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by Susan Reimer-Torn THERE ARE NO LAWS I know of that prohibit the embellishing upon an aggadic story. On the contrary, the liberal art of narrative reinvention fits squarely in the centuries-old midrashic tradition of taking a simply or cryptically told story and embroidering upon it according to our own imaginative wiles. There is so little revealed about the few women who appear in the patriarchal world of the Talmud that to me it seems imperative to round them out — to imagine what they might have looked like, how they wore their hair, what perfumes they chose, whether and how they loved, how quickly or languorously they walked, whether or not they talked to the moon late at night, and what they wanted for themselves. To a contemporary reader, these women seem like little more than props, to be to be trotted out to do or say what is needed and then to be re-closeted with no further concern. But I insist that a closer reading often reveals that for marginalized members of society, the women manage to come through with more intention and to effect more change than we might expect. In the times that their interventions fail — as in the story in my last installment of the sister-wife left to become a widow by the falling out of Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yokhanan — they manage to illuminate a hidden truth that leaves the men revealed in an unflattering light. In that story, two prominent if very different men fall in love with one another while treading the rushing waters of the Jordan River. In his excitement, Rabbi Yohhanan promises Resh Lakish his beautiful sister in marriage if only Lakish, a brigand and a marauder, will give up his way of life and come study Torah. The match is made. Needless to say, the nameless sister is not even consulted, but is assumed to be a willing pawn in their game. IMAGINE THIS YOUNG, BEAUTIFUL GIRL. She reminds me of myself once upon a time, enamored of my older brother. Yokhanan is a scholar and leader in whom she can imagine no flaw. It never occurs to her, not for a moment, that he would arrange her future in a manner that better fulfills his own desires (however repressed or unacknowledged) than her own. We have no evidence concerning how she felt about this match with Resh Lakish. Her feelings seem to be of no concern to the storyteller. I assume that having been raised in a rabbinic home to revere emasculated/domesticated piety, she might have some aversion to a ruffian like Resh Lakish — at least at first. It is also possible that he led her to discover cravings and fantasies that she’d never before imagined. That we don’t know. But I imagine she always felt like a stand-in, that she intuited that her husband’s love was truly directed toward her brother Yokhanan and that she was their enabler. Perhaps she was able to convince herself that this was as worthy a role as she could possibly hope to play. She and Resh Lakish have children, while Yokhanan and the woman he eventually marries apparently lose all ten of their sickly offspring. At one point, the bitterly bereaved Yokhanan is said to carry around the bone of his last deceased child and to constantly be fingering it in distress. It gives rise to the thought that Yokhanan, in repressing his true desires, cannot muster enough healthy seed to father robust children. By contrast, his sister is somehow able to help Resh Lakish rise to the occasion, and their children thrive. The dynamics of this family’s passions seem to be awkwardly rerouted, and the deviations and denials bode ill for them all. IN FROM JERUSALEM TO THE EDGES OF HEAVEN, Ari Elon, a contemporary Israeli Talmudist, gives us a dazzling example of how the two men, Yokhanan and Resh Lakish, sublimate their desire and their fierce competition into the parry and thrust of talmudic debate.
They train themselves to think twenty four moves ahead. Rabbi Yokhanan opens with the first gambit. Resh Lakish immediately is able to see a loophole and present an objection. Rabbi Yokhanan sees this objection and counters with a solution to the problem before it is asked. Resh Lakish sees the solution before it is offered and prepares a parry in the form an argument against the solution to the argument — even before the question has been asked.... And so it goes. Twenty four arguments in advance before even the argument has been cast into the beit midrash. All in thought stored in their heads.... The true contest between them will happen on the twenty-fifth move....Every corporeal impulse is lodged in the mind and the cerebral dueling is fierce. Meanwhile, the sister-wife stays home, possibly trying to convince herself that she counts as more than a utility to the older brother, whom she still idealizes, and to the man to whom this brother has given her without any aforethought. Then, one day, on the twenty-fifth or twenty-sixth or hundred-and-eighteenth move, all the repressed resentments explode. Yokhanan is nasty and throws up Resh Lakish’s past as a lawless robber in his face. Resh Lakish dismisses the importance of Yokhanan’s mentoring influence by saying pridefully that he was a master with the sword and he’s now a master with the books. Each knows how to mortally wound the other, and neither knows how to self-protect. What is worse, neither one of them can forgive — or live without — the other, and the sister-wife suddenly realizes she is about to lose them both. She assumes the role of the mediator — a role that is a familiar bit part for the few women who get to make an appearance in the Talmud. She begs her brother to reconcile with her husband, who has already collapsed into a depression so severe that his sanity is threatened. Yokhanan refuses. Stunned by his stubbornness, she then begs him to give in for the sake of her children, whose father’s life is now threatened. Her brother arrogantly quotes Scripture to her in reply: God will provide for her family. She then begs him to at least spare her a premature widowhood, still assuming, that concern for her lives in her brother’s strife-torn heart. He again quotes scripture: God will provide, presumably through Yokhanan himself. The quarrel is never mended, both men die, and the sister-wife is left alone. I imagine her, in an empathic if mournful midrashic addendum of my own, unbraiding her hair at her window, looking out on a wheat field and a full moon in the silence of an early winter night. The children, though only in their early teens, are now almost old enough to marry and have children of their own. The idea does little to still her shivers. She wonders if anyone would think she was still beautiful. She asks herself what, if anything, that beauty ever brought her in life. Then, though she tries not to go there, her mind wanders off to a remote corner where it asks the only question she has ever really cared about. She wonders if indeed she was ever loved, either by the brother whom she idealized but could not persuade, or by the husband who had no will to stay alive simply for her sake. The next unbidden thought is, if possible, more shattering than the last: She wonders whether or not she ever really loved them. And if she did, whether it was worth everything that unrequited love cost her in the end. IN ANOTHER TALMUDIC STORY with a woman as a go-between (Bava Batra 9b), Rabbi Ahadvoy makes a joke at the expense of Rabbi Sheshet, who becomes depressed as a result. Rabbi Ahadvoy then “became mute and had difficulties with his learning. His [Sheshet’s] mother came and cried before him. She cried and cried but he paid no attention to her. She said to him, ‘See these breasts that you nursed from.’ ” Finally, Rabbi Sheshet “prayed for mercy and Rabbi Ahadvoy was cured.” In this story, as in the one about Yokhanan and Resh Lakish, two rabbis have a quarrel over some fine point of law concerning the purity or impurity of a material object — in the former case, about metal tools and weapons, in this case, about an article of clothing. When Rabbi Ahadvoy not only disagrees with Rabbi Sheshet but makes a joke (unrecorded in the text) at his expense, Sheshet is so outraged that he refuses to forgive, and the offender falls mute and unable to focus. A mother comes to intervene. The famous commentator Rashi specifies that it is the mother of Sheshet, the offended party; she does not want his refusal to forgive to be the cause of another man’s suffering. In this, she is very much like the sister-wife who attempts to mediate in the quarrel between her husband and her brother. This mother, however, will not take “No” or “Go away, Ma” for an answer. In a bold gesture, she bares her breasts to her grown, rabbinical son. What is her intention? Perhaps to mitigate her prominent son’s arrogance by reminding him that once upon a time he was a helpless babe suckling at her breast, utterly depending on her for his life. That is my interpretation (it would be good to have others from readers). In any case, she seems to have had her desired effect: Her son prays for mercy and the suffering Ahadvoy is cured of his affliction. Before we get too content about a happy-ever-after tale, I have to add another twist: In another story in which Sheshet appears, he is blind. How does this game-changing detail reflect on his mother’s breast-baring gambit? At left is one of UK-artist Jacqueline Nichol’s beautiful, layered drawings of the interaction between Sheshet and his mom. You can see the rest by clicking here. Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return, published by our own Blue Thread Books and Music. She writes regularly for The Jewish Week.
Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.
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Also by Susan Reimer-Torn
On the 30th anniversary of her groundbreaking book Standing Again at Sinai, feminist theologian Judith Plaskow discusses the choice to remain within a patriarchal religious framework.
Unrequited Love: When Women Study the Talmud
Women Talmud scholars find different paths through a patriarchal text.