Bereshit 30;16 has long surprised me, even troubled me a bit. Leah has convinced Rahel to cede her turn with the husband they share, and tells Ya’akov about it in terms forthright enough to verge on brazen: “you will come to me tonight for I bought/rented you with my son’s dudaim.”
Hashem’s positive reaction, allowing her to become pregnant with Yissakhar, seems to justify her behavior. Eruvin 100b adopts that view as well, with R. Shmuel b. Nahmani quoting R. Yohanan lauding Leah’s behavior, saying any woman who acts like Leah in initiating marital relations, will merit children as exceptional as Yissakhar.
A statement of R. Yitzhak b. Abdimi’s contradicts R. Yohanan, and the Gemara ends up saying R. Yohanan recommended only that a woman find a way to indicate her interest in procreation, not say it outright. Torat Hayyim notes the problem, the Gemara’s conclusion seems to put Leah in the wrong, yet R. Yohanan holds her up as an example.
His answer brings me to the topic I want to discuss here, completely separate from how husbands and wives should communicate around their private moments. Torat Hayyim says Leah had no choice, had no other way to convey the information to Ya’akov. He thinks the Gemara means women should communicate with their husbands as chastely as possible while still effectively conveying the message. Leah, for all she spoke in a way the Gemara ordinarily dislikes, was doing what was necessary in her situation.
A standard I think bears more than a little careful consideration. Leah was right, in the Gemara’s view, even as she violated a norm for almost all other women. For every Leah who was right, in my experience, there will be other people (men and women, about this issue and many others) who violate the norm with insufficient or erroneous reasons.
Ya’akov gives us another example, later in the chapter. He and Lavan reach an agreement about which sheep will be his pay. The verses then seem to describe him as engineering his own enrichment. Rashi to 31;10 suggests an angel did it for him, Ramban to 30;37 argues the agreement never forbade such behavior (because Lavan did not know it was possible), and was therefore allowed. Perhaps uncomfortable with the underhandedness of it, he throws out the possibility Ya’akov had made explicit his right to take any measures possible. R. Yitzhak Arama, in Akedat Yitzhak, stands firm on the morality of following the letter of a contract, regardless of what Lavan would have expected.
They may each be right in Ya’akov’s case, because he was dealing with Lavan, who had used the letter of an agreement against Ya’akov many times, starting with the one about marrying Rahel and on into his shifting ideas about the sheep Ya’akov would be able to take as his reward. In dealing with a Lavan, Ya’akov might properly have beaten him at his own game.
Norm-breaking comes with a cost, however, no matter how justified. R. Arama, for example, gives reason to think his Christian contemporaries denigrated Jews for being descendants of someone who (in their version) cheated at business, was so dedicated to money he had to trick his father in law out of flocks of sheep.
The problem arises in other contexts as well. A person or community is faced with a situation calling for extraordinary measures, takes them, and then finds itself with the burden of figuring out when those measures are appropriate. Some take the safe extreme, insist behavior must always be governed by the rule of law and norms.
I think Leah and Ya’akov (and Pinhas and the Maccabees and others throughout Jewish history) show we follow a different tradition. A people bound by law as much or more than any other, our legacy also tells us there are times when those laws and norms are appropriately breached.
The challenge is knowing when, and Jewish history gives us examples of those who have chosen wisely and those who have chosen poorly. By its very nature, it does not allow for clear rules. We can only remember to include it in our reservoir of approaches: usually, we abide by laws and norms. Sometimes, situations demand extraordinary and non- universalizable reactions.
I hope we all find ways to know which are which.