Sacred screams

One woman lives out her struggle against biblical tradition.

sacred screams 88.298 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
sacred screams 88.298
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
"Today, I take a vow before you to enter into the difficult, terrifying, violent, mesmerizing, and insulting world of the Tractate of Sotah… "For one week…I seek to read the tractate anew. I want to study…from the point at which my private world and the world of the creators of the tractate and its students meet so powerfully… This is a journey towards life and not against it. It is a journey in the name of passion, desire and freedom of will, instinct and creativity. The freedom to be. The freedom to ask questions and to question the limits and the decisions taken by the establishment. "It is a journey towards life and not against it. My children and my health are within the journey and outside the oath. During this week, I will speak with my children and see them. During this week, I will continue to care for my health." Folding the mimeographed sheet of paper from which she read her oath, Ruchama Weiss, educator and artist, smiled confidently and humbly at the dozens of people who had assembled earlier this week at the Daila Art Gallery on Rehov Shlomzion Hamalka downtown, to watch and encourage her. Combining deeply religious motivations, performance art, Jewish communal commitment and feminist protest, Weiss has taken a vow of near-silence, speaking only "words of Torah" with her children and subsisting on water and carob juice. During the week, she will live at Daila, a small art gallery and community center for progressive social groups, spending her days studying the controversial Talmudic tractate, Sotah. (See box) "I chose to study tractate Sotah because it symbolizes the entire discourse of women's freedom and sexuality in Jewish tradition," Weiss, a teacher of Talmud at HUC as well as a plastic and performance artist, told In Jerusalem. "I'm combining my two passions and building my own Beit Midrash [house of study] where I will study." And she herself, studying the tractate, alone or with passersby, will be both the subject and the object of the exhibit, both active and observed. Having completed her oath, Weiss changed into a white velour jump suit and took her place at one of the study-lecterns she had sculpted herself. Almost instinctively, a small group gathered around her, immediately engaging with her as they dove into the text. The crowd dispersed. Buses made their noisy way down the crowded street and passersby peeked in, observing the scene curiously and skeptically. Weiss smiled to invite them in, and then return to her studies. Sotah is a Talmudic tractate based on a biblical passage that defines the ritual to be performed when a man accuses his wife of adultery. The ritual, even if her husband has no proof, includes a series of public humiliations and degradations, culminating in the "trial by ordeal" in which a woman must drink bitter waters which will either cause her stomach to swell and her thigh to "fall away," or prove her innocence. Amplifying the biblical injunctions, the Talmud adds more violent elements to the idea. She has undertaken this project because, she said, "It's important for the entire community, men and women, religious and not religious, to study this and discuss these issues of women and sexuality in Judaism. "I'm curious as to why we have a special book just for the topic of Sotah. I think the sages were trying to say something about the freedom of women - that we don't have any. I want to see what happens when a women teaches this part of the Talmud." Visibly excited just before she took her vow of silence, Weiss told In Jerusalem that she was "very ready" for the event. "I have been grappling with the story of Sotah since I was a child and I have been planning this event for nearly a year. My anger has passed. In my physical and spiritual preparations, something inside me grew very strong. I have cried, I have suffered the pain, and now I am ready to reconcile. I am not here to condemn, but to speak for the oppression of women throughout the generations." She continued, "I am sad that our culture has included this - that Judaism, while it is so many things, has also been violent and has forbidden both men and women to go where their hearts have desired." She paused. "Maybe, in the same way that I have come to reconciliation, the men will ask forgiveness from me, and from all women." The opening ceremony and oath-taking were overseen by four rabbis: Dr. Yehoyada Amir, dean of the Israel Program at Hebrew Union College (HUC); Na'ama Kelman, dean of the American program at HUC; and Shlomo Fuchs and Tamar Duvdevani, both teachers at HUC. Weiss, said Amir, is trying to challenge the whole idea of the Sotah in Jewish tradition through this installation. "To put this issue on the stage is to ask ourselves what it means," he stated. "How do we confront these kinds of notions in Judaism that are certainly chauvinistic, certainly not egalitarian and certainly inferior to women?" The tractate of Sotah is preceded by discussion of abstinence, and Amir commented on the juxtaposition. "When I take an oath of abstinence, I am determining my own religious life, and all parts of my life will then follow from my own self-determination. But the Sotah is degraded, passive, objectified. When I take an oath, I declare my sovereignty over my life before my Creator. The Sotah's basic humanity is defiled. These are the opposite poles of existence." Calling the exhibit "wonderful and dramatic," Kelman said, "This is [Weiss's] act of protest and transformation, expiation and redemption from centuries of the oppression of women." The ceremony is even more meaningful, she added, because women were barred from studying these texts for centuries. Weiss's efforts have been supported by the Religious Action Center, HUC, and Beit Shmu'el, with in-kind support from Daila. Like the tractate itself, Weiss's acts are filled with symbolism and multi-layered meanings. For the week, she has sculpted a series of special study-lecterns for the exhibit, embossed with copies of the Biblical passages and with slices of mirrors, so the men and women who study the text will see both themselves and the text simultaneously. The oath of silence and abstinence are traditional ways in which Jews throughout the centuries have expressed their commitment to their faith and to religious study. The carob juice recalls the legend of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai who, after the destruction of the Second Temple, stayed in a cave for years, studying God's word. The white or black clothes she will wear throughout the week refer to passages in the Talmud regarding the clothes the alleged Sotah must wear. At the opening ceremony, the audience was composed largely of rabbinical and religious students and religious pluralism activists. Men or women who could be identified as "Orthodox" were strikingly absent. "I did not want to embarrass my Orthodox friends and colleagues," Weiss said, explaining that her vows and decisions were not in accordance with halachic (religious law) guidelines. But Orthodox women did have something to say on the matter. "The Sotah tractate is problematic," agreed Chana Kehat, the founder of Kolech, the Religious Women's Forum. "But you can't change it, you can't write a new tractate. It's part of our tradition." Yet Kehat maintained that a dialogue on female freedom and sexuality in Judaism is very significant. "It's important to open people's eyes and discuss these issues out loud," she said. Weiss and Daila have invited the public to join her in study, and throughout the week many different kinds of people came to participate in the learning. Others may stop by simply to watch and enjoy the artistic value of her project. But for those involved, Weiss's actions go far beyond art. "The [ceremony] of the Sotah is one of the most degrading ceremonies of Judaism," Kelman stated. "It's a public humiliation and today, Weiss is trying to reclaim the power of women's vitality and sexuality." Ruchama Weiss will be studying the Sotah Tractate at Daila, 4 Shlomzion Hamalka Street, through Sunday.