Monday, January 19, 2015

More or Less Equal / Parshat Bo 2015/5775

The lineup of world leaders in Paris, linking arms and marching in protest against the murderous rampage of Islamists on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and patrons of a kosher supermarket was a moving sight. It even moved those who produce the ultra-Orthodox HaMevaser enough to include it in their publication. Well, most of it. You see, they photoshopped out German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was standing beside French President Francois Hollande. Readers of HaMevaser were treated to the world as they wish it to be: the public sector is populated only by men.  Allison Kaplan Sommer, writing in HaAretz noted that it is rather embarrassing when at a time that the Western world is rallying against manifestations of religious extremism, our extremists manage take the stage and in a newspaper owned by a Knesset member, no less.  But Tova Ross, writing in TheForward, strenuously objected to Kaplans characterization in HaAretz of the HaMevaser photoshop job, termed the digital deletion merely bizarre and comical. In the wake of two deliberate acts of religious violence in France, during a year that has been particularly venomous for French Jews and Jews the world over, she writes, wouldnt it be better to devote valuable real estate that exists in these publications, within such a fast and furious news cycle where reader interest wanes hourly, for any other number of important stories that add context and insight into the much more critical story of fundamentalism as manifesting itself in terrorist acts against people of different faiths and political stripes?

I should point out that PLO Chair Mahmoud Abbas was not photoshopped out of the image. Can there by any explanation except misogyny? And is misogyny to be taken so lightly given everything else that is happening in the world?

Much of the Jewish world has come far in recognizing the injustice of unequal. It took many, many centuriesand a big nudge from larger societyto move Judaism in the direction of egalitarianism. The Talmud encodes strict gender roles and the subjugation of women in the public sphere[1] even more than we find in Torah, and of course declares it to be Gods will, but also hints that the diminished status of women in the community is something God regrets.

The story begins in this weeks parashah, Bo, where Torah interrupts the ongoing account of the Ten Plagues to announce:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר. הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם, רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים
Adonai said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you. (Exodus 12:1-2)

We are accustomed to thinking of the first day in the Hebrew month of Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah) as the new year, but for the Bible, Nisan is the first month of the year. The Hebrew calendar is built on lunar months: the birth of a new moon signals the beginning of a new month. Pesach  (Passover) begins on the fifteenth day of Nisan, when the moon is full. It is crucially important to know when the first day of the month is so that we know when Pesach is. But its not always easy to determine. Today, we can scientifically calculate the new moons appearance and produce a Jewish calendar stretching out centuries in advance. But in the ancient world, declaration of the new moon required human observation of, and witness to, the tiny sliver of new moon hanging in the sky after a night in which the moon was totally absent. This is not as easy as it sounds. Imagine a rainy or overcast night.

Rashi tells us that Moses had difficulty understanding how much of the new moon needed to be visible in order to officially declare the new month. The seemingly superfluous word this (made bold in the passage above) inspires Rashis explanation. He explained that this indicates that God pointed to the new moon and said, When you see it like this, declare [the new moon].

Clearly, the size of the moon is critically important to setting the calendarthe festivals of Pesach and Sukkot fall on the full moonbut the Sages tell a fascinating story about how it came to be that the moon is smaller than the sun and waxes and wanes over the course of each month:

R. Shimon b. Pazzi raised a contradiction [between two verses in the Torah]: It is written, And God made the two great lights and it is written, The greater light [to rule the day], and the lesser light [to rule the night; he made the stars also]. (Genesis 1:16).

Said the moon to the Holy One, blessed be God, Master of the Universe, is it possible to have two kings serve with one crown?

God said to her, Go and be smaller.

She said to God, Master of the Universe, because I said to you something that is proper, [is it fair] that I have to make myself smaller?

God said to her, Go and rule over both the day and the night.

[The moon] said to God, What is the purpose of this? What good is a lamp in the daylight?

God said to her, Go so that Israel will be able to calculate through you the days and the years.

She said to God, It is not possible to calculate the seasons without the sun. For it is written, Let them be for signs and for season and for day and for years (Genesis 1:14).

[God said to the moon,] Go forth. And righteous ones shall be called by your name. Jacob was called small [When they had finished eating the grass of the land, I said, `O Lord God, forgive, I beseech thee! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!' (Amos 7:2)]. Shmuel [the tanna was called] ha-katan (the small one). [King] David was ha-katan (the youngest) [among his brothers]; the three eldest followed Saul (I Samuel 17:14)].

God saw that the moon was not placated. The Holy One, blessed be God, said, May I attain atonement because I made the moon smaller. And about this R. Shimon b. Lakish said, What is different about the goat offering for the new moon? For it is said regarding it, [Also one male goat for a sin offering] to the Lord; [it shall be offered besides the continual burnt offering and its drink offering] (Numbers 28:15). The Holy One, blessed be God, said, May I attain atonement because I made the moon smaller. (BT Chullin 60b)

In one breath, God deemed the sun and moon the two great lights and in the next breath, the sun was the greater light and the moon was the lesser light. These are the two conflicting verses that R. Shimon b. Pazzi points out. The moon, with its monthly cycle, has long been associated with women and so we can easily see this account as an allegory explaining why womens status is beneath that of men: it appears to be a reflection of the heavenly spheres, encoded into the structure of the cosmos. But lets not lose sight of what else this midrash says. The differentiation of size and status between the sun and moon was not what was originally intended. Initially, sun and moon were of equal size. God diminished the size (and status) of the moon only when the moon pointed out something God missed, but which we all know: a human organization cannot be run by two rulers. Not only was the diminution of the moons status not part of the initial plan, but it came about because of Gods anger: God resented the moons observation that Gods plan was inherently unfeasible and punished her by shrinking her. She objected, and God clumsily attempted to rectify the situation by offering the wholly unsuitable compensation of allowing her to shine both day and night. She then honestly and forthrightly pointed out that her compensation is hardly a gift, so God offered that small is an appellation that pertains to several great personages (with proof texts following).

Who would be assuaged by this rationalization? Would you? In the end, because the moon will not give in to Gods attempt to justify injustice, God atones. What an extraordinary claim! What is more, R. Shimon b. Lakish tells us that the additional sacrificial offering made each Rosh Chodesh is made not on behalf of the people, but rather on Gods behalf! It is Gods atonement offering for having treated the moon so improperly.

The midrash suggests that the lower status of women in the community was not part of the original Plan, and that God must continually atone to humanityand women, in particularfor setting in motion a society in which egalitarianism does not reign. This suggests to me that the solution is in human hands. God looks to us to correct inequality and establish the justice God wanted to plant in the world from the beginning.

Is Tova Ross correct in saying that photoshopping Angela Merkel out of the line-up of world leaders is Much Ado About Nothing, and that we should focus on far more important concerns? I think shes entirely wrong. If we look around the globe, we find the subjugation and abuse of women looms large and figures into a large part of human suffering. Any society, Jewish or otherwise, whether here in the United States or in far away Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Nigeria, that forces women behind a mechitzah and beneath a sheittel”—shunted out of public view, excluded from having a voice of authority beyond the kitchenruns a far greater risk of abuse of women than a society where all are valued equally and function equally. Securing the social and religious realms for men and confining women to hearth and home delivers the unequivocal message and reality that men are superior and women must therefore be quiet and deferential. Inevitably, womens lives are devalued and their health and safety compromised. We see it in all fundamentalist societies around the world. Let us not make the mistake of thinking that short of massacres, bombs, and military invasion, all is well.

If the lack of egalitarianism were a problem only in the Haredi world, where deleting images of women in the public sphere is de rigueur and women are patronized or bullied into second-class status, it would be easier to comprehend. But I am amazed and bewildered by others in the Jewish spectrummodern by most other accountswho defend separate prayers and privileges in the community. Separate is never equal. Recent responses attempting to justify it that I have heard include: It makes my life easier, Its actually an advantage, and I dont want to do everything my husband has to do. If you dont want to, dont. But to hold out a fundamentally unequal society as Gods will to be imposed on all the women in the community is morally  unacceptable, as every agunah will tell you. It is no different than defending segregated buses and schools as easier and advantageous. Easier for whom? Advantageous to whom?

The very Rabbis who encoded strict differentiation between men and women and inflexible gender roles into early Jewish society knew, on some level, that what they were doing was unjust. They attributed it to God, claiming that their decisions were Gods will, but even here they could not go the whole nine yards: God recognizes the injustice of it and eternally atones, month after month after month. Its time to correct the injustice, implement full and unequivocal equality, and let God off the hook.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] If you’re interested in doing some reading in this regard, I recommend Rachel Adler’s classic Engendering Judaism, as well as Miriam Peskowitz’s excellent study of gender construction in early rabbinic Judaism, Spinning Fantasies: Rabbis, Gender, and History.

1 comment:

  1. "delivers the unequivocal message and reality that men are superior and women must therefore be quiet and deferential. Inevitably, women’s lives are devalued and their health and safety compromised. We see it in all fundamentalist societies around the world."

    The fallacy here is clear. We see it in all FUNDAMENTALIST societies - but we don't see women's lives devalued or their health and safety compromised in, for example, modern orthodox societies where gender segregation is enforced in the religious sphere. Religious gender segregation is not what causes women's health and safety to be compromised -- to an unbiased thinker, it is clear that the other aspects of the fundamentalist societies around the world you are referring to cause these problems, i.e. their corruption, their egomaniacal drive to world domination (and hence, domination over their 'harems'), etc. None of this means that religious gender discrimination, if applied in a controlled and healthy manner, will lead to dangerous results. To argue otherwise, at least based on this line of reasoning, is what we call the "slippery slope fallacy".