Homa, Nhamani’s widow, came to Raba and asked him, “Grant me my allowance.” And he granted her an allowance. “Grant me,” she demanded again, “an allowance for wine”. “I know,” he said to her, “that Nhamani didn’t drink wine.” “By the life of the Master,” she replied, “I swear that he gave me to drink from horns like this.” As she was showing it to him, her arm was uncovered and a light shone on the court.
Raba rose, went home and solicited R. Hisda’s daughter. “Who has been today to court?” inquired R.Hisda’s daughter. “Homa,” he replied. Thereupon she followed her, striking her with the straps of a chest until she chased her out of all Mahuza. “You have,” she said to her, “already killed three men and now you come to kill another.” (Ketubot, 65a)
I come to Rabbi Roly’s lunch-time Talmud class with curiosity mitigated by a self-preservation clause. I assure myself that none of this will impinge upon my emotional landscape or change my perception of the real world. Then there are tales such as this one that seriously undermine that resolve.
There has been no rain for months in this bustling commercial city. Homa steps lightly as if the heat and the dust have no hold on her, as if her ears are not assaulted by the din of creaking carts and the cries of hawking merchants. Raba has always avoided spending time with her and never inquired of his nephew Nhamani about his domestic life. There was always something about that woman that was errant, untamed. No one could ever say which of the many laws safeguarding the modesty of women she transgressed. Imposing limits on such a woman is like banning the frankincense from giving forth fragrance or commanding a tangled vine to grow straight. Still he is Raba the great adjudicator, and he must deal fairly with community funds. He must impose order on chaos, he must resist the haunted realms. He must resist too his grief for the tragically felled Nhamani. Rumors aside, who can say what sapped his promising young nephew of his life force. He, Raba, must rise above his emotions; he must remain clear-headed and decide justly in this matter of the widow’s allocation.
He grants Homa a standard pension but she insists that she and Nhamani were in the habit of enjoying wine. For this she requires more funds. When Raba doubts her, Homa raises her drinking goblet high and the soft folds of linen slide off to reveal her beckoning arm and to uncover the curve of her sun-kissed shoulder. Though he tries to avert his gaze, Raba glimpses of her dark, incendiary armpit before he rises from his chair.
He rushes home and insists that his wife, R. Hisda’s daughter, interrupt her silk inventory, even if she loses count, he cannot be made to wait another minute. She drinks in his irrepressible desire as though filling a hidden cavern. But then this blissfully ravaged wife comes back to her always keen senses. She asks of him with something more than idle curiosity who he met with before coming home – and because he is honest, because he is naïve, he replies without deception.
It was the wantonness of another woman that made him lose control. Raba’s wife scours the stains of his emission off her thigh. How could she have been so vulnerable in her own terrifying need to be loved by this remote and inaccessible man? How could she have been so defenseless believing that it was she, wife of Raba, daughter of Hisda, that lured him home when in truth it was a vixen that turned her husband into a horny goat. It was because of a succubus that he came into her so desperate and undone. A cheap temptress brought forth from the depth of her pious husband such piteous cries as she has never heard. What is she to do with this glimpse into the lonely, unswept corners of a great man’s soul?
Homa…she didn’t even have the money for a wedding dress the third time around. It was she the daughter of Hisda who endowed that vulgar woman with three full meters of fine silk for her nuptial robes. How did she provoke him? Was it a fluttering glance, a stray lock of raven hair beckoning from under her head- scarf? Or was it a stolen, if deliberate, flash of her shapely ankle with the straps of her leather sandal tightly binding her calf, snaking a path high up her leg?
Raba’s wife squeezes her eyes tight against the intrusion of the vision and feels that she will break apart from shame. …with all your heart and all your soul and all your might… Through him, for a fleeting moment she felt herself lifted up as never before to God. And you will love the Lord thy God with all your heart, all your might. For just one moment she was infused with the purest meaning of those words. Now she is tainted by a dirty and barbaric secret. Homa’s sexual wiles have already drained three husbands of their life force. Homa the death-dealer… and now her own husband… how has that woman dared….
And in those days Raba’s good wife was known to be righteous in all of her ways. She could discern who were the truth-tellers and who spoke falsely; more than once it was she who advised her husband how to render a verdict. It was she, daughter of the wealthy Hisda who welcomed these hungry students and their grateful wives around her Sabbath table; it was she who insured the smooth running of the pious community in exile. This is not a matter for a besotted man in a court of law. In a fury, her clouded eyes land on the buckled straps that bind the heavy chest. She rips the straps off and rushes off under the still scorching sun. In a cloud of dry dust, stinking of sweat, indifferent to the stares of the merchants and the smirking of the servants, she flogs and curses that she-devil right out of town.
A Conference Room, Midtown Manhattan
Rabbi Roly asks us what this is all about. Like the rabbis of old, we are hardly of one mind. Some of the women want to know by what right an all-male court of law gets to decide the resources a widowed woman requires. Others decry the presumably unprovoked violence of Raba’s wife: Where is sisterhood when we really need it?
Then there are a few guys who are brave enough to defend the hapless Raba: Even the most pious of men is not immune to sexual excitation, at least this one was conscientious enough to get up, leave the court unattended and go home to his wife.
One man wonders in a timid voice what the wife was so upset about anyway. In the days of Spitzer and Edwards (now we can add Weiner, DSK and Schwartzenegger to the list) we have to be impressed with Raba’s self-containment. Here is a man with his moral finger in an explosive dyke.
A disquieted woman speaks up. She is willing to accept that Raba’s wife is not identified by a name, but then how come Homa the widow is? No one, not even Roly, can make this right for her, so we move on.
Then a few others, male and female alike, express an outright lack of empathy for the offended, aggressive wife. The failure to identify with her humiliation as a make-do/stand-in for another’s sexual allure elicits loud moans from a few of the women gathered round (and not least of all from me).
What in this world – or the next – is the source of the dazzling nehorah or light suddenly bathing the court and the bare-armed babe in luminous splendor?
What can we say about that light?
It reminds me of the splendor that the seeker longs for in the Friday night song Yedid Nefesh, the one I sang long ago with my father around the Shabbos table. There is a light that must be revealed if the afflicted woman in the song is ever to be healed.
But who is the afflicted woman? Is she Miriam? Is she me? Is she emblematic of all the women pitted against one another in this and countless other stories? Is she the wanton seductress? Or is she the loyal but undesired wife? Is she every woman who ever lived or are we cautioned not to take this personally? Perhaps she is the exiled shechinah? Is she – watch out for the usual party line – the people of Israel needy of redemption? I must bring my thoughts back, this sort of inquiry sets the mind off reeling.
The Aramaic word used for the light in this story is nehorah a word associated with the primordial glow of creation, the mystical light that predates the creation of the sun and the moon, the light that is the antidote to darkness, the light towards which the psalmist and all seekers yearn. There is even a midrashic tradition that nehorah is one of the secret names of the Messiah. How is it that the bared flesh of a woman destabilizing a righteous man in a court of law triggers an outpouring of redemptive light?
Elijah will resolve all disputed questions and illuminate mysteries unresolved. Roly says we each get to ask Elijah just one question when he comes heralding the Messiah. The one about illicit sexuality and redemptive light has to make it into my top ten.
Finally the participants in lunch-and learn debate whether the revelation of the golden arm was an accident or a tactic on Homa’s part.
I find myself impatient, impolite almost, with women who insist that poor defenseless Homa only meant to display her supporting evidence and intended no seduction. To me it is quite clear – in a situation where we are granted little power, resourceful women will rely on whatever powers of persuasion they do have.
I dare to take the part of the outcast seductress. Then again how well I do understand the slighted feelings of the wife. Once upon a time, I was that siren luring men away from too narrow an understanding of what it means to take full pleasure in God’s world. Now I am a veteran of a thirty-year marriage and I know a thing or two about the incompatibility of passion and trust, how love in captivity scrounges and scrapes for the in-house spark. How then might a wife respond with emotional maturity, rather than rage, to the disruptive intrusion of another?
I had firmly intended to be only a tourist in Talmud land, but I have lost myself in this drama with soul shards flying all around. I am she and she is me and then comes the other woman making a claim on me as well. That day, I am not entirely intact as I make my way home.