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.

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

  1. There is also the matter of the giyoret, the righteous convert, who is still judged a zonah under traditional halahkah. She is not permitted to marry a Kohen, even if she is a virgin. I have had to pick up the pastoral pieces and comfort a woman after an officious person has flung this zonah (prostitute) business in her face. I still feel angry when I think about it.

  2. Pingback: Shabbat Shalom! – Emor – Coffee Shop Rabbi

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