Friday, 24 June 2011

Smurfette and the Un-named Jewish Women

There aren’t many times when you will hear a Rabbi say, ‘I’ve spent much of the past two weeks thinking about little girls.’ But these past two weeks I have. And though, I know, Dr Anne Lerner shared a sermon on gender last week, I’m going to my take on some of the challenges of gender I believe are facing us, both as adults in our own right, and, for those of us engaged, one way or another in raising the next generation of adults – both the next generation of men, and women.

An unnamed woman plays a significant role in this weeks parasha –

At the openning of the parasha we are told that there are three principle cronies behind Korah, when he launches his assault on Moses’ authority – Datan, Abiram and On, son of Pelet. We hear more of Datan and Amiram, they join Korah in the test of the fire censers and they lose, they are swallowed up by the earth. But On, son of Pelet, disappears from the story. He’s not included in the company of Korah swallowed up by the earth and that leads the Rabbis to this Midrash.

On, the son of Pelet, teaches Bmidbar Rabba,[1] was saved by his wife. She told him not to get involved in the dispute – you are a minion under the leadership of Moses, she told him, and you will be a minion even if the rebellion of Korach succeeds – just under a different master. You are holy already, all the congregation is holy[2], and you stand to gain nothing by joining the revolution. And she gave him wine to drink until he became drunk and fell asleep. Then she sat in the doorway of her tent with her hair disheveled and when the time came for Korah’s other cronies to pick up their mate they didn’t dare cross his wife. And so On, son of Pelet, slept through the revolution – and survived.

It’s the ‘behind every great man there has to be a great woman’ school of understanding the role of women in life. But here the man isn’t great. He is, and Yiddish will it better than English ever could, a putz

But what is so remarkable is the anonymity of the woman. She’s not mentioned by the Bible, only the Midrash, and her name isn’t recorded, it’s as if history left her out. It’s not uncommon. Noah’s wife – unnamed. In the list of names of those who went down to Israel to escape the famine at the end of the Book of Genesis 69 men’s names are recorded and one woman.

Here is the most remarkable Rabbinic example I know of the un-naming of a woman. The woman is Bruria, usually referred to in the Talmud as ‘Bruria wife of Rabbi Meir.’ She’s known as a learned woman from a couple of other stories in Rabbinic literature, but there is a legal debate in Mishnah Kelayim that is worth sharing, it’s a little technical, bear with me.

If someone dies in a room all the metal in the room becomes tamei – ritually impure, spoiled. The Rabbis are having a discussion about an iron door bolt in a room where someone is dying and Bruriah suggests taking the bolt out, and hanging it on the door of your neighbour. The Tosefta reports that when ‘these words were spoken before Rabbi Yehuda, he said ‘beautifully put, Bruria.’[3] But in the Mishnah when the same idea is reported, it’s reported in the name of another Rabbi. Bruria’s contribution is gone.


There are women who feature in Rabbinic literature, but they tend not to be actors in their own right. They tend to be the objects of other people acting. In Rabbinic literature, it’s the men who are out doing things. It is the women to whom things are done. There is a whole order of the Mishnah entitled Nashim – women. There isn’t an order entitled ‘Men.’


There is a problem with the anonymity of women, a problem with the way women are written out of the narrative of our tradition but I think, most of all there is a problem with the way women are treated as ‘other’ from the default. The default is the male.


The problem is perfectly illustrated by the opening of the Rabbis’ discussion of marriage, in Masechet Kiddushin[4] - Ishah Nikneit


A woman, teaches the Mishnah, is acquired by the process of marriage.


He betroths, she is betrothed.

He is the actor she is the object.

And how easy is it to slip from being object, to being objectivised to being objectionable.

It’s not, of course, a uniquely Jewish problem. The American poet Katha Pollitt, some twenty years ago wrote about how difficult it was to find female role models amonsgt the cartoons and TV shows her daughter wanted to watch. She entitled her article The Smurfette Principle.

“Contemporary shows – mused Pollitt - are either essentially all-male, like "Garfield," or are organized on what I call the Smurfette principle: a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined. In the worst cartoons -- the ones that blend seamlessly into the animated cereal commercials -- the female is usually a little-sister type, a bunny in a pink dress and hair ribbons who tags along with the adventurous bears and badgers. But the Smurfette principle rules the more carefully made shows, too. Thus, Kanga, the only female in "Winnie-the-Pooh," is a mother. Piggy, of "Muppet Babies," is a pint-size version of Miss Piggy, the camp glamour queen of the Muppet movies… The message [argues Pollitt] is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.

And it’s neither an outdated analysis, nor one that applies only to pre-schoolers. One look at the excitement surrounding Hollywood’s newest supposed smash comedy Bridesmaids should be enough to dispel that notion. Or just pick a gender for the each of the following couplets. What’s the first gender that occurs to you if I say nurse or Doctor, Chief Executive or secretary, head-teacher or class-teacher?


The prognosis, both in tradition Judaism and so much of contemporary society, is, I think clear. Women are lovely, important, holy, capable of the enormous miracle of childbirth and so much else besides, but they are assumed to be behind men, un-named. They are objects not subjects.


There is nothing wrong in being a nurse, a secretary or a class-teacher, but there is something wrong with the assumption – explicit or implicit – that these are roles for women while the more glamorous positions are to be the sole preserve of men. And part of the reason why having women disappear into the shadows is wrong is that it makes life worse for all of us; male and female alike.


Michael Lewis, one of the most astute observers of financial markets for the past three decades, when asked what the single thing that could best prevent a repeat of financial meltodown that struck three years ago responded, "I would take steps to have 50% of women in risk positions in banks."

Tim Adams, writing in the Observer last Sunday, cited a 2001 peer-reviewed study which looked at the relative success of man and women in managing the family’s finances. The study found that ‘while men were confident in making multiple changes to investments, their annual returns were, on average, a full percentage point below those of women who invested the family finances, and nearly half as much again inferior to single women.’ Adams looked into questions of Neuroeconomics – a study of how our brains and hormones react as, as men and as women, we are faced with economic decision making, both decisions regarding the family finances and decisions regarding the sort of arbitrage default spread bets that landed us all in this economic mess.

‘A more recent study of 2.7 million personal investors, said Adams, ‘found that during the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009… male investors, as a group, appeared to be overconfident, the author of this study suggested. "There's been a lot of academic research suggesting that men think they know what they're doing, even when they really don't know what they're doing." I don’t know if that comes as surprise to anyone here. It doesn’t come as a surprise to me.

The wife of On, son of Pelet, is a hero. She’s smart, she spots something her husband doesn’t and she maneuvers a situation until a life-threatening risk is eased gently into abeyance. But I don’t think that’s enough. It’s not enough for me, I don’t want it to be enough for my daughter, or any of our daughters. She should be named. Her role should be recorded front and centre, not buried in a Midrash, and she shouldn’t have to resort to underhand supposedly females wiles in getting her man drunk (as Lot’s daughters did to Lot, or as Yael did to Sisera). She should be able to face Korah down in public debate, just as Moses did.

The question of whether women should remain on the margins or be invited front and centre is one of the places where I feel the need to look at my wonderful, glorious tradition, the Rabbinic, Jewish tradition I love, and be prepared to part from it a little. I know of its ancient andocentrism and I demand that, as Jews living today, with the knowledge we have of the Smurfette principle and neuroeconomics and much else, we need to hear more clearly, more actively and more in their own name from women – of this generation and the generations to come. As a man I’m not scared, I’m excited to think what such a world might look like. Which is why I give my daughter the same blessing recorded in the Bible as given from one man to another – be strong and of courage. my greatest blessing, to share with my daughters and all of us is the blessing given by Moses el kol yisrael to all of Israel[5]

Be strong and of courage, don’;t be afraid for Adonai your God. God will not foresake you. God will not fail you.


Shabbat shalom


[1] 18:20

[2] Citing Num 3:3

[3] Kelayim 1:6

[4] 1:1

[5] Deut 31:6

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