There are feminists who see the traditions of folklore and religion as being pro-male and intrinsically sexist. I feel like this is misguided. It is true that tradition, by its nature, is sometimes the last bastion of the past. Yet that past should not be totally rejected, or even largely so. I remember a long time ago reading a version of the Korean book, The Faithful Wife. It is a story about how a woman suffers rather than remarry. She is so sure that her husband is not dead that she will not allow herself to be coerced into “unfaithfulness.” Of course, it could be said that this is a virtue that men valued in women. More, it could be said that it existed in part to guarantee an heir for her husband. Yet to say this is to dismiss the real power of the story: it shows a woman of strength and valor, who is more faithful than men are themselves. It is as a Muslim woman said in the Middle East in a book I read, “Sometimes a woman has to be more of a man than a man.” Anyway, I have been reading the Sefer ha-Aggadah. There are parts of the Talmud that are very sexist. (The worst example is Rabbi Eliezer b. Hyrcanus who said, ““Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah teaches her tiflut,” tiflut meaning in this context, “lewdness.” He also said, “A women’s wisdom is her spindle.” Of course, he is only one rabbi; other rabbis are much more positive about women and their need to be educated. The same mishnaic verse includes another opinion, that of Ben Azzai (early second century C.E.): “One must teach his daughter Torah so that if she must drink [the water that tests her fidelity if she is a sotah—a suspected adulteress], she will know that the merit postpones her punishment.” Ben Azzai’s paradigm is that women should understand the commandments and their meanings. )
Yet in its stories it is sometimes very sympathetic to women. I personally reject the notion that Rabbi Akiba’s loyal wife (alternately named Serah or Rachel) is only a sexist trope. I believe her ability to see in her husband his talent when nobody else did–this is more than a woman celebrated for mere beauty or compliance with male wishes. However, I will cite this story another time. I began with the Korean “The Faithful Wife,” and I will post a similar tale from the Sefer ha-Aggadah about woman’s faithfulness in the face of man’s unfaithfulness:
There is the story of a young girl who was walking [one morning] to her father’s home. She was very beautiful, and her beauty was further enhanced by gold and silver ornaments. But she lost her way and wandered into uninhabited places. By midway she grew thirsty, for she had brought no water with her. At the sight of a well with a bucket rope hanging at its side, she took hold of the rope and lowered herself [into the well]. After she drank, she wished to go up but could not; so she wept and shouted for help.
A young man passing by heard her voice and stopped at the well. He looked down at her and asked, “Who are you, human or spirit?” She told him the whole story. The young man: “If I bring you up, will you be my wife?” She replied, “Yes,” and he pulled her up.
He wished to mate with her at once. But she asked him, “From what people do you come?” He replied, “I come from the people of Israel, from such-and-such a place, and I am a priest.” She said to him, “The Holy One chose you, hallowed you out of all Israel, yet now, without ketubah, without marriage rites, you would mate like an animal? Follow me to my father and mother, who are of such-and-such a family, eminent and a noble lineage in Israel, and I shall be betrothed to you.” So they pledged faithfulness to each other. When she asked, “But who will act as a witness?” a weasel happened to be passing by, so she said, “Let this weasel and this well act as our witnesses to our pledge.” Then he went his way and she went his.
Now, the girl remained true to her pledge, and when anyone came to seek her hand in marriage, she would turn him down. But after her family began pressing her [to accept someone], she proceeded to act like an epileptic, ripping up her own garments and the garments of anyone who touched her. Finally, people left her alone.
As for the young man, as soon as he came back to his city, he violated his pledge, wed another woman, and begot two sons. But one fell into a well and died and the other one died after being bit by a weasel. The young man’s wife asked him, “What is the cause of this, that both of our sons died unnatural deaths?” He told her, “Such-and-such a thing happened.” At that she demanded he divorce her, saying, “Go to the portion that the Holy One has given you.”
He went away and, inquiring about the girl in her city, was told, “She is epileptic, and anyone who wishes to wed her is treated in such-and-such a way.” The young man went to her father’s house, told him what happened, and declared, “I am willing to take her with any blemish she may have.” The father called witnesses [to attest the young man’s declaration]. When the young man went to see her, she began to act what had become her customary manner. So he reminded her of the incident with the weasel and the well.
Then she said, “Indeed I have been faithful to my pledge,” and immediately became her normal self. She married him, and the two were blessed with many children and possessions. To her apply the words, “My eyes are on those who are faithful in the Land,” (Psalms 101:6).
Though this may be seen as a model for feminine behavior it is more than that. It suggests the maxim: Women are more faithful than Men. Unlike Solomon’s claim in Ecclesiastes that there is only one good man in a thousand and not a single woman in a similar number, the claim here is that Woman by her chastity and faithfulness proves a better friend to Man than he is to her. Such stories should not be neglected in Judaism. Or by other people, either.