Sunday, September 23, 2007

Seductive Women in Tanakh

It has always struck me as particularly unfortunate that so many women labor under the delusion that sexuality is somehow perverse or dirty. Firstly, this is a Christian concept, not a Jewish one. It's Christianity that associates the fall as being linked to lust and carnal desire (yes, some midrashim do, too, but let's leave those aside for now.) It is similarly Christianity that advocates for celibacy in its priests, differing strongly from Judaism which insists upon its High Priest being married or at least betrothed. The point is that sexuality is celebrated in Judaism, not looked down upon, and to suggest otherwise is to completely misread Tanakh.

I find our Jewish heroines particularly fascinating, and I find their reliance upon the weapon of their beauty and sensuality refreshing. Jewish heroines in Tanakh often make use of their beauty, femininity or sexuality in order to fulfill a higher purpose or higher cause, whether it be enabling certain events to transpire as they must or to murder our enemies under the guise of succumbing to them. (Incidentally, I use the term Jewish loosely, to refer to all those somehow involved with the nation who was to become the Children of Israel. In fact, it might be interesting to compare their methods with other seductresses, such as Zelicha, Potiphar's wife, and the women of Midian and Moab by Ba'al Pe'or. Or even to compare them to Lot's daughters!)

So who are these seductive women in Tanakh; to whom do I refer?

1. Tamar (Genesis 38)

יד וַתָּסַר בִּגְדֵי אַלְמְנוּתָהּ מֵעָלֶיהָ, וַתְּכַס בַּצָּעִיף וַתִּתְעַלָּף, וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּפֶתַח עֵינַיִם, אֲשֶׁר עַל-דֶּרֶךְ תִּמְנָתָה: כִּי רָאֲתָה, כִּי-גָדַל שֵׁלָה, וְהִוא, לֹא-נִתְּנָה לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה.

14 And she put off from her the garments of her widowhood, and covered herself with her veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the entrance of Enaim, which is by the way to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she was not given unto him to wife.

טו וַיִּרְאֶהָ יְהוּדָה, וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לְזוֹנָה: כִּי כִסְּתָה, פָּנֶיהָ.

15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a harlot; for she had covered her face.

There's something fascinating about Tamar. She is determined to have a child of the tribe of Judah, determined to bear the legitimate heir. To this end, she engages in trickery and deceit (as many women are wont to do in the Torah, not the least of whom is Rebecca) and dons the clothes of a harlot, covering her face and brazenly arguing with the man who wishes to sleep with her. "What wilt thou give me; what pledge will you make me?" It seems as though Tamar knows that her destiny is such that she must be the mother of these twins (one almost wants to compare this scenario to David and Bathsheba, for in that case David too knew that she was destined for him.) Having exhausted all the normal means of having a child by Judah's progeny, Tamar determines that she will have a child by Judah himself, and uses her femininity and sexuality, in the guise of a harlot, to accomplish this.

2. The Jewish Women in Egypt (Sotah 11b)

The Jewish women in Egypt beautified themselves for their husbands using their copper mirrors (later to form the copper laver and altar in the Temple.) They made sure to make themselves beautiful and seductive, to arouse their husbands' desire for them. Rashi explains that the women "would take the copper mirrors and each would view herself with her husband in the mirror, and entice him with words, saying," I am handsomer than you." By these means, they would bring their husbands to desire, and would have relations with them and conceive and give birth there." Sotah 11b explains that the women "set two pots on the fire, one for hot water and the other for the fish, which they carried to their husbands in the field, and washed, anointed, fed, gave them to drink and had intercourse with them among the sheepfolds," then gave birth beneath the apple trees. The Jewish women are praised and lauded for making use of their sexuality, for tempting their husbands to desire them, so much so that God overrules Moses and orders him to use their mirrors for his Temple.

3. On's Wife (Sanhedrin 109b)

"Rab said: On, the son of Peleth, was saved by his wife. Said she to him, 'What matters it to thee? Whether the one [Moses] remains master or the other [Korah] becomes master, thou art but a disciple.' He replied, 'But what can I do? I have taken part in their counsel, and they have sworn me [to be] with them.' She said, 'I know that they are all a holy community, as it is written, seeing all the congregation are holy, everyone of them.27 [So,]' she proceeded, 'Sit here, and I will save thee.' She gave him wine to drink, intoxicated him and laid him down within [the tent]. Then she sat down at the entrance thereto and loosened her hair. Whoever came [to summon him] saw her and retreated.1"

Obviously a sexually suggestive story, On's wife intoxicates him to save his life (this follows the tradition of Lot's daughters intoxicating him in order to repopulate the world, interesting!) She then sits outside her tent combing her long tresses; the Jewish men come to fetch On and are embarrassed upon seeing her en deshabille, as it were. Hence they do not collect her husband and force him to keep his word, that is, make him join the rebellion- and he does not die.

4. Jael (Judges 4:21 & Yevamot 103a-b)

"R. Johanan Said: That profligate41 had seven sexual connections on that day;42 for it is said, Between her feet he sunk, he fell, he lay; at her feet he sunk, he fell; where he sunk there he fell down dead.43 But, surely she44 derived gratification from the transgression! R. Johanan replied in the name of R. Simeon b. Yohai: All the favours of the wicked45 are evil for the righteous;1 For it is said, Take heed to thyself that thou speak not to Jacob either good or evil.2 Now, as regards evil, one can perfectly well understand [the meaning]3 but why not good? From here then it may be inferred that the favour of the wicked is evil for the righteous."

The idea is that Jael slept with Sisera (hence the seven verbs connoting "falling") in order to get him in her power; it was only afterwards, when he was exhausted, that she proceeded to kill him with her hammer and tentpeg.

5. Ruth (Chapter 3)

ז וַיֹּאכַל בֹּעַז וַיֵּשְׁתְּ, וַיִּיטַב לִבּוֹ, וַיָּבֹא, לִשְׁכַּב בִּקְצֵה הָעֲרֵמָה; וַתָּבֹא בַלָּט, וַתְּגַל מַרְגְּלֹתָיו וַתִּשְׁכָּב.

7 And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of corn; and she came softly, and uncovered his feet, and laid her down.

ח וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה, וַיֶּחֱרַד הָאִישׁ וַיִּלָּפֵת; וְהִנֵּה אִשָּׁה, שֹׁכֶבֶת מַרְגְּלֹתָיו.

8 And it came to pass at midnight, that the man was startled, and turned himself; and, behold, a woman lay at his feet.

Now, Ruth does not actually have intercourse with Boaz that night, but this is still a very suggestive passage. She follows her mother-in-law's advice, lays herself down at Boaz's feet; he discovers her there and hears her out, then determines that he will be her redeemer if possible. She must hide her coming, as Boaz says, "Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor;" obviously this behavior was considered forward, which is why she had to leave before one man could discern another.

6. Esther

The entire book of Esther is predicated upon the fact that she is the most beautiful lady in the land (if read literally, not midrashically), at the very least that she "obtains favor" in the eyes of those that see her. She uses her beauty to please the king; she throws her parties to allow Haman to think that he is in her favor. Esther's beauty is what helps her save her people; it is theoretically the reason that she is chosen by the king and then placed in an advantageous position to help her nation.

And then, this is not part of Tanakh but of Apocrypha, we have The Book of Judith, which mimics Jael's assasination of Sisra to the extreme. The point is the same; she uses her beauty to get her into Holifernes' camp, then her wits to get herself out.

Perhaps I ought to include Rahab on this list, for while she in and of herself did not seduce someone, her occupation as harlot helped save Joshua and Caleb's lives.

So what is the common theme amongst all these seductive women? Well, it is their cause. All of them use their beauty/ sexuality for a good cause. They use it to seduce men with whom they foresee they must have children, to save their husband's lives, to save their nation. Sexuality is a weapon, to be seen as such and used as such- in effect, to be feared. All of one's qualities are meant to be used in a true and productive fashion, for every quality can be used for the good. This includes making use of one's physical assets.

Perhaps I shall dedicate another post to dangerous beauty, that is, the women who did not use their beauty to seduce men for a higher purpose, but for the purposes of sin. Those women are also fascinating...


Anonymous said...

I'm not convinced it's particularly worthwhile to lump all these different cases together. In at least half of the cases (Tamar, the women in Egypt, Ruth), the primary point of the exercise seems to be having children, at it is more or less impossible to do that without sexuality coming into play.

The others fit your argument of using sexuality a bit better, but On's wife uses it to scare men off rather than to entice them, which seems to me to be qualititatively different, even if you could include it under the broad rubric of 'using sexuality'. A bicycle and a space shuttle are both vehicles, but they don't have much else in common.

Also, your first line confused me: "so many women labor under the delusion that sexuality is somehow perverse or dirty". I presume you are referring to frum women - either that or you've had a very sheltered life.

Looking Forward said...

no anon, many non frum women are raised under the exact same assumption. I've lived amoungst them for long enough to know.

Oh, and chanah, you do realize that נשק (masculine) means weapon, while נשקה (feminine) means kiss.

So a kiss is a woman's weapon. :-)

Ezzie said...

What Daniel said plus a bit.

It's hard to argue that we're celebrating their use of their sexuality; there's a nice piece of Gemara in Megillah about what Esther did/didn't do, for example. Yehuda exclaims that Tamar is righteous, but she *was* about to be killed by a group that Yehuda helped judge with (?), On's wife was specifically driving away Korach's group, which - while making a grave mistake - was still "frum" (lack of a better word) and didn't want to get near her. And Ruth was as you noted - not so much suggestive as meant to place Boaz into an awkward state.

e-kvetcher said...

"Sexuality is a weapon, to be seen as such and used as such- in effect, to be feared. All of one's qualities are meant to be used in a true and productive fashion, for every quality can be used for the good. This includes making use of one's physical assets."

Wow! Do you really believe this?