How (Not) to Sin

In Sarah Perry’s masterful novel The Essex Serpent, set in 1890s England, a young boy asks the local parson to explain the nature of sin as the two are standing on the banks of a river by the ruins of an old ship known as the Leviathan. By way of response, the parson instructs the boy to throw a stone at the Leviathan skeleton. The boy casts his stone, and he misses. He tries again, and again he misses. The parson looks at him. “That’s all it is,” he tells him. “To sin is to try, but fall short… We think we know where we’re aiming, and perhaps we do – but morning comes, and a change in the light, and we find out we should’ve been trying in a different direction after all.”

The notion of sin as missing the mark is one of the many meanings of the term explored by David Bashevkin in his book Sin-A-Gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought (Academic Studies Press, 2019). In the book’s opening chapter, he surveys the various biblical and rabbinic terms used for sin and considers their implications: What does it mean to think of sin as a debt we must pay? How is sin as deviation different from sin as transgression? How do we envision our relationship with God if we think of sin as a missed opportunity, like a stone that misses its mark? And why do we Jews seem to have as many words for sin as the Eskimos have for snow? He brilliantly concludes this chapter by invoking Isaiah’s prophecy, quoted each year in the Yom Kippur liturgy, that if our sins be like crimson, they will whiten like snow. Bashevkin writes, “However many words Eskimos have for snow, we pray that our sins will eventually be described with one of them.”

This homiletic tone is not uncommon in this book, which not only explores the various aspects of sin in Jewish thought but also shows us how we can live better in spite of our cognizance that inevitably we will fall short. In the introduction, he notes that we all enjoy summarizing our lives in brief biographical blurbs that highlight our accomplishments and conveniently omit our setbacks. Bashevkin quotes, in consecutive paragraphs, both Orwell and the Kotzker rebbi, who were suspicious of those who keep their good deeds public and their bad deeds private. He encourages his readers to include a “one-sentence tribute to one of the thin envelopes you have received in your life.” Here, as at various points throughout the book, it seems as if Bashevkin is speaking from the pulpit, perhaps to an audience of youth group members; he works as the Director of Education for NCSY, the Orthodox movement’s youth group, and it is clear from his writing that he has a talent for finding just the right colorful anecdote or quotation that will keep his audience engaged.

Sin-a-gogue is organized thematically, with each chapter exploring another aspect of the Jewish view of sin – from Adam and Eve’s banishment from the garden, to religious apostasy, to character studies of some of the most famous flawed heroes and anti-heroes, including the biblical figure of Akhan who took from the forbidden spoils of war in the book of Joshua and the rabbinic figure of Acher, who was excised from the boundaries of the Jewish community in Mishnaic times. Another chapter, on sinning for the sake of heaven, is largely a character study of the biblical figure of Esther, who slept with a non-Jewish king (albiet entirely passively, as per the midrash) so as to save the Jewish people. Can sinning ever be holy, Bashevkin asks?

In one of the most compelling chapters, Bashevkin considers the question of whether God repents, starting with a midrash about how God demands that the moon diminish itself so that it does not rival the sun, and then atones for doing so. If repentance is not necessarily divine, forgiveness certainly is, and here Bashevkin considers Moses’ plea with God to forgive the Jewish people in the wake of the golden calf episode. Surprisingly he alludes only briefly to the story of Noah, which one would expect to occupy a much larger place in the story of God’s repentance – after all, no sooner than God creates the world, God nearly destroys it, and then pledges never to do so again. What are we to make of the fact that the Creator regrets creating the world, only then to regret destroying it? And why does this episode play such a prominent role in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, when we are focused on our own repentance? Instead, Bashevkin concludes the chapter by invoking the Hasidic thinker Rabbi Zadok, who writes of God’s attempts to return back to man. Throughout the book, Bashevkin draws heavily on Hasidic teachings, from the Baal Shem Tov to Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav to Rabbi Mordekhai Yosef, the founder of the Izbica-Radzyn school.

Bashevkin quotes impressively from a wide range of literary and philosophical sources, moving freely between Jewish and non-Jewish writers to juxtapose Milton and Nahmanides, or Hume and Maimonides. Only rarely do his references feel gratuitous, as when he reassures his readers that just as Stephen Hawking tried to omit equations from A Brief History of Time so as not to alienate his readers, he will try to omit Talmudic terminology. Occasionally his tone will shift to become unnecessarily moralizing; a chapter on “religious frustration as a factor in religious motivation” begins with a lament about those who turn to religion during difficult life moments, when, according to Bashevkin, they might better be served by turning to “simple, healthy social interactions” or the “guidance of a mental health professional.” Perhaps Bashevkin, in his role as educator, has an appropriate forum in which to raise such concerns, but this book does not seem to be it. Besides, I would argue that in our modern, secular era, people are far more likely to turn to therapy or to yoga when instead they might draw on the resources their religious tradition has to offer – prayer, community, the routine of ritual observance. Although Bashevkin ultimately concludes this chapter, after a reading of Jonah’s religious motivations, by conceding that “religious integrity is not determined by the door through which you enter or even the length of your stay,” it is unclear whether he retracts his lament from the chapter’s beginning.

Of course, one can hardly expect a book on sin and failure to be flawless, and Bashevkin is the first to acknowledge his own shortcomings in his biography. But he has succeeding in writing an entertaining, edifying, and eclectic (if at times a bit too much so) survey of an important aspect of Jewish thought. “A person cannot stand on words of Torah until they have caused him to stumble,” Bashevkin quotes from the Talmud, and those who stumble across Sin-a-gogue will no doubt discover, within its pages, much to stand on.

The Enchanted Talmud: A Tale of Rabbis and Muggles

When I began studying Talmud in Jewish day school, my friends and I used to act out the cases discussed in the Mishnah: “If a man uncovers a woman’s hair in public… If a man leaves his jug of water in the middle of the street….” We relied on makeshift props – a cheerleading pompom for a head of hair, or a juice box from someone’s lunch for a jug of water. I was reminded of those junior high school plays when I read Enchantress (Plume, $17), Maggie Anton’s second and final book about Rav Hisda’s daughter and the Jewish community of fourth-century Babylonia. Anton dramatizes scenes from the Talmud featuring her eponymous heroine (also known as Hisdadukh), her second husband Rava (her marriage to her first husband was the subject of the previous book), and the rabbis and sorceresses with whom they interact.
Knowledge, in this novel, is highly gendered: Men study Torah and women cast spells. That is not to say that women do not also learn Torah—and indeed, in the book’s closing pages an aged Hisdadukh teaches Mishnah to her granddaughters and their daughters, “according to each girl’s capabilities.” But for the most part, it is the men who quote Mishnah and the women who write incantation bowls, wear special rings that enable them to understand the speech of animals, and cast spells to quell deadly sandstorms and turn men into donkeys. Midway through the book, in a scene reminiscent of countless middle-grade novels about preteen witches and their magic-making moms, Hisdadukh discovers that her mother, too, was a sorceress: “I’d thought it was Father’s study and piety that safeguarded our family all those years,” Hisdadukh relates, dumbfounded to discover that it was in fact their mother’s spells that had protected the family from harm. Several of these spells are included in the novel, as Anton draws on the astrological and demonic lore that is sprinkled like fairy dust throughout the Talmud’s pages, including vividly colorful curses such as “hot excrement in torn baskets.” At these moments the book seems to be a sort of “Harry Potter meets the Talmud,” with the Angel of Death as Dementor and non-rabbinic amei haaretz as muggles.
But Anton’s novel is also a romance, and quite a racy one at that. Hisdaukh and Rava have a passionate marriage, and they “use the bed” (Anton’s apt translation of the Talmudic euphemism) several times per chapter. Indeed, in one of her more daring and dubious leaps of conjecture, Anton suggests that Rava (meaning “great one”) received his epithet not due to his mastery of Torah, but on account of his spectacular endowment. Their sex life, for the most part, is charmed, except when the demon Ashmedai attempts to seduce Hisdadukh in the guise of her previous husband Rami, and Rava is consumed by jealous rage. This scene is perhaps a creative inversion of the Talmudic tale of Rava’s wife’s jealousy of his study partner’s wife Homa, an encounter which Anton surprisingly and disappointingly elects to domesticate.
Anton has elsewhere stated that her goal in writing these novels is to encourage more non-Orthodox Jews, especially women, to study Talmud. Towards this end she bridges an ancient text with contemporary academic scholarship on the Talmud’s Persian and Zoroastrian context, from magi to menstrual rituals. When at her best, she brings Talmudic characters vividly to life, as in her ingenious depiction of Rav Nahman’s imperious and importunate wife Yalta as a hawk-nosed lesbian. At times she seems merely to be dramatizing scene after scene from the Talmud, not unlike my amateur junior high Mishnah plays. But then Anton will let slip, say, that Rav Hisda’s daughter wore tzitzit, or that the rabbis gained their intimate knowledge of women’s bodies by consulting their wives, or that Hisdadukh’s vision of the world to come involved studying Torah with both her husbands simultaneously. Suddenly it becomes clear that only a twenty-first century feminist and critical sensibility like Anton’s could interpret the Talmud in just this way; and for this reader, at least, the novel succeeds in working its magic.

Fair and Fowl: Reading the Talmud through Feminist Eyes

A few days ago I was learning daf yomi while nursing my daughter when I came upon the following Talmudic passage, which begins with a quote from the Song of Songs:

“’Our little sister has no breasts.’ Rabbi Yohanan said: This refers to Eilam, who merited to learn but not to teach” (Pesachim 87a).

My infant daughter was lying bare-skinned on my breast, and I looked down at her as I puzzled over this passage. Why is having no breasts analogous to learning but not teaching? And then suddenly it dawned on me: I was breastfed as a child and I in turn went on to breastfeed my daughter. But my little daughter, who has no breasts (yet), can eat but cannot feed others. She is therefore like someone who learns (or imbibes) but cannot teach (or nurse) others. To my surprise, when I scanned the margins of my Talmud for this explanation, it was nowhere to be found in Rashi, Tosafot, or any of the traditional commentators. Was it the experience of learning while nursing—surely unfamiliar to any traditional (male) commentator—that led me to this insight? What else might we find in the Talmud when we read it through women’s eyes? This brings me to the subject at hand: A Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, a multi-volume series by leading scholars from around the world.

            The Feminist Commentary series is the brainchild of Israeli-born historian and Talmudist Tal Ilan, who currently teaches at the Free University in Berlin. Each volume is dedicated to a feminist reading of one tractate (or a few consecutive tractates) of the Talmud; the first volume, on Taanit, was reviewed in this publication shortly after its 2008 publication. The most recent volume, published this year, covers Tamid, Middot, and Qinnim, the final three tractates of the order of Qodshim, which deal with sacrificial offerings in the Temple. This volume is written by Dalia Marx, an Israeli-born Reform rabbi and liturgist who teaches at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. Marx considers each of these three tractates in turn, shedding light on gender issues and reading the text—which was composed by men 1500 years ago, and studied almost exclusively by men since then–through a woman’s eyes.

Marx takes us with her on a “literary pilgrimage” to the Temple, which she argues is the purpose of tractates Tamid and Middot. Middot deals with the dimensions of the Temple; Tamid deals with the daily activity within it. As Marx argues, not everyone merited to visit the Temple when it was standing, and it was only the High Priest who was permitted to penetrate the innermost sanctum, but these tractates made the interior of the Temple accessible to those barred from the priestly cult. Ironically, however, this was not true of women, who were historically excluded from the study house yet granted access to the Temple. Indeed, as Marx shows, women were allowed and encouraged to enter the Temple’s courts, and at certain times in life—after giving birth, or following an abnormal genital discharge, for instance—they were obligated to enter and bring a sacrifice. Marx offers a close analysis of those Temple structures that were named for or that invoke women, such as the Women’s Court, which, scholars have historically contended, marked the place beyond which women could not enter. But as Marx argues, citing the existence of a Women’s Gate leading from the Women’s Court into the Inner Court, “It is unlikely that a gate would bear this name if women were not supposed to go through it.” Her analysis is informed by theoretical scholarship on the relationship between space and gendering, which she invokes to support her claim that the Temple, like a synagogue or schoolyard or any space, is not just a representation of power relations; it also organizes and perpetuates them.

In one of her most fascinating and illuminating feminist commentaries, Marx surveys the sexual imagery invoked by the rabbis to describe the Temple’s rituals and structures. She shows how the priest’s activity in the Temple is described in phallic terms: He penetrates the inner sanctum, fertilizes it by means of incense that would “rise up straight like a stick” (Yoma 53a, Marx’s translation) and then fill the house with smoke. And she highlights the erotic nature of the Temple’s chambers and vessels, from the cherubs intertwined with one another to the staves of the curtain that could be seen through the curtain, where they “pressed forth and protruded as the two breasts of a woman” (Yoma 54a, Marx’s translation). “Could it be,” Marx concludes speculatively, “that at least in some rabbis’ imagination, coming into contact with the Temple allowed for union with the Divine, in ways that may resemble the union with their wives?” Why the interrogative? One can only wish she were bold enough to make this claim less hesitantly, especially considering that it was nearly two decades ago that Bonna Devora Haberman published her groundbreaking article entitled “The Yom Kippur Avoda Within the Female Enclosure” in which she boldly drew back the veil that had long concealed the rabbis’ striking sexual imagery, exposing the Temple’s most sacred vessels to the brilliant light of her feminist re-reading.

The final section of the book is devoted to tractate Qinnim, which discusses the laws governing bird offerings. Marx contends that Qinnim is the “most female-centered tractate in the Mishna,” since these offerings were most commonly brought by women who had completed their days of purification after giving birth. Although bird sacrifices were also brought by nazirites and men who had abnormal discharges and other individuals in liminal situations, most of the examples in the tractate apply to women and involve feminine language. The Talmudic rabbis focus their discussion on possible mistakes that may occur when unruly birds fly from one nest to another, mixing up the various nest offerings. Marx shows how the pair of birds required for a nest offering—either two pigeons or two turtledoves, as specified by the Bible—served as a synecdoche for the woman herself, since both birds and women were perceived as uncontrollable and wild in their nature. We might say, summarizing Marx’s work on Tamid, Middot, and Qinnim, that women were allowed to enter into the Temple and survey its chambers, but the priests were always worried that the female pilgrims, like their pigeons, would squawk and scatter their feathers and destroy the orderly sanctity of the all-male Temple cult.

On behalf of those of us who study Talmud while brooding over our young, and on behalf of centuries of scholars who were denied the insights afforded by feminist criticism, I can only muse: So fair and fowl and feminist commentary I have not seen.

Book Review: Rav Hisda’s Daughter

Published in Lilith Magazine, Fall 2012 (vol. 37, no. 3)

Towards the end of Rav Hisda’s Daughter (Plume, $16), Maggie Anton’s eponymous heroine returns to her home in Babylon after four long years in the land of Israel and is greeted by her father with the words, “Blessed are You, Adonai…. Who revives the dead.” Anton has made quite a career out of reviving the dead, first with her trilogy of novels bringing to life Rashi’s three daughters, and now with her imaginative tale of the daughter of the third-century Talmudic sage Rav Hisda.

            The novel’s opening scene is closely based on the Talmudic story in which Rav Hisda’s young daughter sits on her father’s lap while his two leading students stand before him. Rav Hisda asks his daughter which one of them she would like to marry, and she greedily responds, “both of them.” One of the students—arguably the more quick-witted—immediately pipes up, “I’ll go second!” This story sets the stage for Anton’s tale, in which Hisdadukh—Anton invents her name, which is Persian for “Daughter of Hisda”—is betrothed first to Rami bar Chama, the love of her youth and the father of her two children. Following Rami’s tragic and sudden death after just five years of marriage, Hisda is betrothed to the other student, the harsh and hardened Rava. The novel follows Hisdadukh not just from one husband to another, but also from her home in the Babylonia, where she is one of two daughters and seven sons in an illustrious rabbinic family, to the Galilee, where she mingles with amulet scribes, early Christians, and the great scholars of Tiberias, Caesaria, and Sepphoris. It is in Sepphoris that Anton imagines that Hisdadukh serves as the model for the iconic “Mona Lisa of Galilee,” a floor mosaic that remains a popular archeological attraction in Israel today.

            Many of the conversations and characters in this novel are lifted straight of the pages of the Talmud. But as the Talmud is not a work of history—Anton may be the first to call it “historical fiction”—even these elements of the novel may raise eyebrows:  “Everyone knew that the Evil Eye was responsible for a great deal of misery in the world. Rav, Father’s teacher, once went to a cemetery and cast a spell that let him talk to the dead. Ninety-nine told him they’d died from the Evil Eye and only one from bad air.” We must be as skeptical of the historicity of Anton’s account as we are of the Talmud’s narration of this incident in tractate Bava Metzia. And so in terms of authenticity, perhaps Rav Hisda’s Daughter has an advantage over Rashi’s Daughters, since there is no pretense that the former is based on historical sources. When Anton succeeds best, she brings Talmudic debates to life by showing the very human personalities and passions behind the various legal positions. And so when Rami and Rava debate the laws of inheritance, Anton suggests that they are in fact really fighting over Hisdadukh; thus their battle of wits is also a sort of romantic duel.

Anton’s novel is rooted not just in the soil of the Talmudic text but also in the field of academic Talmud study today, which is apparent even without glancing at her impressive bibliography or the list of illustrious international scholars she acknowledges. Hisdadukh is a student of Torah arguably modeled on her Palestinian counterpart Beruria, but she is also an enchantress who makes magical incantation bowls of the sort discovered by archeologists in the area that is now Iraq and Iran. The discussions that come alive in this book are Talmudic as well as academic, which may explain why this novel will have so much appeal for readers like myself who are steeped in the Talmudic text and the scholarship about its context. For readers who do not experience the pleasure of the familiar in its fictionalized form, Anton’s novel celebrates our rich and colorful textual heritage and reminds us that feminist history is often a return to the material and the real – to the beer the scholars drank, the springs in which they bathed, the cycle of blood that dictated their most intimate relationships, and the rooms in which they studied texts that occasionally refer to wives and daughters whose lives we can at best imagine.

The Women’s Section

Last week I found myself in the paradoxical position of reading Elana Maryles Sztokman’s The Men’s Section, a sociological study about why some Orthodox men choose to daven in egalitarian minyanim, while sitting in the women’s section of an Orthodox shul. Reading in shul is nothing new for me; I have spent many Shabbat mornings buried in a novel that was buried between the pages of my siddur. But reading—or indeed davening—in the women’s section is a first. I have jettisoned neither my feminism nor my loyalty to the movement in which I was raised; it is with deep ambivalence and bewilderment that I seek to understand why I am sitting behind a mechitza after a lifetime of leyning, leading davening, and championing the cause of egalitarian prayer.

In the past I was willing to daven only in egalitarian minyanim. It was important to me to read Torah, lead services, offer divrei Torah, and participate fully in the life of the community. Often I was one of the leaders of the minyan, which meant that during shul I was thinking about whether there were enough chairs, or whether the person reading the Haftara had arrived yet, or whether kiddish should be held inside or out. Only rarely could I concentrate on the words in the siddur, but this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, since concentrating on prayer is difficult and exhausting. It seemed easier to worry about creating a space for others to pray than to channel my own aspirations and worries through the language of the siddur. And so I spent shul being outwardly rather than inwardly focused, and feeling none the worse for it.

Something changed for me in the past year. Perhaps it was the experience of pregnancy and childbirth, which sensitized me more deeply than ever before to how much of our lives are in God’s hands. When davening for the health of my unborn child or for the safety and welfare of the little boy we had brought into the world, I found myself craving the privacy and the solitude to open not just my lips but also my heart. Or perhaps it was the fact that the Jerusalem minyan in which I had been davening has been shrinking and declining, such that nearly everyone in the room needs to arrive on time and participate in the service because the numbers are so tight. Whereas reading Torah had once been an honor and privilege, it now became more of a chore. Or perhaps it was my growing awareness that prayer is an embodied activity, and the physical space in which I daven affects the quality of my tefillot. I no longer wanted to daven on folding chairs in a dirty classroom; I wanted to place my siddur on a proper shtender so my hands could hang freely at my sides and all my bones could be free to proclaim: My God, who is like You?

Was it the need for privacy and focus, or the desire to daven without standing at the Amud, or the wish to daven in a more beautiful tent O Jacob? I am not sure why I have spent the past few Shabbat mornings speaking to God from behind the women’s section. But I am certain that the conversation has been richer and more intentional. For me, davening is about reading the words of the siddur in light of my hopes and fears and aspirations. It is about finding my own personal meaning in the “choral symphony the covenantal people has sung to God across forty centuries” (R. Jonathan Sacks). This is not always an easy task; it requires first figuring out what I am praying for (“Prayer is less about getting what we want than about learning what to want,” writes Rabbi Sacks), then thinking about possible meanings of the words of the siddur, and then connecting between the two. This is harder to do when I am running the minyan or (even worse) feeling responsible for how it is run by others.

Perhaps my search for a new davening space is related to a newfound understanding of prayer as a spiritual discipline. I once tried to take a yoga class but I gave up after one session; I decided that if I were going to devote time to an embodied spiritual practice, it might as well be davening. Like yoga, davening requires being fully present in my body so that I can stand still with my legs close together, raise myself forwards three times on my toes, and sit comfortably with my back and thighs pressed against the weight of my chair. As with a yoga class, it helps to have a leader who sets the pace and keeps everyone synchronized; I cannot daven on my own because I tend to rush through the siddur impatiently, and impatience is anathema to prayer. Prayer likewise requires practice and therefore a regular commitment in order to get better at it. I must daven even when I do not feel inspired, so that when I do feel inspired I will have the words to give those feelings voice. I must be open to the unexpected moment when I find myself able to move—or to be moved—in a new way. And I must make sure that I daven in a space where this can happen.

I would like this space to be an egalitarian minyan, because I remain committed to gender equality in all spheres of my life. I will not be able to go too long without hungering for words of Torah to be on my lips again as they are when I am learning a leyning. And I do not want to abandon the struggling egalitarian minyan I have worked hard to nurture and strengthen over the past seven years just because it is not a place where I can daven with kavana at this point in my life. And so I remain somewhat on the fence—or on the mechitza—when it comes to the question of where to daven. Though I’m almost finished reading The Men’s Section, I’m still not sure why some Orthodox men daven in egalitarian minyanim. But I hope I am coming closer to understanding why this egalitarian woman davens in Orthodox minyanim – and how she can come home again.