Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Two words for "husband": Haftarah Bamidbar

From the Shofar Newsletter May 2013
What’s the Hebrew word for ‘husband’?

Actually, you have two choices.  Both are in use in Hebrew today.  and both were used in the time of the bible.  The first word is ‘ba’al’.  If a woman in Israel today wants to refer to her husband, she might refer to him as ‘ba’ali’ - ‘my husband.’

But if you know Hebrew, you know that the same word ‘baal’ can mean ‘owner.’  For example, ‘ba’al ha-bayit’ means ‘home-owner’ or ‘master of the house.’  And more insidiously, the owner of a slave is also referred to in the bible as ‘baal’.

So you can see this term’s etymological origin.  It is a relic of a time when a woman’s relationship with her husband wasn’t that different from the relationship between a servant and master.  There are some people who won’t use the word baal on principle for this reason.  So what word would they use instead?  The word ‘ish’.  Most literally, ‘ish’ simply means ‘man’ - but there are some points in the bible where the word ‘ish’ also means ‘husband.’  Someone who wanted to say the words ‘my husband’ in Hebrew could also say ‘ishi,’ which is very similar to the Hebrew word for ‘my wife,’ which is ‘ishti.’  The words ‘ish’ and ‘ishah’, meaning ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ are etymologically egalitarian words, unlike the Hebrew word ‘ba’al,’ which establishes a hierarchical relationship between husband and wife.

When we think of the history of marriage in Jewish tradition - actually, when we think of the history of gender relations in Jewish tradition - there have been times when the predominant paradigm was the hierarchical relationship of ‘baal’ and ‘ishah,’ and other times when the predominant paradigm was the egalitarian relationship ‘ish’ and ‘ishah.’

Normally, I love to talk about how enlightened Jewish tradition has always been about gender relations and has been far ahead of its time in treating women with respect and honor.  But whereas it’s true that Jewish tradition was rather enlightened relative to many of its neighbors, it is sadly abundantly clear that women have been at a significant power disadvantage throughout much of Jewish history.  

One of the most uncomfortable demonstrations of this inequality comes in the haftarah portion from the book of Hosea that Jewish communities around the world read to accompany the Torah portion of Bamidbar (this year to be read on May 11).  In this passage, the prophet Hosea tries to express why God has been so angry at the people of Israel.  He uses the image of a husband whose wife had been unfaithful.  He says:  Isn’t this what you would expect when a husband suspects his wife has been unfaithful?  Wouldn’t you expect him to “strip her naked and leave her as on the day she was born; to make her like a wilderness, render her like desert land, and let her die of thirst -- to hedge up her roads with thorns and raise walls against her” (Hosea 2:5) -- ?  Hosea continues:  now we know why God is taking such violent anger towards us.  It is because we have been unfaithful, worshipping other gods, and God has responded exactly as we would expect any reasonable husband to respond to such infidelity.

This marriage metaphor is the central idea in the book of Hosea, and we presume that this metaphor resonated with his audience, who found such a violent response against a disobedient wife to be logical and justified.  While we have no data on the extent of domestic violence in the earliest years of our people, the existence of this metaphor in the Bible leads many scholars, including Naomi Graetz,
to the upsetting assumption that it was a phenomenon that was at least widely known, and probably widespread.

However, a few verses later, the book of Hosea includes a line that can only be understood by those who understand the contrast between the Hebrew words ish and ba’al (see above).  After God and Israel are reconciled again, God says, ‘tikre’i ishi, ve-lo tikre’i li od ba’ali.’  ‘It will happen soon that you will call me ‘ishi,’ ‘my husband,’ and you will no longer call me ‘ba’ali,’ ‘my master.’  (Hosea 2:18*)

Most biblical commentators, traditional and modern, understand Hosea’s word play to be a reference to the fact that many Israelites were worshipping one of the Canaanite gods whose name was Ba’al.  But I cannot help but read this line in the light of these two paradigms for a marital relationship -- the hierarchical paradigm of ‘ba’al’ and the egalitarian paradigm of ‘ish’.  God indicates that someday soon, the relationship between God and Israel will operate on the ‘ish’ paradigm - the paradigm of mutual respect rather than the paradigm of domination and hierarchy.  

Years ago I made a promise to a student of mine that whenever this troubling haftarah would be read, I would use it as an opportunity to call attention to relationship abuse in the Jewish community.  It is a horrific fact that too many marriages and relationships today, in the Jewish community and throughout the world, continue to operate on the ba’al paradigm, characterized by intimidation, control, and even physical violence.   (Of course both men and women can be victims of such abuse, and both men and women can be perpetrators, and such abuse can exist in relationships of all kinds.  But there is no question that centuries of institutionalized subjugation of women, in nearly every society around the globe, has exacerbated this problem.)

Whereas there’s a common perception that domestic violence is less common in the Jewish community -- the numbers don’t necessarily bear that out.  In fact, the stereotype is an example of widespread denial.  The rate of domestic abuse in the Jewish community is 15-25% of households -- the same as in the American population as a whole.

The Jewish world now devotes significant resources to this issue, with a number of organizations in our area and throughout the U.S. to support victims of domestic abuse, and hotlines, and shelters.  One such organization, the Rachel Coalition, is sponsored by our local Jewish Family Service.  (See  But all these efforts at addressing the problem cannot be effective as long as an atmosphere of denial persists.

As the Jewish community reads from the book of Hosea this month, recalling uncomfortable moments in our pasts, may we be united not only in condemning domestic abuse in all of its forms, but also in looking forward to the realization of Hosea’s words:  ‘Ve-hayah bayom ha-hu, ne’um adonai, tikre’i ishi, ve-lo tikre’i li od ba’ali.’  ‘It will happen on that day, says Adonai, that you will call me ‘ishi,’ ‘my husband,’ and you will no longer call me ‘ba’ali,’ ‘my master.’  (Hosea 2:18*)

* NOTE: -- Some Christian Biblical versions have this verse as Hosea 2:16, because of differences in how the verses are divided.) 

*ADDED IN 2016: This powerful radio documentary, about one woman's experience with these issues, is very powerful: Thankfully this is not the norm in any segment of the Jewish community, but neither is it as rare as it should be.