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

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.kiddushin 41a my high school copy

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 sex at all.” (p. 143). I bet Harvey Weinstein has been telling himself the same thing for years. 

As I described last week, my teacher is giving us tools to understand the motives of the Stama Gemara, the editor of the Talmud. He has a theory about this passage which has to do with the rabbis’ desire to define what a mitzvah is, or a commandment. He bases his position, in part, of the strange usage in the text of the word “assur” – “forbidden” –  in a statement by Rabbi Yehuda derived from Rav, which states that it is forbidden for the man to betroth the woman before seeing her, “lest he see in her something revolting and becomes repulsed by her.”  My teacher has a whole theory about the agenda of this passage that, remarkably, has nothing to do with gender.

Well, obviously I think that this view is missing something. Clearly, it is missing the perspective that comes from women’s real lived lives. Because in my life, and the life of the millions and billions of women that came before me, an agenda of defining the meaning of a commandment is little – tiny, miniscule – relative to the enormity of the agenda of taking control over women’s volition, especially in marriage.

To me, this is completely transparent. It is crystal clear to me that the agenda of this entire passage is that final stamp of tav l’metav, to make Jews everywhere internalize the idea that women are so desperate to get married that what they want isn’t really that important. Even if later on the rabbis will say that marriage requires women’s consent, it will be many hundreds of years before women’s consent in divorce is even considered, and even then, it is a passive, easily avoided consent – even until today. Yes, even today, the idea of female desire in marriage, divorce and sex barely register in Jewish law. If you want more details and proof about this, and about the evolution of Jewish law on these issues, don’t trust me. Read Judith Hauptman’s book. And if you want real life examples, read Rivkah Lubitch's book. Or Susan Weiss' book. They are all telling the same story. The rabbinical need to retain the gender hierarchy in marriage and divorce is as potent today as it was then.  

The idea that women’s volition must be weaker and less significant than that of men in all things regarding marriage, divorce and intimacy is a crucial underpinning of marital relationships in Judaism. It is the principle that rests at the core of the agunah issue, where women are stuck in unwanted marriages because only men have the right to grant a divorce. And it is at the root of the way girls are socialized from the youngest ages into believing that marriage is everything, that serving men is our job, that we were planted on this earth to please the men in our lives.

This is not a theoretical, abstract notion. This is men with authority (rabbis) wielding power over the women in their lives in order to retain a status quo that keeps the power hierarchy the way it is, the way it is good for men, especially at home, where men want to keep  being king.

It’s like what Ahashverosh said to all the men in his kingdom when he dismissed Vashti for being disobedient. “Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest…. He sent dispatches to all parts of the kingdom, to each province in its own script and to each people in their own language, proclaiming that every man should be ruler over his own household, using his native tongue.” (Esther 1, 20-22)

There is nothing more important to the men of the Talmud than for each to be “ruler over his own household”.

And isn’t it obvious that this is the point of the text?

I suggested this in class and my teacher dismissed me. He thinks I’m being irrational. That I’m not reading the text carefully enough. That I don’t have enough proof. My opinion is probably not grounded enough in academic rigor. 

My life is my proof.

He then said that there is something in the Gemara that really bothers him. The Stama asks how the Mishna can say that a man can use a messenger for betrothal because, as Rabbi Yeduda in the name of Rav said, that might mean that he won’t see her before marriage and that’s bad because she might look disgusting in his eyes. But my teacher says, who says that the betrothal is the first time that they see one another?

So I suggested that there seem to be two different cultural assumptions, one in the Mishna and one by the Stama. The Mishna obviously did not assume that the betrothal was the first time they met, while the Stama does assume that the betrothal is the first meeting. Remember that these are two different texts from probably centuries apart and likely different regions – Babylon versus the Galilee.

I have a unique perspective on this based on my work with women. I explained in class that this cultural difference is significant even today. It reminds me of an anthropological project I am currently conducting with a group of Indian women from remote rural areas of Maharashtra who moved to the slums of Mumbai to find a better life. (Yes, I actually do hold a doctorate in anthropology from Hebrew University with a specialty in gender and education, and I have written three books on gender and society. As it happens.) Anyway, so I am in the middle of writing a book about this group of women, about their lives and their cultures, where they came from, what they are doing now, and what their dreams are.  I have been interviewing them for nearly a year, and I was in India in March spending time with them, and this is a remarkable, eye-opening experience for me.Maharashtrian women

One of the things that I discovered about the women is that not only were they all married in their early- to mid-teens, but they also did not see their husbands until their wedding day. None of them. None of the women met their husbands until they were already dressed and at the reception. These are women who are now in their 30s and 40s, most of them younger than me.

When we talk about this, the women are unlikely to express forceful criticism of their culture, because they are not socialized into that way of talking. Instead, their feelings come out when they discuss what they want for their children. I ask, “Do you want your children to be able to marry for love?” and they laugh. Oh, no, that is far off. Maybe our grandchildren will marry for love, but we’re not there yet.

However, they add, most of the women do actually want their daughters to meet their grooms before the wedding. The girls should be able to give their consent.

This is a very important insight. The pathway from no-meeting-until-the-wedding until love-marriage is a big leap. And, like so many other areas of social change, it is more likely to happen in stages.

The women are showing me the stages in the revolution around women’s marriage. First give women the right to consent. Then eventually, let them choose for themselves.

When my teacher asked his question about how the Stama could think that there is no meeting of bride and groom until the betrothal, the answer to me seemed obvious. That was clearly the culture he was living in. He didn’t even have to explain it. By contrast, that was not the assumption of the Mishna.

Or, alternatively, the Mishna did not have the notion that a man must have consent in order not to find the girl repulsive. That is also a possibility. The first possibility fits in with what I heard among the women of Maharashtra, India.

Either possibility, though, points to cultural change, or cultural differences.

 And in both cases, the change was not linear. It was not a case of time moving forward and ideas becoming more advanced. Actually it sounds like the ideas were regressing when it comes to the status of women.

This is a vital point to remember. Just because society advances in some ways – technologically, economically –  it doesn’t mean that the status of women necessarily advances along with it.

I was reminded of this a little later in the same class. We read the famous Tosafot (12th-13th century Europe commentary) on this sugya, in which they describe that in their community, they allow the betrothing of minor girls, even though the Talmud strictly forbids it. “Hagalut hitgaber uleinu”, they write opaquely – the exile has overwhelmed us. Whether this refers to economic hardships or fears for their security, it is not entirely clear. The assumption in class was that this is a statement about poverty. In any case, the commentators claim that whatever the hardship was, betrothing girls would help matters. Or perhaps that betrothing girls is a necessity.

I pointed out to my teacher that the Tosafot take us backwards in terms of the status of women in marriage. He laughed. He said, no, no, this is just an economic reality. It is normal, he said, for us to take into account economic realities.   

And then, to my utter surprise, a man in the class piped in, “I really understand the Tosafot,” he said. “As a father of daughter, I can understand wanting to set your girls up early, making sure they have security.”

Yes, that really happened. I wish I were making this up.

A male classmate said that he understands why a man would want to set up a girl under the age of 12 in marriage for the purpose of economic security.  This  really really happened.

And then class over, and I went on with my day.

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