God as 'Big Mama'

Having abandoned her national-religious education, poet and artist Ruhama Weiss produces truly avant-garde work inspired by the Talmud and teaches today in Reform institutions.

Two years ago, Ruhama Weiss undertook a week-long vow of silence. It was part of an artistic installation entitled "Beit hamidrash shel hasotah" ("The Wayward Woman's House of Religious Study"), which Weiss - a poet and artist, with a Ph.D. in talmudic studies - exhibited at the Dayla alternative culture club in Jerusalem. Taking breaks only to sleep, Weiss spent her days and nights in front of an audience, studying the Talmud's "Sotah" tractate, subsisting on carobs and water and speaking to no one.

"It was a private research experience," she says. "In 'Sotah' [which means 'wayward woman'], there is sexual violence and violence against women. It had always troubled me, and I wanted to consider it in depth and to protest it: to be the wife, high priest and husband all at once. It was also a matter of personal closure for me, following a related experience I had." Only then, it seems, could she begin to write poems about love and eroticism, such as those in her new volume of poetry, "Sfatay tiftach" ("Open My Lips"), recently published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad.

The "Sotah" tractate addresses the fate of a woman whose husband suspects her of infidelity and brings her to the Temple. The high priest forces her to drink a muddy concoction made of water, soil from a special part of the Temple and sodden scraps of parchment inscribed with curses.

"After she drinks, they wait to see how she will react," Weiss says sardonically. "If she sinned, her stomach and thigh - perhaps a euphemism for the genitals - will contract. If not, it is a sign that she has been blessed and 'seeded' - that is, that she will become pregnant by her husband."

Many people came to watch Weiss and study with her. "They were not there out of voyeurism, but because they recoiled at the violence in the story and were also drawn to it, just as I was," she explains.

The attraction to the terrible fate of the wayward woman has shaped Weiss' feminist approach to textual interpretation. She first encountered the story as a child. At Jerusalem's prestigious Horev elementary school for religious girls, part of the national-religious educational stream, this sexual story was considered appropriate learning material and was taught as it is written. That experience, Weiss recalls, was chilling but formative.

"When the teacher described how the woman's hair is unraveled, how her mouth is opened and the high priest pours the dirty water into it, I could see it before me. It's like a rape, after all. It took me years to understand that something about the violence described there is both devastating and mesmerizing. That's why in the installation I created a very female, painful house of study. And just like I was madly drawn to the violence," she says, "I thought the Jewish sages were, too. Otherwise, why did the story of the sotah receive a whole tractate in both the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmud? Why didn't the duty of respecting your father and mother receive the same amount of attention?"

According to Weiss, the tractate is "made up of male fantasies: The woman was stripped and humiliated." Scholars and interpreters of the Talmud have claimed that the abolition of the sotah laws following the Temple's destruction constitutes proof of Judaism's liberal tendencies, but Weiss argues that "annulling the law only intensified the violent fantasies. The practice was abandoned, but the scholarly preoccupation with the tractate did not abate."

Weiss refers to the Jewish sages - who gave interpretations of the Mishnah from the end of the Second Temple period to the sixth century C.E. - as having desires, humor and fantasies.

"The Gemara is the most creative, crazy, funny thing there is. Sometimes I think the Jewish sages were high," she says. "For example, in that part of the 'Sukkah' tractate where they ask if you can use an elephant as the side of the sukkah booth, and they discuss at length the abuse of the poor animal, how it can be tied up and how branches used for the roof of the sukkah can be shoved between its legs to keep it from moving. It's an Orly Castel-Bloom text, but no one is willing to say that the sages were creative people with strong desires, who channeled their studiousness toward sexuality and death, and that this is the soul of all art ... The Gemara gets bad publicity, so people are not interested in it and believe it is only cold, sterile reasoning."

Interpretive liberty

Weiss teaches at several institutions, including Hebrew Union College, the Beit Daniel Center for Progressive Judaism in Tel Aviv-Jaffa and the Kolot Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies. Her work on the Gemara is free and impulsive, just like her sculpting in papier-mache and her poetry. The title of the new book, her second, attests to the interpretive liberty she allows herself. The words "sfatay tiftach," from Psalm 51 ("O Lord, open my lips / and my mouth will declare your praise"), become - in her rereading - deeply sexual, and she claims that they reflect a sadomasochistic fantasy.

Her liberated approach shines through, for example, in the poem "Pitma shel isha melumedet" ("Nipple of an Educated Woman"), in which Weiss uses her wild humor to challenge women who "do research from the neck and up" and to demand that scholarly work be infused with passion.

"One day, when I was at the national library, I noticed that there were many more women than usual in the Jewish studies reading room, but that they were all dressed in gray," she says. "These women have put on men's costumes. They have hidden their sexuality in order to show that 'we can do it like the men do.' I sat and fantasized about us all taking off our clothes in there. I wanted to tell them to stop doing research like mummies and to start thinking with emotions and passions. Where is Eros? Where is the lust for learning?"

Weiss, 42, is a divorced mother of two who lives in Jerusalem. Although she was never the kind of religious woman to keep her blouse buttoned all the way up and has always been opinionated - her friends dubbed her "the lefty" - she was a distinct product of Israel's national-religious educational system. She grew up in a religious-Zionist household, dutifully attended the Bnei Akiva youth movement and studied at Horev. She was kicked out of high school at the end of 11th grade, when she showed up to receive her report card in deliberately childlike attire, with her hair done up in pigtails.

"They called me in and told me it was immodest. That's the distortion in the modesty laws," she explains. "I felt like being a little girl, but they informed me that I was a Lolita. Modesty is a form of discipline. Keep your mouth shut. Be indirectly aware of your sexuality but repress it. That's why I began sculpting so late, and all I wanted to sculpt was pussy."

After opting for National Service instead of military service, as many religious girls do, Weiss began studying in a private framework with Hannah Safrai, a neo-Orthodox leader and feminist, because she had promised her parents that she would keep studying. "They didn't know what a double-edged sword it was to study with Hannah," she laughs. "And once you see that you can open a door, you can also get up and leave."

Weiss was among the pioneers who founded Midreshet Bruria in Jerusalem, the first all-female yeshiva. "I was drawn to the Gemara in a kind of defiance. You say I can't? I'll show you," she says. She was also one of a handful of women studying in the Hebrew University's Talmud department, surrounded by male yeshiva students. After getting her degree, she taught Talmud for two years at the Pelech girls high school in Jerusalem - the flagship institution of the local liberal-religious community. She also coordinated seminars for Bnei Akiva group leaders, but was kicked out of both places.

"The principal asked me, 'How can I ask the students not to come in low-cut shirts if you come dressed like that?' Already my opinions were annoying them, and in the end I was thrown out," she remembers. "They were afraid that the Talmud teacher would reveal to the girls that life was more complex than 'isur neg'iah' [the religious prohibition against physical contact between men and women]." From Pelech she moved to the Masorti high school, crossing the line over to Conservative and Reform Judaism. Today she no longer maintains a religious lifestyle.

"I understood that religious definitions simply did not interest me," she says. "Even the decision not to be religious anymore was not dramatic. One day I simply turned on the light in the stairwell on Shabbat."

'Genitalia everywhere'

Weiss married a secular man, and sent her children to nonreligious schools. Five years ago she got divorced and since then has been ceaselessly reinventing herself. "To me, marriage was a prison in the sense that I shut myself off from the world, and it was a kind of incubation period, after which things broke loose. It was a stormy time. I felt that I had to touch sensuous materials."

By chance she came across a book about papier-mache sculpting, which is how her "Sotah" installation came into being. Weiss sculpted chairs and the kind of stands against which yeshiva students lean when they study the Gemara. The installation still stands in her living room: The chairs, flesh-colored, have women's feet with red-lacquered nails, and their backs sport breasts with nipples made of colorful stones. The Babylonian Talmud rests on a matching stand.

Female organs also adorn other pieces of furniture in her house; even the mezuzah on the bedroom door frame is shaped like a breast, alongside a parchment scroll, "the mezuzah of a woman who has had a mastectomy," as she puts it. Only the lips found no place, but then she devoted an entire book to them. Weiss says she is now past the phase in which she needed "to put female genitalia everywhere." The liberation she found in sculpting, she says, also opened the floodgates of her writing. She had written poetry before, but now it flows more easily. The last three years have yielded a respectable output - dozens of articles and columns, three books of philosophy about the Talmud, and two volumes of poetry. She plans to hold more exhibitions and write more books.

This year Weiss is leading an awareness workshop in the Sugiyat Chaim (Texts for Life) program, launched by Hebrew Union College and Beit Daniel. In it, she proposes acquisition of a new understanding of life, or a better acquaintance with the self, through the study of topics in the Gemara. The program also includes concentrated days of study and silence - Talmudic vipassana - at the Notre Dame monastery in Ein Kerem.

Weiss has a complex relationship with both God and men, but today she is far mellower than she used to be. She claims that her connection with the divine crime-and-punishment issue dissolved even before she stopped observing religious duties. "I could no longer be connected to the idea of divinity from my childhood, which was of a punishing, vengeful man spreading hatred and fear, and so a woman was born there instead." She thus lets herself play with the images - God is sometimes a man and sometimes a woman.

And so she appeals to God in the poem "Elohey neshama" ("God of the Soul"): "God of the Soul, let's go shopping a bit, buy a colorful bra, then you can command me to be sexual."

"I suddenly had this idea that God could be a kind of 'Big Mama,' with an enormous bosom," she says, adding that, after all, the Hebrew word shadai, one of the biblical names for God, is also tied to the word shad, breast. "It's a wonderful option, to replace the figure of God with a sexy female figure of Mother Earth."