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Parashat 09/07/2011

Parashat Ki Tetze

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Men’s equipment shall not be found on a woman. (22:5)

Onkelos: Weapons shall not be found on a woman.

Rashi: So that she’ll look like a man in order to go among the men, for the only reason for this is for adultery.

Ba’al haTurim: Men’s equipment is “equipment” of Torah study; thus there is a hint of the opinion that one should not teach his daughter Torah.


Extreme avoidance of women by men is the prescribed pattern of the shtetl. Life is With People, Zborowski and Herzog (1952)

The glory of the princess resides within. (Ps. 45:14)

When I was quite young, just old enough to read something more than children’s books, I used to get up early Saturday mornings and read books from my parents’ bookshelves.  One of those volumes was Life is with People, a then recently published sociological study of the East European shtetlach, culled from the memories, still fresh, of survivors of the Holocaust who had resettled in the US.  Perhaps the only things I remember from my reading were the quote above, and a comment from someone the authors identified as a “shtetl feminist”: ” Women have real souls and men have recognized souls!” (p140)  Lest one think these issues are from a bygone time and place, consider the treatment, or rather mistreatment, of women in most of the Islamic world.  There are sections of the Jewish community too where “modesty police” mete out a kind of frontier justice to anyone offending their sense of decency, apparently with community approval.


Yet it is clear that there is a basis in Torah for such a separation, as exemplified in numerous of the commandments in our Parashah, as well as in other places in Torah.  Why is this?  And what are the natures of the separate rôles that Torah assigns to men and to women?


There are obvious physiological differences between men and women.  Men are, on average, bigger and stronger than women.  They are also incapable of bearing and nursing children.  These differences, in most traditional cultures, lead to the following differentiation: men are tasked with the primary function of interacting with the external, physical world – farming, hunting, providing for the body.  Women are tasked as their primary function interacting with the inner world of the spirit – and from this inner world, supporting the external activities of the men.  This is a division of labor, and one in which the woman has by far the more important rôle.  Thus when Sarah tells Avraham to exile Hagar and Ishmael, Avraham balks until Gd tells him to do exactly what Sarah tells him to do.  Our Sages read as a subtext “because she is a greater prophet than you!”  Since Sarah, our tradition’s archetype of woman, represents the inner direction, it is perfectly natural that her connection to the Divine, that is, her prophetic gift, is stronger than Avraham’s.  While Avraham is busy entertaining guests and lecturing them about the nature of Gd, Sarah is quietly in the tent actually strengthening her direct connection with Gd.  In fact, it is only on the basis of this connection that Avraham is able to bring the knowledge of Gd out into the crude, material creation.


Perhaps the tradition that Adam and Eve were created originally as one creature (male and female He created them), joined back to back, can be understood in this manner.  Adam, the male aspect, is facing in one direction – outward, while Eve, the female aspect, is facing in the opposite direction – inward.  Perhaps this reflects an integrated state of the personality where Adam/Eve is able to maintain a connection to the infinite, inward value of life while simultaneously acting in the material realm.  Eventually though, the two must be split apart so that rather than being back-to-back, they can come into a relationship with one another, face-to-face.  Once there is this relationship, the two aspects, male and female, can become re-integrated on a higher level than the original, un-split version.  In this way, the microcosm reflects the macrocosm – an original unity (Gd) as it were splits into Gd and Gd’s creation (inner and outer values), and then, through the free-will acceptance of Gd’s sovereignty by human beings, Gd and Gd’s creation become re-integrated into something, if we can even say it, greater than the original situation.


If this is Torah’s vision of women, as the indispensable underpinning of the entire activity of creation, why do we see women so routinely mistreated, whether being degraded in places like Iran and Afghanistan and Egypt, or turned into sex objects in the West?  I think this mistreatment is a symptom of a larger disease, and that is a general infatuation with the material world to the detriment of its spiritual basis.  Put simply, the material world is available to sensual perception, and gives us sensual pleasure.  This pleasure, while it is fleeting, is powerful, and draws us after it.  The much more substantial, but also much more subtle pleasures of the mind and spirit, are easily overwhelmed by sensuality, the way the sweet voice of a lone singer is easily drowned out in the hubbub of Times Square.  We attach great importance to the material world; anything that doesn’t appear to be contributing materially is ignored or disparaged.


The silent, infinite center of our being is the ultimate source of our existence, let alone any accomplishment we may achieve, yet it remains hidden deep within us, and being hidden, we tend to forget about it.  In fact, to contact this inner sanctum of our existence we must first turn ourselves away from the material, away from the world of activity, and simply be silent inside ourselves.  Unfortunately we do not often do this.  And just as we are disconnected from and fail to honor our inner selves, we also fail to honor those members of our society whose task it is to keep us connected to that inner realm.  The result is a disaster for women, for men and for society as a whole.  The details are in the tochachah of next week’s parashah.


Torah establishes boundaries between men and women so that each can focus on their respective realms and rôles.  It clearly assigns primacy to the woman.  A man is enjoined to honor his wife more than himself (Yevamot 62b), and if he doesn’t avail himself of her advice, born of an intuition (binah yeteirah/”extra” intellect) of the underlying spiritual layers of life that are moving the surface crust of existence, he is considered a fool.  Women are exempted from most time-bound positive commandments – not only do they not need the extra holiness generated by these commandments, but the actions required in their fulfillment take time that is more valuable spent cultivating their inner life.  These boundaries, far from being a restriction on women, free them to pursue the peace and sanctity of life in direct connection with the Divine, while requiring men to struggle with an often-recalcitrant material reality.  When those boundaries break down, chaos and suffering result.  We would do well as a society to consider how Torah’s system of boundaries actually leads us to greater freedom, and to implement them in the way they are intended, and not in the grotesque perversions we see too often around us.  Perhaps this is another thing that must await the coming of Mashiach, but we can certainly start moving in a positive direction, in whatever circle, large or small, that we can influence.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 1 (should be Chapter 2, but I couldn’t pass this one up!)

Mishnah 5

Yose ben Yochanan of Jerusalem would say: … do not engage in excessive idle chatter with women… From this the Sages derived that one who engages in excessive idle chatter with women causes harm to himself and desists from Torah study, and his end is that he will inherit Gehinnom.

R. Bulka comments: …A wife is not just there for small talk, nor is she to be seen as the household servant who must do the bidding of the boss. … In this distorted perception of women, the ultimate loser is man. A man who is unmarried is considered incomplete, as it says It is not good for the man to be alone.  A man, who is constantly grappling with the outer, material world, is nothing more than a leaf in the wind without being anchored to the infinite ground of his existence.  Celibacy is not a value in Judaism; the ideal is an integrated household, where the man can go out and deal with the world secure in his anchor to the infinite provided by his wife.  All his activity is for her, and all her silence is for him.  In such a home idle chatter is experienced to be so jarring that it simply will not be found!
Afterword: Out of curiosity I looked up the authors of Life is With People — Mark Zborowski, as it turns out, was a Stalinist spy who was involved in the murder of Trotsky (Trotsky by the way was Jewish).  See and a discussion of the book given Zborowski’s “other” vocation:  While we’re on the subject of Jewish spies, you might also enjoy looking up Moe Berg, major league catcher, Princeton and Columbia Law graduate, American spy: