Exodus 21:2-6 (and, with small variants, Deuteronomy 15:12-18) prescribes that a Hebrew slave, after six years’ servitude, must be offered the opportunity to regain freedom, and the consequences if he chooses to stay in servitude:
This presents a genuine choice between going and staying. Going into freedom entails leaving a situation that is known and safe and bearable, and facing the unknown. Refusing the freedom offered and staying involves a small mutilation.
The most obvious way in which such situations manifest themselves in our own time is the choice of staying in or getting out of a marriage or relationship.
In the second half of the 19th century, two great novels focussed on a woman’s choice of staying in or leaving a marriage, and the nature of the mutilations involved given the historical and sociological conditions under which the heroines were acting. I have in mind Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” published in 1857, and Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” the first part of which was published in 1875. In both cases, the heroines feel trapped in the material comfort and security of their marriages to reliable and decent and devoted husbands. In other words, the authors have set up for exploration a situation with initial conditions analogous to the Torah paradigm. The authors are scientific in their approach, their novels abstract from physical and mental abuse and poverty and any other factors that would confuse the issue and set up initial conditions that permit a pure focus on a paradigmatic choice.
In the historical circumstances of the mid 19th century, leaving a marriage presented an upper-middle-class woman with dilemmas not too different from that of the slave in the Torah case; she would not have custody of the children, she would lose most if not all ties to the social group she had been part of and she would lose economic security.
Both Flaubert and Tolstoy, in their complex portrayals of our paradigm problem of staying in or leaving a comfortable and secure but stultifying situation, follow their heroines out into the rigid and unforgiving 19th-century world in which they had to exercise their newfound freedom. Emma Bovary doesn’t physically leave her marriage but has two affairs, leaving it mentally, and in the eyes of the watching world. Both heroines eventually commit suicide. Emma takes arsenic, providing Flaubert with the opportunity to give the reader a tour de force of gruesome description of that kind of death, which turns out to be a physical mutilation beyond anything envisioned in our Torah portion as the price of staying in. And Anna throws herself under a train, on page 802 of my edition, resulting in another kind of extreme mutilation that Tolstoy, to his credit, does not describe. In other words, and this is the only point I wish to make from my glance at these two great novels, there was mutilation of the spirit involved in leaving as well as in staying.
In mid 19th-century Europe, the life of material comfort and security and perceived emptiness could only be led by a privileged group of tens of thousands of women, while by the mid 20th century in the United States it was a problem so widespread that it could become the basis of a mass movement. The paradigmatic situation of choice hadn’t changed in its essence, but the extent of its manifestation in society had increased enormously.
And what of today, the early years of the 21st century? By and large, at least for the educated middle class in the developed world, the dilemmas of staying in or leaving a pleasant and secure but stultifying marriage, or, for that matter, a pleasant and secure but stultifying job, are now much the same for women and men. And these are genuine choices in the sense that all options involve both benefits and mutilations of the spirit. In the formulation of the opening of this week’s portion: These are ordinances set before us.
David Curzon is a contributing editor at the Forward.