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Parshat Breishit - Eve's Curse
After eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve are driven out of Eden and are cursed with a life of hard work, pain, and travail. Adam, or man in general, would no longer live in a garden with all his needs provided for him, with "every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good to eat" (Breishit 2:9). From here on in, hard work would be required to bring forth his sustenance from the ground: "Thorns also and thistles shall it sprout for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread..." (3:18-19). As the fruit of the ground was for Adam, so too would be the fruit of the womb for Eve. The life that she would nurture in her body, would also only come forth with pain and suffering: "I will terribly sharpen your birth pangs, in pain shall you bear children..." (3:16).
How are we to understand the religious import of these curses? Are these to be understood as a divine decree of how things must be? That is, is it now God's will that we exert toil in raising crops, that women suffer in childbirth? Or, alternatively, are these curses, a change of the natural order, no doubt, but a change for the worse, a change that - given our mandate to "fill the earth and conquer it," - it is our responsibility to work to reverse, a broken state of affairs that we must strive to improve, to fix?
This is by no means merely an academic question. If this is to be the divinely decreed state of affairs, then it would be sacrilegious to attempt to reverse it. Indeed, for centuries, the Catholic Church opposed the use of anesthesia in childbirth on just such grounds, that it would counteract the "Curse of Eve". In fact it was not until 1949 that the Pope finally announced the Church's withdrawal from this centuries-old opposition.
In contrast, Judaism has never seen a curse, even a Divine one, as an ideal or desired state. It is our mandate to alleviate suffering, and it is our mandate to improve the world and to improve our station within it. Thus, within Judaism, there has never been any halakhic or religious opposition to the use of pain killers during childbirth on the basis of the Curse of Eve (some might oppose it on health grounds, but that is a different matter).
What accounts for the difference between these two approaches? I believe two issues are at stake. The first is the relative emphasis that we place on acts as opposed to theology. The Church, concerned as it is first and foremost with theology, gives the greatest weight to theological concerns around the Divine curse. In a similar fashion, the Roman general asked Rabbi Akiva, "If your God cares for the poor, why does He not provide for them?" (Baba Batra, 10a). The implied answer is - it must be that God does not care for them, that their lot in life is divinely decreed, and thus it is not our responsibility, perhaps it is even religiously wrong, for us to try to help them. Judaism, or more specifically halakha, will have none of this. Whatever we think about this theological question - why the poor are poor - is really immaterial. Theological considerations do not override our halakhic responsibilities. When a person in front of us is in pain, we must act to help that person. Our mandate is to deal not with God, but with the person in front of us.
Rav Soloveitchik has explained that it is for this reason that Judaism has never put an enormous amount of effort on answering the question of theodicy, on explaining how a good God can allow good people to suffer. To try to find an answer to that question, said the Rav, is ultimately to try to come to terms with suffering, to make our peace with suffering. As halakhic Jews, however, we are obligated to not come to terms with suffering. To always see it for what it is in the real world, an evil, and to thus do our upmost to eradicate it.
So theology will focus on the curse and conclude that it is God's will, whereas halakha will skip over the curse, see the suffering, and determine that it must act. Of course, this is not the whole explanation. Even a theological approach need not see a curse as a good thing. Certainly, one can argue theologically that we must work to overcome a curse, even a Divine one. And, in fact, when it comes to Adam's curse, this is taken for granted. There has never been any theological opposition to the invention of farming machinery, irrigation technology, modern fertilizers and pesticides, and improved farming techniques. Why, then, is women's curse treated differently?
Perhaps this difference reflects a particular perspective on women's status, one that is informed by, or finds support in, the story of the creation of woman. Consider the following two passages in the Christian Testament, attributed to Paul:
"But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man... For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man" (1 Cor. 11:3, 9).
"Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church." (Eph. 5:22).
The message seems clear (although it is, and has been, debated by various denominations and throughout history). Eve was created from Adam, she is thus secondary and subservient to him. The man is thus the head, the one in control, and it is a wife's role to submit to the authority of her husband.
Now, in addition to taking its lead from the story of the creation of Even in chapter 2 of Breishit, these passages also echo the other part of the curse of Eve: "and to your husband shall be your desire, and he shall rule over you." It seems, then, that at least for some denominations of Christianity, during certain historical periods, these approaches were all of one piece. Women were created as secondary and subservient beings. Their curses, then, rather than being something to be overcome, were to be embraced as they reflected and reinforced this status. Her suffering during childbirth, her dependency on her husband, and her submission to his authority all perfectly dovetailed with her role in the social order. Man, in contrast, who stood at the top of the social order, with only God above him, was free to strive to overcome his curse and to take full dominion over the world.
This reading is by no means the only one, nor even the most compelling one. Regarding the creation of woman, it is now commonplace to note that in the first story, that in chapter 1, man and woman were created equally, blessed by God equally and spoken to by God equally. Thus, at the very least, we have two competing stories regarding the status of woman vis-à-vis man. If we attempt to reconcile them, we must make an interpretive choice whether to read the first story in light of the second, as is most commonly done (perhaps informed by the Christian reading), or the opposite, to read the second story in light of the first. This is what the midrash does when it states that the human was originally half man and half woman, and it was not Adam's, or the human's rib, but his side, the female half of him, that was separated off to create woman.
But what about "and he will have dominion over you"? Well, let's remember what we said about suffering in childbirth. This is part of the curse of Eve, this is not the proper state of affairs. If it is our mandate to alleviate the suffering that is part of the nature of childbirth, then, it can also be argued, it is our responsibility to oppose and alleviate the injustice and the suffering that results from a woman's dependency on man, on a relationship, or on a society, that is based on male dominance. This can also be seen as part of the Torah's mandate, as part of our halakhic responsibility. Consider some of the mitzvot of the Torah which seem specifically addressed to protecting women from abuse and injustice that was taken for granted in a male-dominated society: "If she proves to displeasing to her master... he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders since he broke faith with her." (Shemot 21:8). "If he marries another, he shall not withhold from this one her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights" (21:10). "And it will be if you shall no longer want her that you shall send her free outright. You must not sell her. Since you had your way with her, you must not enslave her." (Devarim 21:14).
Eve's curse. Is it God's will or is it an evil to overcome? While we may grapple over how to best read the verses and how we theologically approach the concept of a Divine curse, let us never forget that as halakhic Jews it is our mandate to alleviate suffering and to fight injustice wherever we may find it.