Friday, November 4, 2016

Sexism: Is Religion The Cause or The Cure? Genesis 1-6

I think religious teachings impact different people in different ways; in some cases they work to  legitimise discrimination against women, while in others they restrain people from engaging in sexist behavior and attitudes. This question was sparked by a discussion I had with a Muslim teenager last week in which he asserted that faith plays a restraining role in people’s lives, by preventing them from enacting certain behaviours and that without it people would be out of control. I wondered about the apparent tolerance, on the part of many Americans, of Trump’s alleged behaviour and attitudes toward women. Can this phenomenon be attributed to a decline in religious mores or on the contrary, could it be caused to some extent by “Biblical sexism”. I explore this theme by looking at my own traditions relating to Genesis 1-6 (1).

There is a little known variation to the creation story. In this variation is the legend of Adam’s first wife, Lilith. Both she and Adam are created in the exact same way, from the ground. Lilith and Adam quarreled; Lilith insisted that she was equal to Adam. Eventually Lilith flew away and left Adam and was replaced by Eve (2). This shadowy woman is thought of today as a demonic threat to babies. Her name is mentioned on the prayer cards my Chabad community places on a baby’s crib, requesting God’s protection from Lilith. One implication contained in this story could be that a woman seeking equality is a problem. One commentator (3) states explicitly that the woman could not be completely equal to the man because then it would be inappropriate for her to serve him as the Torah suggests (4).

In the aftermath following Eve and Adam’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit, Eve was told by God that her punishment would be for her desire to be directed at her husband and “he will rule you!” (5). It is useful to ask if this assertion is a prediction or a prescription about how things should be.

One tradition asserts that God’s statement that men will rule women is prescriptive rather than descriptive. In a later period a drunken King demanded that his wife appear before him and his guests to show off her beauty. When she refused he had her killed (6). Afterwards he was comforted by an adviser named Memuchan, who, according to this commentary, was actually Daniel. Daniel told the king not to cry over Vashti because the King had done the right thing according to the Torah which states “he (men) should rule over you (women)” (7).    

Thankfully, there is an alternative perspective. In this interpretation, men ruling women would apply only  a consequence of an agricultural reality. One of the punishments for eating the forbidden fruit was that the production of food would require sweat of the brow and physical exertion (8). This would create an advantage for men, at the expense of women who would now be dependent on them. This “endangers the original equality (that God intended between men and women, but if the Torah is properly adhered to it would reestablish:) Man and woman again in an equal God-serving calling” (9). According to this view, with the shift to the knowledge economy, the value of brute physical strength has diminished and therefore the shift back to the ideal of equality of the sexes can and should be actively pursued.

The interpretation that supports equality would be consistent with the tradition that Eve was actually created at the same time as Adam, not from his rib, but as one part of a double human:  one side being Adam and the other side being Eve (10).

The divergent sets of guidance show the problem with jumping to conclusions about whether a religion “is sexist” or it is not. Interpretations vary both in text and practice. Outsiders to a tradition would need to be very cautious when making judgements or assertions. As an insider, I think it is useful to tease out the competing ideas,  to emphasise those teachings that support equality and to deal with the challenge of texts that might lead people to undesirable attitudes and behaviours.  

On the other hand it is useful to recognise the power that religion has in restraining people from wrongdoing, as my Muslim student suggested. In the unfolding story we are told disapprovingly of men’s treatment of women. The Torah’s standard for the male-female relationship is: “a man will leave his father and his mother and will cleave to his wife and they will become one flesh” (11) which is interpreted as finding common purpose “as if both of them are one existence” (12). This ideal was disregarded by Lemech who married two wives. One for the sole purpose of producing children, who he then left alone for the rest of her life, to live like a widow”, ignored by Lemech. The second wife was used only for sex, she was named Tzila, whose name means “shade” because she was always in Lemech’s “shadow”. She was given a contraceptive drink and was “adorned like a prostitute” (13). The objectification of women then degenerates with men taking from women “all that they chose” including rape. God was disappointed with the human project (14). The message is clear that God-fearing men would surely never consider behaving in such a manner or tolerating such behavior.

In conclusion, I passionately believe that it is generally wrong to blame specific bad behaviors or attitudes on a religion. Human beings are complex. We are driven by a variety of factors including individual characteristics, fears and experiences, psychological and cultural factors. However I think it is not truthful, nor useful to deny that religion can play a facilitating role in justifying sexist behavior or attitudes. Still, we must recognise the differences in attitude and emphasis between people who identify as adherents of the same faith and deeply explore the often complex and apparently contradictory teachings that lead to these divergences. No doubt many men’s faith prevents them from behaving badly toward women out of fear or respect of God. As for the rest, it is incumbent on all people regardless of religious affiliation, to strive for justice for all, including equality and dignity for the female half of the human family.

  1. Two main reasons for why I focus on my own faith tradition. a) I have expertise in my faith and know little about the faiths of others, I don’t think a Wikipedia/google based “research” of other faiths has much validity; on the contrary I think it is usually quite idiotic. b) I don’t think it is tactful to judge other people’s sacred texts. I accept that studies of religion students will need to think critically about other’s faiths. I suggest that in those cases, students approach the task humbly, as gathering provisional knowledge. People in positions of leadership, might be advised to take a more cautious approach.   
  2. Ben Sira quoted in Torah Shlaima part 2, p. 236, see note 256, the legend is mentioned in the Zohar twice,  Zohar Bereshit 34b, and Vayikra 19a, see also reference to Lillith in Talmud Shabbat 151a.
  3. Seforno commentary to Genesis 2:18
  4. Genesis 2:18
  5. Genesis 3:16, in Hebrew the same words are used to predict the future as to give a command. He will rule over you can also mean he should rule over you.
  6. The book of Esther
  7. Pirkey D’Rabbi Eliezer 48, cited in Torah Shlaima part 2, p. 275,121
  8. Genesis 3:19
  9. Samson Raphael Hirsch on Genesis 3:16
  10. Talmud Eruvin 11, cited in Rashi commentary to Genesis 2:21
  11. Genesis 2:24
  12. Seforno commentary to  Genesis 2:24
  13. Midrash Rabba/Beresheet Rabba chapter 23
  14. Genesis 6:2-3

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