Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Frum Heretic Defends the Traditional POV!

Recently I came across a blog post in which the writer, Diane, took offense at a midrash, feeling that it "insulted womanhood". The post:
R. Hanina, son of R. Adda, said, From the beginning of the Book until here, no samech is written, but as soon as she [Eve] was created, Satan was created with her.

The leading English translation notes laconically, in effect, oh by the way, "Satan" is not actually spelled with a samech (usually). So here would be a timely analogy, about equally well-reasoned:

Osama Bin-Laden is obviously connected to Barack Osama. Oh by the way, his name is actually Barack OBAMA.

In other words, what we have is not only a baseless, pointless slander against womankind (in our original aggadah), and of a rather extreme type (the appearance of femininity coincides with the appearance of evil in the world) -- but it is actually based on a MISTAKE, and what is obviously a sort of deliberate, pointed mistake. (Surely, we are not expected to think the rabbis didn't know how Satan was most typically spelled.)

So we might begin by asking, where is the counter-text (we find them often), which would read something like this, R. X, son of R. Y, replied, Satan is not spelled with a samech, davka, you're a moron. But that text is missing. We just flow right on to the next thing.

So if we want to read against the text, without inventing new midrash, here is one way we might do it: The idea that femininity is evil is based on a mistake. Isn't that actually exactly what the text tells us? The idea that the introduction of femininity into the world brought with it or somehow coincided with the arrival of Satan is fundamentally based on a mistake -- here, the silly grammatical/spelling mistake of thinking Satan starts with a samech, but a mistake, nonetheless. Put another way, thinking the introduction of femininity (or, if one wished to read more broadly and in a slightly different direction, the introduction of gender difference) is the source of evil in the world is exactly as stupid and misguided as thinking Satan begins with a samech.
The few comments that were left suggested, for example, that "R Hanina may have a reading problem as well because a samekh occurs earlier", another wondered "how much of the hatred in the world is based on a stupid mistake/misunderstanding."

I felt that I had to step in here, not to defend the honor of Chazal (well, who knows, perhaps Elul is affecting my perspective...), but because I felt that the post was guilty of being superficial in its approach to midrash:
[FH]: "Satan is not spelled with a samech, davka, you're a moron." blah blah blah

You obviously don't understand that interchangeable sounds (like with the samech and sin) are frequently the source of Torah exegesis. (But I wouldn't say that "davka, you're a moron", just ignorant of this fact.) R. Hirsch uses this technique time and again when discussing the meaning of 3-letter roots.

Far be from me to resort to apologetics (I am a heretic, after all), but it has been my experience that too many people take a very superficial approach to midrash and thus fail to understand the deeper meanings that are being conveyed. You are certainly free to presume that Satan=woman was the intention of the midrash, but it would be intellectually dishonest to do so without looking into how it has been understood by various meforshim.

So here is an alternative explanation: When someone succumbs to the Satan, or evil inclination, it removes them from Godliness by dragging them down to base animalistic behavior. With the creation of woman, sexual desire was also created. Sexual desire is arguably the most powerful human drive; Judaism seeks to transform that drive into an elevating force rather than a degrading one.

See how easy it is to interpret a midrash in a more positive light?
To which Lawrence King replied:
Actually, I quite expect Diane does understand this. But even if we allow that the rabbis freely confused shin and samekh, the fact remains that before Woman is created in verse 2:22, there have already occurred two samekhs (2:11 and 2:13) and dozens of shins (1:1 ff.)

So R. Hanina's argument is evidently false to any careful reader today. Could it have been otherwise to his contemporaries?
I couldn't let this one go either (by the way, note his choice of words, "freely confused"):
[FH]: Yep, another example of trivializing a midrash by assuming that "he must have made a mistake". You really think that R. Hanina - one of the most important students of R. Yehudah haNasi - or the rabbis that he discussed this with didn't know about earlier samechs? Gimmeabreak. And certainly the masoretic text had been firmly established by the 3rd century. But the samechs in 2:11 and 2:13 have nothing to do with the creation of man. The Zohar explains that 2:21 is the first instance of a samech relating to the creation of woman and then uses this to make a theological statement. The Zohar, however, makes a different point: it says that man was an imperfect being until the creation of Eve and that this is indicated by the absence of the letter Samech - which denotes "help" - until this passage.
At this point I lost interest in continuing the thread. Besides, I didn't want this post to grow too long.

I'm not an expert on midrash, nor do I play one on TV. But I learned long ago that aggadic statements cannot be trivialized as if they were nothing more than naive fairy tales. Much deep meaning is often encoded in the statements and stories of Chazal (I highly recommend The Juggler and the King: An Elaboration of the Vilna Gaon's Insights Into the Hidden Wisdom of the Sages )

Yes, I do feel that much of what Chazal believed, and the way in which they expressed such beliefs, were often deeply affected by the cultural milieu in which they lived. And I certainly have many issues and concerns regarding the role of woman as perpetuated by traditional Judaism. But I don't automatically take any statement made by a gemara or a midrash in a negative light if it is possible to interpret it otherwise. (Sorry, I couldn't interpret the Sifrei otherwise in my post Women - Don't Speak Unless Spoken To!)

The bottom-line is that if one wants to view Chazal as being misogynous old-farts who couldn't even read the Torah properly, well then there is nothing I can say to convince such a person otherwise.

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