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Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, September 23, 2013

 TB Kiddushin 81b: Freedom to be recognized as a sexual being

I often have conversations with couples who share the most intimate feelings with me. One of the issues that is expressed is sexual deprivation that one partner feels. I think that in a healthy marriage, a couple can fight about anything, but then they can make love and soothe the bad feelings like a forgiving ritual. But when one is deprived of this opportunity, bitterness, sexual resentment and desperation build up. Surveys actually show that infrequent sex is the most common marital problem today. Partners express satisfaction in their relationship only when they engage in cuddling, talking and sex.

According to Judaism, marital sex is not intrinsically dirty or evil and in fact, is a mitzvah if it is done with love, within a marriage, and at the proper time. Interesting enough, there are many talmudic stories about men, who in spite of the commended obligation to sexually satisfy their wives choose to be celibate so that they can focus on Torah learning. There are other stories who tell about men (rabbis or pious) who have sex with prostitutes even though they are married. I hope to bring these stories to my blog very soon. This time I want to share a very unique story that triggered a number of social, gender and marital issues.

In the Gemarah, Kiddushin 81b we read a powerful story of Rabbi Hiyya and his wife, who is nameless.

Every time Rabbi Hiyya ben Abba fell upon his face [i] he used to say: “The Merciful save me from the evil inclination”. One day his wife [over] heard him and reflected: “He has abstained from being with me sexually for many years, so why is he praying for such things?” One day, while he was studying [Torah] in his garden, she disguised herself as a harlot repeatedly walking back and forth before him.

He asked her: “Who are you”?

She replied: “I am Herutha [ii] and I have returned today”.
He desired her and had sexual relations with her.

She said to him: “Bring me that pomegranate from the uppermost tree branch”. He jumped up and brought it to her. When he later returned to his house, he [found] his wife lighting the oven fire, where he got into this oven. She asked: “What does it mean”? He told her what had happened.

She said: “I was that woman”.
He replied: “Nevertheless, my intention was evil”.
I cannot even imagine this woman’s life but the text is clear that her sense of suspicion that perhaps her husband desires another woman is driving her to act in a stange way. Her masquerading herself to a harlot is telling a great deal about her need to be needed in the intimate way. If Rabbi Hiyya will be able to resist this “harlot” than she (the wife) can be assured that there is no way he desires another woman, and thus, she will find a good excuse why she sacrifices her intimate life for Sh’lom bayit – “peace at Home” for the sake of Torah study.

Being married to a man who takes her for granted, she needs to claim her own sexuality and dignity by giving herself a real boost to her self-esteem. She desires to be more than just a mother, housekeeper and wife who keeps the family running smoothly.

This is a story full of ironies; she gains her identity by acting like a prostitute and naming herself Herutha - Freedom. Sadly, she is paying a heavy price for this freedom, as it seems. How more painful could it be when he does not even recognize his wife as he asks: “Who are you”? She forces her husband to sin sexually – but doing it with her is not really a sin. And, all of this takes place in no other place than the garden – his place of study (a reminder of the story of Adam and Eve) to show that Torah learning is no protection against his sexual urges, and the lack of sex at home does not prevent him from thinking about it.

I believe that this story can be understood within our own cultural setting. It begs us to ask some critical questions about the status of women in the private and the public sphere, about the ethics of sexual relationship and intimacy and communication. What does it mean to be in a marital sexual ethical relationship? How do a husband and wife go without intimacy? Do women have to prostitute themselves in order to achieve proper recognition from their husband? What kind of “freedom” is there if a woman has to hide behind a mask in order to be recognized?

My last thought has to do with the lack of open communication between this couple, which cannot be healthy. There are only secrets and suspicions. Instead of confronting her husband directly, she questions his intentions in her own mind. Only after her proactive “test”, when he sits in the oven, ready to suffer a punishment for not controlling his urges, do they finally talk to each other. To his credit, he confesses the truth about his adultery. It is not his private prayer that makes a marriage go well, but in the real heart to heart discussion with intimacy.

I vote for Herutha as a model who demands consideration of sexuality and gender equality in our society. She holds this mirror for what a marriage should not look like, and asks not to become numb to the basic needs of a healthy marriage. Let us find a “Herutha” test in our own life not necessary. 

[i] In Talmudic times after the Eighteen Benedictions each person prayed privately for whatever he desired while falling on the face.

[ii] A well-known prostitute of that town

©Rabbi Ziona Zelazo

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Where Is The Holiness In The Kotel?

A personal reflection on Rosh Hodesh Menachem Av with the Women of the Wall

July 8th, 2013  (Published at the website of "Rabbis for Women of the Wall")

Rabbi Zelazo serves in the Circle of Honor of Rabbis for Women of the Wall

I was taught that when we treat a physical site as holy we create a sacred place. I learned that when we are in such a space, our intention to connect with the divine and our respectful behavior and love through prayer and contemplation build up a sacred energy. I lived my life believing that the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem is a holy and sacred place. But, on this last Rosh Chodesh Av, at the Kotel, I was emotionally paralyzed and could not feel the holiness that I was anticipating. On the morning of July 8, 2013, I entered this holy site with fear and overwhelming emotions in reaction to the haredim's unholy behavior. I painfully witnessed Jews contaminating the holy site of the Kotel and depriving me and 350 others from connecting to the divine in a way that we wished to.

Just three months ago the Women of the Wall achieved a victory in court in which the court ruled that women may pray at the Kotel with prayer shawls and reading from a Torah scroll. The government also provided police protection to the Women of the Wall. The gathering on that morning demonstrated, however, that one can never know what to expect on each Rosh Hodesh at the Kotel. While the abusive behavior of the haredim with their inappropriate conduct has continued each Rosh Hodesh since this victory, we faced still other issues.

At about 6:30 am I joined the Women of the Wall as we were bussed from Gan Hapa'amon to the Kotel. We were escorted by police to a fenced in area right beyond the entrance to the Plaza area. We felt safe up to this point. It was in this area that we ended up praying.

At about 7:00 am the women's section was packed with young haredi women and girls. When I say packed I mean they were standing right besides each other, creating a "wall to wall" carpet of bodies. Reports say there were about 7,000 of them. These women were summoned there by their rabbis to prevent the Women of the Wall from praying in the women's section.

On the other side, the men's section and the remaining space surrounding the Kotel were nearly empty. Yet, we were not allowed to get closer. There was enough space for us, but the police did not let us through!

The Kotel was not even in sight. Instead, we were facing a wall of people -- the police and (behind the iron barricades) the haredi men and teens. So we prayed in a space next to the public bathrooms, usually used by Police as a parking area.

The biggest disgrace was yet to come. We were facing haredi men protesters with signs, blowing whistles, throwing eggs and yelling "Natziot (Natzis) go home." The police were watching and did nothing. The police allowed these men to behave in such a way, even when a female journalist was physically attacked by a haredi man and woman. The haredi women stood on the side. They were calling us names and made faces at us. One called me "retarded." But then, there were the whistles. The constant loud and annoying whistles, which at times exceeded the singing of Women of the Wall. I will not forget the face of the woman who did not stop! I can still hear the echo of this ear bursting sound! And the police did nothing to stop her!!

One male rabbi shared with me that he experienced the most spiritual prayer service ever. I kept wondering where was the sense of kedushah -- holiness that he felt. I kept asking myself whether I was really praying while all of this was going on around me, being aware how hard I tried to stay focused. But all of a sudden I got it!! It was not what was happening around us, but what was happening among us. I realized that kedushah was created with each prayer, song, chant and intention that our voices uttered as we filled the air with energy; "Ozi V'Zimrat Yah, Vayehi li liyshuah" -- Yah is my strength and song has become my rescue." Yes! I too felt holiness because we established it with our presence and perseverance. By being there and not giving up on a vision of religious pluralism we made it a sacred mission. By bringing the young girl to mitzvoth and having her Bat Mitzvahed right there, there was holiness as we showed the way to the next generation. We created a sacred place right there at the Plaza next to the bathrooms.

So, I stood with my fellow men and women in front of these human barricades with awe; shaking and holding my tears, having a meaningful experience with emotions. I remember, as we sang the prayer for the Peace of the State of Israel and Hatikvah: "To be a free nation in our country" -- it was so special too, as it meant more to me than ever before.

I was thinking how my friends perceived me as a brave woman -- being there at the "front Line," but really, there is no bravery here -- I was there only because I wanted to be part of a dream for Israel and for my right to pray the way I want at the Kotel. I wanted to send a message to the Israeli government that the key to the Kotel has been given to us as well.

Rosh Hodesh Elul is coming soon and I am back in the States now. I will certainly be at the Kotel with the Women of the Wall in spirit -- May they go from strength to strength.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The spiritual dimension of the Prayer shawl [tallit] for women -- Menachot 43a,b

       When my daughter gave birth to her firstborn, [my first grandson], she taught me new ways to care for infants. One of the things that was new to me was the practice of swaddling the baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics claims that a blanket wrapped snugly around the baby’s body can resemble the mother’s womb and can help soothe the newborn baby.

      Snuggle? Yes. When I wrap myself in the prayer shawl – the tallit -- I feel like a baby that is swaddled. I feel wrapped securely in my tradition that is like a womb. I sense as if I am being enveloped with the soothing caring presence of God. I actually believe that the tallit helps me contain my own energy next to my body, so that I can connect better with the Divine. Praying without a tallit gives me a different sensation. Reading the Torah without a tallit feels like I am half naked.

      So why, do you think, has the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis determined that women cannot pray at the Kotel with a tallit/tzizit (* ? Why would men want to deprive women of a spiritual dimension of prayer? After all, we learn that Jewish texts do not mention the prohibition for women to wear a tallit!! Yes! Women are exempt from the obligation to wear the tallit but are not forbidden to wear it! The exemption comes from the Torah that address the "positive time-bound commandments” which only men are required to perform. For example, like waving a lulav during Sukkot, the mitzvah of tzitzit is also time-bound since it applies only during the daytime.

     According to the Gemara in Menachot 43a, in Talmudic times some respected sages let their wives and daughters wear a tallit. Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Amram used to attach the fringes to the garments of the women of the house --

  Rab Judah attached fringes to the aprons of [the women of] his household [For he held that women are also bound to wear tzizit]…  But since he attached [the fringes to the women’s garments], obviously he is of the opinion that it is a precept not dependent on a fixed time [For women must observe only those positive commandments that do not depend upon the time of the year or of the day for their performance].
The teaching continues to say that women are permitted to wear a tallit just like the others 
     Our Rabbis taught: All must observe the law of tzizit; priests, Levites, and Israelites, proselytes, women and slaves. R. Simeon declares women exempt, since it is a positive precept dependent on a fixed time, and women are exempt from all positive precepts that are dependent on a fixed time. What is the reasoning of Rabbi Shimon? It has been taught “and when you see it”, this excludes clothing worn at night.

      Wearing a tallit is not always a matter of halacha. It could also be a matter of a sociological/personal choice for many women I know. And despite the insinuations made by those who object to this practice, not all women who wear a tallit are doing so to fight for gender equality. They are not necessarily feminists who want to show that women can do what men do. They do not even care about the media and have no intention to upset the Ultra-Orthodox population. These women choose to wear a tallit because they find it meaningful on a spiritual level. Some will tell you that it helps them connect with God. Others will share that they want to fulfill a commandment that is dictated to all, not only to men. Basically, women challenge the position of 
Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Orakh Chaim 17:2) who felt that donning of a tallit by a woman would be an act of religious arrogance. While it is difficult for me to understand this logic, the variety of the most gorgeous feminine artistic tallitot you can find today, show the opposite. They bring a sense of pride for those who wear them, reminding them that they perform another mitzvah, which is Hiddur Hamitzvah -- the practice of excessively adorn a commandment with beauty. 

     The fact that the woman's tallit does not resemble the traditional pattern worn by men is actually in compliance with the decision of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (a 20th century orthodox rabbi) who did not reject or object to women wearing a tallit, as long as they use differently colored tallit to avoid confusion with men’s clothes (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chayim 4:39).

     It does not surprise me that the symbolic ritual of the tallit has become such a focal point at the Western Wall, stimulated by the group called the Women of the Wall. It is not a new debate, as it has been a debate for ages noted in the history of Jewish law, going back to the 11th century in Egypt, Europe and Israel. The difference is that today, the fight to wear a tallit at the Kotel by the Women of the Wall has a wider implication- the struggle for religious freedom for women without undermining halacha at all. 

     Today I am troubled to witness the lack of religious pluralism in Israel and I am equally  concerned that the ideal of Israel as a democratic Jewish state is fading. I am not happy to see the power of a minority group -- that of the Ultra–Orthodox, calling the shots in Israeli daily life. This is why I respect the Women of the Wall; by insisting on praying their way with a tallit, they lead the way for a better understanding of the Jewish law.
*) Tzitzit is the Hebrew for the specially knotted ritual fringes attached to the four corners of the prayer shawl] to the garments of the women of their houses -- Note that a prayer shawl without the tzizit is not considered a tallit.

(C)Rabbi Ziona Zelazo

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Ketubot 62b and Vayikrah

Dr. Ruth Calderon's speech in the Knesset is still in the thoughts of so many. It is amazing to see how her Talmudic teaching of Ketubot 62b turned to become a powerful tool to force us to look into what needs some extra attention in our own life. Gladly, I read an additional insight that I would like to share with you. In his new post today, Rabbi Marc Angel connected her speech to  the upcoming Torah portion of Vayikrah.

Sins Against Others, and Sins Against Ourselves: Thoughts for Parashat Vayikra, March 16, 2013

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Marital sex is the context in Ruth Calderon's speech-Ketubot 62b

      In her February 12, 2013 inaugural Knesset speech, Ruth Calderon made a macro connection between politics and Talmud. I think it is also important to hear the micro message that is embedded in the Talmudic story – which has nothing to do with politics. One may wonder how her vision of her party ‘Yes Atid’ (‘There is Future’) is related to the story.

      She remarks on a story from Ketubot 62b about Rav Rechume who would study Torah with Rava in a very prestigious Yeshiva in Mehuza. He regularly came home once a year on the eve of Yom Kippur to be with his wife; One year his involvement in Torah study was so intense that he forgot to go home. His wife was in pain and cried. As her tears fell, the rooftop where the rabbi was studying collapsed and he died.

       Ruth Calderon’s conclusions from this story are as follows;

“What can I learn about this place and my work here from Rabbi Rechume and his wife? 

I learn that one who forgets that he is sitting on another’s shoulders – will fall. 

I learn that righteousness is not adherence to the Torah at the expense of sensitivity to human beings. 

I learn that often, in a dispute, both sides could be right, and I understand that my disputant and I, (the woman and Rabbi Rechume), can feel that they are doing the right thing and are both responsible for the home. Sometimes we feel like the woman, waiting, serving in the army, doing all the work while others sit on the roof and study Torah; sometimes others feel that they bear the entire weight of tradition, Torah, and our culture while we go to the beach and have a blast. Both I and my disputant feel solely responsible for the home. Until I understand this, I will not perceive the problem properly and will not be able to find a solution. I invite all of us to years of action rooted in thought and dispute rooted in mutual respect and understanding”.

     Looking at the context of this story in Ketubot 62b, we will see that it has to do with sexual obligations that are demanded from married men and women;– In Exodus 21:10 we read that marital sex is one of the woman's rights: ‘Her food, her clothing, and her duty of marriage relations he shall not diminish.' The Talmud instructs that a man is obligated to sanctify married unions, and has to please his wife by having marital relations with her at the appropriate times, and also at other times when she so desires. The Talmud also specifies the frequency of sexual obligation based on the husband's occupation and that a man may not take a vow to abstain from sex for an extended period of time, and may not take a journey for an extended period of time, because that would deprive his wife of sexual relations.

     Our Gemara now criticizes men who leave their wives for long periods of time for the sake of studying Torah. Although men can leave home without permission from their wives, and that women actually have no say in the frequency of marital relations, it shows that if a man believes that studying Torah is more saintly and more important than his obligation to be with his wife, God will eventually punish them for this transgression;

-“The Sages ruled: Students may go away to study Torah without the permission [of their wives even for] two or three years. Raba stated: The Rabbis relied on R. Adda b. Ahabah and act accordingly at the risk of [losing] their lives [i.e., they die before their time as a penalty for the neglect of their wives (v. Rashi]". 

     To illustrate the severity of improper “saintliness” concerning one’s wife, the sages use the story of Rav Rechume,

“Thus R. Rechume, who was frequenting [the school] of Raba at Mahuza used to return home on the Eve of every Day of Atonement. On one occasion he was so attracted by his subject [that he forgot to return home]. His wife was expecting [him every moment, saying.] ‘”He is coming soon”, “he is coming soon”. As he did not arrive she became so depressed that tears began to flow from her eyes. He was [at that moment] sitting on a roof. The roof collapsed under him and he was killed”.

     Rav Rechume dies because of the pain he inflicted on his wife. The Gemara continues with the story of Yehuda ben Hiyya, who dies because of a tragic misunderstanding when he did not return home from his Yeshiva;

     "Judah, the son of R. Hiyya and son-in-law of R. Jannai was always spending his time in the school house but every Sabbath eve he came home. Whenever he arrived the people saw a pillar of light moving before him. Once he was so attracted by his subject of study [that he forgot to return home]. Not Seeing that Sign, R. Jannai said to those [around him], ‘Lower his bed, for had Judah been alive he would not have neglected the performance of his marital duties’. This [remark] was like an error that proceeded from the ruler, for [in consequence] Judah's soul returned to its eternal rest". 

     Ruth Calderon’s macro message is not wrong when she equates Rav Rechume and his wife to the different factions in the Israeli political/social front, namely the conflict between the Ultra-Orthodox population and the secular Israeli. She wisely calls the nation to be considerate and mindful about these conflicts. And she is right to ask for clarity and acknowledgment of the pain of each member of its society as it is envelops with its dreams and ideals.

     On the micro level, I see another message in Ketubot 62b -- a message of caution for couples; no partner should be deprived of respect, love, pleasure or else because of a spouse’s extra hours of work in the office, extensive business trips or internet related work. Men or women who will spend too much time away from home will end up sacrificing their family unity and sanctity.

- What did you get out of the stories from this page of Gemara?

- Can you picture yourself as one of the characters of these stories?

- How frequently do you think a couple needs to see each other in order to maintain a positive relationship?

To listen to the speech click here;