THE STATUS OF JEWISH WOMEN, CAMELS
AND THE KETUBAH (MARRIAGE CERTIFICATE)
by Eliyho Matz
In Hindu culture, “the Dharma-Shastras observe that there are three general types of sins. The first is the bodily type, and the favorite example of it, here and elsewhere, is adultery. The result of adultery is that you came back as a fixed object such as a stone [on the issue of stones, see below] or a tree stump, and you can see by the number of stones and stumps around that there has been a lot of this going on.”
Edward Cameron Dimock, “Mr. Dimock Explores the Mysteries of the East (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1999),
“It has long been noted that camels possess a sixth sense for traversing the desert. In the third century AD, the Chinese writer Kuo P’u observed, ‘The camel is an unusual domestic animal; it carries a saddle of flesh on its back; swiftly it dashes over the shifting sands; it manifests its merit in dangerous places; it has secret understanding of springs and sources, subtle indeed is its knowledge!’”
Laurence Bergreen, Marco Polo From Venice to Xanadu (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2007), p. 53.
The actual history of Jews is complex enough, but the many narratives make it more speculative because we are not exactly sure about the ancient events that preceded Judaism’s origins, and probably we will never know how Judaism all started and emerged as a Biblical text that led to the Talmud and resulted in the rules and rituals that are called Judaism. Judaism evolved as the interaction between G’d and human activity: tied together in a beautiful narrative, at times crystal clear, but sometimes as opaque as a frosted-up window in which nothing is clear or visible.
The history of Jews between 500 BCE to 500 CE is extremely dynamic and complex. The most important texts of Judaism were created during this period when Jews were under the influence of the ancient Persians. The impact of this Persian experience is reflected in all forms of what we call Jewish life. Among the most important issues of Jewish life related to women, and, as ancient societies struggled to figure out how to deal with women, Judaism came out with its own solutions.
The Persian connection to Judaism is unquestionably clear; it is reflected in the Bible and in the Talmud. It was through the language, Aramaic, as well as through the customs along with the evolving Persian ideologies and lore that we became Jews. Furthermore, the Jews acquired from the Persians the art of doing business. Under the Persians, Jews became merchants and roamed the world as such until the 1600’s. They learned to conduct business between East and West -- the East was China, and the West was Europe.
In ancient times, the forms of transportation were many, among them ships, horses, donkeys, and, later and most important, camels. The camel eventually became the vehicle of transport and, of course, wealth. The wealthier one was, the more camels he owned. This leads to the Biblical story of finding a wife for Isaac – it is inconceivable to think of Abraham’s slave Eliezar being portrayed by the Biblicists as coming to fetch Rebecca on donkeys! The debate as to whether the writers of the Bible inappropriately inserted the camel into their narrative is most recently reflected in an article by John Noble Wilford (February 11, 2014, p. D3) in The New York Times. One explanation for this inapt inclusion by the Biblical writers seems to be a reflection of the place of camels as used by merchants for long distance travel. Thus, the camel enters into the literature of the Bible through the back door by reverse engineering to reflect sometimes an anachronism or simply a part of our opaque history.
With the help of the camel, Jewish merchants conducted trade and traveled long distances, disappearing from home for long periods of time. Numerous basic laws and customs of Judaism came into being as a result of this lifestyle of conducting business in far-away lands and the consequent disappearance from home by the merchants. It was a situation that demanded some action on behalf of the women they left behind.
That is approximately how the Ketubah (marriage certificate) came to appear in our complex history. The Ketubah is a unique Jewish document; Gentiles do not have such an agreement. The Ketubah, as translated from Hebrew, is a “written” document, composed in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Persian Empire. This document relates to the well being of a woman, spelling out her rights in case of a divorce, or in other issues of separation between her and her husband. The long distance trade via camels evolved for more than 1000 years. Jewish men got involved with other women along the roads, and thus, to protect the wives, rabbis were pushed to create a written document to offer fairness.
This protracted involvement in long distance trade by necessity gave rise to other important elements in Judaism. It ultimately changed the status of the Jewish family. Unlike in previous generations, the mother now came to hold the place of determining the Jewish identity of their children, rather than the father. Since Jewish merchants traveled the world up until the 1600’s, a rabbi in Europe around the 11th century, in another landmark decree, ruled that Jewish men could marry only one woman. Other customs came into being including the wearing of the kipah, an adaptation taken from the Chinese Mandarins. And the burial custom in which stones are placed on Jewish graves also grew out of necessity -- the stones were used as permanent markers of the burial sites of Jewish and other victims fallen along the long distance paths to China or other places. Thus the history of Jews transformed itself as a result of livelihood.
Since at the time of this writing we are approaching Purim, it is worthwhile to remember that the holiday takes its name from Persian, meaning “lots.” And in his song “Suzanne,” Leonard Cohen sings about “…tea and oranges that come all the way from China” – how can we not connect the use of the citrus, now commonly the etrog, that is a symbol basic to our holiday of Sukkot?
I would like to return now to the writer Edward Cameron Dimock, whom I quote in the beginning, to include a few words of his pertaining to Indian religion: “The result of incest is that you come back as grass” (p. 110). I will stop here, and maybe one day I will continue the story of the merchandising Jews. The reason for my stopping is because I need to feed the camels their grass and water….
One day, I will end this story, somehow.