Sunday, September 7, 2008

1:2:75-89: To what lengths we will go to confirm what we already think?

This set of aggadot contain what seem to me some of the most misogynistic texts in the tradition. Notwithstanding the apologetics of the prior poster (and I appreciate the impulse), some of what's in here is not easy to get comfortable with.
Yet at the same time it's not impossible to read the text against itself.
The text I have in mind is the one that takes this opportunity to use the first appearance of the letter "samech" in the Torah to insult womankind.
The passage reads, in one translation (and anyone more sophisticated about formatting than I am is welcome to re-format for ease of reading):
R. Hanina, son of R. Adda, said, From the beginning of the Book until here, no samech is written, but as soon as she [Eve] was created, Satan was created with her.
The leading English translation notes laconically, in effect, oh by the way, "Satan" is not actually spelled with a samech (usually).
So here would be a timely analogy, about equally well-reasoned:
Osama Bin-Laden is obviously connected to Barack Osama. Oh by the way, his name is actually Barack OBAMA.
In other words, what we have is not only a baseless, pointless slander against womankind (in our original aggadah), and of a rather extreme type (the appearance of femininity coincides with the appearance of evil in the world) -- but it is actually based on a MISTAKE, and what is obviously a sort of deliberate, pointed mistake. (Surely, we are not expected to think the rabbis didn't know how Satan was most typically spelled.)
So we might begin by asking, where is the counter-text (we find them often), which would read something like this,
R. X, son of R. Y, replied, Satan is not spelled with a samech, davka, you're a moron.
But that text is missing. We just flow right on to the next thing.
So if we want to read against the text, without inventing new midrash, here is one way we might do it: The idea that femininity is evil is based on a mistake. Isn't that actually exactly what the text tells us? The idea that the introduction of femininity into the world brought with it or somehow coincided with the arrival of Satan is fundamentally based on a mistake -- here, the silly grammatical/spelling mistake of thinking Satan starts with a samech, but a mistake, nonetheless. Put another way, thinking the introduction of femininity (or, if one wished to read more broadly and in a slightly different direction, the introduction of gender difference) is the source of evil in the world is exactly as stupid and misguided as thinking Satan begins with a samech.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

In addition to a spelling problem, R Hanina may have a reading problem as well because a samekh occurs earlier in verse Ber 2:11 HaSovaiv. I also was under the impression that the Satan was more considered an adversary rather than source of evil. Maybe a suitable task or errand is to recast such an errant comment.

Howard said...

This point suggests another problem. We assume that when the Rabbis make a statement about the text that they are accurate. It ain't necessarily so. I was studying Rabbi S. R. Hirsch's commentary and he was discussing the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah. He feels the need to point out that the reason Ha-Shem rather than G!d is used is because it is really an act of mercy not justice. It is to protect people in the future from the cities that Ha-Shem destroys them. But this means there is no justice only mercy, doesn't it?
Since the assigning the justice and mercy attributes to the two names was used as a major argument against the documentary hypothesis, Hirsch has to respond to this problem.

Howard said...

Looking back at my comment, I don't think I made it clear, that the use of different names of G!d in the Torah (until the burning bush episode) was one of the bases for assigning text to different authors. In response, the tradition community went back to earlier writings that assigned the different names to different attributes of G!d. Hirsch was the leader of the new Orthodox movement, and worked hard to disprove both the Reform assumptions and the Documentary Hypothesis.

RabbiRosenberg said...

What a fantastic re-reading of that midrash! One could even expand the teaching, and wonder how much of the hatred in the world is based on a stupid mistake/misunderstanding. And, as the title of your post reminds us, people will look for any proof, even if it's not really there, to back up any hatred they feel!

chillul Who? said...

What evidence is there that the practice of intepreting the names of God in the Torah according to God's attributes languished in obscurity until the Documentary Hypothesis?

frumheretic said...

Satan is not spelled with a samech, davka, you're a moron. blah blah blah

You obviously don't understand that interchangeable sounds (like with the samech and sin) are frequently the source of Torah exegesis. (But I wouldn't say that "davka, you're a moron", just ignorant of this fact.) R. Hirsch uses this technique time and again when discussing the meaning of 3-letter roots.

Far be from me to resort to apologetics (I am a heretic, after all), but it has been my experience that too many people take a very superficial approach to midrash and thus fail to understand the deeper meanings that are being conveyed. You are certainly free to presume that Satan=woman was the intention of the midrash, but it would be intellectually dishonest to do so without looking into how it has been understood by various meforshim.

So here is an alternative explanation: When someone succumbs to the Satan, or evil inclination, it removes them from Godliness by dragging them down to base animalistic behavior. With the creation of woman, sexual desire was also created. Sexual desire is arguably the most powerful human drive; Judaism seeks to transform that drive into an elevating force rather than a degrading one.

See how easy it is to interpret a midrash in a more positive light?

Lawrence King said...

Frumheretic wrote: "You obviously don't understand that interchangeable sounds (like with the samech and sin) are frequently the source of Torah exegesis...."

Actually, I quite expect Diane does understand this. But even if we allow that the rabbis freely confused shin and samekh, the fact remains that before Woman is created in verse 2:22, there have already occurred two samekhs (2:11 and 2:13) and dozens of shins (1:1 ff.)

So R. Hanina's argument is evidently false to any careful reader today. Could it have been otherwise to his contemporaries?

frumheretic said...

Yep, another example of trivializing a midrash by assuming that "he must have made a mistake". You really think that R. Hanina - one of the most important students of R. Yehudah haNasi - or the rabbis that he discussed this with didn't know about earlier samechs? Gimmeabreak. And certainly the masoretic text had been firmly established by the 3rd century. But the samechs in 2:11 and 2:13 have nothing to do with the creation of man. The Zohar explains that 2:21 is the first instance of a samech relating to the creation of woman and then uses this to make a theological statement. The Zohar, however, makes a different point: it says that man was an imperfect being until the creation of Eve and that this is indicated by the absence of the letter Samech - which denotes "help" - until this passage.

Lawrence King said...

Frumheretic, if I understand you correctly, you are asserting that when R. Hanina says "From the beginning of the Book until here, no samech is written," he doesn't mean the first samech in the entire Torah.

You seem to offer two different explanations:

1. But the samechs in 2:11 and 2:13 have nothing to do with the creation of man.

Man was created in 2:7, so even if R. Hanina means the story in Gen 2 when he says "the Book" (which is hard to believe), the story of the creation of man has already begun.

2. The Zohar explains that 2:21 is the first instance of a samech relating to the creation of woman.

This is quite correct. The creation of woman begins in 2:21. The first samech relating to the creation of woman is therefore, as you say, in 2:21. You can't possibly think this is what he means?

The rabbi's argument, no matter how you parse it, only makes sense if the samech he is focusing on is the first samech in a specific passage that begins well before the letter in question. Otherwise, it makes as much sense as if he were to point out that the first aleph in Genesis 9:7 appears in verse 9:7.

Howard said...

Response to Chillul who saying: What evidence is there that the practice of intepreting the names of God in the Torah according to God's attributes languished in obscurity until the Documentary Hypothesis?

Who said that? I just pointed out that while it may be an old midrash, it developed a new life when needed for the defense of Torah Mi-Sinai. Even if it was old, it was inaccurate and Hirsch felt the need to justify it.