Somewhere between the end of the biblical codification, the redacting of those Jewish texts deemed important enough to be included in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and the rabbinical writings of the Mishnah, the Tosafot and the two Talmuds (Jerusalem and Babylonian) something happened to a Jewish understanding of the place of women. It seems the rabbinic sages were fiercely misogynistic, so much so that they turned a once open and, while never equal, respectful tradition of honoring women into a gender divided world, a world dominated by men so such an extent that women were often ridiculed in the Talmudic texts. I am not arguing that women were always treated equally in the Torah or the other codified writings, far from it. What I am arguing, however, is that women were often singled out as models of behavior, of sensual and sexual equals of their male counterparts, of leaders of the children of Israel and of examples of ethical and moral protectors of continuity for Jews.
One such story singles out Miriam, Moses’ sister. When the Pharaoh, the one who knew not of Joseph, issued a decree that all Hebrew male children were to be put to death, Amram, Miriam’s father, divorced Yocheved his wife. Miriam went to him telling him that he is worse than even Pharaoh because he is killing all future generations in his line. Amram went back to Yocheved, withdrawing his divorce, his get, and promptly sired Moses who would, of course, become the leader and emancipator of the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt. In this story, Miriam is the hero not her father; Miriam argues for his return, shames him as she should and convinces him to return to his wife, her mother, not as an act of personal gain but one that insures continuity of the people who would become Jews in a short time to come.
When the Israelites cross the dry bed of the Sea of Reeds (the Red Sea was a horrid mistranslation of the Hebrew) and then see the sea collapse over the whole army of the Egyptians, it is Miriam who sings and dances with the entire congregation of women in front of all the men. They are rejoicing that God has not only released them from harsh slavery but that they were for sure free of the Egyptians now and forevermore. It is not until the women singing and dancing and playing timbals on the far shore of the Sea of Reeds have finished that the men in the congregation are allowed to join them and sing the same song.
It is Ruth, the Moabite, who proclaims, “Whither thou goest I will go. Your God is My God…” and so on. A conversion for sure illustrating an important point. Being a Jew is not a matter of blood lines, of chromosomes or of genealogy, rather, it is a matter of choice. While I was born into a Jewish family, to a Jewish mother thereby making me a Jew according to Jewish law, I rejected the whole idea of religion in my early teens. This rejection continued until I was in my mid fifties when I made the choice to study Jewish texts to learn about that which I rejected. My Jewish education up to that point was what one rabbi referred to as a 3rd grade education. When I discovered Ruth somewhere along the way I understood that I had a choice, to be or not to be Jewish. It was the Moabite, Ruth, who convinced me to make the choice to recognize and acknowledge my Jewishness. It matters little whether Ruth was an actual person, whether she existed as “Ruth” or was hewn from an author’s experience as a fictive truth. When I read her words in the text I am listening to the words of someone recorded to be a Jew by Choice and that clearly reflects my own pathway. I didn’t get this sense from any other male character in the Tanakh. No it took a convert to convince me to make the choice to acknowledge my birthright.
Then there is Sarah laughing at God when he promises her that in her 90th year she will produce a son and that from his loins a nation will be born. This 90 year old matriarch hears God’s words and laughs out loud essentially calling God out. She gives birth to Isaac (translated as he who laughs) to commemorate her own experience. Was there an historical Sarah? Who cares? It makes no difference because I believe fiction to be quite real. Characters come alive on the written page whether or not they ever existed. In fact, they exist between the covers of a book and in the mind of the reader and that is quite good enough. Abraham, on the other hand, comes off as one lacking courage on many levels. First, when sojourning to Egypt (an interesting precursor to Jacob’s relocating to Egypt at the end of the first book of Moses (Genesis), Abraham is so frightened that his beautiful wife, Sarah, would be prized by Pharaoh that he passes her off as his sister, a cowardly act for sure. One is also left to wonder exactly what Sarah would have done had Abraham told her of his intention to obey God’s word and sacrifice his son Isaac. Abe, it seems, was too much of a coward to share this news with his wife.
There are so many examples of strong women in the Bible, too numerous to mention in this post. Yet all this disappears when the sages of the Mishnah through the two Talmuds lend their creative minds to the problem of gender. In those texts, women were relegated to a second class position. Their place was in the home, in the kitchen and pumping out babies. The sages were concerned, not with celebration and dancing, but with modesty and obedience. The doctors of these rabbinic writings redefined the role of women and their place within the entire structural makeup of the Jewish world for nearly two thousand years. While there are some exceptions to the rules applied by the sages, women were relegated into second-class status. To this day in the orthodox cults of Judaism, women are required to sit separately from men in synagogue, are required to cover their hair, dress modestly and cleve to their men. In the reform and conservative movements, however, women have regained the voice they had in the Tanakh, lost in the “oral Torah” and regained as these movements opened their doors to women as equals. I must admit, the synagogue with strong voices of both men and women is preferable to the separation required by those who fail to see the disparity between the “written” and “oral” Torahs when women are portrayed. Texts must be read critically, even texts that have somehow been declared as sacred if one is to understand the whole story.
- The Utopianism of Jewish Religious Thought: Thinking In Jewish XXIV (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- Common Threads – Levinas and Derrida: Thinking in Jewish XXVIII (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)