Thursday, February 24, 2011
Taken at face value he refused to answer her question because she is a woman and his belief that women are meant to restrict their wisdom to domestic responsibilities. An alternative explanation is that he was simply being evasive because he had no tradition about this issue from his teachers. The context seems to support this interpretation because it follows a series of other questions that R. Eliezer deflected, eg. He is asked, “What about plastering one’s home?” he replies, “What about plastering a grave?” His response is explained in the Talmud as being “only because he would not say anything that he never heard from his teacher”.
In the Jerusalem Talmud, we have the same story but with the following addition; Hurkanus, his son said to him (R. Eliezer), “so as not to tell her one matter from the Torah you have caused me to lose 300 Kor of tithes every year!” (R. Eliezer) said to him, “let the words of the Torah be burned and let it not be given over to women”. This supports a more problematic explanation.
A third interpretation is that Rabbi Eliezer was saying “why is she bothering us with these questions, she should just occupy herself with her spindle and dough and that she will be enough for her. It is not proper for the wisdom of a woman to be directed to anything but spinning, the needs of her house and the honor of her husband and therefore our sages forbade the teaching of Torah to daughters. This is consistent with R. Eliezer’s view that is opposed to teaching Torah to daughters. Ben Azai, holds the opposing view, that it is an obligation to teach Torah to one’s daughters.
Exhibit B. “Women’s minds are light”. This phrase appears in the thinking of a fugitive Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who had dared speak out against the Roman occupation.
“Rabbis, Judah, Josi and Shimon were sitting,
son of converts was sitting by them. R. Judah opened with “how pleasant are the actions of this nation ( Judah ), they established marketplaces, bridges and bathhouses”. R. Josi was silent. R. Shimon Bar Yochai answered, “all that they established they did for their own needs. The markets for Harlots to sit in, bathhouses for their own pleasure and bridges for tolls”. Rome son of converts went and told their words and they were heard by the government. They said, “Judah who talked us up, will be elevated, Josi who was silent should be exiled to Zipori and Shimon who denigrated should be killed”. He and his son hid in the house of study and their wives brought them bread...When the decree intensified, Shimon said to his son, “Women their mind is light on them, perhaps she will be tortured and they will reveal our hiding place”. So they hid in a cave.” Judah
Shoshana Pantel Zolty, notes that one might object to R. Shimon's assumption, about how women respond to intense pressure. However, the phrase “Women's minds are light”was never used in the Talmud in reference either to intellectual abilities of moral character.
Zolty draws attention to statements that speak in glowing terms of women's intellectual capacities, citing the statement “Additional understanding was given to women more than to the man”. This is based on a play on words in the verse “and God built the woman”, the word for built is Vayeeven, which is related to the word for understanding “Bina”. To be consistent this must also be considered in its original narrower context, which relates to the laws of Vows and that females are considered mature a year earlier than males. Commentaries are clear that this is about timing, that a girl is earlier with acquiring understanding. Still, I think the original context has lost significance in more recent thinking among scholars and in recent times this phrase is understood more generally to be referring to women’s superior insight.
It has been said in relation to Islam, 'Islam is as Islam does'. I think this is a useful formula for grappling with clashes between ancient sacred texts and modern sensibilities. The current status of women is key in this discussion. The question of teaching Torah to daughters has taken on additional urgency and gained wide acceptance in the last century. Problems began to arise with the classic formula of teaching daughters “the laws, in order to do and be careful with Mitzvot (to know) what to do and what not to do, but not the depth of the Talmud or the reasons of Mitzvot and secrets of Torah”. Pioneer of girls education, Sarah Schnirer, became concerned in the early 1900's when she saw her father and brother in religious rapture after returning from the court of their Rebbe, her mother reading the pretty basic “Tzena Ure-enah” Yiddish version of bible stories and her sister tuned out with a Polish Novel. This prompted the ruling by the Chafetz Chaim that women should learn Scripture and ethics.
The trend toward increased Torah study for women, while far from parity with the study undertaken by men, is strong and broadly seen in various streams of Orthodox Judaism. The Lubavitcher Rebbe “exhorts women to increase their study and teaching, and asks for the community at large to support this endeavor. He asks: why has this increase in Torah learning for women occurred specifically in the recent era?” The Rebbe makes two points “1) each generation further from the Divine revelation at Sinai is on a "lower" level; and so there is an increasingly greater need to bolster it. 2) Nevertheless, he continues, the result has been a great good, an increase in Torah study; and this increase in Torah study by women he emphatically describes as one of the "positive innovations of the later generations."
Broadly, women have continued to be viewed as having a primary role as the “mainstay of the house” with responsibility to their families, although increasingly this is not to the exclusion of work outside the home, or a role in the community and even regarding the role within the home, the spiritual content of this is more emphasized. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, turns the following phrase on it's head, “Who is a Kosher woman? One who does her husbands will”. The word for does, Oseh, can also mean makes, so the Rebbe renders it, Who is a Kosher woman? One who makes, influences and shapes, her husbands will, toward Torah study and good deeds.
To those of us imbued with equality as the highest value, this is jarring. One response is that the valuing of the public over the private relates to a western perspective that values fame, which acts as “an ethnocentric filter” at odds with the value of the private in a Jewish value system. In the ideal world, men and women could be equally dedicated to their children and put their careers second. That is not likely to happen, instead the choices in families with children are usually between both parents fully joining the 'rat race” or the woman putting her children first. I admire and am grateful for the fact that many women, some religious, make the sacrifice of career for the nurturing of children.
Perhaps most important are the voices of Jewish women themselves and the degree to which “Torah-observant women (are) struggling to reconcile two aspirations which are not easily joined. One is the longing for marriage and children, the other a passion for study and more active participation in communal life.
Rivka Slonim, in whose home I spent a delightful Simchat Torah some years ago, wrote; “As I was growing up, there was nothing I felt was beyond my reach, except perhaps synagogue life as enjoyed by the men. This often seemed unfair, but there was an understanding that this was just the way it was... Yes, there were things I wished I could do. But I lived in a world of absolutes, the Torah world. I loved that world and I knew it to be true. If in a world of absolutes there were certain things a woman didn't do... I just wouldn't do them even if I wanted to. They never loomed all-important. The joy and potential for fulfillment in the Chassidic-Jewish lifestyle, coming from knowing who you are and having a sense of direction and purpose in life, was far more significant… I know that after all of the arguments, refutations and debate, something must speak to the soul”.
Coming to a similar conclusion via a very different route was the story of Mickey Hirshberg. She was probably the first to establish the radical idea of a women only Minyan (public prayer) in 1971 and pushed many other boundaries, she describes her journey… “A key transitional experience…a group of Americans would study Chassidut (mystical teachings) one evening a week with a Chassidic rabbi in Mean Shearim. If he had an address we didn’t know it; we knew only which courtyards to cross. He spoke no English and taught quietly and patiently in the simplest Hebrew. One warm evening a friend and I stayed after class to ask questions. His wife appeared with a glass of water which she handed me with a smile. Suddenly I was riveted to the floor. There was something intensely spiritual about the way that woman gave the glass of water. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to grab her and shake her and beg to tell what the secret was, to say that I had been waiting for years and had to understand. ….I could no longer afford the luxury of alienating Torah-observant and Chasidic women who might bear the keys to locked doors I desired to open”.
Clearly there is a disconnect between the simple reading of sacred text and the lived experiences of observant Jewish women today, some of which a reportedly very positive. As a male, is it really my place to argue?
 Slonim, R, Chassidic Feminist My Personal Experiences http://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/1335/jewish/Chassidic-Feminist.htm
 Aly, W (2007) People Like Us. How Arrogance is Dividing Islam and the West. Picador-Pan
 Rashi’s explanation
 Exodus 35:25
 Talmud Yoma 66b, translation is from http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Talmud/yoma6.html with modifications where I thought the flavor of the original Aramaic can be better conveyed
 Rav Sherira Gaon, cited by Maharatz Chayes, brought in the commentary to Yoma p. 66b3, Schottenstein Edition/Artscroll (1998),
, Brooklyn NY
 R. Eliezer was asked: When the he-goat had become sick, might he be taken on the shoulders? He replied: The he-goat was so healthy that it could bear away you and me together. They asked him again: When the conductor had become sick, may another be appointed? He replied: Let us be healthy; do not ask us about a case of sickness. They asked him again: If after having been pushed down he did not die, shall he go down and kill him? He gave them as answer the verse in Judges v. 31: "Thus may perish all Thy enemies, O Lord."… R. Eliezer was asked whether a certain man would enjoy the world to come. He replied: You inquire of me concerning that man (he named a different man). They asked of him again: May a shepherd rescue a sheep carried away by a lion? He replied: Do you ask me of a sheep? They asked him again: May the shepherd be rescued from the lion's mouth? He answered again: You ask me only of the shepherd. They asked him again: May a bastard be heir of his father? He asked them: May he espouse his dead and childless brother's wife? They asked him: If he possesses a house, must a memorial of the
's destruction be left, when his house is whitewashed (an ell is left bare)? He answered: I think you ask me whether his grave is to be whitewashed? His replies are explained by his unwillingness to speak on matters for which he did have not a tradition, this is followed by the incident with the woman. If the same reason applies to all the cases, it would see that putting the explanation at the very end would be the logical place. Putting the explanation before the case with the woman suggests to me that the reason for this last case might be different. Temple
 Jerusalem Talmud Yoma chapter 3:4, Bamidbar Rabba 9
 Meiri, Beit Habechira Vol. 4, p 166, Kedem (1978)
 Rabbenu Chananel, on Yoma
 Jerusalem Talmud, ibid
 Talmud Shabbat 33b
 A fuller study of the portrayal of converts would be useful. The Torah repeatedly forbids discrimination and mistreatment, of converts or strangers, even verbally, Yet the portrayal of converts while at times glowing and affirming is sometimes quite negative. The attribution of the Golden Calf to the “mixed multitude” that Moses converted is one example. I wonder why we need to the know the name and ancestry of the person responsible for the “leak” from this conversation .
 Perhaps also worth taking into account that he made this assessment in a situation where he was in fear for his life.
 Zolty, S. P, (1993), And all your children Shall Be learned, Jason Aronson, Northvale NJ, cited in a review by Frankiel, T., in Wellsprings, Winter 1994
 Talmud Nida 45b, Bereshit Rabba 18:1
 Genesis 2:22
 Tosafot Harash on Nida 45b, Etz Yosef on Bereshit Rabba
 Sefer Chasidim 313, brought in Torah Shlaima, Vol 23 p. 25 note 90.
(The large image at the top is a re-imagining of a classic painting that shows a group of male scholars in heated Talmudic debate (smaller image). Hopefully the image and arguments about whether or not it is appropriate will add to the discussion)
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Egyptians and others who care about what happens there are facing the unknown. There is an ancient impulse to seek linear knowledge, evidence based, “scientific” information about what is and what will be. This essay argues that having clear knowledge is not always appropriate and that some times it is useful to embrace the unknown or “traditional knowledge” of people with a variety of skin tones including the darker shades.
In 1999, the Nuer and Dinka tribes of
Southern Sudan had been waging war, killing each other and destroying each others’ cattle. An American Christian, Bill Lowery, and others from the New Council of Churches brought chiefs from the two sides together, at great risk to the chiefs themselves. One of the rituals involved participants spitting into a gourd filled with water. When it came to Bill, he spat into it too. When everyone had spat, they splashed the water on each other. The spittle on the tongue is meant to be the coldest part of a person, and splashing it symbolised cooling off the hot bodies, charged with the ‘heat of conflict’. Bill asked the chiefs to tell stories they heard from their fathers’ mothers about how conflicts were resolved in the past. They sat opposite each other, divided by a rope representing the Sudan Nile, and discovered the wisdom of their respective ancestors was very similar. They told stories about what was done to them, and finally were asked what they ‘remembered’ for the future of their daughters’ sons.
After three days of story telling, they reached the point of decision. Bill warned his team that this was not a time to give advice. In the end the decision was a ‘no-brainer’. The logical conclusion was ending the fighting. One of the oldest chiefs told Bill, “I have been to many meetings with the United Nations. Never before has anyone asked me what I think.”
It is plausible to suggest that the wise UN people were arrogant, but I suspect that they suffered from this need to have a linear “scientifically” documented plan with neat graphs that might not have allowed for listening to old black men. One liberated brown gentleman, India‘s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had this to say. “It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger…of superstition and deadening custom…the future belongs to science and those who make friends with science”.
This impulse may have also been at work when the ancient Israelites, not long after hearing God’s command “Do not make for your self any image” demanded “make us Elohim that will go before us” then created and bowed to a Golden Calf. The common understanding of this is reflected in the Midrash that “the Egyptians would carry their gods and sing before it and see it before them. Make us a God like the gods of
and we will see it before us”. The word Elohim can mean God but it can also mean a guide as we find when a reluctant Moses is told to speak to the Jews with Aaron as his spokesman, he is told that “you will be for him an Elohim”. The Jews were seeking a replacement for Moses who failed to come back from the mountain. Egypt
They thought it would have a higher power to tell them the future, to stand instead of Moses to lead them and tell them what will happen to them. Alternatively, the purpose of the calf was “like Teraphim (statue like objects) that were used in witchcraft to tell them their needs”. In direct contravention of “do not have diviners, (using lucky or unlucky times or omens)…be wholesome with God”.
The Golden Calf was to serve as a focal point for prayer for the Israelites, “just as we do today in our places of worship, taking pride in their stones and mortar” Just as we turn our hearts to “heaven” in prayer. In this view the problem was not so the calf which in its meaning was not that different to the Cherubim on the holy ark but rather creating their own symbol not commanded by God. Aaron states that tomorrow there will be a feast to God, because the spiritual content remained unchanged, only there was a small concession to concreteness of worship.
The quest to uncover mysteries engages Moses as well and he asks God to “show me your glory” by which he meant “show me how you lead the world”, seeking to understand divine justice, reward for the righteous as well as the tranquility of the wicked.
God responds to this request by explaining that no man can see His face and live. Instead God offers to “I will put you in the cleft of the rock where Moses will see “God’s back” but not his face. Then He will “shield (Moses) with the palm of his hand on him until He passes”. The face, back and hands are metaphors that indicate that there are some secrets that must remain closed even to Moses.
The place in which Moses has this experience, hosts another visitor years later in the dramatic story of Elijah in the cave. Elijah arrives in the very cave and asks him “"What are you doing here, Elijah?". Elijah replies that he had “been zealous for the Lord, the God of Hosts, for the children of
have forsaken Your covenant... they have killed Your prophets by the sword..” Again the theme of passing plays out. God tells Elijah, “"Go out and stand in the mountain before the Lord, Behold! the Lord passes”. Then there is a great and strong wind splitting mountains and shattering boulders before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake-not in the earthquake was the Lord. After the earthquake fire, not in the fire was the Lord, and after the fire a sound of silence. Whatever God’s message was to Elijah with all of this, curiously God repeats his original question. "What are you doing here, Elijah?" Elijah’s response is identical with the one he offered before this dramatic display. I wonder if this is part of the reason our sages teach us that forever more Elijah is required to attend every circumcision where the covenant is affirmed. Perhaps observing imperfect people ambiguously cleaving to God is a good correction to Elijah’s judgmental “black and white” certainty. Israel
Moses is changed forever by this experience and having “Gods hand on him”. Moses did not know it but the skin of his face shone with rays of light, Aaron and the sons of
were afraid to approach him. For most of the rest of his life he would need to have some concealment of his own, covering his face with a mask or veil. If we understand the veil metaphorically then rather than adding to the mystery detracted from it by “putting a mask on the ideas and presenting them in a way that the people could understand”. Thus, Moses having sought to uncover the mystery and having being touched by it, must now protect others from mystery, giving physical interpretations to spiritual ideas, thus concretizing the ethereal. Israel
While the scientific method can help us communicate and put a man on the moon, it is not the tool for the ultimate questions of life. Embracing the unknown or seeking traditional knowledge each have their place. The Ultimate knowledge of God is (to know that) we don’t know.
 Lowery, W. (2010). Related to me in by Bill Lowery in late night Conversation at the Third World Peace Forum,
. http://southsudanfriends.org/News/Update991122.html. Accessed Yogyakarta, Indonesia 7 June 2010
 Appleyard, B. (1992) Understanding the Present, Science and the Soul of Modern Man, p.3 Picador/Pan Books,
 Exodus 20:4 in the Ten Commandments
 Excodus 32:1
 Pirkey Drabbi Eliezer 45, cited in Torah Shelaima, volume 21, p 85.
 Exodus and later 7:1
 Interpretation brought in Torah Shlaima, Volume 21, Miluim p. 206, seems to be quoting Ibn Ezra, not clear to me from the text.
 Ralbag, Torah Shlaima ibid
 Rashbam, in Torah Shlaima ibid
 Deuteronomy 18:10-12
 Kuzari 1:37, cited in Nachshoni, Y (1988) Studies in weekly Parsha, Sh’mos p.573, ArtScroll,
 Ibn Ezra as understood by Nachshoni, Y, ibid p.574
 Exodus 33:18
 Midrash Tanchuma Yashan, Vaetchanan 3
 Shemot Rabba 45:5
 Exodus 33:22
 Talmud Pesachim 54a, quoting Kings I Kings - Chapter 19. Ten things were created on the eve of Shabbat between the sons (twilight), these are…and the cave in which both Moses and Elijah stood. Moses as it states and “I will put you in the cleft of the rock and with Elijah “and he went till the
, Horeb and came there to the cave and rested there”. mountain of God
 The Hebrew is Kol Demama Daka, which literally means a sound, a silence, that is fine. The late educator Mr. Max Wallhouse, of blessed memory, translated it as the “Sound of Silence” which is the best translation I can think of. The more common translation is “a small still voice”.
 Rabbi A. Alrabi, Drashot Torah – Rabbi Shem Tov son of Rabbi Shem Tov, Ralbag, discussed in Torah Shelaima, Kasher, M, Torah Shelaima, volume 22, Miluim, p 181