Thursday, June 23, 2016

Naso--Sotah Re-"Examined": Male Privilege?

[Reposted from May 29, 2014, after an accidental erasure]

The recent mass murders committed by Elliot Rodger reawakened heated discussions of misogyny, harassment and male privilege, along with the usual re-heating of the cultural battles over guns in the US.  However, I came to question notions of male privilege in parshas sotah not because of the Rodger case, but because of a posting by Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz.

Ironically, I agreed with some of what he wrote, particularly that "[p]eople feel that when they see people sin, or act in a way that perhaps doesn’t live up to all the ideals a Jewish person could exemplify, they have a right to denounce them, curse them, and write them off."  

However, his use of the parshas sotah as a paradigm for saving broken marriages--that the entire purpose of the administration of the mayim hame'arerim was "G-d [] figuratively jump[ing] through hoops to pacify the husband...[] do[ing] a miracle to convince her husband that she didn’t betray him"--got me to do what the Rodger crime didn't.

G-d-ordained male privilege?

Let's take a closer look.

To be sure, let's assume two things for arguments sake.  One, the obvious--it took a lot to get us to this point: a warning to not be secluded with a particular man was blatantly ignored, so there was some wrongdoing on her part. Second, let's assume--in line with Rabbi Gewirtz' piece--that the woman came through the ordeal and was proven innocent of the accusation.  

Much is made of the woman's behavior; the series of Rashis that illustrate how all the steps in both the offering of the minchas sotah up until the actual administration of the oath and the waters are a mida-k'neged-mida for various elements of her waywardness.

In fact, the entire process is set up to get her to confess; if guilty, she faces a choice between a gruesome death on one hand, or divorce, penury [losing her kesuva] and general opprobrium for infidelity on the other.  And, just in case she doubts the efficacy of the waters, the process leading up to the drinking is supposed to tip the scales [and avoid the possible erasure of G-d's Name] by eventually forcing a confession.

This, then, raises the question: if she knew she'd have to go through this to prove her innocence, what would stiffen her resolve in the face of this humiliation? I posit that she knows what awaits at the end: she gets her kesuva back, and she gets the brachos of "ve'niksa venizre'a zara". I'll take it a step further: she now has the opportunity to WALK, take her money and her brachos. [Notice that the posuk says she'll conceive. It doesn't say it has to be with the current cad.] he really a cad?  Well...if after trying to get her killed [and using the name of G-d to do it] he would refuse to give a get, that might prove it further, but even granting that point can't be directly supported from sources, other indicators of the cad's character can:

1] Rashi on 5:12 indicates that the guy, for starters, is stingy: he withheld the matnos kehuna, so he drags himself to the Kohen to deal with this;

2] Sotah 2a states that a man's zivug is commensurate with his deeds, indicating that somewhere along the line, he should have looked in the mirror [the converse--that a man's deeds reflect his spouse's--is not necessarily true, which is why it remains unstated];

3] Sotah 3a that posits that the kinui which sets the whole process in motion is actually forbidden, and is prompted by an "impure spirit"...

But--didn't G-d allow His name to be erased for shalom bayis? Isn't that the whole point of the story?

Actually...if you jump to the mishnah on 47a, where a proliferation of adultery leads to the suspension of the practice of mei sotah, where the water has lost its efficacy [especially when the husbands were themselves unfaithful] indicates that clearly there were lost marital causes not worth saving--possibly even mandating divorce; but G-d as it were no longer got involved, at least not in the same way.

It's eminently possible that G-d was willing to go so far to have the Name erased to protect the WIFE's honor, even given the appearance of impropriety on her part [which she suffers for.  Very much in public.]

Furthermore, if one thinks that G-d having the Name erased to protect the husband's honor is by extension an attestment to his good character, think again:  G-d went so far as to kill the talking donkey--whose power of speech was created at Twilight on the Original Friday--to protect the "kavod habrios" of Bilaam Harasha.  It might stand to reason--from this [admittedly loose] analog and the aforemetioned indicators--that hubby's character is a bit closer to Bilaam than he would like.

(And as far as protecting the wife's honor if she is guilty?  Also no problem: if the water worked and revealed her guilt, then G-d's honor would as it were be restored by the proven efficaciousness of the waters, and SHE might have been closer to Bilaamic behavior than she might have been willing to admit.)

Now she has a marriage settlement and can present the case of a murderous spouse...and even use the kohanim who administered the process to prove it.

There is a reason we have the Shalom Task Force and Bat Melech. Not all marriages are worth saving. For a long time "go back, for shalom bayis" was the communal default. Parshas sotah might have been used to promulgate that once upon a time. But if one is "bodek" the parsha again--like the waters, when they work--one will see that it can be used to indicate the opposite.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Pesach: Power Corrupts

Tucked away in maggid in the middle of the Mitzrayim narrative is the “Arami Oved Avi” passage, a seeming non sequitur that turns into an immediate prequel: what drove Yaakov’s family into Egypt in the first place was his treatment at the hands of Lavan.   Still, why would a passage most famously associated with the mitzvah of bikkurim make its way into the Pesach narrative?

While the timeline doesn’t necessarily add up that way—the midrash about Yosef having to go to Egypt in chains so Yaakov could go to down there in a dignified manner comes to mind—one can see historical parallels between the houses of Pharaoh and Lavan and their patterns of oppression and the nature of the power dynamics that existed.

What might follow are lessons not only about the redeemed [“us”] but whom we were redeemed from [“them”].  In other words: these paradigmatic eliminationist anti-Semites had something to gain from their attitudes and policies; they weren’t necessarily “sonei yisrael” 100% “lishmah” [not that it made them any less nefarious].

“Arami oved avi” in a way hints that the story of yetzias mitzraim actually begins with that passage, which would behoove us to examine Lavan first.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, the combination of Lavan’s sordid family history in addition to his propensity to attach a price tag to everything drove how he related even to his own flesh and blood, so it would make sense that when his power dynamic was threatened and he lost his family, he would at least have an eliminationist impulse cross his mind [as evidenced by the discussions about “machshavah k’maaseh”].

Bear in mind it takes Yaakov at least 14 years to DO anything [his breeding strategy with the sheep], and the full 20 years to SAY anything [after Lavan chases him down].  As we’ll see this is important when you consider the truth-to-power dynamics inherent in his relationship with Lavan, and Moshe’s relationship with Pharaoh.

Like Yaakov [although not quite in the same manner], Moshe is an honored member of the very household responsible for engineering the eliminationist oppression.  In a manner different from Yaakov, it didn’t take all that long for him to actually speak up effectively [as per the medrash that he asked for the enslaved Hebrews to get Shabbos off].

Furthermore, we see both antagonists pursue their aims differently in reaction to Divine messages: Lavan, as it were, backs off; Pharaoh doubles down repeatedly until he essentially destroys his own nation. 

What motivates the different responses?

Both Lavan and Pharaoh are driven by a combination of material and “spiritual” concerns.  Lavan—as indicated by Bereishis 31:2 as a starting point—finally realizes in a way that the con game he’s run is up, and his son’s reaction in the previous possuk indicates that he was beginning to feel his loss of influence and power over the other part of his own family, which would have inevitably had a further negative impact on his reputation in the neighborhood.  And finally, when he catches up with Yaakov and essentially realizes his power over them is at an end, he plaintively asks where his “gods” are.  The irony here is that Lavan still wants to hold on to the “trafim” even after G-d Himself has stopped him with a divine vision, now as if they are all he has left.

Pharaoh has similar concerns, if not in the same order.  As with most despots, his main concern is maintaining his iron grip on power and his nation's viability, as indicated a] in Shemos 1:10 where he first uses the “fifth column” threat [“hava nischakma lo”] as an excuse to subjugate the Hebrews, and b] his repeated trips to the riverbank in the morning to hide from his populace that he is, actually, less than divine.

A curious effect thus occurs:  at the same time that his feared loss of power and influence comes to pass with each plague and the concomitant devastation to Egypt, Pharaoh—who at first doesn’t completely buy into his own deification, a necessary concession to then maintenance of power—begins to actually buy into his own divinity in a way he previously hadn’t, thinking he actually can fight G-d.  Ironically—it might be all he thinks he has left.

In this way, we have an additional Pesach theme: not only to speak truth to power in the name of freedom, but to realize that since the political is almost always personal, there is always an element of the elevation of self to levels that lead to similar levels of near absolute corruption.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Vayikra: Anti-Marketing

As has been seen in these pages, one possible reason that Parshas Vayikra is the first one taught to schoolchildren might have to do with the explanation regarding “adam ki yakriv mikem”—that just as everything in the world belonged to Adam haRishon because there was no one else around at the time, one should [or, more accurately, may] bring a korban that has absolutely no taint of misappropriation—hence, the ultimate educational message being imparted to said schoolchildren: no benefitting from what isn’t yours. 

[Especially not spiritually.]

One might—in however strained/”shver” a manner—apply this to the current “shidduch system”, or more specifically, how some men act entitled within said system while having their dubious tendencies enabled by the very matchmakers who should be using the system to rein them in.

More specifically: how older guys who set rather self-serving age limits for potential matches are catered to by the system, which is in direct contradistinction to the message that one should not further spiritual ends [making matches] through dubious means [feeding a sense of entitlement].

I described this tendency in some detail in my Beshalach piece, so I don’t need to really hash out further how objectionable one should find those tendencies. 

This time, my targets are shadchanim and singles coordinators.

Let’s make this simple:

If you’re gonna run a tachlis singles event—EVEN OUT THE AGES.


As a counterbalance to the Talmudic dictum that “more than the man want to get married, the woman wants to get married”, we have the story on Kesuvos 82b about women not marrying almost at all when they found the terms of the kesuva to be unfavorable.

Are the GUYS gonna stop if the market doesn’t cater to them?  In theory, it’s been proferred that if guys can’t “get” the kind of frum woman they like, they’ll “date out”…or go as far as marrying out.  But if that were so, should shadchanim who are operating under a tachlis principle as a driving force put these men in circulation in the first place?   Since when was “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” “da’as Torah”?

Some market forces should admittedly apply.  I mean, there really is no good reason to never take ANY attraction factors into account, as one Rav once exhorted his troops [and my contracomment got me kicked off the frum facebook group where the article was posted approvingly.  This can be taken too far].

But if shadchanim are worried that guys wont show up if they don’t stagger the ages…hello?  Are you trying just to marry off guys, or everyone?  Last I checked the shidduch system hadn’t yet bough into Obergfell v Hodges.  Plus, if your goal really is tachlis, while you can’t toally ignore market forces, you shouldn’t operate as if they were the ikkar.  Otherwise…just let everybody go and date independently and get married when and how they want, like I wrote in 2008.

In fact, shadchanim SHOULD try their hand at anti-marketing: instead of letting a couple of older guys to slip in who didn’t quite come under the age limit in order to even out the numbers—why don’t they actually make restrictive age groups and keep to that limit?  If people want to network and set their friends up later, great.  At least there are other factors at play there and everyone really consents to the process.   There’s enough pressure in the system as it is.