Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Feeling lucky, punk?

Ever since I was...well pretty much since I was old enough to use them, I've thought that tampons look remarkably bullet-like, and considered the idea of making a tampon holder that looked like a little gun of some sort. Of course, who has time to actually do something like that. I mean, it's a cute idea - and it would be a great storage container - until you pull it out of your bag by accident in the wrong neighborhood and some trigger-happy loon shoots you, thinking that you've pulled out a real weapon.

Well, okay, someone decided that actually this would make not a good storage idea, but an actual, uh, toy, I guess. Well, I still think it's funny, although the bandolier is a little too obvious for me, and the uh, gun part is not really useful for concealing your ...weapons. It might, however, be a good warning about PMS.
Only question... Why is a guy modeling this?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Power of Words - Mattot-Maasei

There’s a spectacularly interesting review in this week’s nation by Martha Nussbaum on Catherine Mackinnon’s new book Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues.

I’m not going to say much about either the review or the book, because I think you should go read the review yourselves, but the reason I mention it is because the first thing that popped into my head -no, really- was this week’s parsha. The beginning of parshat Mattot jumps into a set of commandments about what happens when people take oaths, but most of its focus is set squarely upon what happens when women take oaths. And the answer is not exactly pretty.

The Torah tells us that if a woman who is underage makes an oath, if the father acts immediately, he has the power to revoke the oath. Similarly, when a woman gets married, as soon as he hears about any oath she has made for herself, if he says something on that day, the husband can revoke it. Only a woman who is single - either divorced, or a widow- has ultimate power over her own vows. Of course this is nothing quite new. There are all sorts of ways in which the Torah makes quite clear that a woman is not a full agent, unless she has “acquired herself” through death or divorce.
in Parshat kedoshim on Vayikra 19:3
אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ וְאֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:
Every man his mother and father you shall fear and My sabbaths you shall observe.I am Adonai your God.
Rashi comments:
אין לי אלא איש, אשה מנין, כשהוא אומר תיראו הרי כאן שנים, ד א”כ למה נאמר איש, שהאיש סיפק בידו לעשות, אבל אשה רשות ה אחרים עליה:

I [know this] of a man, from where [do I know this of] a woman? When it says: “You shall fear,” this is two. If so, why is “man” mentioned? For it is in a man’s power to do, but a woman is under the control of others.
As Sifra explains, (Sifra Kedoshim, par. 1, 3) A woman must consult her husband about her activities outside the house.

This is only the very beginning of skimming through many texts where it is quite clear that women are not considered to be agents, nor have they the power to make themselves such. According to the commentators, even the power to obey commandments expressly given to them by God are mediated through the lesser social status of gender.
This is why the review of MacKinnon’s book reminded me of this week’s portion: here it is one of the places where women’s lesser status is made clear.

Vows - words- are a form of reality - God speaks and the world comes into being. In Judaism, unlike other religions, words are not transferrable. Any language isn’t as good as any other in all things: Hebrew is the holy language, and as soon as one translates, one loses something. Words aren’t symbols, they are, themselves, power.To say that one person can revoke another’s vows is to make literal one’s power over another - it is saying that one has the power to erase another’s speech, and in so doing, erase their deeds and their power, as well.

Is there an out? Yes - the out is that when women are free of others - widows or single adult women, others have no power over them, even biblically. In these days, we must recognize that speech reifies - it is not, in Judaism, simply sound waves that disappear like ripples in a pond. It is the movement of oceans - equaivalent both to the dripping of water on stones that wear them smooth, to the destructive force of tsunamis. When God speaks, the world comes into being. So, too when we speak. This is why the rabbis felt so strongly about vows.

The Talmud, in Nedarim 77b, states: “Rav Dimi, the brother of Rav Safra, learnt: He who vows, even though he fulfils it, is designated a sinner.” This isn’t the only position of the rabbis of course: others held that if one made a vow and fulfilled it, that was praiseworthy - but what all the rabbis shared was a deep respect for vows, and a horror of making vow that might not be fulfilled.

How can we understand the underlying meaning of these verses. Does the Torah really intend to tell women that the power of words is not for us? Are we really to be stripped of our humanity, only subject to others, always the silent servants in the room?

Of course, we shouldn’t forget that the Torah does leave an out: the woman who is no longer under the authority of her father or husband. This seems to imply that today, when we expect men and womento be equals in marriage, the ability to annul vows is not in effect: rather we should understand not just that women are always subject to men, but the reverse as well. What the Torah means is that in a house where there are two, they must take one another into account when speaking, when shaping the reality of their lives. It also means that we understand that silencing another person is in essence equivalent to murder: because if words are power, preventing speech stops not only their tongue, but their hands.

The Chofetz Chaim, commenting on a verse from this week’s portion, says, (31:8)
And they slew the kings of Midian, beside the rest of them that were slain; namely, Evi…they also slew Balaam the son of Beor with the sword:
He came to Israel and changed his tools of trade for theirs, for the Jews are only saved by their mouths and by their prayers and entreaties, while he came and used their belief, by cursing them with his mouth. They too changed their tools of trade for his, for the other nations come with the sword as it states, “By your sword you shall live.” (Rashi) From this we see that the tool of the trade of the Jewish people is speech, and with it they can create worlds, both material and spiritual, as it states, (Isa. 51:16), “I have put My words in your mouth…to plant the heavenes and lay the foundations of the earth,” therefore a Jew must be very careful not to harm the tools if his trade, i.e. his tongue, by speaking that which is forbidden, but must utilize these tools for Torah and prayer.

What does it mean to be human? To be human, one must be heard, and one must have the power to carry out one’s intentions. Martha Nussbaum makes a very interesting comment in the review, in which she summarizes Mackinnon’s central theme as, ” the hypocrisy of the international system when it faces up to some crimes against humanity but fails to confront similar harms when they happen to women…There is a category of torture, and we think we know how to define it. We think we know what it does: It uses violence to control and intimidate. And yet when violence is used to control and intimidate women ‘in homes in Nebraska…rather than prison cells in Chile,’ we don’t call it torture, and we somehow think it is not the same thing. Torture in Chile is not explained away as the work of isolated sick individuals…”
Aside from the fact that only too often, we do rationalize torture as the work of isolated sick individuals (take for example the US government’s reaction to the exposure of methods of torture by American soldiers - in all sorts of places, but just for specificity’s sake, let’s focus on Abu Ghraib) let’s ask what’s really the point: that these women are treated in a way which undermines their status as human beings. The Torah of course isn’t advocating that women ought to be tortured: chas v’shalom! But it does lay the groundwork, when we read these commandments without subtlety, for women to be in situations where they cannot escape from being treated this way.

For generations - and even today, in some places- shalom bayit, peace in the home- was used as a bludgeon against abused women to prevent them from leaving, to place the blame on them for violence against them. Again, the Torah is not advocating this, but its words, used poorly, bolster those who would be naval bir’shut hatorah - villains within the boundary of Torah (or with the permission of Torah) and so abuse it. And so, ultimately, it is up to us to make sure that the Torah’s words are not made into a way to silence the powerless, but rather used as God intended, as a way to protect the powerless. But we have to be careful, because often, systems which have at their heart the desire to protect, reinforce systems in which people remain in need of protection, rather than fixing the actual problem, it perpetuates it.

We can read the verses on vows in many ways: focusing on the way that society was in those days, in which the Torah protected women, by giving them a way to not be held liable for their inability to fulfil their obligations; or we can focus upon the future, in which the Torah tells us that a woman who is a full agent has the power to carry out her vows. This shouldn’t make us wanton with our power: we should always take care to make sure that our actions don’t adversely affect those around us - we shoud take care with our power- but ultimately, we must be free to act, in order to use the tools of our trade.

Crossposted to Radical Torah

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Pinchas - Tools of Power

This weeks thought - why does Pinchas contain both the story of the slaying of Kozbi and Zimri by Pinchas, and also the story of the daughters of Tzelophchad? Is there a relationship?

Our commentators understand that what Kozbi and Zimri, who are given names -as well as titles- during this week’s portion, were doing was actually fornicating (how often do I get to use that word) in front of the entire community, as well as Moshe, and it was for this reason that Pinchas slew them.

But let’s look a little closer at what was actually described. It is true that chapter 25 of Bamidbar begins by saying that the Israelites started mixing sexually with the Midianites, but that doesn’t actually seem to be what annoys God. In fact, according to the text, God gets mad when? After the Israelites slide into genuine idol-worship attaching themselves to the Baal -Peor (not when they have sex with the Midianites) and before Kozbi and Zimri show up on the scene. That’s when God really loses it and tells Moshe to get things under control. It’s at that point that an unnamed man and woman

בָּא וַיַּקְרֵב אֶל־אֶחָיו אֶת־הַמִּדְיָנִית לְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה וּלְעֵינֵי כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְֹרָאֵל וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵֽד

“come and draw near to his brethren… and before the eyes of Moshe and all of Israel….and they were weeping at the entrance to the tent of meeting ”

This week, we get some additional information: Kozbi and Zimri aren’t just any old Israelite and Midianite! Verse 14 and 15 tell us: 14. And the name of the Israelite who was slain, who was slain with the Midianite woman, was Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of a father’s house among the Simeonites. 15. And the name of the Midianite woman who was slain was Cozbi, the daughter of Zur; he was chief over the people of a father’s house in Midian. This tells us two things: first, they’re of equal rank - Kozbi is the daughter of a tribal leader, Zimri is himself a tribal leader. Second: They aren’t just Joe Israelite and Jane Midianite - they’re important people. And the Torah makes a point of telling us this.

This immediately reminded me of the story of Korach, which we read just two weeks ago, in which Korach, a Levite accused Moshe and Aaron of arrogance, because they had “taken” the “important” positions, when all of Israel is holy, but revealed in the course of the rebellion that he wasn’t really worried about all of Israel, but about getting more power for himself.

So let’s go back to the strangely ambiguous comment from last week’s parshah about the crying. When we read, it actually isn’t quite clear who is doing the weeping here, whether it is Israel, or whether it is Zimri and Kozbi.
Later on in our portion there’s another story involving women which is quite different, the story of Tzlophchad’s daughters, which we’ll get to in a few minutes. Regarding that story, there is an interesting comment in the talmud to the effect that women cry easily - and it makes all sorts of hay out of this pronouncement - to which the Avnei Ezer comments that tears are a form of bribery by word.

Even though this comment was regarding the section about the daughters of Tzelophchad, perhaps it more properly belongs here, regarding Zimri and Kozbi. What we have here is a situation in which Israel is suffering from a horrible plague in which people are dying left and right. Moses’ response is to say that God told him to kill everyone who worships Baal with the Moabites. And there’s one more piece: At the end of the chapter on Pinchas, the Torah comments that the reason we are to harrass the Midianites (not, mind you, the Moabites!) is because the Midianites harrassed you

בנכליהם אשר נכלו לכם

- tough to translate, but more or less, “in their conspiracy of villainy that they conspired (or were villians) about the matter of Peor and Kozbi” -one translation is possibly, “they did the same to you with beguilement about the matter of Kozbi.”

The implication is that there was a political move going on here. Maybe sex is a kindof gateway drug to idolatry at most - but what Kozbi was doing was using this plague as an opportunity to seduce people over to Baal worship, and Zimri was involved in this intrigue. The crying is a technique, bribery, as the Avnei Ezer puts it, not real tears, but a show. It seems to me that what angered Pinchas was not this couple -as the commentators suggest- having sex, but that a local power player went to someone of equal rank amongst the Midianites and brought her there to stir up the crowds against Moshe during this moment of great panic and fear. That makes this an episode much more like that of Korach than a rant about intermarriage. That’s why the Torah is so careful to go back and tell us the name and rank of this slain man and woman, when it didn’t before, in last week’s portion, when the incident actually happened.

No matter how we understand what Zimri and Kozbi were doing, they are using some very specific kinds of tools to get power. And these tools are illegitimate. To the contrary, Tzelophchad’s daughters were no one special, their father was no one special, they didn’t have any special priveleges. Yet, instead of playing at power games, they were completely forthright. And Godself answered through Moses, saying that they were right.
And the reason that all of this is wrapped up here in this parshah is because there is a third piece here that talks about leadership: God tells Moses to take Joshua and bring him in front of the people and put his hands on him and commanded him (Bamidbar 27: 19 & 23) which he does.
ultimately, what can we draw from this? Joshua and the daughters of Tzelopchad represent two diferent stations of people, and how they can appropriately gain authority: the rabbis valorize the daughters of Tzlopchad (Bava Batra 119b) as

חכמניות הן, דרשניות הן, צדקניות הן

wise women, they were exegetes, they were virtuous. Anyone can legitimately wield power by pursuing justice and learning, but once you have the power of authority by some other means, one has to be very careful. Korach and Zimri, both people who had heriditary standing in the community - positions that they had come by only because of an accident of birth, are not forgiven for abusing that power. The Torah juxtaposes Joshua to them to show that the highest authority is one remains commanded - that is, someone who does things not because of hisown benefit, but because he is obligated to keep in mind his care for the community. That’s what made Moshe such a great leader; the Torah is very careful to say that Moses was the humblest of men -it was not for his own benefit that he led Israel, but because he combined the leadership qualities of the daughters of Tzlophchad and Joshua - he had a keen sense of justice, which he felt obligated to pursue, even when it menat he had to flee his home; and he was commanded - he maintained authority only in order to do the work that he must.

What’s the difference between Tzelophchad’s daughters and Kozbi? Kozbi gets up and starts acting like a stereotypical female - we don’t even know what it is that she and Zimri want, except that it clearly has to do with the Midianites and some sort of conspiracy to woo the Israelites away to worship their Gods. She is using sex to win Israel over. It’s a neat trick - and we all know, sex works.


שקר החן והבל היפי

- grace is false and beauty vain (Mishlei 31:30). In the end , the Torah sees the sexual antics of the Moabite women and Kozbi’s tears as two of a variety of different tactics - here they’re all about sex, but Korach as well numbers among these strategists - the fault is misusing the rules, rather tan changing them to make them better.
To the contrary, Tzelophchad’s daughters, who not only were women like Kozbi, but weren’t even powerful women - their father was no one special, they didn’t have any special priveleges. Yet, despite being powerless, they had the gumption to go before Moses, Elazar the Kohen, and the leaders and the whole assembly of Israel and speak out. They didn’t cry, and they didn’t use a man to make their case for them. They simply presented a rational case and hoped that despite living in a society in which they had little power, their argument would be enough. One might answer that they ran a pretty big risk - what if Moshe hadn’t brought their complaint to God? The answer is that it wasn’t going before Moshe that got God’s response. Not since Abraham, did someone think to go to the top and challenge, not the individual preference, but the rule. Everyone else challenges not God, but Moshe! (Think of Korach, which opens with Korach and his followers staniding before Moshe and Aaron and accusing them of being arrogant). The daughters of Tzelophchad were not after a personailty contest. Moreover, their challenge was not a challenge only for themselves and their personal status, but one which was brought for women as a whole - any woman who had no brothers was affected by their plaint.

The point we bring here is not that one should follow channels (as they say, Chas v’shalom!), but rather that there are legitimate and non-legitimate ways to acquire power. Even the powerless have choices. No matter how powerless an individual is, they have the ability to find a way to change society and make it right, rather than simply exploiting the tools which are already there to benefit themselves.

crossposted to