In Those Days, at This Time
By Claire E. Sufrin.
The Jewish holiday of Purim fell this year on Thursday, March 21. The holiday celebrates the survival of the Jews of Shushan long, long ago as told in the biblical book of Esther. The story centers on Esther, a young Jewish woman, whose uncle Mordecai encourages her to compete to become King Ahasuerus’ wife, after his first wife Vashti is banished for refusing to dance naked at a party. The good-looking Esther is chosen, and once inside the palace, she is able to thwart the plans of the king’s vizier Haman to kill all the Jews. For a feminist reader, the celebration is marred by the uncomfortable reality that Esther’s access to the king rests on her sexuality and little else.
Thursday, March 21 was also the day that the New York Times published a long overdue article on Michael Steinhardt’s habit of sexually harassing women whose livelihood depended on his largesse. In everyday language, Steinhardt is a wealthy philanthropist. But the word does not capture the enormity of his financial contributions to Jewish life; in addition to various centers and institutions that bear the Steinhardt name (e.g., Steinhardt Hall, which houses the University of Pennsylvania Hillel), the website of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life lists 13 “Primary Areas of Focus” including the massive Birthright Israel, which has brought more than 600,000 young diaspora Jews to the State of Israel for a free ten day tour. It is safe to say, I think, that almost any Jew involved at all in Jewish communal life has been touched in some way by Steinhardt dollars. The word philanthropist also fails to capture the enormity of Steinhardt’s ego—as the New York Times reported, he proudly refers to himself as the King of Israel. And as the New York Times article also made clear, for every woman willing to speak on the record about having been propositioned by Steinhardt for sex or having been given a hard time for being single or childless in the middle of a professional meeting, there is a man willing to defend his comments as “jokes” that should be excused because of Steinhardt’s generosity. Because the organizations they worked with are dependent on funders like Steinhardt, complaints and his comments were, if not ignored, widely minimized.
The irony of women coming forward to unseat the King of Israel made public on a day celebrating a woman whose sexuality granted her access to the King of Shushan may have been lost on the news editors. But a widespread call for change across Jewish communal organizations is emerging in response.
By sheer coincidence, Thursday, March 21 was also the due date for final papers in my Gender and Sexuality in Judaism course, and I spent most of the afternoon grading. Many of the papers focused on traditional Jewish marriage and its central ritual, kiddushin, in which a man acquires a wife through kinyan, namely, by stating that she belongs to him (harei at…) and by giving her a ring. This transaction is further cemented in a document called a ketubah, which, in its most traditional forms, records that the groom paid a bride-price of 200 zuzim. (Those who know their Jewish holidays should realize that the exchange rate for a zuz is easily found in the Passover song Had Gadya, in which a goat is purchased for two zuzim.) While the ketubah was invented by the rabbis to protect women from being left penniless if they were divorced—it guarantees the return of the bride-price—the terms of kinyan mean that only husbands can divorce wives. When marriages go horribly awry, as they sometimes do, women can become trapped by their husband’s initial act of acquisition. There is even a Hebrew word for a woman in this situation: she is an agunah, which means chained.
In a text I read with my students from the anthology The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism, Bonna Devora Haberman argues that the act of acquisition that is the basis of traditional Jewish marriage is woven throughout Jewish culture. She points a finger at the horrific statistics available at the time (2009) about the crime of human trafficking (ie, the literal buying and selling of women) in and through Israel, the Jewish State. This is a brave claim to make and one that is hard to prove. She is certainly not saying that halakhah (Jewish law) allows or encourages Jewish men to traffic in women. (It doesn’t.) Rather, Haberman is pointing out that the objectification of women can be found in contemporary Jewish culture in forms that are both illicit (trafficking) and licit (marriage). We can arrest traffickers, try them in court, and throw them in jail. But as Haberman writes, “the recent awareness of the vulnerability of intimacy to gendered violations underlines the urgency to construct Jewish marriage as a more respectful partnership, worthy today of sanctification” (56).
Do I think that Michael Steinhardt consciously believes that women are objects that might be acquired by him or anyone else? No. He might consciously believe that women’s primary purpose is baby-making. But that aside, when we think about how we, Jews, might effect cultural change such that no one can dangle money before someone else and solicit sex from them, even “jokingly,” I think of kinyan’s place in the sanctioned tradition of marriage and the statement it makes about men and women even if many of us, the very same us who condemn Steinhardt, tolerate it all the time, at nearly every wedding we attend. Looking around my own Jewish community, I recognize that most of us who are married got married under these very terms even as we style our marriages to be equal.
Yes, it is time for institutional change. Marriage too is an institution.
Claire E. Sufrin is Associate Professor of Instruction and Assistant Director of Jewish Studies at the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies at Northwestern University. Her research and teaching focus on modern Jewish thought, theology, and literature. For more information, see clairesufrin.com.