Avi Garelick

Bros Before Hos in the Mishna


ISSUE 55 | FRATERNITY | AUG 2015

“Do not talk too much with a woman.”
–Mishna, Ethics of the Fathers 1:5

But which woman? Possibilities include:

  • your own wife
  • another’s
  • your ex
  • your friend’s ex
  • your wife’s best friend
  • any available woman

And what is the reason behind this injunction? Here are some I came up with:

  • you might be seduced
  • you might commit a crime (e.g. rape, adultery)
  • you might lose interest in your own wife (if another)
  • the passing pleasures of conversation will detract from Torah study
  • women can’t talk about serious things / don’t know Torah
  • pursuing conquest is evil or at least less good than contentment
  • people will think you’re cheating on your wife (if another)
  • people will think you’re vapid / sex obsessed
  • you will neglect your guests / friends
  • you will fail to pursue your tangible interests
  • it’s unproductive
  • it’s antisocial
  • it’s ethically harmful to have sexually ambiguous conversations
  • you will think “that was stupid” and feel empty

I thought that was all. But then Eleanor sent me these:

  • the encounter will wind up being shameful, revealing you to be incompetent sexually and/or not male enough and/or too male (in your own eyes and the eyes of others)
  • you will be revealed to be weak bc you’re the kind of man who talks to women
  • dating is scary
  • she’s not hot
  • she’s too hot
  • she looks bossy
  • you’ll have to pretend to be a feminist but should you? (you don’t know what your politics should be!)
  • women are fake
  • you feel don’t know how to talk to women
  • you swore to be single / you took a vow of celibacy
  • is she gay?
  • they always get mad at you / can’t take a joke

And then I added some more:

  • she is dating your friend
  • you are dating her friend
  • her husband will be jealous and will fight you
  • you love her more than she loves you
  • the implied rejection of that is painful
  • she loves you more than you love her
  • and so the implied rejection of it is painful
  • you might fall in love but you’re not allowed to (already married, a relative, an ex)
  • to spite her
  • to get her attention

Look, look at all the manifold varieties of misogynist disengagement! Of course, it isn’t clear how many of these are essentially misogynist, in that they couldn’t be explained in the broad terms of anxieties about sex, or even, if such a thing exists, generalized social anxiety. (cf. the Shouts and Murmurs called “Everything I Am Afraid Might Happen If I Ask New Acquaintances To Get Coffee.” This article is interesting precisely because it captures a construction of social life as an erotic sphere, as a site of unspoken desires, triumphs, and frustrations.) Nonetheless, it is one misogynist injunction which includes all of them. A versatile prohibition indeed.

While being one of the most flatly, and infamously, sexist statements in the rabbinic core, it is also, in its countless manifestations, the most prevalently followed.

Two ways to read the main injunction:

  1. Do not speak too much with a woman
    A woman is an object of temptation. Speaking with her, as well as doing anything otherwise permitted, could lead you further.
  2. Do not speak too much with a woman
    Speaking is itself the problem, and women are particularly tempting to speak to.

Or maybe we should say: Do not speak too much with a woman.

Because in every case here, it seems like the woman is defined through your desire for her, and that desire tends towards excess. Every time this prohibition is observed, it acts to curb or control the force of your desire.

And if this list teaches you anything, it is that this construction of the woman is hardly overcome, and has never been made equal. If anything it is only now more prevalent. The exclusion of unwieldy desires from social spaces persists.