3.01.2007

Happy (?) Purim and the way things are taught in Jewish day school

I love Purim. But for some reason, I've been in such a cranky mood this week that all I can think about vis-a-vis Purim are the following:

מסכת מגילה, דף יג.
ר' יהושע בן קרחה אמר אסתר ירקרוקת היתה וחוט של חסד משוך עליה

Rabbi Joshua the son of Korcha said: Esther was green, but a string of kindness/righteousness pulled on her. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, 13a, my translation)

This is an explanation for her double name: Esther and Hadassah. Hadassah means myrtle, ergo, Esther was green. There are much nicer explanations, though, earlier on the same page. I don't know why they felt that they had to include this particular one! Here are some other explanations of both Esther and Hadassah:

ויהי אומן את הדסה." קרי לה הדסה וקרי לה אסתר תניא ר"מ אומר אסתר שמה ולמה נקרא שמה הדסה? על שם הצדיקים שנקראו הדסים וכן הוא אומר (זכריה א) והוא עומד בין ההדסים. רבי יהודה אומר הדסה שמה ולמה נקראת שמה אסתר? על שם שהיתה מסתרת דבריה שנאמר אין אסתר מגדת את עמה וגו'. ר' נחמיה אומר הדסה שמה ולמה נקראת אסתר? שהיו אומות העולם קורין אותה על שום אסתהר. בן עזאי אומר אסתר לא ארוכה ולא קצרה היתה אלא בינונית כהדסה. ר' יהושע בן קרחה אמר אסתר ירקרוקת היתה וחוט של חסד משוך עליה

"And he brought up Hadassah." She is called Hadassah and she is called Esther. It has been taught: Esther was her proper name. Why then was she called Hadassah? After the designation of the righteous who are called myrtles, for so it says, "And he stood among the myrtle trees." (Zecharia 1:8). R. Judah says: Hadassah was her name; Why then was she called Esther? Because she concealed [masteret] the facts about herself, as it says, "Esther did not make known her people or her kindred." R. Nehemiah says: Hadassah was her name. Why then was she called Esther? All peoples called her so after Istahar. Ben Azzai said: Esther was neither too tall nor too short, but of medium size, like a myrtle. R. Joshua b. Korha said: Esther was greenish but endowed with great charm. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, 13a, translation by Gates to Jewish Heritage)

Seriously, is that last line necessary?

This is much worse, though. Not necessarily for the content, but for the way it was taught to me when I was 16.

מסכת סנהדרין, דף עד:
והא אסתר פרהסיא הואי? אמר אביי אסתר קרקע עולם היתה

And wasn't Esther married [to Mordechai] in public? [I.e., how could she sleep with Ahasuerus? Isn't that adultery, which is one of the three sins that one should die rather than commit?] Abaye said: Esther was the earth [i.e, passive, so it wasn't adultery]. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, my translation)

I don't have any sources with me, but for some reason, I learned this passage in high school, and only the good Lord (and maybe a rishon or two) knows why, but this was explained to me as: Women don't do anything while having sex, so it isn't adultery and Esther didn't have to martyr herself rather than commit it. I mean, they just lie there, so it's okay. Not that Esther was specifically not actively participating and thus it wasn't adultery--I think that's a fine explanation. No, I was told that this is simply an inherent feature of female sexuality: קרקע עולם. (I have no idea where else this phrase appears or what else it might mean. Maybe I'll look into it later.) It's things like this that make me question whether it's prudent to spend tens of thousands of dollars to send one's children to Orthodox Jewish day school, even a fairly liberal, intellectual one, if this is the sort of think they're going to be taught.

So much of what bothers me about Judaism is the way that it's taught--often to the detriment of women. You can't excise every text you hate from the canon, but (a) you don't have to teach it to every kid who passes through day school and (b) you don't have to teach it as if there's no problem with it from our perspective.

When I was seventeen or eighteen I remember complaining to a rabbi/friend that I just couldn't deal with Orthodox people any more. They were idiots. They were wrong. They didn't make me want to be a part of them. He said, "Ah, but it's the people, not the Orthodox Judaism that's bothering you. Don't give up on the Orthodoxy just because the people piss you off." (I don't think those were his exact words, but that's the gist of it.) I didn't find it very convincing. What good is the "Orthodox Judaism" if you can't stand the people? What is a religious movement if not its community of people? It's not like I could be an Orthodox Jew in isolation. Luckily, I've met other individual Orthodox people since then who, like me, hesitate to align themselves with Orthodoxy. And we're all Orthodox together--but not like those Orthodox people. I've also met a lot of non-Orthodox people who share my personal, moral, and Jewish values more than most Orthodox people do, and with them, we are mostly just Jewish together.

Sigh...

Hopefully, Purim itself will come and work some of its sweet, sugary, super heroine magic on me and I will remember the splendiferiousness of this chag.

5 comments:

BZ said...

I don't have any sources with me, but for some reason, I learned this passage in high school, and only the good Lord (and maybe a rishon or two) knows why, but this was explained to me as: Women don't do anything while having intercourse, so it isn't adultery. I mean, they just lie there, so it's okay. Not that Esther was specifically not actively participating and thus it wasn't adultery--that's a fine explanation.

Wow. When I learned this perek (in college, with R. Shai Held), this part was disturbing on various levels (not least because of the whole idea of Esther and Mordochai being married), but we totally assumed that it was Esther herself who was "just lying there", and never considered that this might be a general statement about women. If it's a general statement about women, then doesn't it mean that adultery is impossible?

miriam said...

i set someone grown-up straight on the karka olam bit only recently, actually, (i think).

the idea of "karak olam" as generally applicable to all women always is belied by a companion midrash on megillah 15a, where Esther's saying "as i perish, i perish" (ka-asher avadeti, avadeti) is interpreted as her acknoledging that once she solicits the king actively, she forfeits her relationship with mordekhai. so, the point is clearly that up until now she was completely passive/unwilling in all her encounters with the king, but not any more.

what is true however, is that according to hazal, women have the option of "doing nothing" while still "having sex," but men don't.

i actually think this is something not to be taught to high school students even if properly interpreted. only because it induces a lot more snickers than meaningful interactions with holy texts, even if corretly expounded. (plus it is also easily misinterpreted by students even if properly taught, who take home the wrong message about female sexuality in general...)
i didn't know this gemara until i learned a related sugya in ketubot in midrashah, actually.

on a related note, when i was in said midrashah there was a joke that all graduates of [a certain prestigious dayschool] know a particular handfull of gemaras (implication: and no others) when they graduate. esther karka olam was one. torah hi zot velilmod ani tzarikh another. all the snickerables...

happy purim!

miriam said...

ps - i have a way of not knowing about rishonim, so i second your guess that the answer may lie with one or two of them. that said, of all the things not to teach high school kids (even tangentially)...

alg's dad said...

I know what you mean about objecting to the way Judaism is taught, and feeling sometimes that Orthodox people are idiots. In my case, what bugs me most is not the attitude toward women (though I don't like certain aspects of that any more than you do), but the attitude toward science, particularly cosmology and evolution. Almost everyone I know either "compartmentalizes" their secular and Jewish approaches to these subjects, or else they feel that they have to stand on their head, and be (to my mind) intellectually dishonest, in order to "reconcile" them. That's why I like Natan Slifkin's books, and especially his most recent one, "The Challenge of Creation," so much. He is the first person I have seen who deals with the apparent conflict between Judaism and science head-on, in a straightforward, honest way. It's very refreshing! Maybe people will now start dealing with the other "conflicts," e.g. between Judaism and feminism, in the same refreshing, honest way!

One thing that worries me, though, is that it may be difficult to pass on such a nuanced approach to the next generation. It has to be tried, though, because you can't be intellectually dishonest for mere utilitarian reasons, at least I can't. And it is very nice when you see that you have succeeded in passing on such views to the next generation! Still, I sometimes wonder whether those Orthodox idiots know something that I don't.

David said...

I don't grok either the idea that Esther and Mordechai were married (adds confusion and not clarity, not supported by anything in the pshat, so I eschew...) or that there needs to be a particularly compelling reason why Esther was also called Hadassah (most of the people I know have variations between their Hebrew names and the name by which they are known in a country which doesn't speak Hebrew).

So the rabbinical comments to me seem like people who don't get the joke trying to explain it...