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Parashat Vayeshev

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Sotah 10b

Who is Afraid of Religious Feminism?

Dr. Amnon Shapira
Department of Bible

This week's reading appears at first glance to be concerned primarily with men, not women.

It begins with the words, "Now Jacob was settled...," goes on to the story of Joseph, then continues with Reuben and Judah, and concludes with Potiphar and the chief butler. These are the main figures in the exciting drama of this week's portion - male figures who dictate the pace of events and their nature. But this is only superficial.

On second reading one could maintain that precisely the two seemingly secondary figures are the true principle actors; and both are women: Tamar, who as Judah's daughter-in-law we shall call a Jewess, and Potiphar's wife, a gentile. These two women, it may be argued, determined the fate of the people of Israel for generations to come. Tamar confronted Judah and succeeded, albeit by deceit,[1] in giving birth to twins by him; and her son Peretz became the ancestor of King David, from whom the Messiah will come (see the Midrash and Rashi). Potiphar's wife, the second female figure, tried to seduce the righteous man Joseph,[2] and having failed, overcame him by her power of dominion and had him thrown into prison. The end of the story is well-known: Joseph became regent of Egypt, and his father and all the children of Israel came down to Egypt, to the first exile of the Jewish people.

Thus, Providence caused our sojourning in Egypt and our exodus from there, with all that the exodus and theophany at Mount Sinai signified, to be the result, albeit indirectly, of the actions of that gentile woman; for if Joseph had not had this encounter with her he might have remained a servant in Potiphar's house all his days, and Jewish history would have looked quite different. She, however, plotting deceitfully, caused the story of the Israelites to develop as it did: "To bring about the decree of the Omni-present, to cause events to develop so that our ancestors would be brought down to Egypt" (Da'at Zekenim, one of the Tosafists, 39:1).

Thus two female figures are central in the plot of this week's reading: the first, Tamar, whose actions were motivated by positive ideals and who was rewarded by becoming the ancestor of the Israelite royal line; and the second, whose actions were motivated by licentiousness and who ultimately led to the Israelites' exile in Egypt and their exodus from that land.

Interestingly, the Sages' analysis as cited by Rashi shows Potiphar's wife to be a more positive figure than would appear on first reading. The Sages draw a comparison between Potiphar's wife and Tamar, whose actions are viewed as inherently positive from the start: "She is more in the right than I (Tzadkah mimeni), ... and the Sages (Sotah 10b, and Gen. Rabbah 95.2) explained that a divine voice called out and said: From Myself (mimeni) and from Me it has come, for since she behaved modestly in her father-in-law's house I decreed that kings descend from her." Likewise, Potiphar's wife was also judged favorably, as Rashi's commentary on 39:1 indicates: "The story of Potiphar's wife is deliberately juxtaposed to that of Tamar, to inform you that just as the one acted in the name of Heaven, so the other acted in the name of Heaven; for she saw by her astrologers that she was destined to be the ancestor of sons by him, but she did not know whether they would actually be born to her or to her daughter."[3] Thus Rashi continued along the path blazed by the Sages, who extolled several women, even though they appeared to be involved in licentious ways (and needless to say how careful the Sages were about modesty, going to great efforts to keep away from transgression and obscenity). The Sages viewed the actions of these women as expressing the hand of the Lord directing Jewish and world history: "When Joseph was taken down to Egypt -as Scripture said, 'Come and see the works of G-d, who is held in awe by men for His acts" (Ps. 66:5)... Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, wished to bring about his decree to Abraham, "You shall surely know...," and directed the course of events to this end, so that they came down to Egypt and fulfilled what the Lord had promised."[4]

It was the Sages who ascribed to the acts of these women positive, righteous significance as acts intended to serve Heaven, as they similarly interpreted the deed of Lot's daughters[5]; and other commentators followed in their path. For example, Abarbanel wrote: Judah, through his two sons born to him by Tamar, was the progenitor of the kings of Judah who were later to arise and who will also be in the time of the Messiah, for she was worthy of having holy kings come from her due to her integrity." Tamar's wisdom and moral superiority to Judah has been noted by many commentators in their remarks on the verse, "She is more in the right than I." For example, Rashbam: "She was more righteous than I," and likewise Radak, Nahmanides and others. Examining these two stories - that of Tamar and that of Potiphar's wife - as they appear in the Bible and in our commentaries, teaches us several lessons:

1) People are judged (albeit in Heaven) not only for their deeds, but also for their intentions. Sometimes a person's deeds may actually appear to be depraved (as in the above examples), but because of the person's good intentions they are marked to the person's credit, not discredit.

2) Women play a decisive role in the world, actually determining the fate and future of entire nations: David descended from Tamar, as will the Messiah; and as a result of what Potiphar's wife did, our forefathers descended to Egypt, later to experience the Exodus and receive the Torah at Mount Sinai.

3) Women are not hidden behind the scenes for the sake of modesty, rather they act on the stage of history and play a central and public role in the drama that unfolds before us. Women only appear to hold second place in the public life of the people, and the depictions that present them as living in a world directed by men are apparently a deliberate literary illusion.

The lessons learned from this case alone (namely, that of women suspected of harlotry; and surely from many other cases) - and I write this with the utmost circumspection - indicate that they are a veritably important force directing the course of life, and in no way "the second sex," as many feminists have maintained with quite a measure of bitterness (such as Simone de Beauvoir, in her book bearing the above title).

What is feminism?

"Feminism is a movement fighting for social and legal recognition of the fact that in the modern world there is no room for the hierarchical view according to which men rule society and family, and in which women only hold second place."[6] This definition can also have religious significance insofar as one could argue that it is religiously motivated by the Bible's stories about women. In other words, a feminist reading of Scriptures is not a modernist reading stemming from a source external to the Torah, rather it is a reading stemming from the Bible itself, as we have just noted in this week's parasha as interpreted by the Sages, Rashi, Nahmanides, Abarbanel and others.

Some might wish to challenge this view, saying that I am using the modern term "feminism," which we all know is foreign to "the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts" and external to the Torah. To this I would answer, that there is no proscription from the Torah itself or from the Rabbis prohibiting ideas or even norms of behavior from being imported from abroad, even from gentile sources, provided that when they are brought into Judaism they are suitably "converted." This can be illustrated by the passage concerning kings, of which the Torah says explicitly: "If, after you have entered the land, ... you decide, 'I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me'" (Deut. 17:14). The Torah does not say a single word, not even obliquely, to indicate that the argument of doing "as do all the nations" is not valid. Quite the contrary, the Torah's immediate response is positive: "you shall be free to set a king over yourself"; albeit on the expressly stated condition that the institution of kingship, whose foundation and origin is in other people's cultures, undergo a fundamental change when it is introduced into Israelite culture: "Moreoever, he shall not keep many horses, ... lest his heart go astray." In other words, the Jews may adopt the gentile institution of having a king, after it goes through a process of adaptation to the conditions of the Jewish people and their culture, and is made consonant with the Torah and its commandments. Proof of our remarks may be found in the book of Samuel, where the people demanded of Samuel: "Therefore appoint a king for us" (I Sam. 8:5), repeating word for word what the Torah said in Deuteronomy. Samuel's fury at them stemmed from the fact that they were demanding a king; he in no way denied their argument to be "like all other nations."

So, too, regarding feminism. Even if the ideas stem from foreign lands, the ideology need not be a priori rejected, as many religious Jews mistakenly tend to think. There are fine "isms" whose content may be bad, and vice versa. There are negative manifestations of feminism (many examples of which can be cited from life in Israel, as in the USA), and they ought to be flatly rejected. But there are aspects of feminism that have positive characteristics, such as are revealed in the Torah itself: woman's importance, the honor and respect due her, woman's significant status and active involvement in public and national life, and the need to prevent discrimination against her solely on the basis of her gender. All of this is far from contrary to the Torah, rather it comes from within the Torah and is fully consonant with it.[7]

Is there Biblical feminism?

That Scripture is basically patriarchal, the man heading the family and the tribe, is obvious and needs no proof. Nevertheless, other voices can be heard in Scripture, indicating that women are equal to men in their true status: in their wisdom, their righteousness, and their deeds. Much has been written on this subject in recent years, especially by women, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. It is noteworthy that many of the non-Jewish women who have written on this subject discovered the works of the Sages (extensively translated into English and other languages), and through the Midrash many women have come to realize that our Sages' commentaries lend expression to the egalitarian status of women which we think of as being modern.

Suffice it to present one example. In the account of the creation of Adam and Eve, the Rabbis note a contradiction between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. The former says "male and female He created them" (v. 27), which would imply that they were created together, whereas the latter implies that first man was created and then woman from "one of his ribs (heb. tzela)" (v. 21). Beginning with the Aramaic translations of Scriptures and the Septuagint, through modern translations of the Bible, tzela has generally been understood to mean one of the bones in the torso. Examining the word tzela as it occurs in the Bible, shows that in at least 38 of its 40 occurrences it has the meaning of side with reference to a physical structure, as in the sides of the Tabernacle. Only twice - in the story of the creation of woman (Gen. Chapter 2) - does it appear to mean rib. Looking at the interpretations of the Sages, however, shows that there too it was understood not as the rib bone but as one of the "sides" of the body: woman was created from the outset as an organic part of the body of man in its entirety. Several of the midrashim develop the idea of an androgenous creature, both male and female being created together and only later becoming distinct one from the other. Other midrashim develop the idea of "two faces," or that they were created as one body with two faces, one male and the other female, and later were cut apart or separated in two. Rashi says: "Mi-tzal'otav - from his sides, as in the use of tzela ha-mishkan, the side of the Tabernacle (Ex. 26); as the Sages said, they were created with two faces." The reading by Rashi and the Sages, that Adam and Eve were created on a par with one another obviously stems from a desire to resolve the ostensible contradiction between the egalitarian account of the creation of Adam and Eve in Chapter 1, and the hierarchical account in Chapter 2. Akkadian (the language of Assyria and Babylonia), in which tzela (Akkad. selu) often is defined as side, provides support for the Sages' reading.

In the patriarchal world of the Bible female voices resound in seven areas:

1) the physical creation of woman jointly with man;

2) the spiritual creation of woman "in the image of G-d," just as man;

3) the participation of women along with men in the rites of establishing or renewing the Covenant with the nation (either explicitly or implicitly);[8]

4) the special personal status that specific women attained - as matriarchs, judges, prophetesses, queens, etc.;[9]

5) nativity stories, in which the superiority of woman over man is manifest in several respects;[10]

6) the initiative and independence women showed in personal decisions, especially concerning survival of their family or their people (and in the independent paths they consequently blazed) and in Scripture's awareness of this independent power of decision;[11]

7) the potential that lies in woman's weakness - the dialectic of strength through weakness.[12]

Insofar as the first three points pertain to women in general and point to the religious equality of woman, as female, before the Lord, they clearly constitute the main part. Adding points four and five, with their religious aspect (women with a special personal status and women in nativity stories), we see that the woman's equality in Scriptures was principally religious, and from this stems the cornerstone for the general equality of mankind.

In conclusion, it must be stressed that we cannot attest to equality between the sexes in the Bible, in the way modern democracy defines equality (for comparison it would be well to recall the status of women in America and Europe in political, legal and economic life even at the beginning of the previous century). Analysis, however, does indicate that even in the multifaceted literature of the Bible, which reflects a patently patriarchal and male stance, there is evidence of another reality (or awareness) which is egalitarian in various realms, primarily the religious, and from this one deduces the equality of the human race and hence also the equality before the Lord of women as human beings. In other words, Scripture contains elements that not only do not contradict equality as a value, but in fact actually provide its theological and historical basis. Precisely because of the Bible's clearly male, patriarchal orientation, it is remarkable that Scripture takes such extensive note of women's deeds and equal status; and many are the women that Scripture notes: from Sarah and Miriam to Deborah and Huldah. The Bible, with the "female" voices heard in it, can provide the basis for spiritual renewal in our day, along the lines of the "sacred shall be renewed and the new shall be sanctified."

[1] Horn Prouser, ora, "The Truth About Women and Lying" JSOT 61 (1994), pp.15-28.
[2] On the expression "the righteous man Joseph" see Midrash ha-Gadol, Va-Yeshev 39:6 (Margaliyot edition, p. 659).
[3] The Sages identified Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, whom Joseph took to wife (Gen. 41:45) with the daughter of Pharoah's courtier Potiphar; cf. Yalkut Shimoni, Gen., par. 144; Ginzburg, Legends of the Jews, loc. sit.
[4] Tanhuma, Va-Yeshev 4; cf. Genesis Rabbah 88.3; Midrash ha-Gadol, Va-Yeshev 40.2.
[5]From the silence of Scripture in the story about Lot's daughters we learn about the neutral attitude towards them, and the Sages actually took a surprisingly positive stand in their regard. "R. Joshua b. Karkhah said: A person should always be swift to perform a mitzvah (!); on account of that one night on which the elder preceded the younger, she was rewarded by preceding the kingship in Israel by four generations" (BABYLONIAN TALMUD, Nazir 23b). According to Rabbi Johanan, the Holy One blessed be He assisted in that act Himself by supplying them wine in their cave (Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 31a). Of course one could argue that the Sages wished thereby to tone down the severity of this episode and to soften its connection to David by way of Ruth the Moabite. However, it seems more appropriate to accept the view found in traditional commentaries that here, as elsewhere, a person is judged more by his motives than by his actions, and since they meant well, we shall forgive them. This is especially true when the objective was to continue the human race, as it is written: "He did not create it a waste, but formed it for habitation" (Is. 45:18), meaning that the existence of the world and of civilization is itself the objective of Creation (cf. Nachmanides on Gen. 1:28).
[6] Tamar Ross, "Impact of Feminism on Jewish Orthodox Theology," (Heb.) Rav Tarbutiyut be-Medinah Democratit ve-Yehudit (Sefer ha-Zikaron le-Prof. Ariel Rosen-Tzvi, Z"L), Tel Aviv University 1998, pp. 443-467. Ross notes that "our intention here is not to argue for or against the new feminist ideology, although it is clear that in the changing circumstances of our times defending the traditional approach has in actuality become increasingly problematic even amidst these [Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox] circles."
[7] There are rabbis in the nationalist-religious sector who forbid any participation of women in public life, including such things as voting (actively exercising a right!) or being elected to the Knesset or to the local government, and this they do on the grounds of modesty, despite the fact that this argument does not actually have any foundation in the Halakhah. Recently it has become common practice to separate families at weddings, seating the fathers and brothers separately from the mothers and sisters. In protest against this practice, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the greatest of America's posekim, saw to it that whenever he attended a wedding where there was separate as well as mixed seating he sat with his wife in the mixed section, precisely to prove the point that separating families at weddings has no basis in Halakhah or Jewish practice. He also ruled thus in Igrot Moshe, Yore De'ah, Jerusalem 1996, par. 24). His sons in New York, Rabbi Reuben and especially Rabbi David, can also be asked about this.
[8] Eight public rites of making or renewing the Covenant are described in Scripture: two in the time of Moses (at Sinai, Ex. 19; on the plains of Moab, Deut. 28-29); two in the time of Joshua (the altar on Mt. Ebal, Josh. 8; the assembly in Shechem, Josh. 24); one in the time of Josiah (II Kings 23); two in the time of Ezra (public reading of the Torah in the square, Neh. 8; the "pledge," Neh. 10); and one standing order ("Gather the people," Deut. 31, to be observed once every seven years, and hence its especial weight). The detailed discussion of this point shows that women regularly took an active part in these rites (including the Theophany at Sinai).
[9] Although it is incontrovertible that Abraham was the head of the family, and therefore when he left Haran it was he who "took" his wife Sarai, and not she who "took" him (Gen. 12:5); nevertheless relations between Abraham and Sarah were very complex, and their relations were not always ones in which there was a "first" and "second."
[10] In my article I show that in a certain genre of nativity story (as in the stories of Rachel, Manoah's wife, Hannah, and the Shunnamite woman) the male father figures hold second place, showing "weakness" in resigning to the family's plight on account of the wife's barrenness, whereas the women are the principal players, expressing staunch faith in the Lord hearing their prayers and putting up a brave fight for their way. In this respect, more than others, women are not the equals of men, rather they are superior to them in their wisdom, resourcefulness, and even in their religious conviction and courage to stand before the Lord.
[11] Suffice it to note several cases, some of which have already been mentioned: Sarah and Rebekah, Leah and Rachel, Ruth and Naomi, Hannah and Abigail, and Manoah's wife and the Shunnamite woman. Most of the cases cited here place the women as the primary figure taking the initiative in questions of survival of an individual, the family, the nation, or all mankind. It is these female figures who see to the continuation of the race and to future generations, and it is they who accurately perceive the situation for the short range or long range, more so than their husbands, the males.
[12] Women whose strength lay in their weakness include the daughters of Zelophehad (Num. 27:36), Rahab (Josh. 2), Caleb's daughter Achsah (Judges 1), Samson's wife (Judges 14), Hannah (I Sam. 1-2), Abigail (I Sam. 25), Esther (Esther 5), and others. In all these cases the woman's fundamental weakness, either legally or socially, was precisely what gave them the necessary leverage to overcome the individal man confronting them (e.g. Abigail, Jael), or to contend with the entire system (e.g. Tamar, the daughters of Zelophehad).
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