Shavuot: A new model of relationship where women are (also) in the narrative

We first find the festival in the book of Exodus where it is called called הקציר חג hag ha-katzir “the  festival of harvest” later clarified with the information that the harvest is of “the first-fruits of your labours” (Exodus 23:16). When we meet it in Leviticus (ch23) it has no name but we are told to count seven complete weeks plus one day -fifty days- and then bring a new meal offering and other sacrifices – the first fruits – to God. In the book of Numbers (28:26) we are told it is  “the day of the first-fruits, הבכורים יום when you bring a new meal-offering to the Eternal in your feast of weeks” and in Deuteronomy it is called the festival of Shavuot because of the counting of seven weeks from having put the sickle to the standing grain.

There is nothing in bible about this being the festival of the giving of Torah, the name we use now in our liturgical marking of the festival. Shavuot as we know it is a construction that builds on the ritual of bringing first fruits as sacrifices to the Temple to acknowledge God’s presence in our lives, and replaces this with the covenantal relationship we have as a people with God, a relationship which is documented and defined by the giving and receiving of Torah.

So how amazing it is then that this festival which is the bridge par excellence between Temple and Rabbinic Judaism has as one of its major texts the story told in the book of Ruth, one of only two books named for a woman in the whole of Torah, a book which places women and women’s relationships right at the centre of the narrative, as one of them freely accepts all the obligations of Torah to join the Jewish people, and the other acts as her guide and support.

Other women also feature in the book, with strong supporting roles. Orpah, the other sister in law, who chooses to go back to her own people rather than go forward with Ruth and Naomi to an unknown future. The women of Bethlehem who act like a chorus and comment on the situation of Naomi. Even the matriarchs Rachel and Leah and the brave and resourceful Tamar make an extraordinary appearance, when the elders tell Boaz: ‘We are witnesses. The Eternal make the woman that is come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel….and let your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, of the seed which the Eternal shall give thee of this young woman.’ (Ruth 4:11-12)

As we are modelling a new relationship with God that has moved from the cult of sacrificial worship to a Judaism based on words and actions that aspire to bring us closer to God, the leading figures are the women, and we have two pairs of women – Naomi and Ruth, Rachel and Leah, who have modelled for us an extraordinary generous and compassionate relationship. The sisters had had the misfortune to marry the same man, and therefore be thrown into competition with each other, something that is not referred to in the text before Jacob came along, and we know that Rachel took pity on her older – and less loved -sister Leah by giving her tokens to seduce Jacob. Naomi and Ruth had the misfortune to be widowed and left without masculine support in a patriarchal world, but Ruth’s determination to stay with Naomi and Naomi’s supportive matriarchal abilities meant that all ended well for them both – indeed it is in this book that we find the only time a woman is described as loving another woman – right at the end of the book the women of Bethlehem say that Ruth loves (a.ha.v) Naomi, and Naomi nurses Ruth’s child, an act of extraordinary love and unity. Their relationship is the exact opposite of the parody of mother-in-law / daughter-in-law. It’s true there is no husband/son to fight over but they do not fight over the child/grandchild but instead are both functioning as its mother – indeed the women of Bethlehem say “a child is born to Naomi” rather than to Ruth – the mothering is from both women without problem.

The blessing given when Boaz is to marry Ruth is another extraordinary piece of text. “The Eternal make the woman that is come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel”. There is a clear resonance with the blessing by Jacob of his two grandsons by Joseph (Genesis 48:20) “By you will Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh” – itself a blessing of harmonisation, given that Ephraim (the younger) is placed above Manasseh, with no complaint or jealousy shown by the boys, a first in the blessing of sons in the book of Genesis. So again this is a blessing of resolution of any rivalries, a bringing together of two who might fight against each other but instead choose to work together without hostility. Then comes the naming of Rachel and Leah, sisters whose relationship may have been poisoned by the actions of Jacob, each wanting what the other had from him – one wanting love, the other wanting children. Apart from the disruption in their lives caused by Jacob, there is no textual reference to any hostility between them. And here they are credited as being the two who built the house of Israel.  Sarah and Rebecca here are less important as matriarchs – it is the mothers of the twelve tribes who take centre stage as with the tribal configuration Israel becomes less one family and more one people. I am aware that Bilhah and Zilpah are also the mothers of sons of Jacob and are not credited with this – I think because legally they are surrogates, the children not belonging to them, and this is a subject that will be given space in the future.

So here as the denouement of the text, the marriage of the foreign woman Ruth to Boaz a descendant of Tamar and Judah, and the bringing into the house of Naomi (who midrash gives a genealogy that will also lead to Judah and Tamar) means that the house of Boaz will be built like the house of Israel – the Jewish people will grow in numbers and in strength, but also be ready to receive Torah in its life, as Ruth has demonstrated her willing acceptance out in the wilds Moab just as the Israelites demonstrated their acceptance in the wilds of Sinai. There is a harmonisation, a sense of bringing together loose ends and readying for the next stage, and it is all done through the relationship of women with each other, choosing not to try to best each other or outdo each other, but to work together to build for the future.

And what an edifice was built on the foundations of these women. Of Tamar who boldly waylaid Judah in order to have the child that was rightfully hers and that would liberate her from yevamah. Of Rachel and Leah who became the matriarchs of tribal Judaism. Of Naomi who survived the deaths of her husband and sons, who ‘came back empty’ in her own words but who found the way to replenish and rebuild, based on her relationship of love and dvekut with her foreign daughter in law. Of Ruth, whose behaviour would not now pass the test of tzniut in many communities, but who also found a way to replenish and rebuild a life that may otherwise have dwindled into nothing.

The edifice built was ultimately the Davidic line of monarchy as the genealogy at the end of the book tells us.  And this is another ‘wild card’ in the patriarchal narrative we are so used to. For David is the grandchild of a Moabite woman and a descendant of more than one woman who used their bodies and their sexuality to gain what they needed. He is the descendant of men who left Beit Lechem to go to the hated Moab in time of famine and paid for it with their lives. He is the scion of a family with more skeletons in their wardrobe than one can imagine, and at the same time he is the descendant of women who broke the mould of sibling rivalries and patriarchal power plays, who chose to work together, to love each other in the most unlikely circumstances, to help each other unselfishly.

Torah was given to a people who were afraid and trembling, in a desert where they were insecure by a God who was so terrifying that they begged Moses to act as intermediary and agent for them. Sinai is a powerful piece of theatre with smoke and mountains that shook and the sound of a shofar piercing the air. At Shavuot we get a different model – a young woman who willingly and with love stays with an older woman and helps her return to her home, an older woman who willingly and with love guides the younger towards a future that will be blessed with security and warmth. No great theatre, no powerful revelation, just the day to day living of two people helping each other out.

I think the rabbis chose well when this book became the story read to parallel the theophany at Sinai. Here are the women, who were so hidden from view in the Exodus telling of the story. Here are the ordinary and quotidian activities of people caring for each other. Here is a true story of love and of people helping each other to what they need – no fireworks, no drama – just the reality of covenantal relationship in its quiet and extraordinary glory.


Bemidbar: Counting individual human beings or counting potential soldiers – how the text slides and why it should not

וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָֹ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לֵאמֹֽר: ב שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמ֔וֹת כָּל־זָכָ֖ר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָֽם: ג מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כָּל־יֹצֵ֥א צָבָ֖א בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל תִּפְקְד֥וּ אֹתָ֛ם לְצִבְאֹתָ֖ם אַתָּ֥ה וְאַֽהֲרֹֽן: ד וְאִתְּכֶ֣ם יִֽהְי֔וּ אִ֥ישׁ אִ֖ישׁ לַמַּטֶּ֑ה אִ֛ישׁ רֹ֥אשׁ לְבֵית־אֲבֹתָ֖יו הֽוּא:

And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt saying: “Lift the heads of [count] all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their ancestral houses, in the numbering of the names, every male, by their heads.  From twenty years old and upward, all who are able to go out to war for Israel. You will account them by their hosts, you and Aaron. And with you there will be a man from each tribe, each one the head of his ancestral house”

So begins the book of Numbers, named in English for the two censuses that occur within it, but called in Hebrew “BeMidbar”, “in the Wilderness” We are only one year in to the exodus here, the people are expecting to enter their promised land shortly – this is before the rebellions and the refusals that led this generation (bar Joshua and Caleb) to end their days in the desert.

The narrative gives us detail as to place and time. God speaks to Moses and gives him an instruction that is equally detailed – “lift up the head of every one of the community of the children of Israel, according to their families and according to their ancestral house, in the numbering of their names, every male according to his skull.” The repetition of the head/skull of each person to be numbered, the fact that they are to be counted both according to their family membership and tribal ancestry makes us feel that every single individual is to be noticed and each one carefully recorded in a number of different and personal dimensions. That their heads are lifted means that the face of each individual is seen, this is not the estimation of a crowd but the naming and numbering of every human being.  The phrase “col adat b’nei Yisrael” adds to this reading – not just the children of Israel, a phrase which would have sufficed, but col – every, and adat – witnessing member. And even their names are to be accounted; the uniqueness of each individual clearly matters here.


The introduction leads us to the idea that every single person of that mixed group of ex slaves and accompanying rabble is an individual, each one joins and combine with all the others to create the whole people who will become known as “b’nei Yisrael”

So it is a little disconcerting to suddenly find the focus narrowing down, first to males, then to people over the age of twenty who are fit for army service. And the accounting is now to be done not according to families and ancestral roots, but according to ‘tzivotam’ – their groupings or regiments within the army.

War is traditionally seen as a masculine activity, although there is some evidence in the ancient world of female warrior deities, and we know for example of Ahhotep I the 16th Century BCE Egyptian queen who rallied the troops and preserved Egypt; 15th Century BCE Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut was also a warrior who led her troops in war, but these are rarities. As Margaret Mead noted, war is a male pursuit, culturally gendered, and emerges from a climate where young males need to validate their strength and courage. Their interests dominate society and obscure the interests of women, who become marginalised and expected to help behind the scenes in supporting the war effort. Ten years ago it was reckoned that 97% of the world’s uniformed soldiers were male, and in only six national armies do women constitute even 5% of the force.

So as soon as the census narrows down to focus on the young male resources towards the war, all of the other factors, the individuality, the names and family names and ancestral connections, those younger than 20 years of age, those too old to fight, and critically those of the female gender become irrelevant,

Reading the first few lines of this book, it seems that God is interested in knowing each and every participant in the exodus from Egypt by name, interested in Moses and Aaron encountering the humanity and individuality of the people they are leading. The language being used is different from previous times that the people were counted – we have been given a number of the people who left Egypt (Ch. 12) – “about six hundred thousand men as well as women and children”. Later in the book of Exodus  (Ch. 38) we find that there are “six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty men”, over the age of 20, counted by their each giving a half shekel to the building of the mishkan. The language is terse and interested only in the numbers. Yet here in the beginning of Bemidbar there is detail and humanity in the way people are to be seen.

There are a number of words in Hebrew that could be used in order to count a group or calculate a number. The verbal roots:

מ.נ.ה.      ס.פ.ר.    ח.ש.ב.     פ.ק.ד.


would all be more normal than to say “lift up the head.  To lift up someone’s head requires paying attention to that person. The only way to physically do it is to approach them face on and to look into their eyes as you raise their heads.  This may be the reason why Rashi comments that “Because they [the children of Israel] are dear to God, God counts them often. God counted them when they were about to leave Egypt. God counted them after the event of the Golden Calf in order to establish how many remained. And now God was about to cause the divine presence to rest on them God counted them again. (Rashi ad loc)

If the numbering at the beginning of the book was in order to express God’s love for the people, and engender loving respect from the leadership for them, then the elision towards counting young men for warfare is tragic, made the more so because of the people now made irrelevant to the narrative, side-lined from the warmth of divine love into becoming people whose contribution is valued as ‘less-than’ the warriors’ is.  When we see that the people so displaced and demoted are the women, the children, the elderly, we can only weep for how the society has diminished and disregarded the people. Yet again the women have been erased from the narrative because it focuses on military might – even though arguably our best biblical general was Deborah. And people at either end of the age spectrum are also devalued, precisely at the time one might argue an awareness of their humanity is most critical.

Margaret Mead argued that “warfare is only an invention” and a bad one at that, and she suggested that it is time we changed our social systems which nurture all the criteria that bring about war. That may be an impossible ask, but it must surely be possible to return to the first few words of God’s instructions to Moses – “raise everyone’s head”. To extend the comment by Rashi, “look into every person’s eyes, see the uniqueness of each person’s humanity, and then, rather than selecting for military power, simply encounter the other person exactly as they are”.

As military might is elevated above humanity and vulnerability;  As the power to fight is valued more than empathy or nurturing or the emotional and mental work needed to keep families or households going, we will always find that some people are marginalised either because of their gender or because of their age. There is a dislocation in the text at the very beginning of the book of being in the wilderness, a choice that wasn’t made or that was made without deep reflection, and the result was forty years in the wilderness for that generation who relied on a model of military might, and yet were anxious it was not going to be enough when it came to the crunch.

In the tiny, almost imperceptible dislocation in the text, from raising the head of each individual and knowing them, their families, their roots to seeing only those who could contribute to the military prowess of the group, a tragedy is seeded, one which resonates with us to this day. And now the wilderness beckons, the place to reflect on the choices made. Maybe one day we will be confident to make the choice of knowing each other’s humanity, and journey together to our promised destination.

Behar Bechukkotai: Patriarchy and Priesthood join forces to undervalue women’s work.

The very last chapter of the book of Leviticus has God giving Moses the scale of valuations to be used should anyone vow to offer God the value of a human being, a valuation that could be modified should the vower not have the requisite money. It goes on to value land according to its seed requirement and the time till the next Jubilee, and it ends with the rules of tithing. It’s a kind of aide memoire for the priests as their book, Sefer Cohanim, closes. But it has a much more longstanding effect than the valuation of vows, setting down, as it does, the difference in worth between the market value of a woman and a man. Consistently through the categories given, the woman’s marketable value is radically less than that assigned to her male peer.

“God spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When a man shall clearly utter a vow of persons to God, according to your valuation,  then your valuation shall be for the male from twenty years old even to sixty years old, even your valuation shall be fifty shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary. And if it be a female, then your valuation shall be thirty shekels.

And if it be from five years old even to twenty years old, then your valuation shall be for the male twenty shekels, and for the female ten shekels.

And if it be from a month old even to five years old, then your valuation shall be for the male five shekels of silver, and for the female your valuation shall be three shekels of silver.

And if it be from sixty years old and upward: if it be a male, then your valuation shall be fifteen shekels, and for the female ten shekels.” Leviticus 27 1-7)

The text is a difficult one for the modern reader. Why does the valuation use the categories of gender and of age, rather than of skills and abilities, of strength, health or experience? All the things that we value in marketing ourselves today seem less important to the Levitical writer. Gender and age are clearly important to bosses: – today’s campaigns to make job applications and CV’s appear both gender and age neutral show that people are persuaded by them, often to the detriment of both parties. And here is bible endorsing the world view that men’s work is intrinsically more valuable than women’s. The smell of patriarchy is strong; the invisibility of the value of women’s work is powerfully embedded in the assumptions of this scale.

It is all the more galling because this chapter deals, unlike earlier ones, with debts to God. So even if the scale is based on how much a person might fetch in the slave market, (a dubious but prevalent explanation of this piece), it seems ridiculous that God too would value a person for their physical attributes as a worker. Each of us is intrinsically of absolute value, each of us is made in the image of God – this is a fundamental understanding of the book of Genesis and a principle of Judaism through the ages.

It seems to me that the scale is not looking at skills or experience, spirituality or intelligence, abilities or competence because these are not what is valuable to the writer. It is looking instead at the value of roles that happen in public life over the value of roles that happen more privately. It is ignoring the enormous and invisible work that is generally gendered female – caring, cleaning, cooking, child-rearing, nursing, shopping, making a home, and noticing only what happens in the public domain, and especially the religious public domain. Women, whose bodies and whose sexuality was seen as mysterious and polluting of the religious domain were removed and relegated, their participation in religious or communal activities seen as unacceptable.

While the rationale may have changed over the years, the economic position of women has not. “Women’s work” is still invisible, undervalued and if it is paid at all it is paid at a lower price than “men’s work”.

Recent estimates by the UK Office of National Statistics show that generally women still hold down two jobs – one outside the home and one inside it. Two thirds of women working fulltime outside the home still do most of the housework and “On average men do 16 hours a week of such unpaid work, which includes adult care and child care, laundry and cleaning, to the 26 hours of unpaid work done by women a week.” In 2014 the ONS figures show that this unwaged work contributes a value of £1.01tn, equivalent to approximately 56% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

And yet, because it is primarily done by women, this contribution is ignored. We know that women do more unpaid work than men in every age group, from the 25 and under age category to the 56 and over age category. At the same time, women’s average full time weekly earnings are about two thirds those of men.

Somehow the Levitical preoccupation with women and the public sphere has permeated society and impacted us to this day. Even this week our female prime minister discussed “girls’ jobs and boys’ jobs” in relation to her and her husband’s roles in the home. Feminism has a long way to go before we truly have equality in how we value contributions to society. There is one small consolation to be found in Talmud (BT Arachin 19a). When one compares the value assigned for the younger group (aged 20-60) against the older group (60 and older) we can see that the woman loses less value than the man.  The Gemara asks why a woman retains a third of her previous value whereas the man loses a much greater percentage and answers itself that “an old man in the house is a burden, while an old woman in the house is a treasure”

One might say plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose!

cartoon by the wonderful Jacky Fleming

If you would like to calculate the value of your own unpaid work, follow this link

Parashat Emor: the priest and the prostitute or how a women’s sexual history is mysteriously powerful in the ritual system

The priesthood of ancient Israel was a complex and important part of the identity and formation of the people, and here in Emor we are continuing the narrative of priestly behaviour and purity, begun when Aaron and his four sons took on the role of hereditary priesthood back in the book of Exodus (chapter 28) and the special garments they were to wear were described in detail. The priesthood was a sanctified position, the role to minister to God and to carry out the rituals perfectly.

So Emor begins with instructions about how the priest may not render himself unfit for his role, and the phrase early in the chapter is curious  לֹ֥א יִטַּמָּ֖א בַּ֣עַל בְּעַמָּ֑יו לְהֵ֖חַלּֽוֹ:he shall not render himself impure as a chief among his people, and he shall not profane himself.  The impurity issue is clear – for a person approaching God he needs to be in a state of ritual purification – but the question of profanation (or defilement or pollution) is less so – how does it differ from the impurity of being tamei?

First we are told the priest is not to become tamei (ritually impure) by contact with a corpse, unless the dead person is a first degree relative (no wife is mentioned in the list, and the priest may only have contact with a sister if she is still virgin at the time of her death)

The priest must not make his head bald, nor shave the corners of their beard, nor in any way cut their flesh – presumably these are all practises of a non-Israelite priesthood to be avoided at all costs.

This is followed by another exhortation, this time cast in a more positive light

קְדשִׁ֤ים יִֽהְיוּ֙ לֵאלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם וְלֹ֣א יְחַלְּל֔וּ שֵׁ֖ם אֱלֹֽהֵיהֶ֑ם כִּי֩ אֶת־אִשֵּׁ֨י יְהֹוָ֜ה לֶ֧חֶם אֱלֹֽהֵיהֶ֛ם הֵ֥ם מַקְרִיבִ֖ם וְהָ֥יוּ קֹֽדֶשׁ:

“They will be holy to their God, and they will not profane the name of their God, for the fire-offerings of God, bread of their God, they bring close (offer). And they will be holy” (21:6)

So far so explicable. The priest is to be holy, separate and distinct from the rest of the population. Their role is to offer to God, and they must be in a state of ritual purity in order to do so – failure to do exactly as required has already been demonstrated in the fate of Nadav and Avihu two of the sons of Aaron. This is dangerous territory, meticulous care must be taken in all one’s actions where one might contract ritual impurity or fall into the rituals of a different religious group.

But then we come to who the priest can marry, and the sexual history of the potential wife, or her past relationships  suddenly come into the category of being able to cause HIM to become defiled. And worse, the behaviour of his daughter, if it be seen to be licentious, will cause her to receive the death penalty by fire, because she has defiled her father.

אִשָּׁ֨ה זֹנָ֤ה וַֽחֲלָלָה֙ לֹ֣א יִקָּ֔חוּ וְאִשָּׁ֛ה גְּרוּשָׁ֥ה מֵֽאִישָׁ֖הּ לֹ֣א יִקָּ֑חוּ כִּֽי־קָדֹ֥שׁ ה֖וּא לֵֽאלֹהָֽיו: ח וְקִ֨דַּשְׁתּ֔וֹ כִּֽי־אֶת־לֶ֥חֶם אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ ה֣וּא מַקְרִ֑יב קָדשׁ֙ יִֽהְיֶה־לָּ֔ךְ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֹ֖ה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶֽם: ט וּבַת֙ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּהֵ֔ן כִּ֥י תֵחֵ֖ל לִזְנ֑וֹת אֶת־אָבִ֨יהָ֙ הִ֣יא מְחַלֶּ֔לֶת בָּאֵ֖שׁ תִּשָּׂרֵֽף:

A woman who is a Zonah (prostitute) or a Challelah (defiled) was not to be taken in marriage, nor was a woman who had been sent away by her husband (divorced) because “he is holy to his God”.

And you shall make him Kadosh (sanctified/distinct) because the bread of your God he offers (brings close), he will be Kadosh to you, because I the Eternal am Kadosh and make you Kadosh.

And the daughter of a priest who defiles herself with prostitution, she defiles her father, she will be burned by fire”

Just how can it be that the previous actions of women with whom the priest might come into contact can defile him? Taken in conjunction with the requirement of a state of virginity of the dead sister for whom he is permitted to defile himself the text reads clearly that the sexual history of woman has a real and serious effect on the status and purity of the priest.

And yet prostitution was clearly a part of Israelite society and we have biblical stories that speak of it without passing any moral judgement. Be it Tamar with Judah, determined to get her son or Rahab who helped Joshua, the harlot in Gaza visited by Samson or the ‘backdrop’ of prostitution described in the book of Kings, Isaiah, Proverbs, Jeremiah, Hosea etc. Prostitutes were a known sector of society, disparaged but tolerated and most certainly used. Little snippets appear woven into the biblical text about the prositutes– both male and female. We see them bathing in public pools, playing their music in public places; they were seductive and bible warns against their charms. Possibly the most powerful story in late bible is that of Esther, given by her uncle Mordechai into the harem of the King and how many little Jewish girls are dressed as Esther at Purim, how few want to be Vashti!

The rules for the High Priest are even more strict – he can only marry a woman with NO previous sexual history. Whereas a widow is an acceptable wife for an ordinary priest, the wife of the High Priest must be a virgin. The biblical take on this is fascinating – he shall not profane his seed among his people.  Rabbinic commentators take this to mean the problem that arises should he contract an unsuitable marriage – to a widow or a divorcee – and subsequently have children who are ‘profane’, but I wonder if this is indeed the plain meaning of the text, or if there is not some sexual politics and fantastical belief system at play – that a woman who has had sexual relations with another man will in the following years still have something of that man within her that could contaminate later relationships.

The fear of a woman’s sexual history permeates this section of bible. The idea that a woman can defile the priest, not within the system of tamei/tahor with her menstrual fluids (which to be honest is bad enough) but within some other system of Chall’lah, of profaning or polluting or even just making ordinary and common and mundane, simply by having been intimate with another man, is deeply problematic. It bespeaks the ownership of a woman’s body, of the rights to have intimacy with her in a particularly controlling way, by linking it to the proper workings of a priesthood whose role is to ensure the continuing relationship between Israel and God. It diminishes also the relationships which were not transactional in the way prostitution is – the divorced woman, the abandoned wife, the widow – these are all in the category of defiling the priest even though their sexual activity may have been impeccably within the boundaries of sanctioned relationships.

And another issue is noticeable by its absence – the sexual history and activity of the priest himself. No ban is given here about the priest not frequenting prostitutes, no rules are given for his faithfulness or his expected standard of behaviour in order to keep himself ritually pure and appropriate for his work – only the woman’s behaviour is legislated for here as if only the woman’s sexual activity has bearing on the man’s ability to function as priest.  It seems to me to have less to do with the appropriateness to function as priest and much more to do with the need to control that most feared of activities- the sexual behaviour of women.

It is against halacha even today for a Cohen or Levi, a person whose family name and tradition speak of them being part of the hereditary priesthood, to intentionally marry a divorcee, although if they do so the marriage is valid ex post facto although the priestly status of the children will be diminished. Inevitably such couples arrive at the offices of non-orthodox rabbis, hoping for a chuppah and some semblance of Jewish blessing. For we progressive rabbis the status of someone claiming to be part of an unaltered and untainted biblical line descending directly from Aaron is at best safek in doubt, and anyway the special status of the Cohanim is no longer relevant, we no longer wish for a return to the Temple and its ritual structures, and therefore maintaining some notional and doubtful purity to facilitate some outdated religious system which has long been superseded by prayer and mitzvot is a stringency we are unlikely to want to defend.

But to add to that the realisation that the woman is judged to be defiling to the man simply because she has been sexually active – makes the whole structure indefensible. When we look at the text and see that the stated aim – again and again – is holiness for the people just as God is holy, then we surely cannot allow these verses and their implications to stand unchallenged. The classical commentators have tried their best, limiting the definitions of zonah and chall’lah to women who either engaged in illicit relations or who were the product of them, but this is not the plain meaning of the text and it leaves unchallenged the unpalatable position that women defile men through sexual activity that has nothing to do with those men.

As increasingly women are finding ourselves the object of fundamentalist ‘religious’ statements, sexualised and objectified and curtailed and forcibly hidden from the public sphere, it is time to go back to the source of some of this activity and expose it for what it is – in this case the real fear the priesthood had that any ritual impurity might impede the communication between people and God – or might prove fatal to the priest involved, has been diverted to cement the ownership of women’s bodies, sexuality and sexual activity firmly in the sphere of men’s power. Enough is enough – the various prostitutes going about their business in bible should remind us that people’s sexual activities have no bearing on their value in society and we are not expected nor entitled to make judgements. And even if we believe ourselves to be part of the priesthood and expect to one day step up to that role – all well and fine, but let’s leave it till the days of the third temple and the judgment of the messianic age, and until then leave people’s personal relationships and sexual pasts where they belong – in the private and personal sphere of each individual man and woman.