Sunday, September 7, 2008

1:2:87 -- The Marginalization of Eve

R. Simeon ben Yohai, one of R. Akiba's most prominent disciples and according to tradition the author of the Zohar, continues the unattractive sexist slant that my "Sunday group" blog-mate Diane has already mentioned in connection with this series of aggadot. R. Simeon compares Eve to a jealous housewife; Adam, to her authoritarian and (rightfully?) suspicious husband; and the Serpent, to the type of old woman "who drop[s] in to borrow a little vinegar" and stir up a little trouble. (I hasten to add that I am troubled not so much by the antiquated attitudes of hazal -- antiquated attitudes from ancient sages certainly should not come as any surprise -- as I am by the apologists for some of these positions, not to mention those who do not seem to realize there is anything apparently objectionable to justify or defend.)

A summary of the midrash: A husband puts some figs and nuts into a cask, along with a scorpion, and sets the cask in a corner of his home, telling his wife that everything in the house is in her hands, except the cask -- "which you may not touch at all because there is a scorpion in it." An old, busybody neighbor comes calling and asks the wife, "How does your husband treat you?" The wife responds that she is treated wonderfully, having been given authority over all her husband owns, save only the cask. The old woman's retort: "Very likely all his precious jewels are inside it . . . [and] he intends to marry another woman and give them to her." The wife proceeds to open the cask and receives a sting what will apparently prove fatal. Upon returning home and learning of the day's events, her husband -- either unmoved or unsatisfied by the fact that she will soon die -- grows angry and "no longer [thinks] of her as his wife."

There are several strands to the sexist interpretation of Eve (particularly insofar as Eve represents womankind) in the ancient (Jewish and Christian) literature. First, Eve (and not Adam) deals directly with the serpent, and she is therefore seen as being closely connected with the demonic (which the serpent represents) and as having a demonic aspect to her nature. (Diane has blogged on the alleged co-creation of Eve and Satan.) Second, as the first transgressor against God's instructions and the one who gave the fruit to Adam, Eve is a symbol of moral weakness and the yetzer hara (evil inclination), coupled with a female tendency to corrupt man. (On this view, Adam is seen as a relatively blameless victim, although he takes of the fruit for no other reason than Eve gives it to him.) Third, upon eating the fruit, Adam and Eve immediately become aware of their nakedness, and Eve's punishment is centered around sexual desire and procreation, both suggesting a connection between carnal desires on the one hand, and the aforementioned moral weakness and the tendency to corrupt man on the other -- Eve is not simply a corrupting influence, she is a temptress.

The midrash picks up on these sexist themes to varying degrees. There is no suggestion of anything out of the ordinary in the husband's test -- "don't touch the cask with the scorpion in it" without any explanation of what the scorpion is protecting -- or that the husband is blameworthy in any way; but the wife is a terrible transgressor for being curious and disobeying her husband. This reinforces the view of Eve as the temptress and Adam as an innocent victim. Furthermore, the wife is tempted by the not very well-founded speculation of a busybody, whereas Eve was tempted at least in part by much weightier matters: the tree of knowledge of good and bad was not only "good for eating" and "an attraction to the eyes," but also would "bring about understanding" and make Eve in the words of the serpent "like God." (Genesis 3:6-7) The wife of the midrash seems silly compared to Eve. Finally, it is the husband (and the scorpion) who dispense "justice" in the midrash. Again, Adam (the husband) is elevated over Eve (the wife) as the source of moral authority, rather than the (perhaps passive) co-conspirator of the Torah.

This is one of many examples where the ancient rabbinic gloss on Torah seems somewhat at odds with the text itself, in service of another agenda. Another example that comes to mind is the remolding of Esav as an evil symbol of Rome; but that's for another midrash . . . .


RabbiRosenberg said...

I will not attempt to rationalize or apologize for the text! But, it is worth noting that, if we can look around the misogyny for a moment, there's still a lesson to be had.

The husband in the midrash set his wife up for failure. By keeping one special thing a secret, he offered her a temptation that wound up being irresistible (or, at least, not resisted). In short, he violated the Rabbinic understanding of "don't place a stumbling block."

Of course, the wife in the story is still at fault - more so than the husband. If the question is "whom do we primarily blame," then the answer is "her." But, if the question is "who could have helped prevent the situation," then the answer is "both."

Substitute "person a" and "person b" for "husband" and "wife," and we are left with a simple reminder that, whomever is "at fault," we are all responsible.

Kelly said...

With all due respect, I disagree. No husband, no 'person' deliberately places others in dangerous-scorpion-infested situations. He has no right to place her at risk. Even as a Gedanke experiment, it is insulting, demeaning. Substitute blue dye, and now you have your teaching tale.
I think a word is in order to reframe Eve. We owe her a vote of thanks, else we remain in Gan Eden and history never begins and the human race is infantilized.Kelly

RabbiRosenberg said...

And I'll respectfully disagree right back!

First of all, of course no one literally places a loved one in mortal danger. But, we are all guilty, in different ways, of making opportunities for others (even those we love) to fail, rather than to succeed. The failure and responsibility are ultimately theirs, but we bear some of that onus, as well.

And, I think you're making a couple of false dichotomies. Of course the midrash is "insulting" and "demeaning." That doesn't mean that it's useless - there is still a lesson to be learned, albeit one which is obscured by its serious flaws. And, with Eve - we owe her our thanks, indeed. But, she also sinned. She violated the one restriction she had. The results were, on whole, favorable, but that doesn't justify her act - the ends never justify the means, right? We can hold her responsible for disobedience, while still acknowledging how much better off we are for it.

Pardon the pontificating, but one of the greatest teachings I've gathered over my (not many years) is that things are rarely one thing or another - they are often both. The Midrash is both offensive and instructive. Eve is both sinner and savior.

Steve said...

Lessons can of course be drawn even from midrash that are objectionable in one way or another -- and even if those lessons were probably not what the authors had in mind. I certainly did not mean to suggest otherwise by focusing on some objectionable aspects of this midrash.

I do find it troubling that the parable purports to illustrate "what happened to Eve and Adam" and perpetuates the notion that Eve was to blame and Adam was an innocent or at least passive victim.

In the spirit of Diane's post, I suppose I could also point out that the error in the midrash -- that the husband is blameless -- exposes the error in the underlying notion of Eve and Adam . . . .