I never though Rabbi Herschel Shachter of YU would be called a Feminist!
Apparently ORA and the Rabbis at a recent rally for agunot are doing a good job. If the charedi world is ranting about you on their blogs - you are probably making them anxious and making a dent. More power to you.
Looking forward to "Teaching the Rabbis" a conference I will be attending next week at Brandeis. I'm excited to be chairing a session as well. Will blog about anything new and exciting that catches my attention. Check out the schedule. If you are jealous- they are supposed to be putting a lot of the sessions up online.
We learn really slowly- but sometimes when you read the same daf over and over again it becomes like those pictures where a hologram jumps out of them.
Our topic is sex. And it is very tangible as the gemarah circles closer to the intercourse itself on daf 5-6. In asking whether losing your virginity (or breaking the hymen) is allowed on Shabbat, we are all lead to picture the actual act of sex. And lo and behold the gemarah is filled with phallic images.
The detour right before the Shabbat question is all about how the body is designed perfectly. It says if you are about to hear lashon hara you should put your finger in your ear. This is why your fingers and ears are shaped the way they are, says the gemarah. I couldn’t understand what this was doing here, until I read the gemarah for the enth time and it jumped out at me as a serious phallic image.
Then the gemarah begins working through Shabbat laws and how they relate to breaking the hymen. We are being led to imagine all the different problems on Shabbat - blood being released from the womb (a strange understanding of why some women bleed when they loose their virginity) or an opening being formed, a wound being inflicted. This section really leaves you confused envisioning sex, trying to figure out how the woman is shaped, where thy hymen is and where the Rabbis thought it was.
The gemarah compares our case to another Shabbat case, that of stopping up a hole in a barrel with a rag to prevent spillage. On the one hand this case struck me as inappropriate because we were focusing on creating an opening, letting out blood, or making a wound, not soaking a rag in fluid and squeezing it out which is the focus of this case. While we might have expected a case that had to do with wounding or breaking, this case of stuffing a barrel is surprisingly related as another super phallic image.
I am left wondering if the very act of sex is potentially questionable on Shabbat – not the breaking of the hymen alone but the penetration. The idea of penetrating a woman, of changing her status through the first act of sex, perhaps even exertion on the day of rest is one that raises questions about Shabbat.
Or perhaps the rabbis were just subconsciously using images that mirror the penetration they are envisioning.
I recently returned to the end of Ketuboth and was thinking about the movement or process of the gemarah. On daf 100b, after discussing the problematic case of a husband or wife who wants to make aliyah against the will of the other partner, the gemarah moves into discussion of Israel and how important it is. “One who lives outside of Israel is like one who has no God.” In some way this is an explanation as to why making aliyah is such a vital value that it is worth breaking up a marriage over, as if it were agreed upon from the start of the marriage.
As the gemarah is wont to do, one link leads to the next, and from the value of Israel we move to a story about Rabbi Zara, who wants to move to Israel, as he attempts to avoid bumping into his teacher Rabbi Yehuda, who believes such a move is forbidden. Their story is similar to the couple who are fighting over where to live; in the first, two spouses are trying to force their opinion on the other and in the latter a teach and student enter into a battle of wits to ascertain whether Rabbi Zeira is indeed allowed to leave his teacher and his yeshiva to go to Israel.
The discussion between the two Talmudic scholars brings us deep into yet a third related topic. The Rabbis duel over possible interpretations for a verse in Song of Songs “Oh maidens of Jerusalem, swear to me that you will not arouse love until it bursts (until it’s ready).” This mysterious verse is used by Rabbi Yehudah to prove that one is not allowed to move to Israel until God brings us back, until He sanctions the reunion- the end of the exile. Rebbi Zera believes an individual may make Aliyah, but the verse forbids the Jews as a Nation to end the exile by moving in mass to Israel.
Because the verse is repeated thee times and the poetic language speaks in double repetition there are in fact 6 swears that relate to the Jew’s suspended experience of exile according to Rabbi Zera. 1) The Jews sear not to recapture Israel, 2) they promise not to rebel against the non Jews in their exile 3) the non Jewish lords in exile swear not to oppress the Jews too much, 4)The Jews won’t reveal the end 5) they won’t push off the end, and 6) they won’t reveal the secret.
Some of these swears are as mysterious as it gets, but over all it shows a pull and tug between the Jews and God. It is no coincidence that Song of Songs is invoked here and though one might think we are far away from the original husband and wife in question we are in fact right where we began. Just as a wife may try to force her husband to make aliyah, the Jews want to make aliyah against God’s will. Even though it is clear to us in general and from these swears that God is in control, that the exile will not end until he says so- he cannot actually stop the Jews from going back to Israel. He has to rely on an oath and the hope that the Jews will keep their word. For all that God is in control of our destiny, the Jews keep pushing back, testing the limits always trying to reveal the end and bring it closer; moreover- according to these swears we have the power to delay the end as well.
If the process, the sugya brings itself to a new place and yet right back to where we started; it also brought me to a few other texts. One is a passage of Heschel in “Man is not Alone” where he says that our relationship with God is both “ultimate commitment” as well as “ultimate reciprocity.” In the context of this gemarah this means that we are committed to keeping our word and God is committed to protecting us in the exile, but just as he exercises a certain amount of power over the Jews, we reciprocally push back to have a say in our future. The warring couple as well have a relationship built on commitment, meaning if one half wants to move to Israel the other must follow; but also a relationship of reciprocity, whereas if the relationship cannot possibly stand the move then the other cannot be dragged- they must divorce if they’ve lost the element of reciprocity in the relationship.
I was also moved to think of this poem by Adrienne Rich. I would love to hear if any of you readers out there see the connections in this poem- or if I’m just on one of those frustrating Talmudic tangents.
“Trying to Talk with a Man”
by Adrienne Rich
Out in this desert we are testing bombs,
that’s why we came here.
Sometimes I feel an underground river
forcing its way between deformed cliffs
an acute angle of understanding
moving itself like a locus of the sun
into this condemned scenery.
What we’ve had to give up to get here –
whole LP collections, films we starred in
playing in the neighborhoods, bakery windows
full of dry chocolate0filled Jewish cookies,
the language of love-letters, of suicide notes,
afternoons on the riverbank
pretending to be children
Coming out to this desert
we meant to change the face of
driving among dull green succulents
walking at noon in this ghost town
Surrounded by a silence
that sounds like the silence of this place
except that it came with us
and is familiar
and everything we were saying until now
was an effort to blot it out –
coming out here we are up against it
Out here I feel more helpless
with you than without you
you mention the danger
and list the equipment
we talk of people caring for each other
in emergencies – laceration, thirst –
but you look at me like an emergency
Your dry heat feels like power
your eyes are stars of a different magnitude
they reflect lights that spell out: EXIT
when you get up and pace the floor
talking of the danger
as if it were not ourselves
as if we were testing anything else