May. 19th, 2016

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I came across the following in Midrash Rabbah Genesis ((4th to 5th century?) commentary on Genesis):

I. 15] MIDRASH RABBAH R. Johanan, reporting the Sages, said : As regards creation, heaven was first; as regards completion, earth was first. Said R. Tanhuma: I will state the grounds [of this opinion]: as regards creation heaven was first, as it is written, "IN THE BEGINNING GOD CREATED THE HEAVEN [AND THE EARTH]"; whereas in respect of completion earth took precedence, for it is written, "IN THE DAY THAT GOD MADE THE EARTH AND THE HEAVEN." R. Simeon observed: I am amazed that the fathers of the world engage in controversy over this matter, for surely both were created [simultaneously] like a pot and its lid, [as it is written], When I call unto them [sc. heaven and earth], they stand up together (Isaiah. XLVin, 13). R. Eleazar b. R. Simeon observed: If my father's view is right, why is the earth sometimes given precedence over the heaven, and sometimes heaven over earth? In fact it teaches that they are equal to each other. Everywhere Abraham is mentioned before Isaac, and Isaac before Jacob; yet in one place it says, "Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham" (Lev. xxvi,42): this teaches that the three are on a par. Everywhere Moses is mentioned before Aaron, yet in one place it says, "These are that Aaron and Moses" (Ex. VI,26): this teaches that they are on a par. Everywhere Joshua is mentioned before Caleb, yet in one place it says, "save Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite, and Joshua the son of Nun" (Num. xxxn, iz): this teaches that they are on a par. Everywhere a father's honour is mentioned before the mother's honour, but in one place it says, "Ye shall fear every man his mother, and his father" (Lev, XIX, 3) : this teaches that both are on a par. What can be the purpose of this neatly constructed Midrash?
Surely it's purpose is in the final paragraph ie to prove that a mother's honour is on a par with a father's honour.
On which basis I would submit that this is a very early (perhaps the earliest?) explicitly feminist Midrash.

But (to quote the cat in the hat)
"That is not all...oh no, that is not all".

Look at who is saying it.
Astonishingly the author appears to be Rabbi Shimon. Who is Rabbi Shimon wth no epithet?  Surely Rabbi 
Shimon bar Yochai.  The eponymous author of the Zohar who is connected by tradition with Lag Ba'Omer the 33rd day of the Omer.
In which case this is all the more remarkable, for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is that fiery character who was so uncompromisingly anti-Roman (and apparently misogynist - infamously saying "Women's minds are weak") that he had to hide in a cave for 13 years with his son.

Here is the story:
The Talmud reports how Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai came to be set apart as an “enemy of the state” by the Roman governor.  

One day, Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai, Rabbi Yossi, and Rabbi Shimon were sitting together. Yehuda ben Geirim joined them.  Rabbi Yehuda said: “Look what fine projects this nation undertakes.  They built marketplaces, bridges, and bathhouses.”  Rabbi Yossi remained silent and said nothing.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai replied: “They did everything for their own benefit. They set up the marketplaces for their own pleasure and good.  They built bathhouses to indulge in their own pleasure.  They built bridges so that they would be able to charge tolls for using them.”

Yehuda ben Geirim went and told his family what Rabbi Shimon had said.  Word spread from one person to another, and reached the ears of the governor, who declared: Rabbi Yehuda, who praised the Romans, will be promoted to chief spokesman everywhere.  Rabbi Yossi, who remained silent, will be exiled to Tzipori.  And Rabbi Shimon, who spoke against us, will be executed!”

When Rabbi Shimon learned of the governor’s intentions, he took his son Rabbi Elazar and hid in the study hall.  Each day, his wife brought them bread and water.

When the search for him intensified, Rabbi Shimon feared that his hiding place would be discovered. He told his son: “Women's minds are weak : I fear that the authorities will torture your mother, and she will reveal our hiding place!”

Rabbi Shimon and his son left the study hall and fled outside of the city.  They hid in a cave,  Heaven provided them with sustenance by creating a carob tree at the mouth of the cave, and a spring of fresh water.

While they were in the cave they removed their garments so that they would not wear out.  They covered themselves with sand up to their necks, out of modesty, and sat and studied Torah.  When it was time to recite their prayers, they donned their clothing again.

For twelve years, the two men, father and son, remained secluded in their cave, and no one knew of their whereabouts, except for Elijah the Prophet, who visited them twice a day and studied with them.  ...

For twelve years, Rabbi Shimon remained hidden. Finally, the Roman governor died, and his decree against Rabbi Shimon was annulled.  However, Rabbi Shimon himself was unaware of these developments. Eliljah the Prophet came to the mouth of the cave and said: “Who will inform the son of Yochai that the governor has died and his decrees are therefore annulled?”

Rabbi Shimon and his son heard these words and left the cave.

They came upon some men plowing the soil and planting seeds.  Rabbi Shimon was taken aback.  He asked: “How can people set aside eternal life and occupy themselves with earthly matters?  Every where the two glanced was immediately scorched.  A Heavenly voice said to them: “Have you come out of the cave in order to destroy My world?  Go back to your cave!”

They went back to the cave for another twelve months.  Then Rabbi Shimon declared: “We have been punished enough, for even the evil doers in Gehenna are not punished for more than twelve months.  A Heavenly voice said: “Go out of your cave!”

So they emerged. Seeing a man ploughing and  Thus.'; they issued: wherever R. Eleazar wounded,  R. Simeon healed. Said he to him, 'My son! You and I are sufficient for the world.'  On the eve of the Sabbath before sunset they saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running at twilight. What are these for?' they asked him. 'They are in honour of the Sabbath,' he replied.  'But one should suffice you'? — One is for 'Remember-' and one for 'Observe.'  Said he to his son, 'See how precious are the commandments to Israel.' Then their minds were put at ease.

So the same Rabbi Shimon who before the 13 years in the cave declares of his wife "Women's minds are weak" seems to be arguing (after his 13 years of meditation and study, I trust) that
a mother and father "are on a par".

He seems to have mellowed somewhat.


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