Dominance And Submission
06/19/98
Staff Writer
The other day, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in America, declared that wives should “submit themselves graciously to their husband’s leadership.” Ha. Try selling that to Jewish women. “My husband tells me that all the time — ‘can’t you be a little more submissive’ ” — chuckled political consultant Suri Kasirer when asked about the newest development in American gender politics. Her husband happens to be Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s chief of staff, Bruce Teitelbaum, a man used to ordering other people around. Apparently, except at home. “I tell him, ‘you want submissiveness? You married the wrong girl,’ ” Kasirer confides. She is not alone. Like Kasirer, an aide to former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, many Jewish women reacted strongly — in the negative — when asked about putting themselves under the thumb of their husbands, the notion adopted by the Southern Baptists last week. Yes, these are the same leaders of the 15-million strong fundamentalist Christian denomination who two years ago angered Jewish leaders by voting to increase their missionizing of Jews. At this year’s annual convention, it was the women’s turn. Quoting verses from the New Testament, the Southern Baptists declared that a wife has “the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing their household and nurturing the next generation.” It also said men should “provide for, protect and lead” their families. But the 250-word amendment went further, comparing the husband to Jesus, and the wife to the church that exists to serve Jesus. Naturally, such an idea was regarded warmly by some Jewish husbands fantasizing about a Jewish wife who will wait on him hand and foot. “From a personal standpoint, I’m converting,” joked one Jewish public relations executive. But Jewish women were clearly not amused about calls for female submission, in any religion. “I think it’s fairly insane in this modern day where so many women are making a living to support a family,” said Joy Perlow, a 38-year-old mother of two from Mt. Kisko, Westchester. Perlow owns Sammy’s Kosher Meat Market in Bedford Hills with her husband of 14 years. “Growing up Jewish, I can’t imagine that scenario,” she said. More alarmed is Jewish feminist Susannah Heschel, a Jewish studies professor at Dartmouth University. She fears the Southern Baptist amendment will fuel the type of thinking that leads to violence against women. “I would hold that kind of statement directly responsible for violence against women in our society,” explains Heschel, daughter of legendary theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. “It’s giving divine sanction to the notion that men have absolute power over women — like a slaveholder over slaves.” Still, there arises a problematic question for Jews. Isn’t there some similarity between the Southern Baptist statement and the traditional view of the subordinate role of wives as found in the Talmud and Bible? Well, yes, and no. “You can find echoes in the Jewish Talmudic view,” says Rabbi Yisroel Miller, a Pittsburgh Orthodox rabbi and author of “Guardians of Eden,” which explores the role of Jewish women. But he quickly stresses that such Talmudic statements as “a kosher wife does the will of her husband” is only one piece of a larger mosaic. For instance, he notes another Talmudic adage that states “a husband has an obligation to respect his wife more than his own body.” Perhaps most problematic is the verse in Genesis 3:16 which has God telling Eve: “he [Adam] will rule over you.” Literalists clearly can have a field day with this. Critics say the text cannot be taken at face value. “When you read it in context, it is limited to a sexual statement,” contends Judith Hauptman, a professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “He initiates the sexual act.” If the Bible is read literally, the rest of Genesis 3:16 would also have to be true: “with pain shall you bear your children.” “Should we deny woman painkillers when they give birth?” Hauptman says. Regarding the Talmudic view, Hauptman says the problem with defining the rabbinic role for wives is that the rabbis themselves seemed to be of two minds. The legal writings of the Talmud about women show a clearly subordinate role. “There is no explicit refutation in the Talmud to dispute the Southern Baptists’ statement [about submission],” says Hauptman, author of “Rereading The Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice” (Westview-HarperCollins). On one hand, she says the Talmud, written by men in the patriarchal time of the second through fifth centuries C.E., includes laws and rituals in which women are subordinate to men. “When we talk about the traditional marriage ceremony, we are talking about him betrothing her,” she says. But at the same time, the Talmud’s rabbis talked about their wives in anecdotes that implied clever and forceful women. For example, she cites the case of Rabbi Hiyya, who spends his time searching for a little present to bring home to his wife. His colleague Rav asks why, since the unnamed wife apparently “torments” poor Rabbi Hiyya. But Rabbi Hiyya responds, “she raises my children and she protects me from sin.” Says Hauptman: “Here we have a rabbi reconciling himself to the fate of having a wife who makes demands of him. The women were not as docile and submissive as the patriarchal laws might lead you to think.” Hauptman sees in rabbinic Judaism a bipolar relationship between husbands and wives, “each one having rights and obligations to the other.” He can demand domestic labor. In exchange, she’s entitled to support, and conjugal rights. “When they both have rights and obligations, neither one of them can be considered as merely property to the other,” Hauptman argues. One thing seems clear, Jewish experts agree: Judaism has nothing like a divine sanction for husbands. “Nowhere do I see in the classical Jewish literature any statement that comes close to saying the husband dominating the wife is done because God ordained it to be that way,” says Hauptman. “Such a distinction is completely foreign to us,” adds Rabbi Miller. Rather, he sees the marriage as a chess game with the husband as the King and the wife as Queen. And, he adds, we all know what the Queen can do.

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