Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Would Hashem condescend to talk to a woman?

This deliberately provocative title is designed to possibly capture the essence of the dispute between a few medieval French exegetes. Was Sarah a prophetess? If so, greater than Avraham? That is what Rashi says:
12. And God said to Abraham, "Be not displeased concerning the lad and concerning your handmaid; whatever Sarah tells you, hearken to her voice, for in Isaac will be called your seed.
יב. וַיֹּאמֶר אֱ־לֹהִים אֶל אַבְרָהָם אַל יֵרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עַל הַנַּעַר וְעַל אֲמָתֶךָ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ כִּי בְיִצְחָק יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע:
hearken to her voice: (to the voice of the holy spirit within her.) We learn from here that Abraham was inferior to Sarah in prophecy. — [from Exod. Rabbah 1:1, Tan. Shemoth 1]
שמע בקולה: למדנו שהיה אברהם טפל לשרה בנביאות:

This is indeed in Midrash Tanchuma on Shemot:

מה עשה ישמעאל? ש
כשהיה בן ט"ו שנה התחיל להביא צלם מן השוק והיה מצחק בו ועובדו, כמו שראה לאחרים,
מיד, ותרא שרה את בן הגר המצרית אשר ילדה לאברהם מצחק (בראשית כא). ואין צחוק האמור כאן, אלא עבודה כו"ם. שנאמר: וישב העם לאכול ושתו ויקומו לצחק (שמות לב).
מיד, ותאמר לאברהם גרש האמה וגו' שמא ילמוד בני אורחותיו.
מיד וירע הדבר מאד בעיני אברהם על אודות בנו, ויאמר אלוהים אל אברהם אל ירע בעיניך וגו' כל אשר תאמר אליך שרה שמע בקולה.

מכאן אתה למד שהיה אברהם טפל לשרה בנביאות.
מיד וישכם אברהם בבקר ויקח לחם וחמת מים וגו'.

So age-old tradition has it that Sarah was an even greater prophetess than Avraham was a prophet.

However, Ralbag decidedly does not appear to maintain that Sarah was a prophetess. For he says that in regard to Avraham, the messengers of Hashem (who were prophets) were not called prophets, for they were not sent to him, for he, Avraham, was a prophet. Presumably, then, there would be no need for an additional prophet to him. But they were sent to Sarah, and that is why they first asked after Sarah's whereabouts before delivering the message. The more than slight implication here is that Sarah was not a prophetess, certainly not on the level of Avraham.

And indeed, a bit later, when discussing that aspect of the narrative in which Hashem tells Avraham to hearken to everything Sarah tells him, Ralbag first gives a practical motivating factor to Sarah, and then states vehinei haya siba meiHashem yitbarach legaresh yishmael mei'al yitzchak shelo yilmad yitzchak mimaasav haraim, veyimna mipnei zeh shleimuto. Thus, this is a pretext. Hashem had His own purposes, which differed from those of Sarah, but in this particular instance they were in alignment.

As a matter of peshat, I prefer Ralbag over Rashi. While the pasuk can be interpreted hyperliterally to indicate a general instruction to listen to all of Sarah's words -- after all, the pasuk states כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ -- almost certainly the peshat is that he should listen to everything Sarah says in this particular instance.

Though I don't believe Hashem is agreeing with the disenfranchisement. For while He says כִּי בְיִצְחָק יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע, the next pasuk is וְגַם אֶת בֶּן הָאָמָה לְגוֹי אֲשִׂימֶנּוּ כִּי זַרְעֲךָ הוּא.

Maybe one is the yerusha of Eretz Yisrael and the other is the yerusha of other lands. So perhaps Hashem agrees with this plan of Sarah's in terms of primary inheritance.

But if Hashem does not appear to agree with the idea of disenfranchisement, then there must be some other purpose in play. And that is keeping Yitzchak away from evil influences. And indeed, the pasuk itself, besides the fairly ambiguous metzachek, later states that Yishmael is to be a pere adam. So Ralbag does appear to make more peshat-sense.

There is also Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi, a contemporary of Ralbag, says. The pasuk in the beginning of Vayera states:

יג וַיֹּאמֶר ה', אֶל-אַבְרָהָם: לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר, הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד--וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי.13 And the LORD said unto Abraham: 'Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old?

and upon this pasuk, Ibn Caspi writes:
לא אמר זה לשרה כי אין
לנכבד ולקדוש שידבר עם הנשים ולכן נשמרתי אני
מזה כל ימי
He {=Hashem} did not say this to Sarah because it is not fitting for the Honorable and Holy to speak with women. And therefore I was careful about this all my days.

Thus, it would not be fitting with Hashem's honor to condescend to talk to women.

I would say that this is a cultural attitude which Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi is reading into the text. And that one can argue with it.

However, I would note that only heretics may say this. It seems that is not acceptable, from a Torah-true approach to peshat (defined as the methodology of a particular Israeli seminary for post-high school students), to contradict a Rishon. To cite:
I can come up with a pshat that is plausible. But there are, nevertheless, limits to what would constitute a Torah true pshat. When we were encouraged in Michallah [sic] to interpret the texts for ourselves, we were still given certain limits. One was not to contradict a Rishon. Yes, people like Ibn Ezra did do it. But when approaching Torah, one have enough humility to recognize that the average Joe or Jill simply is not on the caliber of Ibn Ezra.
Thus, if I understand correctly, the "Torah-true", Michlala approach, is that we must accept whatever we see in Rishonim, Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi included. Therefore, we must accept that women are somehow inferior, and that Hashem would not condescend to speak to a mere woman. That would not befit His honor and His holiness.

Luckily, there is an "out" here, in that we can say it is a dispute, and that we side with Rashi, one Rishon, over Ibn Caspi, another. Of course, how is this humility, to think we are able to decide who is right amongst Rishonim, just because we like the conclusion better? (Unless this person meant that one was not to contradict Chazal, rather than any random Rishon? I am not certain.)

Or we could allegorize Ibn Caspi -- but it is fairly clear, via his application to his personal conduct, that he took this seriously and literally.

I would rather conclude that of course different Rishonim inject their own culture and their own personality into the text. Yet at the same time they are brilliant, and try and succeed to a great extent in explaining the meaning of the Biblical text, and fleshing out the various possibilities in interpreting the text. And their culture and their personalities are part of Jewish history and the development of Torah through the ages in different locales, and is thus valuable in its own right for that.

At the same time, I do think that certain feminist promotion of minor Biblical characters into people of extreme importance, on the basis of their being simultaneously female and Biblical, is misguided. It is a reading of our own values into the Biblical text. And we might take a lesson from this instance about the dangers of doing this.


Anonymous said...

um..its a yalkut shemoni

joshwaxman said...

what is? what ibn caspi said? where does the yalkut say this?

that is interesting, *because* yalkut shimoni could get it from still another source. the yalkut shimoni is from about the same time as Ibn Caspi -- perhaps a bit earlier, or the same time. but it is a yalkut.


BrooklynWolf said...

However, Ralbag decidedly does not appear to maintain that Sarah was a prophetess. For he says that in regard to Avraham, the messengers of Hashem (who were prophets) were not called prophets, for they were not sent to him, for he, Avraham, was a prophet. Presumably, then, there would be no need for an additional prophet to him. But they were sent to Sarah, and that is why they first asked after Sarah's whereabouts before delivering the message. The more than slight implication here is that Sarah was not a prophetess,

So how does Ralbag learn the gemara in Megilla which says explicitly that Sarah was a neviah?

And how does Ibn Caspi learn the same gemara which lists the seven nevios?

The Wolf

joshwaxman said...

i think i found it! much *earlier* than yalkut shimoni, we see this idea in Bereishit Rabba:


ותכחש שרה לאמר לא וגו'
רבי יהודה בר' סימון אמר:
מעולם לא נזקק הקדוש ברוך הוא להשיח עם אשה, אלא עם אותה הצדקת, ואף היא ע"י עילה.

the idea seems to be there, however, that in "lo ki tzachakt", it is Hashem speaking directly to Sarah. and thus He *does* speak to her, because she is a tzadekes, but this was only because of an "ila", a catalyst (i would guess).

this is also perhaps because of "al tarbe sicha" and giving a pattern, but not necessarily because of a disgraceful state for women in general, which stylistically it seems more from the words of Ibn Caspi.

Ralbag and Ibn Caspi are saying their own derash, or else their own peshat, and don't necessarily need to fit in their own peshat with that of Chazal in the gemaras. Or they might treat it allegorically. Still, it might be possible to make it all work together. I'd be willing to say that it does, if they themselves offer an explanation, or if a harmonization does not do major damage to the "peshat" of their words and the words of Chazal.


joshwaxman said...

I think the simplest answer, though, is that it is not only Ibn Ezra who often argues on gemaras in ways that cannot be resolved. I think many other medieval Jewish commentators do this as well.

For example, Rashbam who says that day comes before night, because of vayhi erev vayhi voker.

A better question on the idea which seems to exist in Ibn Caspi is the explicit Biblical counterexamples of Devorah and Chulda. Perhaps that was only when there was no other option available...


Anonymous said...

no josh its a yerushalmi sotah chapt 7

and ralbag does not say she didnt become salt-he says she got destroyed with the city which also was salt.... and the peshat is in chizkuni as well anyway

joshwaxman said...

I'll check it out. a link would be helpful.

I would point out that Bereishit Rabba (as I mentioned) / Yerushalmi (as you mentioned) is potato -- potahto. This is because Bereishit Rabba is the midrashic material of the Yerushalmi, such that they co occur. So what do you mean "no"? that there are *other* sources does not mean that the source i brought is wrong. or do you mean that this is what the Yalkut Shimoni brings down? a citation of Yalkut Shimoni would be helpful. here is a link:
please find me the text, so that i can examine it.

also, am i detecting a note of hostility? please identify yourself, or at least choose a pseudonym.

the yerushalmi you mentioned, here:

states that:
"רבי יוחנן בשם ר' לעזר בי ר' שמעון לא מצינו שדיבר המקום עם אשה אלא עם שרה בלבד. והא כתיב (בראשית ג) אל האשה אמר הרבה ארבה וגו'. אמר רבי יעקב דכפר חנין ע"י התורגמן. והא כתיב (בראשית כה) ויאמר י"י לה שני גוים בבטנך א"ר בא בר כהנא הדיבור נפלה לה. אמר רבי בירי כמה כירכורי כירכורים הקב"ה מתאוה לשמוע שיחתן של צדקניות (בראשית יח) ויאמר לא כי צחקת."

this is NOT the same as Ibn Caspi. we don't see an explicit idea that Hashem does not consider it to be in accordance with his honor and holiness, like Ibn Caspi appeara to states. rather, Hashem seems to desire to speak to Sarai, or hear Sarah speak. And the Yerushalmi *has* Sarah as the exception, while it would appear that Ibn Caspi does NOT have Hashem talk to Sarah in this narrative. Thus, it strikes me as a different point.

In terms of Ralbag, indeed, I do recall that Chizkuni also says this. I don't always mention all sources on every post. so what it the implication of "anyway"? that two meforshim mention something should strengthen the idea, not weaken it.

as I wrote at length (rather than the joke-post DovBear linked to), is that what Ralbag says is:

והנה כאשר זרחה השמש בא לוט לצוער ובהיותו שם הוריד השם על ידי נביאיו בדרך פלא אצל סדום ועמורה גפרית ואש בבטן הארץ ההיא בדרך שנהפכו הערים האלה וכל הככר וכל יושבי הערים וצמח הארץ לא נשאר דבר. והנה הביטה אשת לוט מאחריו ונספת עמהם והיתה אז הארץ ההיא כמו נציב מלח לחזק השרפה אשר היתה שם

you can see this here:
on the last column. it seems fairly clear that he parses "Hi" as the city.

he writes a slight bit later, about the absence of Lot's wife, since it is only Lot and his two daughters, that
"ki ishto kevar meita beIkkuv shekarah lah behabitah meiAcharei Lot beEretz Sedom lir`ot mah yikareh laAretz hahi, ulezeh, lo yachlah lehimalet im Lot uvenosav beTzoar."

so yes, she was destroyed. and he feels compelled to add this later (because otherwise one will be confused), to account for her absence in the subsequent narrative. he reads her destruction as implied. but in parsing and translating the pasuk, that which was (like) a "pillar of salt," that is utterly destroyed, was the city.

He also maintains that she died, NOT that the became salt, or a pillar of salt, or that the pasuk is stating that she became a pillar of salt. He clearly only applies that appellation to the city, as indicative of the strength of the destruction: כמו נציב מלח לחזק השרפה אשר היתה שם.

do you think that he really maintains that Lot's wife became a pillar of salt, and that that was what the pasuk was trying to indicate?

kol tuv,

joshwaxman said...

regardless, you make a very interesting point. though i am not really persuaded that they are the same, let us say that this is not just Ibn Caspi, a Rishon, but rather a Yerushalmi and a Bereishit Rabba. we have a contrasting midrash with a different feel, that Sarah was the recipient of stronger nevuah than Avraham. But even pretending we didn't have it.

Can we argue on Chazal in this? In terms of peshat, certainly. And this is what many medieval meforshim (both pashtanim and darshanim) do without compunction.

On the other hand, what about arguing on *values* seemingly put forth from Chazal? This is more difficult. Though of course you and I do this all the time, without necessarily stating in each case that we are differing from them. This speaks to the very issue of what parts/attitudes are nitzchiyus and which parts are culturally dependent. And I can see much more, in this realm, how arguing on Chazal in values (rather than peshat, or science) could be deemed by some as heretical.

If so, I need a stronger example of a Rishon with which we would all certainly disagree. Perhaps Chizkuni on science (about left and right chambers creating male or female offspring), or Ibn Ezra on science (about the number of children one can have at a time).

kol tuv,

Yosef Greenberg said...

"defined as the methodology of a particular Israeli seminary for post-high school students"

I wonder how this got into this discussion.

"I would rather conclude that of course different Rishonim inject their own culture and their own personality into the text."

Well, you and I do too, for that matter. I think it is nearly impossible to detach it completely.

What was Miriam, or Devorah el at?

"On the other hand, what about arguing on *values* seemingly put forth from Chazal?"

Oh, the love of certain subjects. :)

joshwaxman said...

"I wonder how this got into this discussion."

it was rather orthogonal to the post, whose purpose was to contrast different approaches to Sarah's prophecy, but since someone did not like a particular approach, and considered it heretical, i thought it would be nice to point out along the way an instance in which a Rishon says something that almost everyone would consider worthy of contradiction.

"Well, you and I do too, for that matter."

"What was Miriam, or Devorah el at?"
indeed. also Chulda. i would guess that ibn caspi would be forced to admit in these instances, though i haven't seen inside what he says. here he is on Behaalotecha, where he certainly acknowledges Miriam as a prophetess, though (given the context, her and Aharon) on a much lower level of Nevuah. maybe this would be his resolution? i don't know.

"Oh, the love of certain subjects"

Shlomo said...

If it's dishonorable for God to talk to women, it certainly must be dishonorable for God to listen to women talk! So much for davening, then.


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