Friday, September 12, 2008

A Dastardly Plot to Get Me a Bride

As those who know me personally and those reading between the lines of my blog posts know, my recent attempts to get married have failed. Many months invested in wooing a girl have come to naught and I am now back to square one. An anecdote, I recently read, gives me hope of an alternative.

The prospective groom, ignorant of Hebrew, asked his friend to repeat the ritual formula (harei ‘ath mekuddesheth li = behold, you are sanctified unto me) at the ceremony. The friend did so and, taking advantage of the situation (and the young lady), claimed the woman as his legal wife. The community was dumbfounded, yet the woman remained his wife for many years and bore him a family. (Steven Bowman, the Jews of Byzantium pg. 123)

The gears turn in my brain and my fingers twirl in a Monty Burns sort of way. Excellent!


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All kidding aside, this story of a guy stealing his friend’s bride from under the wedding canopy is an example of where it may be appropriate to apply the Natalie Zemon Davis principle of history. While men are likely to portray women as passive figures in events, one cannot take this at face value. Davis' book, the Return of Martin Guerre, is about a man, Martin Guerre, who disappeared and abandoned his wife for twelve years. Eight years into his absence another man came and claimed to be Martin Guerre. This man, at least initially, was accepted by the family and by the wife, who bore him a daughter, as Martin Guerre. (Keep in mind that this story happened in sixteenth century France. There were no photographs or dental records to go by.) Eventually, some people in the family started to question whether this man was who he claimed to be and took him to court. During the court case, all of a sudden, the real Martin Guerre came back. The imposter was executed and Martin Guerre resumed his position as husband and even became the father of the daughter of the fake him. The wife in the story seems to be a completely passive figure. She gets abandoned by her husband. She gets taken in by the imposter and, in the end, she gets taken back by her husband. Davis tries to argue that, in fact, the wife was more proactive than the sources, written by men, might suggest. Davis speculates that the wife was in on the imposture’s scheme and even helped him pull it off by providing him with the necessary information. While I think that Davis, feeling the need to push her feminist ideology, overstates her case, this book does raise valid methodological issues, which historians, no matter what their politics, need to consider.

As in the Martin Guerre story, the girl in our story seems to be completely passive. She is about to be married off to one man, but all of a sudden someone pulls this trick and claims her instead and she seems to go along with it. The fact that this girl, as far as we can tell, did not fight the issue is telling. She could have claimed that she did not attend to marry the friend. If that failed she could have fought for a divorce. She chose not to pursue these options. The fact that she made a choice makes her an active participant. Maybe she really wanted to marry the friend but was being pushed to marry the other person. So when she accepted she did so with the full intention of marrying the friend. She might have even been in on the scheme.

1 comment:

Mikewind Dale said...

A similar thought struck me: this woman didn't protest!

And marriage must be consensual; Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, in his One Man's Judaism, says Hazal rejected comparing marriage to dedicating items to the Temple (even though it is a much more beautiful image of marriage), and instead compared marriage to mundane purchase (even though this appears to cheapen marriage), precisely because purchase requires mutual consent, whereas dedication is unilateral. (The item being dedicated cannot protest!) Look at the gezerah shavah for marriage: the same word the Torah uses for marriage (יקח, Devarim 22:13) is used for Abraham buying Ma'arat ha-Makhpela (קח, Bereshit 23:13).

So the woman could have very easily protested, very easily indeed. All she'd have to say is that at the time the friend spoke the words, that she lacked intention to reciprocate and accept.

I'm wondering if she suggested the friend as a candidate to speak the words. She had to have already intended to marry the friend, or at least, she had to have already fancied him. Perhaps she is the one who recommended him to her fiance as the reciter?

Your overall project here, of saying she wasn't as passive as historical accounts say she was, is incisive.