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Avital Hochstein interview: Talking about Chana Safrai, women and midrash

Chana Safrai died in early 2008, just as their book on women in midrash was released. Hartman Institute publications coordinator Laura Major spoke with Avital Hochstein about working with Chana Safrai and their book


Chana Safrai’s last book, "Women Out Women In: The Place of Women in Midrash" (Hebrew; Tel Aviv,Yedioth Ahronoth, 2008), was co-authored with her student and Shalom Hartman Institute fellow Avital Hochstein . According to one description , the book combines rabbinics and women’s studies and discusses how rabbinicapproaches to the place of women in the areas of law, society and the domain ofthe holy come to expression in a series of halakhic midrashim – a domain hitherto practically untouched by feminist scholarship.Chana Safrai
Chana Safrai died in early 2008, just as the book was released. Hartman Institute publications coordinator Laura Major spoke with Avital Hochstein about working with Chana Safrai and their book.
How did your partnership with Chana Safrai begin and what was it like to work with her on the book: Women Out Women In: The Place of Women in Midrash?
Some years ago I participated in a seminar – something like, "Inclusion and Exclusion of Women in Midrash" – with Chana Safrai at the Institute, and at the end of the year she asked me if I would continue studying with her in havruta. This was a treat that went on for two to three years.
We would sit in her little room, crossing over to Aharon Shemesh if we had a certain question about Qumran and up the hall to Shlomo Naeh if we had a linguistic question or to Marc Hirshman . This communal aspect was great. Slowly we narrowed down our broad learning to gender issues in one particular kind of Midrash.
I have been thinking a lot about the kind of learner and teacher that Chana was. She wasn’t afraid of the texts. She knew she would understand them and had no fear of the challenge of figuring out what they said. I think that because she had such a deep knowledge of the texts they were really hers and a part of her language. She was also unafraid of the content, and I think this is why she was able to understand the texts so well. She was able to say "I disagree," but saw the text for what it said honestly.
Chana was a very generous teacher. She gave of her knowledge without using it as a source of authority and hierarchy. I look at our names on the book, one next to the other, and am struck by how much more than I she knew. I think that because she did not use her knowledge to maintain hierarchy between us, we were able to transform our relationship from student-teacher to a havruta.
What was your assumption when you started out, and was there a gap between that assumption and your conclusion?
 Avital Hochstein, Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, Israel
We can’t ask Chana, but I think she was seeking to understand how women are included in the world of Midrash. She was looking for an optimistic place where they were "in." In the end, though, there was a very big gap between this optimism and our conclusions.
We checked all the places where there is a particular Midrashic term that assumes women are excluded, but teaches that they are actually included. For example, it is assumed that women are not included in the commandment of respecting one’s parents, and then you discover that they actually are.
Or there is an assumption that women don’t get the death penalty when they murder, and then we learn how they do. Or they assume that women were not involved in a certain aspect of the exodus from Egypt, and it turns out that they were. Or it seems as if they are exempt from giving a specific part of the animal to the Cohen when sacrificing, but they are in fact obligated.
The bottom line of the Midrash, again and again, is that women are included and are obligated. We learn though that the way in which they are included and the implication of the assumption that they are not included at the end of the day leaves them out.
One of the examples that I like involves "Birkat HaCohanim." The verse says and "you shall bless Bnei Yisrael." The midrash asks whether bnei yisrael refers only to the men and if only the men are given the blessing. Asking this question again and again, even though it will be pushed aside, leaves the impression that fundamentally women are out.
The question echoes very strongly when it is asked again and again. The assumption is that there is a norm – the men, and anything beyond that norm, in our case women, needs to be included in a special way. The assumption is that the women are not the norm, are not the standard. This is an interesting example, because often words that pertain to the Jewish public are read as including only the men. That is a hurtful assumption.
After looking at the assumption of exclusion we looked at the mechanism of inclusion: So here, the Midrash uses the words "and I will bless you" that God says at the end of the verse. i.e. You, the Cohanim will bless them – the men, and I will bless them – the women. Now women are included on the basis of God’s inclusion, but not on a social level. On a social level we can’t tolerate them, but on a divine level they are in.
Women are also sometimes included on the basis of words that appear only once in the Torah. You have to just stand in awe of the rabbis who, without computers, could run through the entire Torah locating words that appear only once.
But what is the message when women are included on the basis of a word that appears only once? You’re in, but that’s a rare thing. You’re in, but it is an exception. Again and again we found that, though the bottom line legally is that we are included, actually women are very much left out.
One of the interesting articles we read was by Freud called, "On Negation." Basically, the article argues that when someone says repeatedly, "I don’t mean that," they are really saying "I do mean that, but I don’t want to say it." When they say over and over: "It’s not only men, it’s also women," they are saying that they would really prefer it to be only men.
We did not expect this to be so extreme.
Did you examine the greater context of the non-Jewish world in terms of the status of women? If so, how does the status of Jewish women measure up to that of non Jewish women?
We did ask where, when the Midrash assumes something, does it come from? The world around us? The Roman world? Qumran? Or does it come about because the rabbis’ understanding of the Bible is different from their understanding of their own reality. We did not do a historical study, though. Our context is the Jewish world and of course, the text itself. Having the text as our canon, what do we then say? This kind of question concerned us far more that the surrounding historical context. Even if they came from a different world, the texts remain part of our tradition and have an effect on us even today.
Can you say a few words about the title: Women Out Women In?
It is a cycle. There is an assumption that women are out, but then we learn that they are in. Yet the way in which they are brought in leaves them out. We know that women do not have good standing in the Jewish legal world, so why look at it again and again. It is so hurtful, so why do it? I think that awareness is the basis for change. We have to understand the mechanisms by which we are excluded, and only then can change come about.

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