Toward More Expansive Perspectives on Gender, Authority, and Role Modeling


One of the most frequently quoted Talmudic passages—especially in my own subfield of Jewish sexual ethics—is Bavli Berakhot 62a, in which Rav Kahana hides under his master Rav’s bed while the latter is having sex with his wife. Kahana, apparently, is so shocked by what he overhears (the text tells us that Rav was “laughing, and talking, and doing what he required”) that he blurts out, “It is as though Abba had never sipped from the dish before!” Rav, unsurprisingly, is not amused, and he tells Kahana to scram. Kahana’s response—now, in its reception, nearly cliché—is that “This, too, is Torah, and I must learn.” 

This text is usually deployed in service of the point that, for the Rabbis, everything, even sex, is worthy of serious study and modeling by a master. And, at first glance, this narrative may look like straightforward role modeling. But closer attention reveals ruptures: both Kahana and Rav are discomfited by the encounter. Rav’s sexual behavior is not what Kahana seems to have expected from his master, to the point where his exclamation may be read as rebuke. Kahana’s behavior, conversely—his initial intrusion, his undisciplined exclamation, and his retort to what is obviously a command—is clearly not what Rav expects from an obedient and attentive student.

Context highlights these ruptures. The passage is preceded by anecdotes of students who follow their masters into the privy and learn uneventful lessons that are passed down multiple generations. Linguistic and literary cues point even further toward the conclusion that the modeling that occurs between Rav and Rav Kahana represent a break in normal patterns of role modeling. And feminist readers will note that the gender dynamics of the text are troubling indeed: Rav’s wife does not speak and is not named. Indeed, she is present only by inference, not even meriting a pronoun of her own.

In our particular sociopolitical moment, matters of sex, gender, and authority have taken on greater visibility and urgency, as the recently viral #metoo movement—started 10 years ago by Tarana Burke—has drawn renewed attention to the ways in which the abuse of authority and power enables gendered and sexualized oppression. Yet we work with and within a cultural and textual tradition in which potentially problematic structures of authority are an integral and unignorable part. Whether these authorities are currently or recently living (rabbis, teachers, poskim, administrators, funders) or historically active (the Rabbis of the Talmud and of the medieval and early modern halakhot), our tradition is filled with figures who exert authority over our moral lives. And we, as Jewish scholars, rabbis, and other Jewish community professionals, also exert practical authority over others.

How, then, can we grapple with the role of authority—ours and others’—so that we may live more ethically bound and thriving Jewish lives? How shall we relate to authority that is integral to our traditions when it can function and does often function in ways that are problematic? How do we structure our own authority such that it does not reproduce unjust power structures?

These last two questions are intimately related. The relationships we cultivate with our texts and our histories will shape and condition the ways we relate to our fellow humans. We should, therefore, cultivate an ethic of respectful and creative questioning of authority in each case. We should honestly acknowledge the problematic dimensions of rabbinic authority—their consolidation of intellectual and ritual resources, which, in turn, enabled them to normalize the exclusion and dehumanization of women, gentiles, and ammei-ha-aretz (non-rabbinic Jews). We also, however, should recognize the constructive and helpful functions served by their authority, particularly as we read that authority itself as a form of resistance against certain forms of imperial authority over them. In each encounter, we should seek out and recognize both destructive and constructive elements of their authority, and use each of these as guides (whether positive or negative) for our own ways of relating as authorities to others. 

This means that we must embrace a more expansive understanding of what it means to be an authority and a role model. In the rabbinic virtue ethics tradition, the teacher and sage was a source of authority by both word and example. In this textual world, an apprentice learned from his master both interpretive skill and the fine points of day-to-day conduct, both from explicitly didactic lessons in the beit midrash and by watching his master’s personal conduct. Much of the time, the master was the exemplar and the student did well to copy his example. But occasionally, the master’s weaknesses and foibles provided a counterexample to the student, as we see hinted at in the Rav Kahana story—and as we think about more liberatory models of authority, we should attend to these occasions.

Such instances also give us clues about rabbinic texts themselves. Instead of relating to rabbinic texts as simple, top-down sources of authority that deliver unmediated rulings on our day-to-day lives, the texts’ authority is better understood in terms of role modeling. When we engage with a text at a given moment, it behooves us to think about that text neither as an object whose meaning we are trying to divine nor as an oracle handed down whole, but as a partner in the conversation we are having about how to live Jewish lives. This partner is older and wiser, but not infallible or immune to rebuke. Indeed, this partner may, with uncomfortable clarity, model how not to behave.

Thus, we return to the Rav Kahana story. As contemporary readers with concerns about authority and gender, we might notice all the troubling features I mentioned above. What, then, should we do with them? When we interact with this text, we might praise and emulate a certain commitment to experiential learning, to the existence of some sort of back and forth between teacher and student, and to a granular sort of recognition that all aspects of life have relevance to the sacred. But we can and should rebuke the text’s failure to establish and respect clear boundaries, and especially its failure to acknowledge and respect all the voices in the room—female voices, in particular. And in this process of dialogue and discernment with the text—whose age, wisdom, and place in the interpretive tradition grant it significant but not absolute or static authority—we can take both its positive and its negative examples as models for how we can build more and more just authority structures.

Dr. Rebecca J. Epstein-Levi is the Friedman Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is a practical ethicist who examines questions of sexual, biomedical, and environmental ethics through a Jewish lens.