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.

Let Us Make God – Rosh Hashana 5753 – Berakhot 44 & 45

We are discussing Zimun today, the communal form of Grace after Meals, and the Talmud wishes to know the source for this practice.  It finds two complementary sources, and, for a change, sees no reason to choose one over the other:

“Make God great with me, and we will exalt his name together.” (Ps.34:4)

“When I call in the name of the Lord, let us give greatness to our God” (Deut. 32:3)

The words are so commonplace to us – particularly if I’d quoted the Hebrew – that we rarely stop to think about what a strange concept they express:  the idea that man (and woman) should be able to add to God’s greatness, to somehow make him bigger, more awe inspiring.  This might be particularly on our minds as we go into Rosh Hashana, the days on which we are charged with establishing and restoring God’s Greatness and Kingship.

Surely God is self-sufficient, beyond our help?  We might recognise or discover his greatness, that would make sense.  But to create that greatness, to take part in the magnification of His Being, surely that is outrageous, anthropocentric audacity gone mad?

In a word, no.  There is a sense in which one aspect of God, is unmoved, untouched, unaffected by anything we might do, say or think.  But that is perhaps not the aspect we are genuinely interested in.

The aspect of God which plays a part in our lives, the ways in which He might move and affect us, is very much given to the hands of mankind.  He, in a sense, is entirely at our mercy.

‘God’ is a word, the meaning and significance we give to it, the way we flesh out the concept, this is largely up to us, it is a function of our thoughts and reflections.

It is possible that ‘God’ stays small, that it remains the trivial Heavenly Bearded One that we learnt about as children, the scorekeeper of our moral activities, the One who issues us with strange and incomprehensible commandments.  The ‘God’ of 5 year olds is great, if you are 5 years old.

But as we grow up, ‘God’ needs to grow with us, it needs to becomes something more profound, something more connected with our powerful intuitions about what is meaningful and significant in life, with Truth, Justice, Love and Compassion.  This ‘God’ acts in our lives, there is a deep level in which it shapes our thoughts and actions, in which it can radically change the course of history.  To imagine the world differently is to live by a vision, and this vision is powered and fuelled by our sense of what is right and beautiful, by the greatest possibilities we dare to foresee in the world.

This is an aspect of a more grown up ‘God’, and it is this aspect which depends on us for Its greatness.  This happens in two ways.  It requires the full powers of our intellect, of our creativity and imagination, to fathom and perceive the possibilities that ‘God’ represents.  Every unique situation demands fresh effort as we feel our way to a sense of the just and compassionate way to respond and to act, to the ‘God-worthy’ course of action.

In a world that is sometimes cynical, that seems to want to surrender to a fateful economic or genetic determinism, that certainly gives us plenty of reason to be pessimistic, it is hard to keep faith that things could actually be different, that mankind, with the help of God, might shape a more perfect world.  It takes all of our will to resist this and all of our memory to cling to that glimpse of an improved world we once knew.

Once we can see this greater possibility for ‘God’, The other sense in which we make God larger, greater, more magnified, is through the space we allow these considerations in our lives, through the emotional and intellectual import we ascribe to them.

This is a constant struggle, the whole corpus of our ritual and practice attempts to help us with this.  But there are a few days a year which we set aside especially for them, and they are about to begin.

On Rosh Hashana, as we begin the new year, we dedicate two days to making God great, to considering Him as our King, as the most powerful force in our lives, as something worthy of our awe and respect.  We work to limit our arrogance, our omnipotence, our narcissistic ego and to embrace a spirit of openness and otherness, and to re-connect with an idealism that we all too easily lose.

It really is in our hands, God will always be there, but ‘God’ is forever in danger of becoming empty, lifeless or simply ignored and forgotten.  If we cannot lift our eyes and see something better, if we are too busy or exhausted to make the effort, too hurt or broken to try once more, then ‘God’ really will wither and die.  Nietzsche will be right, it will be us who will have killed Him, it is our hands that will be bloodied by His demise.

It seems paradoxically apposite to go into Rosh Hashana with the words of Nietzsche, with his prophecy as to what happens when we fail to make ‘God’ great, to keep ‘God’ alive:

God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!

How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife – who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? (The Gay Science 125)

Judaism, and all ‘good religion’, is alert to the possibility that we talk about ‘God’ but fail to keep God alive, that our spirits and imaginations become deadened to Its call.  For that reason we install two days a year to resurrecting His Reign, to magnifying his Memory, to enlarging his Greatness.

When we pray for life rather than death, we are praying for the life of ‘God’ as much for our own lives, we are becoming conscious of the sense in which neither can live without the other, of the ways that they nourish, fuel and sustain each other.

May our prayers be fluent in our mouths, may they rise to the awesome and lofty tasks before us, and may they be effective in sculpting space for God in our lives, in restoring ‘God’ to the life and place worthy of it.  May our year be full and blessed, may our lives be touched and lifted by the Grace of a freshly restored ‘God’.

Are we running on empty? Berakhot 40 and 41

Rabbi Zeira, and some say Rabbi Ĥinnana bar Pappa, said: Come and see that the attribute of flesh and blood is unlike the attribute of the Holy One, Blessed be He.

The attribute of flesh and blood is that an empty vessel holds that which is placed within it, while a full vessel does not hold it.

The attribute of the Holy One, Blessed be He, however, is not so, as if God adds to a person who is a full vessel in terms of knowledge or good attributes, he will hold it; a person who is an empty vessel will not hold it.

It is difficult to speak about the state of one’s spirit, of the plane of emotion that runs deeper than the surface.  We are forever employing forms of metaphor that only hint at the feelings, and we hope that we make ourselves understood through their use.

We speak of being high or low, open or closed, sensitive or numb.  And another of the key distinctions we use is between feeling full and empty.

We speak of fullness in terms of an abundance, of love, of energy, of will.  And it can also denote a certain contentment, completeness, peacefulness.

And we make speak of emptiness in terms of exhaustion and lethargy, and also in terms of impatience, irritability and a lack of concern.

What is quite perplexing though, and what the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan particularly emphasised, is that out of this absence, out of this emptiness, often emerges desire.  We might have thought that desire springs from a fullness of life, out of a sense of strength and of energy.   But no, it is not so;  in his view desire is born out of emptiness, out of a lack.

We should probably clarify what we mean here by desire.  Desire is not the healthy activity of fulfilling our genuine needs that comes about naturally, that is a basic expression of our personality and life force.  No, desire here is something more alien, something which is sought out in order to fill a void, in order to overcome the emptiness, in order to make us feel real.

Desire in this sense is seeking out stimulation, provocation, excitement, but doing it because we are otherwise too dead, because we are unable to connect with genuine energy, because the reality of our life is simply not what we want it to be, it doesn’t motivate us sufficiently.

To be sure, it is not always easy to distinguish between the healthy activity born of fullness and the desperate desire born out of emptiness.  It is perhaps the hardest thing in life to be able to read our own desire and know whether or not it is real, to discern whether it comes from a place of happiness or a river of sadness.  The words, the ideas, they can help, they are tools, but they never do the job on their own, the work is truly never completed.

But let us leave the question of desire for now and return to the idea of emptiness per se.  As the Talmud observes, physical emptiness is something very different from spiritual emptiness.  Physical emptiness is easily filled, and indeed, once filled, can be filled no more.  There are limits to what can be contained, if we are existing on the purely physical plane.

In the realm of the spirit however, emptiness is not so easily corrected, it becomes a rut, a trap, an inescapable vortex of negative energy.

Fullness however, has a very different dynamic.  Once it is attained, once the winds of inspiration have lifted us, it can continue to grow, to develop, to become richer.

But we can say more than this.  The key to physical containment, to being able to hold on to the love and energy which animate us at times, is the ability to give it spiritual expression.  When we successfully connect the two realms, when we are able to pour ourselves into something much bigger, into something which is greater than us yet intimately related to us, we achieve, quite literally, an expansion of our self.

The vastness of nature, the sense of the sublime, religious imagery of grandeur and infinity –  all of these allow us to stretch out our imaginative muscles, to experience an expansiveness which our purely physical existence precludes.

Rachel Elior suggests that the intricate mystical constructs of the Kabbalists came out of a Spanish Jewry which was oppressed and constricted  by the ravages of the Inquisition.  The physical reality of their lives was so limited, so difficult, that it was only through growing new fields in the imagination that they were able to keep their spirit alive.

Our circumstances are different, but the demands of contemporary life often seem endless and thankless, and we too, in spite of our physical affluence and abundance can often be left trapped and empty.  We too can find nourishment and space by engaging with the world of the spirit, by attempting to connect with something  larger.

One of the things we desperately cry out for at this time of year, in the heightened emotion of the Selichot service, is that God should not take his Holy Spirit away from us – ‘v’ruach kodshecha al tikach mimenu’.  We do not wish to be left abandoned, forsaken, we want to be full, to be complete, to be connected.  We need the possibility of a spiritual grounding in order to maintain and to root our physical lives.

Indeed, we say every day in the Amida, ‘umilfanecha malkeinu raykam al t’shiveinu’ – ‘and from before you, our Majesty, do not return us empty’.  The Divine presence is not something incidental, something that merely surrounds us.  It is something we need to bring inside us, something to combat the emptiness which can otherwise wreak havoc on us and unleash all manner of unholy desires.

And I think it is no co-incidence that we stumble into this discussion in the midst of a discussion of how to say grace after meals.  We seek fullness and satisfaction from food, and to an extent that is of course necessary and right.  But there is always a danger lurking, the possibility that we confuse our spiritual thirst and hunger for something physical, and that we eat in the wrong way, and use food to fill the wrong holes.

In the discourse of fullness and emptiness, the worlds of the physical and the spiritual become enmeshed and entangled.  The Talmud shows awareness of this, and recommends that we always listen, that we attend to what is really happening, and ensure that our responses are the right ones, the wise ones.