This parshah contains the account of Jacob’s marriages to Leah and Rachel, (who happen to be his cousins) as well as the birth of his 11 sons and one daughter. It describes the long amounts of time Jacob worked for Laban in order to marry Laban’s daughters, and recounts the trickery of Laban giving first Leah, the older daughter to Jacob, before allowing Jacob to marry who he wanted to, Rachel.
Like the relationship between Hagar and Sarah, there is animosity between Leah and Rachel over Jacob’s love as well as the ability to bear children. This animosity spreads to the maids of Leah and Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah respectively, as they are used by the sisters to conceive children on their behalf. One can see also this animosity in how Leah and Rachel name their sons. Yet, the parshah also contains two aspects that seem at odds with such a patriarchal perspective. First, there are five named women who play key roles in the goings-on. Second, Rachel is an active agent.
The five women in this parshah are Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, Bilhah, and Dinah. With the exception of Dinah, these women are central to the story, even if it is only their ability to have children, particularly sons, that is highlighted. Their male children become the twelve tribes of Israel (once Benjamin is born). Yet, even if their presence is predominantly marked by polygamy and sexual relations with Jacob, they are the ones who name their sons and thoughtfully, if spitefully, charge those names with meaning.
Now, Rachel’s character is more developed than the rest of the women in this parshah. Rachel is a shepherdess. She has responsibilities directly tied to the success and prosperity of the family as wealth was often understood to be found in the size of one’s herds. Being a shepherdess seems commonplace as little fuss is made about it in the text.
The other active aspect of the portrayal of Rachel involves her stealing her father’s gods. In fact, she does so behind Jacob’s back. So, when Laban confronts him about it, Jacob calmly offers Laban the opportunity to search everything he owns to look for them and threatens to kill whosoever is found with them. As Laban is going through the other tents, Rachel takes the household gods out of her tent and puts them in her saddle bags. Cleverly, she then sits on the camel. When her father comes to search the camel and its cargo, Rachel declares that he cannot because she is menstruating.
Why can’t he? In the ancient world, menstruation was taboo. Menstruating women were deemed dirty, polluting and often dangerous because their menstrual blood was understood to be such. In other words, the ancient world feared what was seemingly uncontrollable.
As a product of the ancient worldview, the Torah continued such a tradition beginning with Leviticus 15. The chapter starts with a lengthy discussion about the required separation of men who have ejaculated or have a discharge coming from their penis. They are deemed unclean until certain steps are followed to ameliorate such a status. The chapter continues with menstruating woman and it mirrors almost word-for-word what the section on men’s emissions says.
However, nowadays, Jewish men do not practice such separation. Women do. It is called niddah. Modern forms of niddah have these ancient and biblical roots. Even Rachel practiced some form of it, so clearly it predated the temple and survived its destruction. Some Jewish sources suggest niddah continued because the Torah says menstrual blood is more polluting than semen. I don’t see an argument there.
I also don’t see one regarding men’s separation deemed no longer applicable because of the destruction of the temple. According to many Jewish sources, ritual purity for men was linked to temple purification requirements. Without a temple, men’s separation was no longer required whereas women’s separation seemed necessary whether or not the temple stood.
I read an interesting article the other day by Rita Gross entitled “The Suffering of Sexism: Buddhist Perspectives and Experiences.” In the article, she discusses gender in a way I had not thought of before. Gross writes, “… much of the discourse on gender is still about what women would have to do to gain true equality and full representation in the broad range of important human activities. One rarely hears discussions of how men are remiss in not stepping out of their conventional gender roles or of what they could do to improve human flourishing,” (76). Think about it. What if men worked toward human and planetary liberation by doing more tasks traditionally associated with women. In the context of Buddhism, she questions why more men won’t wear skirts, and why more aren’t willing to participate in childcare. Both of these are, by social construct, more associated with females. Yet, as she reminds the reader, women have had little problem wearing pants or taking on employment outside the home. Both of which have traditionally been associated with men. Gross believes that, “… men’s unwillingness to take on things quintessentially associated with women—skirts and babies—forcefully demonstrates the depths of sexism and misogyny we still endure. Being a woman is so despised that men just can’t bring themselves to do things that are so much associated with women.” (77).
We could say similar things about traditional Jewish concepts of manhood. Skirts aside, which we would be hard-pressed to find some Jewish men wearing, men do not practice separation on account of their own bodily emissions even though Leviticus 15 also requires it of them. Perhaps like Gross says,”…being a woman is so despised that men just can’t bring themselves to do things that are so much associated with women.”
Unlike Buddhism, Judaism actually has parallel traditions for men and women. It is just that men have found their tradition “no longer applicable,” probably because they realized the burden of such practices. What if men practiced separation for seminal emissions as women do for menstruation? Even if for just a month? Then we could have a real discussion about what separation means, how it continues ancient prejudices toward bodies as sources of impurity and uncleanliness, and why the onus of the practice still falls on women.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.