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Men Behaving Badly

by Rabbi James Prosnit: January 2018/Kislev-Shevat 5778

Week after week, the story lines have been filled with revelations of men behaving badly. Sadly it is not new, but when the name is Weinstein or Lauer or Franken, instead of Cosby or O’Reilly, Clinton or Trump, some of us pay a little more attention and feel a bit more unnerved. We know that, for better or worse, Jews are like everyone else – but still we hope that there is something in our religious teachings that would prevent men from becoming pigs.

Sadly, that is not the case – and some might even suggest it’s to the contrary! They say, just look at the biblical tradition as an original source of the corruptive power men hold over women. They cite as case in point the Genesis narrative. It was Eve’s fault that Adam was tempted by the serpent’s machinations. Therefore, it is ultimately due to the woman’s sin that humanity has been banished from paradise and punished for disobedience. Genesis Chapter 3 states, “And to the woman, God said, I will make most severe your pangs in childbearing; in pain shall you bear children. Yet your urge shall be for you husband, and he shall rule over you.”

It is passages like this, some critics of religion say, that have long been the source of attitudes so demeaning to women. And while it may be hard to argue with this critique, I for one would prefer to side with those who try hard to reinterpret a verse like this in a softer light.

Let me suggest two from contemporary scholars.

Judith Antonelli, in a book entitled In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah, struggles with the Divine curse on Eve and admits that “this passage, more than any other, has been used to justify male dominance.” But she insists there is no reason for it.

After an analysis of the text, she concludes: “Thus at most, the passage only refers to women’s desire to have children in spite of the physical pain and the sociological difficulties they endure. It does not mean that women should obey men’s orders or want to be dominated.” To Antonelli this is not a question of demeaning women, only of recognizing an inescapable reality. The text is descriptive, not prescriptive. Pain in childbirth is strong and biologically part of the deal – yet the maternal instinct is stronger.

Another scholar Aviva Zornberg, takes a somewhat different tack in her interpretation in the book The Beginning of Desire. She focuses on the idea that pain is not so much in childbearing, but in childrearing – what the Talmud calls Ts’ar giddul banim, the pain of bringing up children.
Zornberg writes, “One might say that the difficulty in rearing children has to do with the ambiguities of independence.” The child must separate from the parent; the parent must allow the child to discover his or her reality. Where there was one, there must be two. But this separation, though necessary, is a complex and often tormented experience. The relationship between separation and living attachment has to be negotiated each time afresh.”

We all know it, for even if not everyone is a parent, each of us is or has been a child. Zornberg’s contention is that compared to the temporary pain of childbirth, the ongoing struggle of childrearing is a much greater burden for parents and child alike. Childbirth is not the curse of women that the Genesis story implies, but childrearing has remained the yoke of many, women and men. I, for one, don’t know many parents who ever cease to worry about their children, irrespective of their age and circumstances.
Now, some look at these two interpretations and call them apologetics. Some feminist critics suggest that the tradition is just so patriarchal that it’s beyond redemption and that scholars like Antonelli and Zornberg are up against too big of a challenge. But I tend to side with the two I’ve quoted and feel that it is our obligation to redefine and reinterpret those traditions through a new lens.

Thank God for the women commentators who are showing the way and making us aware that it is equally legitimate to read Torah differently so that we can glean meaning that speaks to us in our age. The biblical text can never be used as an excuse for bad behavior or actions that demean women. To suggest otherwise is a modern form of blasphemy.