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Torturing the Talmud

Bennett Muraskin
March 13, 2015

In the Name of Feminism

by Bennett Muraskin

Reviewed in this essay: A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales, by Ruth Calderon (translated by Ilana Kurshan). Jewish Publication Society,2014, 163 pages.

508RUTH CALDERON HOLDS a doctorate in Talmud from Hebrew University. She is currently a member of the Knesset representing the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, which is part of the ruling coalition government in Israel led by Likud. She is also a secular Jew and a feminist who believes that the Orthodox should not have a monopoly on Jewish tradition. In a bare 144 pages of text, she seeks to demonstrate the riches of the non-legal side of the Talmud known as aggadah to the contemporary Jewish reader. The original was published in Hebrew in 2001; the English translation appeared in 2014.

Her method is to juxtapose an aggadic excerpt she has translated with her retelling of the story and then with her commentary on the retold story. The problem is that by time she is done, the connections between story and commentary become progressively more tenuous. The bigger problem is that many of her interpretations are tortured.

Take the title story, “A Bride for One Night.” It is based on four lines of Talmudic text. When famous rabbis came to certain towns in their travels, they would announce, “Who will be mine for a day?” This means that these rabbis were looking to have a one-night stand with unmarried women. To make it kosher they would “marry” the woman and “divorce” her the next day.

Now, what should a feminist or any progressive make of this story, which reeks of male entitlement? In Calderon’s retelling, a widow chosen by the community leaders has a delightful night of sex with the rabbi, who even offers to take her as his (second) genuine wife. In Calderon’s commentary, she insists that “the institution of ‘marriage for a day’ is worthy of our consideration” and sees it as analogous to the “free love spirit of the 1960s.” I couldn’t help myself from thinking of the 1970 Steven Stills song with the refrain “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with,” which sounds like fun — but could have challenging consequences.

Well, maybe there is something to be said for couples separated for long periods of time having casual sex to tide them over. Or maybe these rabbis were the rock stars of their day, whom women swarmed for sex, and the Talmudic institution would at least dignify the transaction. The original story is so sparse, however, that Calderon’s reinterpretation verges on sheer invention.

Her treatment of the story, “Sisters,” is also problematic. In the original, a woman accused of adultery is about to undergo a test involving the drinking of “bitter waters,” which will reveal her guilt or innocence. Her sister offers to take the test in her place and passes. When the two sisters meet they embrace and kiss. The trace of the “bitter waters” on the lips of the sister who took the test immediately kills the other sister, revealing that she was indeed an adulterer.

This is an ugly story that parallels “honor killings” of women in some cultures today. So what does Calderon do? “I took the liberty of freezing the end of the story one moment prior to the sister’s arrival, just before the sisterly kiss turns into a kiss of death.” And how does she justify turning the story on its head? “I searched within the Talmud’s paean to quiet obedience for the subversive story that lies hidden between the lines, between the letters.” But the original story is not about quiet obedience, it is about the two sisters’ conscious act of deception — or as Calderon phrases it, “sisterly solidarity” in a worthy cause. To me, she needs either to critique the story’s conclusion in protest, or find another story with the subversive theme she seeks — not to try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

“LAMP” IS A PAINFULLY SAD STORY about a bride on her wedding night who is told by her husband to hold an oil lamp for him all night while he reads Torah. Not one word is spoken nor is there any sign of affection between them. Imagine the humiliation felt by the young woman, to be used by her husband as a piece of furniture! In Calderon’s retelling, by morning the bride’s hands are filthy from the lamp and she wipes them on her nightgown, which should have been stained by her virginal blood. The image is horrifying, yet Calderon’ considers this a precious story about intimacy, in which the husband has invited his new wife to participate in his Torah study. Because of a conflict that the husband has with his own father, he is, according to Calderon, “the true hero of this story and a man in his own right.” This favorable assessment of the husband is peculiar, when it is the new bride that deserves her sympathy.

In another story, “He and His Son,” Calderon can’t leave well enough alone. Rabbi Shimon bar Yokhai, after denouncing the Roman government, is forced to flee to escape execution. He and his son go into hiding in a cave, where they study Torah and pray for twelve years. Finally they are told that their death sentence has been annulled and they are free to return to normal life, but when they emerge from the cave and see people engaged in working their fields, they are so enraged by the mundanity that their very gaze causes people and things to burst into flame. God chastises them: “Have you emerged in order to destroy my world? Return to your cave!” After another year, God tells them it is again time to leave. This time only the son reacts violently, while his father calms him down and convinces him that they need to adjust to world around them.

To me, the story is a powerful repudiation of fanaticism, but Calderon has quite a different take. “Ultimately [the rabbi and his son] demonstrate that those who remain devoted to a creative cultural tradition (presumably interminable Torah study in a cave) will emerge victorious against any conquering power.” Come again? The story explicitly states that “the victorious conquering power” of Rome cancelled the death sentence on its own. Further, the son’s devotion to Torah study became so obsessive that the even his father could not take it any more. And their survival does nothing to lessen the power of Rome.

Although the subtitle of her book is “Talmud Tales,” Calderon includes a story, “The Beruriah Incident,” which is not in exactly from the Talmud, but rather comes from Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud, which is considered authoritative. It is yet another misogynistic story in which an eminent rabbi orders one of his students to seduce his highly intelligent wife to prove the point that women are frivolous creatures. After she succumbs, she is so ashamed that she hangs herself. Here, at least, Calderon sides with the woman against her husband. She also does so in “Beloved Rabbi” and “Return,” two stories about rabbinic sages who neglect their wives and children for the sake of Torah study. In these instances, Calderon grapples with the sexism of the Talmud and offers a sensitive critique.

“The Knife,” another story she examines and reshapes, was also the inspiration for a poem by Daniel H. Friedman titled “Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and the Angel of Death” that appeared in the December 1974 issue of Jewish Currents. In the original, a prominent rabbi who is fated to die tricks the Angel of Death into letting him enter heaven while he is still alive, and then refuses to leave until God himself delivers an ultimatum. Friedman considered this story an example of the Jewish tradition of resistance to unjust authority, whether human or divine. Calderon concentrates, rather, on Rabbi Joshua ben Levi’s role in teaching Torah to lepers — certainly an act of courage and compassion, but there is nothing in the story to suggest that this is what killed him. Her comment that “The story... elevates matters of illness and contagion from the physical level to the theological level, in which each person is met with the fate he deserves,” is a non sequitur. Did the lepers who Rabbi Joshua taught get the fate they deserve? Did Rabbi Joshua?

I fully enjoyed only one story, called “Yishmael, My Son, Bless Me.” A high priest enters the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem, where God is said to dwell and to sit in judgment of the Jewish people — and God asks for the high priest’s blessing! Yishmael’s blessing is to ask God to be compassionate toward His people, to leaven His sense of justice with a sense of mercy. God nods his head in agreement. This image of a vulnerable God who requests human assistance is appealing, and Yishmael’s blessing is pure mentshlikhkayt. “As such,” Calderon writes, “this story can serve as a model for the type of religious encounter we might aspire to in our world today.” In other words a partnership with God leading to tikkun olam. Although I am an atheist, I can appreciate the sentiment.

Nevertheless, if this is the best the Talmud has to offer to secular readers, vey iz mir.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer to our magazine, is the author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.