Women and Torah: Masking words

Especially during this time of year, when many of us disguise ourselves for the holiday of Purim, the idea of masks is usually associated with people. Even in politics and everyday life, we talk of people masking their real intentions or hiding behind a façade.

But in Judaism, and in particular the study of holy texts, words hide as well.

In fact, it’s hard to enjoy a talmudic or midrashic text without appreciating this very idea: It’s what’s behind the text that’s really interesting.

I got a taste of this at a class I attended recently at Limmud NY.

It’s worth reading the full text of midrash we studied:

“A story of R. Akiba’s son when he married. How did he conduct himself? After his wife entered the nuptial chamber with him, he stayed awake the whole night, reading in the Torah and studying Haggadot. He said to her: ‘Fetch for me a lamp and light it’: and she fetched a lamp for him and kept it lighted for him the whole night. Standing by his side, she held the light for him.

“He opened the scroll, and he unrolled it from the beginning to end, and from end to beginning, and all night she remained standing, holding the light for him until dawn came. At dawn, R. Akiba approached his son and asked him: ‘Is she well found or ill found?’ and his son replied: ‘She is well found.’ Hence, Who so finds a wife finds a great good.”

Yes, it’s hard to imagine a more chauvinistic text.

Seriously, is this how you treat your wife on your first night of marriage? You ask her to hold a lamp all night so you can study Torah?

Even worse, this harsh treatment seems to be a test of whether the bride will be a good wife or not, as suggested by the groom’s response to his father in the morning: “She is well found.” In other words, she’s the right woman because she obeyed me like a slave!

I found this “mask” of chauvinism so obviously distasteful that I couldn’t imagine a positive interpretation, and I nearly left the class. 

But I was also intrigued, so I stayed, encouraged perhaps by the fact that our teacher was a woman.

The class itself was titled “Feminist Religious Education: How Should We Do It?” and was led by Renana Ravitsky Pilzer, the head of the Beit Midrash at Jerusalem’s Hartman High School for Girls.

Pilzer is one of the founders of the well-known Shira Hadasha feminist Orthodox congregation in Jerusalem and is pursuing a doctorate in Midrash and Gender at Bar-Ilan University. She had a sweetness about her that was dissonant with the harshness of the text.

Slowly, methodically, gently, with the mind of a surgeon and the heart of an artist, quoting commentators and studying the hidden meaning of words, she “turned and turned” the text over until she unmasked its ugliness to reveal holiness.

First, there was context: The son was rebelling against his famous father, who had left his wife for years to study Torah. When the son said, “She is well found,” he conveyed this message: “Unlike you, Father, I don’t have to leave my wife to study Torah.”

Then, there was the idea that Torah learning on that first night together was a shared experience — they were both learning. One interpretation quoted by Pilzer went as far as to say that the wife herself was teaching her husband, by “lighting the way.”

Underlying the whole text is the notion that a marriage needs shared ideals and a common pursuit in order to succeed.

The consummation of this marriage, the text suggested, started with God’s Torah. By making clear that they would both serve the Torah with equal passion and dedication, the husband and wife could now serve each other.

Now, you can be a cynic and call this a positive spin — which was my inclination.

But, the way Pilzer explained it, this trusting embrace of the text, this giving of the benefit of the doubt that precedes sharp inquiry, is itself a crucial part of the learning.

As you dive into midrashic or talmudic texts, it’s as if you’re entering a giant Purim party, where you encounter a million disguises that must be turned over and over to uncover an essential teaching of meaning and goodness.

Maybe this is why Jewish texts have lasted for thousands of years. These are not self-help texts that lay out “the 10 steps to a happy marriage,” which you forget the minute you’ve finished reading them. It’s one of the ironies of language that in the area of life lessons, clarity, which demands so little of us, is overrated.

Clarity is certainly not a virtue of Jewish texts. Because so many of our teachings are circuitous and opaque, they invite the student to invest great energy in order to decipher and understand the meaning. 

My experience at the Limmud class taught me another lesson: We need more women to teach Talmud and midrash. The text, on the surface, was so problematic and “anti-women” that I might not have stayed had we not been studying with a woman.

Just as Rabbi Akiba’s son needed his bride to “light the way,” we need women to help light our way, as well. 

Chag Purim Sameach