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.