“Ulla holds that every object that is suitable for a man is not suitable for a woman, and an object that is suitable for a woman is not suitable for a man.”
When I started the Daf Yomi cycle in early January I knew it would be difficult. Despite all the years I spent in Hebrew School growing up, much of it has been forgotten (except for some of the some of the dramatic stories in the Old Testament.) My Hebrew is decent enough to read a prayer book but is not adequate enough for me to ask directions in Tel Aviv and actually get somewhere.
The trepidation I had when entering this cycle was about the discussion of women in the Daf Yomi pages. Afterall, some religious Jews to this day do not think it is permissible for women to read the Talmud. (I know because I have gotten some negative comments about my discussion of women in the comments of my blog). And what would these men think of a single woman with no children and a graduate education in English Literature rather than Judaic studies not only reading the daily pages of the Talmud, but deeming to comment on them?
As much as I have tried to be tolerant of the world the Rabbis in the Talmud lived in and their traditional perspective, I have not been able to contain myself when I came upon some passages in the Daf Yomi cycle, starting with Berakhot. There are passages in the tractate that describe women as white geese or quiet victims who would swallow filthy scrolls in demonstration of their purity. And then came the story of Ulla and Yalta in Berakhot 51 which gave me some hope that women could have a voice even then. (See https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me/berakhot/berakhot-51)
Ulla returns in today’s reading as the arch conservative with rigid views of the roles of men and women. The discussion of the wearing of rings in public on Shabbat with and without seals continues with Ulla’s observance that rings with seals exist for administrative purposes and are the domain of men, while those without seals are ornaments and are only appropriate for women. We are told that “Ulla holds that every object that is suitable for a man is not suitable for a woman, and an object that is suitable for a woman is not suitable for a man.”
What is wonderful about the Talmud and why I have continued to push forward each day with the daily Daf Yomi reading is that for almost every opinion there is a counter, for every Ulla there is a Rabbi Akiva, and for every silenced woman there is a Yalta. (Actually, there are not a lot of women like Yalta, but she carries the emblem of strength of character and belief in one’s self for many of us.) A group of dissenting Rabbis debate Ulla’s statement that what is suitable for a man is not suitable for a woman and present examples where women may wear administrative rings and men may wear ornamental ones. Rav Yosef reminds us that Ulla has said that “women are a people unto themselves,” although it does not sound like language Ulla may have said himself.
We are also provided in today’s reading with a view of women who hold their heads high and are as sure of themselves as Yalta. They are portrayed as the “haughty daughters of Zion” who “walk with outstretched necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go and making a tinkling with their feet.” We are told that their sins include walking upright, with outstretched necks, and eyes made up with blue eye shadow. They would “walk in small steps, heel to toe, so onlookers would notice them.” They walked with myrrh and balsam in their shoes so that they could entrap young men in the marketplace with the essence of their perfume. Their actions are compared with how a snake ensnares its prey with its venom.
We are also provided with a litany of punishments for these haughty women who walk erect rather than hunched over in protection of their modesty. They are punished with a stench that permeates their body, patches of bald hair, a shapeless sackcloth for clothing and even worse – a pouring out of their innards (although is debated by our disputing pair Rav and Shmuel, with one countering that their “orifices were covered with hair as thick as a forest.”)
There are Ullas alive today, but there are fewer of them where I live. I feel fortunate to live in a city in 2020 where the Ullas are tempered by a culture that respects diversity and opportunity for all sexes, religions, races, and orientations. But that was not the case when I moved to New York City in the 1980s and landed my first job on Wall Street. The senior male bankers I worked with (there were few women in the upper ranks) thought nothing of putting their arm around my waist when they passed me in the hall or calling me “doll face” (whatever that meant.) There was a blatant sense among these masters of the universe that they were safely ensconced in their positions. They seemed born into their roles, while I as a woman needed to do the hard work.
I was privileged to grow up with a father who was not an Ulla. He had traditional views but never told me that I could not do something because I was a woman. His mother, who adored me and gave me unconditional love, had a different perspective. Her family emigrated to America from East Europe and she grew up in a world of Ullas. She died when I was in college, but even then, she was concerned that I might become too educated to get married. She would have been even more concerned if she knew I had gone on to earn two graduate degrees and never married. I would like to think that if she was alive, she would be proud of what I have accomplished, but know in my heart of hearts that she would have been disappointed in the life I have chosen to live. I imagine I argued with her when she said that a girl can become too educated, but as a teenager I probably just sulked about and kept quiet. And the funny thing is that in one sense she was right. Because here I am, in the middle of New York City, sheltering in place during a pandemic with two cats, my books and my thoughts, continuing to do the hard work each day.