As I sit here to write, I hear two male students learning together: a more advanced student is teaching a relative novice, and they are practicing singing ayshet chayil. Surrounded by the sounds of patriarchy—even from the lips of two men who I would consider sensitive and progressive—I am faced with the feeling the tradition evokes in me, and the feeling of learning in a space dominated by men engaging with a traditionally male institutions and texts. While they sing beautifully, and I certainly give them the benefit of the doubt, the singing grates at me. It’s a patriarchal song that seems out of place (or I wish was out of place) in a space that is supposed to be egalitarian, as well as traditional. I swallow hard, feeling shaken. Such a song, I think, needs to be tempered by a discussion of exactly what it means to put those words out there to be ingested by whoever is in earshot.
I just came from a shiur where we were discussing the story of Hannah. After having done so much academic work on women going through fertility treatment, I am particularly attuned to issues of infertility. I was excited to hear this story and to talk about. After all, one of the reasons I came to the yeshiva was to learn how to deal with texts like this one, and to better understand the women I work with, who often interpret their lives through the lens of this story.
We first read some verses from the first book of Samuel, where Hannah is rebuked by Eli for her apparent drunkenness, to which she answers and explains her story and how she was praying to God for a child. Eli, in turn, wishes her well, telling her to go in peace, asking God on her behalf to grant her prayers.
We flip the sheet over. On the reverse side, the leader of the discussion has printed some verses from Talmud Masechet Brachot. Here, the Rabbis discuss how much we can gain from the story of Hannah. Rabbi Hamnuna begins, “How many most important laws can be learnt from these verses relating to Hannah!” The Talmud goes on to develop halachic principles: Since her lips moved, one should move his lips when he prays; since Eli thought she was drunk, a drunken person must not say Tefillah; since Hannah corrected Eli, Eleazar teaches “one who is suspected wrongfully must clear himself”; and so on. The leader of the shiur emphasized, in particular, the cycle of rebuke, pushback, and apology. This was an ideal model of community in its real, messy form, he argued. He marveled at the idea—an admittedly unrealistic one—of a community where we could all rebuke each other, then begin non-defensive conversations where we worked out issues of who we were and what we were doing, getting to the heart of matters—and people—through criticism and subsequent conversation.
In this moment, I sunk. Was Hannah just part of a Rabbinic game? Was her story meaningful only for legalizing? I was taken back to the moment, in the first weeks at Yeshiva, when I asked a teacher to teach me sections of the Mishnah with me that had to do with women’s issues. We started with a famous passage on niddah, where the Rabbis tiptoed through the different parts of the vagina and birth canal through metaphors of rooms and hallways in their discussion of the various menstrual bloods. From there we moved to the question of betrothal through sexual acts. A girl of three years and one day could be betrothed, I read. What? WHAT? It was not that the Rabbis were advocating for sexual encounter between men and little girls, I was told. This was the age, I learned, that the Rabbis knew (based on Greek and Roman medicine) that a girl’s hymen would not regenerate. Don’t be disturbed, I was told, because the Rabbis must be understood to be playing a game of categories. It’s like a math textbook: if a person’s hymen can be broken permanently, she can be betrothed. It’s impersonal. I was told to think of it impersonally. I have a lot of trouble accepting that, and I am working on finding the right way to relate to this text.
As I processed this flashback, my hand flashed up. What do we make of the erasure of Hannah’s narrative as we use it as a springboard for deriving halacha? I asked. Where was the empathy? Or sympathy? A female teacher responded, pointing out the power of the rabbis using Hannah’s story for halacha without pigeon-holing her as “the infertile woman.” Instead, they took from her story standards for community.
I take that point, but, at the heart of my question, really, was one about our community. How can we today hold this up as a model for community? In what I imagine being a very painful moment in the life of a barren women being confronted by an authority figure, what I was getting at was this: would this be Hannah’s form of interaction? Would a midrash from a woman’s perspective idealize this interaction? Yes, there is power in the recognition of the lowly by the high priest, and in the attention of the rabbis using her story as a model. But, more to the point, would I want to have been Hannah in this story? Most certainly not. I can imagine that instead of a calm, composed reply, my response would have been a mix of tears and anger. There is creativity and progress and growth that can come from the messy interactions among people. But a model of reproach and response, to me, feels like violence.
A few hours later, putting on another hat, I spoke with Naomi Marmon Grumet, the director of the Eden Center (theedencenter.com) about their class for balanyot (mikveh attendants) that works with experienced balanyot to help them be more attuned to issues women bring with them to the mikveh, whether it be abuse, fear of water, OCD, or just different expectations of what the experience should be like and mean to them. Naomi recounted to me a conversation she led about what the role of the balanit should be. Is it the role of the attendant to set standards for women’s immersions and correct them if they do something “wrong”? Or is the mikveh the domain of the woman who immerses, and it is her role to decide how she wants this intimate moment to be for her? In the discussion that ensued, the balanyot drew the parallel of kashrut: would you tell a friend in her home that she was not observing kashrut correctly? That she was not following the right hechsher? Though not universally, the women mostly felt such comment would be an inappropriate invasion into someone’s private life. The sentiment of others was that (even) if you did think it important to bring up because perhaps the woman in question would want to know or had received misinformation from somewhere else, the situation needed to be dealt with delicately. The approach to criticism needs to be gentle, well-timed, sensitive, and perhaps most of all, with a sense of whom you were speaking to (perhaps a Haredi woman would welcome such instruction in the way a woman who came to the mikveh on a Friday night with car keys in her hand would not). Yet others felt that commenting to someone else on her private practice was treating her like a child: people want to take responsibility for themselves, especially in acts between themselves and their Creator.
Context is obviously key. The type of instruction one might accept or expect in the space of a mikveh is different from in a kallah class, when women come to learn about how to fulfill the mitzvah of mikveh immersion. Coming to a Yeshiva as an adult, too, is a different experience than growing up within it. Perhaps this is particularly true at a Conservative Yeshiva—a place where openness to re-interpretation is not just a reality but in some ways an ideal.
Tone, too, is powerful. I can imagine how a twenty-first century Hannah might respond to an empathic Eli, an authority figure whose approach is tempered by some well-educated guesses about who he was dealing with. Of course, we sometimes get it wrong and misjudge. We sometimes take out our own frustrations or concerns, letting them spill onto our dealings with others. Messiness will necessarily ensue. That’s life. But to what extent should that be our goal? And how can we work to soften rough edges—to be less blunt without making life dull?
As I finish writing, my mind wanders to another voice—a powerful voice that reached me here in Israel from home. At the College National Poetry Slam held at Barnard College, a school I’ve been a Teaching Fellow at for the past two years, a young woman named Lily Myers inspired her with her astute gender commentary (http://www.upworthy.com/watch-a-student-totally-nail-something-about-women-that-ive-been-trying-to-articulate-for-37-years-6?g=3&c=ufb1). Her poem describes her mother’s attitude toward food and her body: Not feeling entitled to consume calories, she drinks red wine for dinner and merely pushes her food around. Lily links the shrinking size of women’s bodies to the way they project their voices into the world. Speaking to her brother, she proclaims, “You have been taught to grow out, I have been taught to grow in. You learn from our father how to emit, how to produce, to roll each thought off your tongue with confidence. You used to lose your voice ever other week from shouting so much. I learned to absorb. I took lessons from our mother in creating space around myself. I learned to read the knots in her forehead while the guys went out for oysters.” She tracks the inwardness of her femininity and the outwardness of masculinity in parallel to how she has learned to feel about food consumption. As she keeps food out, she keeps her voice in: she ingests her own thoughts in place of calories, limiting her potential. This is part of the mess of the world we live in, and it’s there without serving someone up rebukes for breakfast.
Lily continued: “And I never meant to replicate her, but spend enough time sitting across from someone and you pick up their habits. That’s why women in my family have been shrinking for decades. We all learned it from each other. The way each generation taught the next how to knit, weaving silence in between the threads which I can still feel….” Across generations and across space—whether we in a Yeshiva or at home—we leave our marks as we weave our words and actions into those of others. Stitch by stitch, word by word, bite by bite, and sip by sip we fill the world and fill ourselves. It is up to us to imagine difference, to imagine the possibility of creating other experiences for ourselves and for those whose differences at first seem unimaginable.
It seems to me that many women fall somewhere between Hannah’s sober composure and the (perhaps) caricatured sad silence that consumes Lily’s mother’s wine-stained lips. I know for me that in some moments I can swallow rebuke and learn from it with utmost poise and at other moments, a big glass of red wine would make it go down much more easily, and even still it may sit uncomfortably in my stomach for days.
I am left thinking about my ideal Jewish community. Instead of serving up reproach, I think we have something to learn from the balanyot’s nuanced, empathic approach. When it comes to immersion in (ritual) communities, relationships are all that more complex: people bring to them their own traditions and histories, their own relationships to God, and their own goals, sensitivities, and desires. Instead of an approach of reproach, what would it look like to lead with questions? Questions open up spaces for others to fill. I can imagine, in this sort of space, women—really everyone—could really grow.