Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Who Will Be Mine for a Day? (Yevamot 37b)

My translation from Ruth Calderon's
Hashuk, Habayit, VeHalev: Aggadot Talmudiot (Keter, 2002)

When Rav would come to Darshish, once or twice a year, the whole synagogue would get caught up in a frenzy of excitement, and Rav would lock himself up for hours in the study house to settle matters of law that had been left unresolved. On Shabbat he would come up to pray in the synagogue at the top of the hill, from which the whole town could be seen with its houses, yards, orchards, and gardens. Through the screen marking off the women's section, I saw him stand before the ark to lead the congregation in prayer. His body was erect, his form splendid in a robe of fine stitching, his bright forehead unblemished by sun -- and all the men clustered around him as if he were a prince.

On laundry days among the women, I heard rumors that they were looking for someone to serve as Rav's wife for the duration of his visit to our town. And so when the synagogue beadle came to talk to me in my backyard four weeks prior to Rav's visit, I knew what he had come to say. He found me with my sleeves rolled up and my hands buried inside a basket of laundry, delighting in the pleasant odor of clean clothes and the warm sun that would dry them well. I was not so young anymore; eight years had passed since I had been widowed.

At first, I let the beadle stammer in embarrassment about the role they needed me to play, and hint at the assistance I would receive from the community, and at the amount of ketubah money I would receive if the rabbi should elect to divorce me after the fact. I requested some time to think over the matter, and I sent the man on his way. While lying in bed that night I resolved that I would accede -- because of the money, and because of what people always say: "Two is better than one." And because it had been years since I had known the feel of a man's caress and the smell of his breath, and I yearned for those days again.

The next day, when the beadle returned, I nonetheless gave him a hard time before agreeing to his terms, lest I seem overly eager. He conveyed a few strictures that I had to be sure to keep so that I would be pure in advance of the rabbi's visit. His concern that I might begin to bleed as a result of excitement and anticipation seemed rather excessive, if not downright amusing. Nonetheless, I carefully calculated the days of my menstrual cycle as if I were a young bride. They would open the ritual bath especially for me in the darkness of night so that no one would see me.

The days raced by. On the eve of the rabbi's arrival, word spread that he had permitted the remarriage of two "chained widows," women who had lost their husbands in the flooding of the river. A wave of grateful approval washed over the community, and even I was enchanted by the news. As the rabbi stood at the head of the synagogue giving his talk, his wandering gaze stopped at me for a moment. I felt drawn to his image, together with the rest of the community. From my place among the women, I felt as if my mourning clothes and head scarf began to blush. A forgotten feeling awoke inside me. I wanted to get closer to him.

After the talk, during the reception, Rav was surrounded by a crowd that sought his blessing and kissed the palms of his great hands. The leaders of the community allowed for one moment of respite from the crowds, and on the terrace of the synagogue, amidst a great sea of people, I stood there before him.

I heard him turn to the surrounding men and ask: "Who will be my wife for today?" Perhaps I didn't exactly hear him say that, but I read his intentions in the curl of his lip. And I knew that I was not the only one who heard the question – virgins hid their faces, mothers pulled their curious daughters outside and away. There were already a few women who were known to have spent the night with Rav on one of his previous visits. Two of them had come to the synagogue dressed in full finery, strutting to and fro. One of them even looked Rav in the eye and gave him a knowing smile. He nodded back to her in blessing.

I walked towards him with lowered eyes. My feet pattered against the floor to the rhythm of my fluttering heart. I approached no further than honor would allow. The beadle whispered in his ears. Rav looked in my direction and signaled to me with his finger to come closer.

A murmur passed over the crowd, and I felt suddenly relieved that my elderly mother had stayed at home. I thought about the chattering of the local kitchen workers, who dice up gossip into bite-sized morsels. I feared for my good name. I raised my eyes. Rav’s face was luminous and shone only on me. His beadle approached and took me out of the crowd and out of my thoughts and into a new reality. A door was opened to a side room. Rav disappeared and the crowd began slowly to disperse. I stood there as if paralyzed. I heard from a distance the instructions of the beadle in my ears: "When it gets dark…. In the town inn…. In the great guest room….There his honor will await you."

I had become a bride for a moment. Even that old feeling of embarrassment seized me as if I were a virgin. When I rushed home, the sun already sunk to the height of the trees. I moved about the house silently, washed my face in cold water, dressed in a good frock, and walked out into the empty streets with wet hair, between the melodies of the evening prayers. The light of the oil lamps dancing in the windows spilled out into the street, which had become my wedding canopy.

Rav was immersed in solitary study in the corner of the room. I was greeted by his beadle, a man whom I found not particularly pleasant. I kept my distance. From somewhere there suddenly appeared the rabbi of the town and two witnesses. (No wedding canopy, no candles.) I stood there as if dreaming, with Rav at my side, my head reaching only to the height of his chest. I heard once again the words of the wedding blessing: "Who forbids to us… and permits to us…. By means of the canopy and sanctification." The words were spoken like an ordinary prayer, quickly, unaccompanied by tears or by smiling parents. Rav said in his great voice, "Behold you are sanctified unto me," and handed me a handkerchief from his pocket. I reached out my hand and took it. The rabbi and his attendants checked that the handkerchief had been properly transferred and muttered in approval. Rav said to them, "You are my witnesses," and the rabbi concluded, "She is sanctified." And then everyone went out of the room as if they had never been there.

We were there, just he and I in one room, the guest room of the town inn. It was our wedding canopy and our bedroom and our house and our whole world for one night.

Rav did not mince words and did not try to win me over as young men are wont. He also didn't fall all over me – he just sat by my side. I could see his eyelashes, which were long and straight, as he is. He looked at me with curiosity and with a certain tranquility, and I, less excited, watched him. The look of his face appealed to me even more from up close, and I delighted in him like a young girl. The room and the honor of the man who sat cross-legged beside me seemed to me like all I would want of heaven. My life, exhausted and well-worn like a paved road, had suddenly crossed over a main thoroughfare that I had never expected to traverse. The heads of the community, the luminaries of the generation, and me.

Rav began to say a few words about the town and we sat for an easy hour exchanging pleasantries, until I nearly forgot the whole reason that I had entered into this hasty matrimony.

Suddenly he took my hand in his and brought it to his mouth. My breath fled and then fluttered and then relaxed like a dove. His eyes gazed upon me as if I were a vision. I realized, then, that I found favor in his eyes.

With the casting off of gowns and scarves, names and roles and titles fell away. He became a man, and I cast off my widowhood and became, once again, a woman. Our nakedness opened the floodgates of our hearts and there was nothing to worry about and no reputation to uphold – after all, this man was no villain. And was not the rabbi responsible for it all?

This body in its full expanse were mine by right and holy law, and there was no fear that our union was "not for the sake of heaven," as our teachers used to warn us about in school.

I delighted in the sound of "my husband," which brought back the old sense of being conquered by another and served as an invitation and a request. Our bodies did not know if palm would fit to cheek, if hip to hip. We had been taught the proper way of touching on this day, but I was nothing like the young bride I had once been, nor was I anything like the woman I had been before today. And this man was far and near, as if he were always a part of me, passing through me like a shadow, and I tasted of his goodness and I smelled him and touched him and felt my own fingers come alive and went into him and took himself inside me and I built up and knocked down and draped myself around him and relished the full surrender that had never before been so complete, and my hunger for his breath and for the scent of his body could not be satisfied, and his body was hot and steamy until it reached complete rest.

We were splayed across the bed when I opened my eyes, my body full, and I saw that he was looking at me. "I'll take you with me," he said. "Come to my home," he said. "My wife." I smiled, kissed his forehead, and fell back to sleep.

In the morning he continued to sleep after I had awoken. It is commonly believed that longer bodies require more rest. I woke up and looked at him as if he were a dream that had not fled with the passing of night. I banished all thoughts of a baby with a face like Rav, and all thoughts of following in his footsteps back to his home. Once again he did not seem like the great Rav; the form of his body was known to me like that of a little boy whose fears I assuaged. I knew what I would do. I put on my frock and dropped his handkerchief over the bed, drawing its smell once more towards me -- and it drifted to the bed wondrously and simply, just like our marriage.

* * *

This story is based on a sugya from Yevamot 37b, translated here:

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said:
A person should not marry one woman in this country
and then go and marry another woman in another country
lest the children of the two marriages pair up together
and a brother inadvertently marry his sister.

When Rav would visit the city of Dardishir, he would announce:
"Who will be mine for a day?"
And when Rav Nachman would visit the city of Shachnetziv, he would announce: "Who will be mine for a day?"

But it is different with rabbis, because their names are well-known [thus no one would confuse the patrimony of their children].

But did not Rava say: If a woman is designated for marriage and she agrees, she needs to wait until she has seven clean days [without menstrual impurity]?
The rabbis used to send messengers in advance, and inform the designated woman of the visiting rabbi's imminent arrival [so that she could prepare herself in advance].
And others say: The visiting rabbi would simply be alone with the woman [and not sleep with her, and thus the period of seven clean days was unnecessary]. For as someone once said, "A person who has bread in his basket is not like someone who does not have bread in his basket." [That is, a man would be happy simply to have a woman by his side, i.e. "bread in his basket."]

It is taught that Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: A man should not marry a woman if his intent is simply to divorce her, because it is written "Do not plot cruelly against someone who lives with you trustingly" (Proverbs 3:29).

* * *

Reflections on the story (also translated from Ruth Calderon):

The sentence "who will be mine for a day" (that is, who will be the woman who will spend the night with me, and be my wife for one day) may be read either as a question or as an invitation. Its origin is in the habits of community leaders Rav and Rav Nachman, among the great Torah sages, who would travel, as part of their work lives, to towns that were not their own. Rav would come to Darshish, and Rav Nachman would come to Shachnetziv – two cities in Babylonia.

When they would arrive, they would announce, "Who will be mine for today?"; and when the appropriate woman was selected (by the leaders of that community? in advance?), they would take her as a wife for the duration of their stay.

Do we then have written evidence of a practice that officially sanctions liaisons with women outside of the framework of marriage? After all, this story was not censored by the rabbis; in fact, it exists in two different versions in the Babylonian Talmud: one in Yoma 18b, and one in Yevamot 37b.

The story of Rav and Rav Nachman's marital practices were thus transmitted by myriads of students over the course of hundreds of years. I don't know how one learns a story like this in a yeshiva. With a knowing half-smile? With a macho smack on the shoulder and a cry of "Yeah, man"? I read it with mixed feelings. I'm struck by the sincerity of the Talmudic masters, and I'm drawn to awaken the moral issues they seem oblivious to with three hard slaps on the cheek: one for the wife back home, one for the woman in Darshish, and one for myself.

Once we accept that it has its place in the Talmud and that it is part and parcel of Jewish tradition, the institution of "marriage for a day" is worthy of our consideration. In a nonegalitarian society, a well-connected and wealthy man has at his fingertips a full range of pleasures and opportunities – including women. Nonetheless, I find myself entertaining a host of questions: Does this practice reflect more than just the valorization of promiscuity? Is there no more appropriate relationship with women than reliance on a prostitute in an unknown city? Were the women who were chosen members of the Jewish community? Why did rabbis prefer to get entangled in a complicated procedure like one-day marriage instead of simply sleeping with an anonymous woman under cover of night? There is precedent for this sort of deviance -- we read several times in the Talmud about one who is seized by his evil impulse: "He should dress in black and wrap himself in black and go to an unknown city." Was turning to a prostitute beneath the dignity of the rabbis, whereas they would not hesitate to use women and co-opt the sacred institution of marriage for the sake of preserving their own reputations?

When confronted with the question "Who will be mine for a day," could a woman really answer, "I will"? And just between us, why would she do it? The Tosafot suggest that this encounter is meant ultimately to bring the woman into the rabbi's home. That which begins as a one-night stand will ultimately lead her to become one of the wives of a great Talmudic master.

But what will this woman's status be if indeed she goes back with the rabbi to his home town? And what of his first wife? Is she expected to be happy with the new addition to the household, in the way that parents encourage their eldest child to be happy about the arrival of number two? Just imagine it: "Oh, I loved you so much that I decided to take another: you can cook together, and she'll help you with the cleaning…."

Was it just that the Tosafot did not dare own up to harboring the Achashveroshean dream that lies buried in every man’s heart? Was the one-night-stand too disturbing to them, such that they had to assume that a shared future was in the cards? And why in the world does the notion of multiple wives seem like a realistic solution to the Tosafot who, like Rashi, were students of Rabbeinu Gershom from Magentza, who explicitly outlawed marriage to more than one woman at a time?

Even in the height of the modern feminist revolution, it is still fair to assume that a woman would not enter into an intimate relationship with a man without harboring at least the hope that their liason would lead to something more. Is the Gemara hazarding the novel idea that men think this way as well? Must every night of intimacy be an instance of fleeting sanctity?

The institution of "marriage for a day" allows a man the opportunity to be a tourist. In a foreign city to which he is invited, the distance allows him the chance at another life: a new woman, a new body, love in a foreign language. She is not like his wife, who has seen him at his moments of greatest weakness; this new wife-for-a-night sees him at his best; she knows nothing of his weaknesses and of his woes. She is curious to know how he will touch her. And he, in turn, may learn something new about touching a woman. Maybe he feels inadequate when he is on his own; as the rabbis say, "One without a wife is not a man." But can a man not stay alone even for a few days? Alternatively, is the whole institution of "marriage for a day" intended as a sexual outlet, a product of the cultural milieu of the Talmudic sages that justified hasty matrimony? In this particular historical context, when "who will be mine for the night" is the prerogative only of men, the injustice is that much greater.

And in our own day, could we consider, just for the sake of the thought experiment, that this type of arrangement in egalitarian form might be a possibility for men and women who find themselves stationed temporarily in unknown cities? So that they could spend one day, one weekend, one week, married to another, to a temporary spouse? Maybe our sense of the necessary continuity between past and present precludes us from engaging in tens, or even hundreds, of magical encounters with others who await us in their corners of the world? It would be possible also to read "who will be mine for the night" in the spirit of the sixties -- not just in the sense of free sex, but also in the sense of short-term marriage. One could imagine a woman who keeps in touch with--or at least remembers--sixty former husbands. Some of them pick up the phone and call from time to time – others she visits for brief periods. Maybe some of the marriages for a day were meant to be one day a year for a period of ten years. There is endless scope for the imagination…..

I return to Talmudic times. How was the woman chosen to be "a wife for one night?" Later commentators suggest that it all was planned in advance. Perhaps it was done in public – in the synagogue on Shabbat or in the market. Or maybe it was all arranged in the innermost chambers, by means of private talk among important men, who haggled like meat merchants – and maybe rumors of these negotiations were spread to the women through the kitchens and the laundry basins. Did the women perk up to hear, or did they rush to hide their virgin daughters from the dangers of seduction? And it is possible that men of means tried to gain status by offering up their own wives and sisters to the visiting rabbi? How would Mordechai of the Book of Esther appear in this context? Or was it rather that the women offered to visiting rabbis were those who wanted to be saved from hopeless loneliness, or from the slim pickings that remained as the only realistic marital options?

Let us turn away, for a moment, from the male imagination. How did the woman imagine that night while anticipating the arrival of the rabbi? It is hard to believe that she was burning with longing, unless the rabbi had such a magical aura to him that he was irresistible sexually as well. It seems unlikely that without specific incentives and without independent stature a woman would enter lightly into an arrangement like this. Maybe she was hungry and wanted the festive wedding meal? Maybe she longed to become pregnant with a son of the Rav? In that case, it is possible that the two rabbis served as traveling sperm banks. And maybe the whole transaction was worth the price of the ketubah? Confining matrimony to one day contradicts the very essence of the marriage covenant, which pledges constancy for an unbounded period of time. On the other hand, it reflects respect for the now, for living one day to its fullest. Under conditions of marriage for one day, the criteria for choosing a spouse change, as does the definition of love. The appeal of the one-night-stand is bound to make us think twice about how much opportunity we waste in our lives of routine and fidelity.

The journey, the distance, the disconnection from the home (as opposed to our world of cell phones that guarantee our availability at almost every moment) – all these afford opportunities for self-redefinition.

The concept of "marriage for a day" allows us to test how we would behave if we were freed of the accepted and enshrined conventions that govern our lives – the material, the social, the psychological.

The sanctity of Christian matrimony has influenced Western culture, and we are accustomed to viewing the romance of love "'til death do us part" as the final stage of cultural evolution. By the same token, we are accustomed to viewing the culture of the rabbis – whose primary expectation of marriage was the fulfillment of the commandment to procreate – as a betrayal of love. But perhaps in reality things are otherwise. If we consider Rav and Rav Nachman as alternatives to love as we know it, we may find ourselves, Western liberals confronting Eastern rabbis, not unlike a group of stuffy bourgeoisie confronting our more liberated anarchist counterparts.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Daf Yomi Hysteria (Yevamot 34)

It is 5:55am. I wake up bleary-eyed to the sound of my cell phone alarm bursting forth joyously in the Mexican hat dance. I silence the singing and vibrating phone, wipe the sleep from my eyes, and get out of bed with a yawn that doesn’t quite resemble a lion’s roar. As usual, there is no time to waste; I have to leave the house in twelve minutes if I am to make it on time to class.

Twenty minutes later, I am sitting with a dozen older men around the table in the glass-enclosed room of the local synagogue where I attend a Daf Yomi shiur [daily page-of-Gemara class]. Although it is an Orthodox shul, the rabbi is surprisingly liberal, and allows women to join in with men in the class. According to the signs that advertise this shiur, there is yeshiva benifrad, separate seating – but since I am often the only woman, this generally just means that wherever I happen to sit at the table becomes the “women’s section.” If another woman walks in, she will pull up a chair beside me, and I will point to the place with my pencil. I would never think of doing so for a man, and he would never think to ask me where we are. This is simply not done. Men do not ask for directions – certainly not from a woman, and certainly not when the territory in question is a page of Gemara.

I have learned with this group of people for about nine months now – we sit together almost every day between 6:15 and 7am. I do not know anyone’s names, and they do not know mine. We have never looked into each other’s eyes, and we have never exchanged pleasantries. But together we have plowed through Beitzah, Rosh Hashanah, Taanit, Megillah, Moed Katan, Chagigah, and now Yevamot.

Today, Wednesday morning June 6th, we are on Yevamot 34. I joke that this is my summer of tzarot, a word that means both “troubles” and the rival co-wives of the polygamous men that populate this tractate. I expect that today will be another daf about three brothers who take turns marrying two sisters, or two men who accidentally switch wives under the wedding canopy – these are the topics that have concerned us for the past few days.

But as a beloved teacher once said to me, nothing is as exciting or unexpected as the next daf of Gemara! Sure enough, the subject of today’s daf (if such arbitrary distinctions may be applied) is women, pregnancy, and multiple sexual partners. We learn such principles as:

A woman does not become pregnant upon her first intercourse.
For the twenty-four months after a woman gives birth, her husband will sow inside and seed outside.
A woman who commits an illicit sexual act will invert herself after intercourse lest she become pregnant.

Mine is the only womb in the room, and I suddenly feel as conspicuous as Virginia Woolf traipsing across the green quads of Oxbridge. But it only gets worse.

When Ravin came, he said to Rabbi Yochanan: Any woman who waits ten years after the death of her husband before remarrying will never give birth again.

When Ravin came? Oh dear. And what is this about never giving birth again? Apparently I am not the only one troubled. Even the rabbis seek to qualify Ravin’s statement.

Rav Nachman said: This was taught only with regard to one who did not intend to remarry; but if a woman intended to remarry, then she will indeed become pregnant.

It seems that a woman’s womb remains active only if it is fueled by acts of intercourse. If it lies dormant for too long, it will lose its ability to function properly. However, a woman’s psychology may affect her womb (a la the nineteenth-century hysteric). If she intends to have intercourse again, her reproductive organs will not wither. Or so Rav Nachman seems to suggest.

Rav Nachman’s corollary is then followed by two related anecdotes. The first involves Rava and his wife, who is referred to as the daughter of Rav Chisda, for reasons that will become apparent:

Rava said to the daughter of Rav Chisda (i.e. to his own wife): The rabbis are murmuring about you!
She responded (to her husband Rava, whom she had married ten years after her first husband had died): No, my eye was on you all along.

As the Tosafot explain, Rava’s wife had married him more than ten years after the death of her first husband (Rami bar Chama). And so when Rava heard Ravin’s ruling, he assumed that the rabbis must be referring to his own wife. Thus he tells her that he suspects that the rabbis are murmuring about her. But the woman has the last word, in a statement that is both reproving and romantic: “My eye was on you all along!” Rava’s wife explains that she always intended to marry Rava, even though she waited ten years to do so. According to Rav Nachman’s qualification, she will therefore (presumably) still be able to conceive.

What does Rava’s wife (i.e. Rav Chisda's daughter) mean when she said that she intended to marry Rava all along? Did she plan to marry Rava even while still married to her first husband? Apparently yes, as we learn from Bava Batra 12b (cross-referenced in Tosafot):

The daughter of Rav Chisda was sitting on her father's lap. They were seated before Rava and Rami bar Chama. Rav Chisda said to his daughter: "Which of these men do you want [to marry]?" She responded, "Both of them!" Rava said, "Then let me be the second one."

Rav Chisda's daughter, a girl young enough to still sit on her father's lap, is like a greedy child in an ice cream shop who wants both chocolate and vanilla, or like Shel Silverstein's Terrible Theresa who chooses the middle pancake. If given the choice between two men, she'll take them both! But Rava does not miss a beat. To the extent that he can still control his fate, he intercedes. He does not want to be the first of two men to marry Rav Chisda's daughter, which would mean that either he would die, or she would divorce him. He'd rather be the second, and thus he wisely stakes his claim.

The story of Rava and his wife is immediately followed by a second anecdote illustrating Ravin's rule that a woman who waits more than ten years after the death of her first husband will not be able to become pregnant again. In this story, a woman brings herself as a counterexample, which of course only someone with a womb could do:

A certain woman came before Rav Yosef, and said to him: Rabbi, I waited ten years after the death of my first husband, and I didn’t have any trouble becoming pregnant!
He said to her: My dear daughter! Don’t you go mocking the rabbis!
She admitted: OK, I slept with an idolator in the interim.

The troublesome querulous woman who bothers the rabbis is, I think, a trope in the Gemara. She appears in Masechet Sukkah, for instance, where she complains to Rav Nachman that the exilarch stole her Sukkah (31a), and in Moed Katan, where she winnows barley in the streets ("How chutzpatic is this woman!" 16b). Here in Yevamot, our difficult distaff comes on to the scene to challenge Ravin's rule about the idle womb. "Not so! It happened to me!" she cries. To Rav Yosef's credit – or perhaps out of a resigned acceptance that he has no choice but to accept the testimony of her body -- he does not deny her claim. He chooses instead to accuse her of mocking the rabbis with her words. Unable to counter the facts on the ground, he challenges her on the level of language.

This time, although the woman has the last word, it is not a statement of triumph but one of concession. "OK," she admits. "You're right. I did have sex during those ten-plus years in between husbands, and that's why my womb was still functional when I remarried. In fact, I slept with an idolator!" This woman who wished to mock the rabbis ends up embarrassing herself, and for the rest of the chapter, as in most of the Gemara, it is only men's voices that are heard.

I know this because we actually did finish the chapter today, even though this meant learning a bit of Yevamot 35. Sometimes we cover a little extra ground if we happen to finish early, and today was one such day. When we got to the end of the chapter, which includes a discussion of unorthodox contraceptive methods, we recited the traditional formula of the hadran. Hadran alayich arba'a achim. We will return to you, Four Brothers. The name of the chapter is Four Brothers, and so this phrase simply means that we will return and study it again someday. But under this formula I pencil in a few words of my own: "We will return to you, Four Brothers, because a woman never becomes pregnant upon the first act of intercourse alone." I don't think I would share my joke publicly – to do so would be to mock the rabbis, of course – but it does give me a good chuckle. I'm happy to know that at least in my Gemara, it is the woman who has the last laugh.