Sunday, March 31, 2013


But it is like the primary colors in the paintings of children, splashed on the paper with abandon, occasionally not without charm, but generally demonstrating the sameness that characterizes the art of young children. In the muted, controlled hues of Rembrandt one can find the color, yet infinitely more richness, uniqueness and meaning. Passion is feeling of great depth. The fact that a feeling is uncontrolled is no indication whatsoever that it is any deeper than a feeling that is disciplined. To the contrary, psychiatrists know well the truth of the old proverbs "Shallow brooks are noisy" and "Still waters run deep." We must not assume that someone whose feelings are modulated and controlled is not a passionate person.  
-page 156 in The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth by M. Scott Peck, MD
This quote struck me because it is the antithesis of all major romantic figures in fantasy, young adult and sometimes even classical literature. There, the characters are always struggling with "uncontrolled feelings" and do all sorts of things in the name of these uncontrollable emotions that sweep over them.

It is rare for a romantic character to be passionate in a controlled way. The only character that I can think of who fits this model is Mr. Darcy, but even he says “In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

It would be nice for there to be a dashing, romantic character who chooses to love rather than being overcome by a feeling that he cannot repress. Until then, the idea that passion that is disciplined can be just as deep as passion that is uncontrolled will not hold up in popular culture.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Tragedy of Biblical Woman

I was reading Family Redeemed over Yom Tov, and there were some pieces that really touched me. I'll reproduce them below.


The woman is a crisis personality. In normal times, when routine decisions are reached, the man makes up his mind and the Biblical woman follows him. However, in times of upheaval and transition, when the covenantal community finds itself at crossroads and the choice of alternative courses of action is about to be made, a choice that will shape destiny  it is then that the mother steps to the fore and takes command. The greatness of the man expresses itself in everyday action, when situations lend themselves to logical analysis and discursive thinking. The greatness of the woman manifests itself at the hour of crisis, when the situation does not lend itself to piecemeal understanding but requires instead instantaneous action that flows from the very depths of a sensitive personality. "God gave woman binah yeterah, an additional measure of understanding over men" (Niddah 45b).


Rebecca is responsible for the covenant being transmitted to Jacob instead of Esau (Gen. 27). Isaac had contemplated entrusting the spiritual heritage to his oldest son. At the hour of crisis Rebecca intervened and thereby determined the historical destiny of the covenantal community. She sent Jacob to Haran to marry her nieces. Miriam is responsible for the emergence of Moses as a leader and redeemer of his people. If not for her, he would have never been imbued with great passionate love for his brethren. She suggested to the princess that a Hebrew wet-nurse be employed for the infant, preventing Moses from disappearing in anonymity and ignorance. "And his sister stood afar off, to know what would be done to him...Then said the sister to Pharaoh's daughter, 'Shall I go and call for you a nurse of the Hebrew women...' and the maid went and called the child's mother" (Ex. 2:4, 7:8).

Similarly, Deborah saved the people from oppression and slavery when she organized the rebellion under the military command of Barak (Judges 4-5). And the Aggadah relates that the women refused to contribute to the Golden Calf (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 45) while they gave generously to the Tabernacle (Ex. 35).

The woman is both a demonic and Divine crisis personality. Eve and Delilah represent the woman-demon; our matriarchs, the Divine individuality. The destiny of mankind and of the covenantal people was shaped by the woman.

The Book of Proverbs dedicated its last section (31:11-31) to the woman of valor in whom the heart of her husband trusts. Valor as a trait of the feminine personality was born in the covenantal community where motherhood, instead of being a factum, became a challenge and an ideal.

The Tragedy in Motherhood

And yet the story of the Biblical woman, the covenantal mother, ends with a tragic note. The very moment she brings her job to a close, the instant she completes her task, when the crisis is over, she returns quickly to her tent, draws down the curtain of anonymity and disappears. She is outside of the hustle and bustle of the male society. Abraham sits "in front of the tent" (Gen. 18:1). His name appears in the press and many know him; he is the leader, the father, the teacher, his lips drip honey; he enlightens the minds; he fascinates the passersby. Hardly anyone knows that there is a Sarah, humble, modest, publicly shy. Somewher ein the tent is the person who is perhaps responsible for all the accomplishments credited to Abraham, for all the glory that is bestowed upon Abraham, who is superior to him, who leads the leader and teaches the teacher and guides the master, who inspires the visionary and interprets his dreams.

Sarah, the Biblical woman, is modest, humble, self-effacing. She enters the stage when she is called upon, acts her part with love and devotion in a dim corner of the stage, and then leaves softly by a side door without applause and without the enthusiastic response of the audience which is hardly aware of her. She returns to her tent, to anonymity and retreat. Only sensitive people know the truth. Only three travelers inquired about her. These travelers were not ordinary people whose eyes see only the surface. They were the angels of God. Their glimpse penetrated and apprehended the image of the true leader, teacher, prophetess, to whom everything should be credited. Nonchalantly, they remarked, "Where is Sarah, your wife?" (Gen 18:9). In other words, we know that without her you could not play the part that God assigned to you. Where is she? Why do not people know the truth? Why has she been just trailing behind you? Why did she not march in front of you? After all, the covenant cannot and will not be realized without her. Abraham answered tersely, "She is in the tent" (Gen 18:9). Indeed she is enveloped in mystery.

It is quite interesting that although Abraham survived Sarah by thirty-eight years, his historical role came to an end with Sarah's passing. Isaac leaves the stage together with Rebecca. Jacob relinquishes his role to Joseph with the untimely death of Rachel. Without Sarah there would be no Abraham, no Isaac were it not for Rebecca; no Jacob without Rachel.

And yet, and here the tragedy manifests itself with all its impact, we say, "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob," but not "God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel and Leah," even though they had an equal share in Borei Olam, the Creator of the World.

The Halakhah was cognizant of the greatness of the covenantal mother when it formulated the rule that Kedushat Yisrael, one's status as a Jew, can be transmitted only through the woman. The Halakhah was also conscious of the loneliness and the tragic note in the feminine commitment when it accepted a contradictory rule that the child takes his father's name and family status.

-Pages 116-120

(For more thoughts on the Rav's special view on the role of anonymity, click here.)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Between The Lines of the Bible: The Legacy of Fractured Brotherhood

Urim Publications was kind enough to send me a copy of Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom's Between the Lines of the Bible: A Study from the New School of Orthodox Torah Commentary on the book of Shemot quite a while ago. It has taken me a while to read the book, but it was well worth the effort. It is uniquely fitting to read this book before Pesach, and in fact, I think many of you might enjoy reading it, so I recommend ordering it today- that way, you'll probably get it over Chol Hamoed and will have something interesting to read during the Second Days.

Between the Lines is a thoughtfully considered, well constructed, carefully written text. Etshalom has clearly put a great deal of thought into the issues he addresses, and focuses on overall themes in addition to specific literary techniques (including chiastic structure) in his analysis. His book is academic in nature, and for academic texts, is quite readable. However, I prefer narrative-style books, especially those that weave in the original Hebrew rather than making use of the English translation. They are easier to read, and thus accessible to a larger audience. Ideally, I would have liked this book to have been written more in the style of Rabbi Ari Kahn, who uses that method of writing. While this text does have the Hebrew quoted and highlighted at the beginning of each chapter, I found that flipping back and forth between Etshalom's analysis and that first page was somewhat of an annoyance.

Topics included in the book range from the binary structure of biblical narrative when it comes to the roots of our subjugation in Egypt, to the different derivations of Moshe's name, to literary patterns in the education of Pharaoh, studies of intertextuality, a comparison of major characters and a focus on sanctity in time. I am going to sum up one of the Divrei Torah that I found particularly beautiful below.

In Shemot 1:1-4 we read, "These are the names of the Israelites who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.' Etshalom notes that:
If we compare this list to the nearly exhaustive list of the seventy members of Jacob's family who descended to Egypt in Genesis 46:10-17, we notice two glaring differences:  
(a) The Genesis list is complete, including grandsons, a granddaughter- and several family events (e.g., the death of Er and Onan, v.12). The second list, on the other hand, only lists the direct sons of Jacob. 
(b) This one is a bit more subtle. The order of the list in Genesis is the children of Leah, the children of Zilpah (Leah's handmaid), the children of Rachel and the children of Bilhah (Rachel's handmaid).  
In other words, the order is by mothers: The house of Leah and the house of Rachel. This is a reasonable order, given that Leah not only bore the most children but that her children were the oldest. In our verse, a slight change has taken place: The first two verses include the sons of Leah and the one son of Rachel (Joseph was already in Egypt). The last verse lists the four sons of the handmaids. What has changed here?  
If we look back at Genesis 37:2, we see that the children of the handmaids were set apart from the rest of the sons. (Cf. Between the Lines of the Bible, Vol 1, Ch 3). As we explained, this was because there was a clear-cut class distinction within the family: sons of the wives (Rachel and Leah) occupying a favored status as opposed to the sons of the handmaids. In times of trouble (the famine), this distinction was erased (indicated by the order of the listing in Genesis), but now that the family was firmly settled into life in Egypt, those old differences resurfaced. Setting the tone for our story, we are presented with families which do not see themselves as equals and are not united. 
-Pages 44-45
This is not the first time that we have noticed class-distinctions or forms of fractured brotherhood. In this situation, the sons of Rachel and Leah look down upon the sons of the maidservants. (Interestingly, one understanding of the Joseph story says that Joseph took the part of the sons of the maidservants, which is part of the reason that the sons of Leah turned against him and eventually sold him). We have seen fractured brotherhood before when it comes to Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and finally Joseph and his brothers. We end Genesis with the favoring of Ephraim over Menashe, although we are "given no information about either one's reaction to their grandfather's blessing. It seems that things are improving in this vein as time goes on (49)."

Here's the part where Etshalom offers a brilliant reading:
Now, at the beginning of the Exodus, we are introduced to Moses. He is clearly favored by his parents, as he is described as "good" at his birth. They make every effort to shield him, and then, relying on some form of divine intervention, they send him down the Nile. His older brother and sister have every reason to be jealous (following the Genesis model, and the present state of the inter-tribal relations), yet his sister (who is mentioned but not even named in the second chapter) looks after him and ensures his safety and continued relationship with family. When Moses is finally sent by God to Pharaoh, he refuses unless his older brother is included in the mission. God tells him that Aaron will rejoice upon seeing him (Exodus 4:14). We presume that he too would rejoice over Moses' selection as God's messenger and not harbor any jealousy. 
For his part, Moses includes both of his older siblings in the Exodus and leadership of the people. Aaron is one of his right-hand men (24:14), and Miriam leads the women (15:20). 
Moses, Aaron and Miriam have finally corrected the tragic and destructive history of sibling rivalry, which is what got us to Egypt in the first place (Joseph being sold by his brothers). 
This only serves to underscore the enormity of the tragedy when Moses' leadership begins to unravel (see Numbers 12). It only happens when Aaron and Miriam speak "against" Moses, exhibiting jealousy over his unique relationship with God. Even the family which led us from slavery to freedom and to an appreciation of our own great mission couldn't fully escape the legacy of Genesis.
-Page 50 
 I love this reading, because in one fell swoop it explains:

1. What got us to Egypt (the legacy of Genesis and inter-sibling rivalry and jealousy)
2. Why Bnei Yisrael specifically needed to be slaves vs. being subjugated in any other manner (because they had attacked and made fun of the children of the handmaidens, they needed the experience of being slaves, servants themselves, in order to learn compassion, as we see by the repeated pesukim that we must not mistreat the ger because we were gerim in Egypt)
3. Why Moshe was the one who could take us out (because Moshe was finally part of a family unit which loved one another and did not exhibit jealousy), and also, what we as a nation needed to be metaken in order to be taken out
4. Why Miriam's sin was so great when she spoke against him in Bamidbar (and as my husband pointed out, why what she did needs to be remembered in the Sheish Zechiros- because we must guard against this legacy of inter-sibling, inter-nation rivalry, as it has the ability to undo everything)

So to me, that's genius.

Read more of Etshalom's book for more wonderful Divrei Torah!

Shut Down The Bible Department?

Many friends of mine have shared the article "Shut Down the Bible Department" by Elliot Resnick across their Facebook feeds. I think the article raises a good point, though unfortunately it does so in a very black-and-white way.

The rule is that in order to graduate from Yeshiva College, it is mandatory that one take a certain number of Bible credits, including Intro to Bible. In contrast, Stern College has no such rule. Intro to Bible is not even offered at Stern College. Several years ago, I wrote an article lamenting this, and asked for it to be brought over to our campus. When I took Intro to Bible with Rabbi Shnayer Z. Leiman at Revel, it was one of the most illuminating and challenging courses that I was ever lucky enough to work through. My husband was also able to audit the class, and felt the same way about it.

However, it's not for everyone.

I don't say this lightly. I am someone who advocates for living an examined life, thinking about one's Judaism, one's connection to God and one's choices. However, I am also someone who was raised by people who modeled devotion to God in their everyday lives, were reverent, and never felt threatened by questions. Moreover, I am someone who is very curious, and who would certainly be encountering people during the course of my life who would ask me questions about how I made sense of being a believing Jew when biblical criticism raises questions about the texts. For all these reasons, I had the ability to encounter challenges without having them shatter my faith, and also the need to learn this information, both for myself and because I would need to provide answers to others.

At the same time, I have a sibling who is also a devoted Jew, a lover of God and humanity, who could not be more different from me in terms of connection to God. This sibling, raised by my same parents, connects to God on an emotional level. S/he does good works, is always happy to cheer up a sick person, provide hospitality, help a friend in need or inspire children, but would not have found Intro to Bible to be a meaningful course. In fact, this person would have encountered questions and challenges which would have troubled them without offering helpful resolution.

My husband's family in Boro Park also fit this model. They are comprised of kind, giving people, who take faith and tradition very seriously. They accept Torah because their parents accepted it, and hand it down as mesorah to their children. It is treated as something precious, and everything about this lifestyle is given the greatest honor. Many people in this community would not be strengthened in their faith, or brought closer to God, through learning Intro to Bible.

The difficulty here is that we experience a clash between Western society and its values and the sometimes compatible, sometimes opposing values in Judaism. Western society values examination, dissection, skepticism and even atheism. Breaking away from it all is a value. Throwing away what isn't true is a value. Daring to search out the truth, even if it scares you, is valued. You are considered weak otherwise. In The Matrix, if Neo had opted for the blue pill, we would have thought him a coward.

And what we have done is taken these values and imposed them onto Judaism. We have decided that in Judaism, too, we must give credence and think carefully about every aspect of our belief system and tradition, dissect it and discard those pieces that don't make sense to us. We must be rationalists. We must break away from anything that cannot be proven. And in doing this, we pat ourselves on the back, call ourselves brave, call ourselves truth-seekers.

We are also concerned by what others think of us. We don't want brilliant professors, renowned scholars or friends in school to think we are stupid, that we believe in an outdated, antiquated religion. We want to make sure that our attitude to our religion is the most cutting-edge, sophisticated attitude possible. That we have taken into account modern day values and sensibilities.

Here lies the problem. For some people, it is brave to explore their vistas to the very end. And for other people, it is brave to recognize their limits. To say, here is where I stop; I can go no further. Because some people have the ability and the tools to look into challenges and be strengthened by them, while others look into them and lose themselves.

There is a famous story in the Talmud that four men walk into the Pardes. Pardes is an acronym for Peshat, Remez, Derash, Sod. Three of the men are harmed by this encounter. Only one remains strong and is not altered by the encounter. One may ask: but why were the other three harmed? They walked into an orchard, a garden for the mind, filled with God's Torah! Yes, but they were not sufficiently prepared. This was not the right path for them, the right challenge to take. There were other paths for them to walk.

I think that Intro to Bible can be a very valuable course for some people. It was for me. It strengthened my faith to be taught by a man who was an illui in Torah and also in biblical scholarship and criticism. To see such a man take the questions and concerns that I had seriously, think about them, and present both answers and more questions was helpful to me; it also signaled to me that I need not fear the questions. But: not every person is themselves this kind of teacher, and not every person learns this way. There are some teachers who, knowingly or not, shatter the faith of others, and some students who need to walk a different path, perhaps a path that features more good works, more love, more humanity, and less rational dissection.

A major assumption that many people make is that one path is 'greater' and one is 'lesser.' We assume that Neo is a hero because he takes the red pill instead of the blue pill. I'm not so sure that's true. What if he knew the limitations of his mind and abilities? What if he realized being exposed to what lay beneath the veneer would make him go mad? Would it not be more heroic for him to protect himself than to walk a path just because another person thinks it is noble?

We also assume that people who do not examine their lives in the same way we do are cowards or are copping-out, but is that really true? They live lives solely by faith, lives that reflect emunah peshuta. If called upon by God, they are instantly ready to answer. They need no proof, no signs, no miracles, nor textual analyses. They have their tradition, and that is sufficient unto them. They have their lore, and that is all. In cultures other than our Western society, this would be greatly prized. I just finished reading a book about an unwanted child in China. She wrote about the respect that was given to older women and older figures, the grandmother-sage with her wisdom to impart. America is a youth-centered, youth-focused culture, but that is not the way our world used to be. There are many societies that have created beautiful things that rely on naught but tradition. Who is to say our way is better than theirs?

Moreover, is truth the ultimate goal in life? Perhaps we ought to consider what value there is in religion even if it were not true, in the sense that God never made it, and thus we need not keep it. Suppose that religious Jews are in fact living a lie. So they live their whole life, and their religious beliefs and religious ideas are all lies. And yet, even if that were to be so, they are, for the most part, beautiful. The traditions in Judaism, even if all proved false, would yet be beautiful. Traditions that bring families together, that unite us as a shared brotherhood, that tell us to extend our hand in charity to the stranger- even if all predicated upon a lie- are still beautiful. This is not to say there are no problematic aspects to practiced Judaism; of course there are. But most often, the good outweighs the bad.

Would it be so terrible for people to live unexamined lives if they were happy in those lives, and the tenets of their faith led them to do good things? I think not.

So I think we must consider: what is our motivation in saying everyone must examine their religion and religious beliefs? Is it because we believe it will strengthen everyone in their faith? Clearly, it will not. Is it because we are afraid of what others will think of us? Impression management is hardly a reason to impose this obligation upon others. Is it because of our Western values? Quite possibly yes, and is that sufficient reason? Perhaps not. There are alternate methods of acquiring wisdom, as we can see if we look at traditions in countries like China. Is it because it matters because it is true? Who is to say that truth is the only thing that matters? Perhaps happiness matters more. Perhaps love. Perhaps the practical outcome of people doing good acts, even if the beliefs underlying them were to be proved false.

I do not think Yeshiva College should shut down their Bible department. But I think that it is fair to contend that either Intro to Bible should not be mandatory, or different forms of Intro to Bible should be taught. Some of them can be very academic and focus on textual analysis. Others can be more midrashic and involve simply learning an overview of the text with commentaries. People can choose the one that they feel is most suitable for them; after all, we must raise each individual according to his way.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Analyzing Myths of Female Beauty: An Alternative Approach To Teaching Tzniut

Those of you who have been reading my blog since its inception remember my upsetting experience at my Bais Yaakov school when it came to tznius. The main problem with the way tznius was taught in my high school had to do with the following fact: it worked based on two premises, only one of which proved true.

The first premise was that wearing certain clothing had the power to make you feel a certain way. The second premise was that wearing clothing that was deemed untznius made you feel dirty, exposed or otherwise unpleasant. This was illustrated by a session with our Mechanechet where she had us put on certain clothing (I believe on top of our uniforms) and then asked us to talk about how we felt in it.

In my case, it was true that wearing certain clothing had the power to make me feel a certain way. The problem was that wearing clothing that was deemed untznius didn't make me feel dirty, exposed or unpleasant. Rather, it made me feel attractive, sexy and powerful. I knew that the teachers felt that I should feel dirty or exposed in this clothing, and somewhere in the back of my mind there was even an urge to try to feel as I should. But the larger part of me- the part that didn't feel ugly, but felt confident- won out.

Tznius as it is currently taught has a lot to do with the word should. The phrase "Kol Kevudah Bat Melech Penimah" gets tossed around a lot. The meaning of the sentence is "The honor of a princess is within" - the implication being that it is within rather than without. We are told that we are daughters of God, princesses of Hashem. Just like a princess dresses herself in royal robes rather than rags, we too are called upon to dress in an attractive, presentable way, but not in a sexy, provocative manner. We are told that dressing in a sexy way is simply another way of being trashy. We are told that wearing such clothing should provoke uncomfortable feelings within us.

I think an alternative approach to teaching tznius would be to look at women and women's clothing through a media-critical lens. Many of my students are bombarded with media and its images throughout their day, whether on the Internet, their cell phones, billboards, magazines they read, books they devour or TV shows they watch. They toss off the easy comment, "Oh, the media doesn't influence me- I'm too smart for that" but are then shocked when presented with information regarding what the life of a model is really like, or the process a model's face undergoes before it reaches a billboard.

In the book The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It, author M. Gigi Durham presents five myths that are present in today's society. The myths are based around the following ideas:

1. If You've Got It, Flaunt It
2. Anatomy of a Sex Goddess
3. Pretty Babies
4. Violence is Sexy
5. What Boys Like

Durham explains that she is a feminist, and the premise of her book is based on the idea that children are inherently sexual. She believes that "sex and sexuality are normal, natural, and at best, wonderful aspects of being alive, and that the diverse range of expressions of sexual feelings can be both inspiring and valid" (11). However, the mainstream media mishandles and distorts girls' sexuality in "ways that actually limit and hamper girls' healthy sexual development" (12).

Durham is a pro-sex feminist, which means that she believes sex needn't be "taboo or hush-hush" but rather a "normal and healthy part of life, even of children's lives" (22). She's noticed, however that:
The turn of the new millennium has spawned an intriguing phenomenon: the sexy little girl. She's an all-too-familiar figure in today's media landscape: the baby-faced temptress with the preternaturally voluptuous curves, the one whose scantily clad body gyrates in music videos, poses provocatively on teen magazine covers, and populates cinema and television screens around the globe. She's become a fixture in Western pop culture: we all know her various incarnations, from Britney Spears to the sex-kittenish cartoon girls of anime, from Brooke Shields's child prostitute in Pretty Baby to JonBenet Ramsey's beauty queen persona and the Australian preteen sex symbol Maddison Gabriel. She's been celebrated and censured, and she serves as a symbolic flashpoint for raging debates about gender, sexuality, the definition of childhood, and the criteria for social standards of acceptance. (24)
Perhaps one reason for the fascination with the sexy little girl "is her tricky double role in contemporary society- she is simultaneously a symbol of female empowerment and the embodiment of a chauvinistic 'beauty myth.' She invokes the specter of pedophilia while kindling the prospect of potent female sexuality (24)," Durham suggests.

Durham notes that most contemporary conversations about sex in the media come down to a good/bad dichotomy where you are seen as either for sex or against sex (32). She argues against this, saying there needs to be a middle ground between supporting "fundamentalist Christian Joyce Meyers and pop singer Shakira as sexual guideposts in the media arena" (33).

Then she makes her brilliant point, one that is certainly not understood by many people in America, let alone the students I teach:
What has become clear- yet is not widely understood- is that media images of sexuality are quite specific, and are driven by a variety of factors, the most important of which is the for-profit structure in which they operate. As a consequence, the version of sexuality that proliferates in the mainstream media is not aligned with progressive politics, though the rhetoric around it offers the illusion that it is. (33)
Throughout the course of her book, she offers many examples of this claim, but perhaps the easiest one for all of us to relate to is that "Cosmopolitan magazine, a publication famous for instructing young women to please men sexually, describes its audience as 'fun, fearless females'" (33). Because of the rhetoric used, the "very conservative vision of sex celebrated in these arenas is strongly linked with sexual emancipation and even feminism" (33).

So now let's take a brief look at the myths.

1. If You've Got It, Flaunt It

The New York Times profiled "a group of accomplished teenage girls: they were varsity athletes, academic achievers, classical musicians and volunteer workers, all at once" (63). But they readily admitted that it was much more important to them to be 'hot' than 'smart.' The question is- what does hot mean? 
[H]otness or sexiness is relentlessly linked to particular images in Western popular culture. For example, in a recent issue of Seventeen, the top-circulating teen magazine (which is read by girls as young as ten), a photo fashion spread titled 'Sexy and Seventeen' featured a series of slender Caucasian models in clothes that revealed their underwear- sweaters unbuttoned to expose brassieres, models wearing only a top and panties or a camisole with tap pants. The "sexy" headline linked the body displays with desirability. 'Dare to bare' urges a headline in Teen Vogue that features teen girls in minuscule mini-skirts, their body-baring bodaciousness contrasted with a little girl wearing a frumpy mid-calf-length plaid skirt. The message there is that exhibitionism is daring, while conservative clothing is childish and boring. "Viva glam!" crows an ad for M.A.C. cosmetics, in which a buxom model poses in tiny strips of cloth that barely cover her curves, again celebrating semi-nudity as the path to glamour.  
Music videos- by both male and female artists- almost inevitably feature semi-clad women and fully clad men, and the lyrics establish these women ad desirable and sexual. This pattern has been documented in a number of research studies, and at the time of this writing, the top three videos on MTV- 50 Cent's "Ayo Technology," T.I.'s "You Know What It Is," and Maroon 5's "Wake UP Call" - all contain images of female strippers performing for fully dressed male viewers; all of the representations of women in these videos conform to the porno version of sexuality that involves skimpy clothing or stripping and sexual servitude to men, while the lyrics establish the men's voracious desire for these women.  
In these representations, sex is purely physical and based on female exhibitionism; this physicality can trigger high emotion, which is often violent (a subject discussed later in this book); but the women's sexuality never translates as anything other than a stimulus. It has nothing to do with intimacy, mutual respect, or love, ideas that have become virtually unthinkable in the arena of contemporary sexuality. The construction of the myth of female sexuality in music videos connects sex directly with female body displays and male desire, and disconnects it from "softer" emotions like tenderness or affection.  
-Pages 74-75
As Durham puts it, "The core message is not hard to recognize: if you're female, your desirability is contingent on blatant body display."

2. Anatomy of a Sex Goddess

Try this on your own- what does a 'perfect girl' look like? Close your eyes for a moment and think about it. Most likely, you came to the answer that I get when I ask this question, and that the author of the book always gets: "She would look like Barbie."
Barbie has been recast as a feminist these days; in the progressive New Moon magazine, twelve-year-old Abby Jones writes, "One of Barbie's slogans is 'Be who you wanna be'. You can buy Teacher Barbie, California Girl Surfer Barbie, Pet Doctor Barbie, and many others. In the Barbie movies, Barbie is smart, strong and courageous." Like Abby, I'm all in favor of Barbie's dizzying array of career trajectories, fo the ways she has overcome her mathophobia, and of her recent forays into tattoos and piercings. But it's also clear that Barbie's body stays the same throughout all of her incarnations: translated to human scale, in a now-infamous formulation, she would be a 5-foot 9-inch woman with an 18-inch waist, 36-inch breasts, and 33-inch hips, and she would weigh 110 pounds. That's too skinny to menstruate, according to one medical analysis of the doll. She may even be too skinny to stand upright. And it's still the ideal girl's body, the exemplar for all races, classes, and nations. Recent studies have shown that preteen girls still longingly described Barbie's body as 'perfect.'  
But being thin is not enough: thinness must be coupled with lush curves in the "right" places- the breasts- in order for the ideal to be achieved. And these body characteristics don't normally tend to coincide: when weight loss occurs, breast size tends to decrease. Most fashion models stand 5 feet 10 or taller and weigh less- often much less- than 140 pounds. They are expected to fit into a dress size between 2 and 4. Men argue that stick-thin fashion models are not sexy or attractive, but Playboy centerfolds are similarly atypical in their physical characteristics- with vital statistics of 34-23-34 and weights significantly less than those of other women in their age group.  
In addition, almost all photographs in fashion and beauty publications and, increasingly, almost all video images of models are technical wonders of the digital age. The models themselves are pale shadows of their media images, which are airbrushed, edited, and altered so as to create flawless facsimiles of femininity. They are a far cry from the real world: according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average American woman is about 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 163 pounds. The model- the adored ideal- is both a genetic anomaly and a fabrication of technology, constructing a physical type that is unattainable for almost all girls and women. 
~Pages 96-100
So who benefits from this? Certainly not women- who are comparing themselves to constructions of media and technology, not to real people. Not men- who either look longingly at these unattainable models and wish one of them was their girlfriend, or who end up with wives who have body-image issues. But there are multiple industries that do benefit.
[T]he ongoing pursuit of the ideal body is an expensive proposition. Diet pills and products, gym memberships, stylish clothes to flatter the figure (and become instantly outmoded), high heels to make legs look longer, plastic surgery to inflate the bust and suction the fat, anticellulite creams and potions- the products required to attain the Barbie body are myriad and costly. Multiple industries depend on girls' yearning for the Barbie body: the fashion, diet, exercise, cosmetic and plastic surgery industries all generate multibillion-dollar annual profits. These are the very industries that advertise in the media that promote this ideal body.  
And advertising is the lifeblood of the media, its major source of revenues. It is advertising, not subscriptions, that generate profits for the media. Seventeen magazine earned $101.9 million in advertising in 2006, while the Web site Teen People had advertising revenues of almost $77 million. The Coty cosmetics corporation spent $19 million in 2005 to advertise products targeted to fifteen-to-twenty one-year-olds. To post a single ad for four weeks on MySpace costs between $80,000 to $300,000-and the site's annual advertising revenues are estimated at $250 million, primarily because of the high proportion of young users. Health and beauty products contributed $1.63 billion to prime-time TV in 2006. 
Corporations from food manufacturers to lingerie retailers spend literally billions of dollars every year advertising to the youth market. This extensive network of interrelated corporations would collapse if girls and women stopped their pursuit of the "curvaceously thin" body. The media must promote the Barbie body in order to attract advertisers; advertisers must promote the Barbie body in order to sell the products needed for its attainment. The media and the fashion and beauty industries work hand in glove, driven by a common profit motive. The relationship is symbiotic; if one of these components were to fail, it would have a negative impact on all the others. So the relentless glorification of the Barbie body persists.  
-Page 101
3. Pretty Babies
The American media ideal of female sexuality has been getting progressively younger over the years. In the middle part of the last century, our icons of female sexuality were downright elderly by today's standards: Marilyn Monroe was twenty-seven when she immortalized the seductress Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; Elizabeth Taylor was twenty-four when she sizzled onscreen in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Sophia Loren was twenty-three as the sensuous Abbie Cabot in Desire Under the Elms. These film sirens were legally and physically adults; their much-admired bodies were women's bodies- voluptous and fully developed. Their bodies would not meet today's standards of sculpted masculinity and narrow-hipped leanness. They looked too much like mature women to have present-day appeal in an era of the Lolita Effect.  
This emphasis on youthfulness as the mark of beauty and desirability has led to the increasing use of very young girls as models in fashion and advertising, often in very sexually suggestive contexts. Most catwalk models today are between fourteen and nineteen years of age, and some are as young as twelve- like Maddison Gabriel and Gerren Taylor, who was not yet in her teens when she began modeling for such haute couture houses as Betsey Johnson and Tommy Hilfiger. Victoria's Secret model Adriana Lima began modeling at twelve, and Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Laetitia Casta started at fifteen.  
A series of Louis Vuitton print ads featuring seductive topless photographs of preteen girls appeared in major mainstream magazines a couple of years ago: they went wholly unremarked. A recent Newsweek article described Halloween costumes in little girls' sizes that include fishnet stockings, corsets and "Chamber Maid" outfits marketed as "sexy" and "hot." And an Australian billboard for Lee jeans featured a teenage model wearing hotpants, exposing a breast, and sucking on a lollipop. 
Actually, in this last example, the model was eighteen, but posed and made up to look at least five years younger. This is a different twist on the same idea: that ideal female sexuality is youthful, or even childlike.  
~Pages 117-118 
Why does this matter? In the words of the author, because "these depictions, and their ultimate conclusion, do nothing to foster a healthy, balanced understanding of sex as a normal part of human life that is best experienced in adulthood" (119). The author says this, not out of any religious or moralizing point of view, but because it has been proven that young children cannot understand the consequences of sexual activity and properly protect themselves (physically, emotionally and otherwise).

4. Violence is Sexy
Images of violence against women are pervasive: on billboards, in magazines, on television. A magazine ad for the upscale Dolce and Gabbana clothing line features a man having sex with a woman, while other men stand around watching. The scene implies a gang rape. The models in the ad are beautiful, and they look intense and turned on. The woman does not appear to be afraid. The gang rape is implicitly justified.  
An ad for Cesare Paciotti shoes shows a man stepping on a beautiful, red-lipsticked woman's face. 
An ad for Radeon gaming software depicts a topless young woman with the product's name branded on her back: the brand is red and raw. 
When I show these images in my classes, the students say they are "sexy." I ask them to imagine a puppy, or a little boy, in these situations: they are shocked. The images of violence are arousing only when the violence is aimed at girls.  
~Page 148
Durham cautions us that debates about sex and violence in the media always hinge on the issue of causality- the media does not cause people to go out and commit violent acts. Durham agrees that this is true and argues that the media does something much more insidious- it creates myths. They are our cultural mythmakers, and the myths supply us with "ideas and scripts that seep into our consciousness over time, especially when the myths are constantly recirculated in various forms" (148). These myths are "sugarcoated; they are aesthetically appealing, emotionally addictive, and framed as cutting-edge and subversive. But violence against women is neither edgy nor subversive: the violent abuse of women has been around for a long time" (149).

5. What Boys Like
In the pages of teen fashion and beauty magazines like Seventeen and CosmoGirl, tips on getting boys to notice and "crush" on girls are skillfully intermixed with the product placement that characterizes girls' magazines, so that the advice on buying jeans, accessories, and cosmetics is seamlessly linked to the relationship guidance that purports to help girls negotiate the complexities of love and sex. "Girls are empowered to be informed consumers of boys," as one analysis of these magazines concluded. The pleasures of self-adornment and consumerism are yoked to the central goal of achieving happy heterosexual couplehood. These magazines are oddly anachronistic: they offer a prefeminist vision of a girl's life, where girls require male admiration and attention and can gain it by learning to fulfill male pleasure in very traditional ways: by paying breathless attention to boys' needs and then offering services that provide for them. These services are often highly traditional ones: primping, cooking, and supplying limitless emotional support without expecting any in return. These kinds of activities seem hopelessly retrogressive when you stop to think about them, yet, as the sociologist Dawn Currie observes, girls insist "that the sexualized representations and expressions of femininity in contemporary magazines embody a new wave of women's emancipation."  
It's difficult to see where the emancipation comes in. The concept of a mutually pleasing relationship, in which both partners work to understand the needs of the other, is conspicuously absent from these media. And there are no corresponding magazines or other media for men or boys that exhort them, month after month, to learn how to please girls and women. Love and attraction are one-way streets, in the scenarios offered by these popular magazines.  
~Page 160
This last myth should be troubling to girls who want a mutually loving/ giving/ respectful relationship with boys, to homosexuals who don't see themselves or their sexuality represented by this type of media, and really to any human being.

I would argue that the best way to teach Tznius is to teach your students to do myth analysis. Don't present them with this information firsthand and let them read it; rather, pose questions to them. What does sexy mean? Who is the arbiter of sexy? Where do we get our ideas about what sexy connotes or implies? Look at print magazines. Who is pictured on the cover? Who isn't pictured? What words is this person put next to? What would you think about this picture if those words weren't displayed right next to them? Once you've begun to talk about the myths, the question becomes: what is the motivation behind the myths? The answer, of course, is profit. Then the question becomes:  how are we being coaxed into spending our money on the advertised products? The answer is that "the strategy is to create ideals that are impossible to attain and then suggest to audiences that they are attainable if the right products are purchased" (191). As Durham puts it, "there's no hint that sexuality is an inherent human trait, that both people and animals are de facto sexual, and that sexuality expresses itself in multiple and many-dimensional ways. No: sexiness must be bought" (191).

Once you've identified the myths, you can ask your students about their values when it comes to sexuality, intimacy and their bodies. You can also, if you wish, introduce Jewish values into the discussion. What you want to do is show your students that "the highly corporate, profit-motivated, mass-circulated images are the conformist positions. True rebellion lies in challenging, dissecting, and thinking through them- and then living your life according to your own values and ideas, not those of corporate media" (191).

It may be that your students' points of view will not align with your own, or with those of traditional Jewish values. But at least this way you have provided students with the tools to critically examine and question the media that informs their lives, to question whose definition of sexuality and beauty they choose to live by, and to question what it means to them to be female in today's world. Is the most important thing about them, as females, their physicality? Adele is famous for saying that she makes music "for your ears, not your eyes." In fact, her 2013 Oscar gown was elegant, fashionable, bared no skin and completely tzniut! Maybe your students' definitions of beauty will be more similar to hers than to the interpretations offered by most of our world today.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Pharaoh Narrative As A Tale of Addiction

I'm reading through The Big Book, which neophytes can think of as the Alcoholics Anonymous bible. I learned something new, namely that alcoholism is considered an illness. In Chapter 2, the text states, "An illness of this sort- and we have come to believe it is an illness-involves those about us in a way no other sickness can" (18). In italics, the illness is later described:
The fact is that most alcoholics, for reasons yet obscure, have lost the power of choice in drink. Our so-called will power becomes practically nonexistent. We are unable, at certain times, to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even a week or a month ago. We are without defense against the first drink. (Page 24)
William D. Clark, MD, a lecturer in medicine at Harvard Medical School, says in this clip "Alcohol, for some people, is poison. It just isn't the same for the alcoholic person as it is for a normal drinker. And once you get into that place of having alcohol run your life, it's like having an allergy to alcohol and it's very helpful to tell people, 'Look, alcohol is special- for you. It's different for you than it is for other people. Alcohol, in your situation, is a poison." He continues, "But I think the key concept is that it's poisonous, it's addictive, that the neurochemical changes in the brain caused by frequent and constant exposure to alcohol are such that people are no longer free to decide whether they're gonna drink or not, and if they drink, they're not free to decide how much they're gonna drink."

I came across a fascinating section in Chapter 3 that expands upon this statement:
Though there is no way of proving it, we believe that early in our drinking careers most of us could have stopped drinking. But the difficulty is that few alcoholics have enough desire to stop while there is yet time. We have heard of a few instances where people, who showed definite signs of alcoholism, were able to stop for a long period because of an overpowering desire to do so. 
As we look back, we feel we had gone on drinking many years beyond the point where we could quit on will power. If anyone questions whether he has entered this dangerous area, let him try leaving liquor alone for one year. If he is a real alcoholic and very far advanced, there is scant chance of success. In the early days of our drinking we occasionally remained sober for a year or more, becoming serious drinkers again later. Though you may be able to stop for a considerable period, you may yet be a potential alcoholic. We think few, to whom this book may appeal, can stay dry for anything like a year. Some will be drunk the day after making their resolutions; most of them within a few weeks.  
For those who are unable to drink moderately, the question is how to stop altogether. We are assuming, of course, that the reader desires to stop. Whether such a person can quit upon a nonspiritual basis depends upon the extent to which he has already lost the power to choose whether he will drink or not. Many of us felt that we had plenty of character. There was a tremendous urge to cease forever. Yet we found it impossible. This is the baffling feature of alcoholism as we know it- the utter inability to leave it alone, no matter how great the necessity or the wish.  
~Pages 33-34
Even though Alcoholics Anonymous sees alcoholism as a disease and illness, they do not excuse their behavior as not having been their fault due to the fact they were ill. After all, people still got hurt in the process. Therefore, the Ninth Step of the Twelve-Step Program is to make "direct amends to such people [all persons we had harmed] wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."

As I was reading, I realized that these ideas illuminate the Pharaoh story.

When we read the Pharaoh narrative, one of the most popular questions that is asked revolves around Exodus 9:12 and on.

  וַיְחַזֵּק יְהוָה אֶת-לֵב פַּרְעֹה, וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם:  כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה
And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had spoken unto Moses.

Many people are deeply perplexed by this verse. What does it mean that God hardened Pharaoh's heart? Does that mean that God has divested Pharaoh of his free will? 

Many of the commentators address this question and offer interesting interpretations. Seforno provides a particularly novel one when he says that in fact, God hardening Pharaoh's heart was giving him back his free will, allowing him to decide what he wanted to do without being moved by his people's complaints or pleas. 

But if you look at this story as a tale of addiction, then you will see that the hardening of Pharaoh's heart was an unfortunate but natural consequence of his former actions. 

I propose that Pharaoh was addicted to power, and specifically to the power relationship he had over the Jews. In the same way that an alcoholic loses the power to choose whether to drink and how much to drink due to his recurrent drinking, Pharaoh lost the opportunity to choose whether to exert power over Bnei Yisrael and how much power to exert. How else to explain the incredibly irrational decisions that he made?

Here is what happened to Pharaoh due to his refusal to release the Jews.

1. His main water supply (the Nile River), and that of all of Egypt, turned into blood. The fish died, which caused a horrible stench, and contaminated the water supply still further. It was also embarrassing that the being he worshipped as God (the Nile) was subject to this other, foreign, invading God's power.
       -Pharaoh takes no notice of this. Exodus 7:23 states that "Pharaoh turned and went back into his house; neither did he lay even this to his heart."

2. The entire land swarmed with frogs, which were a nuisance, but moreover, died, which created a stench throughout the land.
             -Pharaoh's response to this shows that he wants to behave rationally. In Exodus 8:4 he declares, "Entreat the Lord that He remove the frogs from me, and from my people, and I will let the people go, that they may make sacrifice to God."

3. Everyone in Egypt becomes infested with lice, which is extremely unpleasant.
            -The magicians themselves point out that Pharaoh cannot win here, saying that "this is the finger of God" in Exodus 8:15. 

4. Wild beasts tear throughout the land.
            -Once again, Pharaoh longs to behave rationally. In Exodus 8:21 he states, "Go and sacrifice to God in the land." He solidifies his promise in Exodus 8:23 when he says, "I will let you go so that you can sacrifice to God in the wilderness; only do not go very far away, entreat for me."

(Look at the wording! Pharaoh cannot bear to be far from his power source; even when letting them go, he gives the condition that they should not go very far away).

5. There is pestilence throughout the land and the death of all the animals.

6. Everyone in the land receives boils, including the magicians who had formerly been replicating the plagues.

7. Fiery hail rains down upon the land and destroys the crops.

            -Pharaoh attempts to behave rationally. In Exodus 9:27 he admits "I have sinned this time; the Lord is righteous and I and my people are wicked. In Exodus 9:28 he requests for them to ask God to make the plague stop, and once that happens he agrees to let the people go. 

8. When it is predicted that locusts will come upon the entire land, the language of the pasuk is curious. It says that God hardens both Pharaoh's heart and that of his servants. But note what his servants say to him in Exodus 10:7!

  וַיֹּאמְרוּ עַבְדֵי פַרְעֹה אֵלָיו, עַד-מָתַי יִהְיֶה זֶה לָנוּ לְמוֹקֵשׁ--שַׁלַּח אֶת-הָאֲנָשִׁים, וְיַעַבְדוּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם; הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע, כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם

And Pharaoh's servants said unto him: 'How long shall this man be a snare unto us? let the men go, that they may serve the LORD their God, knowest thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?'

Clearly, the impact that hardening Pharoah's heart has upon him vs. the impact it has upon the servants is different. The servants are aware that Egypt is destroyed, and that the only rational solution is to let the people go. Pharoah is only aware of this during brief, lucid, sober moments- but the rest of the time, he clings to his addiction, his power over the Hebrews. In Exodus 10:11 he requests that only the men go to serve God (a partial concession), and God brings locusts upon the land. 

In Exodus 10:17 Pharaoh admits he has sinned against God and Moses and Aaron and asks them to remove this 'death' from upon him, but once again, he goes back to his 'drink'.

9. Darkness covers the entire land; the Egyptians cannot see anyone or anything.
           - In Exodus 10:24 Pharaoh is willing to release everyone, including the children, except for the flocks and herds of animals (he needs some sort of guarantee or collateral that the Hebrews will return). When the Hebrew refuse this offer, Pharaoh becomes irate and tells Moshe to get out of his sight, because the day Moshe sees his face again, he'll die.

10. Death of all of the firstborn in Egypt.
--Finally Pharoah lets the people go, but not for long! In Exodus 14:3, it's declared that Pharaoh will assume that he can bring the Hebrews back because they are trapped in the land. 

Pharaoh loses literally everything due to his obsession with holding on to the Jewish people. His God is attacked, his land is filled with heaps of dead animals that create a stench and pollute the water supply, the bodies of his people are scabbed over due to lice and bursting pustules of boils, his livestock is torn apart or die, his crops are ripped apart by hail or destroyed by locusts, psychological warfare in the shape of darkness takes hold of him and every single Egyptian loses at least one member of their family during the death of the firstborns. Many times, Pharaoh wants to give in and promises that he will do better, that he will let the people go, or that he will let them go- partially. You can go- but not with your wives. You can go- but not with your animals. This is kind of like the wheedling conversations ascribed to alcoholics in The Big Book where people say "I'll drink beer- but not whiskey" or "See? I've licked alcohol because I haven't taken a drink- so let me take a drink now." Or swearing up and down to your wife or loved one that you'll be a changed man- but then showing up drunk the next day. And in the wake of  everything, after losing everything, Pharaoh still goes out, along with his whole army, to recapture the Hebrews. Who would behave this way if not an addict? It is Pharaoh's sheer desperation, his inability to live without the Hebrews under his thumb, without wielding power over them, that drives all his actions. The actions are neither rational nor logical, just like true alcoholism is not rational or logical- the alcoholic invariably loses his job, his wife, relationships with friends and family, his money and makes a mess of his life so that in the end, he is literally living in order to drink. In the end, Pharaoh's only goal (it's almost like he's a mad Captain Ahab, only intent upon the great white whale) is not to rebuild the destroyed land of Egypt, but to reclaim the Jews. And in pursuit of that, he perishes- much like the alcoholic in pursuit of more and more alcohol drinks himself to death when unchecked.

So what then, you may ask, was Pharaoh supposed to do? If he was truly an addict, in the same way that alcoholics are addicts, what could he do?

Well, the Twelve Step program outlines it beautifully.

1. We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol- that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.

What Pharaoh needed to do was:

1. Admit that he was powerless over his addiction (in this case, an addiction to power, specifically power over the Jewish people)- and that his choices at this point were based on his desire to keep them in the land vs. his desire to do what was best for his country and for his people.

2. Believe that God (and in this case, following God's command) could restore him to sanity.

3. Make a decision to turn his life over to the care of God, not only by following God's order to release His people, but by then praying to God that He would be able to help Pharoah to live his life as king without needing to have the Hebrews subjugated to him. He could pray that God would release him from this insane quest for power at all odds, even as his country disintegrates around him.

But Pharaoh refused to humble himself. At first, he refuses to even recognize God (see Exodus 5:2, where he states 'Who is God, that I should listen to Him? I know not the Lord and I will not let Israel go'), then he admits that he has sinned to God, but always asks an intermediary (Moshe and/or Aharon) to pray to God. He never prays to God Himself. He never acknowledges Him or asks for help ruling over or controlling his addiction. (It is deliciously ironic that Moshe, the humblest man ever to have lived, is pitted against Pharaoh  the man whose problem is that he cannot humble himself!) And so the real sin of Pharaoh isn't necessarily the fact that he has an addiction, but that he doesn't take the requisite steps to cure himself of it (or at least, since one can argue no addict is ever truly cured), to manage it.

Thus, the Pharaoh story becomes a cautionary tale. It is the story of a man who was so addicted to power that he lost his life, his country, and his nation. He and his countrymen were drowned at sea, and his land was ravaged by the ten plagues. Had he acknowledged God and followed His command, or at least thrown himself on God's mercy by directly asking God for the strength to allow him to successfully release the Jews, we might be reading a very different story. We might be reading the story of a recovering power addict, spared by the grace of God, rather than the story of one who lost everything.