Sign In Forgot Password

The Curse of Eve is the Curse of Adam

10/06/2018 12:37:29 PM


Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

October 6, 2018  - Shabbat Parashat Bereishit 2018/577]


This week, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three individuals, including Canadian Donna Strickland. The media focused not only her incredible accomplishments in the area of laser technology, but also noted that Strickland is the first woman in 55 years to win the Nobel in Physics, and only the third woman ever to win the prize. The announcement also came just after one senior scientist at a nuclear research center in Geneva said that Physics was invented and built by men. (He was later suspended from his position.)


This shouldn’t surprise us. We know that women face barriers to advancement in every field. There are few women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; in the Jewish communal sector, there are a paltry few female executives. The research shows that women are interrupted more in meetings, are less likely to receive promotions, and are more likely to start a sentence with an apology - ‘I’m sorry to take up your time…’. I don’t have to tell you about the vast and deep impact of MeToo, which has unmasked abuses of power on the part of influential men, and the pain that so many women have suffered silently. The realities of sexual violence and abuse are being played out on the world stage in every arena (though I am not going to comment on the political content of these revelations).


Many of my female colleagues in the U.S. have given their “MeToo sermon”. Thankfully, I have not had a personal experience of abuse or sexual violence. However, probably like every woman in this room, I have endured cat calls and inappropriate comments about my body, even when dressed in sweatpants while going for a jog, and yes, even in the synagogue.


I don’t want to repeat what we’ve all read in the media. We know now more than ever, that women simply walk in a different world than our male peers. We also know that men can be unfairly vilified, or might simply feel confused about how to be a sensitive and responsible man in the the 21st century. It seems there are traps everywhere, even for feminist men. Of course, men can also be on the receiving end of objectifying comments. MeToo is not only about gender. It is about power, and the abuses of power that are able to flourish when we are not vigilant.


There is much to say. For this morning, I’d like to consider this: what we are to do when these ideas are inherent in some of our Jewish texts and traditions? How can we live with this, or can we perhaps reframe these texts or understand them differently?


It is right there, in the beginning of our Torah. In Bereishit, in the wake of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden, God offers punishment to the first humans. The curse to Eve is that she will suffer pain in childbirth, and then God continues with this:

וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ׃ (ס)

Your urge shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.

Man shall rule over woman. I studied the parsha this week with two 11-year-old girls in my office, and at this verse, they stopped short . What does it mean? they asked. And what could I answer? That women were subjugated to men? That men held power over women? How could I look at these girls, who love math and science, who might someday win a Nobel prize in Physics, and say to them that they were ruled by men?


Many of the commentaries don’t help. The Midrash explains that this phrase means (Midrash Aggadah, Genesis 3:16:4)

והוא ימשול בך. שהוא כובשה שלא תדבר עם בני אדם:

Woman is subjugated to man, literally ‘conquered’ by man, which is manifest in the fact that the man is concerned that she not speak with other men. This is about men controlling women’s actions. This screams MeToo - the power that men can hold over women. It even sounds almost like textbook domestic abuse - which often includes not just physical violence, but a generalized assertion of control, where [not only men, but usually it is] a man tries to control a woman, socially - who she hangs out with - or financially - how much money she spends. This is indeed a curse. But even if not taken to such an extreme, think of the power that men have held for centuries over women’s lives. Men could vote; women could not. Men could own property, while women could not. Men could go to school, to university, while women were not admitted. It gave men power, and yes, it subjugated women.


Even today, men are still proportionally in more decision-making positions than are women. And even to advance, women need male allies to advocate for them, in order to be seen or heard, in order to be hired. Often, they need to work twice as hard to reach the same level as a man, and then be paid only 75% of what he is making for the same job. Vehu yimshol bach, indeed, for most of history, men have run the world, and in many ways they still do.


This is what I told those 11 year old girls: God is saying that men are going to be in charge of the world, and that women are going to have to fight for their rights. They understood completely.


That’s the second half of the line, and the first half is -

וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ

Her urge/her desire is for her husband.

The commentator Ha’amek Davar (Netziv) in the 1800s explained it thus:

ואל אישך תשוקתך. לפי הפשט האשה משתוקקת תמיד שתהא נושאת חן בעיני אישה. .

That the woman is always looking to the man for approval. This is what feminist scholars have called “the male gaze”. Women learn that they are seen by men, and need to appeal to men. Research shows that women who groom well, who wear heels and lipstick, are statistically more likely to receive a promotion. The commentary then continues….

האיש אינו חושש שיהא נושא חן בעיני אשתו והאשה כל מעיינה שיהא האיש נוח ממנה וא״כ היא טפלה אליו

Men are not concerned with what women think, but women need to be interested in how they are seen by men. This makes the woman inferior. The power lies with the men.



And it’s been this way since Adam and Eve!

It’s not only this foundational text, but so many conversations in our tradition, that focus on gender and Judaism, are disempowering to women. Is there any way to reframe these texts in an empowering way? Is it even possible to be Jewish and feminist?


One possibility is to read these texts as validating, as deeply understanding of the reality. For example, when it comes to the blessing that men say in the morning, ‘Thank you God for not making me a woman,’ our own Rabbi Scheier has suggested that this is an acknowledgment of the fact that yes, it is hard to be a woman in this world, for so many reasons. When I read a text like this one in Bereishit, in a strange way, it is comforting for me that these texts understand deeply the experience that women have had. While the world has denied, has turned a blind eye, has ignored women when they try to speak out, has blamed the victim, has insisted that women and men are equal… These text give voice to a truth, which our modern world is only now finally, truly grappling with.


Another possibility is that when we read texts like these, or when we encounter Jewish traditions that seem to disempower women, we reframe the discussion. Sometimes we can restore women’s empowerment simply in the way we have the conversation.


There are so many areas of Jewish life and law that impact women but for today let’s take just one example, Tzniut - the Jewish ethic of modest dress.


Jewish law requires that women dress modestly, that they not wear revealing clothing. There are basic guidelines in our early Rabbinic texts. But what results after hundreds of years of interpretation, is that there are now entire books dedicated to the subject of how many inches of a woman’s leg are allowed to show, how long must the sleeves be, and what of the collar bone, and so on. These measurements do not appear in the original texts, but arise in the modern application and analysis of Tzniut rules and concepts. And when we discuss the laws of modesty, we often say that this is in order to curb the natural urges of men. While some of our ancient texts bear out this assumption, some do not.


The problem is not the laws of modesty themselves, but the way that they are spoken about. The focus on women’s modesty becomes an intense discussion about the inches of a woman’s body, which is actually less modest, and objectifies women. These discussions also make our men into barbarians who cannot control themselves.


We can talk about Tzniut, modesty, in a way that is not about hiding women’s bodies, but is about the way one carries oneself as much as the way one dresses, concepts that apply to men and to women in all of our behavior. Just as much as the halacha requires appropriate dress for women, it also forbids men to look enticingly at women, in a way that objectifies them. And I would like to think that the halacha would not want women to talk about men in a way that objectifies them either. Both women and men need to take responsibility for proper modesty in our community, as an ethic in all of our dress and behavior.


At the same time, we don’t deny that the way we dress, especially for women, influences the way people see us and how we see ourselves. We don’t need to shy away from the Jewish ethic of modest dress. In fact, Tzniut concepts can help us to articulate and acknowledge when something our daughter (or son) is wearing is inappropriate, and gives us the right and the responsibility to say it. But we can tell girls to dress appropriately without talking about men or putting it in the context of the male gaze. I can say to my daughter, I don't want people to focus on your body; I want them to focus on what you have to say, on your personality and your opinions. Women do walk in a different world than men do, and this is why it makes sense that Tzniut guidelines are different for women than they are for men. But we can do this in an empowering way to both women and men, not in an objectifying way. And we can stop giving boys the message that it’s important to be macho and domineering, in order to be a ‘real man’.


Adam and Eve collectively received three punishments. The first, to Adam, was ‘by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread.’ This is the curse of the difficulties of agriculture, the hard work of planting, harvesting, and working the land. The second curse is to Eve, that she would ensure pain and suffering in bearing children. The third curse is “Vehu yimshol bach”, that man holds power over woman.


One can see these three as simple facts, and as a life sentence for each of us. But one commentator suggests that these are three challenges that we, as humans, are meant to overcome. In fact, we have, as a society, overcome the first two. With agricultural technologies, with plows and other innovations, it’s not actually all that hard to get bread from the ground. And with medical advancements in fertility, and with the epidural, women can choose not to suffer much pain in childbirth, and we no longer consider a woman in the delivery room to be at risk of losing her life. It is the third one, the power of men over women, that we are now struggling to overcome. The world is experiencing a reckoning, when it comes to male power.


Thankfully, our Jewish tradition gives us not only difficult texts, but also many powerful female Biblical characters. We have Sarah, Miriam, Esther, Ruth, Devorah. And even in the Jewish traditions around gender, there is a deep admiration of women’s spirituality, of their religious strength, of the important role that women have played in Jewish life.


And the future for women in Judaism is bright. One needed only to see our women’s Torah readings on Simchat Torah, and to see teenage girls standing before the Torah scroll, chanting from the Torah, feeling ownership over the Torah, and a connection of their own to the beauty of our tradition. The very fact that I am standing here is a sign of just how far we have come. Yes, women can win the Nobel prize, and women can receive Rabbinic ordination.


But there is still a long way to go. Even in my own leadership, I am so often invited to speak to Sisterhood events at other synagogues, or at women’s gatherings, as if what I say is not valuable to men. Even in preparing this sermon, I was concerned that people will think that I’m addressing a ‘women’s issue’ and that that’s all I’m here to do. There is so much work to be done.


“Vehu yimshol bach”, that men rule over women, is not a curse for Eve. It is a curse for humankind. It is the problem of an imbalance of power, which manifests in so many ways. It is up to us to work to correct that imbalance, and to create a more empowering Jewish world for women and men.

Thursday, August 13, 2020 23 Av 5780