Chayei Sarah: how Sarah’s legacy got lost or “undermining the pillars of the women’s gallery”

As we read about the death of the first matriarch, the woman chosen to transmit the promise through her son with Abraham, the woman who “made souls” along with her husband, the woman who laughed at God, it seemed a good time to post an article I wrote in the 1980’s for the first book by women rabbis in the UK – “Hear Our Voice”.  The article was entitled “Undermining the pillars that support the women’s gallery: an examination of the foundations of the custom of segregated seating” and examines and lays bare the paucity of reasoning and of sources for this custom that keeps so many of Sarah’s daughters out of public space and public dialogue.

“As women slowly gain an increased profile and greater power in the management of synagogues, they find themselves disadvantaged within its religious expression. In some cases they are literally hidden from view, their presence screened over and muted.

The reasons given for this are fourfold:

  1. That it is a biblical/rabbinic prohibition for men and women to sit together in worship
  2. That in Temple times there was a separate women’s courtyard (Ezrat Nashim) and a synagogue by Talmudic principle is a sanctuary in miniature (mikdash me ‘at)
  3.  That male worshipers would become distracted from fulfilling their obligations to pray, if they had to do so in mixed company
  4.  That it is the long established custom and practice for Jews to worship in this way, and to change it would be to “Christianize” the synagogue

Tracing the phenomenon of separate seating – and in particular of Mechitza, (the separating screen) – what emerges is that the historical, legal and theological case for such behaviour is not at all substantial. This is surprising, given the vigour with which it is promulgated and defended.

What is the legal source for the prohibition?

In the responsa literature there is some debate as to whether the separation of the sexes (and how it is to be done) is a biblical prohibition or a rabbinic one (and therefore less authoritative).

The few responsa that argue for a biblical prohibition find themselves unable to provide any verse whatever from Torah to underwrite the claim. The single biblical verse quoted to back up the claim for separation of the sexes being a biblical command in Zechariah (12:12)

“And the land shall mourn, every family apart.

The family of the House of David apart, and their wives apart.

The family of the House of Nathan apart, and their wives apart.”

The plain reading of the verse is that it is set within an oracle in which Zechariah describes the future Jerusalem. The city will be besieged by many nations, but God will strike them with madness and confusion. God will protect Jerusalem, destroying all who make war on her, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will mourn the nations they have “thrust through”. The mourning will be done family by family alone, and Zechariah goes on to name a number of households separately, and to state “and their women [will mourn] alone”

How can this be read as a biblical injunction not only for separate seating but for segregated seating – Mechitza? The logic would seem to be that if, in this quasi-messianic period, men and women were to be separated, and if they were specifically segregated during a period of terrible mourning, how much more should the separation be enforced in our corrupt times, and how much more so when the spirit is not depressed by sadness. For who knows what frivolity might be encouraged if men and women are allowed to be together?

As Moshe Feinstein wrote

“Nowhere do we find that this instance of future mourning was to be in the sanctuary….it therefore indicates that wherever men and women must gather, they are forbidden to be without a dividing Mechitza between them, so that they cannot reach a state of levity…..And so in our synagogues too….”[i]

Clearly this understanding is not the plain meaning of the passage in Zechariah, and clearly too Feinstein’s is a partial reading, as the issue of each family mourning separately is not developed into their behaviour at worship. More important however, is the fact that this source – the ONLY biblical text used to support segregation, comes not from Torah but from Nevi’im – the prophetic books. Feinstein deals &with this by writing:

“And even though its source in the Bible is a verse from the Prophets, in which the rule is that it cannot establish any biblical prohibition, here a biblical law can be derived from it, for it does not seek to originate any prohibition, but merely requires that mourning be observed in accordance with the [apparently pre-existing] scriptural law – men separate and women separate. We learn similarly of many biblical laws from the actions of the Prophets, Judges and Kings, out of verses quoted in passages of Oral Tradition” [ii]

In other words, Feinstein views this as coming under the category of received wisdom – i.e. that we can infer from the narrative the existence of an older law which is then assumed to be a biblical law. So had the text in Zechariah overtly prohibited men and women from mourning together it would not have been a biblical prohibition, but since it does not say that, then we can legitimately infer such a prohibition (!)

Leaving aside such convoluted processes, the main objections, that nowhere in the Bible is the separation of men and women in public worship or assemblies commanded,(and indeed we find many examples where men and women clearly do worship together, see below) and that the one verse that is even remotely applicable is in the Prophets, are not addressed.

So it would seem that the prohibition must be, in fact, a rabbinic one.    Many responsa, including those of Rav Kook, take this view.

If we look to the Talmud we find that it addresses the separation of men and women only in terms of the Ezrat Nashim (the women’s courtyard in the Second Temple), and of the great amendment made to the Tempe to accommodate the celebration of Simchat Beit HaSho’eva, the water libation ceremony which took place during Sukkot.

In the Second Temple there was a system of courtyards of increasing holiness, culminating in the Holy of Holies. One outer courtyard was ‘the Courtyard of the Women – Ezrat Nashim’, beyond which it is thought that women did not normally go.  Likewise there was a ‘Courtyard of the Israelites – Ezrat Yisrael’, beyond which men who were not of priestly descent did not normally pass.

The Ezrat Nashim, however, was certainly not a secluded and enclosed place designed only for the women, as a synagogue gallery is meant to be. It was a large outer courtyard where both sexes could mingle freely. It could not have been an area where women could go to pray quietly and separately, because the men had to pass through it to get to the courtyard of the Israelites and beyond.

Therefore we cannot deduce from the Temple architecture that the sexes were separated for the purpose of worship or assembly. Ezrat Nashim here means not a place reserved for the women, but the furthest point that the women generally went into the Temple (unless of course they were bringing a sacrifice to the priest)

Furthermore we know that the Ezrat Nashim was a busy place. Mishna Middot tells us:

“The Ezrat Nashim was 135 [cubits] in length by 135 [cubits] in width. And there were four chambers at its four corners each forty cubits square; they were not roofed over….And what purpose did they serve? The south-eastern one was the Chamber of the Nazirites, because there the Nazirites cooked their peace offerings, and cut their hair, and cast it beneath the pot; the north-eastern one was the Chamber of the Woodstore, and there the priests that were blemished searched the wood for worms, for any wood wherein a worm was found was invalid [for burring] upon the altar. The north-western one was the Chamber of the Lepers; the south-western one – Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob said “I have forgotten what it was used for”, but Abba Saul says “there they stored the wine and the oil and it was called the Chamber of the House of Oil” [iii]

The place described scarcely sounds like the paradigm for separated and segregated seating, such as that above the main body of the synagogue in a balcony, or behind a mechitza. We come a little closer to such a possibility further on in the same mishnah:

“Originally [the Ezrat Nashim] was not built over, and[later] they surrounded it with a balcony so that the woman should look on from above and the men were down below in order that they should not intermingle. And fifteen steps went up from within it to the Ezrat Yisrael, corresponding to the fifteen degrees in the Book of Psalms, and upon them the Levites used to sing” [iv]

So a women’s gallery did exist for part of the time the Second Temple stood, and it was added after the Temple was built.    To find out why this structure was built we need to look at the mishnah and gemara in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sukkah.

The mishnah reads:

“One who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water drawing (Simchat beit HaSho’eva) has never seen rejoicing in their life. At the conclusion of the first festival day of Tabernacles, they (the priests and the Levites) descended to the court of the women (Ezrat Nashim) where they had made a great enactment”

The gemara asks:

“What was the great enactment? R.Eleazar replied ‘As that of which we have learned. Originally [the walls of the court of the women] were smooth, but [later the court] was surrounded with a gallery, and it was enacted that the women should sit above and the men below.” Our Rabbis have taught. “Originally the women used to sit within [the Court of the Women] while the men were without, but as this caused levity it was instituted that the women should sit without and the men within. As this however still led to levity, it was instituted that the women should sit above and the men below”[v]

Note that the men and women swapped their quarters for the celebration, the men in the Court of the Women and the women in the smaller, inner Court of the Israelites.

So we have found the very first enclosure or gallery for women, but are left with two problems if we want this to be the source for the phenomenon either of separate seating or of mechitza.

First, the gallery spoken of in tractate Sukkah is of a temporary nature, erected only for this festival of Simchat Beit HaSho’eva (a festival which has not been observed for centuries).

Secondly, there are always problems in drawing a parallel between the Temple and the synagogue. While a synagogue may be a miniature sanctuary[vi],many activities particular to the Temple are not transferred to the synagogue (for example, the use of musical instruments is not acceptable in an Orthodox synagogue).

There is no reason why this once-a-year change in seating so as to prevent an over-enthusiastic celebration should transfer to the synagogue as a permanent relegation of women to a gallery or separated enclosure.  As Steinsaltz wrote:

“Simchat Beit HaSho’eva; as well as it being a religious commandment to be joyful every festival it is a particular commandment to rejoice on the days of the festival of Sukkot and thus they used to do in the Temple. On the eve of the first day of the festival they would prepare a gezuztra (enclosure or balcony whose finished side faced upwards) in the Court of the Women, so that the men and women would not mingle, and would begin festivities at the end of the first day. And so it would be for each of the intervening days of the festival. From the time that the evening sacrifice was offered, they would rejoice and dance the rest of the day and all of the night”[vii]

This is scarcely the practice today.

If the Talmud only mentions separated and segregated seating in the setting of the annual erection of the gezuztra in the Court of the Women (from which we can also infer that the gezuztra was taken down for the rest of the year), where does the practice begin?

The Codes do not specifically discuss the special women’s galleries in synagogues. Neither the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (1135-1204) nor the Shulchan Aruch of Joseph Caro (1488-1575) refer to such a thing. This could be for one of two reasons:

It could mean that the law referring to mechitza and the separation and segregation of women was so well known that it was pointless to codify it, or else it could signify that the law was not known at all.

Certainly there are many instances in the Bible where the women are involved in public worship. The earliest example is in Exodus 38:8 when we are told about the serving women who did service at the door of the tent of meeting. Other references can be found in Leviticus 12:16, the Prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:12, the Shunammite woman in 2Kings 4:23 and there are many more.

The book of Nehemiah contains a specific reference to Ezra the priest reading the Book of the Law “before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding…in the presence of the men and the women” (8:2-3) and in 2 Chronicles we are told:

“And all Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. And Jeremiah lamented for Josiah, and all the singing men and singing women spoke of Josiah in their lamentations unto this day” (35:24-25)

Interestingly here we have a text which speaks of joint mourning, both men and women public lamenting, as distinct from the verse from Zechariah, used as a prop for the custom of separated worship.

We know too that the early Christians – who modelled themselves on contemporary Jewish observance – did not have separation of the sexes in worship. We read in Acts (1:13-14)

“These [male disciples] all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers”  Further sources are Galations 3:28, Romans 16:12 etc.

Professor Shmuel Safrai of the Hebrew University is clear “from numerous sources” that women attended synagogue in antiquity, but that “there were no women’s galleries or any other known form of sex separation in synagogues”. He acknowledges that there might have been some internal division of sexes (for example women seated to the side or to the back), but if there were “there are no contemporaneous sources to describe them”[viii]

The exhaustive survey of the remains of ancient synagogues by Bernadette Brooten[ix] backs up Safrai’s claim. Having examined synagogue remains from the ruin of Masada (first century) onwards, her conclusion is unequivocal. There is absolutely no archaeological evidence for a women’s gallery or a separate women’s section in ancient synagogues. Instead she found much evidence of the prior assumptions held by the archaeologists who investigated this subject. She writes:

In a lecture on the Galilean Synagogue ruins held on 16 December 1911 in Berlin, Samuel Krauss said to his audience: “Now that we are inside the synagogue, let us first of all – as politeness demands – looks for the rows of the seats of our dear wives, non the supposition that something will be found which could be viewed as the remains of a ‘Weibershul’ in the synagogue ruins”

Following the demands of politeness, Mr Krauss did look for, and did find, the remains of what he called the women’s gallery in the ancient Galilean synagogues. The majority of modern Judaica scholars and archaeologists follow Krauss in both method and result – i.e. they look for a women’s gallery and they find one.

An example: In Gamla (destroyed 67CE) the synagogue is approached in its southeast corner by stairs coming up the side of the hill. An article in the Biblical Archaeological Review states that these stairs ostensibly led to an upper [women’s] gallery….. Further excavation in 1979 revealed that these steps are a continuation of a road leading up the side of a hill to the synagogue, and are thus leading to the synagogue itself, rather than a gallery”

Bluntly stated, Brooten’s conclusion is that a number of Palestinian synagogues clearly never had a gallery, and of the few where a case was made for a gallery by the archaeologists, the evidence examined did not support such a hypothesis. In the case of side rooms in the excavated sites, the general rule seemed to be that if a gallery could not be imaginatively reconstructed, then the side room was perceived as the women’s area. Otherwise it was assumed to be storage or a school room.

So, given that there is no strong biblical, Talmudic or archaeological case for a women’s gallery or a separate women’s section, we are left with a mystery. Where does such a fixture (and custom) come from?

The earliest written source is from the thirteenth century. Mordechai ben Hillel haKohen (1240? – 1298), a German rabbi and author, who wrote a commentary on the Talmud. On a discussion about permitted and prohibited actions on the Sabbath he noted:

“It is forbidden to set up any screen whatever on the Sabbath, unless it is for chasteness in general…. But a screen for general chasteness is permitted. For example, we are permitted to erect on the Sabbath the partition curtain between men and women, which is set up during the time of the rabbi’s sermon”[x]

Mordechai is using an existing practice to illustrate his point about work on the Sabbath. This is the first we know of such a practice, and it clearly shows that normally the women were not segregated within the synagogue, and that the segregation of men and women was done only to prevent impropriety during a sermon when the synagogue building was full.  By the time of R. Jacob ben Moses Moelin(Cremona 1565) the curtain is said to have been made from prayer shawls, strung across the room to form a divide[xi]

Other responsa on the subject of the separation and segregation of women in the synagogue all stem from the mediaeval period or later. For example Rashi (1040 -1105), commenting on a Talmudic passage which is dealing with men and women being alone together, says, “Where men and women come together either for the sermon or for a wedding, he should arrange earthenware jugs between them so that if they approach each other these would make a noise”[xii]

The Yalkut Shimoni (a midrashic work dating from the first half of the thirteenth century) cites the Tanna d’bei Eliyahu Rabba (a midrashic work composed in the second half of the tenth century, probably in Southern Italy) as follows:

“A man should not stand among women and pray, because he is likely to be distracted by the presence of women”[xiii]

It would seem that at some point in mediaeval times the notion of men being distracted from their obligatory prayer by the presence of women (also praying?) took hold. What was a problem in Second Temple times only during one very energetically celebrated festival became a problem for the Jewish community permanently. What remains unclear is – why?”

Several theories have been advanced. The dispersing of the Jewish population in Europe as the Crusades swept through Europe in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries may have forced a hardening of attitudes towards the women, in common with the non-Jewish world outside. Some scholars believe that it is the influence of Islam on Judaism, which has encouraged it to hide its women away [xiv]

Possibly the separation and segregation was done to protect the women in some way. Certainly the separated and segregated seating is required only when there is an halachic obligation to gather, and so for weddings for example there is no need for such a partition. In the same way as the Talmudic law works on the principle that women do not need to put themselves in danger by exposing themselves to a dangerous situation in order to fulfil a religious commandment, the separating and segregating may have been a technique to protect those who were seen as the vulnerable sex.

Israel Abrahams wrote:    In the separation of the sexes the synagogue only reflected their isolation in the social life outside. The sexes were separated at Jewish banquets and home feasts no less than in the synagogue. If they did not pray together, neither did they play together. The rigid separation of the sexes in prayer seems not to have been earlier however, than the thirteenth century. The women had their own court in the temple but it is not impossible that they prayed together with the men in Talmudic times. Possibly the rigid separation grew out of the mediaeval custom- more common as the thirteenth century advances – which induced men and women to spend the eve of the Great Fast (Yom Kippur) n the synagogue. By the end of the thirteenth century, and perhaps earlier, Jewish women had their own prayer meetings in rooms at the side of, and a little above, the men’s synagogue. With which the rooms communicated by a small window or balcony. Or if they had no separated apartments, they sat at the back of the men’s synagogue in reserved places, screened by curtains [xv]

The idea that the separation and partition came about to protect chastity during Yom Kippur (and which then took on a life of its own) makes the most sense in terms of the innovation which was brought into the Temple on Simchat Beit HaSho’eva, and of the first textual reference by Mordechai ben Hillel haKohen

The Synagogue is seen as a place of reverence, and levity would be out of place. Thus, when the opportunity arose- a rowdy minor festival, a sermon in crowded building, a night when both sexes would be sleeping in the same large room – the erection of a separate screen would seem logical and desirable. The only problem is the ex post facto legitimization of this screen into a biblical command, building into it the devaluing and disappearance of the women. One must also question whether it is the right way to combat levity in the synagogue today, or whether it actually induces people to ignore the service in favour of elaborate signalling communication with each other

This would lead us into the question of where it is possible to change an age-old custom, and whether this would ‘Christianize’ the synagogue. To take the latter first. The early Christians copied the Jews in matters of ritual. They had men and women praying together because that was the age-old Jewish way. Add to that the fact that the gallery was taken into synagogue architecture from outside the Jewish tradition (it certainly did not feature in the ohel moed, the tent of meeting in the desert – nor the Temple as described in the Book of Chronicles, and one could ask whether removing the mechitza and the galleries from our synagogues might not in fact be bringing us closer to our architectural roots.

Krauss believed that the gallery was adopted by the Jews from the Greek style, and later copied by the Christians. Certainly many Christian chapels have very similar architecture.

Regarding the changing of a time honoured custom (and as this is the true source for the mechitza this is the crux of the matter) there is, as ever, more than one opinion.

One view would be that this is a relatively new custom which was made to prevent the reverence of the synagogue from being tainted by levity and unchastity. Since it now has the effect of alienating women from the service, and in their alienation causing them to chatter and laugh and try to catch the eye of others, tis innovation no longer serves its purpose and should be allowed to lapse, as so many customs have done throughout Jewish history.

The stringent view would be that in effect custom takes on the force of law. In the Jerusalem Talmud the response of the Sages to a request to change an ancestral custom was “do not deviate from the customary practices of your fathers whose souls rest in peace”. Thus it is inferred that to disregard customs instituted by earlier generations to safeguard religious practice is to dishonour those dead earlier generations. The proof text for this desire not to amend or to innovate within Jewish practice is taken from the Book of Proverb (1:8).  “Forsake not the teaching of your mother”. Somehow, when applied to the segregating of women behind thick curtains, or up into galleries away from the heart of the synagogue service, that is the biggest irony of all.

[i] Responsum by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein “On the law of Mechitza” reprinted in B.Litvin, “the sanctity of the synagogue” KTAV, New York 1987, 124

[ii] Ibid 120

[iii] Mishna middot 2:5

[iv] Ibid

[v] Babylonian Talmud tractate Sukkah 51a

[vi]Babylonian Talmud tractate Megillah 291

[vii] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Orach ha Halachah, ad loc

[viii] Professor Shmuel Safrai, Tarbiz 32, 1963

[ix] Bernadette Brooten “women leaders in the ancient synagogue” Brown Judaic Studies 36, Scholars Press, California 1982

[x] Mordechai on Mishnah Shabbat 3 (n.311)

[xi] Sefer Maharil 38a

[xii][xii] 12Rashi on Babylonian Talmud tractate Kiddushin 81a

[xiii] Yalkut Shimoni 1, 934, cited in Litvin, The Sanctity of the Synagogue (note 1)

[xiv] Professor Shmuel Safrai interviewed in the Jerusalem Post 8th August 1986

[xv] Israel Abrahams “Jewish Life in the Middle Ages” 1896 Athenaeum, New York 1985

 

Shofetim: authority cannot be taken it must be given, so stop the bullies and stand up for diversity in the Jewish world and beyond

“This parashah, more than any other in Deuteronomy, is concerned with what we would call authority: rightful action in a world full of wrongdoing; power that is right and not merely effective; rule by those who have a right to rule. A parade of authorities is delineated, starting with the word that opens the parashah and gives it its name—magistrates—and followed by officials, judges, priests, prophets, elders, kings, and, of course, the immediate and ultimate authors of the book who are the sources of its authority: Moses and God. We need authority desperately, the Torah teaches, because our very lives depend upon doing what is right—and that is difficult for us.” (Professor Arnold Eisen, chancellor, JTS. 2011)

I have been thinking about the whole idea of authority recently. Defined in dictionaries as being the ability to make decisions, to have power and control politically or administratively, to give orders and to enforce obedience, authority has a different meaning in Judaism – or at least it used to have.

Authority was always multifaceted – there were different groups who could wield only one part of the whole – the monarchy, the priesthood and the prophets all held authority, and in biblical times they kept each other in check.   The most dangerous of these was generally held to be the monarchy, God had not wanted the Jewish people to have a monarch at all, but acceded to the request in the book of Samuel after Samuel had warned the Israelites of how a king would exploit them if they insisted on having one but “Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, ‘No, but we will have a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles’. (I Sam. 8:11-21).. and so began the unhappy monarchy of King Saul.

In Judges 9:7-21 we have the mashal of Jotam, a story that is sometimes told on Tu B’Shevat and reads a bit like a fairy story, but is in reality a biting allegory against monarchy:
Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon is the only one left alive after his older brother Abimelech has murdered all the other brothers and anointed himself as king. He escapes to Mount Gerizim, near Shechem and recounts the story of “the trees who went forth to anoint a king over them.”

The trees first ask the olive tree to be their king, but it refuses. “Should I give up my oil which honours God and people, in order to have power over trees?” The trees then ask the fig, and then the vine, both of which turn down the offer of sovereignty over the trees because they are already producing good fruits which honour God and people and each tree repeats the idea that they cannot do the good work they already do in producing fruits/oils/wines which benefit society at the same time as holding the monarchy.

Finally the trees ask the Atad – a bramble or thorn bush – to be their monarch  and this plant which produces nothing and has nothing to offer society except some shade, agrees to reign – and at the same time it issues a threat: ‘If you really want to anoint me sovereign over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the Atad and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’ (Judges 9:15).

The Atad is a thorny tree, its shade is patchy, it has a wide ranging root system which drains the water and nourishment from the soil around it. It produces no fruits and has no benefits whatsoever to anyone else, though it is well adapted to survival in difficult terrain.

The allegory is clear in its context – the good people either do not want to be sovereign because they are already contributing greatly to society and this would suffer, or they see no point in acquiring a pointless status. The thorny unpleasant and selfish person/plant not only accepts the power with alacrity, but begins its reign with bullying and threats in order to keep the power.  Abimelech is the thorn in the context of the parable, but we see so many who take over power undeservedly or with bullying in our own world.

Leaving aside the current world political situation where leaders who are Atadim are grabbing power and manipulating and bullying others, I was thinking of our own Jewish world, where the mansplaining, the power grabbing over women’s bodies and voices, the conferences on women’s health or activities which are led by men, the advertising or even news stories where pictures of women have been edited out or the women completely disappeared – these are the Atadim grabbing power they should not have, and certainly there needs to be other power bases who can challenge and contain them, as in the biblical model of the three separate strands of authority.

Who will challenge them? There is “Flatbush Girl” who photoshops pictures from the frum community, there is the hashtag #frumwomenhavefaces ; there are Women of the Wall at the Kotel and there is attorney Batya Kahana-Dror—who petitioned the high court and is currently vying for the position of Rabbinical Courts director, and these all do good work. But where are the voices from the rest of the Jewish world? Where are the people challenging the Israeli Government demanding equality for all the citizens, male and female, Jewish and non-Jewish, as the declaration of Independence proclaims. Where are those people who can promote and defend a halachic system that is multifaceted and diverse?

The problem is with the word “authority” which has come to mean a singular, all powerful monopoly that cannot be challenged and that does not need to explain itself.

This is a modern phenomenon. Heck, even I am older than it, I can still remember the norm of rabbis being independent thinkers, of different regions having different and equally valid customs and practises, of vibrancy and creativity and innovation in the responsa literature. Now I meet people whose only approach is that that someone else told them the line they are taking and it cannot possibly be challenged.

Authority ultimately is seen as coming from God. We have in Talmud a series of blessings upon seeing leaders – In Berachot 58a we read :

The Rabbis taught: ‘On seeing sages of Israel one should say: “Blessed be the one who has imparted  wisdom to them that have awe of God.”

‘[On seeing] sages of other nations, one says: “Blessed be the one who has given wisdom to flesh and blood.”

‘On seeing kings of Israel, one says: “Blessed be the one who has imparted  glory to them that have awe of God.”

‘[On seeing] kings of other nations, one says: “Blessed be the one who has given glory to flesh and blood.”‘

It is clear from this that the wisdom and the glory that leaders have are divinely given, and in the context of Jewish leadership there is a relationship of awe and perspective between the human beings and God.   It is also clear that leadership exists in a number of different contexts and that different populations have different and valid leaderships. And it is abundantly clear that each leader must make of their leadership what they can, from their own skills, creativity and perceptions and that each is only a Jewish leader if they are not out for themselves but out to increase God in the world.

Sadly we seem increasingly in the orthodox world to have leaders who are more thorn bush than cedars, whose fruits are only about increasing their power and control over others and not about honouring God and people or about developing a thriving society where everyone can take part. Whether it be newspapers editing women’s faces (or whole selves) out of photographs, so that even Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton have disappeared from recorded images, or adverts where apparently men only households eat the cereal or whatever is being advertised, or women being refused access to work positions, or women not being allowed to sing…… this is getting more and more ridiculous and the parable of Jotam increasingly relevant. We don’t need a centralised leadership in Judaism and up till now we have never had one. We don’t need the people who want to be powerful to take power over us – indeed we want them NOT to have access to the levers of power. And if we are stuck in a position like Yotam where it is happening anyway, then we must protest, we must raise our voices and say “not in my name” and most of all we must mistrust anyone who claims to have this authority and be clear that we are not about to cede it to them.

Authority ultimately must be consensus driven and agreed or it is bullying and oppression. And any threats from the Atad claiming their power or else there will be trouble must be faced and faced down.  We have history and authenticity on our side, let’s take our own authority too

#frumwomenhave faces #allwomenhavefaces #maleandfemalecreatedequal #halachahisdiverse

 

 

 

Women’s Voices and the Public Space:Tradition and Texts that must not disappear

It has been a while and still the silencing of women because some people think it is traditional goes on. So here are some traditional texts to rebut the idea that women should not be seen or heard

rabbisylviarothschild

I am increasingly convinced that unless women know the texts of our own tradition, we will be at the mercy of the interpretations of those who wish to keep women’s voices from the public sphere. The tension that exists between those who wish to shut women up and the rights and desires of women to speak and be heard has been around for hundreds, even thousands of years. And yet the texts upon which our tradition actually stands are unaware of such tension. It is clear that women and men both had a voice that must be heard, there is no cognizance or pattern in bible of women being silenced. Indeed the voices of the matriarchs are powerful drivers of the narrative, their needs are documented, their feelings acknowledged. Indeed one of my favourite overlooked verses in bible is when Abraham is told to listen to the voice of Sarah:

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Parashat Pinchas: #Girlpower; Or: The real stars of the sidra are the five women siblings who transform society and create justice.

‘Va’tikrav’nah b’not Zelophehad’ – the daughters of Zelophehad approached …. so begins one of the most intriguing stories to take place in the wilderness, a story where the bones of the developing society are laid bare for us to see, a rare narrative of the evolution of the legal code, and of the organising principles of our ancestral community.  And how much richer and more rewarding a text than we might imagine – it begins with this proactive and dynamic move – the daughters of Zelophehad, a man whom we have never heard of up until now, a man who is distinguished at this point only through his death – approach Moses and demand what they see to be their, and their father’s right – inheritance of land for them, and continuation of name and memory for  him.

The very first word on the story is unusual – the feminine plural form of any verb is a rarity in biblical Hebrew grammar, which defaults into the masculine with even a hint of testosterone, however many women there are involved.  And this is an active verb – the action of drawing close to another, used routinely in the search for God with the ritual of korbanut – of offering something precious to God as a sacrifice.  The verb one might expect – of simply coming to speak to Moses, is rejected in favour of injecting a sense of closeness – even of implying relationship.  These are no supplicant outsiders, but people whose perception of themselves is of being at the core of the community, who are able to treat Moses with proper respect but without needing to beg.

Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah are clearly of interest to the biblical narrator – not only are all their names recorded, but in the book of Joshua they appear again – and once again all the names are listed – to demand that what God had commanded Moses here in the wilderness was honoured once the people reached the land.  They obviously made a huge impression in their determination to inherit the land of their father, and in their determination to work together – five women, siblings, jointly fighting for their principles and their rights.  Given the terrible sibling stories in the bible – the first murder is fratricide and takes place in the very first generation to be born into the world – the relationships each of the patriarchs had with this brothers and the behaviour of Joseph’s older brothers towards him – you might think that it wasn’t even possible to get along with, let alone work with, your peer generation relatives!  There is a vestige of a hint that sisters might get along as long as they weren’t interested in the same man, in the midrash on Leah and Rachel, but actively co-operating with each other for joint good – that is unique I think to these five women.  Small wonder they are remembered with such particular definiteness.

Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah break the mould of sibling relationships – but they break other moulds too.  Up until this point no-one has come along with their own interpretation of Torah – God has simply given out commandments, either at reaching a new geographical place or during a social crisis.  At no point has anyone so much as solicited a legal opinion from God on a matter God has not yet discussed, let alone come up with their own innovation.  This is something entirely new in the narrative – for someone to come to Moses with a principled resolve based on what they understand to be the right thing to do, and a clear vision of what a Godly society should do.

Rather than merely following rules which have been transmitted to them, these women are willing to innovate, to change the world in accordance with their own principles.  As other women have done before them:– Sarah persuading Abraham to have a son by Hagar, Rebecca disguising the young goat as venison so as to claim the birthright blessing for her favourite son Jacob – the daughters of Zelophehad have taken matters into their own hands and changed the course of history.  This is a radical shift in the development of the Jewish people.  While one can make the case that since Eve in the Garden of Eden, men have tended to follow the rules which are laid down (or at best to interpret them within a narrow focus), women have brought about disjunction and change, this is the first time that the women’s behaviour has been given the imprimatur of God – ‘ Kein b’not Zelophehad dovrot – the daughters of Zelophehad speak right’  – there is divine approval for the different model of approaching the world, that of creating something new that is not connected with what was already in place, of breaking new ground because one is driven to do so by a sense of justice, of the absolute rightness of the new action.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is a story designed to remind us to stand up for rights, even if they are not yet perceived to be rights;  it is a story to remind us that all things might be possible, even with a God who seems to have it all sorted out already, even in a wilderness where the right might seem to be too abstract or too unfulfillable to be relevant.

The daughters of Zelophehad did groundbreaking work, which emerged from their confidence in themselves and the justness of their cause, from their supportive relationship with each other, from the need to link the past with the future and identify themselves within that future.  They established a legal presence and right for themselves and for all women in the future – the right to control their own economic provision.  We know that later on the right was constrained to daughters who married within their own tribe, that while they achieved economic power for women they were still kept away from the more potent power of the time – that of religious decision making – at least within the public and recorded sphere, but that should not change how we view this radical model of behaviour – you  still have to stand up and claim your rights and responsibilities even if you don’t immediately or easily achieve them – you need to challenge even God if necessary, to battle for what you believe to be important, to make your mark upon the world by fighting to make the world a better place.

The world hasn’t changed since the days of Machlah, Noa, Hogla, Milcah and Tirzah – it still seems that generally speaking men tend to operate by following or implementing the rules  and that women work by transforming them.  You only have to look at the impact women have had on the rabbinate to see that generality in action!   The question we need to be asking ourselves is not ‘why is the world so unfair’ but ‘in what way will I change the world because of what I believe in, because of my own faithfully held principles?’

(Adapted from the sermon for my daughter’s batmitzvah parashat Pinchas 2000 – a true disciple of the b’not zelophechad school of women fighting for social justice. Dedicated to the formidable Charlotte Fischer)

 

Parashat Balak: Prophecy and Leadership can come from the most unexpected places, OR Female Donkeys have much to teach us

Twice in Torah an animal speaks. The first is the Nachash, the serpent in the Garden of Eden whose conversation is instrumental in Eve eating the fruit from a forbidden tree (Genesis 3); and the second is the donkey who three times tries to protect her owner (Balaam) from the wrath of God before her mouth is opened by God to challenge his behaviour. (Numbers 22)

Interestingly both animals speak in the interrogative as they initiate the conversation. The serpent has its own agency, approaching the woman without prior recorded interaction, and it clearly understands the reality of the situation they are in rather better than the woman does. The serpent asks her “Has God said that you should not eat of any tree in the garden?” and on being told that the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden was forbidden lest they die, the serpent says, quite truthfully – “you shall not die, for God knows that in the day that you eat it, then your eyes will be opened and you shall be like God, knowing good and evil”.  He does not seduce her to eat the fruit or even recommend that she eat it – he simply points out that the punishment she believes will follow is not the case, and instead a different outcome will emerge – the humans will have godlike qualities that currently they do not possess, the ability to make moral judgments.  The tree itself is beautiful, the fruit looks delicious, and the woman – now clear of her fear of death – eats and gives to her partner. There is nothing to warn of danger in the presentation of tree or fruit, and the intervention of the serpent seems a necessary catalyst for the human beings to take the next step.

In contrast, the donkey does not speak at first. She is simply trying to get out of the way of the angel by any route possible, squeezing herself and her rider into increasingly small spaces, and bearing the cruel punishment by Balaam in silence until eventually, when Balaam’s beatings of her become unbearable, God opens her mouth and she asks “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”  When Balaam answers “because you mocked me, I wish I had a sword in my hand for I would kill you”, she asks two more questions: “Am I not your donkey upon which you have ridden all your long life until today? Have I ever done this sort of thing before to you?” To which Balaam answers with one word: “No”.

Only then does God open Balaam’s eyes and he sees what the donkey has seen all along – the fiery angel standing in the way, who DOES have a sword in its hand. Balaam bows down and falls prostrate to the ground, and the angel of God asks the same question the donkey did – “Why have you beaten your donkey three times?” before going on to explain that the angel is there as an adversary (le’Satan), “because your way is contrary to me”

The serpent is “arum” – subtle or cunning (though it has another meaning of cautious and prudent). It is its own self, beholden to none.

The donkey ‘s personality is not described in the same way, but we understand her by her behaviour. Firstly, she can see the angel when no one else can – she is a perceptive animal. She only speaks when God ‘opens her mouth’, rather than from her own initiative, she has been Balaam’s donkey for many years and served him faithfully. Her questions are personal, immediate, and relational. “What have I done to you that you hurt me?” “Am I not your long term and faithful donkey?” “Have I ever done this before?”

She is a faithful servant, dedicated to helping and protecting the person she sees as her master – quite unlike the serpent who is an individual with agency, dedicated to – well who knows what? Truth? Mischief? Action?

In both cases the intervention of the animal allows their human interlocutor to perceive and know what the animal already knows. They seem to mediate divine revelation, albeit in different ways and with different outcomes. The serpent is punished, lowered, put in opposition to humankind. The donkey is defended by the angel who asks the same question she asked of Balaam, and it is made clear that while the angel might have killed Balaam, it had no intention of hurting the donkey.

I find it interesting that the donkey is not “Chamor חֲמוֹר” but an “aton  אֲתֹן” – very specifically she is a female donkey, her verbs are in the feminine, this is the deliberate presentation of a female protagonist.

I find it interesting too that the donkey is contextualised in relationship; her interventions are not grand or self-centred but to do with the bond and connection between her and Balaam. She doesn’t feel the need to tell him of the angel in the road, but to ask about what has happened between them that their rapport has failed and he is beating her.

I don’t see this as subservience, even though the donkey is clearly of low status in human society. Instead between the two stories I see two models of change. The first is hierarchical, the shrewd and calculating “catalyst figure” knows the information and by their line of questioning is leading the other person towards the information it wants them to know. The question is asked and the answer is challenged with the facts. The change happens but the outcome is not really happy for either protagonist.

In the second story, while the “catalyst figure” knows the information, it makes the assumption that the other also holds information, and it takes care of them and uses their relationship and the trust built up between them to allow the other to learn.  Even when there is a further intervention (when God opens the mouth of the donkey) she does not discuss the revelation in front of them but formulates her response around the relationship between them.

While it may be unfair to say that the first model is the “male” one and the second model of leadership the “female” one, it is I think true that generally female leadership is characterised by being more transformational, task focussed, collaborative and often indirect, whereas generally male leadership is characterised by being more transactional, hierarchical and focused on the achievement of the preferred outcome.  It is no surprise to me that the serpent is masculine but the donkey feminine.

The donkey provides a voice of gentle sanity in a story that describes testosterone fuelled attempts to increase power and demonstrate status in the world of the king and the prophet – and all the time the reader knows the added irony that the Children of Israel know nothing of what is going on, so that the grabs for more status and power are irrelevant to them. The great Seer Balaam proves to be a comically less able prophet than his donkey, the great King Balak’s frustration grows to almost laughable boiling point as he tries again and again to have his enemies cursed – paying a fortune to no avail. Again and again we are invited to understand that there is much more to the world than we can easily see; that the apparently important figures are in fact not so important in the larger scheme of things; that if we only pay attention to the surface or believe the publicity of those who claim leadership rights, then we are missing the complexity and connectedness, the way relationships and shared values organise or world.

There are many variants on the theme that behind every great man is a person supporting them selflessly to enable that greatness – usually a woman. But my two favourites which both speak to the story of Balaam and his female donkey are from popular culture.

John Lennon wrote (though not about Balaam) “As usual, there is a great woman behind every idiot.” And Harrison Ford opined “Behind every great man is a woman. Telling him he’s not so hot.”

The bible seems to agree. And the prophet Zechariah reminds us

גִּילִ֨י מְאֹ֜ד בַּת־צִיּ֗וֹן הָרִ֨יעִי֙ בַּ֣ת יְרֽוּשָׁלַ֔ם הִנֵּ֤ה מַלְכֵּךְ֙ יָ֣בוֹא לָ֔ךְ צַדִּ֥יק וְנוֹשָׁ֖ע ה֑וּא עָנִי֙ וְרֹכֵ֣ב עַל־חֲמ֔וֹר וְעַל־עַ֖יִר בֶּן־אֲתֹנֽוֹת:

Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion, shout O daughter of Jerusalem, behold your king is coming to you, righteous and redeeming, poor and riding on a donkey (chamor), and upon the foal of a (female) donkey.

Come the messianic times, the child of that donkey who protected and supported her rider Balaam, will have the honour to bring the anointed one into Jerusalem.  The line of Balaam’s donkey will ascend into the service of the messiah. The line of the serpent in Eden will be lowly and in opposition to humankind.  Very different outcomes from the different interventions of the animals who speak.

 

 

Chukkat: Obituary for Miriam the Prophetess and one of the leadership triumvirate

We have learned this week of the death of Miriam bat Amram v’Yocheved of the tribe of Levi. Born in Egypt, the oldest child in the family with two younger brothers Aaron and Moses, Miriam kept faith with the religious tradition of her ancestors in the darkest times, even prophesying the birth of her youngest brother Moses and predicting that he would be the one who would deliver their people to freedom (BT Sotah11- 12b). Along with her brothers she was part of the leadership that brought the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into the desert. Sadly she has not lived to see the end of the journey, but her leadership – particularly of the women – was critical to its success.

Miriam had a particular affinity with water. Even her name reminds us of it, variously translated as ‘bitter seas’ (Mar Yam) or even “doubled water” (depending on whether one sees the letters mem reish as deriving from bitterness or of water. We first meet her at the water’s edge, saving her little brother Moses adrift in the Nile reeds. (Exodus 2:4-9) She is a powerful figure at the Sea of Reads and her song of praise became the basis for the rather more famous (and more fully recorded in bible) song of her brother, Shirat haYam. (Exodus 15) Luckily the Dead Sea Scrolls have recorded more of her verses than the biblical editor thought fit to include.(4Q365).  And of course we must not forget Miriam’s well which followed her in the wilderness and which provided much needed refreshment for the Children of Israel, was a miracle provided because of her merit. (Ta’anit 9a).

Bible called her a prophet and indeed Miriam was a great prophet of Israel, though sadly she has no book named for her prophesies, an oversight to be much deplored.

Her name might also allude to the idea of rebellion – a role model for all Jews, Miriam thought for herself and did not acquiesce to the ideas of others without challenge. It was this characteristic that gave her the will to challenge her parent’s decision (and that of the other Jewish adults) to no longer have relations in order that no children would be born – some say that they all divorced so as to prevent a new generation being born into slavery. But Miriam’s refusal to be party to this pessimistic arrangement meant that not only did she and her brother Aaron dance and sing at the remarriage of their parents, but that other families followed suit. Her rebellious spirit was vital in keeping the people alive and hopeful. (BT Sotah 12a; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai 6). Indeed such was her role in preserving the last generation to be born in Egypt, there are some who say that the midwife Puah was in fact Miriam herself.  In part this connects to her rebellious nature. There are those who say that she was insolent (hofi’ah panim – lifted her face) toward Pharaoh when she heard his edict to kill all baby boys born to the Hebrew women, and looked down her nose at him. She told him: “Woe to you on the Day of Judgment, when God will come to demand punishment of you.” Pharaoh was so enraged at her behaviour that he wanted to kill her. She was saved only because Yocheved intervened, saying “Do you take notice of her? She is a baby, and knows nothing” (Ex. Rabbah, 1:13).  Miriam found it hard to keep her mouth shut at that, but luckily she did so.

While it is not clear who Miriam married – indeed if she married at all – there are some who say she married Caleb and other who say she married her uncle Uzziel. Clearly these marriages were unimportant in the public sphere in which she worked, but it is said that her children were sages and kings because she had stood up to the evil decree of Pharaoh and also persuaded the Hebrews to continue to procreate. Bezalel is said to have descended from her, as is King David.

While this writer does not see the need to describe family for Miriam – either to explore whether she married or had children – it is gratifying that the midrashic tradition felt, in its own terms, that she deserved to be rewarded for her integrity and willingness to speak truth to power. We note that the sons of Moses walk out of history and that two of Aaron’s sons offer strange fire to God, with only the younger two continuing into priesthood, with its ultimately difficult and chequered history.

Miriam was musical, a great timbrel player, and a wonderful song leader and dancer who lifted the spirits of all who saw her. Her liveliness and optimism, coupled with a strong character and a willingness to speak out, make her a superlative role model for Jews everywhere. Her association with water, the living waters from which everything can draw its sustenance, is no accident. Water flows where it will, as did Miriam.

Even when Miriam criticised the fact that her brother Moses had married a Cushite woman and apparently put away Zipporah, the wife of his youth and mother of his two sons, she did so from a position of integrity, challenging her younger brother’s autocratic behaviour and as a result of her good and close relationship with Zipporah, a Midianite woman married into the Israelite leadership family (Sifrei on Numbers 12). She was concerned that Moses was no longer visiting Zipporah who was thus condemned to having no marital comfort and would not be able to bear more children.(Avot de R.Natan ch 9; Sifrei Zuta 12:1; sifra Metzorah 5).

While she was smitten with a skin disease as punishment for the harshness of her words, it must be noted that the whole camp waited for her to heal before moving on. For seven days even the Shechinah, as well as the priests and the Israelites stayed in camp while her tzara’at took its course (Mishnah Sotah 1:9) and it is well understood that this exceptional treatment was a reward for her work supporting Moses as a baby and enabling him to be reunited safely with is mother as his wet nurse, as well as helping in the leadership of the people in the many desert years.

While Miriam died on tenth of Nisan in Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin, (Sifrei on Devarim 305) her death is recorded here in Chukkat along with that of Aaron. All three of the siblings are buried on the heights of Avarim close to the land of Israel, and Miriam, like her brothers  would later, died by the kiss of God as her soul was gently drawn back from her body (BT baba batra 17a), an ending known as the death of the righteous.

She will not be forgotten. In modern times she is remembered at the Pesach seder with a Cup of Miriam filled with water, and a special prayer; while others add a piece of fish to the seder plate to reference her particular affinity with water.

Sadly however the characteristics of Miriam are sometimes hidden from view or even actively ignored – her prophecy and the determination she had to make her voice heard by people more senior than her are a fundamental part of her character. She spoke out, her voice was heard and followed – in both her capacity to advise and in her song leading, even if her brother then took credit for some of her best works. She was not quiescent in the face of a community that didn’t want change, or that was prepared to put up with injustice and oppression. She was active in both the birth and the rearing of Moses, keeping faith with her idea that here was a child who could be a leader and redeemer of the people. She was an equal partner in leadership, she had her own ideas and her own way of going about things. She was nobody’s ‘yes woman’. Her integrity, her strength of character, her fluidity, her determination to keep life happening, all meant that Miriam’s was a voice that shaped the people, she was heard in the public space, she was respected even when she sometimes said things in a less than careful way, she was warm and caring and people knew it. Moses could be distant, his shyness and insecurities causing him to hide away sometimes. Aaron could be arrogant in his priestly garments and status. But Miriam was accessible to the people and they loved her for it, as she spoke out on their behalf and fought for their rights.

Both the editors of the received text and the creators of midrash have not always dealt kindly with her. There is a rabbinic propensity to see her as bitter or as rebellious to the established order, her voice (already edited at the song of the sea) is not heard again in bible after the episode of the tzara’at; her death is reported without ceremony or sadness.  There are some notable exceptions to the blurring of Miriam in history. The prophet Micah tells us of God’s comment “I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (6:4). I cannot help but think that her gender was a problem to later commentators and redactors, something that sadly continues to this day. Yet Miriam is described in bible as a prophet, she sings her own song, she leads the people and she keeps her brothers safe and in relationship with the people.  She is patently a popular leader. When we lose Miriam we lose a righteous and able leader. When we lose the stories of her we risk losing the participation of modern women in the public sphere, rebellious, sassy, open, fluid, willing to speak truth to power and to challenge both adversaries and relatives who would rather we were quiet.

Some women have suggested fasting on the tenth of Nisan as her yahrzeit. That is fine should women want to do this, but I would suggest that we would do her greater honour by speaking out, by rebelling against injustice and against the desire to push women into the private and domestic sphere where they might more easily be controlled, and by bringing the swirling waters of justice and of challenge into the society in which we live.

Parashat Korach : The women behind the men emerge. Take a bow Ms On ben Pelet

The rebellion of Korach is a powerful and pivotal moment in Torah, as the leadership of Moses and Aaron is challenged by their cousin who proclaims that they have taken too much of the power for themselves, that all the people were holy, and Moses and Aaron are raising themselves up above the ‘kehal adonai’ the community of God.

With Datan and Abiram the sons of Eliav, and On the son of Pelet, all of them grandchildren of Reuben the oldest son of Jacob, Korach the great grandson of Levi, third son of Jacob and ancestor of Moses and Aaron, musters 250 men of stature – this is emphasised in the text: “n’si’ei eidah, k’ri’ei mo’ed, anshei shem – princes of the congregation, elect men of the community, men of renown”.

The testosterone level is so high in this story we can practically smell it. The clashing of antlers of the big beasts jousting for power and control. There might be a pretence about the need for all the people to be recognised as holy, but the reality is clear that this is a palace coup, and Moses doesn’t know what to do.

A great deal has been written about this, but I want to focus today on one of the more minor characters, On ben Pelet. Because while he is there at the beginning of the revolution he is missing from its denouement. And he doesn’t appear again.  The other rebels go down into the yawning pit as the earth opens, On ben Pelet however simply disappears from history.  Why?

The midrash provides a wonderful explanation. His wife gets involved. In this testosterone soaked challenge the men have essentially lost the plot. Where there are reasonable grounds for saying that Moses and Aaron have taken on too much of the leadership, there is no accountability and there is no transparency, the plotters went too far themselves, scenting regime change. It takes, in the view of the midrash, the calm and thoughtful intervention of the women we never really see (except as witnesses to the divine destruction of the hard line conspirators).

Talmud tells us this: (BT Sanhedrin 109b-110a)

“Rav said: On, the son of Pelet was saved by his wife. Said she to him, ‘What matters it to you? Whether the one [Moses] remains master or the other [Korach] becomes master, you will be nothing but a disciple.’ He replied, ‘But what can I do? I have taken part in their counsel, and they have sworn me [to be] with them.’ She said, ‘I know that they are all a holy community, as it is written, “seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them. [So,]’ she proceeded, ‘Sit here, and I will save you.’ She gave him wine to drink, intoxicated him and laid him down inside [the tent]. Then she sat down at the entrance and loosened her hair. Whoever came [to summon him] saw her and retreated. Meanwhile, Korach’s wife joined them [the rebels] and said to him [Korach], ‘See what Moses has done. He himself has become king; his brother he appointed High Priest; his brother’s sons he made vice High Priests. If Terumah is brought, he decrees, Let it be for the priest; if the tithe is brought, which belongs to you [i.e., to the Levite], he orders, Give a tenth part of it to the priest. Moreover, he has had your hair cut off, and makes sport of you as though you were dirt; for he was jealous of your hair.’ Said he to her, ‘But he has done likewise!’ She replied, ‘Since all the greatness was his, he said also, Let me die with the Philistines. Moreover, he has commanded you, Set [fringes] of blue wool [in the corners of your garments]; but if there is virtue in blue wool, then bring forth blue wool, and clothe your entire academy with it.  And so it is written, Every wise woman builds her house — this refers to the wife of On, the son of Pelet; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands — to Korach’s wife.”

The Talmudic midrash sees the minor figure of On ben Pelet, notices his disappearance by the end of the story, and pins this on the even more minor figures of “the wives”.

The unnamed wife of On ben Pelet is a politician to her fingertips. She can see that her husband is of lowly status and is never likely to amount to much. Whoever wins in the rebellion, he will never be an important part of the hierarchy. He isn’t much of a catch, one gets the feeling, but he is hers and she would rather he were alive than dead. Whether this is love or not is irrelevant, his fate would have repercussions on her status, she does not want to be the widow of a dissident – that would make her even more vulnerable than she is now.

So, in time honoured fashion, she gets him drunk. We think of Boaz and Ruth, of Noah and his daughters, of Yael and Sisera – when a woman wants to get a man pliant and to do her bidding it seems, the answer is to ply him with intoxicants. The drunken On ben Pelet is ushered into the tent to sleep it off. But this is still not enough to ensure he doesn’t rouse and put himself – and her – into danger. So she sits at the entrance with loosened hair – immodest, sexually charged, a terror to the scouts who may come to demand his presence. Like Rachel she uses her body to prevent anyone coming to search. And her husband slumbers on all unknowing.

On ben Pelet is, in the story, a nudnik, a schlemiel, scion of a great family maybe, but incompetent and easily led. He needs all the skills of his competent wife to survive. And it would be lovely if the midrash ended there. But no, the Talmud having decided on a verse in Proverbs (14:1) feels the need to explicate the other half of it.

“Every wise woman builds her house; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands.”

The wise woman here is clearly aligned with the wife of On ben Pelet, but who is the foolish wife? After all, 250 men joined Korach, Datan and Abiram in the failed rebellion.

It is interesting to me that the midrash decides that the parallel is with the wife of Korach – the main protagonist in this affair. And more than that, they give her great knowledge and legalistic reasoning – this is an educated woman able to debate and hold her point.

She begins first with the nepotism: Moses has made himself king. He has made his brother the High Priest, he has made his brother’s sons vice High Priests – something that is new to this text. Then when the Terumah offering is brought, it is immediately taken up by his own close family. This food (or oil or wine) can only be eaten by the Cohanim. Korach being only a Levite, is not permitted to have use of it.

Then she points out the tithing which would go to the Levites – Moses had set a limit of a tenth to go to the priests.

Then she moves on to the cut hair done as part of the purification rites. Before her husband can object she layers meaning over it – Moses was jealous of Korach’s lovely hair. He now laughs at him once the hair is cut off and Korach is, presumably, less attractive. No matter that Moses also had his hair cut according to Korach, his wife clearly believes that the impact on Moses was much less than that on her husband. Moses comes out the winner.

Now she moves onto ritual grievances. Moses had told them to wear blue threads on the fringes of their garments, but this is simply tokenistic in her eyes – if blue is to be worn as a mark of honour, then the whole garment should be blue. Otherwise, her reasoning seems to be, there is no real honour, just pretence, a token and perfunctory nod to the status of her husband; Korach is damned by faint praise and his wife notices.

She is painted as an intelligent and ambitious woman. Curiously she too seems to have the upper hand in the relationship – and she gives Korach the intellectual underpinnings for his challenge.

But her ambition for her husband is too much. He is not a strategist, not really a leader. Having made his alliances his own thirst for power comes through – why else would On ben Pelet feel uneasy having agreed to join the alliance? Korach cannot deviate from the path he is on. He doesn’t seem to realise that the atmosphere is changing, that his leadership is doomed.

His wife too is given no more voice. Who knows whether she had she would have been able to persuade her husband to reverse his challenge. Instead we see from the text that Datan and Abiram, their wives and children, stand at the doorways of their tents; And we see the earth opening and everything that pertained to Korach was swallowed up alive into the pit. The 250 men who were offering their own incense were destroyed by divine fire. Yet curiously Korach and his wife are not mentioned in the text as explicitly as Datan and Abiram were. Did Mrs Korach have one last trick up her sleeve? Did they melt away from the scene of destruction they had caused, in the hope of living to fight another day?