Jewfem Blog

From Weinstein to Trump to the Talmud: Lessons on being a woman in this world, then and now

Don’t embarrass important men. Don’t ruin things – for others, for yourself. And anyway, maybe what you think you experienced didn’t really happen. Maybe you’re just making it up. Let’s move on. There is important work to do, important issues to discuss. Let’s not waste time on these trivial matters. On your personal agenda. Enough with that.

The sexual assault allegations against high profile men that have been coming to light – Weinstein, Ailes, Cosby, Trump, etc etc etc – have been shedding light on some of the many ways in which our society uses, silences, and shames women. Women are too frequently seen as sex objects or servile –  no matter how talented, smart or accomplished we are. When we speak up, we are often not believed. We need sixty other women to say the same thing before our stories are taken seriously. And when we do speak, we are often encouraged to stay silent for the sake of the project, the business, the community, the greater good, whatever. Anything but our own needs and our own well-being.

But these dynamics are hardly new. I am discovering as I reopen the centuries-old Talmudic tomes that form the basis of Jewish and arguably Judeo-Christian thought, that the subsuming of women’s needs and desires is an old practice. We have been thrown under the bus for a very long time.

This week, I read a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud about spirituality that I was keenly interested in. I am a lifelong student of comparative religion, and this passage, which discusses the character traits of the person deemed most fit to communicate with God, addresses topics that are often on my mind. What does it mean to be a spiritual being? What concepts of leading a good life or being a good person are universal? I suppose I am searching for an understanding of humanity that crosses cultural boundaries. This text speaks to that, so I was engaged.

And then came the bit about women, and I stopped short.

The passage (JT Taanit 1;4) brings a series of anecdotes about practice of fasting for rain. When there was a drought in ancient Israel, the religious leadership would call for fasting in order to speak to God – first individuals would fast, and then if things didn’t improve, the entire public would fast. So the Talmud asks the question: Who are those righteous individuals who can speak to God and get the job done? The answers are given via a series of stories with men who are deemed to have qualities of righteousness, and some of these answers are surprising.

The first story is about a man who refused a request for money because the funds in question had been set aside for tithes. The rabbis were so impressed with his commitment to charity that they said, “You should pray for rain.” That is nice and makes sense. It is about generosity, honesty and integrity, considered here to be the basis of a person living in the image of God. Lovely.

The next story in this thread is about a man whose profession is described as “donkey owner”, who was rumored to be able to pray for rain. The rabbis called him in for a meeting, and in order to ascertain the source of his reputation as a rain-whisperer, they said, “Tell us something good that you have done.”

“Well,” he said, “once I rented my donkey to a woman, and I heard her crying. I asked her why she is crying and she said that her husband is in prison and she does not have the money to bail him out. So, I sold my donkey, gave her the money, and said to her, ‘Go get your husband. Just don’t sin’.” By “sin”, he meant, you know, don’t become a prostitute. Because that is what women do, you know, when their husbands are in jail and they have no money to bail them out.

Anyway, the rabbis were so impressed by this story that they said, “You should pray for rain.”     

The first time I read this passage, I liked it. I thought, this is a story about basic compassion. The rabbis are placing the highest premium on human empathy. This man effectively sold his entire business (his donkey!) in order to help a woman who was suffering.

This text confirms what Professor Karen Armstrong, a leading thinker on religion and spirituality, always says. She argues that compassion is at the root of all religions and spiritual practices, the idea of being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel their pain. That is what this story is about in its most basic reading, and it shows the rabbis of the Talmud valuing that quality above all else. A simple donkey owner can have direct access to God and his own internal divine spark by demonstrating that kind of compassion.

Nice, I thought.

Until I read the next passage. And then the parts of the story that I had skimmed over the first time started to bother me.

The next story is about another guy whose name, “Pantakaka”, is Greek for “five bad things.” He was also rumored to be able to pray for rain, so the rabbis called him in and asked him what he does for a living. He replied, “I sin five times a day.” Yes, his profession was officially “sinner”.

What were his sins? 

“I train prostitutes, I clean the theater, I bring their clothes to the laundry, I supply dancing for them, and I play the drum for them,” he said. What this sounds like is that he ran a kind of brothel/strip club, or whatever the equivalent would have been back then.

The rabbis, presumably surprised by this answer though their reaction is not recorded, asked him, “Tell us one good thing that you have done.”

“Well,” he said, “I was cleaning the theater and this woman was crying behind the beam. I went over to her and asked her why she was crying, and she said, ‘My husband is in prison and I don’t have the money to bail him out.’ So I sold the bed upstairs and told her to bail him out. Just don’t sin.”

Right. So now the thread is a little bit more complicated because there is something else going on beside compassion. Certainly in the standard (i.e., patriarchal) interpretation, the strip-club story is an even more beautiful story than the donkey-owner story. This guy is not only a simple guy, but also an actual out-and-out sinner! The overriding message is that even people who seem like they are the worst people in the world are capable of having direct connections to God because, well, compassion! This is yet another story about a man who is so sympathetic to the plight of another human being that he is willing to sell his business (the bed upstairs) in order to alleviate her pain. Beautiful. Compassion! Right?

Well, I could have perhaps left it at that except that there were too many commonalities between the donkey-owner and the pimp to stop there. It’s not just the act of compassion that is being repeated but a few other bits as well.  

The first similarity is that both stories are about men who gave up their businesses. Their parnasa, their livelihood, the only question that the rabbis asked them about before the inquiry about why they were considered so “good”, is a standard measure of a man’s worth – then and now. It is an aspect of a man’s life that is most commonly considered a reflection of his masculinity, how well he can “provide” for the women and/or children in his life. Both stories are about the abdication of parnasa, and hence masculinity, an act that would seem crazy, except that it was lauded in the end.

The second similarity is that they gave up their businesses to rescue a poor, unfortunate woman. They didn’t rescue another man, or a child. They rescued a crying woman. A perfect damsel in distress!

And what did they rescue her from? This is also the same in both stories, almost word for word. The woman’s trouble was that her husband was in prison and she had no money – both indications that she had the unfortunate luck of being stuck to a man who is not a real man. He is not a provider and not at home and not even able to get himself out of prison. The donkey owner and pimp felt bad for a woman because they – true men because they are committed providers – understood how awful it is for a woman not to have a real man at home.

Poor women, to be married to guys like that. They are not real men! They don’t know how to provide!  In both cases, the hero of the story gave up his own needs to step in for the man who wasn’t being a man, to provide for the poorest of the poor, a woman who has no provider, and to try and get her provider back from the dungeons. The donkey owner and the pimp are heroes. Heroes! Real men!

The story is in some ways about compassion, but on a deeper level it is about providing. It is about men. It is about men acting as providers. Specifically, it is about men being providers for women. Men who understand that their role is to be providers – and protectors, and heroes – for women, are the ones deemed by the author of the Talmud to be closest to God, most aware of their true role in the world, and hence most able to pray for rain.

Now this segment in the Talmud starts to make sense. We are talking about rain. The need for rain is specifically about the need for sustenance. The entire question here is about who can best talk to God about the importance of sustenance. Who? Men who on the one hand are committed to working and providing – no matter how uneducated or unskilled they may be – and on the other hand are willing to give that up for themselves in order to provide for the poor women who have nobody to provide for them.

 I understand why the rabbis would consider these guys good representatives to talk to God. It’s like they are saying to God, “If I can bend over backwards to make sure that even the lowest of the low are provided for, so can you. So how about that rain?”

But this story is not about any poor, desolate soul. It is specifically about women, and how our role is perceived – then and now. It is about women as props in the stories of men. It is not really about what we want for ourselves, but rather how we enable men to fulfill their fantasies about being a real man.

To really understand what it means for women to be props in the story about men and masculinity, we have to pay attention to the final part of the story that appears both times that I have just sort of skimmed over until now. And that is the punchline: Just don’t sin.

Why do the men finish their stories with this line? Why isn’t it enough for them to just help the women? Why do they have to nail this exchange with this admonition not to “sin”, that is, not to be prostituted?

Put differently, if you were getting help from someone, and that help was couched in a severe reprimand or warning, what would that tell you about the person’s motives in helping you? It would probably make you take a step back and wonder.

Are the heroes in the story –the donkey-owner and the pimp – rescuing the women because they feel the women’s pain? Possibly a little. In both cases, the men describe hearing the woman cry. That is not nothing. But there is more.

If the motive was simply to eliminate the women’s pain, the story would have stopped with something like, “Get your husband back, and have a great life!”  

If the motive was to help the woman back on her feet, the heroes could have offered the women a job – or, in the second story, pay the woman more for the services she was already providing. (He was, after all, still her pimp.) But that wasn’t the point.

The men’s motive, ultimately, was to keep the woman from sinning. Which meant, prostitution. Because, you know, poverty is bad but hooking is really really bad.  

The men were less concerned about the woman’s well-being and more concerned with the well-being of society. That is, the motive was to prevent the community from having a hooker in its midst. (Even though that line makes no sense in the pimp’s story because in she was already working in his “theater”. It seems like the editor of the Talmud was more interested in drawing parallels between the two stories than in thinking through the hero’s logic.)

These stories, then, are about the heroism of men who are willing to give up their role as providers – or rather, replace who they are providing for from their own families to the lowly wife of the convict – in order to protect the community from having sinning women in its midst.

Heroes! Perfect for talking to God! They really know what they are doing.

And the women in this text? We are not complex beings with ideas, identities, dreams, ambitions, abilities, or professions. We are wives of, dependents, ones that need to be rescued and saved. But also: we are the danger. We are the ones who risk bringing the entire community down into sin. I mean, sure, the guy is a pimp, but that is not the real danger! She is! The WOMAN must not sin! Women crying we can deal with. Women being independent, or making money –  especially with their bodies  -- not so much.

There is nothing in this segment that comments on women’s lives as women might experience them. The text is not the least bit critical of women’s absolute dependence on men.

There’s more. There is also no questioning whether women can be prayers or supplicants or have relationships with God. There is no discussion about whether women can have characteristics favorable for prayer – even though, ironically, in these stories, we actually see women praying. They are both crying out for help! And – wait, help actually arrives! They cry for help and get rescued! Actually, they are very good supplicants. But that is absolutely irrelevant in the telling of the stories. Because these are not stories about women as human beings. They are stories about women as toys in the way men manipulate the world and describe their own greatness, not women’s.

These stories, then are perhaps about compassion on the surface. But dig a little deeper and they are really more about the rabbis rewarding men for being men. And being men means fully embracing their role as financial caretakers of women. Be the provider. Be the rescuer. But make sure you keep the women’s sexuality intact.

Sound familiar?

It should.

This is the same language that we here today coming from politicians throughout the world, but especially the United States. Keeping women’s sexuality controlled and contained is often deemed the top priority. Keeping women out of poverty is not. Keeping men as providers is vital. Enabling women to be independent and provide for themselves, not so much.

Examples from American Politics 2017 abound. Restrictions on women’s reproductive rights – abortion, birth control, health care – are a much higher priority than enabling women to work. Equal pay, day care – these are not even on the table.

And most of all, the man who sits in the White House has admitted to groping women. Sixty million people who voted for him decided that these admissions are not a problem. For all these people, the sexual abuse of women is beside the point. Like all the people who continued to work with Harvey Weinstein even though they knew what he was doing. Just make the movie. Business as usual. Women’s needs? Come on!

I thought about all this as I read interpretations of this text that made no mention of the gender issue, even a text written by a woman Talmudic scholar. Like, gender is just not the point. Then I thought about it some more and discussed this segment with some friends. I brought the text first as an example of the value of compassion, and then I said, “But you also have to look at it with a gender lens.” One by one, the people around the table rolled their eyes at me.

Again? Like, really again? Why do you have to do that? Why do you have to ruin a great text by bringing in this trivial thing about gender? Can’t you just leave it alone? Why do you always have to talk about women?

Exactly like that. That is the dynamic that is thousands of years old. Throwing women under the bus for the sake of the greater good. You know, don’t we have bigger issues to talk about than some woman whose husband is in jail. Who cares about her? Let’s just love and admire the text.

Again. Like that.

Reminding me again that women’s needs come after everything else. Everything else.

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