Saturday, November 17, 2007

Vayeitzei II: What about the women?

ותקרא את שמה דינה - ולא נכתבה הודאה על לדת הבת לדעת למה נקראת כן, שאין מודים על הבת כמו על הבן. ולהודיעך בא, שכל בני יעקב היו זכרים חוץ מזו. וכן בת אשר סרח. בכל שבעים נפש לא היו רק שתי בנות, יוכבד וסרח:

One of the most jarring things about the Tanakh to a contemporary reader in Western society is the way in which it simply devotes far less time and detail to women than it does to men. Whether one approaches this point critically or apologetically, it simply cannot be denied that this pattern neither matches our reality nor the commitment of virtually all—irrespective of religious perspective and lifestyle—to the spiritual life of women as a critical component of contemporary Jewish life. This point begs דרשני, some avenue of explanation, if the Tanakh is to be a guiding force in our lives today.

In the midst of a long narrative about the birth of Ya’akov’s children, 11 boys in all, we are told in Bereishit 30:21 that Leah also had a daughter, Dinah. This announcement is almost a side point, with no etymology given for her name (unlike all the others), and her seeming irrelevance to the natal arms race going on throughout the parashah between Rahel and Leah. More important, Dinah is often genealogically invisible. She is indeed mentioned as part of the count of 70 who descend to Egypt with Ya’akov, but she is not reckoned as a tribe, never given a distinct blessing and Bereishit 35:22 (as well as I Divrei Hayamim 2:1-2) simply states that Ya’akov had twelve children. [I will never forget when my then three-and-a-half year old daughter exclaimed upon hearing this verse when I learned it with her last year, “But there are thirteen!”]

This is, in my mind, one of the first places in the Torah where one truly needs to confront the issue of gender in terms of who the protagonists in the narrative are. The first couple obviously includes a man and a woman and Avraham, Yitzhak and Ya’akov are all paired with women with interesting and defining personalities that reach out at us from the story. But with Ya’akov’s children, we get the first glimpse of a dynamic that will expand over time to phrases like שש מאות אלף רגלי הגברים (Shemot 11:37), the directive אל תגשו אל אשה (Shemot 19:15) and the general omission of women from the censuses taken in Bemidbar, all of which point to a marginal role for women, wherein they are largely ignored or viewed as adjunct players.

Again, departing from the assumption that women can no longer be treated as adjuncts in our contemporary religious world—quite independent of the question of whether an egalitarian approach is the solution or that of the Beis Ya’akov school system—how do we best relate to these passages and teach them to our children, especially our daughters? I am always confronted with two main options: 1) I can note that there were many women present at the time, but the details of their lives were simply not considered important by the Torah. We might approach things differently today, but the Torah reflects its own reality and historical context. Dinah is mentioned here only because of the story we will later hear about her being raped (another instance of הקדמה!), but any number of other daughters of Ya’akov (some of whom seem to be referenced in Bereishit 37:35ויקמו כל בניו וכל בנתיו—see R. Yehudah’s view on this verse cited by Rashi) were simply not significant enough to mention. This approach has the advantage of being historically honest and accurate, though it runs the spiritual risk of distancing ourselves from the Torah by locating it in a time, place and idiom far from our own and thus jeopardizing an intuitive sense of its eternal hold on us. 2) I can claim, in a case like this, that Ya’akov actually had only 12 sons and one daughter, and no other children. Similarly, in the count of 70 people headed down to Egypt, there were only three women: Dinah, Serah and Yokheved. The Torah would always mention women when they were present; it just happens that there were none. [One deals with Bereishit 37:35 by saying it refers to daughters and granddaughters, i.e., the three women named above (Ramban) or to daughters-in-law (see R. Nehemiah cited in the above Rashi).] The advantage here is that I assert the Torah’s interest in women as principals, when they happen to be there, and thus the text is a model for the active engagement of female personalities that one can relate to regardless of gender. The obvious disadvantage is that it is very hard to sustain this reading in light of the larger context of the Tanakh, especially the 600,000 figure given at the Exodus, which pointedly only counts the adult men.

Rashbam—without, I assume, any concern for the issue I am raising here—blends both approaches in his commentary here. On the one hand, he explains unapologetically that the birth of a girl was simply not as celebratory an event as that of a boy and, therefore, we are given no record of Leah’s thanking God for this child and the corresponding naming. On the other hand, he asserts that there indeed were only three women in Yitzhak’s clan (if we exclude daughters-in-law).

I honestly don’t know which approach is better for raising Jewish girls who we want to self-understand as full participants in Jewish life. In some ways, this problem is just part of the larger tension of peshat and derash that gets played out in Rashbam’s commentary. The peshat is (almost) always more satisfying as a read of the text and as an honest assessment of where our own assumptions differ from biblical ones. But derash is what makes the Torah relevant to us in an ongoing way, what transforms an ancient Near Easten text situated in the Iron Age and helps us understand it as God’s eternal Torah. How can we be faithful to one while maintaining the goals of the other?

1 Comments:

At November 21, 2007 at 8:18 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The two approaches become one if we think the Torah is myth and not history. Since it is myth, the question of whether Yaakov (if he existed) "actually" had other daughters is immaterial, and we are left with the second approach being, "the narrator only put three women in the travel log to Egypt," which is the same as the first approach. The question is never, "what really happened" and always "why did the narrator choose to put it the way he did?" None of this, of course, helps in the quest to raise Jewish daughters today.

 

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