What Happens When Our Heroines Fail Us?

One of the great disappointments of this summer has been finding out, with the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, that To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch was not such a nice guy after all. Even if he was as handsome as Gregory Peck, he was not quite as attractive on the inside as we thought he was when we read his closing remarks to the jury during Tom Robinson’s trial. This has led to many heart-wrenching essays about how our heroes always fail us in the end.

Jewish history also has its fair share of heroes and heroines. One of the outstanding figures in the Talmud, a book that unfortunately is short on heroines, is Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. In the Jewish imagination, he is forever linked in the struggle with Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus in the dispute about the tanur shel achnai, a specialized oven. Their halakhic argument over the purity of this oven – Rabbi Eliezer considered it pure and Rabbi Yehoshua deemed it impure – escalated into a confrontation of epic proportions. When Rabbi Eliezer failed to persuade his colleagues of his position, he invoked three miracles to prove his point: an uprooting carob tree, a stream that flowed uphill and collapsing walls of the Beit Midrash, study hall. Rabbi Yehoshua refused to budge and defiantly rejected all of Rabbi Eliezer’s proofs. As the assembled crowd cowered beneath a roof that was about to fall on their heads, Rabbi Yehoshua ignored a divine voice saying that Rabbi Eliezer was right and uttered the famous phrase, Lo ba’shamaym hi, the Torah is not in heaven. At once, Rabbi Yehoshua was transformed into a liberal hero, ready to challenge authority. He became the humanist scholar, one who welcomed the contribution of all his colleagues into the study and development of the halakha, Jewish law.

One would think that Rabbi Yehoshua would be a Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) favorite. Not so fast. The Talmud tractate Ketubot focuses on the laws surrounding the marriage contract and the financial obligations it creates for husbands to their wives. The amount due the wife if the marriage ended in divorce or death of the husband was contingent upon her being a virgin at the time of the marriage. In the first chapter, there are a series of mishnayot, or passages in the Mishnah, that address different circumstances in which there is uncertainty about the virginity of the woman. The wife asserts that she should receive the full amount of the ketubah, or marriage contract(200 zuz) while the husband claims that she was not a virgin and is only obligated to pay her half that amount. Rabban Gamliel accepts the wife’s assertion or testimony from a single witness about her status and requires the husband to pay the full amount. Surprisingly Rabbi Yehoshua argues in every case and dismisses the woman’s claim. He follows the money. Since the husband is in possession of the money and a decision by the court would be required to enforce payment of the full ketubah to the wife, he adopts the legal principle that money stays where it is until there is incontrovertible proof that it should be transferred. Rabbi Yehoshua demands standard legal testimony from two valid witnesses about the woman’s virginity before accepting her claim to full payment of the ketubah. He is no friend of women here. Rabban Gamliel’s lenient position is especially surprising because he is usually depicted as a demanding leader, one who tolerates no breach in his authority. In fact, Rabban Gamliel’s legal positions are generally supportive of women in contrast to his authoritarian image.

What happened to our liberal hero? We will never know because the only place we can speak with him is on the pages of the Talmud. There are many other incredible stories in the Gemara that depict Rabbi Yehoshua as an inspiring figure who had the courage to confront the powers that be, Rabban Gamliel in particular, and win the support of his peers. But in this case, when it came to defending the integrity of women, he disappoints.  

What does this say about heroes and heroines? We pick them because we admire who they are and what they stand for. We are inspired by their willingness to stand up for their principles even under the most difficult of circumstances. But we forget that heroes are complicated people. Real heroines will be fully engaged with the world and, as such, will be multidimensional individuals. They are likely to have some internal conflicts and weaknesses. But because they weigh in on the full scope of human life, we may not abide by all of their opinions and respect all of their actions.

There is another relatively obscure Talmudic figure who one could imagine saw JOFA in the Jewish future. Rabbi Zecharia ben Hakatzav is mentioned only a few times in the Talmud. But on every occasion, it is to speak up on behalf of women and to advance their legal status. In the same opening chapter in Tractate Ketubot, Rabbi Zecharia ben Hakatzav speaks in defense of women who were captured in war and asserts that they are still virgins. As proof he claims, in one of the only truly romantic moments in the Talmud that I know of, that of course the women’s claims of virginity should be believed. He never left his wife’s side and stood by her through thick and thin. How could it be otherwise for all Jewish women? Their husbands must also have been protecting them from harm, and the women’s claims about what happened during captivity should be believed. In the tractate Bava Batra, the eighth chapter deals with the laws of inheritance. Rabbi Zecharia ben Hakatzav is the sole proponent of the position that daughters should inherit along with sons. His arguments were persuasive and from the discussion in the Gemara they seemed to be getting a foothold among the Rabbis. However, ultimately the powers that be squashed his opinion without refutation.

Why don’t we know more about this man, and why isn’t he cited prominently in the literature about expanding the role of women in Orthodoxy? I suggest that because we do not know him very well, we are reluctant to embrace him as a hero. I imagine, that like Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, he also had strong ideas about everything, from politics to aesthetics. But since they were not recorded, we just do not know enough to be sure where he stood. He was a one-issue rabbi, admirable as his position on that problem might be to us. We intuitively know that our heroes and heroines need to be full-bodied and will be involved with the entire range of human activity. Sometimes their actions and opinions may surprise us or infuriate us or even embarrass us. Only people we are not so familiar with will meet all our expectations. Rabbi Yehoshua is a hero because he did stand tall in the beit midrash and was present to be counted on every issue. Rabbi Zecharia ben Hakatzav may have been a champion of women in his day. But he has come down in history as a one-dimensional figure, not big enough to be a hero.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, Avraham will become a central figure in our prayer. Avraham and Sarah are undoubtedly the heroic couple. But sometimes they disappoint – Avraham hides the identity of his wife and Sarah banishes Hagar to the wilderness with her son. Despite these human failings, we still recognize their greatness. We should be mindful of this when we take stock of our heroines. If they are large enough to merit the title, we should be big enough to know that on occasion they may let us down.

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