What Can be Done about these Canards?

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I asked a group of American Yeshiva boys who were our Shabbat guests how they would respond to the accusation by Israel Prize laureate Professor Alice Shalvi that in Jewish marriage the woman is the property of her husband. They reacted with consternation and chuckled, “What does she mean? It’s the opposite. The men are the property of their wives!”

Alice Shalvi, professor of English literature and Shakespeare scholar, detracts from her signal achievements which earned her the Prize on Yom Atzmaut (Jerusalem Post “A woman’s work,” April 20) when she allows herself to hold forth on Halacha and Jewish law. Some of her painfully erroneous statements are particularly egregious.

(1) Professor Shalvi objects to the use of the word “ba’al” for husband, saying:

“Well, “ba’al” means owner. A lot of women who use the term don’t realize that if the husband’s the ba’al, the wife is his property. In fact, the whole marriage ceremony is one of purchasing the wife.”

As Professor Arye Frimer has pointed out, this is a total misrepresentation of the Jewish ceremony and reflects a misunderstanding of Jewish legal terms such as kinyan. In the marriage ceremony the groom acquires rights, responsibilities and obligations vis-à-vis the bride. This is always by consent and is a quid pro quo, since the wife also has rights, responsibilities, and obligations with respect to the husband.

Think Pirkey Avot. Kne lecha haver – this also invokes “kinyan” but means “acquire a friend” – this is not the purchasing of a friend (although you may need to spend money to help gain a friend) and obviously the friend does not become your property. Another example from Pirkey Avot, “In 49 ways Torah knowledge is niknet” – the last word being a form of the term kinyan but again means “acquired, gained.” Thus, even though a form of the word kinyan is used in the Talmud with reference to marriage, it no more means (a la Shalvi) “purchasing the wife” than does the term mean in Pirkey Avot “purchasing a friend” or “purchasing Torah knowledge.” To emphasize that this is not a sale, the rabbis use the term mekudeshet, dedicated or consecrated, in the marriage ceremony.

Shalvi claimed in the above quote that the word “baal” for husband means he is the owner, since “if the husband’s the ba’al, the wife is his property”. The word “baal” is another term that when used in different contexts has different meanings. A baal teshuva is someone who is a penitent, not someone who owns penitence as property. Professors such as Alice Shalvi are tenured or baaley keviut in the University. Does it mean that the professor is the “owner of something”, and that this “something” is her property? No. It means the professor has certain rights, responsibilities, and obligations towards the university. One of those responsibilities is not to play fast and loose with facts.

(2) The interviewer Ruthie Blum, says: “I understand that lesbianism is not forbidden by Halacha,” to which Prof. Shalvi replies,”That’s true.” Shalvi is missing just one word, “not”. She should have responded: “That’s not true” that lesbianism is permitted in Halacha; rather, such acts are forbidden by Halacha. There is a difference between male homosexual acts which are absolutely prohibited by Torah law, and lesbian acts which some authorities prohibit by rabbinic law and others by Torah law. The latter rule that it is a Torah prohibition under the rubric of “ you shall not copy the practices of the Land of Egypt…” (maaseh Mitzrayim Lev. 18:3) which is a prohibition that is so crucial that it is the opening verse in the Torah reading on Yom Kippur afternoon.

Though there is a difference in considering lesbianism as a rabbinic or Torah prohibition, all decisors agree that according the Halacha, lesbian acts are forbidden. See for example: Maimonides, Issurei Biah 21:8-9 and the Shulhan Arukh Even Haezer 20.2.

(3) In her writings Professor Shalvi has made numerous surprising statements. Here is a typical one. In an essay “Renew our days as of Old: Religious fundamentalism and social change, in the modern Jewish state” she wrote in the Conclusion section that

“…. until 1977 Ultra-orthodox rabbis forbade the women of their communities to vote. “

The falsity of this statement can be ascertained by simply asking ultra-Orthodox women over the age of fifty whether they voted in national elections before 1977. Of course they did, and in large numbers! That such a statement could pass muster in an anthology published by Routledge, a serious publisher, is puzzling.

In academe and public life Professor Alice Shalvi deservedly kanta shem tov, has acquired a good name, and in Shakespeare studies she is baalat yeda rav. It is a pity that she misses the mark on many important points in Jewish tradition.

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She is on the board of the Charedi College of Jerusalem. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survved the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She s available to lecture in Israel and in the US.

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16 Responses

  1. Yoel B says:

    It is certainly a common canard, though halachic marriage is not as symmetrical as, say, civil marriage in a no-fault divorce jurisdiction. Gershon (#6) points out some of those asymmetries.

    The interesting question is where Prof. Shalvi learned that women were property. Is it just what everybody in academic circles thinks, or does it come from a reading of the mishna in Kiddushin that is both ignorant and fundamentalist? (Ignorant in that it ignores other mishnayot such as the Pirkei Avots cited by Shira Schmidt which clarify the issue) or fundamentalist in that it ignores the Gemara and meforshim who clarify the issue?

  2. Barzilai says:

    Thomas, I would have brought just those two examples to contradict the Shalvi approach. The reason that the method of Kidushei Ketana is specific and exclusive to to a ketana should be self evident, and that exclusivity demonstrates how different it is from the kiddushin of a gedolah. And Yibum is not the creation of a new state of marriage, it is the continuation of a previous state of marriage. And if we could figure out a way in which we could trick the brother into sleeping with the Yevama while thinking she was his wife, he would be married whether he liked it or not, so the alleged objectification of the unwilling partner has no bearing on gender.

  3. Thomas Lowinger says:

    Wonder if you ever heard of Kidushei ktana and what it entalils, or according to R’ Ovadya Yosef one can be myabem agains the woman’s will. It seems to imply some sort of ownership. I am sure Alice Shalvi herself did not mean tht women can be bought and sold in the shuk.

  4. Barzilai says:

    As Rashi in Shemos 16:3, on the verse “Hashem Ish Milchama” says, the word ‘ish’ there is synonymous with ‘baal,’ in other words, master. It has, as you pointed out, nothing to do with ownership. A household has a master, and in our traditional society, it is fair to say that in some respects, mostly involving interaction with the outside world, the husband is the master of the house, while the wife’s domain is within. The ‘ownership’ baal and the ‘master’ baal are certainly related, but only a person with an agenda would conflate the two very different usages. A more honest evaluation would look less at etymology and half-baked analyses of kinyan legalisms and more at the real life relationship of husband and wife in the community.

    I have always believed that the kinyan of marriage, which is effected by giving the woman an object of value, symbolized that the husband is now taking responsibility for his wife. By giving you this perutah, I show that from now on, I am obligated to provide for your needs. Come to me, tell me what you need, and I will see to it that you will have it. That’s the truth of our marriage contract, and that’s the truth of our marital relationship as well.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    WADR to Ms. Shalvi, she is repeating a feminist canard. The term “kinyan” in terms of the ksubah merely means that each party has entered into certain obligations which govern their conduct as husband and wife.

  6. Mark says:

    Noam writes:
    “By the way, I would suggest a different question for the yeshiva bochurim. How will they reconcile their obligation in the ketuba to support their wife, with a life spent learning in kollel?”

    Noam,
    Judging by this question I’m assuming the closest you’ve ever gotten to the yeshivah world was at a third cousins bar mitzvah. How many people actually sit all their lives in Kollel? Seriously – of all the fellows who join the Lakewood Kollel which currently numbers app. 3,000 [out of an Orthodox population in excess of one million people in the US] not more than a few hundred of them will still be in Kollel after ten years.
    For Kollelim out of town the numbers are much lower. The average span is less than five years.
    This idea of spending “life in kollel” is nonsense and needs to be put to rest already.

  7. Noam says:

    First of all, I am not sure that a group of what I assume to be unmarried American Yeshiva bachurim are going to be experts on husband/wife relations. So, it is a nice opening story, but has no relevance.

    Second, the Torah, Gemarah and Poskim have many discussions of the marital relationship and SOME can be interpreted in that fashion. Husbands nullifying the wife’s nedarim for example. I think the topic is discussed in detail by Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz in Jewish Women in Time and Torah.

    Certainly one who opposes Orthodox Judaism can ignore many of the noble parts of Jewish marriage. However, there are parts that do support a concept of subservience.

    By the way, I would suggest a different question for the yeshiva bochurim. How will they reconcile their obligation in the ketuba to support their wife, with a life spent learning in kollel?

  8. Shlomo says:

    True, the word “baal” has an, um, politically correct meaning. But the English word “husband” is hardly any better, as can be seen from the phrase “animal husbandry”. And yet I don’t believe that every English speaker believes that wives are property. Sometimes the etymology of a word simply does not reflect what the word has come to mean.

  9. szn says:

    is it not important to note that shalvi used to consider herself O until feminsim/egalitarianism issues drove her to the C camp?

  10. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Shira Schmidt: Thus, even though a form of the word kinyan is used in the Talmud with reference to marriage, it no more means (a la Shalvi) “purchasing the wife” than does the term mean in Pirkey Avot “purchasing a friend” or “purchasing Torah knowledge.” To emphasize that this is not a sale, the rabbis use the term mekudeshet, dedicated or consecrated, in the marriage ceremony.

    Ori: Would you say “היא קנתה בעל” for a woman who got married?

  11. Gershon says:

    I haven’t read the article yet, but judging from what has been summarized here, I could guess that Ms. Shalvi’s real complaint is in the financial sphere.

    For example, many Rishonim and Achronim hold that once a woman goes to court to ask for a Get, she forfeits her kesuva. (for the record, I don’t know how we pasken lemaaseh.)

    FWIW, R. Kook was strongly against womens’ suffrage based on the well known Rambam of “Melech v’lo Malka.”

  12. barry says:

    A link to Dr Frimer’s article would be helpful.

  13. Bob Miller says:

    The heading over this article was “What can be done about these canards?”

    The answer can’t simply be that Orthodox Jews should repeat the truth about Jewish matrimony, although that does help. The other need is to show Jewish doubters the beauty of Orthodox Jewish family life in action. Since the various Jewish subgroups often live in separate neighborhoods, towns, or suburbs, this will require planning and effort to arrange.

  14. Moshe says:

    Just a point about what Professor Shalvi writes about the word “בעל”. If one looks up the פסוק in הושע that this term is mentioned in – perek 2, pasuk 18, the wording is as follows:
    והיה ביום ההוא נאום ידוד תקראי אישי ולא תקראי עוד בעלי
    The Malbim explains this to mean that the word Baal has connotations of owning something – in his words:
    שם בעל מורה על הממשלה והקנין שמושל על הדבר מפני שהוא שלו וקנינו, ושם איש מורה על האהבה והקורבה והאישות, ועד עתה שלא היה לה’ קורבה עמהם והשגחתו היתה נסתרת ומעוטפת במסך טבעיהיו עובדים מצד היראה וקוראים לו בעלי מצד ממשלתו עליהם

    In other words, based on how the Malbim is explaining the pasuk, the word בעל does have a connotation of “Master” as opposed to husband. The more loving term for husband should be “איש” – as in אישי – my husband.

    Just my $.02

  15. shaulking says:

    I found amusing the answer of the American yeshiva boys, from where comes this answer? From the home of their parents, married siblings or friends. Is that the same response that a Married Yeshiva Man would give? Curious.
    (I found ludicrous the statements of Alice Shalvi, but the word “baal” does take some explaining).

  16. Steve says:

    Re Chareidi Women and the vote: In the Israeli English Yated Neeman Ki Tavo 5762, the following appeared:

    Yet how many of us can explain why women do not vote in the Torah community and what this has to do with the family?
    The components of the traditional community are families. Each family has one vote that summarizes and expresses its interests. When a separate vote is given to married women, that implies that they have separate interests that are not fully represented in the collective vote of the family. Having them decide independently how to vote further encourages both the men and the women to see themselves as distinct individuals and not as members of a family. It shifts their perspectives. The components of the modern community are thus individuals.

    A puzzled reader wrote back:

    “There was one portion of the essay which, hard as I tried, I could not fully understand. Would you clarify:

    You wrote about women’s “vote.” I could not tell whether you meant voting in the literal sense and, if so, whether you meant in Israeli or in American elections. In the United States, at least, the Gedolim have told all frum Jews to vote in important elections; their advice is not limited to men. Thus, your comments are difficult to understand.

    If you meant “vote” in a metaphorical sense (that is, married women don’t function as the family decision- makers or policy- makers), your comments make more sense. However, your meaning is hard to detect from a simple reading of the essay.

    Thank you for all your diligent work.

    The Editor replied:

    “In referring to women’s vote, we refer to their right to vote, not to their actually casting ballots. The actual process of going to a poll and exercising their civil privilege, once they have that privilege, is not especially problematic.

    The issue is giving them the political right to vote, and the mindset that right engenders. That is a problem that must be dealt with, whether they go to the polls or not.

    Once women are granted the vote, rabbonim have told them to exercise it. If they do not, then their family is not really being weighted properly in determining the interests of the general community.”

    Thus, while Ms. Schmidt may be correct that the rabbis told the women to vote, it would seem clear that they are opposed to women’t suffrage on principal, at least to the extent that the Yated Ne’eman is representative of chareidi views.