I went to church again last Sunday.
Every summer, I offer a series for this particular church. This summer, the series was entitled “The Hebrew Bible and #MeToo.” It is based on Malignant Fraternities, a book I am writing for Routledge Press on male homosociality and friendship in Hebrew Bible.
A host of biblical male relationships lead to frightening outcomes for women in Tanakh. In 2 Samuel 13, for example, two men trap a woman in a room (shades of Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge). In the biblical text, the victim is Tamar, the daughter of King David. Tamar is raped by her half-brother, Amnon.
Amnon’s friend. Jonadab, helps him. Other men are involved, too, including an unidentified number of male witnesses who are permitted to watch the scene unfold. They watch, listen, and partake vicariously until Amnon finally orders them to leave. He rapes his sister immediately afterwards.
When he is finished with Tamar, Amnon calls a servant, who appears at the ready. One must wonder whether the servant and the other men continued participating in a shared, vicarious fantasy – listening, perhaps, at the door?
Amnon orders his servant to get rid of the residue. For that is what Tamar is to him now. “Get that,” Amnon orders, “and bar the door behind her” (2 Samuel 13:17). The word Amnon uses for Tamar is “that,” a simple demonstrative pronoun, zot. Tamar is no longer a person, no longer even a woman. For Amnon, she is no more than detritus.
“Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name” (Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, p. 27).
The parishioners and I went through this terrible story. We spoke of the #MeToo movement, of the powerful men who have abused women at will. Some women spoke of their own fears – could they go to a bathroom alone in a bar? Could they walk to their care late at night feeling safe?
We agreed that women are not safe in this country. But they could be.
Towards the end of our hour together, I spoke of this week’s parsha, Pinchas. In it, Torah describes a sacrifice that should be brought for YHVH (Numbers, 28:15).
It’s a surprising idea – even shocking. For what, asked the rabbis, must God atone?
Genesis says that God made two great lights. Then, the text goes on to assert that God made one light (the sun) larger than the other (the moon).
According to the Babylonian Talmud (Chullin 60b), the moon was deeply hurt. Quietly, she asked God how such a thing could be possible; how could God create two great lights with the result that one would be smaller than the other? God’s response was impatient and commanding. “Go,” God said. “make yourself smaller.”
The moon did not understand. Why should she make herself even smaller? YHVH propitiated: even though she would be smaller, she would be seen both by day and by night. But the moon pointed out: what use is a lamp in the light of the day?
The Jewish people will reckon days and years by her cycles, God said. Holy people will be named after her.
But all these gifts are as nothing to the moon. Eventually, YHVH sees the light and offers to make an atonement sacrifice. In effect, God apologizes to the moon.
In Moon: White Sliver of Shechina’s Return, a baby naming ceremony co-created by my beloved teachers, Rabbis Daniel and Hanna Tiferet Siegel, Reb Daniel writes that the moon will not always be the lesser light.
He reminds us that Isaiah says: “And the light of the moon shall become like the light of the sun” (30:26). He notes that prayerbook blessings for sanctifying the new moon reads: “May the light of the moon be like the light of the sun and like the light of the seven days of creation, as it was before it was diminished, as it is said: ‘The two great luminaries.’”
Imbalance between and women must be temporary. Women will not always fear. They will not always be made to be smaller. There can be a future in which both lights will shine with equal strength and equal brilliance.
May it be so in our own lifetimes. May we make it so in our lifetimes.
This post is dedicated to Rabbi Daniel Siegel and Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel. For reminding us, for teaching us.