Reading the Rabbis in the Age of #MeToo
By Mika Ahuvia.
A few years ago, I was asked to contribute to a conference panel discussion of sexual violence in foundational religious texts, with particular emphasis on giving survivors resources. I decided to return to a text I’d studied years earlier in a progressive yeshiva, a text which had always troubled me. What stayed with me was the lack of sympathy for female victims of rape, the dismissal of the biblical heroine Esther as passive as earth, and the closing story of the Talmudic chapter, about a man who is wasting away pining after a woman who is not interested in his attentions (one twitter commentator recently likened this scenario to the alleged troubles of “incels”).
This sugya (“passage,” b. Sanhedrin 68b–75a) is a popular one for study in rabbinic schools of learning, wherein the ancient rabbis grappled with a severe biblical law that punished the willfully disobedient son with death. Their discussion touches on many social issues, but the topics of gender and sexuality tend to be neglected in classroom discussions and academic scholarship due to the uncomfortable misogynistic undertones of the texts. Years later, having completed a PhD in religion, researched sexual violence in early Jewish texts, and encountered leading scholars analyzing the “mechanics of misogyny,” I was ready to reexamine this text with a more critical approach in mind. I presented the results of my research in “Analogies of Violence in Rabbinic Literature.” In this blog, I summarize some of my findings, incorporate some comments I made at the panel discussion, and offer some teaching strategies in light of the #MeToo movement.
It’s not surprising that an ancient androcentric text would lack sympathy for the perspective of women. What is surprising is how easily that assumption of androcentricity can lead modern readers to misread ancient texts. Some sexist remarks seem so cliché to us that we don’t even notice how out of sync they are with contemporaneous ancient texts. I was interested in exploring these apparent clichés in light of what Mary Douglas called “analogical thinking,” where analogies “serve in place of causal explanations.”
Regarding the treatment of Esther in this sugya, for example: What could it possibly mean for the famous rabbi Abaye to call this biblical heroine karka olam (“natural ground”)? In context, it seems like it’s meant to exonerate Esther from the transgression of adultery or copulating with a gentile king, but it also strikes a blow at Esther who is an active savior figure in Jewish memory. At the time I read it in yeshiva, it seemed like a natural analogy: women as earth, matter, and passive and men as active. And reading those lines in classrooms, however “objective” one strives to be tends to reify stereotypes about women and their role in the world.
What I discovered upon closer examination was that this analogical shortcut is not biblical or rabbinic: karka olam is not applied elsewhere to women and furthermore, it is not typical of the way Abaye and other rabbis discussed Esther elsewhere. It appears that late redactors of the Talmud (so-called stammaim) have introduced something new here. In fact, in the ancient Near East world, in Sumerian hymns and late antique incantations, the comparison with the earth was an empowering one. “I am the wide earth that no man can overpower me,” states one Babylonian incantation written in the first person feminine singular in Aramaic.
Analyzing all the appearances of karka olam in the Talmud, the characterization of Esther elsewhere, and that incantation makes you realize the redactors were up to something else, but if modern readers assume Abaye means she’s a passive female, we don’t bother to look and then we’re inadvertently engaging in some old-fashioned sexism. There are important academic and historical reasons for juxtaposing the incantational text and the Talmudic text (same geographical context, similar Jewish Aramaic dialect), but I do not want to discount the psychological impact of this incantation, especially for women readers. We give a lot of airtime to texts that devalue women or exclude them altogether in the field of ancient Jewish studies.
As Gloria Steinem notes in a recent book, it is no wonder women become less confident the more educated they are; they are studying their own absence (My Life on the Road, p. 98). It is jarring to hear a woman’s voice in the study of ancient Judaism, even more jarring to hear a woman call attention to her power. And we need that, men and women, we need to be jostled awake once in a while by text. We need texts that help us notice what is missing as much as what is there.
In the final story that closes this section of the Talmud, the sages describe a scenario involving a man who lusts after a certain woman to the point that he is deathly ill and doctors and judges must intervene (the “incel” parallel mentioned previously, see Sanhedrin 75a): doctors and rabbis debate whether a woman ought to submit to a man with a life-threatening passion for her. Though the rabbis in the story are firmly against granting him his desire, the redactors of the story question the rabbis’ motives: Why couldn’t she just marry him, they ask? R. Isaac answers: “Ever since the day that the temple was destroyed, desire has been taken [from good men] and given to transgressors as it said ‘Stolen waters are sweet,’ (Prov. 9:17) etc.” The punchline of the story is that marriage would not have cured him because it’s transgressive behavior that’s thrilling. I remember reading this line in class and how there was a collective exhalation at this resolution of a difficult text: we could all understand it, all threads were seemingly tied up.
Only years later, I ask myself how I ever could think that was a natural or moral response. It centers male desire and makes a woman’s experience irrelevant to the conversation. It’s not far from saying sex without consent is thrilling too. Read in light of today’s news, it is terrifying. What this analogy accomplishes, especially when modern readers collude with it, is a normalized vision of the world where sexual violence is inevitable and women are invisible.
So what did the rabbis really mean with this closing quotation? It could be said that the rabbis were saying that this is the way of the world. Instead, it is important to stress that the rabbis were saying this is the way of the broken world, one without a temple, one out of touch with the divine. Where the ancient rabbis awaited the messiah and the olam haba (the world to come) for better conditions, we today have learned the hard way that we must be the change that we wish to see in the world. And to quote another rabbi who’s resurged in popularity lately, “it is not on you to complete the work, but you are not free to desist from it” (Mishnah Avot 2:16).
For teachers and readers of difficult ancient texts, I suggest four strategies: first, don’t look away from difficult text or accept their apparent sexism at face value. As I showed with the example on Esther, it is possible to trace the mechanics of knowledge production in antiquity if we pursue a feminist philology. Secondly, model a response of discomfort with misogynist texts and articulate a critique of them. This is how we make space for students to feel and to develop their own critical stance. Thirdly, bring in other voices: bring them from the non-canonical historical record when you can or from contemporary creative writers. If nothing else, pause for a moment and remind students of what is absent. Your own voice, the quotation of a contemporary scholar or bringing in poetry by women (as my teacher did in the yeshiva), can be just as powerful. Finally, give students the space and time to imagine an alternative future, one where we all look out for each other. This may be the greatest gift the world needs now: the ability to hope and to imagine a better world.
Mika Ahuvia is the Marsha and Jay Glazer Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies and assistant professor in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. She researches the formative history of Jewish and Christian communities in the ancient Mediterranean world. Specializing in Late Antique Jewish history, she works with rabbinic sources, liturgical poetry, magical texts, early mystical literature, and archaeological evidence. She teaches courses in Jewish Studies, Comparative Religion, and Global Studies.