The Golem, the Virgin Bride, and the Beautiful Captive
The Golem, the Virgin Bride, and the Beautiful Captive
Parashat Ki Teitzei
In the early 1970s, when she was still identifying as an Orthodox Jew, now-Rabbi Rachel Adler published a trailblazing article entitled: “The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halacha and the Jewish Woman”. I was inspired to reread this recently, after going to see the Barbie Movie, which is a very normal reaction, thank you.
Rachel Adler’s article was about how halakhah, the Jewish legal framework, has largely been enacted upon women throughout history; that many mitzvot aimed at women were really about their relationships with men and children rather than their relationships with God. It’s a good article and well worth reading if you haven’t come across it. She was clearly thirsty for a halakhic framework that really saw her as a full member of the Jewish community and participant in the Jewish story. And she concludes the article by invoking the folk tale of the golem, the creature made of clay who was brought to life with the name of God and given tasks to do: “For too many centuries, the Jewish woman has been a golem, created by Jewish society. She cooked and bore and did her master’s will, and when her tasks were done, the Divine Name was removed from her mouth. It is time for the golem to demand a soul.”
It’s a really heart-wrenching article. One of the problems she’s defining here and pressing upon is that some aspects of the legal structure of the Torah, and of the law that unfolds from the Torah, assumes that the status of woman is one of object. That she is acted upon by law, rather than being an actor within the law.
I want to talk, today, about being acted upon and being an active participant. We’ll stay in the framework of gender for now. You see, unfortunately, there’s really no better example of this I can think of than what we see in this week’s parashah. If you were reading along during the Torah Service, perhaps your eyes snagged on the rules at the beginning of our parashah about the treatment of a woman who was captured in war and made into a wife. Should this occur, says the Torah, you must give her some time to mourn what you have torn her away from. You must cut her hair off and let her grow out her nails. And when you’ve given her time to mourn and to be not-quite-so-pretty, if you don’t want her anymore, you may not sell her as a slave.
So. Yikes. Not the easiest piece of Torah to read. The portion went on to add many different mitzvot, some of them much more palatable, but it returns to the themes of gender to discuss how to handle a new husband falsely accusing his wife of not being a virgin upon marriage. In that case, the girl’s parents can present evidence of her virginity. If she’s found to be a virgin, the accuser gets flogged and fined; if it’s found that she wasn’t a virgin, she gets killed.
In both of those cases, it seems that the Torah understands itself to be adding protections to the women. You cannot take a beautiful woman into captivity as a wife and then sell her as a slave when you don’t want her anymore; there must be the ability of a father to defend his daughter’s virginity. But even these protections make very uncomfortable assumptions about the place of women in society. Women are the spoils of war. Our virginity makes us more valuable.
I’m not going to do much in the way of apologetics for these texts today. I hope you’ll forgive me for that. I want us to sit in the discomfort of them, because in a way, I think we lose something when we try to talk around them or make them feel okay again. One thing we risk losing is this: there is an arc to our history. The Torah in these particular texts is assuming that women are the bjects of society and not the subjects of society. There are plenty of examples of strong women being active in the Torah, but those appear more in the stories than the legal texts. There is, I think, a tension in the Torah between our stories of women who are sometimes more active and decisive and strong than their male counterparts, and some of the ways the social status of women is defined legally.
Then, as we continue to develop and grow as a people, more protections are added to women’s status. And some women continue to sit outside the paradigm. We don’t have female rabbis in the Talmud or the Middle Ages, but we have a few examples of women whose halakhic opinions are taken seriously by men, women who lay tefillin, women who are named and significant and heard. They’re outliers. But they’re important.
And the world keeps moving forward, and Jewish history continues to unfold. It is not linear. But we do get to a point where Rachel Adler could become Rabbi Rachel Adler. Where women, even within some areas of orthodoxy, lead prayers and read Torah. Where women being part of the forward-momentum of Jewish tradition is no longer a list of outliers, but rather considered the norm.
It is a story, I think, of women moving from being objects-acted-upon to agents-acting-upon-tradition. It’s a story that begins, by the way, before the Torah’s laws are formulated. Going back to our beautiful captive: those rules exist because, before the Torah added the protections it did, such women could then be traded as slaves.
Women are often, in classical halakhah, put into the same category as slaves and as children. And for slaves, there is a similar story. Jewish history moved from a pre-Torah assumption that slavery exists and that slaves are objects, to a Torah that added some protections. And from there, the rabbis continued the process, until we eventually arrived at a Torah of abolition of slavery. Again, it’s not perfectly linear, and where progress occurred, it did not occur universally among Jews all at once.
It is an imperfect parallel for sure. And that third part of the category, children, provides an even worse one. After all, women remain women; slaves can become free; but children, by nature, become adults.
That being said, I think childhood is the most important paradigm of them all.
When we are children, our tradition is enacted upon us. From infancy, we are surrounded with rituals and traditions and prayers that we cannot be expected to understand. As we grow up, we come to understand and engage more, but it is still not entirely by choice; it is by the will of our parents and communities. And the act of becoming B’nei Mitzvah, literally children of commandedness, we are given responsibility for our own engagement with the tradition. And part of that, an aspect that continues to unfold for the rest of our lives, is that we now have the option to be active players in the writing of Jewish history. We are part of the chain that hands tradition on, and by virtue of it being in our hands, we leave our mark on it. If we choose to treat it carelessly, that has an effect; if we approach it with care and love and honour, that has an effect, too.
The history of Jewish womanhood is an example of seeing Judaism grow. We are witnesses to the history of a maturing Jewish culture. The Written Torah is embedded in its own history, where it needs to say things like: you cannot sell the beautiful captive as a slave. We cannot rescue the beautiful captive of our deep past, and I don’t think that rewriting her story into a metaphor helps anyone. But the record of her existence in Jewish history can provide for us, I think, a paradigm of growth. Growth of the Jewish people as a whole.
But Judaism does not grow alone, because Judaism is not a thing that independently exists. Judaism is us. It is Klal Yisra’el, the congregation of Israel. For Judaism to grow up is for us to grow up. It is that experience of the child who perceives Jewish tradition as something being enacted upon them to the adult who becomes the enacter of tradition - it is that experience, writ large. And writ large, it is what moves us forward as a people.
Living as mature Jews, then, means seeing ourselves not as the objects of Judaism but as those who are acting. We are not living within history; we are making history. Our tradition changes with every generation which receives it and passes it on. Recognising that, and rising to the challenge of it, is what it means to be an engaged Jew.