“If we can’t talk about sexuality and sexual abuse in the synagogue community, then where can we talk about it?”
That is how Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum explained her choice on Friday night to dedicate her sermon at her Kehilat Zion minyan in Jerusalem to the topic of #MeToo and sexual abuse. I was so captivated by her talk – as I think everyone in the packed sanctuary was – that I almost forgot where I was altogether.
“With all due respect to the Toldot,” she opened, almost apologizing for the fact that she was about to discuss the topic she wanted to discuss rather than the topics traditionally mandated by the Torah portion of the week, in this case Toldot, “the entire Torah is ours, and we need to be able to live by all of it and talk about what we need to talk about.”
She is courageous, I thought, perhaps a premonition for what was about to come.
“I want to talk about Eve,” she began, “and why she spoke to the snake, and why she touched the Tree of Knowledge.” Many commentators have remarked that while God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree, Eve actually touched it, and things went downhill from there. A popular midrash says that Eve had added an extra restriction for herself, imagining that God said, "Don't touch the tree" rather than "don't eat." The snake then tricked her pushing her into the tree – and then when nothing happened, he said, “You see? You can touch, you can eat.”
But Rabbi Applebaum brought us another midrash that tells a different story. This particular midrash, which is found in Breishit Rabbi and attributed to Abba Bar Koria, says that Adam and Eve had just had sex for the first time, and Adam fell asleep. That’s when Eve went looking for someone to talk to, and found the snake.
“Why was she looking for someone to talk to?” Rabbi Elad Applebaum asked us. “Because Adam wasn’t there. He was sleeping. He wasn’t there for her when she needed him.”
She then went on to read more deeply into this scenario. “Imagine this. Her first sexual encounter. She was confused, she didn’t understand. Maybe something didn’t happen the way it was supposed to. maybe she was hurting. It wasn't good. We don’t know. Adam went to sleep. She is having a difficult time. What just happened?”
The midrash, and Rabbi Applebaum, were connecting the story of eating from the forbidden fruit with the first sexual experience of humanity. That is hardly a stretch. The innuendo is all over the text. Still, the details of this explication were new for me.
“What I’m about to tell you, you won’t find in any midrash”, she said. “It comes straight out of the texts of my life.” I was already entranced. Because I know that those absent texts, the ones of women’s actual lived lives, are usually the ones that speak to me the most. And help fill in so many blanks, so many holes.
“There are three possible reasons why Eve touched the tree,” the Rabbi said.
“One reason is that she wanted to eat something. Anything,” she said. “She was looking for something to make her feel better about her body. Like so many women and girls do after bad sexual encounters. They look to food to numb the pain. It is possible that what we are looking at the first eating disorder in the bible, in human history.”
Wow. Yes. There is so little discussion about the connection between sexual abuse and eating disorders. But it is one of the most important narratives we have about women’s bodies and pain.
“A second reason is that she knew that people who eat from the Tree of Knowledge were going to die,” the rabbi continued. “Maybe she wanted to die. This is also a very common reaction to sexual abuse. We may be looking at the first suicide attempt in human history, or in the bible.”
My heart was ripping open.
“The third reason is that maybe she was looking to talk to someone," she said. "She needed human connection, and Adam was sleeping, so all she had was the snake. But what she really wanted was to process her experiences with someone."
Rabbi Elad Applebaum added that there is a message here about touch. "Eve wanted touch. She wanted to know what good touch was. She needed to be touched. We spend so much of our lives talking about negiya, the prohibitions against sexual touching – which are important and definitely have their place – but we forget that people need touch. We have to teach what correct, healthy touching is. And if not here, then where?”
So grateful to Rabbi Elad Applebaum for doing this, for bringing this teaching in the way that she did. So incredibly grateful.