"Vedavak be'ishto: Pirkei limud leha'amakat hakhibur bein ish le'ishto" ("A Man Shall Cleave Unto His Wife") by Naomi Wolfson, 207 pages, Erez Publishing, NIS 48.
"The most humiliating thing for observant Jewish women is not their exclusion from religious rituals or their status in rabbinical courts, but the fact that they are obligated to immerse themselves every month in a mikveh (ritual bath)." This was one of the arguments put forward recently at a private forum discussing the work of various organizations in advancing the rights of women in religious society. The frustration implicit in these remarks relates not only to the practical side of ritual immersion, which usually involves bathing under the watchful eye of a mikveh attendant, but also to the essence of the law, which views immersion as a transition from impurity to purity.
Modern-day religious jargon has rushed to come up with less offensive, politically correct alternatives. A woman is not referred to as "impure" when she is menstruating. During this period, a man and wife are simply "off limits" to each other. The shift in terminology is similar to that introduced in religious divorce courts. A man no longer "banishes" his wife when he gives her a get (writ of divorce). And a divorce is not something "done" to the wife; it applies to both parties.
At the same time, it is hard to say that these linguistic updates indicate any genuine change in the formal approach, according to halakha (Jewish law), toward matters of divorce or menstruation. One could even argue that the changes in language are a way of covering up for the fact that at the core, almost nothing has changed.
To abolish the practice of ritual immersion for women would be a radical measure even today (in fact, nowadays, there is a battle going on to legitimize ritual immersion for unmarried women, so as to circumvent the strict taboo on sexual relations outside of marriage). Efforts are being made, however, to invest it with new meaning.
The approach taken in this guide book is that going to the mivkeh is not a way of subjugating women, but something that liberates them and offers an opportunity to develop "bodily awareness": "A marvelous body-soul connection is established that elevates the woman," writes Wolfson. "A religious commandment so preoccupied with the body and meticulously examining one's intimate organs transforms a woman spiritually. The more a woman invests in her body and focuses on it, the more she will feel the spiritual transformation within her after immersing herself."
'Spiritual dissonance'What prompted her to write "Vedavak be'ishto" ("A Man Shall Cleave Unto His Wife"; there is no official English translation), says the author, was the "fear of the law" that hovers over many couples who observe this commandment. "Repressing the subject of physical union to the point where it is taboo and shrouded in mystery can have all kinds of negative effects. Avoiding the topic creates spiritual dissonance," Wolfson writes in the introduction. In Hebrew, she deliberately uses the word khibur - union - as a clinical, political correct substitute for such loaded terms as be'ila (which implies mastery) and tashmeesh hamita (literally, "things done in bed").
To cut to the quick, after the religious educational system has worked so hard to depict sexual desire in the most negative light possible, it is hard to change this impression even after marriage, when sex is permissible. "How can we remove the sense of shame from the sex act?" asks Wolfson.
The book is divided into three parts. The first section, "The sanctity of intercourse," explores sexual desire as an aide to fulfilling the mitzvah (commandment) of "being fruitful and multiplying," and also as a way of making holiness "pleasurable." The second and longest section, "It is Torah," discusses the fundamental differences between men and women, which account for their different approaches to sexual desire. The way to bridge the gap is through better communication.
The title "It is Torah" comes from a famous story from the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot, 62a) about the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Kahana, who crouches under the bed of his teacher while the rabbi and his wife have intercourse. Scolded by his teacher, Rabbi Kahana replies: "Torah hee, velilmod ani tzarikh" ("It is Torah, and I have to learn"). This story, according to Wolfson, articulates the need to achieve the right balance between preoccupation with matters of sex and seeking out proper guidance. The third and shortest section of the book, with the biblical title "And you shall know that your tent is at peace," is about the importance of mutual happiness in marriage while both husband and wife are allowed to have their private space.
Most of the book revolves around quoted text followed by brief explanations (sometimes on the simplistic or tendentious side). The selection of sources is eclectic. A passage from the Talmud might be followed by a snatch of Hasidic lore, some saying of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik or a quote from a popular marriage manual. Together, these different insights are used to create a harmonious whole.
Importance of passionA major theme, to which the author keeps coming back, is the importance of passion. "Desire and lust are vital forces in a marital relationship," she writes, and not just a means of procreation. She brings a variety of arguments to refute the oft-cited contention that Judaism favors abstention. But one gets the opposite impression from David Biale's acclaimed "Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America." In this book, Biale sets out to prove that throughout Jewish history, from biblical until modern times, there have been two contradictory approaches to sexuality, with some embracing asceticism and others set against it to one degree or another. It is this pursuit of the ideal formula that lies behind the author's desperate attempt to see "mutuality" between men and women in rabbinical writings even when the woman is clearly portrayed as man's "helpmate."
At the same time, the power of the book in question lies in the author's determination to encourage religious Jews to be more sensitive toward the sexual needs of their partners. This is at odds with the puritanical tone of some of the Talmudic passages and later rabbinical writings. The chapter entitled "Pleasure within the framework of Jewish law," for example, begins as follows: "Many couples sense a conflict between the desire to 'go with the flow' in their lovemaking, a prerequisite for a truly complete and satisfying union, and the prohibitions in halakhic texts, which inhibit them. The very knowledge that such restrictions exist acts as a brake on their bodies and emotions, and keeps them from letting go entirely and giving their partners pleasure."
While this is not such an unusual observation (and Wolfson insists that she is not rewriting Jewish law, but trying to decipher the texts), to find it in a guide written by a religious woman is still rather daring. Especially when she offers an assessment as forthright as this at the end of the chapter: "And so it is advisable for every couple to look for ways to express their love and avoid adopting an excessively pious attitude while ignoring the simple exhortation to 'love thy neighbor as thyself.'"As a religious guidebook, this volume offers some relatively refreshing reading, considering the subject matter (although the author does have an agenda and we are not looking at scholarly research or criticism).
And yet in practice, instead of imputing healthy, normative sexual desire to women, which is one of the central goals of the book, the reader is left with the opposite impression. Wolfson wants to stamp out the idea of the woman as an object and a tool for the satisfaction of male lust. She wants to show that she is an autonomous being with her own strengths and desires. But the outcome of all these good intentions is to portray the woman as an oversexed being. As we read, the author's constant repetition of this principle and her exaggerated effort to find a basis for it in an assortment of texts only achieves the reverse. It eroticizes the woman. And that, as we all know today, is a winning formula for perpetuating the view of women as "the other" - a being with lots of body and little brain.
Noam Serri is a Ph.D. student at the department of hermeneutics and culture at Bar-Ilan University.
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