RESPONSE: Her Own Rupture

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To the Editor:

Rabbanit Nechama Goldman Barash’s contribution to the recent symposium on Prof. Haym Soloveitchik’s “Rupture and Reconstruction” (“A Rupture of Her Own,” Tradition, Fall 2019) contained passages which were masterfully and beautifully written. I identify and concur with her description of what should guide Torah learning in general and advanced Torah learning for women in particular: 

The initial rush which came with the privilege of Talmud study morphed into a life-long experience of ongoing connection. Studying Talmud allows me to access the most seminal Jewish text after the Torah. It connects me to my past and illuminates my present and future. There is a sense of awe in listening to the voices learning and interpreting the Torah as they have for thousands of years. No topic is too small or mundane and the many stories and narratives give insight into personal and theological struggles. It is an intellectual challenge and a spiritual anchor. Moving from the Talmud into the vast world of halakhic codification, I better understand how I am meant to live my life in a constant encounter with the divine. Torah study has a vibrancy and passion that invites connection through questioning and exploring and provides the guidelines and boundaries I need for this ongoing journey (8).

However, in sharing her own experiences as a student and teacher of Torah, she analyzes various areas of halakha and classical texts to advance her opinions and arguments. Unfortunately, her presentation of the sources is frequently incomplete, misleading, or even incorrect.

In the same short essay she writes movingly about her own growth in Torah learning which “fascinated me spiritually and intellectually and gave rise to a longing to be part of the chain of transmission and education,” and then continues “this absence of women’s voices from the endless texts about women’s bodies, signs of virginity, detailed discussions about menstrual flow, sexual permissibility, and breast development is jarring.” 

These “endless texts,” presented by Barash in what I feel is an overstated manner which misrepresents their context, originate in both the Written and Oral components of Torah miSinai. Overlooked is the fact that similar passages are also found detailing the anatomy of the male sexual organ with reference to the laws of circumcision, the different stages of ejaculation, controlling an erection even in the midst of marital relations, the male signs of puberty, etc. 

Rather than describing these laws as jarring and focusing on gender perspectives, they should be correctly understood from the perspective of the following situation. The Talmud describes Rav Kahane hiding under the bed of his teacher, Rav, while Rav was engaged in marital relations. When Rav chastises his student, Rav Kahane responds “this is [also] Torah and I must learn and understand it” (Berakhot 62a). The principle is quite clear, notwithstanding Rav’s chastisement of Rav Kahane’s method of learning which infringes on the laws of modesty, that even the most intimate activities and actions are part of Torah and must be learned. Similarly, all of the areas mentioned above relating to both female and male anatomy and intimacy are Torah and must be learned.

Rabbanit Barash introduces a difficult section from the eighth chapter of Sanhedrin to use as a springboard for comparing two cases of rape; one where the victim is a married woman and a second where the victim is an unmarried virgin. The comparison is presented in an incomplete manner. The Written Torah specifies that the rapist in the latter case must pay a punitive fine (not compensation) to the victim’s father as well as marry the victim. Barash omits both the salient fact that the marriage is only required upon the consent of the victim and also that the Oral Law adds restitution to the victim based on the principles of pegam, boshet, and tza’ar (that is, damages incurred from halakhic and/or psychological harm, humiliation, and pain). The author adds “that what was missing. . .is the woman’s actual experience of such a violation.” However, determining boshet and tza’ar impacts precisely on determining the actual rape experience and its aftermath. 

The context for the above is the topic of killing a would-be perpetrator in order to save a married woman from rape, an act which is not allowed on behalf of an unmarried virgin. The author comments “Rape is a heinous violent crime. That sexual violence against an unmarried virgin was not serious enough to warrant the same measure of extreme intervention as was warranted to save a married woman was incomprehensible.”

However, in three verses the Torah three times describes the nature of rape both for married and unmarried women, first with the use of the word innui “afflicted pain/distress,” and then going as far as comparing rape to murder (Deut. 22). To formulate the above as if the Torah does not view rape, even of an unmarried virgin, in a serious manner is misleading. Furthermore, Sanhedrin continues, based on the Oral Law explication, to explain that the distinction between different cases of sexual prohibitions and crimes, where in some situations it is sanctioned for a bystander to even kill the would-be perpetrator and in other cases we do not resort to this preventative measure, is not based on the severity of the crime or the marital status of the victim, per se, but on the resultant halakhic and/or psychological pegima (defect) which would be incurred. 

The overarching claim that women’s voices were not included is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the sugya in Sanhedrin under discussion. The particular laws relating to killing the would-be perpetrator are either explicitly stated in the Written Law or part of the Oral Law. As to the Written Law, for the unmarried virgin the Torah states that the perpetrator must pay a fine of fifty shekel and marry the victim. To this Barash writes, “and after this, all is presumed well!” Where was this criticism directed? As to the Oral Law, as detailed above, the Hakhmei HaMesora applied the most basic biblical exegesis on superfluous words to extract the Laws that determine the cases where killing the would-be perpetrator is required. In all cases, these laws are not based on gender perspectives as they originate directly or indirectly from God If there is to be a complaint it is to be directed kelapei ma’alah (towards Heaven).

One final comment about the author’s presentation of the three morning berakhot, which include “Who has not made me a woman.” The author contends that the traditional understanding that “men are simply thanking God for the extra mitzvot bestowed upon them as men; it is not meant to reflect a demeaning attitude towards women” (9) is undermined by a “quick look” at the original statement in Menahot 43b which includes the blessing “Who has not made me an ignoramus.” The writer concludes that since ignoramuses are included in mitzvot the real meaning of the blessing related to women is meant to be demeaning to women and not to reflect differentiated levels of obligation for men and women. Women and ignoramuses are forever linked!

However, a correct understanding of the Gemara clearly indicates that the berakha concerning an ignoramus is thematically different from that about women; its linguistic similarity (“she-lo asani”) should not be confused for similar source or purpose. An ignoramus cannot have fear of heaven (Avot 2:5); a woman has fewer obligations of mitzvot. This is stated explicitly in Tosefta Berakhot (6:18) which is the original source of this Gemara, Furthermore, the Gemara concludes that the berakha about the ignoramus should be discarded entirely and such is the normative halakha and contemporary practice.

In my opinion, reconciling the dissonance that emerges from this article and similarly which perspective of advanced women’s Torah study (and men’s Torah study as well) ultimately merges with traditional understandings and Torah study, depends greatly on what is used as a point of departure. If we view traditional texts as men writing for men, whether mimetically or textually, we are, to my mind, moving in the wrong direction. However, if we bring a sense of awe to our learning, as Rabbanit Barash herself described it (and as quoted above),as has been done for thousands of years, and conclude that not everything can or should be reconciled with modern values, the Torah community will benefit greatly.

Rabbi Tuly Polak, Teaneck, NJ


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