Slaves, Piercings and Gender-bending

Parashat Mishpatim Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

presented in 1999 at the Newton Centre Minyan, an egalitarian Jewish congregation in Massachusetts

In a course that I teach on gender and health I once asked the students to stage a debate over: Who suffers more from stress, men or women. Those who argued that women are more stressed made a predictably strong case having to do with the consequences of living in a society in which women suffer from economic discrimination, domestic violence, and political under-representation. The surprise for me was that those who argued that men are more stressed made an even more compelling case having to do with the competing demands made on men in contemporary society – the demand that they act “like real men,” alongside the demand that they cast off generations of gender socialization, develop gentle mannerisms, and share equally and eagerly in housework and childcare responsibilities. While today’s parasha (Torah reading) does not offer very ATTRACTIVE solutions for contemporary men struggling with the stress of competing demands, it does allow us to see that the dilemmas and stress faced by contemporary men have very ancient roots indeed.

A dramatic and difficult passage in parashat Mishpatim opens an unusual window onto what it means to be an Israelite male. In the context of a discussion about the various fates of several categories of male and female slaves, we read regarding the MALE eved ivri (Hebrew slave) that when his time of service is up: “If his master has given him a wife and she bore him sons or daughters, the woman and her offspring will belong to the master and he [the male eved ivri] will leave alone. And if the slave says I love my master and my wife and my children, I will not go free.  His master will go to God and will go to the door or the doorpost and will drill his ear with an awl and he will be his slave forever.”

This passage is not an easy one, especially given the Biblical abhorrence of bodily disfiguration, an abhorrence that is actually codified in a law prohibiting bodily mutilation (Leviticus 19:27,28). The question that jumps out of the text is: what has the slave done to elicit a reaction so severe that it breaks with wider cultural norms regarding the sanctity of the body.

The central meaning of the passage concerns a Hebrew man who has opted not to be free. The hugeness of his transgression is specific to his particular cultural setting. Opting not to be free is not a universal sin – the issue at hand is not ALL slaves but rather the particular sub-category of slaves who are members of the Israelite nation. Opting to remain a slave is understood as a horrid transgression within the specific context of a culture in which the core foundation myth tells the story of the transition from slavery to freedom. The act of leaving slavery in Egypt and emerging as free humans is retold repeatedly in Jewish culture; a variety of major mitzvot (divine commandments) are connected to the exodus from slavery (in the 10 commandments: Deuteronomy 5:15 – remembering that you were slaves and were redeemed is the explicit reason given for keeping the Sabbath); a chief aspect of God is that he has taken the people of Israel out of slavery; and we have constant liturgical references to the exodus from Egypt. The existential state of being free is understood within this culture as constituting not only the most desirable state for Israelite human beings, but also the natural state. Slavery is perceived as a state of sickness – a time of abnormality, healed and corrected by the pivotal event of the exodus from Egypt- an event that becomes the foundation story of the culture, shaping the culture’s identity, self-image, moral code, aspirations, interpersonal relationships, and relationship with God. Who are we the Jewish people? We are the ones who because of an unfortunate series of events became slaves in Egypt BUT NOW WE ARE FREE. I stress that the rejection of slavery is not only a moral statement but also a cosmological one: In choosing to become avdei elohim (slaves of Elohim [God]) Israelites abandon the possibility of being slaves (avadim) to other masters.

In opting for slavery over freedom, then, the eved ivri of our parasha is not opting for one of several acceptable social roles. To the contrary, he is choosing a role that is understood to conflict with the very essence of what it means to be an Israelite human being.

So what does all of this have to do with ear piercing? All cultures that I know of modify soft body tissue in one way or another. These modifications are not random – the type and the place of the modification can be interpreted in terms of cultural symbols and meanings. A close look at our text gives us some important information. The wording of the text is somewhat strange: We are told that the slave is taken to the door OR to the doorway. Now I am not a Biblical scholar – I am, as some of you know, an anthropologist. Yet I am willing to wager that not many Biblical commandments are framed in the language of “do this or that.” For example, I do not know of any place in the Bible where it says “keep either the Sabbath or another day holy” or of a place where it says “prepare the burnt offering or the boiled offering.” The odd wishy-washy wording in this verse conveys the message that not too much significance should be attributed to the precise architectural location in which the ceremony is carried out. By deflecting attention from the architectural geography of the ceremony, the text underscores the significance of the bodily geography of the ritual.

What is so important about the ear? The answer given by the traditional Jewish commentators lends credence to my earlier comments about the core significance of freedom: Rashi says that the ear is a symbol of the ear that heard at Sinai not to serve any master but God, but didn’t listen. Still, Rashi’s (Rashi is one of the most important explicators and interpreters of Jewish law and texts) mainstream explanation, while consistent with the Biblical freedom paradigm, strikes me as a bit casual or post facto – we do not have a strong cultural tradition that attributes to the ear a uniquely powerful role in the freedom myth. (For example, Moshe’s verbal demands of Pharaoh were accompanied by much more dramatic and forceful visual and tactile demonstrations of power; that is, the plagues). I would, therefore, like to push these ideas a bit further.

Rituals that involve ears are described in two other contexts in the Bible, and in both of these instances, like in the ear drilling of the eved ivri, the ritual involves marking the body as a sign of passage or transformation to a new status. The first of these rituals is the one anointing a Cohen with blood on the ear, thumb of the hand, and thumb of the foot at the time of initiation (Leviticus 8:23ff.); the second is that of anointing a metzorah (usually translated as leper) in the same way as a ceremony of purification (Leviticus 14:14ff.). In both of those cases, blood on the ear symbolizes a rise in status – a transition into a status of greater freedom, of greater opportunities to be an eved elohim. Please note that in these two rituals, unlike in the ear drilling ceremony of the eved ivri, no actual piercing of the human body is performed: The blood is taken from a sacrificial animal and smeared onto the body of the priest or the metzorah (usually translated as leper). The ear piercing of the eved ivri, within this symbolic context, may then be seen as a kind of parody of these other two rituals, similar to the crown of thorns with which Jesus is crowned King of the Jews. The crown of thorns, like the hole in the ear of the eved ivri, mimics an exalted cultural symbol at the same time that it reverses its value. The actual piercing of the ear (in a culture that prohibits bodily mutilation) symbolizes a LOWERING of status  – a transition into a status of lesser freedom, the state of being an eved to man which by definition precludes being a true eved Elohim.

But I promised that I would talk about gender, so let me now look once more at some of these ideas through the gaze of a gender analysis. In our text the meaning of male and female slavery and the treatment of male and female slaves are profoundly different. The discussion surrounding a male Hebrew slave has to do with the existential status of being free – a status sacralized by cultural norms and law. The discussion surrounding a female Hebrew slave has to do with her sexual and marital status. Women, unlike men, are NOT understood to be existentially free. (To take some well-known examples: A father can sell a daughter but not a son; Women are exempt from positive time bound commandments because they are supposed to be available to obey their husbands at all times, and observance of time bound commandments could conflict with that obligation; And a married woman cannot be sold into slavery because she cannot serve two masters: an owner AND a husband.) Put more generally, the normative state for women is understood to be one in which the woman is, by cultural norms and law, not free. The core cultural understanding of freedom as the normal, healthy and proper existential state for the Israelite nation refers unambiguously only to men. At the same time, women of the Israelite nation do, in certain ways, share in the culture’s freedom paradigm; even at the basic mythic level – women played central dramatic roles in the escape from slavery in Egypt in the foundation story. And women are obligated in the Passover ritual even though it is a time-bound commandment explicitly because “they too were part of the same miraculous events.”

Within Biblical and much of Jewish culture slaves and Israelite women are understood to be somewhat comparable, anomalous social categories. We need only think of the daily blessing thanking God in parallel language for “not making me a slave; not making me a woman.” In a culture that idealizes freedom, that defines itself in terms of a core story of liberation from slavery, that worships God as the one who makes freedom possible – countless difficulties arise surrounding categories of people – Hebrew male slaves and Israelite women – who paradoxically are part of the freedom community but not free.

Now the problem of women is less of a problem than the problem of male Hebrew slaves. Women are understood to be “naturally” different; the other core myth of the culture – the creation story – has already constituted women as “other” than the male norm. But male Hebrew slaves seem to fall through the conceptual cracks in the system. Here is an individual who looks exactly like those who are defined as “free” (that is, Israelite men) yet he has chosen not to be “free.” In a sense, he is a man but not a man. I would like to argue that the culture deals with this anomalous person – a Hebrew man who does not want to be free – by assimilating him into a pre-existent “natural” structural category of anomalous people, of people who are members of the covenant community but not free. That category is the category of women.

Having said all of this, I want to take another look at the ear piercing ceremony, bearing in mind that according to our text ONLY male Hebrew slaves and NOT female ones undergo this ritual. The ear drilling is not a generic ritual of marking slaves, but rather a gender specific ritual marking male slaves.

In an interesting passage (not directly related to today’s parasha) Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer (a classic Jewish text) declares that there are five orlot (uncircumcised; pl.): the orlah (foreskin) of the penis, the orlah of the mouth, the orlah of the heart, the orlah of trees, and the orlah of the ear. What all of the human orlot have in common is that all are removable coverings. The orlah of the penis is removed in brit milah (circumcision of boys eight days after birth). But what about the orlah of the ear? How does that fit the scheme? Structurally, I suggest, the ear drilling ceremony that makes a Hebrew man into a slave is a symbolic reversal — or perhaps a parody — of the brit milah ceremony that makes a “neutral” child into a Hebrew – that is, into a free male. The piercing of the orlah of the ear – through its analogy to the brit milah, symbolically undoes the brit milah. It releases the Hebrew male from his role of eved Elohim in order to allow him to take on the role of eved to his owner. By giving up freedom he has, in a sense, given up maleness, a choice that is ritualized through the gender “undoing” ceremony. This argument becomes stronger when we recall that the brit milah and the ear drilling of the eved ivri are the ONLY Jewish or Biblical rituals that involve mutilation of the human body. Thus these two rituals are culturally linked through sharing membership in a very small and anomalous ceremonial category.

I will now pull the thread of this argument a bit tighter.

If I read symbolic significance into the place on the body that is modified, I also read symbolic significance into the type of modification that is ritually enacted. The text is clear: the ear is drilled with an awl. In other words, an orifice is added to the body of the Hebrew male IN A RITUAL IN WHICH HIS STRUCTURAL STATUS BECOMES ALMOST IDENTICAL TO THAT OF AN ISRAELITE WOMAN. Please note that our text tells us that an awl is used to drill the ear – the description of the ritual is fairly explicit – yet no mention is made of an earring being placed into the ear. On the literal level, our text describes a ritual in which a visible hole is made in the body of a man; not a ritual in which a piece of jewelry or some other kind of marker (such as a marker showing the identity of the eved ivri‘s master) is placed on the body.

At the risk of pushing my argument a bit far, I would suggest that through the addition of an orifice, the ear drilling ritual symbolically transforms the body of the Hebrew male slave into a female body. This argument becomes stronger when we remember the nature of the transgressions that led to this ceremony to begin with. First, he opted for an identity (Hebrew but not free) that is similar or analogous to the identity of Israelite women. And second, the eved ivri declared that he loves his master, his wife, and his children. The declaration of love for his wife and children present the eved ivri as opting for the domestic female realm over the public male realm. And so, by choosing to live his life among women and children he takes on the structural status of a woman and even undergoes a ritual in which his male identity is “undone” and his body is symbolically transformed into a quasi female body – extra orifice and all.

The Biblical text seems to say that the Jewish man who chooses to align himself with women (the eved ivri who has chosen his wife and children over freedom) has betrayed the Jewish core definition of masculinity (that is, being free). The text forces him to choose between two values: freedom and committed relationship. As I suggested when I told you about my students’ debate regarding the kinds of stresses experienced by men, this is a choice that many contemporary western men – Jewish and non-Jewish, feel forced into making. And for the eved ivri, like for contemporary men, this choice constitutes a no win situation. He can abandon his family or he can abandon the core constituent of his gender role.

The reading of the text that I have suggested does not seem to offer men a way out of the incredibly stressful dilemma of having to choose between love and freedom. Yet I don’t like ending my remarks on a Shabbat morning without offering some ray of hope. And so, asking you to bear with me for another minute or so, I want to take a final shot at reading the text in a more optimistic light. Traditional western understandings of the gendered body are static. What I mean by that, is that we have tended to believe that gender is something that someone is born with, that unfolds in a natural and predetermined way over the life course, and that never changes. Those few people who refuse to act in the way that their gender “should” are labeled as deviants. Part of the feminist and the post-modern conceptual revolution has been to suggest that gender is not a natural attribute but rather that gender can be understood as composed of fluctuating sets of identities, traits, and roles that are constructed by culture. This view of gender is an intensely liberating one: It offers an alternative to the belief that the gender arrangements with which we are familiar are natural or necessary, and it opens the door to both societal change and to a large range of possible gender choices for each individual.

I would like to make the suggestion that our text about the eved ivri can be read as an ancient precursor to post-modernist and feminist understandings of the body and of gender. In a strange way, the text holds out the possibility of gender bending. The ear drilling ritual in which a male eved ivri is transformed into a structural and symbolic female can be seen as a ritual in which gender is de-stabilized; as a ritual in which gender patterns (including the gendered body) are shown to be modifiable cultural constructs rather than unchanging biological truths. Although the text treats the whole eved ivri ritual as a negative one, a post-modernist reading allows us to see that the ritual does open up certain cracks in the gender wall. Such cracks are, I believe, the places in which egalitarian hands can jam in a wedge, slug the wedge with a sledge hammer, and strike the blows that may eventually bring down the whole gender edifice altogether. A text that challenges the notion that gender roles and gender identity are biologically pre-determined can surely be put to the service of our egalitarian vision.