Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Biblical slut-shaming

Once Rashi calls you a slut, it's hard to come back from that.
But that's exactly what happens to the only woman named in Leviticus, in the passage of the Blasphemer.
And the son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name and cursed. So they brought him to Moses. His mother's name was Shelomit, daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan. (Lev. 24:11)

This lauds Israel, as the verse publicizes her to say she alone was a zona. (Rashi ad loc.)
Now, you might quibble about my translation of zona, but it's certainly not a term of endearment or approbation. Why would Rashi (c. 1100) say something so horrible about this woman? Well, there's a strong Midrashic tradition connecting the "Egyptian man" who fathered the Blasphemer to the "Egyptian man" slain by Moses way back in the second chapter of Exodus. This Egyptian overseer was beating a Hebrew man, and according to the Midrash, it's because the latter discovered the former with the latter's wife, Shelomit.
However, there are two radically different approaches to this story, though both are in Midrash Rabba. This compendium has many different sources, so Exodus Rabba and Leviticus Rabba are not by the same people (or even from the same millennia).
LR 32 calls Shelomit a strumpet, maintaining that she used her flirtatious laugh to draw the Egyptian "to corruption with her."
ER 1 tells a different story:
She was the only one ever suspected of illicit relations...
For one time an Egyptian overseer came to the home of an Israelite officer, and he set his gaze upon his wife, who was shapely and unblemished. At cockcrow, [the overseer] arose and fetched [the officer] from his house. The Egyptian returned and had sex with his wife--who thought that he was her husband--and impregnated her. Her husband returned to find the Egyptian leaving his house. He asked: "Perhaps he touched you?" She replied: "Yes, but I thought he was you." Once the overseer realized that he had been discovered, he returned [the Israelite] to backbreaking labor, and he started beating him, seeking to kill him. Moses saw this...
We have a term for that now: rape-by-fraud.
This may explain the very different view of Shelomit adopted by the Netziv. In his biblical commentary (Hamek Davar, 1880), he argues:
The verse mentions her by name because she was renowned in Israel; it was her prominence which caused him to be brought to Moses and for everything to be done according to the letter of the law. Otherwise, the bystanders would have stoned him immediately upon hearing something so outrageous, as alluded to in the next verse. But because "His mother's name was Shelomit, daughter of Divri," and she spoke prodigiously, she brought the mob to a halt and had him conveyed to court, "And they placed him under watch."
Indeed, every element of her name alludes to this. Shelomit brings peace (shalom) through the word (davar) of truth, allowing her son to be brought to judgement (din). 
The fact is that Shelomit is the lone named representative of the generation of women whose righteousness brings about the Exodus (Talmud Sota 11b) and who live to enter the Land of Israel (Sifre Num. 133). There must be a reason that her name is carried by so many decent people, men and women, throughout Scripture. There'll be no slut-shaming of Shelomit on our watch!