Partnership Minyanim – Challenging Authoritarian Religion

This article, dealing with some of the attacks made on a new development in Orthodox Judaism, originally appeared in Haaretz on 14/04/2015 - http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.651557?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter .

For a fuller treatment of some of its themes, see my previous post ‘The Nature of Halakha – An Appendix on ‘Meta-Halakha’ .

Recent opposition within British Orthodoxy to partnership minyanim – Orthodox services with greater female participation – poses a test case for a bigger question: are people in today’s world still prepared to submit to a group of rabbis whom they feel to be out of touch with their reality?

In his recent attack on partnership minyanim, Rabbi Harvey Belovski asserts that there is no justification for this form of egalitarian prayer in Jewish law. The criticism, officially sanctioned by the British United Synagogue Rabbinic Council, rests, for all of its scholarly and technical language, on one simple argument: We, the consensus Orthodox Rabbinate, have total authority and it is illegitimate to follow anyone who disagrees with us.

It is a straightforward and unashamed attempt to stake out authority, brought on by the fear that authority seems to be slipping away.

Belovski hints at this fear by suggesting that accepting partnership minyanim might push some worshippers into different denominations, beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. This is a cheap and disingenuous move, avoiding genuine engagement and playing to the presumption that everyone in Orthodoxy is convinced of the non-legitimacy of every other denomination of Judaism. This is also implied by his insistence that no other halakhic authorities back Rabbi Daniel Sperber’s position in support of partnership minyanim. He means Orthodox halakhic authorities – other denominations are simply not even worth mentioning.

Regime of fear

Trying to articulate a positive statement of values has always been problematic for Orthodoxy. It prefers to preserve authority through a more fear-based regime, wherein anyone who takes an ‘excessively’ progressive stance is suddenly branded an outcast, treif. Blacklisted projects include anything interdenominational such as Limmud and JcoSS (a pluralist school), with the list growing as the anxiety of the rabbinate increases. Partnership minyanim are just the latest example.

Those involved in partnership minyanim might well be feeling frustrated. They’ve tried so hard to respect Orthodox practice, to follow a reputable and learned rabbinic expert, to ground every decision in traditional halakhic process.

But it would never be enough; in a world where fundamentalism is on the rise, where the treatment of women in conservative religion is getting worse rather than better, any pathways to progress were always going to arouse fierce resistance.

Authority bellows loudly when it feels the ground is giving. The Frimer responsa against partnership minyanim, at 172 highly detailed pages, bears witness to this desperation.

The folly of such an encyclopedic response is clear. Halakha – literally, the way – is about balancing the values of tradition with the changing circumstances of human existence. The meaning of any practice, let alone text, changes over time. Insisting that women stay at home or have little role in public worship was not a particularly significant statement in a time when women generally stayed at home and had little role in public life. The rabbis of ancient tradition were not especially or uniquely misogynist; they were simply following the ways of their world, as they had been for thousands of years.

But in a world where women exist outside the home, and play a major role in every aspect of public life, the decision to insist that they be segregated behind a curtain and offered no role in public worship has a very different meaning. It is a singular statement of sexual discrimination and oppression. It perhaps expresses a longing for a simpler, less confusing time, when women knew “their place” and the men could dominate unchallenged.

An evolving tradition

It is worth clarifying that the Jewish tradition has often evolved in ways that disregarded previous textual sources, and which left legislators struggling to keep up. Significant sections of the Talmud are dedicated to squaring practice with text, and this continues even into the works of the medieval Tosafists. It is a very modern conception that we inhabit a chain of unbroken practice, that any question can be answered by reference to textual examination. It marks, as Dr. Haym Soloveitchik argues, an age of religious insecurity, wherein a disconnect from any sense of God’s presence is bolstered by deeper commitment to His Texts.

Reflecting again on the changing meanings of practice, Rabbi Belovski’s statements of sympathy towards women at the end of the article also ring hollow. Perhaps he feels frustrated by the structural matrix he inhabits, but his article shows little willingness to challenge it.

His citing of English property law as a model for halakha also hits a sour note, given the ways that Jewish law has historically related to women as property, as something to be acquired. We should surely want to distance ourselves from comparisons which trigger such uncomfortable associations.

The nature of halakha and its role in Jewish life is beyond the scope of this article (I have written about it at length it elsewhere). But two poles of thinking can be put as follows. In one it is a heavenly code of law, on the basis of which God – or man – might decide punishments and excommunication, or which might seal one’s fate in the afterlife.

At the other pole it is “not in heaven” (Deut. 30:12), but it is a pathway of life, whose ways are those of pleasantness, catalyzing the revelation of God’s image in human life.

In line with this second option, many today have renewed faith that religion can be a powerful resource in the search for vitality, meaning and integrity. If partnership minyanim are part of such a renaissance then I believe they should be encouraged and accommodated. Striking such a committed and enthusiastic group from one’s camp can only be a very negative foreboding of things to come.

 

Men on Women – Destructive, Hysterical, Dangerous Berakhot 51

We spoke recently about how there is a suppression of the feminine in the text, and how the repressed returns, in displaced form, as Torah.

The physical woman is shed of her maternal and life-giving qualities, and those qualities are projected onto some other surface, in this case, that of Torah.

There is actually quite a disturbing continuation of this unfortunate move today, and I genuinely found it to be one of the most insulting and offensive of the genderist statements I’ve yet come across in the Talmud.  It occurs in the following story:

Ulla happened to come to the house of Rav Naĥman. He ate bread, recited Grace after Meals, and gave the cup of blessing to Rav Naĥman.  Rav Naĥman said to him: Master, please send the cup of blessing to Yalta, my wife.

Ulla responded to him: There is no need, as Rabbi Yoĥanan said as follows: The fruit of a woman’s womb is blessed only from the fruit of a man’s womb, as it is stated: “And He will love you, and bless you, and make you numerous, and He will bless the fruit of your womb [vitnecha]” (Deuteronomy 7:13). The Gemara infers: “He will bless the fruit of her womb [vitnah]” was not stated. Rather, “He will bless the fruit of your womb  [vitnecha, i.e. masculine singular].”

This is ugly.  The woman is no longer the giver of life, it is no longer her womb which bears fruit.  Rather it is the man who bears children, the woman is somehow in the background, a deeply insignificant extension of him.

There’s so much to say about this.  For a start, this is a wilful and unnecessary interpretation.  The Torah often seems to use the masculine singular form of the second person without there being significance in that (I write this as a man of course, so I fully accept that this is easy for me to say).  It’s not clear the exact grammatical intention of this habit, but we might hear it as Israel being spoken to in the singular, this seems to be the implication of the opening of this speech:

Listen Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

But even this isn’t clear cut, this very verse ends with Israel being referred to in the feminine, and we see this again later in verse 15.  I’m not aware of there being any clear rule here, we could simply say that Israel as a people is generally spoken to using the masculine gender, though not exclusively.  There is definitely nothing to suggest that this particular use of the masculine – vitnecha - is significant.

Maybe people think I’m being over sensitive here, but to say that a man’s womb is blessed is an appalling act of theft.  The womb of Israel is to be blessed, not the womb of its male members.

Going further, I feel compelled to point out that there is something of an absurdity in this interpretation, and it is noteworthy that both the Soncino and Koren translations seem to mask this uncomfortably by replacing ‘womb’ – the natural translation of ‘beten’ – with ‘body’.  The translation thus repeats the sin of the fathers, it belittles the significance of the woman, it denies the primacy of her involvement.

Perhaps this goes back to Genesis 3, to the idea that childbirth and its pains are a curse.  Childbirth is painted in a negative light, the focus is on its pain, not on its miraculousness, not on its centrality, not on the joy that it brings about.

If we were feeling bold, we might go further and comment on the idea that in Genesis 2 the first woman was not born to a woman, but was created, from a man, by a God who is spoken about in the masculine.  There is something of a denial here of the fact that we are all born to women, that women, through childbirth,  have made a huge and difficult contribution to the entirety of human existence.

Even as a man I’m deeply offended, I can’t begin to think how this all reads to a woman.

But reading carefully, it’s actually even worse.  The Rabbis – yes, this interpretation is repeated for effect in someone else’s name – suggest that if the Torah had wanted to speak of a woman’s womb it would have said ‘vitnah’ – her womb.  Not ‘vitnach’ – your womb in the feminine – but ‘vitnah’ – her womb.

There is an assumption that the woman is not directly involved with, engaged by the text.  Either God/Moshe would not be speaking to the women, or perhaps the thought is that women will not be listening or reading.

Again, I have no idea where this comes from, what leads the Rabbis to think in this way.  But the two go hand in hand, women have nothing to do with Torah, and women have nothing to do with birth either.  Women are banished and belittled; they are not the bearers of life, nor are they addressed by the book of life.  ‘Torat imehka’ has suddenly undergone a radical and unsettling negation.

This is all very upsetting, but it’s actually only the start, it’s simply setting the scene for the next act.

Once a woman is robbed of her essential qualities, once the male attachment and need for the women is denied, the actual woman becomes  a blank canvas, and there is the need – or at the very least the possibility – of painting her in a different light.

On this point, the Talmud seems to begin at the same place as Freud – hysteria.  The woman is painted as the hysteric, she is the repository for all that is frightening, irrational, excessive and uncontrollable in us.

Let’s see how this plays out in the story we began above:

Yalta heard Ulla’s refusal to send her the cup of blessing, so she arose in a rage, entered the wine-storage, and broke four hundred barrels of wine.

There is probably some hyperbole at work here, surely one’s rage would expire before successfully smashing up four hundred barrels of wine.  Either way, it seems to me that she was quite right to be enraged by these comments, and I think the Talmud’s portrayal of her as ‘acting out’ in an excessive and violent manner actually reflects more badly on the Talmud than it does on her.

In making her the repository of all that is hysterical in the world, it seems to be projecting something unsettling and alien onto her.  This mechanism of projection is what we use when become dimly aware of something in our character that makes us uncomfortable.  We find it much easier to assign that characteristic to another than to question whether the perception might be relevant to our own personality.  The idea is that perception comes partially, and that we misinterpret the meaning of that partial perception.

There is another passage today which further fleshes out the scary and demonic depiction of women:

The Angel of Death told me: …do not stand before the women when they return from the burial of the deceased, because I dance and come before them and my sword is in hand, and I have license to destroy.

Where to begin with this?  If you perhaps thought I was overdoing it with all this talk of projection and ascription, surely this image makes clear that we are very much in the right ballpark.

The Angel of death is conflated with women, he may be met when you meet a woman.  He is there, in their presence, and he is exhibiting characteristics that are chaotic, dangerous, destructive.

It seems to me that we have taken a male imagining, a fear of death and dissolution, and placed it firmly in the woman’s locale, we have described it as a risk of encountering her presence.

The teaching continues:

And if one encounters women returning from a funeral, what is his remedy?  

Let him jump four cubits from where he stands; if there is a river, let him cross it; if there is another path, let him go down it; if there is a wall, let him stand behind it; and if not, he should turn his face around and recite the verse: “And the Lord said to the Satan: The Lord rebukes you, Satan, the Lord that has chosen Jerusalem rebukes you; is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?” (Zechariah 3:2), until they pass him.

Wow.  That is quite a speech to make to a woman one might, by chance, encounter when she is returning from a cemetery.  But, of course, we are not making it to the woman, we are making it to the Angel of Death we imagine to be in her presence.

Does this make it better?

I’m not sure it does, I think it makes it clear that we are dealing with a mind which is struggling to keep hold of something, with a mind that is somewhat frenzied and hallucinatory, which is imagining and projecting in all the wrong places.  It cannot contain the fear and disturbance it is experiencing, it can no longer distinguish between what is happening within and what is happening without.  It is speaking out of place, to the wrong people, it has become deeply confused as to who is who and as to where the source of trouble really is.

Perhaps this is too much, maybe it is easier to just ignore these passages, to treat them as irrelevant detritus from the age of superstition.  But that would be a mistake, for they are psychologically rich and they sometimes treat of topics which are extremely important and relevant, such as the way we imagine and relate to our women.

So, to sum up, these are my interpretations, my attempts at reading some problematic texts in the Talmud, at unpicking some attitudes and perspectives that strike me as problematic and objectionable.  As I have said previously, these interpretations do not weaken my faith nor do they diminish my interest in the Talmud.  If anything, they strengthen both, for through honestly seeing the various layers at work in this text I feel that I have a much better sense of the richness and complexity of our history and tradition.  I can see that at every point the Rabbis were just human beings trying to do their best, that they were prey to all of the fallibility, weakness and confusion that I myself am beset by.

I see no purpose in pretending that they were perfect, in setting it up as a principle of belief that their teachings or intuitions were perfect, for perfection belongs to the realm of the Divine, not to that of the human.

They were not perfect, but they were grappling with perfection, trying to perfect themselves, trying to build a culture which would ultimately foster an appetite for perfection.  And this is a struggle I am very much interested in, it is an impulse that I feel very strongly.  And it is to help me with this project that I turn to my religion, and it is because I see and experience the many ways in which it does help me that I come to value and love my traditions, that I come to develop faith in them.

Faith is not something we can arrive at through evading the truth, it is a profound attitude we can only attain after being fully exposed to the truth in all of its glory and its horror.  May we continue to wrestle with that truth, and may we pray to be granted faith as a reward for our struggles.

Where did those Women go? The Return of the Repressed… Berakhot 48

Yesterday we spoke of the suppression of the feminine, of the way male Talmudic society didn’t seem to give them much credit nor look to include them in religious life.

We see a further example of the low regard they were held in today, further weakening the argument that women were viewed as some kind of saintly beings.  In the context of the women’s discussions with King Saul we have the following exchange:

Why did they make such a long story of it?

Because women are fond of talking.

Shmuel, however, says that it was so that they might feast their eyes on Saul’s good looks.

It’s hardly a portrait of a lady: either they chatter too much or they swoon helplessly in front of the tall and handsome king.  These are not the sort of creatures who don’t need the help and influence of Torah, who can afford to be excluded from rituals because they are too holy.  No, this doesn’t ring true at all.

So women are spoken of poorly, I think we just need to accept this.  Indeed, accepting it actually  opens up all sorts of other interesting questions, especially if we approach the matter through a psychoanalytic lens.

Put simply, when a man treats women as if they do not exist, we have reason to be very suspicious.

This man was raised by a woman, he is probably married to one, who is usually raising his children and quite possibly he has sisters, who were his closest playmates in childhood.  How can it be that he denies the importance of women, that he could fail to see the crucial and Godly work they do in creating and maintaining civilisation?

One possibility – we are always playfully exploring possibilities, beware the man who says it isn’t so (and it will usually be a man, not a woman) – is that this denial of the significance of women is actually a defence.

A defence against what?

A defence against the dependence upon women.

Men are born to women, they feed at their breast, they form deep and powerful attachments to them, treating them in their first years as the centres of their world.  Their personality is shaped around this dependence on the mother, they crave to be locked in her embrace.

Kleinians may use a barrage of theoretical terms to describe this, but for my own part I see it quite simply in the lives of my two sons.  They love their mother, their bond to her has been one of need and dependency from the day of their conception, and for the most part, and especially in times of distress, they wish to merge with her once again, to lose themselves in her embrace, to disappear into her warmth.

At some point this will change, they will, for whatever reason, become less comfortable with this state of affairs.  Perhaps it is to do with the flowering of their male pride and ego, perhaps it is to do with their budding sexuality and a sense of the deeply inappropriate nature of their desire.  Who can be sure?  What I think we can say, however, is that dealing with this new discomfort will not be easy for them.  This love and attachment will need to be buried deeply, and even if some portion of it is allowed to remain on the surface of their personality, to remain close at hand, a significant portion of it will have to be covered up, suppressed, banished into the netherworlds.

And this is what manifests itself as denial, as the conscious personality existing in a strange tension as it asserts the non-existence of that which it has buried, as it battles to keep it locked up safe in the unconscious.

This battle can take up a lot of energy, denial can be an exhausting and chaotic business.  For this reason it is generally best to try to work through denial, to come to terms with the repressed and to re-integrate it into the more mature and accepting psyche.

This is the ideal picture.

Another mechanism for dealing with denial is displacement or projection.  In such a case, those strong and buried feelings are allowed to the surface in so much as they are directed at a new, different and legitimate object.  This process is also known as ‘transference’.

The feelings are given life once more, less energy is needed for suppression and denial, and the personality feels a lot more whole, a lot better integrated.

When men fall in love with women reminiscent of their mothers, which is hardly a rarity, this is part of the story.  One could indeed argue that any falling in love contains some element of this, of the repressed feelings for the mother being transferred onto some new object.  (And I’m not saying the feelings are in any sense ‘really’ for the mother, in their years of burial they have undergone all sorts of change, they have taken on a life of their own, they are not simply frozen in carbonite, a la Han Solo, to be later released in identical form.)

The narrative of romantic love, however, does not seem to fit the Rabbis of the Talmud, they do not seem to speak much of their wives, or acknowledge their spiritual dependence upon them.  This relationship, so far as we can tell, is not the one that vitiates and sustains them, that leads them to feeling whole and complete.

If anything, it seems to occasion an entirely new cycle of denial and suppression, the strength of their need for their wives is held at arm’s length, they cling to an image of themselves as the superior and non-dependent sex.

So, as Freud might put it, where do we see the ‘return of the repressed’?  What is the displaced object to which they turn now, what object is deemed legitimate for the outpouring of all that pent up emotion?

We had a couple of hints yesterday, on 47b we mentioned both the Ark containing the Torah and  Shabbat as being possibly able to complete a Zimun, something a women cannot do.  These objects are deemed to possibly have more reality than a woman, they may replace her and presume her role in religious practice.  They are psychological objects, their physical reality is hardly noteworthy, but the role they might play is profound and very real.  The whole thing could well have been scripted by Melanie Klein.

Today it gets richer.  We have the curious story of Shimon ben Shetach who was brought before King Alexander Yannai to say grace, after Yannai had slaughtered the rest of the sages.  There follows a most interesting exchange:

The King said to him: Do you see how much honour I am according you?

He responded: It is not you who honours me; rather, the Torah honours me, as it is written:

“Hug her to you and she will exalt you; she will bring you honour when you embrace her” (Proverbs 4:8).

Yannai said to his wife: You see that he does not accept authority.

In a moment of impudent denial, one which very might well demand our respect, he turns to Torah, and speaks of her, yes, her, in the most maternal and feminine terms imaginable.

Even Yannai can see that this is what he is doing, that he relates to the Torah in such a way that he denies all other authority, that he repudiates his possible dependencies.

Now of course he may be right to deny Yannai any role in his honour, but I am fascinated by the discussion of denial per se, it resonates so clearly with all that we have been speaking of.

Returning to this idea of Torah, he is describing nothing less than an embrace of the feminine.  I mean, this is almost too straightforward, he is both talking literally about it and also at the same time talking figuratively about it.  He and his male culture may disdain womanhood, he doesn’t show his sister much love in the story, but they are clear that the feminine is to be embraced.  But only in one guise, in the guise of Torah.

Torah is the displaced object, in Torah we have found the return of the repressed.

I have been impressed by the number of quotes throughout the Talmud from the book of Proverbs, which is not, sadly, much studied nowadays.  On today’s daf it gets further attention too.  But going back to its opening lines, we see this connection to the maternal being made quite explicit:

Listen, my son, to the ethic of your father, and do not abandon the Torah of your mother. (1:8)

The Torah belongs with, is identified with the mother, and we are commanded not to abandon it.  Through keeping alive the connection with Torah, our bond with the mother continues, however hidden and denied it might become.

Perhaps the original intention was for a healthy identification, the two could exist together, love of the mother and love of Torah.  But it seems that in later years the identification changed, it became a problematic identification, the sort that hides and disguises something, that keeps reality at bay.  The Torah replaces the mother, it becomes her surrogate, her Oedipal successor.

I am fascinated and struck by the fact that the word Torah is feminine in gender, and cannot but help think that this is no co-incidence, no random fact, but that it reveals a source of our deep connection with it.

We later mention another verse from Proverbs:

For I have given you good instruction, do not abandon my Torah (4:2)

And knowing the liturgy as we do, this cannot but help remind of two verses which just proceed it:

She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy.

Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths peaceful.   (3:18,17)

The feminine lives in the Torah, and I cannot shake the feeling that the Rabbis we see in the Talmud have taken this in the wrong way, that they have adapted to their gendered culture through embracing Torah but remaining unconscious of its feminine roots.

We are to hold on to the feminine, to embrace it, for her ways are pleasant and she brings peace.  The feminine is truly the tree, the root, the foundation of life; if we do not abandon it, but embrace it, it will bring us the honour and respect that we crave.

Torah and the feminine are one, so it seems absurd that we cannot accord the same respect to the physical embodiment of the feminine, to our women, as we do to Torah   In making this clearer to our eyes, in the intellectual enlightenment that feminism has helped us with, I believe we have witnessed an act of continuous revelation, of the Divine truth gradually emerging through the ages.

Let us cling to this truth, for only through doing so will our Judaism root, flourish and live.

Repressing A Hundred Women Berakhot 46 and 47

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Thus beginneth Charles Dickens in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, and I find it a very accurate rendering of my feelings towards the discussion of Zimun that we are currently in the midst of.

Some of the best we touched on before Rosh Hashana, the profundity of creating space in our lives for the Divine after every meal, at a time when we might feel most appalled with our fleshy gluttony.  (We can talk about that post Rosh Hashana, it’s the one book we all knew we’d be inscribed in.)

And we see a further rooting of the principle of gratitude in the instruction to give the honour of leading grace to a guest, so that he may praise his host with a most touching blessing:

May it be Your will that the master of the house shall not suffer shame in this world, nor humiliation in the World-to-Come.

And may he be very successful with all his possessions, and may his possessions and our possessions be successful and near the city, and may Satan control neither his deeds nor our deeds, and may no thought of sin, iniquity, or transgression stand before him or before us from now and for evermore.

It is not enough – or maybe it is asking too much? – to merely praise God after our meal, to remind ourselves that the existence of so much bountiful and delectable nourishment is something that we should never take for granted, that in other times and other places they would have been quite literally sickened by our abundance.  It is not enough to realise that obtaining the physical nutrition we need might easily have been an altogether less pleasant and hearty experience, that nature could have made the whole thing much more perfunctory, with much less richness of occasion than we presently afford it.

No, that would not be enough.  For in the case when another family have invited us to share a meal with them, when they have opened their doors and hearts to us, embodying the hospitality of our forefather Abraham, when they have disregarded financial considerations to share whatever it is that they may have with us, prioritising togetherness over affluence, then we must do more.

In such a case we must focus on them, thank them, praise them, and bless them that their home and their hearts should remain open and pure and untainted.

Perhaps through thanking the people in front of us, through overcoming our fiendish narcissism in a more concrete and straightforward context, we might come closer to the enduring and everpresent spirit of gratitude that we seek to imbue our lives with.

Perhaps there is also a caution, a rebuke – “It is great to thank God, but that is worthless if you cannot also thank the human being in front of you, for whatever small or great thing they have done.”

Perhaps the rebuke runs deeper, teaches us something more profound – “ There is a danger that your religious practice and attitude can simply become another form of narcissism, another way of detaching yourself from the reality and relatedness that actually surround you.  There is a hairsbreadth of difference between religion which leads man away from narcissism and a religion which provides a protective shell for one’s narcissism, wherein an apparent opening to Otherness actually becomes or masks a deeply problematic disavowal of Otherness, a tightening of the excessively self-centred bind.  No one but you, in your heart of hearts, can know which you are engaged with, but let the Zimun be a reminder to you that to be engaged with God is to be fully and totally engaged with your fellow men.”

So this would be a positive thing to take from Zimun – it was the best of times, it was the age of wisdom.

We may notice however that all is not entirely well even at this point – we bless the male host, and all that belongs to him, but what about his partner in hosting, his wife?  What about the woman who most likely spent hours planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning, tidying and preparing to bring the meal to the table?  What about the way in which her female warmth and spirit actually generated the welcoming atmosphere which made their hospitality so cherished?

No, apparently she is not worthy of mention.  She cannot be included in the Zimun,  and she is not to be praised by the one making the Zimun.  Her absence, and those of her hundred female companions, screams out from the text with a piercing wail.

On Rosh Hashana God remembered the three barren women of our history:  Sarah, Rachel and Hannah.  But the Rabbis seem to have forgotten them, to have deemed them irrelevant to religious life.

It was the worst of times; it was the age of foolishness.

And, as we’ve said before in discussing Talmudic attitudes to women, I really do believe that it is a reflection of the times, that the times were heavily gendered and separate, where men and women occupied different spaces, and where they didn’t much reflect on the possibility of interaction, of the way those spaces interpenetrated.

It was of the times, but there is nothing authentically Jewish about it.  There is no sense in which maintaining, defending and propagating these values fulfils our role of being a light unto the nations, of perfecting the world through God’s kingship, of embodying the unwritten Torah through our disclosure of virtue.

And I think we would do better to stop pretending that it does.

When the Rabbis say on 45b that ‘a hundred women are like two men’ we are better off taking this statement at face value and accepting what it tells us.  In those days women were not respected, they were not regarded as man’s spiritual equal.  And perhaps you want to say otherwise, that it’s all to do with their being on an elevated plane, they don’t need Zimun because they are such ethereal beings, so unhindered and unburdened by the weakness and temptations of men?

No, that doesn’t wash, as the next sentences make clear:

Why can’t women and slaves form a Zimun together? 

Because we are suspicious of lewd behaviour and promiscuity. 

The spiritual argument just doesn’t hold up, we are much better to say “that was then, this is now, we need to re-think this whole business because they were inhabiting a different world with significantly less enlightened values”.

It was, truly, the season of Darkness.

And yet, in the spirit of light, hearing our concern, we witness a paradigm of halakhic progress before our very eyes.

We hear an early Tannaic opinion which states that an ‘am ha’aretz’ – someone uneducated – may not participate in a Zimun.

There follows a cautionary tale from the Talumdic era which warns of the dangers of this exclusivity:

Rami bar Ĥama did not include Rav Menashya bar Taĥlifa, who studied Sifra, Sifrei, and halakhot, in a Zimun because he had merely studied and did not serve Torah scholars.[I.e. he was, on one definition, an am ha’aretz.]

When Rami bar Ĥama passed away, Rava said: Rami bar Ĥama died only because he did not include Rabbi Menashya bar Taĥlifa in a zimmun.

This may sound a bit shocking, was this really a crime worthy of punishment by death?

The Gemara senses this problem:

Why, then, was Rami bar Ĥama punished?

The Gemara answers: Rav Menashya bar Taĥlifa is different, as he served the Sages. And it was Rami bar Ĥama who was not precise in his eff orts to check after him to ascertain his actions.

Rami bar Hama was culpable because he was overly zealous, because he was more keen to judge and exclude than to either give the benefit of the doubt or to properly check out his facts.  Zimun is about forming a community, about coming together to magnify and enhance the Majesty of God.  Indeed, only in such a community is this feat achievable.  When we lose sight of the importance of this community, when we seek to highlight our own learning and piety at the expense of others, then we have lost the purpose and telos of our lives.  At that point, death really is where we are headed, whether literally or figuratively.

The psychoanalyst Neville Symington defines death as the inability to effect social change.  This would seem to express perfectly the spirit of this teaching: when we aim at social stasis, at playing up apparent hierarchy, we lose any power to change our world, to enhance the role of the Divine in it, to shed light upon it.  We are dead: emotionally, existentially and spiritually.

So we see progress here, from a simple normative Baraita to a much more critical Amoraic rendering.  And note, very importantly, that we do not say that the earlier teaching takes priority; where there is a clear sense of social change and revised priorities, we follow the later teaching.

And it’s not just me.  Tosafot – the 12th century Talmudic commentators, deeply authoritative in their rulings and interpretations – also conceptualise in this direction.

On 47b they explain that we are not nowadays accustomed to behave in this way, for fear of divisiveness in Israel.  They quote Rabbi Yosi from Chagiga 22a, who says this change of attitude results from the fear that ‘each individual would go off and build an altar of his own’.  If the core of our religion is exclusive then we cannot be surprised when people leave the fold, setting up denominations and practices of their own, separating themselves from the mainstream.

Over in Chagiga, they actually explain our Gemara in even better terms:

Rabbenu Yonah explained that not everyone has the right to take the high ground [litol hashem] and call themselves a Scholar for the purposes of excluding the uneducated from Zimun.  And we do not regard ourselves so highly [machzikim atzmenu] to be a Scholar for this purpose. 

So, Tosafot bring reasons of both social concern and personal piety for the changes to our practice in this area.  Exclusivity is shunned, inclusivity is seen as the way forward.

It was the season of Light, it was the spring of hope.

And yet, those hundred women hang heavy on our conscience.  Tosafot did not move to include them, and neither have many since then.  The Gemara concludes that a child who understands the meaning of the berakhot may acutally join a Zimun, suggesting it’s a matter of education, of understanding.  But again, no mention of the women.  Even PhD in theology does not seem to give them enough understanding of berakhot to merit joining a Zimun, they are simply beyond the pale.  Men and women cannot form a community of worship, this is the sad reality the Talmud presents, and we are right to find it very lacking.

Perhaps the account of women and slaves reveals the true fear, that men banish women because they are afraid of their own sexuality, they project their carnal desire onto the women, laying the blame at their door, and in the process rendering themselves pure and worthy of Divine activity.  When sex is banished from the Zimun it may in some sense be safer, but it is also perhaps lacking in life, in honesty, in love and in the true meaning of community.

It was the season of Darkness, it was the winter of despair.

Dickens ends with the point that:

Some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Are we guilty of only relating to the teachings of the Talmudic by reference to superlatives?  Can we not say that it is a great and deep and rich and wise book, but also one with its flaws?

I believe we must, the spirit of Truth demands it.  Psalm 19 tells us that the Torah of God is perfect; this means that every imperfect textual rendering of it must be revised until it recaptures that aspect of Divine perfection.

Let us not rest until we have done justice to the women suppressed from this text, who are absent not just from this discussion but from so very very many of its discussions, whose voices are barely heard at all.

The Talmud ends the daf with the suggestion that two Scholars who bring new revelation to the world through their intense discussion, who are involved in creative and constructive dialogue, may be able to conduct a Zimun.  How much more so may the dialogue across the genders, may the re-unification of the male and female voice in all of us result in a revelation worthy of Zimun.

May we wrestle with this until we find resolution, and may this year be one of insight and empathy for us all.

Nakedness and its Vicissitudes, or, It’s all in the Mind… Berakhot 24

Nakedness is something of a hot topic in the Jewish world nowadays.  It seems that we can’t go long without hearing of some new demand for further separation of the sexes, for woman to cover up another part of their anatomy, for the purity of the male mind to be protected at all costs.

Today’s daf presents some of the key material on the topic, and it’s well worth reading it carefully to see what’s being said.

First up, we have the opinion of Shmuel, who says that if one is in bed naked with another, they may turn in the other direction and recite the Shema.  And this applies even if it is his wife, for his wife is considered like ‘his body’.

What does this mean ‘like his body’?  Surely not that she will therefore not cause him to have sexually inclined thoughts.  That would be very problematic.  It may be a challenge for married life to retain the vigorous zest of its earliest days, desire may well be less intense for that which is familiar, but it is surely too must to say that she could not provoke him at all!

Rather, I think we may read that the level of intimacy between a man and his wife is so complete, so natural and unproblematic that he may, with a mere turn of his body, engage in the meditation of Keriat Shema.  A happily married couple have attained the original intent of Genesis, they have become one flesh.  More than this, they have returned to the state wherein nakedness was not wholly coupled with shame, where clothing was not a secretive mask required for human interaction.  Only after the initial sin did Adam and Eve intuit that they needed to clothe themselves, to hide something of their essence, to create a barrier between what was happening on the inside and the outside.

Rav Yosef makes a curious objection, he thinks that only when in bed with his wife would this twist and Shema move be permitted.  But if a man was in bed with another person, who may be more likely to evoke sexual thoughts, then he cannot turn and recite Shema.

It seems, amazingly, that the Shema would be the problem, but that there would be no intrinsic issue in lying in bed naked with a person who fills one with desire.  I can’t imagine many contemporary Rabbis saying this, perhaps there really was a radically different sexual ethic in those times.

We soon get another flavour for how far removed from our own sensibility these Rabbis were.  Referring to the ‘Twist and Shema’, they ask:

And what about the buttocks?  Are these not considered a problematic form of nakedness??

We must say that this provides support for Rav Huna, who holds that buttocks are not nakedness. 

Brilliant! – Ladies who are pestered on buses to cover more of their arms should state that they follow Rav Huna and show the man their buttocks.  That would help the man put things into perspective.

And we then adduce further support for Rav Huna from the following idyllic image, which reads like something from a 1960s acid assisted love festival:

A woman sits and separates her challa naked, despite the fact that she must recite a blessing over the separation of the challa, because she can cover her genitals in the ground, but a male, [whose genitals are not covered when he sits], may not do so.

There is disagreement as to whether her buttocks are in fact being exposed, and therefore as to whether this is conclusive support for Rav Huna.  But either way, it is clear that her legs, arms, shoulders and breasts are very much exposed, and nonetheless she is encouraged to separate her challa and make a blessing!

I do see that this is talking about a woman on her own, there is no suggestion that a man may be in her presence and make a bracha, but the it is powerfully clear that we are potentially very comfortable with nakedness.  I take this to be encouraging, it suggests that we are not as afraid of our bodies, of the bodies of others, as one might have supposed.

Indeed, there is something beautifully domestic about it all, the woman separating challa as she bakes the family bread, perhaps in preparation for Shabbat, and she does it whilst sitting in the grass, again with an Eden like innocence, her hair tumbling down her shoulders, perhaps with some flowers in it, as the warm Mediterranean sun caresses and soothes her.

Snapping back to the halakha, some significant heavyweights – Rashba and the Magen Avraham – accept this ruling about buttocks, they are not even considered problematic for the recitation of the Shema.

Thus far, all seems well, there is an acceptance of the post Edenic condition in which nakedness is at some level incompatible with making a bracha, but there is no sense in which nakedness is altogether threatening, in which its presence might somehow undermine the foundations of religious life.

Indeed, there’s an imperative to keep things in perspective:

Rav Mari said to Rav Pappa: Does it constitute nakedness if one’s pubic hair protruded from their garment? Rav Pappa said about him: A hair, a hair.

In other words, a hair is just a hair, let’s not get carried away and start looking to cause trouble.

Or, he might be saying: “I understand that some men may have a fetish for pubic hairs, and perhaps you, Rav Mari, include yourself in this category.  I appreciate that the sight of one may cause untold stimulation and excitation, and who knows where that might lead one.  We do not, however, legislate on the basis on the basis of personal fetish, it is neither in principle nor in practice acceptable to make demands on a woman’s attire due to whatever excessive sexuality a man may read into a situation.”

In this spirit, the Talmud continues its exploration of the female body.  It cites Rav Yitzchak, a later Amora, who holds that a tefach, a hands-breadth, of a woman’s flesh is considered nakedness.

It is not clear what he is referring to, and at this point the Talmud drops a bit of a bombshell:

If you say that it comes to prohibit looking at an exposed handbreadth in her, didn’t Rav Sheshet say:  Anyone who gazes upon a woman’s little finger is considered as if he gazed upon her naked genitals.

And there we have it, one of the most popular statements for justifying attacks on what women choose to wear.

Let’s unpack this.  First of all, Rav Yitzchak wasn’t talking about this, he was talking about Shema, and we do not accept his opinion.  We accept the more open minded opinions already cited.  So the common phrase ‘Tefach Be’Isha Erva’ actually has no application, it is, essentially, rejected.

Now, onto Rav Sheshet.  How are we to square this with everything more accommodating that we’ve seen above?

First of all, I think we have to note that the verb used here is ‘mistakel’, which suggests an intense form of staring, ‘gazing’, as the translation above has it.  We are not entertaining the idea that a chance sighting of a woman’s little finger is in anyway the same as seeing her genitalia.  What I think we are talking about, however, is the power of fantasy, of the imagination.

There is a recognition that if a man has lustful feelings towards a woman, then even the slightest glance at part of her body, at a finger or toe, at the passing shadow of her form, will be enough.  It will contain the power to carry his weakened and subservient mind into a world of illicit possibilities.

This is to take Rav Pappa’s thought to its conclusion, we cannot possibly legislate for all instances of sexual provocation, because perhaps ninety percent of that provocation is happening inside the mind of the man, with only incidental assistance from the external world.  It’s a very Kleinian worldview.  His mind is in a state where it is disposed towards lust and desire, perhaps in general, perhaps with regard to one specific woman.  And in that state, no matter what we were to do, even were we to banish him to a cave on his own, he would come to think lustful thoughts.

So the burden is upon him, not upon the woman.

The plot thickens, it turns out that Rav Sheshet, who made the comment about the little finger, was blind (TB Shabbat 109a, 119a), possibly since birth.

Where to go with this?

On the one hand, he is hardly the most realistic judge of what is and is not sexually provocative in the realm of sight.  That just has to be an indisputable reality.

On another level, what we do have, what we must be dealing with, is his imagination.  He must imagine that to see this part of a woman, a woman one desires, is as much as to see her nakedness in its entirety.  And he is right, to an extent.  In the realm of the imagination, of fantasy, the smallest symbol can be the key to the whole image, can trigger a vision of the totality.  He is presenting us with an imagination fully formed, in its most excitable state, and he is right to suggest that in this condition, the smallest glance could be overpowering, intoxicating.

We must be in the realm of the imaginary, I was sure of this before I was reminded of Rav Sheshet’s blindness, now I am utterly convinced of it.

We then have another two famous examples of what constitutes nakedness in a woman.

One is the leg, and the verse used to support this is from Isaiah.  Well, actually a verse which talks about a leg is next to a verse which talks about nakedness.  And the nakedness isn’t physical, but sounds more metaphorical, existential:

“Your nakedness shall be revealed and your shame shall be seen” (47.3)

I take it that we are in the realm of what might provoke an excitable male, of musings on the fickle side of man.  But what I do consider is that perhaps the anxiety around nakedness is provoked by this idea of Isaiah’s, as follows:

In our nakedness we do experience shame, and therefore we seek to avoid shame, and we do so by avoiding nakedness, and not just our own, but nakedness in general, perhaps in particular of those who evoke shame in us.

In psychoanalytic language, this would be a form of projection, a kind of displaced transference, wherein we direct our powerful emotions at very much the wrong object.

And this happens again with the next quotation, which seeks to establish the female voice as ‘nakedness’.  There the quotation is from The Song of Songs, that powerful and sensual love song which gave some of the Rabbis so much trouble.  And what better way to deal with that than to use it to reduce the amount of sensuality in one’s environment, to clamp down on the unease that it brings about.

Rashi seems to be thinking this way, he comments, perhaps ironically:

Since the verse exalts the voice so highly, we learn from there that it is a source of desire (ta’ava).

So both of these assaults on the female body can be read as expression of male unease and anxiety.  And the fact that they are not generally taken as legal rulings, neither in the Talmud nor, universally, in the codes, gives us more room for this provocative and challenging reading, for us to ask what was really going in this discussion.

We are given a variety of conflicting views, and it’s important to distinguish the manner in which we ought to read them all, if indeed that manner has been clearly established.  I believe that a close reading of the text makes the issues a lot less black and white than commonly assumed, and that it also makes for a richer, more psychologically interesting discussion.

Sensuality evokes unease, that is what it means to live outside Eden.  But how we manage that, how we act it out, that we do have control over, and it is demanded of us that we do so in as honest and considerate a way as possible.

Just Like a Woman… Berakhot 20b and 21

Today we encounter one of the more divisive rulings in the Halakha.  The mishna begins:

Women, slaves and minors are exempt from reciting the Shema and from putting on Tefillin. But they are subject to the obligations of Tefillah and Mezuzah and Grace after meals.

The Gemara responds quickly:

It is obvious that they are exempt from the Shema – that is a positive commandment which is time-bound, and women are exempt from all positive time-bound commandments!

Really?  Was it that obvious?

If this is such a well known principle, we would be within our rights to expect the Talmud to give us its source or background.  We saw yesterday that it spent nearly a whole daf trying to find the source for Human Dignity and its power to defer prohibitions.  And yet, today, nothing.

I’m highlighting this as a strange absence in the text.  And before highlighting some other strange absences, I’d like to propose one understanding of them:

The Talmud is not shy about discussing anything and everything, pretty much whatever someone might say can lead to a discussion of one or other related topics.  Discussion is basically its raison d’etre, its lifeblood.  So if the Talmud doesn’t discuss something, it suggests that the matter was so uncontroversial, so widely assumed, so unconsciously accepted in Talmudic culture that no one thought to question it.

To my mind, this suggests that if something did become controversial in later generations, as society and people changed, then the discussion ought to be re-opened, that this would be the only authentically Talmudic response.  Judaism is always about trying to improve the world, to improve the moral and spiritual quality of the lives we lead.  In order to do this it must always start from our mode of living in the world, from the raw actuality of that.

Put differently, there is perhaps nothing fundamentally Jewish about this strict division of male and female roles.  It may have been codified in Jewish Law, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any sort of Jewish Ideal.  It simply means that it was an aspect of people’s lives and so some kind of habit and rule was required in response to it.

For example, we see later today – 21b – that a man may wed a woman who was raped by either his father or his son.  Would we say that there is any kind of ideal involved in one’s relatives being rapists?  I think it’s clear that the answer is no.  On the other hand, such a circumstance may arise, and in a society where a raped woman would find it hard to get married, it may seem reasonable to allow such a marriage to proceed, with the women’s consent.

This is an extreme example, but it shows the extent to which we need to be careful about moving too readily from Jewish Law to Jewish Ideals.

Maybe we should step back a moment, perhaps I’m rushing into assuming that this issue of women’s exemption is objectionable, something that needs defending and repackaging in a radical way.

Perhaps it isn’t, I did a survey of a few women today and the exemption itself didn’t seem to be so problematic.  Where it may sometimes leads to seems to be the problem, but we’ll get there.

That said, I do still think it’s worth noting these strange absences.

So the first is the lack of a source for the principle of exemption.  We may happen to know that it is also mentioned in a Mishna in Kiddushin (29a) but there is no biblical source given.

The second is the lack of any explanation at all.  We must assume that the rationale is something to do with a woman’s role in the home, which keeps her too busy and does not allow her to break for the Shema or to put Tefillin on.  Yet this is quite strange –  are men never busy, does their contribution to the maintenance of the household never merit an exemption?

This brings us to the third absence, the lack of exceptions.  What about a widow who has lost his wife and is forced to raise his children on his own?  What about a woman aged 23 who is not yet  married and has a very comfortable and relaxed life?  Or a woman of 63 in a similar position?

By neither considering nor exploring these realities, the text begins to suggest that there is something more fundamental in play, some less practical reason why a woman is exempt.

And at this point it can go either way.

One can say that women are superior, that they are intrinsically more spiritual, more attuned to the love and compassion which the mitzvot are trying to teach us.

One could say that the work they are involved in is fundamentally more holy, more Divine, and that there  is less need to take them away from it to remind them of their genuine purpose in life.  As we discussed with relation to breastfeeding (pages 3 and 10), we hold the maternal as the highest model of being, and we learn from it how to conduct ourselves.

Further, one may say that men are prone to forget their origins and roots in the family, and to stray towards alien Gods.  For this reason they must have a framework and routine which brings them back to it.

And this is all very nice.

But, realistically, this massive generalisation, this universal assumption about what men and women do, carries a huge risk of essentialising and reifying gender.

It leads us to generate a blessing wherein man thank God for not making them a woman.

It leads us to rebuking women who wish to wear tefilin, as Rambam seems to do (Tefilin 4:13) and as codified in the Shulkhan Arukh (OH 38:3).  This rebuke becomes demonisation in contemporary life.

It leads us to banishing women from any role in synagogue life, relegating them to a non- participatory spectators’ gallery, far away from the action.

There is a line of thinking which says that men will look to subdue women wherever and however they can.  They are threatened by them, sometimes by their goodness and tenderness, other times by what their sensual sexuality evokes in the male.  And sometimes it’s simply by their symbolising the dependency of the maternal.

So let us assume that from time to time over the last two thousand years this misogynistic spirit has flared up within Jewish culture.  In such circumstances, it seems inevitable that people will have looked to Jewish texts and law and abused them in order to legitimise their diminution of women.

And, let us be honest, the text of the Mishna opens itself to this.  Women are treated in the same breath as slaves and children; the idea that we are talking about higher spiritual beings doesn’t quite ring true here.  If we started with ‘women, angels and saints are exempt…’ then we might have a case on our hands.  It may be unfortunate, but juxtaposing women with slaves makes a certain sort of conclusion tragically inevitable.

This leads us to the fourth and final absence:  the voice of the women.  This is a discussion of men about women, and at no point is any woman consulted or quoted in order to hear her thoughts.  We don’t talk about whether Devorah said Shema before battle, nor do we consult the habits of Beruria to see how she felt about the dimension of time.  Women are absent from the study hall here, whether through exemption or exclusion, and we are asked to trust that the men of 1800 plus years ago knew their needs and natures best.  To the modern eye, this ‘legislation by the other’ robs women of all their dignity.

It doesn’t look great.

This is a huge topic, and I’ve no doubt we will be returning to it.  In summary, I read the text here as exhibiting several glaring absences, and these leave it sorely exposed to an abusive appropriation for unholy ends.  However, I do not believe that Judaism is in essence a rigidly gendered or misogynistic culture, and as the realities of the world change, new discussions must take place to ensure that its ultimate aims can be furthered.

Let us end by noting something wonderful on daf 21a.  Rav Yehuda proposes that the prayer we say after the Shema is actually a more binding obligation, a Torah obligation, than the Shema itself.  Let us remember the beginning of that prayer:

True and firm, established and enduring, right, faithful, beloved, cherished, delightful, pleasant, awesome, mighty, perfect, accepted, good and beautiful is this faith for us for ever and ever.

Quite.  When the ideals we lay claim to in Judaism match up to these standards then we know we are on solid ground.  When we know or suspect that they do not, then it is time for some serious soul searching, it is the time to root out whatever toxic may have entered our spirit and to expunge it.

p.s. I dedicate this blog to my wife, who has in every positive way earned her exemption from the bindings of time.  With the little time she has, she fights to ensure women are fairly treated in Judaism, and I stand proudly behind her on this quest.