Jewfem Blog

Are women really desperate to get married? Rereading the Talmud, at my own risk.....

Maharashtrian women

It was as if I knew this was coming. It was almost fate speaking to me. After I disclosed my serious ambivalence about learning Talmud, because of memories of high school classes in Kiddushin (the tractate of betrothals) in which we would be inculcated with rabbinic declarations like tav l’metav tan du m’letav armelu, which is roughly translated that women would rather be married to anyone than to live alone, it was destiny that the next day I would be sitting in class discussing this exact text. You could not make this up. I am learning Kiddushin. The second chapter. Page 41 Side A. The spot which says, tav l’metav tan du m’letav armelu. I’m back here. Some kind of karma or self-fulfilling prophecy. This will either be a corrective experience or it will scar me for life. I went to my bookcase to find the volume that I used in high school. Of course I still have it. It still has the Yeshiva of Flatbush stamp on the inside front cover, “Elana Maryles 406”. I opened up the page and found all my markings and doodles and highlighting. I drew a lot of birds at the time, apparently. I have a vivid memory of my late Uncle Avi yelling at me for drawing on the pages of the Talmud. “It’s a holy book!” he screamed. I might as well have written on the Torah scroll itself. Ah well. At least the birds came out nice. Maybe the birds can be considered commentary. This is actually a pretty famous sugya, or section. It revolves around the issue of whether people can get engaged via messenger. The bottom line is that the man can use a messenger but a woman cannot, because while a man needs to check whether or not he likes the way the woman looks, a woman does not have the same need. That is, tav l’metav…. It doesn’t matter how the man looks because a woman, effectively, will take anyone. Literally, she would prefer to lay down with two bodies than lay down alone. Right. I’m still here. I haven’t run off yet in a screaming panic. I’m hardly the first person to comment on how awful this statement is. My brilliant friend Rivkah Lubitch –  who just came out with a really important book, From the End of the World till the End of the World, chronicling her work with women trying to get divorced in the Israeli rabbinical court (in Hebrew)– wrote a chilling midrash about this text.  The story of the tav l’metav text is actually worse. This statement does not only defend the idea that women do not have to see their groom before marriage. As Talmudic scholar Rabbi Professor Judith Hauptman writes in her book, Rereading the Rabbis: A woman’s voice, this tav l’metav statement is also used elsewhere in the Talmud as well to justify, effectively, rape.  “This statement also implies,” she writes, “that women prefer sex with any man to no...

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Returning to the Talmud, on my own terms

I’m studying Talmud again. It’s been a while since I learned at the full-time Drisha Talmud program (A while? Like 25 years!) It’s been even longer since I studied with Rabbi Harari at the Yeshiva of Flatbush (OMG, more like 33 years.) Maybe it’s like riding a bike and you never forget how. More likely, the way I am studying now is unlike any other way I have ever studied it.  It helps that I just finished reading Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink, an exquisite piece of literature in which the author uses the lens of her daily Talmud study – daf yomi – to reflect on the tumult in her life. In recounting passages about the destruction of the Temple, for example, she finds comfort for the dissolution of her marriage; in the Talmudic tractate of Yevamot, she finds her strength in women’s independence; from a bizarre passage about fish, she explores the depths of sexuality. She finds charm and complexity as only a voracious reader can. She sees comparisons between the Talmud and Shakespeare, Whitman, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. These allusions seem to come naturally to her, as they would to someone with this kind of life-long addiction to reading. She often uses her morning runs – before daf yomi class – as opportunities to memorize poetry.  Or, when she had a sprained ankle and was demoted from jogging to swimming, she would keep photocopies of poems in a plastic sleeve at the edge of the pool, pop her head out of the water every time she got to the wall, and memorize one line of poetry per lap. (Yeah, I know.) Her brilliance has not only given her an encyclopedic knowledge of literature that is rare today; it has also made her an exemplary interpreter of Talmud and a rich commentator on life. And by the way, what an extraordinary pleasure it is to read a book written by someone who so deeply loves books. I thought about Ilana Kurshan as I sat in my first class in Talmud 101 with Rabbi Dr. Alona Lisitsa at Hebrew Union College. The Talmud is not quite as charming for me as it is for Ilana. When Rabbi Lisitsa (who has a special place in my heart because she is the one who first invited me to apply to HUC rabbinical school, with the argument that it is the only place where Jews can be anything they want; evidenced by the fact that she herself completely adheres to halakha), when she went around the room asking us to describe our relationship to Talmud and what we expected from this course, I could feel my head start to spin. “I don’t like studying Talmud at all,” I admitted to my new colleagues, perhaps too honestly, suddenly realizing that I am about to reveal more about myself than perhaps I should be at this stage of Rabbinical School Year 1. Certainly, learning Talmud from Rabbi Dovid Silber and...

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