Shemini: The Case of the Disappearing Priestess

There used to be a joke told about how barbecues happened in the suburbs. It went like this “When a man volunteers to do the barbecue this is what happens. First, the woman buys the food. Then the woman makes the salad, prepares the vegetables, and makes the dessert.
Then the woman prepares the meat, placing it on a tray along with the necessary cooking utensils and sauces, and takes it to the man who is standing by the barbecue with a nice cold drink. The man puts the meat on the grill. The woman goes inside to organize the plates and cutlery, coming out briefly with another cold drink for the man. He flips the meat, watches it a while and then takes it off the grill and puts it on a plate which he gives to the woman.
The woman brings plates, salad, bread, utensils, napkins and sauces to the table.  Everyone eats. After eating, the woman clears the table and does the dishes. The man accepts the praise for his cooking skills. Then he asks the woman how she liked her night off from making dinner.”

I sometimes think of this joke when listening to the instructions about the sacrificial system – only the final stages are really described, the process from a live animal being brought to the door of the tent of meeting to the burning of flesh and dashing of blood is strangely fuzzy. And I wonder who were the other people who supported the work of the ritual system, what were their roles, what were they thinking? Were there women involved as well as men?

This last question comes to mind in part from reading the midrashim which discuss what was the actual sin of Nadav and Avihu, that in this earliest moment of priesthood they offered strange fire and were struck down by fire.

A variety of reasons for their deaths are contrived from the text: their sacrifice was made at  the wrong time; they were drunk or unwashed or were not wearing the right clothing for the ritual. None of these speak to the ‘strange fire’ that they offered before God.

But there are other reasons suggested for their deaths and these reasons bespeak arrogance and self-importance and a huge lack of self-awareness: firstly that they had added to the fire already burning, something they had not been taught to do by Moses, so their crime was as much to do with dishonouring their teacher as the ritual they performed – they believed they knew better (Leviticus Rabbah 20:10). This arrogance is spoken of in another midrash recorded in the Babylonian Talmud: “Moses and Aaron were walking together with Nadav and Avihu behind them, and following them were all of Israel. Nadav said to Avihu, “When these two elders die, you and I will lead this generation.” God said “Let’s see who buries whom.” (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 52a)

The implication is as described by Rashi, middah kneged middah, the punishment matched the crime, the sin of offering strange fire was death by strange fire, the sin of arrogance and ignoring the rights and existence of others was addressed by their own death.

So whose ‘death’ or lack of rights to existence are we talking about here? The midrash tells us, intriguingly, the following viewpoint: “Rabbi Levi said, “They were conceited, many woman awaited them eagerly (to marry them) but what did they say? ‘Our uncle is King, our other uncle is a head of a tribe, our father is High Priest, we are his two assistants. What woman is worthy of us?'” (Leviticus Rabbah 20:10)

The sin of Nadav and Avihu was the ignoring of the legitimate rights of women. In their self-satisfaction they did not feel the need to marry, and in their refusal they consigned women to a problematic limbo. But there is more to this refusal to attend to the needs of women than a quick reading suggests. We are back to the ‘joke’ I began with. Israelite society was the only one of its kind in the region at the time that does not appear to have had priestesses – at least according to the biblical texts. Yet archaeological evidence suggests that there were indeed women who functioned within the priestly ritual system, at least in the later period. For example there are a number of grave inscriptions in Beit Shearim which show women with titles including that of priestess. The general view has been that as women were not priestesses these women could not have been priestesses, a circular argument which Bernadette Brooten demolishes thus: “It is my view that [the titles] were functional, and if the women bearing these titles had been members of another Graeco-Roman religion, scholars would not have doubted that the women were actual functionaries….what the male rabbis said about women does not necessarily reflect who the women were, what they did and what they thought. Rather it reflects on who the men making these statements were”  (from “Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue” by Bernadette Brooten). Brooten has collected all kinds of inscriptions and, having removed the lens of “tradition says women didn’t do this” sees that the physical evidence is clear that women clearly did. My favourite was when, having done a thorough review of the archaeological literature and finding that many synagogues had no separate gallery or room apart from the single room, she challenged the assumption that that must have meant that no women prayed there, rather than the more likely assumption that men and women were not separated in prayer. It was my first lesson in how we notice what is important to us and ignore anything that is not important or that conflicts with the model of the world we have in our heads.

So – women and priesthood in Torah. Were there really no women involved in the structural priesthood of the Israelites unlike that of all the other groups around them? Or is that what bible wants us to think. Was it as patriarchal a society as we tend to think or is that a later gloss in order to create the patriarchal structure of Rabbinic Judaism? We know that the matriarchs were powerful figures who clearly had agency in their lives and the decisions that mattered. We know of a woman who both judged and directed battle – the formidable Deborah – even while midrash diminishes her role as it also does for Huldah the prophetess whom bible records as being consulted by the agents of King Josiah at his request – she is described (2Kings 22:13,14) as relaying God’s words to Hilkiah and the others and she speaks truth to power bluntly and without fear. She is described as a prophetess in the text, a role that requires mediating God’s words to the world. We know of women who played drums and who sang and processed, of the women at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 38:8) and of the Temple (1Sam 2:22). We know of the idolatrous cults that also used the Temple, that there were women weaving cloth for the Asherah there (2Kings 23:7). There are intriguing glimpses of women involved in the worship systems of the time, but they are almost erased from the biblical text. Asherah is our best entry point – who was she, what was her cult that it was so necessary to destroy? Archaeology comes to  our aid again, for there are texts that describe her as the wife/consort of God – was there a cleansing of all that Asherah meant in order to promote the power of the single divinity YHVH? In that cleansing were the female attendants also swept away from the power base of the Temple?

There is another possibility –that the Jerusalem Temple which had to fight hard to become the focus of worship for all Israel – was clearly a political entity as well as a religious one. We know, again from the Books of Kings, that under the monarchies of Hezekiah and Josiah the strictness of the boundaries of this Temple was increased to the point that only the members of the Levitical tribe and specifically only the descendants of Aaron had access to the power bases in the priesthood. As the status descended through the paternal line, there was no room for women in the records of genealogy, no need to record them or to give them space in the structure.

So in the tight control of the Jerusalem Temple in order to concentrate power at that time (around the seventh century BCE), the women paid the ultimate price. And slowly their history was lost, their roles seen as less important. They could buy the food, make the salads, set the table, prepare the vegetables, help the man who would make the barbecue, they could eat from the meat if they were relatives connected to the priesthood, but their role in keeping the show on the road could be ignored, unappreciated, forgotten. The meat is what is important in a barbecue, forget the vegetable kebabs or the nibbles.  The animal sacrifice is what is important in the ritual system, and even though the flour and the oil and the wine offered are also recorded in the texts they just don’t have a starring role.

The joke about the barbecue has an ending in some variations. After the man has taken all the praise, the woman has cleared up, and he has asked her if she enjoyed her time off, he notices she is fed up and exclaims “there is just no pleasing some people”.

At least he notices her feelings and that she is not happy. Maybe in this century he might go further, see why she is feeling unappreciated, ignored and excluded. Maybe he might notice that she is not happy and fulfilled in her role, and work together with her to create what was presumably the expectation behind the midrash about Nadav and Avihu not being willing to marry– it takes two to fulfil the role of priesthood, both the masculine and the feminine are needed to represent the human being. One alone who thinks they can do it by themselves are conceited, arrogant and destined to fail. We need each other, we need our diversity and our differences, our separate strengths and our individual gifts if we want to really create a bridge towards the divine.

Chol haMoed Pesach: the love affair begins – the view from the harem

During Chol HaMoed Pesach it is traditional to read Shir HaShirim (Shir haShirim), one of the five ‘megillot’ read in synagogues over the year.  Esther is read at Purim for obvious reasons, Ruth at Shavuot, Eicha (Lamentations) at Tisha b’Av, and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) at Succot.

While the Midrash Rabbah groups these books together (along with the Five Books of Moses), they were not written at the same time or indeed in the same way, and date from between the 5th and the 12th centuries as far as we can tell.  Purim is predicated on the Book of Esther, Tisha b’Av is clearly connected to Eicha, but the three pilgrimage festivals having their own Megillah is rather more complicated and the links between them somewhat fragile.

So why is Song of Songs read during the festival that commemorates the exodus from Egypt?

It is, quite plainly, a book of love poetry. It describes the story of a Shulamite woman who is passionately in love with a shepherd but is separated from him, having been taken into King Solomon’s harem. In an erotically charged and physically explicit series of poems she remembers the relationship she yearns for, the imagery is bucolic and sensual, using imagery of the field and the vineyards, painting a picture of intense love between two people. In a dialogue structure we hear the voice of the lover describing her and their encounters, lingering on her face, her body, her breasts and thighs and neck, her face, her smell. A third voice, that of narrator or chorus, also appears in the structure and the protagonist occasionally turns to speak to or to give advice to the daughters of Jerusalem.

The book begins with a superscription informing us that this is “Song of Songs which is Solomon’s” and so it is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon, a factor which was critical into its acceptance into the biblical canon. But this authorship is unlikely in the extreme. The language shows it to be much later than the Solomonic period – probably 3rd to 1st Century BCE; It has parallels with other love poetry of the region and with Greek poetry and it fits into the genre of women’s poetry for the harem.

Yet it was taken into the biblical canon and treated by the rabbis as an allegory of the love story between Israel and God, with Israel taking the role of the female protagonist and King Solomon standing for God. The book was clearly controversial and only the powerful and passionate defence by Rabbi Akiva in the first century ended the argument. Famously he said” Heaven forbid that anyone in Israel would ever dispute the sacredness of Shir HaShirim for the whole world is not worth the day on which Shir Hashirim was given to Israel;  all of the Writings are kodesh (“holy”) but Shir Hashirim is kodesh kodashim (“holy of holies”).

Quite why he defends it so robustly, or why he plays on the name with the idea of holiness (kodesh kodashim) is left in history, but it has the effect of reframing how we read this book so fully that the voice of the woman is all but muted, the physicality and comfort with her emotions and desires are practically erased, and the book is taken into the men’s domain of ‘holiness’ and of the patriarchal God, and the religiousness of the woman and of women in general is diminished to the point of invisibility.

This is a book that speaks of the power of love through the voice of a woman. It bespeaks young and untested love, the intense first love that nothing ever quite matches again.  One can see why it fits Pesach which happens in the springtime when all the animals and birds are coming out of a long winter and going through their mating rituals prior to settling down. One can see how it fits into the first love of the Exodus from Egypt, when the beloved can change the world for their lover, in this case quite literally. Nothing bad has happened yet, no quarrels, no golden calf, no element of falling short of the mark, the beloved can do no wrong and as yet is untainted by doubt.

Yet having been appropriated for the patriarchal view of covenantal religion it is easy to miss that this book is women’s religious literature, that Solomon is not the desired or the lover, but instead represents a disruption to the older, earlier love that is both more pastoral and more prosaic. Religion in the hands of men created a structure of ritual purity, a hierarchy and a priesthood who ministered in mysterious inner sanctums where no one could see or could enter. Religion in the hands of women was more nature based, more in tune with the rhythms of the body, focused on the creation of new life and the dwindling of energies as life diminishes. It is no accident that there were women in the liminal space at the doorway before the tent of meeting, performing their poetry and songs, welcoming the bringer of the sacrifice and facilitating their leaving the ritual. It is no accident that it is women who mark important events with song – there are more women’s songs in bible than men’s by far. Women from Deborah to Jephthah’s daughter, from Hannah to Miriam, sing across the boundaries of events.

I think that Rabbi Akiva was right when he says that this book is so holy, but probably not for the reasons he gives. It is holy because it records the religious expression of women, it is forthright and unashamed about the physical space that women take up, and while written from an inner world of the harem it reminds the reader that the author is well aware of the outer world and all its gifts. The voice of the woman is equal to that of the man in this book, it is ideal in that it takes us back to the first story of Creation and the simultaneous formation of men and women.  It can bespeak the love affair between God and Israel in the sense that a truly matched couple in love must not have a power dynamic where one is so much greater than the other – in this love affair God enters our world as lover not as sovereign. There is much eye contact and kissing in the poetry, it is a relationship where both participants give and receive equally.

I fear that the book which reflects the spirituality of women has been so reframed and reinterpreted that it is almost heretical to read it in what I believe was its original voice. It seems to be no coincidence that the mangled punning of Shmuel to alter the beautiful phrase from this book “…har’ini et mar’ayich, hashmini et kolech, ki kolech arev umarech naveh” – “show me your countenance, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your countenance is pleasant” is made to read instead “kol b’ishah ervah” the voice of a woman is nakedness/sexuality. (BT Berachot 24) and then offered as a proof that women’s voices should not be heard.

Did he choose the verse from the very book of women’s voices singing in public space to try to mute that very voice from discourse as a deliberate act in order to add insult to injury? To assert the patriarchal norms and taking up of all public space for masculine voices in order to silence any other way of worship?  Is this the first attempt in recorded history of mansplaining?

Whatever the process, for a long time the voice of women in religious worship and religious relationship has been quiet, a whisper, the voice of slender silence. Yet there are hints throughout our tradition that the voice is still speaking – the bat kol, literally the daughter of the voice, is a rabbinic term for communication from the divine.

The book ends with a plea for the voice to continue to be heard: “You who dwell n the gardens, the companions listen out for your voice: Cause me to hear it. Make haste my beloved” (8:13,14)

There is another reason that shir hashirim is read on Pesach, the great festival of our liberation, our freedom from oppression, the fulfilled desire of the Israelites to be able to worship their God in their own way – it is a reminder that the voices of women in Judaism are still struggling to be heard, still searching for a space in the discourse, still asserting viewpoints that are seen as less valid or less important or less authoritative. We have not yet achieved our liberation within the Jewish tradition. But our voices will continue to sing, to speak, to shape the world we see and to counter and add counterpoint to the other voices heard so loudly in our tradition.




Shabbat HaGadol:the day to remind ourselves (as we frantically focus down on Pesach preparations) that our world is larger and more complex than we might be tempted to think.

The shabbat before Pesach goes under the name of “Shabbat Hagadol”, the Great Sabbath. It follows a number of special shabbatot, each with its own name and purpose –Shekalim and Zachor, Parah and HaChodesh, each of which is designed liturgically to remind us of something particular, each of which has its own extra torah reading and Haftarah.

Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath, doesn’t quite fit into the pattern.  While it has its own Haftarah from which some say its name is derived  (it ends “hiney anochi sholeyach lachem et eliyah ha’navee, lifnei bo yom Adonai, hagadol v’ha’norah”  Behold I am sending to you Elijah the prophet before the arrival of the Day of the Eternal God, the great and the awesome day (Malachi 3:4-24,23”)  there is no way of knowing whether the name or the reading came first, and truthfully the connection is quite tenuous – to derive the name of the day from the penultimate word of the Haftarah seems unlikely.  So, it doesn’t have an extra Torah reading, and the Haftarah which contains both terrible warning of destruction as well as a prophecy of the redemption at the end of days, is an unlikely contender for the designation of the date.

So what makes this Shabbat Great? Shabbat Hagadol, the great Sabbath?

I’ve heard a number of explanations – always a sign that there can be no certainty – and they range from the quasi historical to the frankly unbelievable.

Traditional commentators explain that the 10th Nissan, the date when the Israelites were to take the lambs into their homes prior to slaughtering them on the 14th of that month, was a shabbat – hence we are remembering the anniversary of that brave act of identification made by the Hebrew slaves after the ninth plague had not yet effected their liberation.  It is a neat suggestion, backed up by some ingenious workings of biblical chronology, but I think at least partially, it misses the point of the naming of this shabbat.  To get a sense of the specialness of this day we need to look not at the particular events of the Exodus, but at the fuller picture of the Jewish year.

There are two shabbatot in the year when it was traditional for the rabbis or scholars of the community to give a sermon.   One was the shabbat before Pesach – Shabbat Hagadol,  and the other was the Shabbat before Yom Kippur – Shabbat Shuvah.  Each of these are the pivotal shabbatot of the Jewish calendar, for they appear exactly half a year apart at a boundary point of the year.  The spring month of Nisan is designated in the bible as the first month of the year, and the autumn month of Tishrei begins the counting of the new solar year.  Both therefore are counted as real new years in our calendar, and so both hold out the possibility of new beginnings.

In both new years there is a tradition of self examination, of clearing out the old disruptive and restraining elements in our lives, and of starting afresh.  Be it the emptying our of the crumbs in our pockets into running water during tashlich as we symbolically get rid of our sins at Rosh Hashanah, or the bedikat chametz – searching for the strategically placed bits of bread around the house with a candle and a feather on the night before seder night so as to be able to burn them the next day, we use the same symbolism to the same effect – we want to be able to start again unencumbered by our past worldly misdemeanours, we want to have a new chance, and the beginning of a year has the right sort of resonance for it.

In the month of Tishrei, along with the festivals of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the eight days of Sukkot our calendar has created  a special shabbat with its own haftarah, where God speaks to us asking us to return – Shabbat Shuvah.   It seems only proper that the month of Nisan should have a special shabbat too, echoing the relationship between God and Israel that will also be so prominent in the commemoration of the exodus from Egypt, but weighted slightly differently from the Autumn celebration.

Pesach is a festival that is dedicated to the particular experience of the Jews.  It records our liberation from slavery, the beginning of our journey towards peoplehood, the moment when we embarked on a course that would lead to our encountering God, accepting Covenant, recognising the unity of the Divine.  The Autumn Festivals celebrate not our particularity but our part in a universality – Rosh Hashanah is not the birthday of the Jewish people but of the World, Sukkot is the festival of recognition of the universality of God over all peoples.  Our Jewish tradition values both aspects – the particularity of the special covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and God, and the universality of God being God over all the world – divine creator of all people.

Just as we have two new years co-existing with each other in our calendar, so does our theology allow for two quite different identities – the particular one of the Jewish world and the universal one of the whole world.  The skill is in keeping the balance at all times between what may sometimes be conflicting priorities.  If we become too universalist then we lose our special identity, integrating and assimilating into our context until we become unrecognisable even to ourselves.  If we become too particularist then we block out the world around us, turn our backs on the real and important issues of our context, and deny the greatness and universality of our God by denying parts of God’s creation.  The prophets railed against this; the rabbis planned and manoeuvred to keep seemingly mutually incompatible ideas and circumstances alive and within the tradition.  It is a major triumph of Judaism that it is able to keep conflicting truths within the canon of our teachings and one we must never take for granted.

So both Nisan and Tishrei are new beginnings, yet each has different characteristic alongside the similarity.  Nisan is about the particular redemption of the Jewish people, Tishrei about the universal redemption of the world.  Yet each has a balancing component within it.  In Tishrei we mix into the liturgy a great deal of contemplative and reflective material, and we add a shabbat of particularity – shabbat Shuvah.  In Pesach we act out the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt as though we ourselves were there, but we mix into it an awareness of the pain and suffering of the wider world. We lessen our wine of joy by dropping some out as we recall the sufferings of the Egyptians for example, we shorten some of the Hallel psalms to temper our happiness at the crossing of the Red Sea because we remember the Egyptian pursuers who drowned there.  And we add to our commemoration of our redemption from slavery the oppression of others who are not yet released from their subjugation.  There is a tradition to add to both the symbols of Pesach and the liturgy of its services a wider remembrance of suffering and tyranny.  When I was growing up it was common to have a matzah of hope for Jews in Syria and the Soviet Union, to leave an extra chair and place setting for those who were unable to partake in a seder.  As time passed other things have been added to some sedarim – the orange placed on the seder place for example, to symbolise inclusion; and now the olive being added as a hope for peace for all peoples in the Middle East.

Balancing the universal and the particular, the creation of the whole world and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, is a Jewish life skill.  We are a separate people who are part of the one humanity created by God.  We have a particular covenant which designates particular obligations – mitzvot, with that God and we also know that while our convenant is binding on both parties, God also has other particular covenants with other peoples.  We care about our special identity and need to keep it active, and yet we also care about God’s wider world.  We balance the two parts of ourselves continually, the particularist and the universalist elements are both  legitimate expressions of Jewish thinking, and neither perspective can enable us without the other being somewhere in the equation.

So why Shabbat HaGadol?  It is, I think, the balance to Shabbat Shuvah, the day to remind ourselves as we frantically focus down on Pesach preparations that our world is larger and more complex than we might currently be tempted to think.  If our minds are full only of cleaning, cooking and shopping, we should allow space to consider the purpose of commemorating the festival at all. If we are preparing ourselves for the seder service, we should be looking outside the texts of Egyptian or Roman or Crusader persecution of the Jews and look for more modern examples of oppression and subjugation – both within the Jewish world and outside of it.  Shabbat Hagadol is a day to remember the rest of the world before we immerse ourselves in the particular Jewish experience of an exodus and a liberation that led to our formation as a people.

We are once again, at a new beginning.  It is 6 months since we stopped and really thought about the world and about our part within it, our sins of commission and our sins of omission.  This shabbat before Pesach, Shabbat HaGadol, calls to us now to ask – Have we changed in that time? Have  we responded to injustice or pain around us? Have we followed up the resolutions and vows we made during the Yamim Noraim?  Are we playing a part in Tikkun Olam, repairing the world so as to make it a more godly place?  Do we really care what is happening in our name in the world right now as Jews or middle-class professionals or citizens of Western countries?  Or will we just settle down in our homes to commemorate a historical event in a ritual way, opening the door to the outside only towards the end of our service, for a brief moment of recognition that we are not alone in the world, yearning for Elijah to come and signal the end?

Shabbat Hagadol – taking place in a new month which itself begins a new year refocuses us for a day away from our own historical reality to look at the surroundings in which our present reality takes place. It is truly a Great Sabbath.