The Midrash as Marriage Guide

By Ido Hevroni

How the rabbis counseled communication between husband and wife.

The story alternately zooms in and out, from an external description of the couple seeking a divorce into their internal world, and when it is revealed—notably, at midnight, that enchanted time of miracles from as far back as the exodus from Egypt—back out again to their return to the rabbi, thus completing the story’s circle. While the narrator does not reveal what transpired during this second conversation, from the couple’s subsequent actions and the rabbi’s response we may surmise that this time, they did not seek a divorce. Thus was R. Shimon bar Yohai able to pray for them: Once the husband and wife had broken down the barrier between them, so, too, could the rabbi break down Heaven’s barrier and enable them to have children.
Some modern commentators have seen this as depicting an act of protest against the inhumanity of the halachic norm. But a more plausible reading is that it is not the halachic norm that is holding the couple back, but rather their attitude toward the marriage. Indeed, the couple’s behavior throughout the story demonstrates that it was not really divorce they had wanted, but instead to conform with the expectations of the rabbinic and legal norms as they understood them. Thus is the only description of their ten years of marriage stated in a noticeably laconic manner: She “lived with her husband for ten years but did not have a child”—showing that the halachic framework for their union had become the sole content of their life together. Fulfilling the commandment to have children had come at the expense of their personal and emotional world. Thus, by requiring them to reenact their wedding feast, the rabbi uses his own authority to let them re-experience the first moments of their union. This time, however, they would be free of obstructive thoughts about the demands of halacha, since, officially, it was to be their last meal together. Now unencumbered by the external dictates that they had internalized, the couple’s love for each other is renewed. The husband makes his generous offer, and the wife responds by explaining that what she wants is him, and not the trappings of an ideal marriage in accordance with legal norms.
Significantly, the husband and wife in this story both take up roles contrary to the traditional ones: Whereas it is normally the man who takes the woman, and she who gives herself to him, here it is he who is giving of himself, and she who takes him as a husband.7 By overturning these norms, the narrator reveals their true meaning: The goal of a marriage is not the taking of the other as a piece of property, but the desire for him as a person and not as an object.
Seen this way, the wife’s infertility may even be read as a divine response to a malfunctioning marriage. Indeed, elsewhere in the same midrash, the rabbis identify the infertility of wives as stemming from God’s desire for their prayers. “[God] said to them: My dear, I will tell you why I made you infertile. Because I am desirous of listening to your prayers.”8
It appears, then, that in certain cases, God believes it necessary to disrupt a woman’s natural reproductive cycle, and demand that she distill her desire for offspring into an understanding of the meaning of the institution of marriage and having children itself. This is true of the case of the couple from Sidon: God waits to grant them children until they have broken free of the self-imposed restrictions of halachic norms so as to truly appreciate the real meaning of being married and having children.
Our second story appears at the end of a collection of similarly structured tales appearing in the talmudic tractate Nedarim. All include a description of a husband who exerts his authority over his wife—with halachic backing—and renders the continuation of married life contingent on his wife’s execution of an almost impossible task.
A son of Babylon went to the land of Israel, and took a wife. He said to her: “Cook me a couple of lentils.” She cooked him two lentils. He was angry with her.
The next day, he said to her: “Cook me a se’a [of lentils].” She cooked him a se’a [of lentils]. He said to her: “Go and bring me two botzinei (either pumpkins or oil lamps).” She brought him two oil lamps. He said to her: “Go and break them against the head of the baba (gate).”
Baba ben Buta was sitting at the city gate and giving judgment. She went and broke them on his head. He said to her: “What have you done?”
She said to him: “What my husband bade me do.”
He said: “Because you did your husband’s bidding, God will give you two sons like Baba ben Buta.”9
Four times, the husband sends his wife on missions that are not entirely clear, and four times she fails. First, he asks her to cook him “a couple of lentils.” She takes him literally, and cooks him precisely two, leaving him hungry and angry. The next day, he deliberately overstates the request, asking for a se’a, or about fourteen liters, of lentils. Once again his wife takes him at his word, and cooks an absurd amountprobably at considerable cost to the family. The third time, the husband tries to vary the menu and asks for pumpkins, but gets oil lampsthe other meaning of botzineiinstead. Finally, when he asks his wife to get rid of the unwanted lamps by throwing them against the gate of the house, she hurries off to the city gate and throws them against the befuddled brow of a most learned sage, Baba ben Buta, shaming her husband’s name in public.
On the face of it, our story appears to be a classic narrative of marital oppression, of the power men may wield unthinkingly and unimpeded at women’s expense. In this reading, the wife of our story is little more than a punching bag, knocked about by a tyrannical husband, on the one hand, and a representative of the male-halachic establishment, on the other. Indeed, Baba ben Buta, instead of giving her shelter until the husband’s anger subsides, sends her home to preserve the husband’s honor. The only difference between the rabbi and the husband, it would seem at first glance, lies in the extent of their extremism: Whereas the husband cannot find anything positive in his wife’s behavior, Baba ben Buta recognizes that for all her mistakes, her intentions were pure—to do her husband’s bidding. Thus, in the way of every proper wife, her obedience earns her the ultimate prize: Two righteous children.
It is possible, however, to propose an alternate reading of this story, according to which the wife is highly assertive and refuses to conduct her life according to the extreme dictates of her husband. At first glance, this reading may appear anachronistic, especially to someone who is mired in the concept of the oppressed status of the wife normally attributed to the sages. Yet such a reading actually reveals a higher literary sensitivity than that of its predecessor.10 Whereas the previous reading rests of necessity on the assumption that it is about a particularly witless woman, this reading highlights the striking illogicality of her acts, revealed in her first error and snowballing as the story proceeds. For what wife, after all, would imagine that her husband would be satisfied by eating two lentils? Accordingly, this reading leads us to the conclusion that the story’s heroine is a kind of proto-feminist waging a war of self-liberation against the marriage norms of the period. Instead of carrying out her husband’s demands in just the way he wants, she provides us with a feminine parody of the extreme phallocentrism of the Babylonian male. This also helps us to understand the wife’s vicious attack on the rabbi sitting in judgment as throwing down the gauntlet to the entire male establishment, and especially to the sages who provide him with halachic backing.
This reading, which supposes that the wife is rebelling against her husband, nonetheless finds it difficult to explain Baba ben Buta’s conclusion that “you have done your husband’s bidding,” but it could be argued that this is a kind of gentle hint from a judge, trying to steer a wife who has gone off course back to the desired track—that is, doing the will of her husband and bringing up God-fearing children.Thus, even if this reading supports the character of the wife, when all is said and done, the end of the story is still intended to rein in Jewish wives in general. The purpose is clearly not to urge them on in their development of independence, and the entire story may be seen as offering the reader a kind of warning against straying from the proper course.
We may offer a third reading, however, one that does not accept the first interpretation, but neither does it seek merely to place a feminist reading in its stead. It is similar to the second in that it sees the wife as an active and creative subject, but differs from it in its understanding of what motivates her behavior. Whereas in the previous reading the motive was the battle of the sexes, this reading will identify the wife’s objective as a struggle for dialogue, an effort to bridge the gap between two widely disparate emotional worlds, and an attempt to break down the walls of social norms. Finally, the rabbi, in this reading, actually cooperateswith the wife, encouraging her by behaving as he does.

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