Knowledge in the Biblical Sense

from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The two seminaries I had applied to (besides Bais Yaakov in Boro Park, which I applied to only to get my teachers to stop hounding me) held interviews the same week. Rebetzin David, the principal of BJJ (Beth Jacob Jerusalem) and Rabbi Neustadt, the menahel of Yavne in Cleveland, were both in New York and scheduling interviews with applicants.

I had my interview with Rebetzin David first. It was uneventful. Nerve-wracking, but uneventful. After speaking with me for a few minutes, she gave me a sefer and asked me to go out into the hall and prepare a Rambam, then come back into the room and explain it to her. She asked me some questions about my explanation, and I answered. It all went smoothly.

My interview with Rabbi Neustadt was just a few days later. His New York office was a room in a building where lots of Jewish activism and community service takes place. The larger room that I had to walk through was  walled off with thick clear plastic sheeting, and stacked high with boxes. We sat facing each other on either side of a low white table.

A chumash lay on the table between us. The interview followed almost the same format as BJJ’s interview: a little bit of chat about myself, and then demonstration of my ability to read and explain a meforesh.

Rabb Neustadt asked me what I was learning in chumash class just then. I told him and he opened the chumash to Bereishis. He asked me to read and translate the first posuk in perek daled.

I read, “וְהָאָדָם יָדַע אֶת חַוָּה אִשְׁתּוֹ” and translated “Adam married Chava.” The literal translation is “the man knew Chava his wife.” But my teacher had translated it simply as “Adam married Chava.” The following phrase is “and she got pregnant and gave birth to Cain.” I hadn’t questioned the translation my teacher gave us, because it all seemed to make sense – after all, the order of things is marriage and then babies, right?

Rabbi Neustadt clicked his tongue impatiently. “I didn’t ask you to give me the meforshim on the posuk, just tell me the translation of this posuk.”

I just did, I thought. But how do I say that to a rabbi, especially one who’s interviewing me and deciding on whether I belong in his seminary?

So I tried again, straining to think about what I had gotten wrong. My translation the second time was the same as the first: “And Adam married Chava.”

Rabbi Neustadt is not known for his high level of tolerance, and he quickly moved on. “Okay, just read the Rashi on this posuk.”

I read the Rashi:

כבר קודם הענין של מעלה, קודם שחטא ונטרד מגן עדן, וכן ההריון והלידה, שאם כתב וידע אדם נשמע שלאחר שנטרד היו לו בנים: “[This took place], prior to the above episode, before he sinned and was banished from the Garden of Eden. Also the conception and the birth [took place before], for if it were written: וַיֵּדַע אָדָם it would mean that after he had been banished, he had sons.” (translation from

But when I translated the Rashi, I translated “yadah” as “married” again.

Rabbi Neustadt almost exploded from his chair. “Why do you keep saying that! Define the word properly!”

I was nearly in tears. I had no idea what he wanted from me. My chumash teacher had defined “yadah” as “married,” and while I knew that the shoresh meant “to know,” I also knew that sometimes words have nuances of meaning, and I thought that “knew” was a way of saying “married.” It made sense to me when my teacher said it, so I hadn’t thought about it much.

Rabbi Neustadt never defined the word for me. After a while of trying to get me to define it correctly, he gave up and the interview was over.

I walked out and made my way to the corner of the block in a daze. I was supposed to be catching the bus home, but I knew my eyes were glazed with tears and I didn’t feel like getting on a bus in that condition.

So I went to the payphone on the corner and called home.

“It was horrible!” I sobbed to my mother. “There’s no way he’ll accept me now, and it’s all Rebetzin R’s fault, I don’t even know what the word means and he never explained it, and I want to go to Yavne, but now he thinks I’m an idiot!”

My mother spoke with me for a few minutes to calm me down, and promised to talk to my principal and ask her to intervene for me.

M principal did contact Rabbi Neustadt and advocate for me, and I did get into Yavne.

I can still viscerally feel the bitterness I felt then, that I carried knowledge that was false simply because a teacher  couldn’t bring herself to tell twelfth-grade girls that “Adam yadah es Chava” doesn’t mean they got married. It means they had sex.


4 thoughts on “Knowledge in the Biblical Sense”

    1. Last week, a non-Jewish friend asked me, in the course of a conversation, about the rules and laws regarding sex in charedi circles. I said I don’t know – I was never engaged, so I never went to kallah classes, so I don’t really know the rules… Many girls in my twelfth-grade class had no idea that something like sex existed. They would learn that all after they were engaged, at the kallah classes.


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