Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Red Tent- Rethinking Jewish Women and Other Contemporary Issues

Red Tent - Rethinking Jewish Women and other Contemporary Issues
  Vayishlach 2014
            I am so happy that Lifetime is airing The Red Tent. Not because it is the greatest piece of television drama ever made—We are waiting see Christian play Moses the Hebrew in Exodus for that—but because it gives me a reason to go into the issue of the status of women in Judaism and from that how we come to our standards and positions on all modern issues while trying to remain loyal to the foundations of Judaism.
            To start quite simply, so much of the story of Jacob is as well the story of the relation of man and woman. Last week, we had Jacob working for the two wives, Rachel and Leah and the competition between the two of them for Jacob’s love.
            I mentioned a popular Israel song , by Ehud Manor, who tries to turn history on its head: Jacob sings ” Ani Ohev Otach-Leah”.” I love you, Leah!”
Et oto haboker lo esh'kach . . .
That very morning I won't forget /when you hid your head in the pillow
the sunlight rested on the tent/and my head is beaten by drunkenness. . .
Behold, many days passed/and my hands grew tired
and how beautiful your eyes/like Rachel's eyes.
I love you Leah/love you proudly/if I forget you Leah/my name isn't Yisrael.”

            This portion is full of the troubles between male and female.
            In this portion, we have the story of the rape of Dinah, the only known daughter of Jacob, by the young prince of Shechem, and then the horrendous massacre under the ruse of peace, of the town’s folk by Jacob’s sons, Simon and Levi. When their father protests, they retort” Ha ke Zonah Yaaseh Ahoteynu”—Would they make prostitutes of our sisters!
            As much as the bloodshed is abhorrent, the victim is innocent in the Bible. She is defended. Not so in the Middle East of today. This is form CNN about Saudi Arabia, from a 2007 report of how rape is handled:
“The case, which has sparked media scrutiny of the Saudi legal system, centers on a married woman. The 19-year-old and an unrelated man were abducted, and she was raped by a group of seven men more than a year ago, according to Abdulrahman al-Lahim, the attorney who represented her in court.
The woman was originally sentenced in October 2006 to 90 lashes. But that sentence was more than doubled to 200 lashes and six months in prison by the Qatif General Court, because she spoke to the media about the case, a court source told Middle Eastern daily newspaper Arab News.”(CNN report).
At least our Jewish Bedouins understood that the victim of rape is not the guilty party!
            Jacob then goes through the loss of his mother’s nursemaid, Devorah; it is an emotional trauma as he calls her burial place” Alon Bechut”,” The Oak of Crying”. It only gets harder, because he next loses his beloved Rachel, just as she gives birth to Benjamin.
            In next week portion, it is now Joseph who is assaulted and almost raped by Potiphar’s wife and then he is thrown in jail as he takes the fall for her. You can see that abuse can be a two way street, as happened recently in the unfounded rape accusations at UVA ! Next Judah has an affair unknowingly with his own daughter-in-law; she unjustly accuses her but she now proves to be the righteous one in this case! What a twist!
            It is all in the family. Who needs a soap opera or a TV melodrama when the original is so convoluted.
            I don’t need to go into the details of the TV’s drama, which is based on the book, The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. While she tried to reflect life as it may have been some 3600 years ago in a shepherd’s encampment, it is, like all Bible dramas, a rewrite of long-lost times through the lens of todays’ presumptions.           
            Everyone likes to rewrite Bible in their own perspective, and certainly feminism and the change of women’s status is an understandable perspective. It is not just on our side of the Bible. As much as the figures of our side of the book are family figures, with such human foibles, on the Christian side of the divide, Jesus is portrayed as immune to being mired in family affairs. He is born free of original sin, which includes what we call in Jewish terminology, the Yetzer Hora, human libido. That means that his representatives must themselves be celibate and unmarried.
            That’s why people jump today at the prospect that they may find hints of a personal life for Jesus. For example, recently, an ancient Coptic fragment of an original text of the Gospels was discovered, and it revealed Jesus referring to Mary, perhaps Mary of Migdol, as his wife. Ah, wonderful, headlines, Harvard Review, TV documentaries, publicity. Except it was a fake and the accusations are flying as to who created the forgery—those who want priests to marry, such as liberal Catholics or Mormons, or those who want to defend the prohibition on women as priests and celibacy and planted it as a trap to embarrass the liberals.
            Frankly, as Jews, we are constantly rewriting the Bible from a 2nd century perspective, or an 11th century perspective or 18th century or 21st.
            There is a phrase that is very appropriate. It is “ Dor, Dor, v’ Dorshav”, a play on sounds: Generation after generation and its interpreters.  The big difference, for us as Jews, in dealing with our Scriptures, is that we claim the concept of Torah She Bikhtav, the Torah,as it is written, and Torah She Ba’al Peh, The Torah as it has been explained over the generations. It is a revolutionary concept, because it allows us to separate the text, the Pshat, from the meaning, the Drash. It is the joker card in the deck.
            There is no question that the position of women in Judaism changed in many ways over the centuries and that “ Dor , Dor v’Dorshav”—each generation’s interpretation is legitimate because it arises in response to its needs.
            Let’s go back to Dinah—she is by the way, a very central character in this TV drama. She is described ” Va Teytzey Dinah bat Leah” .” And Dinah daughter of Leah who was born to Jacob went out to see the daughters of the land.”(34:1) This is in and of itself from the perspective of the Bible narrative a very understandable action--understandable for the people who lived in the time of the Bible. They were still to a great extent shepherds or farmers and in such a society, a woman could, like Devorah, give commands to the generals in battle or go out a herd the sheep themselves.
Our Rabbis however, were merchants to a great extent and they lived in cities. Life in cities was very much more constricting for women than it was in agricultural or sheepherding society. The shift was expressed already in Proverbs ,”Kol kevudat bat melech pnimah”, “The glory of a princess is within her home.” In other words a woman of status did not go out into the streets; her life was in the house especially if she was of a prominent family. Maimonides, very much the rationalist, who is seen as the intellectual father of modern Jewish thought, taught that a proper Jewish woman should not go out of the house more than once a month!
For that reason when the Torah says “Dina went out” it raises a question. What is a good Jewish girl doing out to the streets on her own?
The Rabbis further asked “ why is Dinah called the daughter of Leah”. Don’t we already know it?”
            So they say that in this way, Dinah is like her mother Leah, because Leah is also described as going out to greet Jacob with almost the same wording, when she has the mandrake roots she got from her sister Rachel and goes out to greet Jacob and take him into her tent. The Rabbis next raised the question, “Does that mean that our mother Leah is a prostitute”? They are quite flustered at this and solve the problem of Leah’s case, because she was going to do a mitzvah and she was rewarded with male sons. In Dinah’s case, with the same word for going out, it was clear she was not going to her husband! She was going out on the town with the local girls! A shande!( Talmud Megila 18 a).  
            Today, in our economy and society, we would be absolutely incapable of understanding this perspective. We are used to the idea of an ideal Jewish woman as Golda Meir, commanding forces, like Deborah of old, in war.  Indeed, except for the very few die-hards among Haredim,  the ultra-Orthdodox minority,  even among the ultra-Orthodox, Jewish women are very much on the outside. The dean of the Orthodox college that meets downstairs is a woman and even in Hasidic circles, it is common for the woman to be the one to put the bread on the table.
            Even in Rabbinic law, there are now women in the  Rabbinic courts in Israel who are “ Toenet Rabbanit”—Legal advocate in Rabbinic cases such as divorce.
            You can see from this how a change in history and economics changes the perspective of the woman’s status. Even for those who follow the idea of the eternity and immutability of Jewish law, Tempus Mutandis, times change, or, in the Rabbinic phrasing,”Hamakom gorem v hasha’ah goremet” Time and place determine the application of the law.
            Let’s go back to Dinah and going out and about town.
             In Jewish society, men and women led separate lives. It was especially so in the synagogue, which was seen as the man’s territory.
            This separation of the sexes was so strong in Jewish circles, that the Reform movement, the embodiment of liberalism, in Germany, still kept women in the balcony till the Holocaust. An American Jew, it is said, came to Hamburg, the seat of militant Reform, around the 1840’s, and offered a million marks donation if they would allow mixed seating. The Rabbi rejected it as an insult.” In the Hamburg Temple, men and women remain separated to the very end!”
            It was only when Reform came to America, that things shifted. American Protestants also had separate seating and the idea of mixed seating, what was called family pews, spread slowly. Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise tried to push mixed seating in the choir,  but ”the girls objected strenuously to sitting among the men!”  The first synagogue with mixed seating came about by accident when his synagogue in Albany moved into a former church building and the seating style had no setup for separating men from women. Mixed seating did not become prevalent in Conservative circles until the middle of the 20th century, when the great scholar and defender of traditional Halacha, Prof.  Louis Ginsberg, essentially threw in the towel on the battle and declared,”when you have lived long enough in America, you realize that the status of woman has changed so much that separating women from men has become obsolete.”(from Jonathan Sarna , in Jack Wertheimer’s The American Synagogue). Now, it is accepted to have women as Rabbis, women as Cantors.
            You can see how much has shifted and how much our Jewish perspective has changed in the course of a century and a half in regards to women. In the perspective of Jewish history, this is considered an overnight wonder!
            So, we approach a time and a place, in which not only women’s issues but many other critical issues, much more critical than when we open the ark, are at hand. What is family, what is life and death, and soon, we may be asked, what is human versus machine. Can we provide answers to life’s critical issues?
            I want to approach in future discussions, what we mean by Jewish law and custom, what remain permanent and consistent and what has been subject to change, and what we mean by Conservative Judaism, which has as its motto, the contradiction of “Tradition and Change.”

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