Friday, December 30, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

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Parshat VaYigash - The Sound of Silence


Silence is the last word one would think to use to characterize the climax of the story of Yosef and his brothers.   Indeed, our parsha opens with Yehuda's heartfelt and impassioned plea to Yosef to free Binyamin, and the words so powerfully convey Yehuda's unflinching loyalty to Binyamin and the anguish of his father, Yaakov, that Yosef can no longer contain himself.  His emotions burst forth, and he reveals himself to his brothers.   And if Yehuda's words can stir powerful, positive emotions, Yosef's words have the power to calm turbulent, potentially destructive ones:   "Now, do not be anguished, and do not reproach yourselves that you have sold me here, for it is to be a source of life that God has sent me ahead of you." (Breishit 45:4).

Even as the story reaches its dénouement, there is much talking.  Talking about how to report back to Yaakov about what has happened, talking about how the land of Egypt is open to Yaakov and his family and how they should arrange their emigration from Canaan, talking to Yaakov about what has happened, Yaakov's exclamation of wonderment at the news, God's talking to Yaakov before he leaves Canaan, Yosef’s talking to his brothers to prepare them for their meeting with Pharaoh, Pharaoh's talking to the brothers, Pharaoh's talking to Yaakov, and finally Yaakov's blessing of Pharaoh.  So there is indeed much, much talking in this parsha.  But in the midst of all this talking, and the beehive of activity that surrounds it, there is a profound, poignant moment of silence:

And Yisrael said to Yosef, "I can now die, after that I have seen your face, that you are still alive."
And Yosef said to his brothers and to his father's household, "I will go up and report to Pharaoh, and I will tell him, "My brothers and my father's household from the Land of Canaan have come to me."
(46:30-31)

What just happened here?  Yaakov and Yosef meet after a 22 year separation, Yaakov having believed Yosef to be dead, but perhaps not so sure, perhaps suspecting that the brothers had something to do with the whole thing.  And Yosef wondering - who knows what?   Perhaps thinking that his father didn't care that he was gone, perhaps even suspecting that his father was unconcerned the danger that befell him, or even more so believing that his father had conspired by sending him to his brothers when they were shepherding while knowing how much they hated him.   Or even if these troubling thoughts were kept at bay, Yosef certainly after hearing Yehuda's passionate speech knew how bereaved his father now felt and how his absence had taken such a serious toll on Yaakov.     

And now, after these long 22 years, they finally reconcile, and Yaakov lets forth an exclamation of joy, tinged with his past suffering, but of joy nevertheless.  And then what?  Silence.  Yosef does not respond.  He says not one word to his father.  Or rather, not silence, but a lot of irrelevant talking.  Talking to the wrong people - his brothers and his father's household, but not to his father - and talking about the wrong things - "Oh, let's go tell Pharaoh that you are here."   The abrupt transition in these two verses is the conversational equivalent of "Great to see you Dad.  Oh, look at the time.  Gotta go."  A lot of talking, a lot of busy-ness, but a profound silence.  No one is talking about what needs to be talked about.  Not just, "I missed you so much.  I can't believe we are together again."  But also, "What really happened that day, 22 years ago?"   "Why did you send me to check on my brothers, knowing how much they hated me?"    No, we'll talk about that later.  There is too much to do now.  Too much other talking that needs to take place.

People talking without speaking…

And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
"Fools", said I, "You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows…”

("Sound of Silence," Simon and Garfunkel)

The impassioned, heart-wrenching communication at the beginning of parsha, is replaced by a lot of pragmatic, businesslike talking at the end of the parsha.  The words that are unspoken continue to hover in the background.  The silence grows like a cancer, eating away at Yosef and at Yaakov from the inside, continuing to fester, preventing them from bringing these difficult issues to the surface, so that they can be dealt with, and resolved. 

And the silence also grows like a wall to divide Yaakov and Yosef.  It prevents them from ever truly connecting again on a deep, personal level.  Yosef is too busy to talk to his father when he arrives, and remains too busy to talk to his father throughout the rest of his life.  So much so, that when Yaakov finally speaks to Yosef again, it is at the end of Yaakov’s life , on his deathbed, and it is for the very practical purpose of arranging for his own burial.    During the exchange, we find out that they have communicated so little that Yaakov does not even know his own grandchildren.  He knows about them - the facts he has - but he does not recognize them.  "And Yisrael saw the sons of Yosef, and he said, 'Who are these?'  And Yosef said to his father, 'They are my sons…'"  (48:8-9).   Because Yaakov and Yosef are not able to talk about what needs to be talked about, they wind up talking about very little.  Or, at least, very little that really matters.

There is, finally, one moment when the silence is broken.   But then it is too late.  For when Yaakov dies, Yosef's brothers grow very concerned about how Yosef will now treat them.  "And the brothers of Yosef saw that their father had died, and they said, 'Perhaps Yosef will now nurse his hatred against us, and return to us all the evil that we have done to him." (50:15).   So what did they do?  They invented a conversation that never happened:

And they commanded that Yosef be told, "Your father commanded, before his death, saying: 'So shall you say to Yosef: Please forgive the iniquity of your brothers, and their trespass, for they have committed evil against you.'  So now, please forgive to sin of the servants of your father's God."   And Yosef wept when they spoke to him.
(50:16-17)

Why did Yosef weep?  Perhaps because they thought ill of him, or suspected that he could still be harboring resentment and ill will about what had happened oh so many years ago.   Or perhaps he wept because he saw that his brothers were so anguished and fearful.  But I believe he wept for a different reason.  I believe he wept because he realized that his father never said - never could have said - such a thing.  His father had never, and would never, break the implicit pact of silence around these matters.   He wept because what was said after his father's death - what had needed to be said for so long, was never said in his father's life. 

He wept for Yaakov, for Yaakov died having never had a chance to talk about what was eating away at him - his suspicions about Yosef’s brothers and what they might have done - and he went to his grave with this cancer inside him.  And he wept for himself, for never having been able to bring himself to talk about his own suspicions, his own doubts to his father.  For never having been able to bring up all the messiness, so that it could be expelled, and so that a true relationship could be reestablished.

And he wept for his brothers.  For his brothers who could not talk to him about these things before.  For his brothers who even now could not talk to him about it directly - having to send someone to present their case in their stead.  For his brothers who even now could not talk about these things in their own voice, but who had to attribute them to their father, Yaakov. 

And perhaps he wept for his own silencing of his brothers.  For the fact that he was so quick to forgive them when he first revealed himself to them, that he did not give them a chance to talk about their guilt, about their remorse.  Here was a time when he needed to be silent, so that others could be heard.  To be forgiven before asking for forgiveness is a blessing, but it is also a curse.   It silences voices that need to be heard.   It prevents true healing from taking place.

We know well the power of speech.  We know how words can kill and how words can heal.   We also must know the power of silence.   Silence can kill - kill a relationship, kill a friendship, kill a marriage.  But silence can also heal.  Silence that is there not to cover up, to avoid, to distract, but a silence that is there to make space, to listen, to open up, to allow another in, to allow another to speak, that is a silence that can give life, that is a silence that is a blessing to the soul.  "There is a time to be silent, and a time to talk." (Kohelet 3:7) Let us always know which is which, so that both our talking and our silence bring with them life and healing to ourselves and to others.

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

Last week, I mentioned that I had given a shiur at the yeshiva on aspects of tzniut and on how the cultural interpretation of that concept - in theory and practice - was at odds with its halakhic definition, and was damaging to both men's perception of women and to women's perception of themselves and their own sexuality.   I was asked by a number of people to elaborate on these issues, and what follows is a summary of the shiur that I gave last week.

Tova Hartman, in her chapter "Modesty and the Religious Male Gaze," from her book Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism,  discusses the topic of the male gaze, and how the culture around tzniut reinforces this - accepts it as a given - and the status of women as sex objects.  The only difference between this approach and that of Western culture is whether the response is for women (and men) to leverage it or cover it up, but the "traditional" Jewish approach doesn't critique the male gaze, per se, and demand the non-objectification of women.  This is, indeed, the religious Jewish cultural reality, but it is not the halakhic one. 

The sources in the Gemara (in particular Berakhot 24a: hair is 'ervah, voice is 'ervah, shok (thigh?) is 'ervah, etc.) are directed to the man and his need/obligation not to look at women sexually (unless in the context of marriage or getting married).  Admittedly, the Gemara's directives are, as a rule, focused on men, and its concern here is about sexual thoughts (see also AZ 20a-b and Avot d'Rebbe Natan, version B, chapter 2).  - more an issue for men, according to the Gemara, than for women.  Nevertheless, the halakhic obligation is how man should and should not look.  It is all about the male gaze - "Do not look at women (who are not your wife, and whom you are not considering marrying) so that you do not have illicit sexual thoughts" is not very far from, and can be translated as "Do not look at women as sex objects."  Similarly, in Shulkhan Arukh, both in Orah Hayyim (75) and Even HaEzer (21), the obligation is directed at men, and at how they look at women.

There are some Gemarot that talk about women's responsibility in this regard.  The Gemara in Shabbat (62b), in particular, is a strong critique against women who would dress and walk in sexually provocative ways.  This, it should be noted, is not the specific issue of how much of one's body needs to be covered, what is or is not an ervah, etc.  It is about being intentionally sexually provocative, seducing others to sin,  and a general concern of tzniut in all ways (not just dress - even how one walks, etc.), that applies equally to men and to women.  The other Gemara that talks more about norms of modest behavior/dress for women is the Gemara in Ketuvot (72b) regarding dat Yehudit for married women.  What is notable about this Gemara - besides that it is about married, not unmarried women - is that again, it does not quantify body parts, etc., or focus on men's sexual thoughts.  It is rather Jewish societal norms of modest behavior. More to the point, if one looks at the mishna and what is included in dat Yehudit, it will become immediately apparent that the issue here is violating the appropriate intimacy and exclusivity between husband and wife, and the types of behavior that is required to protect this intimacy and trust.  Truly, tzniut as the general concept of modesty - applies for men and women, and is much more than dress.  What we do not have is women's responsibility for men's sexual gaze and sexual thoughts.

The one Gemara that puts the responsibility for men's inability to control their sexual desires, although the women are acting innocently, is the story of the daughter of R. Yossi from Yukrat in Taanit (24a).   The Gemara relates that his daughter was very beautiful, and one day he caught a man peering at her from behind some bushes.  The man said: "If I can't marry her, at least I can derive pleasure from looking at her."  Rather than criticize the man, R. Yossi of Yukrat said to his daughter: "My daughter, you are causing anguish to God's creatures. Return to your dust."  Now, when this Gemara is taught, one can easily derive the lesson that - aha! Men can't control their urges, and their sexual thoughts are women's responsibility.   What is lost - significantly and profoundly! - is that the sugya opens with R. Yossi bar Avin saying that he used to be a student of R. Yossi from Yukrat, and he left him because he (R. Yossi of Yukrat) didn't even have any compassion on his son and daughter.  This story is the evidence to his lack of compassion on his daughter.  In other words, it is his actions and perhaps the entire attitude that is being critiqued here, not endorsed.

The cultural shift that moved this from men's obligation to women's had a profound impact.   We have abandoned the idea that men can control their sexual thoughts, their lusts or their male gaze.  So our (implicit) estimation of men has been diminished.  What type of a religious system gives up - or implicitly tells an individual to give up - on the possibility of religious growth, even in areas where there are strong counter desires?  And  by placing the responsibility on women, we have reinforced their status as sex objects, saddled them with the responsibility and guilt of men's sexual desires and thoughts, and have told them to respond to this by covering themselves up - by de-sexualizing themselves, and as a result, we have problematized and made them highly conflicted about their own sexuality, a problem with significant repercussions in marriage and elsewhere.  

This entire problem could be solved by a return to the halakhot and approaches to tzniut in the Gemara and translating this into our culture and education.   Such an approach would teach men to not look at women as sex objects, would teach women that they are not responsible for men's sexual thoughts, and unless they are dressing or acting in a particularly provocative manner, there is no lifnei iver (causing others to sin) or such concerns, because it is within men's control whether and how to look at them.  It would teach both men and women that tzniut is about more than dress, it is about comportment and behavior, it is about modesty before God and in relationship to all people - men and women - and that it applies equally to both men and women.

A final word about the quantification of tzniut concerns.  The Gemara Berakhot talks about shok (thigh) being an 'ervah, and the Gemara in Ketuvot about the problem of a married woman appearing with her zro'ot (upper arms) uncovered.  This leads to the "halakha" that women (married or unmarried) must cover the legs to the knee (top of the knee, bottom of the knee, middle of the knee?) and their arms to the elbow.  Besides the fact that the Gemara about shok (and the Shulkhan Arukh) is talking to men, not to women, another central critique is in order.    The assumption of all discussions around these topics is that these are strict, objective categories.  There is only one problem.  The Mishna (Ohalot 1:8) and Rishonim (e.g., Tosafot, Menachot 37a, s.v. Kiboret) are clear that shokshok is not the thigh.  It is the calf.  So, the conclusion should be that women must wear ankle-length dresses and skirts.  But of course, that has rarely been the practice.  So the claim is made that these refer to the thigh, a claim completely untenable based on the evidence. 


The true solution is that these statements are not absolutes, but change based on historical and societal contexts.  Hence, in the time of the Gemara, even the lower leg was usually covered and for a man to gaze at a woman's lower leg would be unacceptable.  But when societal norms change, so did the parameters of what is normally covered and what cannot be male-gazed upon.  Hence, in Shulkhan Arukh, OH (75) one will not find any mention of the shok.  Rather, both regarding body parts (except for the actual genital areas), and regarding women's hair, or (singing) voice, the concern is only with what is normally covered in modest society.  [In the case of hair covering, the Gemara in Ketuvot attributes this norm to dat Moshe, a Biblical norm, so it is much more questionable whether it can be societally contingent.]


The upshot of all of this is that a true approach to tzniut, in addition to focusing on modesty  in all ways for men and for women, and in addition to directing men to control their male gaze, would also reject the quantification of the concept of tzniut and the objectification of women's body parts towards this end.  It would talk to men and women about a general approach of dressing and acting modestly, and to attend to communal norms of modest dress and behavior.  Now that would be truly refreshing.  It could not only counteract all the negatives that the current approach has engendered, but also put us on the path - finally, and again - of embracing the true value of tzniut and fulfilling the verse in Micha (6:8) of "walking humbly with your God".