European Day of Jewish Culture 2014
Subject Matter: Women in Judaism
Sunday, September 14th 2014
The 15th European Day of Jewish Heritage will be celebrated on Sunday, September 14th 2014 This year’s subject matter: Women in Judaism.
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About the Subject Matter: Women in Judaism
The theme of the 2014 cultural heritage day is Women in Judaism. This itinerary is designed to celebrate the contribution of women to Jewish cultural heritage across the member countries of the AEPJ By focusing on notable female figures from a wide variety of disciplines, the itinerary seeks to draw attention to the significance of the input of Jewish women, not just to their own cultural heritage, but also to the wider cultures of the countries they were active in and indeed, Europe generally. As with notable Jews from all fields of endeavour, the migratory nature of individuals and, indeed, communities is a significant factor. The itinerary seeks therefore not only to highlight the importance of notable Jewish women in their birth countries, but also recognise individuals who were active in other countries and we have noted where this is the case. Where possible or relevant, we have begun each itinerary with a notable quotation from the woman in question.
The countries that the itinerary will focus on are below.
AEPJ member countries are in blue
The itinerary will take each of these countries in turn and highlight the work of at least one woman, from each of them, who has had a major impact. It is of course subjective and the contribution from a wide variety of female Jews, working in a diverse range of fields is virtually incalculable and certainly, it is not possible to capture it in one itinerary. This is therefore a broad sweep, an attempt to provide a starting point for further investigation and understanding of a subject that has not, unfortunately, received the academic or popular attention it deserves. As ever with AEPJ itineraries, please feel free to correspond and suggest updates, alternatives and additions – we would love to hear from you.
WOMEN IN JUDAISM
As everyone who has read the Torah knows, there is hardly a better source of legends and folktales than this enormous collection of poetry and prose, song and lament, love and death, sin and punishment. The Holy Scriptures reveal in depth the relations between parents and children, their inner struggles in the search of the origin of existence and the reasons behind life and death.
The Bible is a rich source of information both for the religious people and for those who are not tempted by religion, but it is a Divine Book, albeit the legends contained in it are not presented as religion; it is a rich source of information about different stories and characteristic personalities in the real ancient world. It is a source from which information is drawn about some fantastical to a certain extent events, which, however, are depicted in such a manner that they are read as literature in its purest.
The series of subject matters to which the celebration of the European Day of Jewish Culture (EDJC) has been dedicated have treated cultural traditions, holidays, humour, cuisine, music, monuments, attitude towards nature, etc. This year the subject matter of the Day is focused on the role, importance, contributions and merits of the women to the Jewish lifestyle according to the Judaism criteria. In the presentation we will try to make, we will use the history of the Jews ever since the antiquity as an attempt to unravel the mystery around the Genesis of humanity at the Creation, the man and the woman.
The first man Adam was formed by God of the dust of the ground, as His copy, in His own image. So as not to leave Adam alone, God took a rib from his body and created the woman and called her Eve. Thus, in the Genesis chapter, in terms of status the woman “a priori“ is placed second, as subordinate to the man, who was created first, so he felt like her absolute owner. Historically, however, they are inseparably connected with each other, created by God’s will, but from a different source material. It is strange that from a linguistic point of view the word for a man in English is “MAN“, and the name of the woman in this language appears to be a derivative of “MAN“ and is pronounced as “WOMAN“, and similarly in Hebrew the word for a man is “Ish“, and for a woman “Isha“, whereas in other languages it is not so.
THE FIRST WOMEN
LILITH – A fact which is not paid much attention to in Judaism is that prior to the creation of Eve, God formed Adam’s first wife of the same material from which he created him, and she was called Lilith. She is a character described in the Talmud and in the synagogal folklore, analysed and characterised by the cabalists. According to Sepher Ben Sira in his work “The Alphabet”, he considers the image of this little known figure in Judaism, describing it as an autonomous, disobedient and independent woman. With Adam being the only man of two women, this suggests polygamy originated as early as the Creation. Lilith, as a freedom-loving spirit, enters into conflict with Adam and refuses to be his subordinate. The Talmud describes her as a night demon whose design is to seduce men. Michelangelo portrays Lilith as a half-human, half-serpent, coiled around the stem of the Tree of Knowledge. A sculptural representation of Adam and Eve, between whom the figure of Lilith is placed, portrayed as a woman naked to the waist but from the waist down resembling a serpent, reclining seductively against the branches of the paradise tree, can be seen on the western façade of Notre Dame de Paris. Lilith is an example of a woman who defies masculine domination and is a rebellious champion of the equality between the sexes. A musical group of women in Europe organised a concert called “Lilith Performance”, and the name Lilith was unanimously chosen to emphasise the feminine superiority. The feminist movement repudiated the Judaistic dogma in connection with man’s domination over the woman. Although mythological, Lilith’s story is described in Genesis (Isaiah 34:14)
EVE – Eve is considered to be the first woman on earth and the prototype of the Biblical woman. Eve was the subject of literary works such as, for instance, the novel “Sylvia Pat”, which tells the story of Adam and Eve and their relations. In the modern Jewish and Western literature Eve is described both in prose and poetry. In Yocheved Bat-Miriam’s “Ode to Ted”, Eve is represented as a free-spirited proud woman, denoting the woman is more intimately connected with the world than Adam. In this work Eve is a metaphor of a Biblical heroine.
JEWISH MATRIARCHATE - All Jewish women according to the Torah are descendants of the Matriarchate, which is represented by the Biblical women – Sarah, Rebekah /Rivká/, Rachel and Leah, quoted in the Bible after Eve’s creation. Judaism commands that every people shall remember its roots, and in this respect the woman plays a significant role. The roots are the organs that provide the vital to life nourishing juices as early as at the moment in which the planted seed begins its development, reaching to the stage of ripening and reproducing, of becoming able to bear fruits, so for this entire lifecycle the necessary nutrients are sucked in by them, and they ensure the secure and stable fixation of plants in the ground in order not to be felled easily by the wind. Such, in most cases, is the contribution of the Jewish mother and the Jewish girls, to seek and preserve the family roots, thanks to which the traditions and rituals characteristic of Judaism are kept alive, and to observe the Jewish lifestyle of our compatriots in Israel and the Diaspora, who have survived over the centuries.
According to erudite interpreters of the Torah, the women who lived in ancient times, quoted as the main stem of the Matriarchate – Sarah, Rebekah /Rivká/, Leah and Rachel, are deemed co-founders of Israel, fully equal to their famous husbands – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
SARAH – She is described in the Torah as the woman occupying the first place in the Matriarchate, wife of Abraham, a prominent leader in the Patriarchate. She was distinguished by her beauty and attractiveness, but their marriage produced no children. The provident wife, overcoming her pride, suggested to Abraham that he should have an intercourse with her handmaid Hagar, who would become a surrogate mother to their child. As a result of this intercourse, a son was born to Abraham and Hagar – Ishmael. By the will of God Sarah became pregnant and gave birth to her son Isaac. Isaac’s appearance gave rise to Sarah’s fear that Ishmael may claim a share in the inheritance and insisted that Abraham should remove the handmaid and her son. Analyzing the behavior of this leader of the Matriarchate, she appears to be a prudent, practical, and mindful of the family interests person, who shows independence in taking the decisions, which was unusual for the conditions of the ancient patriarchal world. In his novel “Fear and Trembling” Søren Kierkegaard used Sarah’s story and behaviour as prototype of his female protagonist.
REBEKAH (RIVKÁ) – According to the events described in the Bible, the second person in terms of significance after Sarah also played an important role. She was a young woman, beautiful, clever, energetic, independent, and strong-willed. Upon meeting her, Abraham considered her for his son Isaac’s future wife. He proposed to her on behalf of his son, but the decisive “YES” was not said by the parents as the tradition would have it until after her own consent. This independence of Rebekah’s gives her the image of a person who is a role model for the decisive and free woman, so for Judaism this is a character whose independence refuses to accept a subordinate role in society. Rebekah’s image is immortalised in the world literature – “Vanity Fair” by William Thackeray, “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer, “Jacob’s Dream” by Richard Beer-Hoffman, “Jacob” by Irving Fineman, “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier and filmed by Alfred Hitchcock.
LEAH AND RACHEL – the third and fourth women shaping up the Matriarchate are the sisters Leah and Rachel, daughters of Laban, who wanted to marry them at any price. During the visit of Jacob – Rebekah’s son, in the house of his uncle Laban, Jacob was enchanted by Rachel’s beauty and attractiveness and showed disregard of Leah, who was not distinguished by some special beauty. In addition to the big difference in the appearance of the sisters, they were also complete opposites in terms of character. Rachel was the type of woman distinguished by her independence; she had a different understanding of life, such as poetic contemplation and search for happiness, decisiveness, courage and freethinking, whereas Leah was narrow-minded, devoid of spirituality and easily manipulated by her father. Jacob got married, convinced that his wife was Rachel, but he was outrageously deceived by Laban, who replaced Rachel with Leah at the ceremony. This episode shows Laban’s deep-seated unscrupulousness, Leah’s timidity and the bitter resignation of Rachel, who became Jacob’s second wife only after seven years. This story can be interpreted as an example of how one and the same man is loved by two women and an assumption can be made that the love triangle was not invented yesterday. This Bible story has intrigued different authors and is depicted by Charles Dickens in “Hard Times”, by William Thackeray in “The History of Henry Esmond”, by Melville in “Moby Dick”, by Thomas Mann in “Joseph and His Brothers“, by Meir Shalev in “Esau”, Leah Goldberg in “Jacob and Rachel”, and Anda Amir in “Leah”. Shulamit Hareven is the only contemporary novelist and essayist reproaching in her study “In Praise of Leah” Jacob, who adores Rachel and expresses indifference to Leah, who is, however, his first wife that obeys him and is ready to bear his children, for which reason, in the author’s view, she is the only protagonist in this story.
SARA SULLAM – She lived in Venice in late 16 and the beginning of 17 centuries and was distinguished by her high intelligence. She was a poet and a writer, and had the ambition to communicate with highly educated people, both Jews and Italian Catholics. To implement this idea of hers for communication, she organised an intellectual salon, which was visited by the most prominent citizens of Venice and was the venue of extremely interesting discussions. One of her admirers who maintained written correspondence with her was the writer Ansaldo Cebá, who admired her strongly although he had never met her. He was Christian and very religious, for which reason he became a monk. He was in love with Sarah and constantly urged her to convert to Christianity, but she firmly declared she was Jewish, a passionate champion of Judaism and that she would never renounce her national origin and religious nature. In 1621 she was accused of heresy due to her religiousness and was in danger of trial by inquisition. She did not receive any support from her friends from the salon, including Cebá. Her trial by inquisition was cancelled, but she left a rich heritage to the posterity – poetic works, poetry, sonnets and especially the very famous in history work of hers “The Manifesto”. The story of Sara Sullam is depicted in a number of works, including the novel by the Bulgarian writer Victor Baruch entitled “The Defamed, or the Bishop’s Sin”, translated into Italian and published in Italy under the title “La poetessa diffamata”.
GOLDA MEIR is a true example of a champion of the Jewish cause and of Judaism in her capacity of Minister of Labour, Foreign Minister, Israel’s first and the world’s third woman to hold the office of Prime Minister. She is highly respected for her dedicated work for the welfare and independence of the Israel state and for defending Judaism.
FEMALE PROPHETS IN THE TORAH – The prophets are individuals who receive and transmit a sign from God or His envoys when crisis events threaten and approach the people. Thus, they warn and deliver the divine message to the so called judges. The importance of such a message can be evaluated highly, since it is quoted 300 times in the Old Testament and almost 125 times in the New Testament. There are female prophets who are mentioned in the Torah – Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah.
MIRIAM is considered one of the women sent by God who contributed to the Exodus from Egypt and was identified as a prophetess. She composed a wonderful song for the victory of the Jews over the army of the Egyptian Pharaoh. The lyrics to the song are: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; The horse and its rider he has thrown into the sea”. Moses and Aaron, her brothers, sing enthusiastically the same song and add: “Miriam is a prophetess”. According to the Talmudic writings, this composition of Miriam’s is her true wealth. The film “Norma Rae” depicts the odyssey of a young woman whose prototype is Miriam. Miriam’s life is an example of a leader who is true to her duty.
DEBORAH (DVORA) She was an exceptional prophetess and the first female judge of Palestine. As a judge and a prophetess she was a national leader, had judicial powers and preparation of a strategist and military commander-in-chief, and was a spokesperson on behalf of God, and a role model. She addressed an appeal to the rulers: “Hear this, you kings! Listen, you rulers! I, even I, will sing to the Lord; I will praise the Lord, the God of Israel, in song.”
HULDAH – When King Josiah was told the long-lost Torah from the temple had been found, the king repented he had allowed its disappearance and feeling his guilt, he wanted to consult God’s prophets. Of all that existed at the time, the king chose Huldah not because of the fact there were no male prophets, but because she was exceptional in the field of prophecy. The Torah was found due to her clairvoyance.
BOOK OF RUTH The Book of Ruth is a touching idyll dedicated to love in the broad sense of the word. The key characters are Ruth, Naomi and Boaz. The focus is on the love and faith that Gods demands from us. Naomi decides to return to her homeland – Palestine, Ruth’s homeland was the Kingdom of Moab but she firmly decides not to leave her mother-in-law alone and to accompany her in her return to Bethlehem.”Intreat me not to leave thee, [or] to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people [shall be] my people and thy God my God”. On their way to Bethlehem Ruth and Naomi meet the farmer Boaz, who likes her very much due to her sincerity and industriousness. Naomi persistently instigates Ruth to marry him. Ruth uncomplainingly agrees and becomes Boaz’s wife. A marriage which is happy and produces offspring from which the family of the great King David originates. She became the symbol of fidelity, loyalty and self-sacrifice and that is why every non-Jewish woman who has been converted to Judaism is given the name Ruth. Rembrandt and Delacroix depict in their paintings scenes from Ruth’s life. Victor Hugo portrays her in the novel “Boaz Asleep”, and Beer-Hofmann wrote the play “Young David”. Poems about Ruth were written by Yitzhak Shalev, Eliahu Meitus, and Jacob Fishman.
ESTHER There is a Book of Esther, ”Megillat Esther”, which brings together tragedy and triumph. Esther combines the characteristics of a passive woman whose life was dictated by other people who used her beauty. “Megillat Esther” develops her image of a heroine devoted to the cause of salvation of her people. Esther is an example of a woman who succeeds as Ahasuerus’s wife to prevent, with the help of her uncle Mordecai, the genocide of the Jews in Persia due to a plot organised by the villain Haman. This incredible courage and patriotism make Esther’s image one of the noblest in the Jewish history. Films, artistic displays, musical compositions, theatrical performances and books have been dedicated to her. Purim is the holiday of Esther’s heroism and selflessness.
HANNAH – favourite wife of the Levite Elkanah, who belonged to one of the most respected families, and was true to the traditions, supporter of polygamy, and had two women – Hannah and Peninnah, who bore him several children, and Hannah did not gave him one. Peninnah mocked Hannah with a cruel and biting tongue for her infertility, which brought tears in her eyes. She was distinguished by a very open and honest character, and was ready to go to any lengths to be able to give her husband heirs. That is why she went to pray to the Almighty to give her heirs. She revealed her soul to God and gave birth to a son, whom she called Samuel – ”Asked of God”. As a token of gratitude for the mercy of the Almighty, she sent a grateful message to Him in verse, assuring Him that she would lend her son to Him. Samuel joined the kingdom of God forever, and was raised by the rabbi, dedicated to God, whereby Hannah made the greatest sacrifice a mother can make. Goethe in ”Frau Rat” depicts his character as a remarkable goddess with exceptional powers, ascribing her the name “Mother of the Matriarchate”, with the wish that the heaven would give us more mothers with qualities similar to the lovely Hannah.
The status of the woman according to the Halakha is described in detail in the Torah and is not simple. Women’s duties and responsibilities are different from those of men, but this does not mean they are less important, in certain cases their role is more essential than that of men. According to Judaism, women are gifted with “Binah” (intuition, understanding, intelligence) to a larger extent than men. Rabbis interpret this difference stating that the woman was created from human material, and not formed of dust like the man. As previously mentioned, the Matriarchate is at a higher level than the Patriarchate as women are better at prophecies, they have not participated in the idealatry, they perform the basic duties of mothers and wives, they light the candles on Shabbat; the woman performs the house chores, separates the challah, and dictates the order at home.
According to Judaism, the home of the family becomes the fortress of God’s presence, of the divine, of which God says: “Create divine comfort for me and I shall always be with you”. A characteristic feature of the role of the women is that part of them are organised in a special religious ritual (Chevra Kadisha), whose noble task is to prepare the deceased women for their funeral. This group of specially selected volunteers (Rohetsim) is held in high respect and has proven their piety.
The conducted, albeit incomplete, review on the topic of “Women in Judaism” is an attempt to present a group of remarkable women, who have left deep marks in the world literature and art. The development of the topic aimed at describing their personal story, the typical traits of their characters, their status in the society and the attempts to change that, and emphasises the positive qualities as an example to follow, i.e. they are instructive, suggest the important role of the belief in God for the realisation of their dreams, desires and the tendency to overcome their second-place importance, which is ascribed to them by conservative-thinking Talmudists and is opposed in new trends in Judaism by reformists, liberal-thinking and other more liberated from the dogmas Jews. The conclusion is that in our everyday life we and especially the young generation should follow the path of their positive deeds, designed to preserve everything related to Judaism, so as to be filled with the positive spiritual food which we can draw from their example. To apply in our deeds the wisdom which they have bequeathed; to adopt their measure of the values as ours, in order to build a solid moral system which the generations will use as a stepping stone; to find the right way to the temple as our natural human need in order to be ready to communicate with our Maker; to be true to our Torah, and by no means try to replace it with the Golden calf.