Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Miss Bingley and the Beit Hamikdash


Soon afterwards [Miss Bingley] got up and walked about the room. Her figure was elegant, and she walked well; -- but Darcy, at whom it was all aimed, was still inflexibly studious. In the desperation of her feelings she resolved on one effort more; and turning to Elizabeth, said,

``Miss Eliza Bennet, let me persuade you to follow my example, and take a turn about the room. -- I assure you it is very refreshing after sitting so long in one attitude.''

Elizabeth was surprised, but agreed to it immediately. Miss Bingley succeeded no less in the real object of her civility; Mr. Darcy looked up. He was as much awake to the novelty of attention in that quarter as Elizabeth herself could be, and unconsciously closed his book. He was directly invited to join their party, but he declined it, observing that he could imagine but two motives for their chusing to walk up and down the room together, with either of which motives his joining them would interfere. ``What could he mean? she was dying to know what could be his meaning'' -- and asked Elizabeth whether she could at all understand him?

``Not at all,'' was her answer; ``but depend upon it, he means to be severe on us, and our surest way of disappointing him will be to ask nothing about it.''
Miss Bingley, however, was incapable of disappointing Mr. Darcy in any thing, and persevered therefore in requiring an explanation of his two motives.

``I have not the smallest objection to explaining them,'' said he, as soon as she allowed him to speak. ``You either chuse this method of passing the evening because you are in each other's confidence, and have secret affairs to discuss, or because you are conscious that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking; -- if the first, I should be completely in your way; -- and if the second, I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire.''

``Oh! shocking!'' cried Miss Bingley. ``I never heard any thing so abominable. How shall we punish him for such a speech?''


Why was the first temple destroyed? As punishment for three sins committed by the children of Israel.


As for the sin of improper sexual conduct – what was it?

As it is written: "Because the daughters of Zion are so vain, and walk with their heads thrown back, with roving eyes, and with mincing gait, making a tinkling with their feet" (Isaiah 3:16).

Because the daughters of Zion are so vain – A taller woman would deliberately position herself next to a shorter woman so that she herself would appear even taller.

And walk with their heads thrown back – They would walk with straightened posture.

With roving eyes – They would wear blue eye make-up so their eyes would look larger.

With mincing gait – They would take small steps, walking heel-to-ankle, so as to attract the men around them.

Making a tinkling of their feet – They would lodge perfume between their toes and kick up their feet whenever an attractive man passed by, thereby infecting him with the evil eye, like cunning vipers.

* * *

"I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire
And the ashes
Of the burning temple."

Monday, June 19, 2006

They Might Be Giants

Is anyone else amused by the convergence of Daf Yomi and Parshat Hashavua?

This week in shul I leyned Bemidbar 13:22: "They [the spies] went up into the Negev and came to Hebron, and there were Achiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the offspring of the giant." At the time, I didn't think much of this pasuk, except that I had to take extra care to pronounce these unusual names correctly.

But then on motzei Shabbat, when I was walking along Derech Hebron (truly!), I ran into Achiman, Sheshai, and Talmai again. I was listening to daf yomi (or Daf Yoma, as it were) on my headphones, where my very Ashkenazis-sounding podcaster was teaching about the "kohayn guddle" and the "lishkis farhedrin." We somehow made our way from the corruption in the "lishkis farhedrin" (where the "kohayn guddle" sequestered himself for seven days before Yom Kippur) to the reasons the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed to a list of the places where the Shechina is present. This list of places turned into an explanation of interesting names in the Torah – and here is where my Canaanite canine Cerberus reared its three heads again. The Gemara teaches:

"ACHIMAN was given this name because he was the rightmost (yemin) of the brothers (achim).
SHESHAI was given this name because he made the land into pits (shchitot).
TALMAI was given this name because he made the land into furrows (t'lamim).

ACHIMAN built the city Anat;
SHESHAI built the city Alush;
TALMAI built the city Talbush.

They were the offspring of giants because in their great stature, they wore the sun like a necklace (anak)."

Were there really giants in the land of Israel? Were Achiman, Sheshai, and Talmai really so large that they wore the sun like a necklace just as God wears the light like a garment? Were the ten spies justified in quaking in fear; or did Caleb and Joshua instead speak the truth?

Rabbi Meir Schweiger of Pardes offered an interesting drash this week on the report of the ten spies. They tell the people, "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." If you feel like you are no taller than a grasshopper, says Rabbi Schweiger, then other people will look at you is if you are two inches tall. The ten spies, although they were princes and chieftans of their tribes, did not think highly of themselves. In their own eyes, they could not make the leap of faith necessary even just to unscramble the r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r.

Joshua and Caleb had no problems gathering into this leap. Caleb had the confidence to hush the people and say, "Let us up, yes go up, and conquer the land, for I think we can, think we can do it." And Joshua may not have been tall enough to wear the sun like a necklace, but he was able to stop it in its course to conquer the city of Jericho.

We might be giants, too.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Sotah, the Leper, and Shakespeare's Macbeth (Ketubot 77b)

The final sugya of the seventh perek reminds me of the witches' song in Macbeth:

1 WITCH. Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one;
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot!
ALL. Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2 WITCH. Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing,—
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
ALL. Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

In our sugya, too, the rabbis are preparing a mysterious concoction. Here is the most literal translation I can manage: (I was unable to replicate the tetrameter.)

Take grasses and walnut shells and lilies and red date calyxes
And cook them together--
And bring the man [i.e. a man afflicted with leprosy] to a house built of marble
Or to any sealed house--
And pour 300 cups of this mixture over his head.
Open his skull and find the lizard inside
Put myrtle leaves under the legs of the lizard
Then grab the lizard with tongs, and burn it.

The concoction described here on the last daf of Ketubot is supposedly the cure for leprosy, which is the main subject of the sugya. Perhaps you are wondering: How is leprosy relevant to Masechet Ketubot? I will backtrack a little to the top of the amud.

The rabbis ask, "In what cases do we force a husband to release his wife from their marriage and give her the ketubah money?" They answer that there are certain types of individuals with whom we don’t expect any woman to be able to abide. One of those types of unbearable husbands is the "mukeh shchin," the one with a bad skin affliction. The Mishnah teaches that even if a woman says she is willing to live with a husband who is "mukeh shchin" we don't let her do so, because his illness prevents him from being able to have proper marital relations.

The Gemara then brings a brayta from Rabbi Yossi, who notes that there are 24 types of skin disease. The one that most impedes sexual relations is leprosy [ra'atan]. Having now arrived at our subject, the rabbis present us with a leprosy Q &A of the kind you might find in a dermatologist's waiting room:

Q: How does one become a leper?
A: If a man and wife engage in bloodletting and then have sex, their children will be lepers.
Q: What are the symptoms of leprosy?
A: Teary eyes, runny nose, noxious breath, infestation with flies.
Q: What is the cure for leprosy?
A: Take grasses and walnut shells and lilies and red date calyxes… (see above).

This informational Q & A is then followed by a series of admonitory sayings attributed to individual rabbis, all (but one) of whom were concerned to protect themselves from lepers. This section, which unfolds like a mishnah in Pirkei Avot, includes the following statements:

Rabbi Yochanan would say, "Stay away from the flies that are found around lepers."
Rabbi Zeyra would not sit anyplace downwind from the place of the lepers.
R. Elazar would not enter the lepers' tents
R. Ami and R. Asi would not eat eggs that came from their homes.
[But] R. Yehoshua ben Levi would sit with them and teach them Torah
He used to quote the verse, "A loving doe, a graceful mountain goat" (Ayelet ahavim v'ya'alat chen).

Only Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi (who is featured in the rest of the amud) was not afraid of the lepers. In fact, he took it upon himself to teach them Torah, and he cites a Biblical verse to defend his actions. He explains, "If gracefulness protects those who learn Torah, should it not protect me as well?" The verse he cites is Proverbs 5:19. When I looked up this verse and read it in context, I began to develop a theory as to what is really going on in this sugya. In fact, the context is so crucial (as I see it) that I am including the full sequence of verses here, Proverbs 5:18-20:

Find joy in the wife off your youth.
A loving doe, a graceful mountain goat.
Let her breasts satisfy you at all times;
Be infatuated with love of her always.
Why be infatuated, son, with a forbidden woman?
Why clasp the bosom of an alien woman?

The verse about the loving doe, like the sugya on leprosy, is flanked by a discussion of marriage. Just as the subject of leprosy comes up in a sugya dealing with the cases in which a man is obligated to release a woman from marriage (given that he is unable to have sex with her), the verse from Proverbs arises amidst a discussion of permitted and prohibited sexual relationships: A man is encouraged to find continued delight in the wife of his youth, and not to go off in search of other women.

Immediately upon contextualizing this verse from Proverbs, I thought of the Sotah. The Torah uses this term to refer to the wife who is suspected of committing adultery. This woman -- who allegedly fails to find delight in the husband of her youth and instead goes off in search of other men -- is subjected to a highly ritualized treatment not unlike that of the leper:

"If any man's wife has gone astray and broken faith with him . . the man shall bring his wife to the priest . . . The priest shall bring her forward and have her stand before the Lord. The priest shall take sacral water in an earthen vessel and, taking some of the earth that is on the floor of the Tabernacle, the priest shall put it into the water.

After he has made the woman stand before the Lord, the priest shall bare the woman's head and place upon her hands the meal offering . . . And in the priest's hands shall be the waters of bitterness, that induce the spell.

The priest shall adjure the woman, saying to her… 'If you have gone astray while married to your husband and have defiled yourself…may the Lord make you a curse and an imprecation among your people, as the Lord causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend.' He shall make the woman drink the waters of bitterness that induces the spell." (Numbers 11:5-24)

The eye of newt and toe of frog have become the walnut shells and lilies, which have in turn become sacral water and earthenware. The witches' cauldron has become the lepers' sealed room, which has in turn become the floor of the Tabernacle. These similarities are not coincidental, I suspect. Both the leper and the Sotah are sequestered in a private location and administered their respective concoctions to determine whether they are fit to return to their spouses. In each case, we create a liquid solution in the attempt to avoid marital dissolution: If only we can prove the woman innocent, then she can return to her husband; if only we can cure the leper, then he can return to his wife. And so we pour the walnut shell mixture over the head of the leper, and we force the Sotah to drink the waters of bitterness.

I used to find the Sotah passage troublingly misogynistic. It is nice to know, I think, that there were cases when men were forced to undergo a similarly humiliating treatment. Of course, the best solution is not to require these liquid solutions at all, but to "remain true to the [spouse] of your youth." Who has time for all of that toil and trouble, anyway?

Keeping Pace with the Rabbis (Ketubot 66a)

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and specter-thin, and dies,
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs.

--John Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale"

The Talmud brings an amusing story in the context of discussing the following two Biblical verses:

"And you, o mortal, groan; with tottering limbs and bitter grief, groan before their eyes. And when they ask you, 'Why do you groan,' answer, 'Because of the tidings that have come.' Every heart shall sink and all hands hang nerveless; every spirit shall grow faint and all knees turn to water because of the tidings that have come." (Ezekial 21:11-12)

Here is the Talmud's story, paraphrased. The beginning sounds almost like a "man walks into a bar" kind of joke:

A Jew and an idol worshipper were walking down the street. The idol worshipper was not able to keep pace with the Jew, who was walking quite quickly. And so, in an effort to slow down his companion, the idol worshipper casually mentioned the destruction of the Temple. After all, does it not say in Ezekial that bad news makes knees turn to water? And what could be worse than news of the destruction of the Temple? Unfortunately for the idol worshipper, however, the Jew continued to walk just as quickly as before. The idol worshipper was puzzled. He asked the Jew, "But don't you say that groaning weakens a person? How are you able to keep walking so fast?" The Jew responded, "Only when we groan over new news are our bodies weakened. But the destruction of the Temple? We've known about that for years."

After learning this sugya today, I was walking down the hill from Rehavia to the German colony with my chevruta. In my rush to get back to work, I was at least three steps ahead of him. His comment to me was all-too-predictable: "Ilana, don't you remember that the Temple was destroyed here in Jerusalem?"

This story resonates for me with experiences outside of Israel, too. I think back to high school, when my family lived next door to our synagogue. One summer, the synagogue building was under massive construction: they were removing asbestos and replacing the roof. On a particular night that summer, my (non-Jewish) friend and jogging partner called me to ask if I wanted to meet the next day on the high school track. "Oh, I can't run tomorrow," I told her, recalling that it was erev Tisha B'av. "It's a fast day." She asked me what I meant. Why did I have to fast? "It's a Jewish holiday," I told her. "We're mourning the destruction of the Temple." There was a slight pause, and then my friend said to me, "What? It was destroyed? I thought they were just doing construction!" I groaned, and my knees may have even turned a bit watery. But when we met two days later, I think I still outran her.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Menu for dinner this Friday night

Squash, melons, onions,
Garlic and leek.
Shriveled in gullet,
MAHN HU, so to speak.

My twins, coriander
and bdellium, cry--
Give us this day, God,
Our daily get-by.

Ground it in millstones
Or boil in a pot;
Pound with fine mortar
Or leave out to rot.

Till we, huddled masses,
your riffraff, set sail--
But first, reap the heavens!
(Dear, floss after quail.)

From out of our nostrils
"Enough!" we howl, lest
The graves of our craving,
Like dew, manifest.

ink 7.vi.06

lazarus macbeth stevens dew upon their feet shall manifest

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Great Divide

I recently heard Tova Hartman speak about Orthodoxy and feminism. She made one point that continues to rankle me: She asked that Conservative and Reform Jews consider the tremendous value of the mechitzah as a means of demonstrating sensitivity towards those with an "untraditional family structure." One of the benefits of the mechitzah, she insists, is that it means that families are broken up in shul. Most significantly, wives and husbands are prevented from sitting together. This means that single people (or those who are widowed or divorced) look no different from anyone else – since married people, as well, are sitting on their own. This also means, she added, that those who have recently lost a spouse will not find it as difficult to return to shul, since they would not have been used to sitting with their partner anyway.

I find Dr. Hartman's words troubling on many levels. Most basically, she is confusing an incidental byproduct of the mechitzah with the essence of the thing itself. Yes, the mechitzah breaks up husbands and wives – but that doesn't mean that husbands and wives have to (or will elect to) sit together when there is no mechitzah. In my minyan in Jerusalem, Kehillat Kedem, couples rarely sit as a unit. (Often this is because we are so small that either he or she is leading davening or leyning or serving as gabbai at any particular moment!) I agree that there is value to sitting as individuals in shul – it helps keep our focus on God rather than on the person sitting next to us – but we don't need the mechitzah to ensure that this is the case.

Second, in terms of her comment about people who have recently lost a spouse, I seem to recall learning last year in the third perek of Moed Kattan (ah, my limited Gemara knowledge!) that people are supposed to change their seat in shul after they have lost a loved one. Such a loss is so devastating that it is impossible for anyone to return to the same place as before – and so mourners are expected to relocate themselves as a way of symbolically registering the enormous change that has taken place in their lives. Dr. Hartman's point about the value of continuity is thus inconsistent with tradition itself.

Furthermore, Dr. Hartman's whole argument smacks of apologetics for a system that objectifies women and places them out of the realm of the proverbial male gaze. I used to think that, in principle, I had no objection to the mechitzah – but I felt that there was no such thing as "separate but equal." If there were a mechitzah that truly placed men and women side by side and granted them equal participation in the tefillah, I would not be opposed. So I used to think. But a recent conversation with a friend who has spent long periods of time in both mechitzah and non-mechitzah minyanim changed my perspective.

My friend noted that the interpersonal erotic element is actually heightened when individuals are grouped by gender. "When all the women are sitting together on the other side of the room," he said, "of course you want to look over there. You keep wondering who is there, what is going on….it becomes so clear that there is this group of people that you are not supposed to be looking at, and so that is naturally where your eye (or at least your mind) wanders." I think he makes a good point. When men and women sit interspersed in shul and participate equally, gender becomes a total non-issue. If gender has nothing to do with where we sit or whether or not we can be called up to the Torah, then we are not men or women but human beings. I believe that it is in a fully egalitarian, mixed-seating minyan that the most powerful connection can be forged between us and God. Only in such a setting is the eroticism that exists between "the men" and "the women" transferred to the eroticism that ought instead to exist (in a davening context) between people and God.

My friend also pointed out that while Dr. Hartman's comment may reflect a desire to remain sensitive to those with "untraditional family structures," it is also grossly insensitive to homosexuals. What is the effect of a mechitzah on a gay or lesbian person? Or on a gay and lesbian couple? How alienating must it feel to come into a shul where people are separated based on an assumption (i.e. heteronormativity) that completely ignores your experience of the social reality! The solution, as I mentioned above, is not to separate by gender, but to encourage couples (whether male-female or male-male or female-female) to break up for davening purposes and sit instead as individuals – with liberty and justice for all.

Incidentally, I should note that the Jerusalem minyan in which I feel most UNcomfortable is the minyan that Dr. Hartman founded, Shira Chadasha. Here men and women are separated by a mechitzah and particular tefillah roles are reserved for either men or women. For instance, a woman always leads kabbalat Shabbat and a man always leads maariv. To me, this is the worst option of all. Nowhere am I more conscious of my gender and of the gender of those around me than in Shira Chadasha. Why should it matter whether a man or woman leads kabbalat Shabbat? Is there something about kabbalat Shabbat (and I don't mean Shabbat here!) that is inherently feminine? When I go to shul, I don't want to be thinking about being a woman; I want to be thinking about God. The purpose of tefillah is to forge a connection between me and God. If I can't even transcend my gendered experience, how will I possibly achieve this ultimate transcendence?

I seek to experience the presence of God. This is the reason that I daven, and this is the reason that I daven in an egalitarian minyan.