Texts and emails lack tone and are often misunderstood. Add to this the brevity with which they are written, the punctuation often lacking, and the tendency to overuse pronouns in place of proper nouns, and you have a connoisseur’s recipe for misinterpretation. This can happen with the best of intentions.
Misinterpretation sometimes happens intentionally, as well, and Talmud provides a lollapalooza of an example connected with his week’s parashah, Ekev. Moses is addressing the Israelites on God’s behalf. He articulates God’s rewards for faithfully keeping God’s covenant. This is a major facet of Deuteronomic theology: a powerful God Who rewards and punishes, using weather, womb, and enemies as divine disciplinary tools. On another occasion, I’ll return to this problematic theology, but for now, my focus is on the actual words of Torah and how they are purposefully misconstrued by a Talmudic sage.
וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם--וְשָׁמַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ. וַאֲהֵבְךָ, וּבֵרַכְךָ וְהִרְבֶּךָ; וּבֵרַךְ פְּרִי-בִטְנְךָ וּפְרִי-אַדְמָתֶךָ דְּגָנְךָ וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ, שְׁגַר-אֲלָפֶיךָ וְעַשְׁתְּרֹת צֹאנֶךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ לָתֶת לָךְ. בָּרוּךְ תִּהְיֶה, מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים: לֹא-יִהְיֶה בְךָ עָקָר וַעֲקָרָה, וּבִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ. וְהֵסִיר יְהוָה מִמְּךָ, כָּל-חֹלִי; וְכָל-מַדְוֵי מִצְרַיִם הָרָעִים אֲשֶׁר יָדַעְתָּ, לֹא יְשִׂימָם בָּךְ, וּנְתָנָם, בְּכָל-שֹׂנְאֶיךָ. וְאָכַלְתָּ אֶת-כָּל-הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ--לֹא-תָחוֹס עֵינְךָ, עֲלֵיהֶם; וְלֹא תַעֲבֹד אֶת-אֱלֹהֵיהֶם, כִּי-מוֹקֵשׁ הוּא לָךְ.
And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, Adonai your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that made on oath with your ancestors. [God] will favor you and bless you and multiply you—blessing the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil, your new grain and wine and oil, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock, in the land sworn to your ancestors to assign to you. You shall be blessed above all other peoples: there shall be no sterile male or female among you or among your livestock. Adonai will ward off from you all sickness; [God] will not bring upon you any of the dreadful diseases of Egypt, about which you know, but will inflict them upon all your enemies. You shall destroy all the peoples that Adonai your God delivers to you, showing them no pity. And you shall not worship their gods, for that would be a snare to you. (Deuteronomy 7:12-16)
At first glance, there is nothing unusually or unfamiliar here to someone who has read the Book of Deuteronomy. The Hebrew, however, sports a peculiarity deriving from the fact that Hebrew distinguishes between “you” addressed to one person (and also distinguishes between male and female) and “you” addressed to two or more people (again, distinguishing between male and female). Here, Moses couches the entire speech grammatically in second-person-masculine-singular, which means that “you” and “your” (both as object pronoun and possessive) technically refer to one male. We might have expected the use of the masculine-plural “you” in Hebrew in order to encompass the entire people. Nonetheless, in both Hebrew and English, the meaning is utterly clear. Moses is addressing the entire nation of Israel—men, women, children—adjuring them to keep God’s covenant faithfully, and assuring them of the rewards that will come to them for doing so.
And if there is the slightest doubt that the use of the masculine-singular “you” is intended to encompass everyone, consider this verse:
כִּי תֹאמַר בִּלְבָבְךָ, רַבִּים הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה מִמֶּנִּי; אֵיכָה אוּכַל, לְהוֹרִישָׁם. לֹא תִירָא מֵהֶם: זָכֹר תִּזְכֹּר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לְפַרְעֹה, וּלְכָל-מִצְרָיִם
Should you say to yourself [singular], “These nations are more numerous than I [singular]; how will I [singular] be able to dispossess them,” you [singular] need have no fear of them. You have but to remember what Adonai your God did to Pharaoh and all the Egyptians: the wondrous acts that you [singular] saw with your [singular] own eyes, the signs and the portents, the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm by which Adonai your God liberated you [singular]. (Deuteronomy 7:17-18)
Could there be any doubt that Moses is addressing everyone? Could Moses possibly be speaking to one individual who is prepared to fight foreign arms single-handedly? (Even David battled only Goliath, not the entire Philistine army.) Was there only one person who witnessed with awe the “signs and portents” God enacted in Egypt? Clearly not. Similarly, could the masculine-singular pronoun “you” be meant to address only men, and exclude women? That is precisely how Ulla, a sage from Eretz Yisrael, visiting R. Nachman in Babylonia, chooses to read the text.
In tractate Berakhot we find a lengthy discussion of Birkat haMazon, the prayers recited after eating a meal that includes bread. The discussion has come to the Kos Berakhah, the Cup of Blessing, which was passed around the table at the end of the recital of Birkat haMazon, affording diners an opportunity to request of God a blessing of a personal nature. R. Acha b. Chanina, Talmud tells us, “sent it around to the members of his household so that his wife may be blessed.” This is where the story of Ulla and Yalta enters the conversation.
עולא אקלע לבי רב נחמן כריך ריפתא בריך ברכת מזונא יהב ליה כסא דברכתא לרב נחמן א"ל רב נחמן לישדר מר כסא דברכתא לילתא א"ל הכי א"ר יוחנן אין פרי בטנה של אשה מתברך אלא מפרי בטנו של איש שנאמר (דברים ז) וברך פרי בטנך פרי בטנה לא נאמר אלא פרי בטנך תניא נמי הכי ר' נתן אומר מנין שאין פרי בטנה של אשה מתברך אלא מפרי בטנו של איש שנאמר וברך פרי בטנך פרי בטנה לא נאמר אלא פרי בטנך אדהכי שמעה ילתא קמה בזיהרא ועלתה לבי חמרא ותברא ד' מאה דני דחמרא א"ל רב נחמן נשדר לה מר כסא אחרינא שלח לה כל האי נבגא דברכתא היא שלחה ליה ממהדורי מילי ומסמרטוטי כלמי
Ulla once happened to be a guest at R. Nachman’s house. He ate a meal, led the grace after meals, and passed the Cup of Blessing to R. Nachman. R. Nachman said to him: Please pass the Cup of Blessing (kasa d’virkhata דברכתא כסא) to Yalta. He [Ulla] replied: This is what R. Yochanan [ben Nappacha] said: “The issue of a woman’s belly (bitna בטנה) is blessed only through the issue of a man’s belly (bitno בטנו) as Scripture says: He will bless the issue of your [masculine singular] belly (p’ri bitnkha) (Deuteronomy 7:13). It does not say “her belly” but rather “your belly.” So too a baraita teaches: R. Natan said: Where is the prooftext in Scripture that the issue of a woman’s belly is blessed only through the issue of a man’s belly? As Scripture says, He will bless the issue of your [masculine singular] belly (p’ri biknkha). It does not say “her belly” but rather “your belly.” When Yalta heard this, she got up furiously angry, went to the wine storeroom, and smashed 400 jars of wine. R. Nachman said to Ulla: Please send her another cup. He [Ulla] sent it [with this message]: All of this is a goblet of blessing (navga d’virkhata).” She sent [this reply]: From travelers come tall tales and from rag pickers lice.” (BT Berakhot 51a)
Ulla does not want to include women in the ritual of the Cup of Blessing, and uses a verse from this week’s parashah, Ekev, to bolster his contention that the blessings of fertility devolve only on men. He makes the same argument twice (you know people are on slippery ground when they need to repeat themselves), first ascribing it to R. Yochanan, and then to R. Natan. The “proof” is the use of the masculine-singular “you”: specifically, פְּרִי-בִטְנְךָ “the fruit of your womb.” Ulla’s refusal to pass the Cup of Blessing to Yalta, the wife of his host R. Nachman, is an insult. His “proof” is further insult. Yalta, a well-educated, intelligent, and forceful woman in her own right, demonstrates the absurdity of Ulla’s interpretation in a most unexpected way. She goes to the wine cellar and smashes 400 jars of wine, thereby denying the men thousands of cups of blessing. Who controls the blessing of fertility now? Even when R. Nachman implores Ulla to send another cup to his wife, she responds with disdain, comparing Ulla’s “proof” to tale tales and lice.
Ulla has, in the name of R. Yochanan and R. Natan, twisted Torah entirely out of its context in order to exclude women from participating in the prayers of men (and probably the conversation that precedes and follows them, as well). In addition to the obvious misogyny of Ulla—which is not shared by R. Acha b. Chanin nor by R. Nachman), we find here a purposefully misrepresentation of text to serve a purpose.
There is an inherent tension between reading Torah verses as one-time events—it happened and now it’s history—and as universally applicable, regardless of time and place. The Rabbis chose the latter and later secular biblical scholars chose the former. For some, one must choose sides: either you throw in your lot with Rashi in saying ein mukdam v’ein m’uchar ha-torah (“there is no earlier or later in Torah”), or you hitch your wagon to Bible criticism and view all Torah as an ancient text with relevance only to the ancients, and an interesting relic in our era. Those who choose the former lose the valuable insights scholarship has to offer and the mental suppleness to understand that Jewish tradition evolves and adapts to circumstances (as must all life—and Torah is a living book). Those who choose the latter lose the wisdom, religious imperatives, and spiritual power of Torah values. Happily, in the 21st century, we do not face an either/or choice. We can have our cake and eat it, too. Both approaches live comfortably in the educated and flexible 21st century mind and do so symbiotically, enriching one another with insight. The table is set with multiple delicacies—let the feast begin.