Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Woman, Siblings, Religious Conflict, ambition & Screaming Blood - Beresheet 5771 2010

Lessons from First Humans
The first humans as described in the Torah can be seen as archetypes with all of us as their descendents having some of their characteristics[1]. What are some of the lesser known interpretations in Jewish tradition of these creation stories? What lessons might these offer us?

Woman: Is literalistic religion compatible with equality for women? 
There are two opinions about what Eve was created from, 1. When Adam was created he was actually two people in one male on one side and female on the other then these were split. 2. Eve was created from Adam tail (זנב)[2]. If we go with the first opinion, this ties in nicely with the idea that when we are created, we are only half a soul and when we get married our souls are complete again. I am not keen on speculating what conclusions men might reach based on the tail interpretation.

Encouragingly equal language in Genesis states “and God created the man[3], in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female he created them”. This supports the interpretation in the Talmud that Adam and Eve were created as one person with two faces and implies that both were created in the image of God.

Verse 28 relates God dealing with Adam and Eve and refers to “them”, not him. “God blessed them and God said to them, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it”. Rashi, a very respect commentary (1040-1105) points out the unusual spelling of the Hebrew word for conquer which normally is spelled כִּבְשוּהָ but here is spelled  כבשה(note missing letter) which could be translated as “conquer her”. “To teach us that the male conquers the female so that she should not be an “out-goer”, also to teach that the command to procreate is an obligation for the man – but not the woman- because it is the way of the man to conquer.” This view is based on one opinion in the Talmud[4], the other view is “that the command applies to the two of them it says he blessed them, and said to them be fruitful and multiply”. The plural expressions are explained as referring to a blessing to the animals as well  and in the instruction to conquer the earth, because it talks of Adam as a ruler it is uses the royal “we”[5]

Rashi's commentary has two points; one is about men being the moral guardians of women which would be hard to reconcile with modern concepts of equality. This is based on the Midrash that links going out to the market to the abduction and rape of Dina “as every woman who goes out to the market, in the end will be ensnared”. This has echoes of the controversy about Sheik Hilaly talking about immodestly dressed women as “uncovered meat”.  There are Midrashim about women being the spiritual foundation of the home etc. but it would seem that these are about ‘soft power’ of influence not control. The 2nd aspect is about obligation to bring children into the world beginning with marriage and initiating intimacy. Generally, obligation matches ability and in the male dominated world of 900 years ago men held the cards, they still often do.  Of course, men cannot bring children into the world without women and a woman can only be married in accordance with her will, forced marriage is out of the question[6].

There were and often still are obvious observable differences between the behaviour of many men and women. Although even in the Torah, we have some examples of the assertive woman such as Rebecca deciding she would marry Isaac regardless of her parents’ views and intimacy being initiated by Rachel. The popular feminist/contemporary argument, I think, would be that these are learned behaviours stemming from a patriarchal society.

 A Muslim speaker at UWS argued that women are worse off with Feminism in that they are expected to do everything men do and that their differences are not acknowledged. While the nature vs. nurture debate will go on forever, there are times when religion demands we resist the urges of nature or the vices we absorbed as we were nurtured[7]. To what extent should religious law accommodate human nature or learned behaviours that have become second nature and allow for them like exempting women from unrealistic obligations and to what extent does the ethical imperative demand that religion subvert these? The example of the (an attractive woman on the battle field that is the law of the Torah makes permissible under debated conditions to a soldier is a case where the Torah adjusts to deal with the reality of the “evil urge”-Yetzer Harah).  

Not good for man to be alone…A helper בנגדו against/corresponding to him. One commentator offers two approaches. 1. “It would not be good for men and women to be created from completely separate materials they would lack love and oneness, and be more likely to fight, as humans need love more than other living things it is best if they both come from the same material to help each other. The word נגד means facing each other in contrast to when they fight where they each turn the back of their neck to the other not their face. 2.  It would not be good (without the women) because he would not be considered to be doing good if he had no opponent turning him to the evil path. Therefore I will make him a helper against him, this would be his wife to  entice him to the evil, he will not listen to her and will be victorious over her then he is called a “doer of Good[8].” This is one of the less egalitarian interpretations

These questions and others arising from the foundation account of men and women are important. Equally important is the behaviour of religious people. To the extent that it is consistent with the Talmudic principle that a man must honour his wife more than himself, women in the company of such men live with dignity and their children learn proper conduct.

Religious Conflict- a red herring?
The first account of a religious dispute is an interpretation of a surprising phrase in the story of the murder of Abel by his brother. “and Cain said to Abel his brother, and it was as they were in the field, Cain rose up to his brother Abel and killed him”. We are not told what it was that Cain actually said.

Cain said to Abel his brother let us go out into the field and when they both went out,
Cain said to Abel: There is not justice and there is no judge (G-d) and there is no other world (heaven) and there is no reward for the righteous or punishment for the wicked and the world was not created with mercy and He does not speak with mercy.  What would justify that your offering was accepted with good will while mine was not accepted?
Abel replied: there is justice, there is a judge (G-d), there is another world and there the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished, and the world was created with mercy and He acts/leads with mercy as my deeds were better than yours therefore my offering was accepted with good will but yours was not. They both fought in the field then Cain rose up on Abel his brother and killed him[9].

Quite an argument, but not worth recording in the Torah, as Rashi explains “Cain got into words of strife and argument to create a pretext to kill him”.

I wonder how many other so called religious conflicts are just window dressing and pretexts for other motives such as revenge, fear, envy, pursuit of power and resources. We later find Cain as  being (involved in) “building the city” using the present tense  which is interpreted as reflecting his restless materialism, never satisfied, always still in the process of building more.

Screaming blood.
I wonder if there is a commentary that can further enhance the power of G-D's rebuke to Cain “the voice of your brothers blood is screaming to me from the earth”. Whatever bloodshed we are responsible for around the world, in that we might have some influence in stopping it, whatever the justification this is a phrase worth bearing in mind.

[1] Steinsaltz A. (1984) Biblical Images, BasicBooks/Harper Collins P 3.
[2] Talmud, Brachot 61a. The idea of the tail could be linked to Genesis 2:7 “and the man became a living soul”, the word for living is the same as animal and one interpretation is that he had a stalk or tail (Beresheet Rabba 14, cited in Torat Shlaima).
[3] In Hebrew, language is either masculine or feminine and used the masculine form to refer to a mixed group of men and women.   
[4] Yevamot 65
[5] Toras Shlaima, book of Bereshis-Vayerah 1, page 167, note 793.
[6] Sefer Hakaneh, in Toras Shlaima, ibid.  
[7] The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s commentary on Lech Lcha, go out from your land = you desires, your birthplace and your fathers house refers to those influences from home and environment.
[8] Klei Yakar
[9] Jerusalem Targum.


  1. Thanks for this Zalman. It's great to see critical reading of the texts that have, for so long, been used to justify the oppression of women. Religious authority is a very convenient and powerful tool for patriarchy.
    E.g. a clever disguise for creating limitations is the glorification or sanctification of 'woman', that is, for her 'purity' or her status as mother.
    There's much to read on this topic but this challenging article, which has links to a range of critiques, could be a starting point

  2. thanks Maria, with the expertise you have on this issue, your comment is much appreciated.