Learning and sharing the stories of various cultural traditions is integral to the formation of a community. The Jewish Studies Program pursued this vision by inviting Maggid Books editor and Talmud teacher Gila Fine to speak at Vassar on Nov. 17, when she discussed the ancient dichotomy between good and bad women in the story of Heruta.
Anticipating concerns about the contemporary relevance of a literary commentary on the story of Heruta, Fine began, “I teach Haggadah or Talmudic narrative. And one of the reasons why I particularly love Haggadah is that Haggadah is quite often surprising—it’s surprisingly relevant. The issues and concerns of the stories of the Talmud have remained pertinent to our day. It’s also surprisingly unorthodox in places. Scholars will claim that while in Halakhah, the legal passages of the Talmud, the rabbis have to be very unequivocal and authoritative because they are laying down the law, in the stories they go wild. They can afford to be playful. And so you often have stories that are quite unorthodox, so as to say subversive.”
The story describes Rabbi R. Hiyya b. Ashi’s troubled marital relations with his wife. They are unable to consummate until the wife masquerades herself as the prostitute Heruta and meets the rabbi in a garden on the outskirts of Babylon. Professor of Religion Ágnes Vetö explained, “The text we read together taught us that sexuality is one of the strongest, most basic human drives. In the story, we encountered an unhappy relationship, communication issues, repressed sexuality, a proactive woman and issues of depression and suicide. The unhappy ending certainly spells out one message very clearly: if we repress sexuality, it can devour us.”
The study of Haggadah points to a literature that campus discussions frequently overlook and ignore. Professor of Religion Marc Epstein suggested, “Within the humanities, student interest has been shrinking to a presentist focus: students are almost exclusively interested in what is hap- pening to them, now. Under such circumstances, it can be difficult to explain to students why they should care about texts written by Jews in what is now Iraq in the 6th century C.E.” Epstein argued for the importance of deep historical perspective, continuing, “I think the lecture demonstrated how Jews—as a diasporic, multi-ethnic, demographic minority that has been sometimes despised, occasionally persecuted, often misunderstood–have been grappling for thousands of years with questions of identity, race, gender, difference and oppression that are of concern to students today, and articulated in the platforms of movements like Black Lives Matter.”
Vetö agreed that the story will resonate with students, saying, “The [Jewish Studies] Program invited Fine because her interpretation of Talmudic texts resonates with the interests of our student body, and her presentation style invites her audience—whether students, faculty or community members—to accompany her on her quest of deciphering stories that turn out to have relevance for their lives—in spite of their antiquity. Everyone who came to listen to her had the satisfaction of becoming interpreters themselves.” Considering the issue of interpretation, Jewish studies major Olivia Zane ’19 corroborated, “My best friend is a physics major and often asks why I enjoy dissecting texts from thousands of years ago. I typically reply that I enjoy studying them because they are brand new. The Torah and other Jewish texts are living documents being reinterpreted and argued over everyday. Like all living documents, they have a profound effect on contemporary issues. We must read these texts closely to understand why communities affected by them behave the way they do. Currently, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities still subscribe to more traditional gender roles due to their readings of the text.”
The story ends when the rabbi returns home and the wife reveals to him that she had disguised herself as the prostitute Heruta by showing him a pomegranate from the garden. The rabbi punishes himself for attempting to commit adultery by sitting in a burning oven until he dies.
Over the course of the lecture, Fine discussed three different interpretations of the story of Heruta endorsed by scholars in the past. While classical commentators argued that the story described the renewal of sexual desire in elderly people, other scholars suggested that the story in its literary context represented the corruption of an illustrious man by a seductive woman. A third scholarly interpretation held that the story in its historical context reflected the hostility of Talmud writers to the rising popularity of Christian doctrine. Fine focused on the dichotomy between good and bad women—often referred to as the Madonna-whore paradigm—and encouraged audience members to think for themselves . Zane considered this range of interpretations, continuing, “I think communities and academic scholars have a duty to study these texts and derive more liberal and in this case feminist readings to challenge older elucidations that promote the kyriarchy. Only by opposing interpretations made by more conservative rabbis can more progressive ideas penetrate and affect Jewish communities and result in social and political change.”
Epstein appreciated Fine’s open, dialogical approach to discussing the text. He added, “Classical and formative Jewish texts and traditions are, as the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss put it, ‘good to think with’ about many matters of concern to Vassar students today.” An example of a contemporary topic that engages students is the treatment of queer lives in different countries around the world, including China. Wenxuan Guo ’20 reflected, “My worldview is constantly changing because the discussion of queer religions, sex, sexuality and gender was something very new to me as I’m from a very conservative background where there are so many social taboos. I’m sure in my country many old people never heard of the term ‘homosexuality’ throughout their lifetime because gender binary is well ingrained and cannot be challenged in any way. Therefore, I’m just extremely grateful and happy to be in this supportive community at Vassar which embraces diversity so much and helps me open my mind.”
Another discussion sparked by Fine’s lecture centered on the role that identity groups and identity studies play in students’ lives. Zane elaborated, “Coming from the South where there is a tiny Jewish population and attending Vassar, which is consistently voted one of the least religious schools in the country, it is really great to come together with other students who view Judaism and their Jewish identity as an important part of their life. I love the community and having spaces to discuss Jewish texts and wider culture.” Zane continued, “I would love to see more lectures like Gila Fine’s on campus that incorporate progressiveness and ancient texts. I think the Jewish Studies Program and the Vassar Jewish Union are doing a great job at showing that being religious does not equal being backwards.”
Vetö summarized, “This talk made me feel some hope that if we can demonstrate what we do in Jewish Studies, how we deal with Judaism’s formative and classical texts and traditions, students will realize what a fascinating microcosm this world is, and how, in so many ways, it reflects their own. There is certainly value in studying the contemporary world around us. But there is more than one entry point to understanding that world.” Describing Haggadah as a text that can spark thoughtful discussions, Vetö concluded, “There’s a reason that these stories have survived so long and are so important for the Jews. It is because the Jews are a part of humanity, and these stories are, more broadly, humanity’s stories.”