Monday, November 2, 2009

How many offended women can you find in this picture?

Almost twenty years ago, I spent a wonderful summer in a YU “Summer Kollel” in Charleston, South Carolina. (I loved it so much that I went back and did it again a few years later; I highly recommend that community as a travel destination, both for the warmth of the people and the beauty of the surroundings.) One night, a gentleman with whom I was learning began to pose questions about the talmudic portrayal of women. After several rounds, I commented to him that the issues he was raising – the usual, fundamental cases, like Sotah, which emerge in Tanach and Talmud – didn’t trouble me nearly as much as the more subtle sources one would find upon learning more esoteric sources.

Herewith an example I saw this morning, from the Levush (Even haEzer 1):
יתברך שמו של הקב"ה אשר חפץ בטוב בריותיו, כי יודע בשער חכמתו יתברך שאין טוב לאדם היותו לבדו, עשה לו עזר כנגדו, דכתיב [בראשית ב, יח] לא טוב היות האדם לבדו אעשה לו עזר כנגדו. ומפני שהיתה אחת מן הכוונות בבריאת האדם שיפרה וירבה, דכתיב [ישעיה מה, יח] כי לא לתוהו בראה לשבת יצרה, עשה זה העזר בזה האופן שעל ידה יוכל לפרות ולרבות, דכתיב [בראשית ב, כב] ויבן [ה' אלקים] את הצלע, עשאה כמו בנין קצר למעלה ורחב למטה לקבל הולד, ועל כן צוהו לדבק בעזר זה שעשה לו דכתיב [שם כד] ודבק באשתו, שאז תהיה לו גם היא לעזר ולהועיל בכל צרכיו, לא לבד בענין הפריה ורביה.

In loose translation:
Blessed be the Name of Gd, who wants the best for His creations, for He knows through His wisdom that it is not good for man to be alone, and so He formed a help opposite him, as it is written, ‘It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a help opposite him.’
And because one of the intentions in creating man was that he should reproduce, as it is written, ‘For He did not create it to be empty; He formed it to be settled,’ therefore He made this help in such a way that through her he could reproduce, as it is written, “‘And Gd formed the side’ – He made it like a building, narrow above and broad below in order to receive the child.”
And therefore He instructed man to cling to this help He formed for him, as it is written, ‘And he shall stick to his wife,’ and then she will be an aid and benefit for him in all of his needs, and not only in procreation.

This is just asking for trouble, isn’t it?
• The woman was created because Adam needed an assist;
• The reason for a man to marry is so that he will find assistance for his path in life;
• The main feature in a woman’s design is that she should be an incubator.

In truth, I don’t have a problem with this source; I follow the view of Ramban, and the gemara at the end of Berachot, that Man and Woman were initially created as one body (“Adam”) and separate souls, and then Gd split them into separate bodies, to improve their functionality. To my mind, the Levush is not talking about the creation of the female soul, but about the division of men and women into separate bodies . (This is a logical read; otherwise, how would one understand his formulation of the original plan for reproduction?) And, yes, that female body is generally (although not always, of course) designed for reproduction.

But reading a source like this passage from the Levush is frustrating, because it just begs to be misinterpreted. Why should the reader analyze the text in depth, when it’s easier to read the material superficially and condemn it?

It makes me wish there had been female Torah authorities writing centuries ago; I believe they would have presented the same idea, but they would have done so with greater sensitivity…


  1. And yet of course there were no female Torah scholars writing works (that got passed down, anyway), precisely because of the superficial meanings we can find all about women's roles.

    Ironic, ain't it?

  2. Because every generation looks into the torah and sees a reflection of itself?
    Joel Rich

  3. And yet of course there were no female Torah scholars writing works (that got passed down, anyway),

    Oh c'mon, it is not like we say Shelo Asani ishah every day or anything. ;)

  4. I'm struggling to understand why you chose to not only post sources that are seemingly sexist, but to detail exactly how one could, if one wished, see those sources as such. Your own explanation of the Ramban suffices for you, but it is very easy for a reader to come out with the wrong message.

  5. Tzipporah-
    Are you sure that was the cause?

    Could you expand on that?

    I actually see that berachah as an unrelated phenomenon, having more to do with Christianity than anything else. See Micha Berger's comment, in the name of Rabbi Barry Freundel, here.

    I hear, but I disagree. In my opinion: Better for people to learn a source, hear that it does trouble us and see our resolution, than to portray a facade of all-is-well to the world.

  6. Earlier generations did not have a problem with this view of women, we do, so we pick understandings that reconcile with our view.

    Joe Rich

  7. Steg-
    Yes, actually. No matter the genius one displays today, it will never be taken as the equal of the genius of yesteryear.