Does The Talmud Give A %$^# About Me?

If only I could make myself small enough to fit into the margins of the Talmud’s dense pages, like Rashi and Tosfot, shrunken into abbreviations that explain the words and ideas and fill in the blanks.

If only it didn’t bother me to read your assumptions in Aramaic, as I gradually decode your language but still struggle to decipher what you mean when you speak about Woman.

Tell me more about my physiology, my experience, my role in this mass of ink-blotted pages where you have marked your territory, delineated the boundaries I am not supposed to cross- a Rorschach Test revealing my own inadequacies, or attesting to the shortcomings in your judgments.

Tell me about my role and why you’ve never had to consider yours.

Tell me about how it’s all okay because I’m special and spiritual because I am Woman, I am Vessel, and I reap my heavenly rewards from feeding you bread with a portion dutifully removed, while you feed me apologetics and assume they will satiate me and that my frustrations are a product of too much Blu Greenberg literacy and Barnard pride.

Tell me I can’t be angry because look at the women in China, look at the women in 400 CE Babylonia, look at the women in secular America and tell me how any of that is relevant to my quest. Tell me I can’t be angry because after all, we all know I’m just learning Talmud to piss people off. (Do you really believe that?)

Tell me I’m being difficult when I groan in exasperation as you teach me about unilateral marriage and divorce and my worth based on my virginity based on mistaken notions of my biology. Ignore the fact that if I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be struggling like this. Consider that this Torah is a love that feels disappointingly unrequited. Recognize that I am groping for an entry point into an abundant world of tradition that seems to shut me out, that mentions my presence as a matter of happenstance. Look up from your daf yomi and into my eyes.

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Yes, I am angry. I am burning with an indignance that swells up to my cheeks, the way I felt when I was five and couldn’t keep up with Anim Zemirot in Shabbat services because I couldn’t say the words fast enough and did not know what to do but run home from synagogue without telling my mom. I am angry that nobody stopped me and told me to stay and take my time to learn. To remember that there is space here for me too.

What I really want is this:

Ask me about how the Talmud sets me on fire- how it sparks my radical amazement, irks me deliciously, keeps me hooked through pages of tedious sacrificial description. How it sometimes betrays me no matter how loyal I am. How it doesn’t offer answers where I need them, no matter how thoroughly I search the Jastrow dictionary.

See me for more than my resentment. See me holding a Tractate Sotah and ask me about what I’m learning, and how I’m digesting the Talmud’s bitter waters. Tell me my qualms are justified. Tell me about your journey. Tell me to keep scraping steadfastly through the pages and to consider the many voices in the text and where mine fits.

Tell me to use all my lenses, to never wish away my “twenty-first century, feminist, Democrat” sensibilities, however challenging. Tell me that I’m richer for my complexity, even if a page of text cannot house it comfortably. Reassure me the words will make room, and even if they don’t, that cognitive dissonance can be a dwelling place. Tell me to live in the tension. Tell me to get as angry as I need to, and to keep on learning. Let me know you’ll struggle by my side.

[This is dedicated to the inspiring educators, formal and informal, I’ve had the zechut (merit) to learn from, who have challenged, validated, and supported me, and continue to do so.]

image by Nechama Golan, “You Shall Go In Good Ways”