Dvar Torah on Parshat Bereshit

Parashat Hashavua Bereshit 2015 / 5776 - Feminism: A Jewish Value, a Jewish Goal

08.10.2015 by

I would like to explain how feminism - the belief in equality between men and women - is a basic Jewish value,  and that achieving that equality is, in fact, one of our most important and cherished goals, an essential element in our hopes for a redeemed, Messianic age. 

In the opening parsha of the Torah, Bereshit, we read of the creation of man and woman. Famously, there are actually two different creation stories. In the first, man and woman are created together, at the end of the six days of the creation of the universe, and both are blessed, together, to “be fruitful and multiply” and to “have dominion over the earth”. In the second one, man alone is fashioned from the earth, and placed in the Garden of Eden, to “work it and care for it.” Only later, when God sees that Adam is lonely, is woman fashioned out of his “side” – often called “rib”, to be a companion for him. I will not be going into the differences between these two stories, other than to note that the first story presents Adam and Eve as equal, created and addressed by God as one, while in the second story Adam is created first, and Eve only later, as his helpmate. I’d like to pick up the story from there, with the two of them, Adam and Eve, living in Eden, naked, and, the Torah tells us, unashamed of their nakedness.

What happens next is, of course, the sin of eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge between good and evil. This is, of course, a strange and difficult story, which I will not be going into. What we will focus on is what happens after the sin.

God arrives in the Garden of Eden and punishes the criminals: the snake (who is not our concern right now), woman, and man. Eve is cursed with, well, the curse of Eve: “I will greatly multiply your pregnancy and its sorrows: in sorrow you shall give birth to children, and to your man will be your desire, and he will rule over you.”

Man is cursed with the burden of hard workk: “The earth will be cursed because of you, with sorrow you will eat of it, all the days of your life. And thorns and thistles will grow for you, and you will eat the grass of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread, until you return to the earth, for from it were you taken, for dust you are and to dust you shall return.”

To summarize: the curse of man and woman is for them to be in the basic situation in which mankind has found itself for millennia: women live under the burden of painful and sorrowful child birth and child rearing, are ruled over by their husbands, and yet desire to be in that very situation (“and to your man will be your desire”). Man is cursed to a lifetime of hard, not very rewarding work, and will need to fight a non-cooperative earth to eke out a living.

Clearly, the sin and its curse created a major shift in the way men and women relate to one another, and to the world around them. Before the sin, and its punishment, Adam and Eve were seen as basically equal – 100% so in the first creation story, where they were created and spoken to by God as one unit, perhaps somewhat less so in the second, in which woman is created from man and, apparently, for man, but certainly still equal in terms of not being subject to the curse of the basic division of labor that has been true for the vast majority of mankind from time immemorial: woman cursed to struggle though the painful birthing and raising of childbirth, and man cursed to kvetch a living out of a recalcitrant earth. 

Though not as a result of the curses, but connected, rather, to the sin of eating the fruit, the basic sexuality of men and women was also greatly affected at this time, as is clearly evidenced by their new-found shame in their nakedness immediately after eating the fruit.

Now, let us turn to a section from the Torah which we read a few weeks ago, just before Rosh Hashanah, in parshat Nitzavim. There, God promises the Jewish people that after they sin and are punished, they will return to God and His covenant, and to the Promised Land from which they were exiled. As part of this process, God says he will “circumcise your hearts, and the hearts of your descendants, to love the Lord your God, with all your heart and all your soul, for the sake of your life (Deuteronomy, 30; 6).” Basically, this indicates that God will assist the Jewish people in their penitence, and help them on their journey back to Him and His Torah.

Nachmanides, known as the Ramban (an acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1194-1267), provides a fascinating explanation to God’s promise to “circumcise your hearts.” He says that the ultimate goal of this process of return is to regain the status we had in the Garden of Eden, before the sin and punishment. This is what a “circumcised heart” is – the heart which Adam and Eve had before they ate of the fruit, and before they were cursed for it. This is the vision of a redeemed, messianic world – a return to the Garden of Eden.

Clearly, a return to such a status would undo the effects of the sin and its punishments, and reestablish a mankind which is egalitarian: man would no longer be defined solely as a struggling breadwinner, and woman would no longer be bound to the position of subservient, long-suffering, wife and mother; equality between the sexes, and an ease in their relationship, lost due to the sin, would be restored. This return to the way the world was before the sin is, for the Ramban, the ultimate, messianic goal for the Jewish people, and all mankind, and it features an end to the basic inequality between men and women, which itself was a result of the sin and its punishment.   

I claimed above that feminism is a Jewish value, and goal, and I think I have shown how, according to the Ramban, this is true. One could ask, however, the obvious question: this may be so, but should we not have to wait until messiah comes for this revolution to actually take place? Isn’t the feminist agenda, and full egalitarianism, for the here and now, in an apparently unredeemed world, a bit premature?

The answer to this is the same given by the early Religious Zionists, as well as contemporary ones, when this question is asked about returning to the Land of Israel. A traditional Jewish approach to redemption, which the ultra-Orthodox still embrace,  assumes that we should wait passively for Messiah to come and redeem us, free us from the chains of exile, bring us back to Israel, and restore our political autonomy. In this understanding, we are not meant to take matters into our own hands and create, through human endeavor, an independent State of Israel. Religious Zionism disagreed, and insisted that man is entitled to – perhaps expected to – bring the Messiah, and take whatever steps he can to make redemption happen. If this is true about returning to political and cultural autonomy in our homeland, it should also be true about the return to an Eden-like equality between men and women: we should make it happen ourselves. This is what feminism is: an attempt to use the opportunities given to us by history to bring about the transformation of male/female relationships, to redeem them, and bring them back to the healthier and more egalitarian state they were in before the sin of Adam and Eve. Just as religious Zionism quite correctly took advantage of geopolitical developments in the 19th and 20th centuries to advance the cause of the Jewish people’s return to Zion, feminism is a legitimate, redemptive  response to the profound changes society experienced in the modern era, aiming to  bring equality and freedom to women.

Understood in this way, traditional Jews should be able to embrace feminism and its goal of gender equality as part of the messianic process, just as religious Zionists understood the essentially secular Zionist movement as the road to redemption – may it come speedily and in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix 

traditional Jews should be able to embrace feminism and its goal of gender equality as part of the messianic processRabbi Shimon

Torah Portion Summary - Bereshit

בְּרֵאשִׁית

Parashat Bereshit is the 1st weekly Torah portion in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading. It contains the Creation story, the story of Adam and Eve and their sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and information about the generations between Adam and Noach, whose birth we are told of towards the end of the parsha. The parsha concludes on an ominous note: the people of the world are evil, and God decides to destroy them.

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