Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Thoughts and Texts

I awoke on Sunday with an earworm from the Book of Amos (*).  Maybe it was matza overload ("hunger for bread").  I kept hearing the song:

יא  הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים, נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה, וְהִשְׁלַחְתִּי רָעָב, בָּאָרֶץ:  לֹא-רָעָב לַלֶּחֶם, וְלֹא-צָמָא לַמַּיִם--כִּי אִם-לִשְׁמֹעַ, אֵת דִּבְרֵי יְהוָה

11 Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a hunger for bread, nor a thirst for water, but [a famine] of hearing the words of GOD.

The confluence of my youngest son's transfer to public school, with my mother's recent illness and death, has meant that I have been reading more Jewish texts than usual.  My son and I study Torah and Mishna together, and I was part of groups learning Psalms and now Talmud, in my mother's honor and memory. (**)

Just last week, I began to teach Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) to my youngest, as my father taught it to me and my sisters.  Going in, I was pondering the popular parts of the text, including the secrets to wisdom (learn from every person) and wealth (be happy with your portion).  And of course, Rabbi Hillel's timeless wisdom about urban snow-shoveling:

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתַי    1.14
1.14  He [Rabbi Hillel] used to say: If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?
And then, with my Cambridge-raised innocent child by my side, I came upon:

1.5  יוֹסֵי בֶּן יוֹחָנָן אִישׁ יְרוּשָׁלַיִם אוֹמֵר, יְהִי בֵיתְךָ פָּתוּחַ לִרְוָחָה, וְיִהְיוּ עֲנִיִּים בְּנֵי בֵיתֶךָ, וְאַל תַּרְבֶּה שִׂיחָה עִם הָאִשָּׁה. בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ אָמָרוּ, קַל וָחֹמֶר בְּאֵשֶׁת חֲבֵרוֹ. מִכָּאן אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים, כָּל זְמַן שֶׁאָדָם מַרְבֶּה שִׂיחָה עִם הָאִשָּׁה, גּוֹרֵם רָעָה לְעַצְמוֹ, וּבוֹטֵל מִדִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, וְסוֹפוֹ יוֹרֵשׁ גֵּיהִנָּם

1.5  Yose ben Yochanan, man of Jerusalem, says, "May your home be open wide, may the poor be members of your household and do not increase conversation with the woman." They so stated with his wife; all the more so with the wife of his friend. From this, the sages said, "Any time that a man increases conversation with the woman, he causes evil to himself and neglects the words of Torah; and, in his end, he inherits Perdition."
It was hard to know how to handle this - censoring it would go against everything I believe about speech being best countered by "more speech".  Explaining that some people were sexist in the olden days seemed like my best bet.  A few days later, I came upon a wonderful column in the B'nei Jeshurun blog, "Worse than Invisible:  Ruminations on Women and Talmud Torah" .  The whole piece bears reading, but here is a sample:

Why should women or feminists even bother engaging a literature that is so antithetical to our values, that so undermines our sense of self? We continue to learn because we believe that Talmud Torah is the gateway to Jewish life; that Talmud Torah, as Yeshayahu Liebowitz wrote, “makes the Jew a partner in the cultural legacy and spiritual program of Judaism.” (Leibowitz, Yeshayahu. Amudim, No. 449, p. 267) Because we know that to deprive women the gift of Torah study is “a negation of a basic Jewish right,” (ibid, p. 168) beneficial neither to Jewish women nor Jewish men, and in fact destructive to the community as a whole. Those who affirm the importance of women’s study believe that our lives are intricately tied to the lives of those who came before us and that, as Jews, that eternal connection was established and is perpetuated through our sacred texts. We also know that we can neither criticize nor transform that which we do not first know intimately.
So...this is something to think about.  I don't remember now, how my father dealt with these passages, as he read to his daughters, "don't talk too much with women" - not only did this statement insult his entire family, but he is in any case a self-declared feminist who would object to such a sentiment in general.  Perhaps he will read this and comment!

When Jewish texts contain misogynist passages, they are not merely problematic because of surface content, but also because of the not-so-subtle message:  the writer and the reader are expected to be male.  Likely married males, and tangentially, married males with adequate funds.

Teachers and learners in the modern era are supposed to be attuned to cultural privilege.  What is the "hidden curriculum" in classes or books about who is entitled to learn?  This is an important part of exposing students to content in ways that will support and nourish them as learners.  As a physics teacher, I am expected to find examples for momentum and force that do not make assumptions about my students' gender, race, sports knowledge, or other cultural markers.

So I'm repeatedly irritated and surprised that more teachers in the Orthodox world haven't raised more objections to using misogynist texts.  What do they say?  What do they do?  I have not read or heard of satisfactory answers on a large scale.  However, since I am external to that world, I am free and empowered to name the problem - and revisit why my ancestral text might have been written as it was. The B'nei Jeshurun blog continues:

I love the teachings on justice and liberation too much to abandon the texts to those Jews who read with blinders on – those who are not scarred by the chauvinism etched on its pages. I recognize the Rabbis as deeply wounded individuals, disempowered by the political world, attempting to grasp control where they can: in the religious and social spheres. But wounded though they are, they remain my family, my community, and I therefore cannot disregard their voices.
And this made me more sympathetic - these men who wrote our ancient texts were, in some cases, exerting power over the only people left under their control.  Not a pretty conclusion, but easier to explain to my kids.

Which then reminded me of this week's Torah portion:  Acharei Mot.  We previously read about the seemingly-divine deaths of Aaron's sons, after they brought "strange fire" to the altar.  I am tempted to assume that their deaths were accidental, as a result of playing with fire (in imitation of their elders).  However, the parsha this week details extensive penitence rituals, including those presumably undertaken in an attempt to find absolution for the boys' sin.  And this parsha's content is one of the major sources for traditional Yom Kippur liturgy.

Losing a child must be the most horrible thing that a parent can experience; losing a parent is hard enough, even though that is the "natural" way of things progressing.  My recent experience has bludgeoned me with reality on this point, unfortunately.  I miss my mother so much, and even though her death was expected, and even though our grief began during her long illness and suffering, it is still hard to face the finality of mortality.

And, human to human, I can understand the efforts that Aaron felt he had to go through, to re-exert control over his religion and his idea of God.  This is extended to the parsha's odd inclusion of a list of sexual instructions.  Again, it is Aaron's attempt to exert control over uncontrollable impulses and people, in the desperate hope of avoiding tragedy, which he would have viewed as divine punishment.

Others have said it more elegantly before me, but it seems clear that we have to acknowledge cultural baggage that surrounded the writers of our texts, in order to get the most out of studying them.  It's a good thing that my religion enjoins people to struggle and engage, instead of requiring only surface reading.


(*) "Amos" is pronounced in our family the Hebrew way, i.e. so that "Famous Amos" cookies are as un-rhyming as the kosher product slogan "Reach for Rokeach".

(**) A shout-out here to the Koren publishers (no affiliation with me), who have been releasing wonderful and fairly-priced Judaica for years, but increasing their scope.  Some of their newer hard-bound editions are now available in Hebrew-English on amazon, and I have been pleased to expand my library.   I also like that while on amazon, I can order a tikkun for my boys that includes a table of contents and some more instructional material, unlike the old "black tikkun" that we grew up with - that I like to refer to as the "ha-mei'vin yavin tikkun" because it is so obtuse.

No comments:

Post a Comment