This week I wrote to an academic colleague who is a mentor to me and a friend. I was trying to explain what it means to be a feminist reader of rabbinic literature as a man. The point is not that I only read stories about women or pay attention to women in the rabbinic imagination. To be a feminist is to read texts with a sense of structural oppression, power and control – whether they are internal, external, in real life or through the creative imagination of aggadot (rabbinic tales). To be a feminist reader is to understand what it means to survive within those structures and to hear those cries of survival, often times non-survival, and find in them their power and sometimes overthrow the structures themselves.
And each time I sit with groups of people whose lives are different to mine, who encounter that ‘structure’ differently to me, I hear new voices and I am taken aback by how I never paid attention in the first place. Several times through the last 18 months I have sat down with a group of wonderful friends, who have taught me so much about justice. We should all have people around us who kick our behinds into justice, who are working hard to organise against oppression and remind us that many of us are in a fairly luxurious position. They’re people I love. And every time I think I’m reading texts in a feminist way, they teach me how little I know. I’ll be teaching a text about life under oppressive regimes and someone will say to me ‘But why are you not challenging the oppression, just thinking about to live in tact within it?’ It’s a question we all need to ask ourselves – do we think about surviving or thriving in tact within a system or do we think about restructuring the whole system. I’ve never been a victim of inequality in the criminal justice system, or homophobia, or racism, or housing injustice, or plain old misogyny.
But I have been a victim in other ways – antisemitism, economic injustice, bullying. And when I have, I have played the system – I use all my clout to get someone to pay attention to ME and protect ME. That’s survival. But what about how we view the structures? And are we open to the voices, to really hear them when they rise up? My students are really my teachers – because from them I am learning what it means to listen carefully to the cries and find my own authentic voice.
But this is all a bit vague so let me give you two examples around our Torah reading this week.
There is a woman in the Torah called Shelomit bat Divri (Leviticus 24:10). It’s her son who ends up blaspheming in the book of Leviticus. But let’s stay with Shelomit. Perhaps 1000 years after she lived, the rabbis imagine her story and they interpret her name to mean she goes around town in Egypt, in the midst of slavery, saying ‘Shalom’ (shelomit) to everyone. She’s a flirtatious ‘chatterbox’ (dibri). And then what happens? The rabbis imagine that her husband is woken early by the Egyptian slave master and since the Egyptian slave master has seen her going about town, he knows she’s very beautiful and likes to flirt. So when he sends her husband to work, before she’s even awake, he sneaks in and rapes her. She doesn’t know it’s him and thinks it’s her husband. The Rabbis imagine that Moses sees what happens and that’s why he kills the Egyptian – to take revenge. And in final resolution the child of the rape – the son of an Egyptian man and Israelite woman – is a blasphemer…
Reading this as a simple midrashic story, Moses is our hero. Egypt is the oppressor. Shelomit is the victim, but really all of Israel is the victim. Read as a feminist we hear questions like – why do they imagine that Shelomit is only an object of the story, not an agent. Or perhaps we might ask about the victim blaming, after all the rabbis turn Shelomit into a flirtatious chatterbox who draws attention to herself. What other strategies of survival might exist in a system that enslaves? The rabbis make out that she was, we say feeling sick at the idea, ‘asking for it’ – not surviving. And then if we look further down the line, she’s written out of the Torah because her son is a blasphemer and product of rape and stoned to death – so now we’ve got victim shaming, she can’t even come forwards now. As a feminist reader (to the extent I can be a feminist) in the rabbinic imagination, the hero of the story is not really Moses now – it’s the triumph of rabbinic values of chastity, Torah study and keeping women out of sight and public life. In some respects, the rabbis replace slavery of Egypt, with new oppressive structures and ideas – and ask how should women survive? You tell me…
I was thinking about the power of #metoo in the last few years as the Harvey Weinstein trial got underway in recent days. Men like me were taken to task when we were heard saying ‘if this was our daughter we’d be up in arms’ because women were saying – you know we are more than just your little defenceless daughter. They were saying, we’re your wives, your mothers, your friends, your colleagues, we’re human. Hands up if you also came forwards as a victim of #metoo?
You see #metoo transformed what it meant to be a victim. It said that CEO over there – she’s been assaulted on the tube. That rich and famous actor – she was pressured and is a victim. That rabbi – yes you heard me right – that rabbi, she was also a victim. My wife – she’s a victim. My mother – she’s a victim. Suddenly, being a victim was not being powerless, it was to lay claim to power and ownership, to define oneself, and shrug aside the shame. And to cry out together.
You know the difference in the Exodus story between being Pharaoh and God? When the Israelites cry out because of the hard labour they are told by Pharaoh ‘you are shirkers, make your quota of bricks’. (Exodus 5:17-18) When they cry out to God? God says: ‘I have heard their cry and I will rescue them’ (Exodus 3:7-8). And what does this mean to us and structural oppression?
(20) You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (21) You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. (22) If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, (23) and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans. (Exodus 22:20-23)
So we can be oppressors too…which got me thinking. What of the Egyptians – they are also surviving in the system. Really they are you and me – all of us who might not imagine ourselves as victims – the men who couldn’t believe all the women in their lives put #metoo on social media.
There is the most amazing midrash, in which the Rabbis imagine the Egyptians singing an anti-dayyenu.
It was enough that we were plagued, but then we let them go – that was enough. But now our first born are dead, our property is taken by them, and they (the Israelites) have gone. It’s an incredible fantasy of the rabbis which I discovered when trying to work out if there were sources which imagined the experience of the common Egyptian person not Pharaoh and his fight with God.
In this case, the rabbis imagine the scenario in which Pharaoh has led his people willingly into enslaving the people and because he is so stubborn, his heart has become so hard and obstinate, he is unable to undo the decision and just let the people go. The tenth plague is the final moment of change. And really the cry of the Egyptians in the midrash is that they have fallen in behind Pharaoh, forgetting that they were climbing on the backs of the minority community of Children of Israel who were enslaved and oppressed. They don’t get it at this point in the midrash, they’re still worrying about themselves, but suddenly to be Egypt, or to be men surrounded by women putting #metoo on their social media, or to really listen to the cries of victims and pay attention to their case, is to realise you are also a victim of the structure.
That’s why the midrash collapses all structural oppression so beautifully because it says, in that feminist way: feminism is not an end to an oppression of women, it is an end to an oppression of everyone. We are all victims of structural inequality – even those of us who climb to the top of the pile of power and privilege. Because at some point we might end up saying “If only…” and at that point we better pray there are people who can still hear our cries. Alternatively, and in my favoured solution, we might find ourselves carried on the pinions of God, redeemed with an outstretched arm, in fact, forget survival and waiting, we might be the redeemers of our own fate after all.