The Dating Game (Vayetze – 11/28/20)
The Dating Game
The Real Housewives of Canaan series has been an eye-opener for me. Growing up in the still sexist mentality of the seventies and early eighties, and then immersing myself in the very nonegalitarian ultra-Orthodox world, I just took for granted the advantages of men in society. Once I left the yeshiva, my exposure and knowledge increased, and so did my support of feminism. When Judy (a feminist of the first order) and I begin teaching our class two years ago, I truly began to look at the Bible from a woman’s perspective. It’s not pretty; for the most part, women are treated no better than slaves and children. Women’s secondary status is most evident in ancient marriage rituals, but, in some ways, it was better before it got worse.
Judaism practiced today is rabbinic, not biblical. The rabbis relied upon biblical interpretation to modify Judaism from its Temple centrality and enable it to thrive in post-Temple times. Until the 1800s, when modern forms of Judaism started to appear, most practices were based upon beliefs and rituals set in the 4th Century.
One such institution is the dowry. Ubiquitous in Jewish literature, the dowry, a significant amount of money provided by the bride’s father, was the bait to entice a suitor to his daughter. Jewish lore is filled with stories of poor men fundraising or searching for means to obtain a dowry for their girls. Without a proper dowry, a girl might not have gotten married.
When I was in yeshiva in the early nineties, a dowry was no longer mandatory. Nonetheless, if one wanted to obtain the most promising “bachur” (young man) as a son-in-law, he let his intentions to support the future couple for many years in Kollel (advanced Talmudic learning) be known. Many of my friends were hold-outs, not for the girl, but for such a father-in-law!
While having an enticement for a son-in-law was the norm for the past sixteen hundred years, it was not the biblical norm. In fact, in ancient times, the one seeking a wife had to pay the girl’s father.
We see this in our parsha, Vayatzei. The penniless Jacob arrives at his uncle’s (Lavan) home in need of shelter. After Jacob works for a month for him, Lavan tells him to name his wage (Genesis 29:16-18):
“Now, Lavan had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he answered, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”
When the seven years lapse, Lavan does the old switcheroo on Jacob and gives him Leah. He’s then forced to commit to another seven years to marry Rachel.
Why is Jacob working 14 years for two wives? Because he arrived penniless. If he could have offered a reasonable wife bride price (perhaps a few cows, some gold and silver), known as a mohar מוהר, then he could have obtained them outright without such labor.
We find the word “mohar” mentioned numerous times in the Bible. One example is with Dinah, Jacob’s daughter.
When Chamor, the Prince of the city of Schem sees Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, playing with the other girls, he’s enamored with her. He kidnaps her and seduces or rapes her. Then he appeals to Jacob to let her be his wife (Gen 34:11-12): “Do me this favor, and I will pay whatever you tell me. Ask of me a מהר bride-price ever so high, as well as gifts, and I will pay what you tell me; only give me the maiden for a wife.”
Likewise, in Deuteronomy it’s written that if a man rapes or seduces a maiden, he has to pay her father 50 silver pieces, and he needs to marry the girl. The 50 silver coins replace the father’s loss of mohar.
I would say the mohar places more value on the woman than a dowry. At least in ancient times, the man had to show how much he truly valued his future wife.
In either case, though, the bride is passive, either bought or given. This is why I prefer the modern method of marriage, an egalitarian double-ring ceremony. I know many of you are nostalgic, desiring a single ring ceremony, but in truth, it’s part of the traditional idea of the man acquiring the woman’s marital fidelity. In a double ring ceremony, the bride and groom are equals.
“You’ve come a long way, baby” truly describes the long and ancient road women have trodden striving for equality. We’ll soon have a woman vice president. Nonetheless, there’s still much more to accomplish for women to be true equals. At least regarding dating and marriage, mohar and dowry have faded into history and we have made some excellent progress.