Religious Life

And Man Shall Rule Over Woman – A Weekly Letter from Rabbi Davis – October 5, 2018

Shalom Chaverim

To the woman God said, “In pain will you bear children. Yet your desire shall be for your husband. And he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16).

Given the news from the past few weeks, I was drawn to this verse from this week’s parasha, Bereshit, the beginning of the Torah. In the aftermath of Adam and Eve’s transgression (eating the forbidden fruit), God curses Eve. But what does it mean that a man shall “rule over his wife?”

According to Rashi, it is a reference to how men wield power over women when it comes to sex. This is based on the previous clause: “a woman’s desire will be toward the man.” Though she “desires him,” he will “rule over her.” Rashi explains that women are not so bold as to initiate intimate contact with men. Rather, men dominate women and pursue them sexually.

Alternatively, the phrase is a reference to men’s financial power over women. A previous verse speaks of men bringing forth bread from the earth by the sweat of their brow. In other words, men are the “breadwinners” causing women to be more dependent on them.

Finally, and worst of all, Radak explains the verse as a reference to men’s ultimate control of women: “he will rule over you as a master rules a slave telling him what to do.” From now on, Adam was to issue instructions to Eve and not the other way around. This was considered a fitting response to Eve who instructed Adam to eat the fruit.  

Clearly, this passage is extremely problematic. It is easy to see how it has been used throughout the generations to justify the subjugation of women. For it seems to establish an unequal power dynamic. But this verse is not to be understood as prescriptive, rather descriptive. It is a curse not a mandate. In the words of leading feminist Biblical scholar, Phyllis Trible: “This statement is not license for male supremacy, but rather it is condemnation of that very pattern. Subjugation and supremacy are perversions of creation.”

Unfortunately, this verse accurately reflects the lot of women from the ancient world until today. As Ellen Frankel writes in The Five Books of Miriam: “How astutely the text understands what life was like for us back then! Instead of maligning women’s nature… the biblical author here accurately describes our social reality: controlled in marriage and endangered in childbirth. A woman must have written these lines.”

We must understand that male dominance over women is viewed in the Torah as a deterioration of the human condition. The ideal relationship of men and women described at the outset of the Torah is the equality of the sexes: “Male and female God created them:” (Gen 1:27). That is to say, “Both sexes are created on the sixth day by the hand of the one God; both are made “in God’s image” on a level of absolute equality before God.” (JPS commentary).

May we strive to realize the vision of Eden in our world.

Rabbi Alexander Davis