All About Eve

Prof. Aliza Shenhar shines a much-needed light on the chauvinistic treatment of women in the Bible.

Until I read Prof. Aliza Shenhar's superb book "Loved and Hated: Women in the Bible, Midrash and Modern Hebrew Literature" (Pardes; Hebrew ), I had only a vague idea - in other words, I was ignorant - about the true status of women in our religious sources. For example, I thought "A woman of valor who can find" praises women in their own right. But reading the text accompanied by Shenhar's explanation made me realize that this "woman of valor" is actually an unknown woman, an everywoman, who serves her husband, looks after all the household needs, spins, sews, cooks, saves, deals in real estate ("She plans for a field and buys it," just like Jezebel, who had Naboth murdered, though Jezebel is considered a hated woman ), an indefatigable worker "who arises while it is still night and gives food to her household." In short, the radically self-righteous basic feminist nightmare; the true fruit of her labors is the profit her husband extracts from her. Accordingly, "her price is far above rubies" (she is worth even more than rubies ) and as a result the man whose property she is becomes "known at the gates" and "sits among the elders" - the wise men - "of the land."

In contrast to that indeterminate woman - that "present absentee," as she is termed by feminist scholars - Shenhar is a true woman of valor who gives feminism an even better name than it already has. Not only has she now published another riveting and important study (in addition to nine previous books and dozens of articles which have appeared in Israel and abroad, and seven short-story collections she has edited ); she also lectures and teaches, was Israel's ambassador to Russia; and, as deputy mayor of Haifa, did not hesitate to protest against the stupidity of the Second Lebanon War from its outset.


These days, she is president of Emek Yezreel College in the Jezreel Valley. "I returned like the pioneers who arrived directly from Russia to the Jezreel Valley; I wanted the change," she says. "The college was quite small and modest, with three curricula, and we have since grown into a splendid place. Jews and Arabs, Russians, Ethiopians, moshav residents, kibbutzniks, urban and rural dwellers - all of them are here and partake of a broad range of distinctive curricula. Recently I have been feeling very proud of having been honored as a 'Dignitary of the Arab Sector.'" She is the only Jew, and also the first woman, to be awarded that title.

On top of all that, she is also a very likable person with a terrific sense of humor, and even though she is an outstanding grandmother, she is very far from the "valorous" image which Jews praise every Sabbath eve.

If we thought "woman of valor" was a poem that demeans women, Shenhar's book teaches us what every student of a religious school or yeshiva learned long ago: According to the Jewish sages, a woman has no existence or life without a husband. Here is a quote from the Sanhedrin tractate cited by Shenhar: "A woman is a golem [unformed vessel] and does not enter into a covenant other than with a man who makes her into a vessel. As it is written, 'For thy Maker is thy husband.'" Charming, isn't it?

Actually, the status of women was better at the beginning of Genesis. There we read that "male and female He created them," so ostensibly they are both equal. But in short order it's the woman who is to blame for original sin, whereas, according to Shenhar, she deserves to be lauded: "After all, what did she want, when all is said and done? To taste of the Tree of Knowledge, to expand her horizons, to learn." Just as Shenhar herself has been doing her whole life.

Shenhar was born in Rosh Pina, but not to one of the privileged farming families. Her father worked there as a laborer. When she was four, the family moved to Haifa, where she lives to this day, as do her daughter and her grandchildren. At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she majored in popular literature under Prof. Dov Noy. She was the first woman ever to serve as rector of the University of Haifa. "It's amazing that until 1991 there had not been a female rector," she says. "People talk about equality in academia, but the situation is awful there, too."

Shenhar researched the status and traits of women in popular literature and in Midrash - a body of literature which explains and interprets biblical texts. One day, she was invited to a conference in which she was asked to comment on the status of women in the Bible. That sparked the research which culminated in the new book.

"In that talk I chose one woman, Potiphar's wife," Shenhar recalls. "It interested me very much that a woman tried to rape a man; I was drawn to the subject. In the Bible and Midrash, the voice is that of men, primarily because men wrote the stories. They wrote for themselves and about their world. In popular literature, the voice is very often feminine, because it's a personal story and women also told stories. You find this in the spoken genre, but in the cultural canon - the Bible and Midrash - it's a completely different picture."

The model of the woman of valor, who "in the eyes of women is an abused bondswoman, exists to this day in the Haredi society," Shenhar notes, referring to ultra-Orthodox Jewry. "To this day she is the figure in whose light mothers raise their daughters. In the Bible, too, it's clear what kind of woman is preferred. It's obvious that Leah is preferred over Rachel because she keeps having babies. It's obvious that Sarah is positive and that Hagar is negative, and equally obvious that, in the battle the two wage over Abraham, his status is actually augmented. It is very blatant in the Bible that a multiplicity of women attests to a man's power. But the voice of the women is not heard because 'the king's daughter is all glorious within.' This viewpoint remains dominant today. Women are not to be found in the public space. Neither Shas nor Agudat Israel has female representation."

Are there female murderers in Midrash and the Bible?

"No, we have none. The women who are present serve the public need. They belong to someone, to a husband, to a father. Jephthah's daughter, for example, doesn't even have a name. All we know about her is that her father was Jephthah, that she came out to dance in his honor after he was victorious in battle and that he sacrificed her, his daughter, his own flesh and blood. Because the women in the Bible lack an identity of their own, their existence is less deep than that of women in Greek mythology, so you do not have women murderers. In our case, Dinah is raped. Why? Because she 'went out to see the daughters of the land.' In other words, according to the Jewish sages, the very fact that she left the house brought about the rape. She herself does not speak in the story.

"It is an awful story," Shenhar continues. "Like the story of a concubine in Gibeah. That is about a man whose concubine - nameless, of course - left him and he goes to bring her back from her father's house. When they are lodging for the night in the territory of Benjamin, a depraved gang shows up and wants to rape him. The man throws them the concubine and they rape her all night instead of having their way with him. What do the man and his host do all night? Nothing. In the morning he tells her, 'Get up and let's go.' Then he notices that she is dead and proceeds to slice her into 12 pieces and send a piece to each Israelite tribe, precipitating war with the tribe of Benjamin. Her voice, too, is not heard. He travels with his attendant and his donkey, and we hear the attendant's voice but not hers.

"On the other hand," Shenhar adds, "there is Hagar, whose voice is not heard in school curricula because she is the mother of Ishmael, but she is an amazing woman. Look at the reversal between the 'sacrifice of Isaac' and the 'sacrifice of Ishmael.' Why is nothing taught about the norms demonstrated by Hagar, of mercy and love, rather than Abraham's norm of obedience and rigidity? It seems to me that the Bible, which I love more the older I get, can be taught with a completely different interpretation."

Have there been attempts to create different interpretations?

"Not in the education system. Such interpretations have appeared mostly in modern Hebrew literature, and that is something which interests me very much. I am talking mainly about poetry, especially poetry by women. The stringent will say that this is not the true interpretation. But every interpretation that is grounded is a true interpretation."

Shenhar's book contains abundant quotations from Hebrew poetry which propose interpretations of the Bible that are radically different from those favored by the education system. For example, according to the poet Hamutal Bar-Yosef, Leah is always trying to please everyone: "Her whole life she stumbled, apologized, struggled / To smile, bestowing beautifully wrapped gifts." But when she is about to give birth to her twelfth child, she is agonized: "She rips up the sheets. She roars despised, despised. / And suddenly, with all her might, she pushes the grindstone / Of a nation too heavy to bear / Slowly at first, with groans, then / They are pushing her and in one shout she is ground / Into ten babies of Israel." (From "Night, Morning," poems by Hamutal Bar-Yosef, translated into English by Rachel Tzvia Back. )

Aryeh Sivan also viewed the serial mother Leah as a woman battered by life: "In the evenings / She would sit and count / Drops of milk from the candle. / Around her the children scampered / And she couldn't remember their names." And Yehuda Amichai wrote about Jacob's attitude toward his two wives in the following words: "It is morning now and behold, you are Leah; Last night you were Rachel. / Laban did not deceive me under the cover of night, / It was always thus, it is the way of the world." (Translation: Azzan Yadin. ) Abba Kovner wrote a very impressive long poem about Dinah, who was raped, and her brothers who butchered the males of Shechem and killed her lover; its title is "The Rhythm Band Performs on Mount Gerizim." In Kovner's interpretation, Dinah is not afraid of the man who raped her and became her beloved, but of her brothers, who will want to avenge her blood and kill her.

The character of Jephthah's daughter has attracted many writers. The first poem about her to appear in Hebrew was a work by Lord Byron, translated by Judah Leib Gordon, in which the daughter, who is devoted to her father, tries to buoy him up as he murders her. Shaul Tchernichovsky describes how Jephthah's daughter bewails her imminent death and is still a virgin: "With dances come out, girls - kol hatan vekol kalah / No one sang to me and I did not sing to my wretched home / I did not love, I did not burn beloved in my husband's fold."

Are there also stories in the Jewish sources about murder in the wake of unrequited love?

"No, but family honor belongs to men. What is a husband [Hebrew: ba'al, or owner]? A person who has property. A woman has no stable identity. She changes her name, she moves into her husband's house, he throws her out, she goes back to her parents. Nor does she possess biological stability: she has manifestations of becoming full and becoming empty, and the man cannot control that. The man wants to control the woman. The term 'modesty' is applied solely to women, and it relegates them to a different place. She has to be made fit, and that is the man's role.

"Women also do not have a will of their own," Shenhar continues. "'Let us call the maiden and ask for her reply' exists only once, in the case of Rebecca. Even if it was said of Deborah that she was 'eshet lapidot' - meaning a strong and brave woman - the Jewish sages amended that interpretation and claimed that the phrase really meant that she was married to someone named Lapidot."

What about Yael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, who killed Sisera and saved our nation?

"Well, the real story here is 'At [between] her feet he fell and lay.' After she had seduced him and given him warm milk to drink, she dragged him into her bed and wore him out with intercourse, and when he fell exhausted between her legs, only then did she kill him. In other words, she too was not a heroine but an instrument of temptation, a woman who was forced to use her body in order to trick a man."

The next thing you'll say is that Rahab was a dispenser of food and not of sex.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to shock you."

What is your take on the story of Amnon and Tamar?

"Amnon falls in love with Tamar, his half-sister - in other words, we have incest here, beside everything else. He takes her home to bake him some cakes and rapes her. In the case of Tamar, her voice is heard but there is no one to listen to her wishes."

Why did you choose only unfortunate women and concubines?

"That did not occur to me when I was writing the book, but I think I must like unfortunates and the downtrodden. At our college, for example, I have a program for Ethiopian women who clean Haemek Hospital [in Afula]. I give them a preparatory course and they integrate into nursing studies and will become registered nurses. I seem to be drawn to people who need help. I have a program for single mothers, and when they completed the first course and told me what it had done for their children, I cried. And it's all done by struggles. I guess that, without realizing it, I am drawn to that, too."