i have too much to say about women and judaism

Today is a Fast Day, the 10th of Tevet. Here is a brief description:

Today, the 10th of Tevet, the Nation of Israel fasts and remembers. On the 10th of Tevet of the year 3336 from Creation (425 BCE), the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem (See II Kings 25:1-25:4). Thirty months later on the 9th of Tammuz in the year 3338 (See Jeremiah 52.6-7), the city walls were breached. Tragically on the 9th of Av of that year, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jewish people were exiled to Babylonia for 70 years.

The Tenth of Tevet is the first part of the cycle of fasts connected with these events, which includes: Shivah Asar B’Tammuz (17th of Tammuz) and Tisha B’Av (9th of Av).

The first reference in Tanach to the Tenth of Tevet as a fast appears in Zechariah (8:19) where it is called the “fast of the tenth month.”

According the Jewish tradition, Ezra the Scribe, the great leader who brought some Jews back to the Holy Land from the Babylonian exile and who ushered in the era of the Second Temple, died on the ninth of Tevet.

The Nation of Israel is built on its collective memory. Our past gives us the power to move forward into the future. As many greats have said, “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you come from.”

Yes to whoever the greats are. So are we sure where we come from? This is a great deal of the issue, since we don’t agree on that.

Here’s what Yosi Sarid thinks, under the headline Orthodox Judaism Treats Women like Filthy Little Things:

Treating women as impure and filthy begins with halakha and continues with actions. As long as the religious and ultra-Orthodox parties – Shas, United Torah Judaism, Habayit Hayehudi and National Union, none of which have any women in the Knesset – are not disqualified, their nakedness will continue to sing out and the nakedness of the land will be revealed.

A number of people (see here, for starters) have tried to counter his arguments, none really successfully. And countless others (okay, here and here) are trying to give another view. We know, of course, that he is wrong. We know that there are reasons to continue learning and not look at things just how they are printed. We know better, don’t we?

But if we don’t figure out how to get out the message, then we have failed. If we don’t convince the secular world, Jews and non-Jews, that we are much more sophisticated in our outlook than this, then they will have no reason to think that we are not lumped together with these extremists who are doing an excellent job marketing themselves as Jews.

Of course I am bothered by many issues of Judaism and how it should/could be. I was going to write “modernize” but that’s the rub, isn’t it? Much of what “Orthodox” (because I’m more and more bothered by that title) Judaism is about is maintaining a hold on the old. How do we share the power?

Here is what Chief Rabbi Sacks says about this week’s parashah regarding the repeated tears of Yosef:

In a fine essay, “Yosef’s tears,”[1] Rav Aharon Lichtenstein suggests that this last act of weeping is an expression of the price Joseph pays for the realisation of his dreams and his elevation to a position of power…

This is Rav Lichtenstein’s comment: “At this moment, Yosef discovers the limits of raw power. He discovers the extent to which the human connection, the personal connection, the family connection, hold far more value and importance than does power – both for the person himself and for all those around him.” Joseph “weeps over the weakness inherent in power, over the terrible price that he has paid for it. His dreams have indeed been realised, on some level, but the tragedy remains just as real. The torn shreds of the family have not been made completely whole.”

But at a deeper level, Rav Lichtenstein’s remarks recall Hegel’s famous master-slave dialectic, an idea that had huge influence on nineteenth century, especially Marxist, thought. Hegel argued that the early history of humanity was marked by a struggle for power in which some became masters, others slaves. On the face of it, masters rule while slaves obey. But in fact the master is dependent on his slaves – he has leisure only because they do the work, and he is the master only because he is recognised as such by his slaves.

Meanwhile the slave, through his work, acquires his own dignity as a producer. Thus the slave has “inner freedom” while the master has “inner bondage.” This tension creates a dialectic – a conflict worked out through history – reaching equilibrium only when there are neither masters nor slaves, but merely human beings who treat one another not as means to an end but as ends in themselves. Thus understood, Joseph’s tears are a prelude to the master-slave drama about to be enacted in the book of Exodus between Pharaoh and the Israelites.

Rav Lichtenstein’s profound insight into the text reminds us of the extent to which Torah, Tanakh and Judaism as a whole are a sustained critique of power. Prior to the Messianic age we cannot do without it – consider the tragedies Jews suffered in the centuries in which they lacked it. But power alienates. It breeds suspicion and distrust. It diminishes those it is used against, and thus diminishes those who use it.

Even Joseph “the righteous” weeps when he sees the extent to which power sets him apart from his brothers. Judaism is about an alternative social order which depends not on power but on love, loyalty and the mutual responsibility created by covenant. That is why Nietzsche, who based his philosophy on “the will to power,” correctly saw Judaism as the antithesis of all he believed in.

Power may be a necessary evil, but it is an evil, and the less we have need of it, the better.

Why does the current fight seem to revolve around women’s issues? We are the gatekeepers of the tradition. If we let them continue to denigrate us, from either side, from the complete lack of boundaries of  flaunting our sexuality to the opposite, with trying to make us disappear, then we all lose. We have to figure out what we want and the honorable way to achieve it.

So today, when we remember walls being broken, maybe we should be looking to break down more barriers to let truth in.

Whatever the truth is.


One response

  1. Pingback: breaking which walls? | But Mostly Hers

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