[Avodah] Women Without Names
Jay F Shachter
jay at m5.chicago.il.us
Thu Mar 14 14:30:57 PDT 2013
[RYS writes me that he is trying to launch a serious discussion of a
sociological question. This makes this post a test case for where the
line between Avodah and Areivim ought to be. On the one hand "serious
discussion" indicates Avodah; OTOH, it's not actual Torah discussion. I
am therefore complying with his request to post it here, and will keep
an eye our while moderating.
Recently, on our sister mailing list Areivim, a would-be wit posted an
article stating that, in the spirit of the recent trend among frum Jews
to omit the names of married women on wedding invitations, the Scroll
of Esther would from now on be referred to as the "Scroll of Mordechai's
niece" (I am not making this up; that is what he wrote), or the "Scroll
of Mordechai's wife".
His intent was to point out, with as much wit as he could summon for the
occasion, that the subpopulation among us whom we call the "frum" (and
spare us the rejoinders that that isn't really what the word means; the
choice of name doesn't matter) is crazy, and that they are getting more
crazy all the time, and that if present trends continue, soon they won't
even be able to bear calling the scroll of Esther the scroll of Esther.
I do not think his point is well made, for two reasons.
First of all, I agree that Jews are crazy, but I am not sure -- and, in
fact, am inclined to disagree -- that Jews this year are more crazy-frum
than they were last year, or a generation ago. They are crazy in different
ways. When things change, often you notice some changes, and do not notice
others, and then you think you discern a pattern, when in fact you are
looking at random data, and there is no pattern. Unquestionably there
are some frum things that Jews are doing today that they never used to
do before, xadashim miqqarov ba'u, lo s`arum avotham. But the reverse
is also true. Since the would-be wit who started this discussion has
posted numerous other articles not only defending, but also extolling,
the authentic customs of the German Jews, let us point out that there
are certain frum things that German Jews used to do, like washing their
hands before every course in a meal, that even have a basis in halakha,
that no one does any more, but you don't notice that nobody is doing
them any more. Come to think of it, maybe there is systematic error in
the trends that people misperceive in random data, in that people are
more likely to notice a presence (e.g., when people do something they
never used to do) than an absence (e.g., when people don't do something
they used to do). It takes a rare mind to observe the curious incident
of the dog in the nighttime.
And if you go back several hundred years before that, you will find
among the German Jews really bizarre practices of self-mortification,
asceticism, affliction of the flesh, that were recommended by several
of their rabbis as a necessary component of the teshuvah process,
and which have disappeared totally from Judaism. Disappeared totally,
and good riddance, because, you know, my horse also sleeps only two
hours in every twenty-four, standing up, and eats nothing but oats,
and rolls around naked in the snow, and still, er bleibt a ferd.
Some things sound better in Yiddish.
Second of all, even if, arguendo, frum Jews are crazier this year than
they were last year, I do not think that the example chosen to illustrate
this phenomenon -- i.e., the practice of rendering married women nameless
-- is a good example. We all agree that the crazy-frum are the ones
among us who are the most vigilant about not being influenced by the
goyim, whereas epikursim like us are the least vigilant about not being
influenced by the goyim. (Anyone who knows the correct pronunciation
of "epikuros" is ipso facto an epikuros, since one of the defining
criteria of not being an epikuros is that you do not know the correct
pronunciation of epikuros. Question: does that mean that if you know
the correct pronunciation of epitropos, you are one? Tzarikh `iyyun.)
Not only are we the least vigilant about not being influenced by the
goyim, but also, there are some goyishe influences that we actively
embrace; there are things in our lives -- like, e.g., indoor plumbing --
that we have learned to value, not from our holy ancestors in the old
country, but from the goyim who surround us (true fact: Maimonides had to
write a responsum -- I've read it -- defending his recommendation of how
often a Jew should bathe, in response to Ashkenazi criticism that he had
assimilated the pro-bathing values of the Arab goyim among whom he lived).
It is for this reason that, if Jews have started to disappear the names
of married women, it is not something that can, with any intellectual
honesty, be attributed to a growing hegemony of the crazy-frum, because
disappearing the names of married women is what the goyim do.
For over a decade, I have been an editor of the Likutei Pshatim, which is
produced weekly by the yeshiva in Skokie, Illinois. It is an unpaid job,
and (except once a year on Rosh HaShana) an uncredited one, but that is
okay, honest poverty and a conscience torpid through virtuous inaction are
more to me than corner lots and praise. Before my arrival, the articles
in the weekly Likutei Pshatim appeared to be written by people who studied
the Torah with no commentary other than Rashi, and were also ignorant of
vast areas of general scientific knowledge. Over the years, disciplined
by the tradition of my blood to accept what is conceded, without undue
haste to press for more, through the stored force of a patience that
might subdue the strongest will, I have made steady progress. Today,
the weekly articles no longer revile scientists for believing that
carbon dating proves that the world is 4 billion years old, since no
scientist believes that carbon dating proves that anything is more than
50,000 years old, and they no longer assert that every man executed by
stoning is subsequently hanged in public, because that is a da`ath yaxid
and is not the halakha, despite what Rashi wrongly says in his comment to
Deuteronomy 21:22, and they no longer cite verses to Sefer Bamidbar, since
that is moronic, as we do not speak of Sefer Sheymos, or Sefer Mshalim,
or Parashas Axarey Mavves, and they no longer assert that Eliezer was the
unnamed servant of Avraham who went to get a wife for Yitzxaq (although --
hold your fire -- they do state that the Midrash identifies the two).
The Likutei Pshatim brings in money to the Skokie yeshiva by means of
paid advertisements in the back, and there, too, I am gratified to report
that steady progress has been made. Not counting mistakes that still
occasionally slip through, synagogs that advertise in the Likutei Pshatim
no longer state that there will be three meals after Minxa on Saturday
afternoon, since that is idiotic, and they no longer announce events
that will coincide with the sun's hawk, since that is equally idiotic.
They no longer announce events for "Shabbos" HaGadol, because that is
ignorant, and bar-mitzva boys and newly-married couples are no longer
wished "mazel" tov.
But one thing that I have been utterly unable to do, one change that
I have been utterly unable to effect, is to get the editor-in-chief
of the Likutei Pshatim to realize that the title "Mrs" is never
properly followed by a woman's first name, but that, rather, it can
only be properly followed by the name of her current or former husband.
Over and over again, I say it in vain (that one sounds better in French:
j'ai beau dire). It makes no difference. Lately I have stopped saying
it, I have stopped trying, because it is like banging your head against
a brick wall.
(Parenthetically, has anyone other than myself noticed that the commonest
arguments in the popular literature in favor of the laws of nidda can
also be applied with equal logic in favor of banging your head against
a brick wall? When you bang your head against a brick wall, it feels
really good when you stop. You will always remember, and think fondly
of, that special moment, when you stopped banging your head against the
brick wall. The relevant question, of course, is whether the hedonic
value of ceasing to bang your head against a brick wall exceeds the
anhedonic value of banging your head against a brick wall, but that
question is never answered, or even raised. This is not apropos of
anything we have been discussing, it's just something that came to me,
as I was writing. We now return to the previous topic.)
Here is a paid advertisement that appeared in last week's Likutei Pshatim:
This Sunday evening, March 3rd! You may have been lucky enough
to hear her at a convention and now you can hear her in Chicago!
The Women's Division of Chicago Community Kollel invites you to a
lecture entitled "Eishes Chayil: Fact or Fiction" by renowned speaker,
Mrs. Chani Juravel, at 8:00 P.M., at the home of Mrs. Elana Davis,
6250 North St. Louis. Hope to see you there!
When, the Wednesday before publication, I came across this advertisement,
I didn't even try to correct it. To try to convince these Orthodox Jews
that the use of "Mrs" with a woman's first name is ignorant and improper,
is utterly futile. It is like banging your head against a brick wall
(sorry for that parenthesized digression, a little earlier). It cannot
But if they were Gentiles, they would have known that. Goyim know that
you can be Emily Post, or you can be Mrs Edwin Post, but you can never,
never, be Mrs Emily Post. "Mrs" means "the mistress of" and you can be
the mistress of Edwin Post, but you cannot be the mistress of Emily Post,
not in Illinois anyway, at least not yet. It is a title conferred on
you by your husband, whom you acknowledge if you choose to use it.
So it is absolutely false to say that the disappearing of married women's
names is characteristic solely of the crazy frum. On the contrary: it is
more characteristic of the assimilated Jews, than of the nonassimilated
Jews. When I was in 7th grade, the one bat-mitzva invitation from the
girl who was going to celebrate her bat-mitzva in a Conservative synagog,
and read the Torah herself, was the one that purported to come from "Mr
and Mrs Mervin James Hartman". After all these years, I still remember
it, because, at the time, it stuck in my mind, because it looked so weird.
Among us Wynnefield Jews, children of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, who
knew about such things? Only the ones who went to college in the United
States, who spoke English without an accent, the ones who were the best
integrated and most absorbed into the larger society around us -- i.e.,
the ones who did things the way the goyim do.
Having said all the above, we must nevertheless also point out that
failing to give women names is not just an imitation of the goyim.
It is also imitatio Dei. In the Bible -- and especially in the Torah
-- there are many, many more men's names than women's names. But let's
first make a more fundamental observation, on the reason why people need
names at all. It is the same reason why memory locations or data types
need names in a computer program: because you want to refer to them in
more than one place. If you want to refer to them only in one place,
they can be anonymous.
Consider the following narrative:
I have a neighbor, who lives 3 houses North of me. He has two sons
and three daughters, and he owns a bakery. His name is Shlomo Pippik.
I have another neighbor, who lives 2 houses South of me. He has four
sons and five daughters, and he spends his days collecting jewels,
chiefly rubies, hunting big game, and painting. His name is Humphrey
Chimpden Earwicker. One day last week, Shlomo Pippik smeared his
body with chives and jumped into the reservoir. He was heroically
rescued by Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker.
If the above narrative had ended with the word "bakery", no names would
have been necessary. Pronouns would have been sufficient to establish
identity. It is only because of the intervening sentences that Shlomo
Pippik's name is necessary in the 2nd-to-last sentence. Moreover, if the
above narrative had ended with the 2nd-to-last sentence, after the word
"reservoir", then the name Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker would have been
unnecessary, and you would wonder why it is there.
There are many names in the Bible that are apparently unnecessary.
Why do we need to be told the names of Moshe's children? They never
amounted to anything. Well, you can say that we need to know the older
son's name to prepare us for the drash on Judges 18:30, involving that
weird nun that is raised above the baseline. But why do we need to know
the name of the younger son? He is mentioned once, and never mentioned
again. We can look for a reason -- indeed, presumably there is a reason,
because this is Torah, it is not an Areivim post, so we assume that it
was written with some thought. For example, in the case of Exodus 18:4,
you can say that God wanted to show us Moshe's state of mind when he
named him, (assuming that Moshe was the one who named him, which the
Torah implies but does not explicitly state, and there is an interesting
Midrash Leqax Tov on that). There are many names, however, not only
in the Torah but throughout the Bible, that appear to be unnecessary,
and for which our Sages do not even seek an explanation.
But only men's names are treated this way. Women's names are rare to
begin with, and whenever Scripture contains a woman's name that appears
to be unnecessary, there is always a midrash that attempts to give the
reason why -- e.g., Genesis 4:22 (she must have been Noax's wife), Genesis
11:29 (she must have been Sarai -- which is, by the way, preposterous,
if Avram was older than Haran). It is as if the default state of women
is to be nameless, and when a woman is named without a clear reason why,
the Sages must explain it. Men's names are not so treated, because
they're men, and men, you know, have names.
Jay F. ("Yaakov") Shachter
jay at m5.chicago.il.us
"The umbrella of the gardener's aunt is in the house"
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