Friday, March 20, 2009

Folk Tales of the Talmud

Midrash #224, the last of today's aggadot, actually is found in various versions throughout the world: It is the story of a wisewoman who for some reason (usually unjustified, in our case, Jewish law makes it justified) is forced to separate from her husband. The husband is persuaded to have one last meal with her, during which he attempts to give her a final choice of gift to take with her. She plies him with alcohol, he falls asleep, and she takes him home with her. When he awakens, he has no idea where heis or what's going on, and so she explains to him that he was the most precious thing in the house, and all that she wanted. He then realizes what a fool he's been and takes her back. IN our version, the rabbis then reward them for this fidelity with a child - the thing originally lacking and causing the split to begin with.

Whether this story was originated by or borrowed by the rabbis isn't ultimately important. I sometimes really love this midrash, and sometimes am cynical: keep in mind that this is a world in which a woman divorced is often damaged goods. Her earning potential is low. It is in her interest to stay married. BUt I actually am not cynical about her - the part I find myself most cynical about is him: ifhe could have (in the rabbi's world) gone to a rabbi to begin with to pray for child, why hadn't they done so before? Why does R. Simon ben Yochai advise this roundabout means of keeping them together? Perhaps that's the non-cynical part - is it his doubt of her that prevents them from having a child?
I often think that the entire ritual of Sotah comes from a rabbinic attempt to get a serious lockdown on the overly jealous husband - after all, once he accuses her, if she drinks the water and survives, the reward for him is a child within a ear, and hers is that he can't divorce her. While I'm not content to dismiss miracles, I also don't think that miracles would be likely to happen with the regularity of men accusing their wives of infidelity (and when I think of all the honor killings that go on in some parts of the world, I think that it's rather likely that Sotah happened with some regularity back then) and drinking that particular recipe of ink and dust isn't really likely to kill you, so some small percentage of those women who were rewarded with children certainly were having children that probably didn't look like their fathers.
SO perhaps this whole story is really a meditation on love for the wife of one's youth and an attempt to rekindle his affection for her. Who knows but that Rabbi Simon ben Yochai didn't actually advise the woman of Sidon to do exactly what she did? Well, either way, more power to her - a woman's lot back then was a pretty awful one; I respect whatever tools they had to make themselves secure.

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