני מנשים באהל תבורך מאן נשים שבאהל שרה רבקה רחל ולאה

א”ר יוחנן שבע בעילות בעל אותו רשע באותה שעה שנאמר (שופטים ה, כז) בין רגליה כרע נפל שכב בין רגליה כרע נפל באשר כרע שם נפל שדוד

Lots Daughters         Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Avin said that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korḥa said: A
person should always come first with regard to a matter of a mitzva, as in reward of the one night that the elder daughter of Lot preceded the younger for the sake of a mitzva, she merited to precede the younger daughter by four generations to the monarchy of the Jewish people. The descendants of Ruth the Moabite ruled over the Jewish people for four generations: Obed, Yishai, David, and Solomon, before the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam, whose mother was Naamah the Ammonite. (Babylonian Talmud Tractate Nazir 23:b)

א”ר חייא בר אבין א”ר יהושע בן קרחה לעולם יקדים אדם לדבר מצוה שבשכר לילה אחת שקדמתה בכירה לצעירה

זכתה וקדמה ארבעה דורות בישראל למלכו’

Eve

Starting with Eve and that damned apple, women have been depicted (and mostly condemned) as the willful and wily seducers of men: …Even the daughter of the patriarch Jacob, a woman who is the apparent victim of rape, is blamed by some of the more misogynistic rabbinical sages for provoking her rapist. And a minority tradition in the rabbinical literature reaches a similar conclusion about Lot’s daughters: “Lot is a warning example to men to avoid being alone with women, lest [they] should entice them to sin, as did Lot’s daughters.”

However, “an open-eyed reading of the Bible reveals that women play a crucial and dynamic role in the destiny of humankind, in both Jewish and Christian tradition. Inevitably, a woman figures decisively in the recurring theme of “the birth of the chosen one,” starting with the matriarchs of the Hebrew Bible and culminating with the Virgin Mary in the Christian Bible. As we have already seen, Lot’s daughters and Judah’s daughter-in-law are examples of how the bearer of the “chosen one” is not passively impregnated with the seed of a patriarch; rather, these women take it upon themselves to defy the will of powerful men and sometimes God himself in order to bring about the crucial birth. Indeed, the Bible frequently singles out “the woman as initiator of events,” as Ramras-Rauch puts it. “From Eve through Sarah and Esther, women have shaped sacred history through word and deed.””[iv]

Contemporary Feminist Interpretations of the “Sin” of Eve [v]

Mieke Bal[vi] does not see the action of eating the fruit as sin. Rather, Bal views the woman’s choice to eat as a way to gain the wisdom that will make her like God. Ironically, her choice also fulfills God’s intention of humanity made in the divine image (Gen. 1:27). By choosing to eat and gain knowledge, including sexual knowledge, the woman makes the continuance of the species possible, even though the individual will not be immortal. Her choice is a choice for reality. Her choice puts an end to the fantasy of individual immortality. It opens up reality as we know it.

Lyn Bechtel asks, why, if humans were created immortal, were they also created sexual? If they were created immortal, why were they made of finite clay? Why after eating the fruit do the humans fear their nakedness rather than death? Why is it considered punishment for Adam to be sent into the world to be a farmer, when Genesis 2:5 tells us that humans were intended to cultivate the ground? Bechtel interprets the Adam and Eve story as the story of human maturation…. Thus it is better to interpret this to mean that those who eat will become aware of the reality of death. That is what gradually happens as we mature. … After the humans mature, they are ready to enter the world where they will take up their life’s work, the work God intended them to do from the beginning. Although Bechtel sees the story as androcentric, she does not believe it is sexist. In addition, her reading has the advantage of placing life in the real world in a positive light. It is not a punishment for sin, but the world God created for mature men and women to share as partners.

Dutch scholar Ellen van Wolde discusses this problem in her treatment of the Adam and Eve story, which is similar to Bechtel’s. She sees the clue to the whole story in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” She writes: As man leaves his father and mother to become independent, so man, male and female, leaves YHWH God by means of his transgression of the prohibition in 3:1–7 to become independent. . . . The realization that verse 2:24 presents man’s process of development in a nutshell and the realization that a similar behavior can be observed in man’s attitude towards YHWH God, makes the reader aware of the fact that Gen 2–3 is really one extensive description of this growth.  Van Wolde sees the transgression as a necessary disobedience, because freedom is the one thing that God could not build directly into the universe. Freedom cannot be conferred. It can only be grasped.

Carol Meyers, one of the most important recent interpreters of the Adam and Eve story, treats Genesis 2–3 as a narrative of human origins, as a story that explains why certain human conditions are as they are, and as a parable or wisdom tale.  … The prominent role of the female rather than the male in the wisdom aspects of the Eden tale is a little-noticed feature of the narrative. It is the woman, and not the man, who perceives the desirability of procuring wisdom. The woman, again not the man, is the articulate member of the first pair who engages in dialogue even before the benefits of the wisdom tree have been produced. This association between the female and the qualities of wisdom may have a mythic background, with the features of a Semitic wisdom goddess underlying the intellectual prominence of the woman of Eden.

[i] See also Tosefot Ketubot 3b “Lidrosh”

[ii] According to Rabbinic tradition, Esther was married to Mordechai: The verse states: “And when her father and mother were dead, Mordecai took her for his own daughter” (Esther 2:7). A tanna taught a baraita in the name of Rabbi Meir: Do not read the verse literally as for a daughter [bat], but rather read it as for a home [bayit]. This indicates that Mordecai took Esther to be his wife. (Babylonian Talmud Megilla 13a)

ובמות אביה ואמה לקחה מרדכי לו לבת תנא משום ר”מ אל תקרי לבת אלא לבית

[iii] Alternative reading in Babylonian Talmud Tractate Horayot 10b: Who are these “women in the tent”? They are Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, and Yael is more blessed than they are. Apparently, a mitzva performed not for its own sake is a negative phenomenon.

אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק גדולה עבירה לשמה ממצוה שלא לשמה שנאמר (שופטים ה, כד) תבורך מנשים יעל אשת חבר הקיני מנשים באהל תבורך מאן נינהו נשים באהל שרה רבקה רחל ולאה

[iv] Kirsch, Jonathan. The Harlot by the Side of the Road (pp. 58 and 251-252). Random House Publishing Group.

[v] See: Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes – Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible by Alice Ogden Bellis, 2007 chapter 2 The Story of Eve

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handicapping the bible

parshat emor

Rabbi Ishmael’s thirteen rules of Torah interpretation (middot) are well know as they are read every day at the start of the morning service. I personally don’t have a finite number of rules of biblical exegesis but I do have some principles….

 First… I don’t like apologetics, in general, but specifically when it comes to the Bible. What is politically, or otherwise, incorrect today is part of the history of ideas when it appears in earlier works. No, we should not take the “N” word out of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, pretend that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson did not have slaves or expect the Bible to have a 21st Century aesthetic or ethical sense.

If the ideas and enlightened positions we hold dear today have value, it is because we give equal value to the history of those ideas. Hopefully, the ideas that we hold sacred today, will become part of the history of still better, and more refined ideas in the future.

So if I will not apologize for or rationalize less-than-perfect ideas espoused by earlier thinkers whom I hold in high regard… what do I do with these ideas especially if voiced in a sacred text?

Context is clearly important. If the Bible introduces an idea that has not appeared before… (or has not been mainstreamed before) we should take notice. A prime example is the mandated day of leisure for every living being… If the Bible includes a provision or prohibition which was common among its near eastern neighbors, then there is less to note.  If  an institution such as sacrifice appears without even so much as an introduction… we can assume that it was a widely accepted currency of the day, and minimal lessons can be drawn from it’s circulation.  But even if the Bible includes an unsavory institution, such as slavery or the indentured servant, we need to take note of how the bible limits this institution by statute (the Jubilee year of emancipation) or ritual (the piercing of the ear of a servant who embraces his/her servitude). In the history of ideas, context and trends are critical.

And so, after the Bible adjures us to be Holy….  as God is Holy and to pay the laborer on time and embrace the stranger, we can be forgiven if we are disappointed that when it comes to leadership positions, the Bible exhibits such a neanderthal bias against the less-than-perfect. When it comes to serving God, the Bible excludes the handicapped explicitly, and women, without even the courtesy of honorable mention.

18 For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath anything maimed, or anything too long,
19 or a man that is broken-footed, or broken-handed,
20 or crook-backed, or a dwarf, or that hath his eye overspread, or is scabbed, or scurvy, or hath his stones crushed;
21 no man of the seed of Aaron the priest, that hath a blemish, shall come nigh to offer the offerings of the LORD made by fire; he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God.
22 He may eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy, and of the holy.
23 Only he shall not go in unto the veil, nor come nigh unto the altar, because he hath a blemish; that he profane not My holy places; for I am the LORD who sanctify them. (Leviticus 21: 18-23)

Given the fact that laws protecting the physically challenged were written in our lifetime and that President Roosevelt’s wheelchair was as guarded a secret as President Kennedy’s trysts… it would be anachronistic to call out a 2,000+ year old work such as the Bible…. Let alone try to justify it.

With regard to women, I am always amused that Orthodox apologists try to make a women’s 2nd class Biblical status a complement rather than a sign of the times.

The famous proof text for women’s exclusion from all public affairs is: “the glory of the King’s daughter is within” Psalms 45:14

Women are not to participate in public events of even a spiritual nature, because of modesty (t’zniut) because… here’s the rub… unlike men who have this infantile need to showcase their devotion… women are more spiritually advanced and learned in the inner duties of the heart and don’t need the performance.

The reason I am amused is not because I don’t think that the sexes approach most everything in a different way.. but rather because the argument ignores the fact that Orthodox women, like their Islamic counterparts are literally second class citizens… and all the theological and spiritual arguments to the contrary are just so much whitewash. Take a look at the laws of giving witness… certainly a litmus test of legal standing. And we’re not talking about witnessing a ritual such as a wedding… we’re talking about witnessing a crime or the transfer of goods. Women, the handicapped and mentally unstable are disqualified because they were thought to be deficient and incapable of providing an objective representation of the facts.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Witness – Edut Chapter 9

Halacha 1

There are ten categories of disqualifications. Any person belonging to one of them is not acceptable as a witness. They are:

a) women;
b) servants;
c) minors;
d) mentally or emotionally unstable individuals;
e) deaf-mutes;
f) the blind;
g) the wicked;
h) debased individuals;
i) relatives;
j) people who have a vested interest in the matter; a total of ten.

Halacha 2

Women are unacceptable as witnesses according to Scriptural Law, as Deuteronomy 17:6 states: “According to the testimony of two witnesses.” The verse uses a male form and not a female form. [ed. Weak argument, don’t ya think?]

Halacha 3

A tumtum [ed ambiguous genital signs] and an androgynous are also unacceptable, for there is an unresolved doubt whether they are considered as women. Whenever there is an unresolved doubt whether or not a person is acceptable as a witness, he is not accepted. The rationale is that a witness is coming to expropriate money from a defendant based on his testimony or to cause a defendant to be held liable for punishment. And according to Scriptural Law, money may not be expropriated when there is a doubt involved, nor do we inflict punishment when there is a doubt involved.

Halacha 7

Minors are unacceptable as witnesses according to Scriptural Law. This concept is derived as follows: With regard to witnesses, Deuteronomy 19:17 states: “And the two men will stand.” Implied is “men,” and not minors. Even if the minor was understanding and wise, he is not acceptable until he manifests signs of physical maturity after completing thirteen full years of life.

If he reached the age of 20 without manifesting signs of physical maturity and on the contrary manifests physical signs of a lack of sexual potency, he is classified as a eunuch and may testify. If he does not manifest such signs, he may not testify until he completes the majority of his life, as we explained in Hilchot Ishut.

Halacha 8

… When a child is thirteen years and one day and manifests signs of physical maturity, but is not very familiar with business dealings, his testimony is not accepted with regard to landed property. The rationale is that he is not precise about such matters because of his unfamiliarity. With regard to movable property, we accept his testimony since he has reached majority. [ed hmmm….]

Halacha 9

A person who is mentally or emotionally unstable is not acceptable as a witness according to Scriptural Law, for he is not obligated in the mitzvot. We are speaking about only an unstable person who goes around naked, destroys utensils, and throws stones. Instead, it applies to anyone whose mind is disturbed and continually confused when it comes to certain matters although he can speak and ask questions to the point regarding other matters. Such a person is considered unacceptable and is placed in the category of unstable people.

Halacha 10

People who are very feeble-witted who do not understand that matters contradict each other and are incapable of comprehending a concept as it would be comprehended by people at large are considered among those mentally unstable. This also applies to the people who are continually unsettled, tumultuous, and deranged. This matter is dependent on the judgment of the judge. It is impossible to describe the mental and emotional states of people in a text.

Halacha 11

A deaf-mute is equivalent to a mentally unstable person, for he is not of sound mind and is therefore not obligated in the observance of the mitzvot. Both a deaf person who can speak and a person who can hear, but is mute is unacceptable to serve as a witness. Even though he sees excellently and his mind is sound, he must deliver testimony orally in court or be fit to deliver testimony orally and must be fit to hear the judges and the warning they administer to him.

Similarly, if a person loses the ability to speak, even though his intellectual faculties have been checked as a husband is checked with regard to a bill of divorce, he testifies in writing, and his testimony is to the point, it is not accepted at all, except with regard to releasing a women from marriage, for leniency was granted so that women will not be forced to live alone. [ed nice…]

Halacha 12

The blind, although they can recognize the voices of the litigants and know their identities, are not acceptable as witnesses according to Scriptural Law. This is derived from Leviticus 5:1: “And he witnessed or saw,” which implies that one who can see may serve as a witness. A person who is blind in one eye is fit to serve as a witness.

Clearly, the Bible and its Talmudic interpreters (codified here by Maimonides), put women in the same category as minors and the mentally retarded. These same commentators believed that handicaps such as blindness and deafness presuppose other mental deficiencies. One must ultimately conclude that women are not required to fulfill the commandments, not because they are more capable then men, but rather because, like minors, simpletons and the handicapped, they are deficient.  Let’s not even talk about the effeminate or gay….they’re disqualified because they are … like women.

So much for apologetics. The take-away is that we are now free…. Or better yet, obligated, to update biblical law based on it’s context and intent. We neither need to apologize for the Torah’s bias, nor do we need to change the text and pretend that the Bible did not share opinions that were common in the age it was written. HaTorah dibra b’loshon benei adam. The Torah speaks in the language of people …..at the time it was written.

Once we accept this bias we can handicap the bible and move on. We can stop wasting our time splitting hairs, justifying but ultimately delegitimizing whole segments of our population, whether by gender, sexual preference or physical or intellectual handicap and begin to tackle the really big, profound issues…

Such as the question that has plagued me and other post-orthodox jews*:

Why do services at egalitarian shuls with mixed seating take so long and lack ruach?

*for a fuller exposition of this question and some viable answers, see: Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities by Elie Kaunfer

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