Worse Than Invisible: Ruminations on Woman and Talmud Torah

By Rabbi Sharon Brous | Issue Date: September 2001

I distinctly remember my initial reaction to the first Rabbinic text I ever learned: I laughed out loud. A young, searching Jew, I had traveled to Israel to study. I was naïve enough to believe that my community’s own sacred texts would promote the values that attracted me to Torah in the first place – like the notion that all people are created in the image of God and that the greatest human endeavor is the pursuit of justice. What I found instead was a rejection as harsh as it was personal. The text was an infamous story from the Jerusalem Talmud:

“A [wealthy] matron [of the Rabbinic academy] asked Rabbi Eliezer: ‘Why is it that there was one sin committed with the golden calf, and yet [we learn that] three punishments were meted out?’

[Rabbi Eliezer] said to her: ‘There is no wisdom in women other than the spinning wheel, as it is written: And all the women who were wise in heart spun with their hands (Exodus 35).’

[Rabbi Eliezer’s] son, Hyrkenus, said to him, ‘Why could you not answer her with some words of Torah? [Because she has been insulted] I will lose 300 kor in donations from her every year!’

[Rabbi Eliezer] said to him, ‘The words of Torah should burn rather than be taught to women.'”

(Yerushalmi, Sotah 3:4. A version of this story also appears in the Bavli, Yoma 66b)

Rabbi Eliezer was upset not because the question was insolent or unsophisticated. On the contrary, the narrative ends as his students approach him saying, “[Now that she is gone], will you answer her question for us?” The only thing prompting Rabbi Eliezer’s angry retort was the fact that the questioner had the audacity to be a woman. Had a male student asked such a question, he might have been offered a shot of whiskey and a le’hayim.

What makes the passage even more jarring is its historical context. The Romans had sacked the Temple, great Sages were brutally tortured and murdered, Torah scrolls were burned, the people were exiled and enslaved. The very survival of Judaism was at best precarious. And yet, the prospect of a woman asking a serious Torah question was so heinous that Rabbi Eliezer declared that he’d rather see the Torah burned than taught to women.

“Rabbi Eliezer never dreamed that I’d see these words,” I remember thinking. Having stepped out of a world of rigorous scholarship and progressive thought into one of unapologetic misogyny – laughter was the only reaction I could muster.

This was not, as I recall, the laughter that erupts in response to true, hearty comedy. Rather it was the sad, self-conscious laughter of a wounded spirit, and a broken dream.

It was precisely the great distance that I had from the text I was reading, from the Rabbis who wrote it and from the community of faithfuls who held it sacred, that allowed me to laugh in that moment. My profound sense that my destiny was linked to this text, these Rabbis, and this community, is what later prompted the elevation of my laughter into tears. From that day on, I never laughed again at such raw, unequivocal hatred in the texts. I only cried.

There is an old tradition of putting honey on the pages of the Talmud so that children studying can taste its sweetness before they even read its words. All of the honey in the world could not have sweetened the sting of my experience. Every few months since then I have encountered a text that I find literally paralyzing. Whether it is the anonymous musing that women are but blood and feces and yet all men desire her sexually, or the improbable analogy between women and salted meat in the butcher’s shop, each time I collide with such material I feel the sting once again. Today the pages of my Gemara wrinkle with the stains of years of tears.

Rambam’s very first halakha regarding the laws of Talmud Torah unabashedly confirms my suspicion that the Rabbis never intended their texts to be read by women. “Women, slaves and children are exempt from the obligation to study Torah,” Rambam writes. (Rambam, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:1) The most important thing that we need to know about the great endeavor of Torah study – is who is excluded from it. Women are patronizingly paired with our usual partners in crime and halakhic discourse: slaves and children, the Others, the p’turim (exempt ones). But unlike our compatriots, we do not have the ability to grow up and out of our damning status, nor can we achieve liberation at the yovel and acquire the privileges previously denied us. No, our alienation is singularly permanent and irrevocable, a reflection not only of our social standing, but also of our character. As Rambam revealingly notes: “most women simply do not have the mental capacity to learn.” (ibid, 1:13)

To make matters worse, women are more than just the class of people permanently barred from the culture of the beit midrash. In his reckoning of the laws of Talmud Torah, Rambam artfully crafts a system, a world, in which learning equals life. But the Rabbinic literature is littered with stories in which women’s voices and bodies, indeed their very presence threatens to distract men from study and prayer. (See, for example, Bavli, Brakhot 24a and Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:5) Consider the implications of such a portrait: If Torah is life, and women are obstacles to Torah, then women are obstacles to life itself! Woman, the embodiment of sexual guile, is worse than invisible – she is a force of destruction!

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.

But how do we approach texts that were never intended for our eyes, whose content periodically exposes serious distrust and even hatred of women? Some, arguably most, simply turn the page, unaffected by what they see before them. But for those who wish to seriously engage the text, for those who refuse to succumb to indifference, there remain a few alternatives.

One option is to apologize for the text: to read, reread, reinterpret, twist, tangle and manipulate both the words on the page as well as our own intellectual integrity in order to make the text “lovely.” Practitioners of this approach argue that the Rabbis believed that women were actually on a higher spiritual plane than men, and therefore did not need the privileges and responsibilities granted to men. They argue that our Rabbis were protecting us, not hindering us, when they restricted our learning and our dress and our speech. They argue that the Talmud was vastly ahead of its time in its promotion of women’s rights within the home, and that though our sacred texts are supposed to speak to all generations, it is inappropriate to read the Talmud through 21st century eyes.

This option strikes a dissonant chord within me. Twenty-first century eyes are the only ones I have. I do recognize areas in which the Rabbis were more progressive than many of our own contemporary political or religious leaders. However, I must remain critical and skeptical of any legal system in which the primary recipients of privilege are the very people who designed the law. I believe that our Rabbis would have wanted more than apologia from us – they would have at the very least demanded honesty. I believe that the greatest disservice that we can do to our great Rabbis is to withhold criticism from them when their words and actions call for nothing less. More often than not, apologetics cloak a reluctance to bring into our Jewish lives the scrutiny and intellectual rigor that we bring into every other sphere of our existence. I refuse to live a Jewish life that necessitates that I leave my heart or my head at the door when I enter the synagogue or beit midrash.

A second, and perhaps more rational option, is simply to walk away. This does not necessarily mean to leave Judaism entirely, but rather to develop a distant relationship to the text and its Rabbis. Proponents of this approach pull the Gemarah off the shelf when they need a nice story, but are not flustered by painful passages because they read with the understanding that the text, patriarchal and antiquated, is essentially irrelevant in our modern world. In other words, they treat the Rabbinic literature the way we’d treat an aging racist great-uncle, to whom we feel some familial connection, but who never ceases to embarrasses us with his outdated humor and inappropriate political ranting. Given the opportunity, we would always choose to spend our time with our young, hip cousins instead, paying homage to the uncle only when absolutely necessary.

This approach also leaves me dissatisfied, simply because I am too invested to walk away. I love Resh Lakish’s monumental transformation and Rabbi Yehoshua’s inner beauty and even Rabbi Eliezer’s struggle and torment too much to stand on the sidelines shouting “Patriarchy!” 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.

But neither can they disregard mine.

In the end, it is love that leads me back to the text. Love, and the fierce conviction that tikkun, healing, will come neither from silence, nor from clever apologies. Tikkun will come from crying sacred tears: from tearing off the bandage and exposing the wound and talking about it and weeping over it and screaming at it. Upon a recent encounter with an agonizing piece of Talmud, my hevruta questioned me, “Why are you still surprised by these texts? You know by now not to expect more from the Rabbis.” But I do expect more, and I hope to never lower my expectations. My tears have come to symbolize my spiritual mobility. I have not forgotten to be deeply alarmed and pained by hatred. I am still idealistic enough to cry!

And so I say: Through your tears, read! Let tears of anger and protest stain your Gemara and thereby heal both it and you.