Dr. Gail Labovitz is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University and the author of Marriage and Metaphor: Construction of Gender in Rabbinic Literature.
Q. The name of your book is Marriage and Metaphor. What does one have to do with the other?
A. The core of my argument is that, in rabbinic literature, marriage is metaphorically modeled after an ownership transaction in which the wife is seen as an acquisition owned by and subject to the husband.
Q. Exactly how is that "metaphorical"?
A. Many of us learned about metaphor as a lovely literary device, but it is much more than that; it is actually a thought process. Metaphor is a way of thinking, and we as human beings regularly think about abstract concepts in more concrete terms. To give you an example of how this works, some popular, well-known metaphors are: "Time is money"; "Can you spare me a minute?"; "Can you lend me a little bit of your time?" And, the metaphor goes beyond language. We pay people by the hour. Criminals pay their debt to society by serving time. So, the point is that this metaphor pops up in linguistic expressions, but also functions more deeply in how we think about time and our relationship to it.
Q. How does a student of Talmud become interested in metaphor theory?
A. This work began as my doctoral dissertation at the Jewish Theological Seminary - though it developed significantly from there by the time it became a book. I have always had an interest in language, and around the time I was ready to start developing a thesis topic, I was talking with my advisor, Dr. David Kraemer, about something I noticed on sexual language in rabbinic literature.
Q. What was that?
A. What linguists call "agency," which refers to who is doing what to whom. I found it fascinating that in rabbinic literature, two of the three primary terms for sex only work with male agency, that is, with a man as the active party. You never find women with agency. So I wrote a paper exploring that topic.
Q. How did you know where to begin? How did you start the process?
A. After knowing that I was interested in language, my advisor suggested that I read the book Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, which led me to an insight about a very well known book and feminine work in rabbinics by Judith Romney Wegner entitled Chattel or Person? In her title, she set up a binary question: Are women chattel or are they people? After reading Lakoff and Johnson, my inner voice said, "This is not a binary question. It is a metaphor."
Q. So then this brought you to the connection between marriage and metaphor in rabbinic literature, right?
A. Right. To start, one of the primary rabbinic texts on marriage, Mishnah Kiddushin 1:1, says that "the woman is acquired in three ways."
A. Yes. There has been a great deal in the literature about this word, niknei, (acquired). The issue was that the rabbis used this word to describe marriage, but do they really mean women are property? After all, women had many rights. They continued to have title of everything they brought into the marriage; they had a right to sexual satisfaction. The man had to provide certain things for her - food, shelter, clothing, etc. He could not give her away or sell her like any other property.
Yet the word for husband is ba'al, which means 'owner.' The woman moves from rashut to rashut, domain to domain. She moves from the domain of her father to the domain of her husband. So what I'm suggesting is that we see all kinds of things in rabbinic language about marriage that suggests an underlying conceptual metaphor of ownership.
This metaphor also structures how rabbis think and reason about marriage and what happens in marriage, such as the economic structure of the family. For example, what a wife earns belongs to the husband, even if he has to give her some form of compensation for it, such as pay for her food. But if she is earning money, why do they need to have that exchange at all? Why not have shared resources rather than everything flowing through him? When she brings property into the marriage - let's say that she inherited property when her father died - she will bring that property into the marriage. She will generally retain either title or value; either he will have to give her back that item when the marriage ends, or he will have to give her back the value of that item. But during the marriage, he has significant control of her resources. She cannot sell them on her own and he often takes the profits of it. If she owns a field, anything produced from that field belongs to him. She owns the olive trees, but he owns the olives. And for the entire course of the marriage, that is the case.
Q. Modern Jews usually accept that state and federal laws supersede rabbinic laws on property relations and marriage. So how is this relevant to modern Jews?
A. Many Jews still perform marriage in this way. He gives her a ring and says in Hebrew, "Behold, you are set aside to me according to the laws of Moses and Israel. " It is still a unilateral act in which he acquires and she is acquired. The most serious problem right now is in the realm of divorce. A metaphor of ownership dictates that because he initiates the marriage, he must release it. Only he can give up what he "owns." The result is what is known as the agunah problem: an "agunah" is a woman who cannot get a divorce; often one whose husband refuses to grant her a divorce unless she meets certain terms, such as giving him a certain amount of money or relinquishing rights over specific property or custody of the children. Unless she capitulates, she may remain unable to re-marry under Jewish law and any romantic relationship that she might have would be considered adulterous. This is a particularly significant problem in the Orthodox world, though it is not unheard of in the Conservative Movement.
Continuing to perform marriage in this way, therefore, continues to have important effects on Jewish women's lives. This is an argument I have with my colleagues all the time.
Q. What is the argument?
A. Many people prefer to focus on the word kiddushin and they want it to mean kadosh, holy, without the implications of ownership or the male prerogative to "set her aside" exclusively for himself. They say, "It doesn't mean that anymore; the language is symbolic." But I am a legalistic thinker. My argument is that it remains a legal act, or what is sometimes referred to as a "speech act."
A. A speech act is words that do something; words that make something happen. For example, "Do you take this person as your lawfully wedded husband/wife?" "I do." "I do."
This phrase does something - it makes you married. Another example might be taking an oath in court. "I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, etc." You are now liable to perjury by having said, "I swear."
So, putting a ring on a woman's finger and saying "You are set aside for me..." does something. It creates a binding relationship between this man and this woman, with rights and obligations. The ceremony is important not only for its beautiful symbolic meaning, but also because it actually does something legally. Put all the lovely spin on the meaning of kiddushin that you want, but my argument is that the legal effects are still there - it cannot be purely symbolic, certainly not in regards to what can happen as a result in a woman's material life.
The same thing applies to civil marriage. When a man and a woman walk into the county clerk's office to get a marriage license, they can afterwards choose to have a ceremony or no further ceremony at all. But even without a fancy ceremony, that marriage license binds you to an entire set of state and federal laws, such as financial responsibilities to each other. If you want to marry each other, you buy into whatever the laws dictate.
Q. Are there concerns other than divorce?
A. Here's another interesting consideration - and this is a discussion the Conservative Movement is currently having - what happens when you have two partners of the same gender? Now that we acknowledge homosexuals as equal Jews, we are therefore expecting same sex couples to make the same monogamous commitments made by heterosexual couples. How do they do that? And, who betroths who? Imagine you are a Jewish woman, who is attracted to men, but you have a sister who has a female partner who she wishes to marry. She and her partner have to put together a lovely egalitarian ceremony because they are both women. Then a few months later, you meet the man of your dreams, and now you are planning a wedding, and you say, "Wait a minute, why is my ceremony so less egalitarian than my sister's?" In light of this, we are going to start asking questions about how we perform marriage between different sex partners.
Q. And are there alternatives?
A. Rachel Adler, a member of the faculty at Hebrew Union College, created a ceremony called Brit Ahuvim (Lover's Covenant) in which the two partners - non gender specific -put something of value into a combined bag and lift it up together to show they are both taking ownership of this partnership. People are thinking about new models for marriage using the language of kiddushin, but changed in some way so that you do not create the legal status of kiddushin, where there is acquisition. I have written a couple of articles examining how Jewish marriage is performed now, how some of these metaphors are still problematic in Jewish Law today, and what we might do about that. But at some point in the future, this is something on which I would like to do more and deeper work.
Q. In the future? Why not now?
A. I'm working on another, rather different, book project right now. Tal Ilan, who is a feminist scholar of Judaism in Late Antiquity and a professor at the Frei Universitat in Berlin, is coordinating the writing of a feminist commentary on the Talmud. She has organized a number of scholars in the field to write on different volumes of the Talmud, and has invited me to write the commentary on the tractate (one of the segments into which the Talmud is divided) called Mo'ed Katan, which is about the intermediary days of the holidays. I am in the process of going through the tractate looking for and writing about anything that is of feminist interest, anything that is about women, gender roles or relations. And I also have several other smaller projects keeping me busy right now.
Q. Sometimes I ask authors if there is a book they would like to write in the future.
A. I would love to write whatever would be the next Harry Potter. But, in terms of a book in my field, an academic book, the thing I am really interested in is putting together what a feminist Jewish legal process would look like. What a truly feminist halahah would look like and how it would work.
Q. Where can people find your book, Metaphors and Marriage?
A. It can be found in many academic libraries including here at AJU, at Oral Roberts, Brigham Young University and Yeshiva University, to name a few.