Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Nedarim 66: Laughing at the Expense of Women

A new Mishna teaches that when a person vows without specifying dates, the rabbis may ask if the vow includes Shabbatot and Festivals.  But should the vow be dissolved if the person wishes to add that caveat?  Rabbi Akiva argued that if part of a vow is dissolved, the vow is dissolved in its entirety.  The Mishna goes on to note other cases where vows are only partially dissolved.  Commenting on how to partially dissolve a vow, the Gemara focuses on which part of the vow is said in which order.  We are given examples of onions and health.  We are also told about wine being vowed as konam because it is thought to be bad for the intestines - while aged wine might be either fine or actually healthy for the drinker (and vower).

Another new Mishna teaches about dissolving a vow to enhance the honour of the person making the vow or his family.  The example of someone vowing that an "ugly woman" is konam for him when in fact she is beautiful - or that she is black when she is white, or short when she is tall, is repeated from an earlier daf.  Another example - this one of a woman who is 'beautified'.  The man who named her as konam to him is confronted by Rabbi Yishmael who helps him realize that this beautified woman should in fact be permitted to him - and his vow is dissolved.

We learn that Rabbi Yishmael was thought to be a defender of the women of Israel.  He said that The daughters of Israel are beautiful, but poverty makes them ugly.  This comment is fascinating in its wisdom about beauty as a product of care and adornment.  However, it does not challenge the system that values the beauty of women over almost all else - and certainly over all else when it comes to marriage (as we have learned a number of times that being ugly, being 'black, not white', and being short and not tall are used as reasons to stop a marriage).  Note my comments on racism in recent blogs.

The Gemara restates these qualifiers of beauty.  Another example is shared regarding the perception of beauty: a woman had a false tooth (we learn that it was likely made of wood and thus rotten and 'ugly') replaced by a gold tooth made by Rabbi Yishmael, thus dissolving the vow and allowing her to marry.

Other stories are told of men who declare their wives as konam and then dissolving those vows.  An example of a man who told his wife that benefitting from him was konam to her until she spat on Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel.  She did so and explained why.  Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel was not humiliated, for she was doing the will of her husband which was the sign of a good wife.  I will not bother to comment on that at this point.

Another incident is quite disturbing.  A man told his wife that benefiting from him was konam for her until she showed some beautiful part of herself to Rabbi Yishmael, son of Rabbi Yosei.  He told his students  that her head was round, her hair was like stalks of flax, her eyes were narrow, her ears were double-sized, her nose was stubby, her lips were this, her neck was low, her stomach was swollen, her legs were wide as a goose's her name, Lichlichit was fitting, as she was dirty (same root) and covered with blemishes, and so she could benefit from her husband - her name was beautiful as it fit the rest of her.

This story was likely meant to be a joke for the men learning all of the laws of Masechet Nedarim.  It is not funny to women, however, to think of each part of their bodies potentially being judged harshly by great thinkers and leaders.  Women already had such little power in their world; this might have been funny if it had poked fun at the looks of a Torah scholar; however, it is mean-spirited to pick on those who cannot defend themselves as they were not even permitted to learn Talmud.

A final story tells us of a woman who takes her husband's cooking directions too literally, making two lentils instead of a bowl and then making se'a for him instead of a bowl.  Finally her husband, angry with her, told her to break two lamps the bava, the gate, but she broke them on Bava ben Buta's head. Instead of being angry with her, he said that she fulfilled her husband's desire, and she should be given two sons as a gift by G-d.

Certainly she shouldn't be given two daughters, who would be ridiculed and laughed at like their mother.   While these stories of ignorance and of undesirability might have helped our rabbis lighten their moods, they laughed at the expense of women, which has contributed to generations of scholars justifying their insubordination of women based on our looks and our perceived intelligence.

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