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More Tales from the Talmud

by Susan Reimer-Torn

“His (Rabbi Hanina b.Teradion’s) daughter was consigned to a brothel, for R. Johanan related that once that daughter of his was walking in front of some great men of Rome who remarked, ‘How beautiful are the steps of the maiden.’ Whereupon, she took particular care of her step. Which confirms the following words of R. Simeon b. Lakish: ‘What is the meaning of the verse, the iniquity of my heel compasseth me about?’ — Sins which one treads under heel in this world compass him about on the day of Judgment.”  —Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Avodah Zarah 17b to18A

tumblr_n5dfb25l2K1qald0lo2_1280RABBI HANINA BEN TERADION WAS wrapped in Torah parchments and burned alive for persisting in teaching Jewish texts despite the Roman prohibition. His nameless daughter endured the hideous trauma of seeing her father burned at the stake throughout many hours. In one version of the story, the distraught girl prostrates herself at the scene of her father’s tortured murder and bitterly decries that such a great man should meet such a terrible end, while he (while dying) manages to comfort her. We are told in several versions — one of which I quote from above — that after her father’s martyrdom, this daughter is condemned to life as a sex slave in a Roman brothel.

In such catastrophic times, the rabbis are forever scavenging for meager scraps of evidence of Divine justice, even when they are not to be found. Why, they ask, should this innocent, bereaved girl deserve such a fate? R. Johanan comes up with a version of “blame the victim” so unabashed that I find it shocking even in the context of the misogynistic culture of the Babylonian Talmud. He explains that one day, presumably before the arrest of her dad, this once lighthearted young woman was out for a stroll when she happened to come under the admiring gaze of some prominent Romans. When she overhears the men complimenting her, she goes out of her way to walk with an even more alluring gait. The punishment that clearly fits the crime is perpetual subjugation to the gaze and sexual appetites of Roman men in some far-off brothel. She was asking for it and she got her just desserts. (Further implication: Don’t blame God.)

I wished I could have told that story to the hundreds of scantily-dressed and undressed protesters who marched through the downtown streets of Jerusalem in the Holy City’s fourth SlutWalk on May 29th. They were calling attention to persistent sexual violence against women in Israel and around the world. The specific focus, as it always is in the SlutWalks that have taken place in many cities, is that women can dress as provocatively as they please, and neither strutting nor exhibitionism is justification for sexual aggression.

I imagine R. Johanan and his cronies looking on and blaring their victim-slamming message as women and their supporters of all gender identifications passed by with bare breasts, see-through clothing, and butt-baring cutoffs. “We are here to protest the norm in which women cannot feel safe in the public area,” organizers said, with one adding, “I’m here to celebrate body rights and the freedom to wear whatever makes me feel comfortable without being judged, harassed or abused.”

 

WHAT ASTONISHES me more than the brazen, puckish marchers was the absence of abusive or violent response from Jerusalemites. Even the anticipated heckling was as scant as the in-your-face attire. This is a municipality in which the religious right has managed to limit and legislate all aspects of women’s appearance in the public space. City buses have been strong-armed into taking down all images of women from posters, even those of candidates for municipal and national office. Certain bus lines maintain gender segregation; there are ongoing legal battles in Jerusalem and nearby Beit Shemesh over the legality of signs that ban women from using certain sidewalks. Infamously huge modesty signs outline dress code for women in mind-boggling detail: Skirts must be well below knee-length, but remember, they cannot be tight fitting; it is good and well to wear long sleeves, but, hey, what about your décolleté? While the courts have declared these signs illegal, they are routinely reposted after being removed.

How then to explain that in a city blighted by a religious obsession with female modesty the deliberately provocative SlutWalkers were able to march down its central streets without eliciting any backlash?

 

I BELIEVE that it is all a question of a codependent relationship between Jerusalem’s religious men and women, one in which outside agitators and presumed heathens have no role.

In my many conversations with Orthodox women, even those who call themselves feminists and declare themselves absolutely fed-up with how they are treated within Orthodoxy, there is one constant that is never questioned: their belonging to the fathers, uncles, brothers, husbands, and sons who oppress them. Needless to say, no such bonding force field exists between Jerusalem’s Orthodox men and the SlutWalkers, many of them imported from Canada, where this form of protest originated, others from Tel Aviv, which might as well be another continent in Jerusalem, and none of them, regardless of their parentage, worthy to be considered a daughter of Israel by the insular standards of these God-fearing men.

Within the Orthodox world, there is a battle of the sexes and it is played according to certain unstated rules. Sometimes one side scores a victory, then the other gains an advantage, but the game is never over and hardly anyone quits for good. Even the Talmud is critical of a man who can’t take the heat. Here such a quitter is offered up as an example of poor moral character and disastrous parenting:

We read a tale of Rabbi B. Abin, who, like the ill-fated Rabbi Teradion, had a beautiful daughter:

One day he saw a man boring a hole in the fence, just to catch a glimpse of her. He said to the man, “What is the meaning of this?’ And the man answered, “If I am not worthy enough to marry her, may I not at least be worthy enough to catch of glimpse of her?” Thereupon the rabbi exclaimed: “My daughter, you are a source of trouble to mankind; return to the dust so that men may not sin because of you.” (Ta’anit 2a)

This Rabbi Abin manages his workers unskillfully, curses his very worthy son and here, disavows his own daughter’s right to life. He is a man who despairs of the moves he must make to wisely profit from a beautiful daughter within the given social order. He opts out and wants her dead; he is a man who drops out of the male-female, dad-daughter game and he is not praised.

 

WHY DON’T THE WOMEN just cut out to a more tolerant world? (Some few do cut ties. Full disclosure: I did by the age of 18. But most do not.) The basic reason is that this is their world, their tribe, their heart center, their connection to the past, their link to the future, the home of their families, an island of meaning in a frightening secular sea. And deep down, it is with these men that the women’s loyalty lies. (Even in secret, ultra-Orthodox women cast their votes for the religious right; if they did not, Israel’s political landscape would look very different.)

There is something in this battle of the sexes game for everyone. All these women, even the most articulate PhD’s, still want to be good girls. The women get to be grown-up daddy’s girls who have learned to speak up for themselves a bit, but only politely, preferably when granted permission. The men get to be grown-up mamas’ boys acting out with inchoate fury against her still-felt, insufferable dominance. As for the women, they may even get a little masochistic buzz from all the fuss, not to mention, the imposed constraints. It is, after all, deeply flattering, even empowering, to have your sexual charm considered so highly-charged that an extra inch of knee or a passing glimpse of elbow can knock some yeshiva boy, or even a respected rebbe, right off his pious path.

Every tightly knit community knows how to rebalance its own ecosystem. Modernity is currently exerting a strong liberationist pull to the left, so naturally there has to be a counterpull to the right. The idea is to keep the tug of war on an even playing field.

Finally, since the unspoken truth is that God-fearing men, even as far back as Talmudic times, are famously insecure in their masculinity, the women are playing their part perfectly. They protest their subjugation — and certainly, there are many who feel this strongly and sincerely — but do nothing to expose the essential fragility underlying their menfolk’s need to publicly oppress them. With this give and take, the women exercise a voice, the men’s hegemony is reaffirmed, the internal equilibrium is preserved, and the relationship grows only more codependent.

As for the SlutWalkers, they are not in relationship. They are meshugenes, best ignored, pitied, or even laughed at, as the black hats hurry about their busy day.

 

OH, AND ONE MORE THING: On a personal note: I tend to dress self-consciously with a concern, sometimes subtle, sometimes less so, for seduction. A lot of women do. It’s an assumed modus operandi in the world of nature wherein the mating game unfolds. I got in the habit when living for twenty-two years in Paris. So by now it’s part of who I am and what I do.

I feel it’s best to be up front about a desire, however ambivalent, however narcissistic and even risky, to attract the gaze. I do not believe that is something to be ashamed of. I do not believe that we all deserve to end up in a Roman brothel. When our attire is eroticized, even a little (high heels, hip-hugging dress, short skirt, tight jeans) there must be some intention to allure. I think we might be disappointed if there was no such effect. This is a far cry from saying we want to be judged, harassed, abused, or raped. So I basically agree with the message of the SlutWalkers. I’m just far from convinced that the female costume in the public arena is only about being comfortable. We are consciously looking for something. I’m still not 100 percent sure what that is. And I don’t anticipate finding an answer in the Talmud.

 

Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of Maybe Not Such a Nice Girl: A Memoir of Rupture and Return, published by our Blue Thread Books and Music imprint.