Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, October 6, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland
…[A]t the time when the Holy blessed One created the world, God created first man, and when God saw that [this man] was alone, God immediately created a woman from the earth like him, and he called her Lilith, and he brought her to Adam. Immediately, the two of them began a quarrel. He said: “You will lay on the bottom.” She said, “You will lay on the bottom, since we are both equals. We were both made from the earth.” They would not allow each other to be heard. Once Lilith saw this, she uttered the special name of God, flew off into the air, and escaped…” (Eli Yassif, The Tales of Ben Sira in the Middle-Ages: A Critical Text and Literary Studies, (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1984), 231-232)
This midrash comes from a medieval collection called the Alphabet of Ben Sira. Lilith entered the popular imagination as a demon who endangered babies. This is why according to Ginsburg’s The Legends of the Jews, Jewish mothers placed amulets on the cribs of their children.
But the midrash begs the question, why? Why did we need this story about a first wife before Eve? The answer is that ancient and medieval scholars noticed, like modern critical scholars, that there are two very different Creation stories in Genesis. In Chapter 1 God creates the Adam, the human person, in God’s image, in the image of God created him; male and female God created them.” This verse suggests that male and female were created equally in the image of God. But in chapter 2 we read the story of Adam, man, created individually and alone and Eve was created out of Adam’s side as a partner. How to reconcile these two stories? One answer was, as Rashi, basing himself on a Talmudic source, suggested – that original Adam was of two faces – two beings in one, after which Eve was eventually split from Adam. Another answer was Lilith, a first wife who left. But both responses to this biblical disparity were employed to the detriment of women as equals: In the Lilith story, women who seek to access their equality are dangerous; in the story of Eve split off from initial Adam, Adam is primary and from the story of the forbidden fruit, made dominant as a result of Eve’s capitulation to the snake.
From our 21st century perspective, we acknowledge that the Torah is divine but affected and molded by human hands. Academic scholars in ancient Near East texts and culture, linguistics, archeology, and psychology and other disciplines as well have made it clear that the Torah that we have today is a product of the culture and society in which it developed. We know as well that our Judaism is an interpretive culture – we interpret, reread and reimagine our Torah in every generation – and those interpretations are affected by the society out of which the interpreter comes. To be a person of faith then is to believe that God’s voice can yet be heard over the human limitations, prejudices and biases that seek to explain the Ineffable ever since Torah was proclaimed at Sinai.
It is important for us to acknowledge that the voices that dominated our interpretations and re-readings were male. Men interpreting a text that was most likely initially told and collected by men. In recent decades however Jewish feminist theologians have endeavored to make that acknowledgement significant. They point out that masculine interpretations impact on how a culture sees and understands itself and how it effectuates behavior. Thus feminist theology and biblical interpretation has worked to offer alternative readings of our sacred texts.
Rachel Adler calls this approach “Engendering Judaism” also the name of her seminal book. She writes that “Engendering Judaism requires two tasks. The critical task is to demonstrate that historical understandings of gender affect all Jewish texts and contexts and hence require the attention of all Jews. But this is only the first step. There is also an ethical task.
That gender categories and distinctions have changed in the past tells us nothing about what sorts of changes we ought to make in the future. These changes must be negotiated in conversations where participants invoke and reexamine the values and priorities enunciated in Jewish tradition in the light of the current needs, injuries, or aspirations demanding to be addressed.” Such changes are complicated and fraught with uncertainty, they do not move in linear fashion, there is progression and backlash. Nevertheless, Dr. Adler explains why a feminist readjustment of our tradition is crucial:
“Regardless of its cultural specifics, gender has been used to justify unequal distributions of social power and privilege. Feminists view these power disparities as a moral wrong and an obstacle to human flourishing.
This moral evil can be overcome only with great effort because its distortions pervade social institutions, personal relationships, and systems of knowledge and belief, including religious traditions.”
What prompts these reflections on our tradition’s approach to women and feminist theology’s reactions, was watching the embarrassing spectacle of the Kavanaugh hearings last week. In many ways the story has become unpleasantly familiar for our society.
A woman came forward with a harrowing story of sexual assault against her by a man in power, held in esteem by colleagues and society. Initially the story was attacked as a fabrication, a desire to bring down a good man, and then followed attempts to willfully ignore it. However Dr. Blasey Ford was given the opportunity to tell the story publicly and she was taken seriously and seen as credible by many.
Now supporters of Judge Kavanaugh have focused not on the terror of being locked in a room by drunken football players and forcibly assaulted, but rather on a Kafkaesque horror of being accused of something you are innocent of without the ability to disprove the claims and losing all you have built up in life – your reputation, your professional success, your prestige.
But I saw something different.
I saw how even those who supported Kavanaugh believed Dr. Ford’s credibility and yet turned themselves in knots trying to create a narrative in which Dr. Ford told the truth but Judge Kavanaugh was not the perpetrator.
I saw a situation in which a woman who has achieved the very highest level of professional and academic success and achievement was constantly belittled as a “nice lady” or “that woman” who was delusional, while Senator after Senator was terribly concerned about protecting Judge Kavanaugh’s reputation.
I saw a man who insisted on his innocence as if it was beneath his dignity to have anyone question his version of events. As if it is axiomatic that a person who goes to exclusive private prep schools, goes to Yale University, becomes a federal judge always tells the truth and should be acquitted simply on the basis of his status.
What I saw more clearly than from any argument I have had with my kids about “the reality of the patriarchy!” (my kids were arguing that the patriarchy is real) was that, in fact, male domination and bias in our society has not moved all that much since Biblical and Medieval times. When Senator Klobuchar asked the obvious question about Brett Kavanaugh’s now well- documented heavy drinking as a teenager, “Did you ever blackout when drunk?”, Kavanaugh’s response was not a deferential, or respectful, “no”, it was an aggressive and insulting condemnation directed at Senator Klobuchar: “Did you ever blackout?” This was made all the more offensive in that she had just shared with him that her father was an alcoholic. And never mind the fact that had Dr. Ford responded to any of the questions put to her in such an aggressive manner, the hearing would have been immediately over and everyone agreed that Brett Kavanaugh was being brought down by a harridan.
But times are changing. Ironically, Bill Cosby, another powerful, beloved, accomplished individual who denied years of accusations by numerous women that he drugged and raped them and whose version was actively supported by almost all Americans, was convicted a week before these hearings. The Metoo movement like the movement against child abuse has taught us that sexual abuse is wide spread and to assume a presumption of truth to the accuser of abuse. This fall a record number of women are poised to be elected to seats of power in Congress and Statehouses.
Society and culture impacts on the foundational narratives that communities tell about themselves. But reinterpretations of narratives can also promote change in society. For us Jews enhancing the female voice in our texts can speed changes that we believe need to occur in our society.
Israeli Orthodox feminist Hayuta Deutsch, in an article published on the website of the Orthodox feminist organization Kolech in 2007, asserted that the dictum that men should rule over women is gradually being undermined, like the pains of childbirth and the difficulty of producing food. In our world, she declared, rebellion is considered essential to creativity, and it creates independence. “Modern agriculture, medicine, science and culture have, each in its field, eased the difficulty of removing bread from the earth, the difficulty of childbirth and its dangers, and life expectancy. There has even been a devaluation in the eternal “he shall rule over thee,” the governance of the man over the woman.” (Hayuta Deutsch, Kolech Pamphlet, no. 3 (2007))
According to Genesis, creating edible bread from the earth was to be a tedious and toilsome act that was a punishment for our disobedience in Eden. And yet modern science and agriculture have overcome that hardship to make food more accessible. Danger and pain in childbirth was Eve’s legacy of sin to women and yet modern medicine has made these dangers, still all too real, tragic episodes not common occurrences. Thus we too can expect that if we acknowledge the biases in our texts and in our society, if we determine to change our behaviors so that women are accorded the same respect and value as men, if are willing to treat bad actors appropriately for their transgressions and not give them a pass because “look how much that man stands to lose!”, than we will finally be able to actuate the verse in the Torah, “God created the human person in the Divine image, male and female God created them” as equals.