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Should a woman bow to her husband's opinion?

An Orthodox and a a Reform rabbi discuss issues of contemporary Jewish life

    QUESTION: In the book of Bereshit, God clearly tells Eve that Adam shall “rule over you”. So if a wife and a husband have different views about something, surely she should bow to his opinion?

    Rabbi Brawer: He shall rule over you” is only the second half of a long verse (Genesis 3:16) and its meaning hinges on the words that immediately precede it:  “And for your husband shall be your longing, and he shall rule over you.”

    The classic commentaries debate the precise meaning of this curse, but most agree that it is related to sexual desire and a woman’s innate delicacy that prevents her from openly demanding sexual pleasure from her husband. 

    Whether this is true today very much depends on one’s culture. I would be so bold as to suggest that today in most healthy marriages in western society, women are no less likely than men to articulate their needs, sexual or otherwise.

    Furthermore, the verse is stated as a fact of life, which may have been true for most of human history. It is not an imperative. Adam was not commanded to perpetuate the situation.

    In this sense it can be likened to another curse in the Bible relating to the descendants of Ham, who were cursed by Noah to be the lowliest of slaves (Genesis 9:25).

    There was a time when slave traders were able to justify as the will of God the horrific misery inflicted on those deemed to be the descendants of Ham. And yet the Bible, while condoning slavery, does not actively demand its perpetuation. You would be hard pressed to find any decent human being who would argue for slavery on the basis of Noah’s curse.

    Yet, when it comes to the relegation of women to inferior status, there are sadly those who still point to Eve’s curse for justification.

    I recall once officiating at a wedding where moments before walking down the aisle to the chupah, the groom indicated that he had something of extreme importance to ask me. I took him aside to discreetly find out what was troubling him. 

    “When do I step on her foot?” he asked me. “I’m sorry, ” I replied perplexed. “You know, I was told that it’s a minhag (a custom) to step on the bride’s foot under the chupah, so as to assert one’s male dominance, I just don’t know at what point in the ceremony I should do it.” The tenor of my response would have left this misguided young man in no doubt that trampling on his wife’s foot was inadvisable. 

    To my disappointment, he did it anyway.

    Naftali Brawer is chief executive of Spiritual Capital Foundation

    Rabbi Romain: In your particular case, it sounds like you have just had a disagreement, lost the argument and are now appealing for outside help. But if your point of view was not persuasive enough by itself, then maybe you should re-examine your position.

    More generally though, the quote from Genesis makes many Jews today shudder. Marriage is about partnership, not control. It is two people steering a path through life together and hopefully sharing the same values and goals. This can entail compromises by each of them at different stages, but they do so willingly.

    But if one person rules the other, it is a relationship not between equals but that of master and servant. That may once have been what marriage meant, but is no longer acceptable today.

    This raises an issue crucial to how Jewish tradition deals with difficult texts, whether it be this one or numerous others, such as those about stoning a rebellious child, barring a mamzer, or demanding an eye for an eye.

    One option is to assert that the Torah is the unchangeable word of God, but it is not what it seems and needs to be explained through the Oral Law that was whispered to Moses and eventually passed down to the rabbis. This then allows you to interpret it away into something more benign (eg the last text actually means an eye’s worth for an eye — not physical retribution but financial compensation).

    Another option is to say the text was written by humans inspired by God, and that some of the passages reflect the cultural norms of the time, such as marriage being polygamous and with the husband alone holding the power and the purse-strings.

    What was appropriate then is not the case today and there is no need to defend the indefensible. Rather than try to wiggle something half-palatable out of the wording, it is far better to admit it is historic and not for us anymore.

    Some commentators twist the text to claim that male ruling applies only  to synagogue, whereas the wife rules the home. But this is untrue of many homes, where there is often common responsibility for various tasks, while women take an equal role in Reform and Liberal synagogues, be it leyning, preaching or leading prayers.  Meanwhile, back at your house, try sharing rather than ruling.

    Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue 

    If you have a problem to put to our rabbis, please ring 020 7415 1676 or email editorial@thejc.com with details

    The book of Rabbi I Have A Problem is available to JC subscribers at £9.99, www.thejc.com/rabbibook

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