By the time Simchat Torah rolls around each year, I usually find it refreshing. Back to the beginning: creation and all of the lovely and (comparatively) simplistic themes following the weight of Devarim. Last year, however, I had been teaching Bereishit to ninth and tenth graders at a Jewish high school in Chicago for the eight weeks leading up to the holiday, and by that point, I could barely look at the Torah’s introductory story.
It’s not that the beauty of the beginning had been lost. But the perceived simplicity had certainly been ripped out from under my previous romanticism of it all. The complexities of Bereishit, specifically, the difficult implications it has for gender, sat with me that coming week leading up to Simchat Torah with more unease than ever.
The biggest challenge, surprisingly, had not stemmed from own thoughts or my own kishkes, but rather from those of my students. “Why was man created first?” they demanded to know. “Isn’t it sexist that man was created from the earth, while woman was created from man’s rib?” They pressed further. “I feel like this story is the basis of misogyny and sexism in our society today!” they exclaimed.
Wow, I held my breath, here we go. My go-to move for tough, thorny questions was to put them on the board in a “parking lot” of big questions to save for later. Strategically, later never comes.
This time, however, I was determined to address the parking lot questions because they were so authentic, so personal, so relevant, and so disturbing. Moreover, I was troubled by my own incompetence. I couldn’t respond to the questions myself, let alone find responses for these teenagers. So I constructed a source sheet of commentators who discuss the fount of our frustration: creation of woman.
Man: “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
Woman: “The Lord God said, ‘it is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him’… So the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon the man; and, while he slept, He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And the Lord God fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman; and He brought her to the man” (Genesis 2:18; 21-22).
The first commentary I decided to show my students was from The Individual and Society by Rav Chaim Navon of Yeshivat Har Etzion, a prominent Hesder Yeshiva in the West Bank: “In order to benefit from social relations, one must also sacrifice. For this reason, Adam must sacrifice so that Chava, his life-mate, may be fashioned: he must give up a rib. The partnership that he creates with Chava, which is the archetype for the community that he creates, is profound and meaningful. Spiritual and sensitive people create more meaningful social connections.”
As you can probably guess, my students found this explanation wholeheartedly unsatisfying. “I don’t see the jump from sacrifice to community to meaningful social relationships,” they complained. They scratched their heads. I realized that this commentary was too ethereal for fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds. And given that I couldn’t convince them of the logic either, it was clearly too abstract, even for me.
Next on the source sheet was Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, who is considered, in many ways, the founder of contemporary Orthodox Judaism: “Unlike man’s, the woman’s body was not taken from the earth. God built one side of man into woman—so that the single human being became two, thereby demonstrating irrefutably the equality of man and woman.”
Now, I should say that I do not like this commentary, and I attribute it to the discipline of apologetics, a harmful and pitiful tactic too often used to smooth over the bumps in our tradition. But I wasn’t transparent about my beliefs with my students because one, that’s never really appropriate, and two, I wanted to see what they thought of it on their own. Turned out, not much. “This doesn’t even make sense!” they wailed. “I feel like he’s just trying to make women feel better, but it doesn’t really work. How does that demonstrate equality in any way?” Yeah, let alone “irrefutably” so, I thought to myself. I couldn’t agree with them more.
The final source I brought was a midrash. I only included the first half, which I know is a deceiving thing to do as a teacher, but the second half (which you can read here) is just too troublesome; I excluded it for the sake of my students’ learning. The midrash comes from Bereishit Rabbah 18:2, and it reads:
Rabbi Yehoshua of Sichnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: ‘And He built’ is written; He contemplated from where to create her. He said: I will not create her from the head, lest she be haughty; I will not create her from the eye, lest she be coquettish; I will not create her from the ear, lest she be an eavesdropper; I will not create her from the mouth, lest she be a chatter-box; I will not create her from the heart, lest she be jealous; I will not create her from the hand, lest she be a thief; I will not create her from the leg, lest she be a run-about; rather, I will create her from the most modest place on a person, as even when a person stands naked this place is covered. And as He created each and every limb of the woman, He would say to her: be a modest woman, be a modest woman!
Let’s be cheerful for a moment. This midrash is incredibly innovative—a brilliant example of midrashic interpretation. In order to analyze the mystery of the rib as the chosen body part for the creation of woman, the midrash uses the exclusion strategy. “It couldn’t be this because X, and it couldn’t be that because Y.”
The genius of this midrash, of course, has its limitations. For one, it’s certainly not exhaustive. The rib couldn’t really be the “most modest place on a person,” because there are other bones and internal organs that satisfy the condition, “when a person stands naked this place is covered.”
Ignoring this flaw, the real issue with the midrash is the consequence it has for generations of women. To be feminine is to be modest, the midrash teaches us. This is not inherently negative; humility is an admirable trait, and we should all strive for it. The issue is that only women are associated with modesty. Men, on the other hand, share a root with the ground (adam and adama). Man has natural origins. He is earthly and physical—qualities that could potentially convey quite the opposite of modesty.
I’m not even sure that modesty in the context of this midrash means the modesty we think of as a meritorious characteristic. Here, the best definition I can glean from the text is: covered, hidden, and sheltered. It doesn’t seem to imply humble or respectful. My students seemed to agree. “Why do women have to be covered? Why don’t men have to be covered?” they wanted to know. Again, I had no reassuring response, and I was starting to get the feeling that I was showing them too much midrash.
“This text, after all, is from the fifth or sixth century,” I reminded them. I quickly learned that merely boiling it all down to cultural and historical context is not a fulfilling explanation for teenagers. Is it even fulfilling for me?
Channeling a midrashic mind, I tried to think of other reasons why woman could have been formed from man’s rib. I pictured the perfectly curved bones encircling the chest. The rib is foundation. It is base, structure. It protects breath and heart, so it guards life. It works together with others; it is part of a whole, the cage. The rib may be behind skin, but it is solid and secure, providing support and protection to the body.
This sounded good. “Women guard life,” the midrash could have read. “Women are strong, protective, supportive, foundational.”
But then I thought to myself—is what I just did none other than my own sort of apologetics? Am I trying to defend Judaism, to make it more glamorous than it is? To force it into something it is not?
I don’t want to defend our sacred texts. Defense, scrambling to make it work when it doesn’t, is weakness. It reeks of insecurity. Reinterpretation, however, is vital. Without it, we wouldn’t have a recognizable Judaism. It has allowed for thousands of years of rich, thoughtful dialogue and real change: commentary upon commentary … “Be part of that project, too,” I told my students. “Interpret in unusual and fresh ways.”
The hardest part, I think, is to still live with all of the interpretations in all of their complexities. I don’t believe you can just abandon what makes you angry or uncomfortable and call it a day. Somehow, you must hold the paradoxes in both hands because it’s all a vital part of our tradition. I surely have not mastered the balancing act, but I challenged my students that day to try and do better than their teacher, a challenge I think every teacher aspires to impart.
In this deep, prolific, spectacular history of commentary we have the privilege of calling our own tradition, the most important thing, I told my students, is to always remember and believe that their voice matters, too.