Don’t use the Torah to excuse abusing women

Not a week goes by these days, it seems, without some new major male political or entertainment figure being added to the list of serial abusers of women.

That men abuse women is nothing new. What is new is that women are beginning to speak openly and publicly about it.

All too often, “the Bible” is cited as a contributing factor for this abuse, because it supposedly put men in charge, and made women subservient to them. After all, God created a man first; woman was just an afterthought, and she was designed from a rib to be man’s “helper.” When woman caused man to sin in the Garden of Eden, God went so far as to command that men forever “will rule over” their women.

More about this nonsense further on.

There also is the behavior of the patriarchs to consider, most particularly Jacob’s. In Genesis 29, part of last week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, he meets Rachel for the first time. After trying to impress her with his power by performing a seemingly superhuman feat, he grabs hold of her and kisses her. Rachel has no idea who he is (he does not even bother to introduce himself before the kiss), but like so many women before and after her, she stays silent.

Later, Jacob pays a heavy bride price for Rachel — seven years of shepherding, years the Torah tells us flew by because he loved her so much. Yet when he informs Laban, his uncle/prospective father-in-law, that the time has come for the wedding, his concern is purely carnal.

When Laban tricks him into marrying Leah, Jacob nevertheless accepts Laban’s offer to spend a week cohabiting with Leah (even though he supposedly hates her), before also marrying Rachel and spending the next week with her. And despite his negative feelings toward Leah, Jacob has no problem getting her pregnant seven times.

Next Shabbat, in Parashat Vayeshev, Jacob adds to this disgraceful behavior by designating Joseph, Rachel’s late-to-arrive firstborn, as the family’s official firstborn (which is the point of the “coat of many colors”). This leads to an enmity that plays out all the way through the Exodus period.

To say that the Torah sanctions Jacob’s behavior is absurd. The Torah makes it clear that Jacob’s behavior toward the women in his life is unacceptable. In fact, it subsequently legislates against everything Jacob does. The Torah prohibits a man from marrying two sisters while one still lives (Leviticus 18:18). It prohibits a man from denying the chronological firstborn his rights if he is the son of the “hated” wife (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). And through the laws of impurity, it seeks to keep men from even touching women (the law of negiah, which derives from Leviticus 18:19) without checking with them first.

As for abusing women sexually, as Jacob would appear to be doing by repeatedly having relations with a woman he “hates,” the Torah gives women all the conjugal rights in a relationship (see Exodus 21), while relieving them of the obligation to bear children, which means they are free to decide for themselves when to say yes.

Let us be clear about this: the Torah, from beginning to end, views men and women as equals to each other. It does not say God created a man first, or that woman was just an afterthought. It does not say a woman was created from a man’s rib, and it also does not say she was designed to be his “helper.”

Says Genesis 1, “And God created ha-adam [the adam] in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it….’” (See Genesis 1:27-28.)

The text says “the adam,” not “Adam,” and that this “adam” is both male and female. “The adam,” then, means “the human,” not “the man,” and “adam” is not a personal name. The text then tells us that both male and female are equally commanded to “fill the earth and master it.” There is no “first man” here, and no hint of male superiority.

That “the adam” in Chapter 1 is said to be both male and female is even more significant than it would seem at first. In Chapter 2, we are told, “It is not good for the adam to be alone; I will make for him an ‘ezer kenegdo.’” In other words, there was only one “the adam” created in Chapter 1, and it was both male and female at the same time (which is why the text refers to it as a “them”; the use of “him” in the text is of no significance, because Hebrew has no neutral pronoun).

The phrase “ezer kenegdo” is usually translated as a “helper opposite him,” which sounds subservient, but that ignores the import of the word “ezer” (helper). The only other “ezer” in the Torah is God, as in the name Eliezer, which means “God is my help.” (See Exodus 18:4; for other references, see Genesis 49:25, and Deuteronomy 33:7 and 26.) An “ezer kenegdo” in this context thus means a full and equal partner. Thus, verse 2:24 says, “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.” They are two halves of a whole.

As for that rib, the word in the original Hebrew is a cognate of the word “tzela.” This word in its various forms appears more than 50 times in the Tanach, and in not a single instance can it be translated as rib. The word means a full side of something, as in the side of the Ark (e.g., Exodus 25:12, 14), or the side of the desert tabernacle (e.g., Exodus 26:20). God took a full side from “the adam,” the female side, and created an “ishah” out of it (“ishah” means woman). Only after the appearance of an “ishah” in the text do we see the appearance of an “ish,” meaning man. If anything, then, it could be argued that woman (ishah) was created before man (ish), and not the other way around.

As for “commanding” that men are forever to “rule over” their women, there is no such commandment in the Torah. God does say that to Eve, but He is only telling her how men will act toward women. Throughout the Torah, in fact, God’s law seeks to level the field between men and women. Aside from examples already cited here, compare Exodus 20:12, “Honor your father and your mother,” to Leviticus 19:3, “You shall each revere his mother and his father.” Father and mother are deliberately reversed to make the point that both are equal.

Touching women without their consent (with the possible exception of a handshake) never was okay. Kissing women without their consent never was okay. Going beyond just a kiss never was okay (and, for the record, the Torah equates rape with murder). Using pseudo-endearing terms such as “sweetie” and “honey” to women other than their partners never was okay.

And justifying such behavior by citing the Torah never was okay, and no amount of dancing on the head of a pin will change that.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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