Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In the beginning ... of Patriarchy (version 2)

It may still seem a little edgy to some, but this is the version of my Bereshit d'var Torah that I intend to deliver for teens. 

Bereshit is an oft-questioned and commented on parasha. Why are there two creation stories? Who is the snake? Was Eve, as some bumper stickers may have led you to believe, framed? Do we live in a patriarchal society all thanks to this text, or is it only possible to read this text as patriarchal through tired eyes wearied by centuries of oppressive medieval misogyny?
            Up until very recently, I thought it was the latter. I tend to think of the images of “The Fall” and Eve as the “mother of all sin” as very Christian concepts, and assumed it was due to some pervasive Christian ideology that we continue to frame our Genesis story this way, even occasionally as Jews. But I’m not so sure anymore. This week, for a Parashat HaShavua class, I had to read Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s analyses on Bereshit. In one of her books, The Murmuring Deep, Zornberg discusses the language of seduction in our Torah. When God “took” Adam and put him into the Garden of Eden, Rashi says “took” is more like “lured with beautiful words.” Then, of course, we have the serpent luring Eve to eat the fruit, and Eve handing the fruit over to Adam to eat. Zornberg sums up this chain of enticing thus: “Eve stands, then, at the hub of the narrative of seduction; she is both object and subject of this treacherous activity. She has gone down in cultural memory as both feeble and slyly powerful; incapable of resisting seduction, she is nevertheless irresistibly seductive. The weak link between the serpent and Adam, she has borne the brunt of responsibility for events read, quite simply, as a Fall.” Zornberg also later points out that the serpent’s awareness of Eve’s weakness and strength in the arts of seduction was what so easily allowed him to manipulate her and Adam to transgress, validating the lasting view of Eve, “and through her, of all women,” as “sinister and serpentine.”
            And this is where my reading is forever changed. This is where I become certain that it is not the fault of pervasive medieval Christianity informing an uncomfortable understanding of this text. This is the basis of patriarchy and a culture in which victim blaming, objectification, violence against women, and a denial of women’s voices are still pervasive even to this day and in the progressive Western world. This is the crux of our double standards and “she was asking for it” attitude. From the beginning of time we have read and believed that a woman is simultaneously too weak to resist a male’s instruction or her own base instincts and is too seductive to expect a man to resist. It is her own fault she allows herself to be manipulated, but it’s also her fault that Adam allows himself to be manipulated by her. She finds herself unable to say no, but to say yes leads her into trouble and a birth to victim blaming.

            Although we may be fighting thousands upon thousands of years of this mentality, I think we are up to the challenge. It is past time to change our attitude toward women, our view of autonomy for men and women, our victim blaming. The parasha also contains a verse in which Adam proclaims Eve the “mother of all life,” and Zornberg points out that what we categorize as a “Fall” is really an outward motion: the expulsion from Eden into a new world. The new reality Eve has borne to us is harder, for sure, but also richer and fuller. It is only through obtaining the knowledge of good and evil did we really become fully human, in relationship with God. Instead of stigmatizing this event, we should celebrate it. Instead of giving Eve all of the blame and credit, we should recognize that there are at least three “people” (though not human, the serpent is undoubtedly a person) with full agency participating in this text (possibly four; God’s role in causing this narrative to play out is a little more vague). I think it is absolutely time for us to promote a new, and just as legitimate, reading of this story and it is up to you, a new generation, to do it. I don’t know how often you participate in Bible study or conversations about Genesis, but next time you find yourself in such a situation, I hope you will hold your head up high and say, “There are three equal actors in this narrative, each with their own valid agency, and a resulting chain of events. There is no crime and punishment, and no one person to blame. Eve is not the cause of Original Sin and Eve does not represent the entire lineage of womankind.”  Maybe if we start at the source, we really can re-frame our cultural shortcomings to become a truly equal society for everyone. 

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