Chayei Sarah: Sarah Imeinu was not the rabbinic paradigm of a perfect woman, but a real woman.

Chayei Sarah – Domestic Abuse in Judaism

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is on 25th November, days after we will have read the parasha detailing the death and burial arrangements for the first biblical matriarch, Sarah Imeinu.

The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women issued by the UN General Assembly in 1993, defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” It includes such acts as intimate partner violence (battering, psychological abuse, marital rape, femicide);   sexual violence and harassment (rape, forced sexual acts, unwanted sexual advances, child sexual abuse, forced marriage, street harassment, stalking, cyber- harassment);     human trafficking (slavery, sexual exploitation);     female genital mutilation; and  child marriage.

Sarah is introduced to us as the wife of Abraham. Whether she was his niece, his half-sister, or any other relation to him is unclear – but we are not told directly of her antecedents, simply that he takes her for a wife (Genesis 11:29) around the same time that Abraham’s brother Nahor also takes a wife, after the death of Haran their other brother.  The second thing we know about Sarah is that she is unable to conceive a child.

It is not very promising stuff. Here is a vulnerable woman who is married into a “patriarchal family” with a husband ten years older than her, and who is unable to do the one thing expected of her – to produce an heir.  This is a particular trauma given that her husband has been promised to have innumerable descendants – it is almost as though they are being set up against each other, with no possibility of resolution.

Taken yet again from her settled place she and her husband travel to Canaan, and because of the severe famine there ,onward to Egypt, where she is described as her husband’s sister in order to protect his life. The consequence is that she is taken into the harem of Pharaoh, and while we have many midrashim designed to protect her purity and good name, we have no idea what happened to her there – only that Pharaoh gave her back along with material compensation to her husband, after a series of events which he rightly understood to be divine warnings.

After ten years of living in the land, with no sign of a child to fulfil the divine promise, Sarah does what many a female figure in bible will do after her – intervene in order to bring about that which is expected to happen. In this case she hands over her Egyptian maid to her husband in order for him to have a child. While there are those who might see this as a wonderful wifely and unselfish gift, the clear light of day shows otherwise. Ten years of marriage with no child – this becomes grounds for divorce (Mishnah Yevamot 6:6) – and would leave a woman without family to take her in, unprotected socially and economically. Sarah uses another woman to give her husband the child he desires so much, and in so doing causes greater anguish for Hagar, for Ishmael, for Abraham and for herself. One could argue that the pain this intervention caused resonates to this day.

After the birth of Ishmael the relationship between the two women breaks down completely. Sarah mistreats Hagar, Hagar runs away from home but returns – she has nowhere else.  Ishmael and Hagar are banished causing pain to them both and to Abraham who will not know the outcome of their story, Isaac inherits family trauma he cannot begin to understand.

The birth of Isaac is told in quasi miraculous terms. Abraham and Sarah are old, she is clearly post-menopausal. When God tells Abraham there will be another child he laughs, reminds God he is 100 years old and Sarah 90, and pleads for Ishmael to be his heir, only to be told that the promised  child and heir to the covenant will indeed be Sarah’s, though Ishmael will be looked after too.

When God tells Sarah, she too laughs, and she is more direct with God – after she is so old would she have such pleasure?  she asks. And her husband is too old too, she reminds God. (Genesis 18:12)

God then does something extraordinary. His report back to Abraham Sarah’s inner narrative voice, but he alters it. Instead of the clear message that Sarah has given up hope of such pleasure because her husband is too old, God transposes the person – telling Abraham that Sarah laughed because she feels herself to be too old.

This transposition is the origin of the rabbinic idea of Shalom Bayit – of marital harmony, the telling of small innocent lies in order to keep the peace. The idea that somehow the woman has to disproportionally protect the feeling of the man has become embedded into what might otherwise be a laudable aim. And sadly, Shalom Bayit has become the carpet under which domestic abuse has been brushed all too often down the generations.

Sarah has become the paradigm for the ideal woman for rabbinic Judaism in other ways too – when the visitors arrive o announce the birth of Isaac, Sarah is hidden away inside the tent, her husband facing the world. It is he who hurries around being hospitable, she who bakes the bread for the visitors.   Later we will be told that when Isaac marries Rebecca he takes her to his mother’s tent and is comforted and the midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 60:16) will teach “Three miraculous phenomena that occurred in the tent during Sarah’s lifetime returned when Isaac married Rebecca: the Shabbat candles remained lit from one Friday to the next, the challah dough was blessed and was always sufficient for the family and guests, and the Divine cloud hovered over the tent.”  The rabbinic tradition generally understand this as showing that Rebecca was, like Sarah, a good and faithful homemaker, their role limited to baking and cleaning and preparing the home.  At least one contemporary – and female – commentator, has a different, and in my view more likely view of the meaning. Tamara Frankiel suggests that the midrash is commenting on the intrinsic holiness of the first two matriarchs, such that the wherewithal for Shabbat and the divine presence were always on hand, rather than that the two women were particularly devoted to housework. She comments also that the description of the tent here is a parallel to the later Temple where the ner tamid was always burning, the 12 loaves of showbread always fresh and present in front of the Ark of the Covenant.  (The Voice of Sarah: Feminine Spirituality and Traditional Judaism).

The roles ascribed by the rabbinic tradition to Sarah and the other matriarchs – maternal, wifely, home making, providing the resources of hospitable giving while not actually being present when guests come – these are not the roles given in the biblical texts. And the male gaze through which we generally see these women who clearly have confidence and agency in their own lives when seen in bible, has layered both them and the expectations of subsequent generations with an impossible and also undesirable aura.

Sarah does not put herself down when contemplating a child, she is realistic about her chances, the idea of an unexpected pleasure long forgotten, the changes age has wrought to her, and to her husband. She does nothing towards Shalom Bayit here – it is the rabbinic extension of God’s comments which brings us this view of her as a woman who would subjugate herself for her husband’s feelings. Equally there is nothing in the text to suggest she is subjugating herself when presenting Hagar to her husband in order for him to get a child – if anything the power is all hers, as we see in her response when there is a dilution of that power relationship.  When she takes charge of Hagar once more, even God tells Abraham to listen to her voice and do what she says, something that remarkably has little traction in the male world of traditional rabbinic texts.

Women in the Jewish community are as likely to be the victims of domestic abuse as women in the wider community – about one in four will experience it. Women in the Jewish community are increasingly being constrained and lectured about “Tzniut”, seemingly understood about women’s bodies and actions only, although most certainly in its earlier meanings tzniut is about humility for both men and women.

Women in the Jewish community are at a disability according to halachah – unable to initiate the religious divorce document of Gittin for example. Increasingly the halachah is being reworked to push women out of the public space, to try to remove and hide women’s voices from the discourse, to push some cultural attitudes as if they are legal ones.  And so often Sarah Imeinu is cited – the perfect female paradigm in the minds of the rabbinic tradition, but actually a real woman who develops her own agency and power, who sees the frailties of her husband, who intervenes in history and who laughs disbelievingly at God.

As we mark the day that reminds us of how women have become so vulnerable to male violence that there needs to be an international policy to try to shape a different world, let’s take a moment to see the real Sarah Imeinu, the woman who originally belongs to no man in bible, who marries Abraham and helps him in his life’s work, travelling with him and sharing his destiny, working as part of a team, and subservient to no one.

 

Image courtesy of Rahel Jaskow – Rosh HaShanah : the sign on the right welcoming the men to synagogue,the one on the left telling women where their separate entrance is, telling them to leave as soon as the shofar service is finished (even though the services will continue in the synagogue), that they should go straight home and not loiter in public places………….

Chayei Sara: Sara imeinu non era colei alla quale i rabbini insistono che le donne dovrebbero somigliare, ma forse dovremmo tutti provare ad essere più simili a lei e dare forma ai nostri destini.

Pubblicato da rav Sylvia Rothschild, il 20 novembre 2019

Chayei Sara – Abusi domestici nell’ebraismo

 

La Giornata internazionale per l’eliminazione della violenza contro le donne sarà il 25 novembre, qualche giorno dopo che avremo letto la parashà che illustra in dettaglio la morte e le disposizioni di sepoltura per la prima matriarca biblica, Sara imeinu.

La Dichiarazione sull’eliminazione della violenza contro le donne emessa dall’Assemblea generale delle Nazioni Unite nel 1993, definisce la violenza contro le donne come: “qualsiasi atto di violenza di genere che provochi, o rischi di provocare, danno o sofferenza fisica, sessuale o psicologica alle donne, comprese le minacce di tali atti, la coercizione o la privazione arbitraria della libertà, che si verifichino nella vita pubblica o privata”. Ciò include atti quali violenza del partner nell’intimità (percosse, abusi psicologici, stupro maritale, femminicidio), violenza e molestie sessuali (stupri, atti sessuali forzati, profferte sessuali indesiderate, abusi sessuali su minori, matrimonio forzato, molestie stradali, stalking, cyber-molestie), tratta di esseri umani (schiavitù, sfruttamento sessuale), mutilazione genitale femminile e matrimonio infantile.

Sara ci viene presentata come la moglie di Abramo. Se fosse sua nipote, la sua sorellastra o se avesse qualsiasi altra relazione con lui non è chiaro, niente ci viene detto direttamente dei suoi antecedenti, ma semplicemente che lui la prende per moglie (Genesi 11:29) nello stesso periodo in cui anche Nahor, fratello di Abramo, prende moglie, dopo la morte di Haran, l’altro loro fratello. La seconda cosa che sappiamo di Sara è che non è in grado di concepire un bambino.

 

Non è materiale molto promettente. Ecco una donna vulnerabile che è sposata in una “famiglia patriarcale” con un marito di dieci anni più grande di lei, e che non è in grado di fare l’unica cosa che ci si aspetta da lei: produrre un erede. Questo è un trauma specifico, dato che a suo marito è stato promesso di avere innumerevoli discendenti: è quasi come se fossero stati messi l’uno contro l’altro, senza possibilità di soluzione.

 

Allontanata ancora una volta dal posto dov’era stabilita, lei e suo marito viaggiano verso Canaan e, per la grave carestia lì presente, di nuovo verso l’Egitto, dove viene presentata, per proteggere la sua vita, come sorella di suo marito. La conseguenza è che viene portata nell’harem del Faraone e mentre abbiamo molti midrashim progettati per proteggere la sua purezza e il suo buon nome, non abbiamo idea di cosa lì le sia successo, solo che il Faraone la ha rimandata indietro unitamente a una compensazione materiale per suo marito, dopo una serie di eventi da lui giustamente intesi come avvertimenti divini.

 

Dopo dieci anni di vita nella terra, senza alcun segno di un bambino che mantenga la promessa divina, Sara fa ciò che molte figure femminili nella Bibbia faranno dopo di lei: interverranno per realizzare ciò che dovrebbe accadere. In questo caso, consegna la sua cameriera egiziana a suo marito per avere un figlio. Mentre c’è chi potrebbe vedere ciò come un dono meraviglioso e disinteressato, la chiara luce del giorno mostra il contrario. Dieci anni di matrimonio senza figli: questo diverrebbe motivo di divorzio (Mishnah Yevamot 6:6) e potrebbe lasciare una donna senza una famiglia ad accoglierla, non protetta socialmente ed economicamente. Sara usa un’altra donna per dare a suo marito il figlio tanto desiderato, e così facendo provoca maggiore angoscia per Hagar, per Ismaele, per Abramo e per se stessa. Si potrebbe sostenere che il dolore causato da questo intervento risuona fino ai giorni nostri.

 

Dopo la nascita di Ismaele il rapporto tra le due donne si interrompe completamente. Sara maltratta Hagar, Hagar scappa di casa ma torna: non ha nessun altro. Ismaele e Hagar sono banditi causando dolore a entrambi e ad Abramo, che non conoscerà l’esito della loro storia, Isacco eredita un trauma familiare che non può iniziare a capire.

 

La nascita di Isacco è raccontata in termini quasi miracolosi. Abramo e Sara sono vecchi, lei è chiaramente in post-menopausa. Quando Dio dice ad Abramo che ci sarà un altro bambino egli ride, ricorda a Dio che ha cento anni e Sara novanta e supplica perché il suo erede sia Ismaele, solo per sentirsi dire che il figlio promesso ed erede dell’alleanza sarà davvero di Sara, anche se di Ismaele si avrà comunque cura.

 

Quando Dio parla a Sara, anche lei ride, è più diretta con Dio e gli chiede: adesso che è così anziana avrebbe tale piacere? E anche suo marito è troppo vecchio, ricorda a Dio. (Genesi 18:12)

 

Dio quindi fa qualcosa di straordinario. Riporta ad Abramo la voce narrativa interiore di Sara, ma alterandola. Invece del chiaro messaggio che Sara ha rinunciato alla speranza di tale gioia perché suo marito è troppo vecchio, Dio traspone la persona, dicendo ad Abramo che Sara ha riso perché lei si sente troppo vecchia.

 

Questa trasposizione è l’origine dell’idea rabbinica di Shalom Bayit di armonia coniugale, il racconto di piccole bugie innocenti per mantenere la pace. L’idea che in qualche modo la donna debba proteggere in modo sproporzionato il sentimento dell’uomo si è radicata in quello che altrimenti potrebbe essere un obiettivo lodevole. E purtroppo, Shalom Bayit è diventato il tappeto sotto cui gli abusi domestici sono stati spazzati via troppo spesso lungo le generazioni.

 

Sara è diventata il paradigma della donna ideale per l’ebraismo rabbinico anche in altri modi: quando i visitatori arrivano o annunciano la nascita di Isacco, Sara è nascosta nella tenda, suo marito affronta il mondo. Lui si affretta a essere ospitale, lei cuoce il pane per i visitatori. Più tardi ci verrà detto che quando Isacco sposa Rebecca la porterà nella tenda di sua madre e verrà  confortata e il midrash (Bereishit Rabbà 60:16) insegnerà: “Tre fenomeni miracolosi verificatesi nella tenda, durante la vita di Sara, tornarono quando Isacco sposò Rebecca: le candele di Shabbat rimasero accese da un venerdì all’altro, l’impasto della Challà fu benedetto e fu sempre sufficiente per la famiglia e gli ospiti, e la nuvola divina si librò sopra la tenda”. La tradizione rabbinica generalmente lo interpreta mostrando che Rebecca fu, come Sara, una buona e fedele casalinga, il loro ruolo è limitato alla cottura, alla pulizia e alla preparazione della casa. Almeno un commentatore contemporaneo, e femminile, ha una visione diversa e, a mio avviso, più probabile del significato. Tamara Frankiel suggerisce che il midrash stia commentando l’intrinseca santità delle prime due matriarche, in modo tale che il necessario per Shabbat e la presenza divina fossero sempre a portata di mano, piuttosto che le due donne fossero particolarmente dedite alle faccende domestiche. Commenta anche che la descrizione della tenda qui è parallela al successivo Tempio, dove il ner tamid bruciava costantemente, i dodici pani dell’offerta erano sempre freschi e presenti davanti all’Arca dell’Alleanza. (La voce di Sara: spiritualità femminile ed ebraismo tradizionale).

 

I ruoli attribuiti dalla tradizione rabbinica a Sara e alle altre matriarche: materno, coniugale, casalingo, fornire le risorse dell’ospitalità ma non realmente presenti quando gli ospiti arrivano, non sono ruoli assegnati nei testi biblici. E lo sguardo maschile attraverso il quale generalmente vediamo queste donne, che godono chiaramente di fiducia e libero arbitrio nella propria vita se viste nella Bibbia, ha stratificato sia loro che le aspettative delle generazioni successive con un’aura impossibile e anche indesiderabile.

 

Sara non si mortifica quando prende in considerazione l’idea di avere un bambino, è realista riguardo alle proprie possibilità, all’idea di un piacere inaspettato dimenticato da tempo, ai cambiamenti che l’età ha portato a lei e a suo marito. Non fa nulla per la Shalom Bayit, è l’estensione rabbinica dei commenti di Dio che ci porta questa visione di lei come di donna che si soggiogherebbe per i sentimenti di suo marito. Allo stesso modo non c’è nulla nel testo che suggerisca che si soggioghi quando presenta Hagar a suo marito per fargli avere un figlio: semmai il potere è tutto in mano sua, come vediamo dalla sua reazione quando c’è un indebolimento di quella forte relazione. Quando si prende di nuovo carico di Hagar, anche Dio dice ad Abramo di ascoltare la sua voce e fare ciò che dice, qualcosa che ha straordinariamente poca popolarità nel mondo maschile dei testi rabbinici tradizionali.

 

Le donne nella comunità ebraica hanno le stesse probabilità di essere vittime di abusi domestici delle donne nella comunità più ampia, circa una su quattro li sperimenterà. Le donne nella comunità ebraica sono sempre più costrette a tenere conferenze sulla “Tzniut“, apparentemente intesa solo riguardo i corpi e le azioni delle donne, anche se certamente, nei suoi primi significati, la tzniut riguardava l’umiltà sia per gli uomini che per le donne.

 

Secondo l’halachà, le donne nella comunità ebraica sono incapaci: incapaci, per esempio, di intraprendere il documento di divorzio religioso di Gittin. Sempre più la halachà viene rielaborata per spingere le donne fuori dallo spazio pubblico, per cercare di rimuovere e nascondere le voci delle donne dal discorso, per sostenere alcuni atteggiamenti culturali come se fossero legali. E così, spesso, viene citata Sara imeinu: il paradigma femminile perfetto nelle menti della tradizione rabbinica, ma in realtà una vera donna che sviluppa il proprio agire e il proprio potere, che vede le fragilità di suo marito, che interviene nella storia e che ride incredula di Dio.

 

Mentre segniamo il giorno che ci ricorda come le donne siano diventate tanto vulnerabili alla violenza maschile da dover esserci una politica internazionale per cercare di plasmare un mondo diverso, prendiamoci un momento per vedere la vera Sara imeinu. La donna che non appartiene in origine a nessun uomo nella Bibbia, che sposa Abramo e lo aiuta nel lavoro della sua vita, viaggiando con lui e condividendo il suo destino, lavorando come parte di una squadra e non servendo nessuno.

 

Immagine gentilmente concessa da Rahel Jaskow – Rosh HaShanà: il cartello sulla destra accoglie gli uomini in sinagoga, quello a sinistra dice alle donne dove si trovano i loro ingressi separati, dicendo loro di andarsene non appena il servizio di shofar è terminato (anche se il servizio continuerà nella sinagoga) e che dovrebbero andare dritte a casa e non bighellonare nei luoghi pubblici ………….

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

3rd Elul: birthday of Menachem Meiri

3rd Elul birth of Menachem ben Solomon Meiri or Ha’Meiri (1249–1306)

The Meiri was a Catalan rabbi, Talmudist and Maimonidean, regarded as one of the most brilliant commentators of his time. His works, which have often been ignored by much of the halachic process since, show a clear and logical – and scientific – approach to our great foundational texts.  He was a philosopher whose learning kept him open to new approaches – from the Jewish Encyclopaedia we read that “Meiri was too much of a philosopher himself to interdict the study of philosophy. Thus, when solicited by Abba Mari to give his adhesion to the excommunication launched against the secular sciences, Meiri wrote him a letter in which he emphatically defended science, the only concession he made being to forbid the study of secular sciences by any one before he has thoroughly studied the Talmud.”

He is especially famous for his writings on Jewish-Gentile relationships, repeatedly holding that the statements against the other nations in the Talmud and the discriminatory laws against them, were only about the long-disappeared idolatrous nations of that time, and in no way were to be used in his contemporary setting.  He was also a clear early voice in support of women’s reading of the Sefer Torah and the Megillah within the community.

Other comments of his are also worth bringing forward for attention– for example on the fractious dispute that has surfaced in our time: Kol b’isha ervah – the idea that a woman’s voice is sexually provocative and must therefore not be heard – also provide useful early texts to remind those who would silence women en masse in public spaces, that their viewpoint is not miSinai. On the nature of Ervah as it relates sexuality he is clear that this is highly subjective. “That a person knows himself and his inclinations” and that Kol B’isha does not apply when one knows that her voice will not be sexually stimulating. And concerning this the Torah says I am the Eternal your God” — indicating that each person must draw an honest and individual boundary”

He rules that even a minor may read from the Torah scroll for the community. He believes that one’s obligation to read the Torah publicly is not one that falls under the halachic concept that a person of lesser obligation cannot perform a commandment on behalf of a person with a greater obligation, for that is holds only for individual obligations and not communal ones. Hence, women too can read from the Sefer Torah.

There are downsides to his writing. In particular I found his comments on who to marry disappointing: Commenting on BT Yevamot 63a where Rav Pappa advises “Be patient and marry a woman who is suitable for you. Descend a level to marry a woman of lower social status, and ascend a level to choose a friend”   Rashi glosses: “Do not take an important woman as your wife, lest she find that you are unacceptable to her” But the Meiri goes further in his commentary -“Never seek a wife among those who are greater than you, lest as a result of her higher standing, she rules over you. Surely then she will not obey you regarding household tasks.”

We are all children of our time, and we have all absorbed the generation norms in which we live, to a greater or lesser degree. The Meiri was of his place and time, but had the courage to speak against much of the prevailing fear of “the other” – be they women or gentiles.  And he continued to be open to knowledge from whatever source, defending the learning of the sciences and a good and rounded education. We need more such voices today.

Tu b’Av: an especially joyful festival to be reclaimed

The three weeks that lead from the 17th Tammuz (breaching of the walls of Jerusalem)  to the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av) are traditionally a period of mourning, known as bein hametzarim – in the narrow straits. So it is all the more surprising that just one week after Tisha b’Av comes an especially joyful festival – the full moon of Av brings us Tu b’Av – when we are told:

Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel said: Never were there any more joyous festivals in Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement, for on them the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments – borrowed ones, however, in order not to cause shame to those who had none of their own. These clothes were also to be previously immersed, and thus the maidens went out and danced in the vineyards, saying: Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose; (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8)

The rabbis of the Gemara are perplexed – ““On the 15th of Av and on the Day of Atonement,” etc. It is right that the Day of Atonement should be a day of rejoicing, because that is a day of forgiveness, and on that day the 2nd tablets of the Law were given to Moses; but why should the 15th of Av be a day of rejoicing?”

And so begins a fascinating rabbinic journey into what is behind the celebration of the fifteenth (Tu) of’Av :

Said R. Yehudah in the name of Samuel: “On that day it was permitted to the members of the different tribes to intermarry.” Whence is this deduced? Because it is written [Num 36: 6]: “This is the thing which the Eternal has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad,” they claim that “this is the thing” implies the decree was only for that generation, but for later generations the decree doesn’t apply.

  1. Joseph in the name of R. Nachman said: On that day the members of the tribe of Benjamin were permitted to intermarry with the other tribes, as it is written [Judges 21. 1]: “Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mizpah, saying: Not any one of us shall give his daughter unto Benjamin for wife.”

Rabba bar bar Hana said in the name of R. Johanan: On that day the last of those who were destined to die in the desert died, and the destiny was thus fulfilled;

Ulla said: “On that day the guards appointed by Jeroboam to prevent the Israelites from coming to Jerusalem were abolished by Hosea the son of Elah, and he said: ‘Let them go wherever they choose.'”

  1. Matnah said: “On that day permission was given to bury the dead who were killed in battle at the city of Beitar”

Rabba and R, Joseph both said: On that day they ceased to cut wood for the altar, as we have learned in a Baraita: R. Eliezer the Great said: “From the fifteenth day of Av the heat of the sun was lessened and the timber was no longer dry, so they ceased to cut wood for the altar.”

There is a golden rule in rabbinic exposition – the more explanations given for something, the less likely it is that anyone knows what the explanation actually is. Clearly a celebration on the 15th of Av, which coincided with the beginning of the grape harvest, is part of the custom and practise of the Jews by the time of the Talmud, but its origin is already lost in the mists of time.

Let’s look briefly at the Talmudic explanations before looking at the festival itself.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is told in the book of Numbers- a rare piece of case law in that book and a powerful piece of text about women confronting Moses in order to attain fairness under the law. Zelophehad is dead, he had 5 daughters and no sons, and according to the rules of inheritance at that time, the girls would be left without anything. They approach Moses and argue their case, including the fact that their father will be forgotten in his tribe. Moses has to ask God about the merits of the case, and God tells him that the case of these daughters is valid; they should indeed inherit from their father. Later a problem arises, the leaders of the tribe of Manasseh – which the family of Zelophehad belong to – also bring a petition to Moses. Should daughters inherit when there is no son, and then marry into another tribe, the inheritance and land that would normally stay within the tribe will be given to the tribe that the woman marries into.

So the law is amended – such women who inherit land from their fathers must marry only within their own tribe – a limiting phenomenon that itself causes problems. So Rabbi Yehuda quotes Samuel by saying that tribes may now intermarry freely – and the date of this decision was the fifteenth of Av on the last year before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel.

The second explanation in the gemara is from a much darker story found at the end of the book of Judges, where a woman staying overnight in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, was gang raped until she died. The other tribes went to war against the Benjaminites who would not give up the criminals for justice, and a ban was proclaimed which meant no one could marry into that tribe. This ban was eventually lifted on the fifteenth of Av. One assumes that this idea comes from the commonality of Tu b’Av to the statement in the Book of Judges ““And see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in dances, then come out of the vineyards, and let every man catch  his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin.” (21:21)

The third explanation – This comes from a midrash found in the Jerusalem Talmud amongst other texts, which say that the generation who were to die in the desert because of their connection to the sin of the Golden Calf expected to die on Tisha b’Av. This would cause a problem – if there were to be so many deaths on one day, then who would be able to dig the graves and bury the people? So Moses sent out a decree: On Tisha b’Av everyone must dig their own grave and sleep in it. Those who would die would die, and the survivors would simply have to fill in the graves with the bodies already in them. But many did not die who felt that they too were destined for this fate, and so they continued to sleep in the graves they had dug for themselves until they saw the full moon of Av and realised that Tisha b’Av was well and truly behind them. They would live!

The fourth explanation: King Jeroboam (c900BCE) had challenged Rehoboam the son of Solomon, because of his authoritarian rule, and took the ten Northern tribes with him to his capital Shechem. He built two temples as rivals to the one in Jerusalem (Bethel and Dan) and banned his people from going to worship in Jerusalem.  Fifty years later, the last King of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, rescinded the ban – on Tu b’Av – and the joy that ensued is encoded in the festival.

The fifth explanation also involves graves, in this case the ones slaughtered in the rebellion against Rome led by the false messiah Shimon bar Kochba in 135. The massacre of the Jews by the Romans was estimated by one Roman historian as being at least 580 thousand dead and many more taken captive into slavery in other parts of the empire. The majority of the Jewish population was exiled from the land and the land given a new name by the Romans – Syria Palestina – to try to sever the connection between the land and the Jews. Tisha b’Av saw the final destruction of Temple and hopes, and the fortress of Beitar was breached and its inhabitants murdered and left unburied. So Rav Matnah’s explanation for Tu b’Av is that 6 days after the tragedy (some stories say a year and six days), the Romans finally permitted the burial of the slaughtered Jews – on Tu b’Av.

After such dramatic explanations the final one in the list is more prosaic, but also most likely to be the case. Simply that the full moon of Av is around the summer equinox, the days are beginning to shorten and one might be less sure of enough dry weather for the wood cut down for the Temple sacrifices to be sufficiently prepared for its use, and any wood cut down later would be liable to smoke unpleasantly. This explanation is bolstered by the fact that we know of customs in the near East whereby the end of the season for cutting wood is marked by celebration including dancing and music.

So having established that Tu b’Av was being celebrated in Mishnaic times, that the young women would go out into the vines wearing white dresses they had borrowed so as not to be identified by their clothing, that they danced and sang and that clearly a shidduch market was in full swing on that date – the young men would chase them and choose their brides – the rabbinic tradition tried to explain the event using stories of rape, graves, massacre, orphaned women claiming economic rights and hence losing the right to marry outside of their tribe, civil war and rebellion against both internally among the Jewish people and also against an oppressive occupying power. One has to wonder why.

I am reminded of a recent “tweet” that asks why a prominent politician is tweeting terrible racism, and suggests that the deflection is to stop people paying attention to something worse – the statutory rape of underage girls.  Here the rabbinic tradition has a clear story of strong young single women in public space, helping each other with their clothing and “seductively” dancing and singing among the grape vines, with their symbolism of wine and wealth and fertility. So immediately there is a deflection – Beitar! Bnot Zelophehad! Possibly the darkest story in bible of a young concubine gang raped and murdered, whose fate was to be cut into twelve pieces each of which was sent to one of the tribes of Israel! Sin and death and lying in the grave! Rebellion and Massacre!

It seems to me that the Tannaim (the rabbis of the Mishnah, c50-200CE) were fine with the celebrations of Tu b’Av and the fact of young girls out on a summer evening enjoying their bodies, their strength and their music, but the Amoraim (the rabbis of the Gemara c200-500CE) were decidedly not. So Tu b’Av became a date more often ignored than celebrated. The single attention was liturgical – Tachanun (the penitential section of prayers of supplication and confession) are not said on Tu b’Av. Only since the modern State of Israel has been established has Tu b’Av been celebrated – it has become a kind of Jewish “Valentine’s Day”, a day for love, for weddings, for romance. The 19th century Haskalah poet Judah Leib Gordon wrote about its celebration in the newly planted vineyards and certainly for the more secular Israelis this is a Jewish festival to take to their hearts.

It’s worth noting the framing of the Mishnah where Tu b’Av is recorded. It is mentioned in the same breath as the most solemn day in the calendar – Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the white fast. On this day people traditionally wear kittels – the white shrouds they will be buried in. The day is a day of joy as well as penitence, because when we have truly repented, God will forgive us. We leave the day lightened by our activities and return more able to continue with living our lives.

There are real similarities between the two festivals, albeit one is a day out of time “as if dead” and the other a day of sensuous delight. Each reminds us of the importance of living our lives as fully and as well as we can. Each reminds us about living” in the now”, each helps us create our future selves.

So – let’s reclaim Tu b’Av, the full moon that follows three weeks of mourning,  that takes place 6 days after the blackest day in the calendar. Let’s remind ourselves that life must continue, joy must be part of our living, that relationships with others matter and that the future is ours to create

Esther: the Book, the Woman, the power shifts.

The book of Esther is one of the last to be added to the Hebrew canon, for a number of reasons, not least that the name of God does not appear in it.  The book is a puzzle, filled with allusions and hinting at hidden depths. Even the name of the eponymous heroine, Esther, comes from the Hebrew root ‘s.t.r’ meaning ‘to conceal’ although it may of course be a Hebrew form of the name Ishtar the Babylonian goddess of love, war, fertility, and sexuality, or the Persian ‘satarah’ meaning a star.

It is also a book whose meaning is to be understood not at the surface level of the p’shat. Placed within the final section of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), the Ketuvim, it is firmly in the realm of ‘writings’ rather than ‘word of God’.  This book is not history in the sense of recording events that happened – it is history in the sense of revealing a continuing truth that speaks to each generation.

The book begins in the Persian capital of Shushan, with the King Ahasuerus hosting an enormous banquet for the nobles and princes of his province, a banquet which then grew to include the others in the fortress. Meanwhile Vashti the queen hosted her own banquet for the women and all went well until the King decided to require Vashti to come show herself and her great beauty to his guests, wearing the Royal crown. Vashti said no. Now much has been written about Vashti – how she was a feminist icon, her own woman.  Rabbinic tradition tells that she refused because she understood that she had been asked to come wearing ONLY the crown. Or that she had a tail!  There is also a midrash that says that Vashti was more royal than her husband (according to this she was the orphaned daughter of Belshazzar and Ahasuerus had been the steward in the stables of her father) and so she refused to obey him and show off the regal regalia.  Whatever her reason, Vashti said no and this sent the men’s banqueting company into a panic. The king and his advisors are worried that if she gets away with her refusal to obey her husband, then other women will get the idea that they too will not have to be compliant and obedient to theirs, and then who knows what would happen?

So Vashti is banished (some say executed) – not primarily for her act of disobedience, but “pour encourager les autres” ie to compel others not to copy her behaviour.  The text is unabashed and very clearly about the submission of women to men: “When the king’s decree will be published throughout the great kingdom, all wives will give honour to their husbands….and he sent letters…that every man should rule in his own house”.

When the king had calmed down (and we presume sobered up) he realised that he would want feminine company now that Vashti had gone, and his advisors once again had the solution. “Let there be sought for the king young virgins fair to look on, and let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom so that they may gather together all the fair young virgins to Shushan the fortress to the house of the women…and let ointments be given them, and let the maiden that pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti” and this advice pleased the king. Choosing a wife in this way would mean choosing a young unformed girl who could be moulded to fit the wishes of her husband.

Esther appears as one of these virgins collected for the beauty contest whose prize was to be consort to the king. We meet her as an orphan, the daughter of Avihail and cousin of Mordecai, a Benjaminite. We learn very little about her as a person, but we find that she is described as beautiful that she is obedient to Mordecai’s instruction not to reveal her identity or Jewishness, that she finds favour in the eyes of the eunuch responsible for the women and she appears to be compliant with all that is asked of her.  The text also tells us that Mordecai is able to walk every day before the court of the women’s house, to know how Esther did, and what would become of her – unbelievable in any harem setting, and yet critical to the narrative. Mordecai retains control over Esther in this way  even though she is being groomed for the king.

Four years after the beauty contest had begun, Esther went to the King and he loved her and made her queen by placing the crown on her head, a worthy replacement for the beautiful Vashti.  And still Esther kept her Jewishness hidden, “for Esther did the commandment of Mordecai, like as when she was brought up with him”.

The narrative turns to a story whereby Mordecai discovers a plot against the king, who tells Esther, who in turn tells the king and clearly cites that the information came from Mordecai – but not apparently with the added information that he is a blood relative – and so the conspirators are examined, found guilty, and executed; and Mordecai’s name written in the book of chronicles of the king. Yet apparently no reward is given…..

Now we turn to Haman the Agagite, who is promoted above all the other princes and advisors and the king commands that everyone shall bow down before him. And so of course, everyone does – everyone but Mordecai – who said it was against his religion to bow down to a person. Haman decided to be rid of all the Jews in the empire.

This is five years after Esther had become queen – five years where she had not divulged her yichus, nor it seems has had a child. The king seems to be continuing with sampling the beautiful young virgins of the empire, and according to the Midrash Esther was not only keeping Shabbat (by virtue of having seven maidservants so that she always knew what day of the week it was), not only keeping kashrut as an early adopter of vegetarianism, but was also taking instruction from Mordecai about the laws of family purity – for what else would he be doing by walking in the by the court of the women’s house except keeping her on the halachic straight and narrow?

Lots (purim) were cast by Haman to decide the most propitious date for the pogrom against the Jews – it would be in Adar, eleven months hence. Haman set his trap. He told the King that “there is a certain people scattered and dispersed in all the provinces of your empire, and they have different laws from others, and they don’t obey your laws. It isn’t a good idea for you to have them in the empire, so set a decree that they should be destroyed, and I will pay a lot of silver into your treasury.  The King simply took his signet ring and gave it to Haman, saying that both the silver and the people were Haman’s to do whatever wanted. It seems a passive response, and inexplicable that the King would have refused the money raised from allowing the pogrom. And yet the narrative is unperturbed.

The decree was sent out throughout the empire, permitting the people to “destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, even upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to take the spoil of them for a prey.”  The King and Haman settled down to drink and the text records that the fortress of Shushan was perplexed. To them, if not to the narrator, this seemed bizarre.

Mordecai clothed himself in mourning clothing of sackcloth and ashes and paraded through the city and at the gate of the king. Through Hatach, a chamberlain of the King, Esther found out what was happening and Mordecai sent her a copy of the decree with the instruction that now was the time to go to the King and beg mercy for her people. But Esther told him she couldn’t. Unless the king summoned her she was at risk of death for approaching him; and worse – she hadn’t been summoned for a month – maybe she was losing her position in his affections.

But Mordecai’s words were chilling. “Don’t think you will survive safely if the rest of the Jews are attacked. You and your descendants will perish, even though deliverance will surely come from somewhere. And anyway, who knows, maybe this is the reason you have been led to your position in the harem?”

Esther seems to come into her own. In the first, and only, nod to religious ritual in the story, she demands that the Jews should fast for her for three days, and decides that she too will fast along with her handmaids, and after that she will go into the king unbidden. “And if I perish, I perish”. Sadly the midrash glosses this taking of power back into submission: the Babylonian tradition understands that Esther was in fact the wife of Mordecai as well as his cousin. This would mean her living in the harem of the king would constitute adultery, the punishment of which would be death. However, one could make the case for her being compelled to live with the king, and therefore the punishment mitigated, but should she voluntarily approach the king then this case fails and Esther becomes an adulteress and forbidden forever to Mordecai. Poor Esther, being asked to remove the lifesaving defence of compulsion….

But for now the tables are turned. Mordecai goes on his way “and did according to all that Esther had commanded him.” The power dynamic shifts – for now.

Esther approaches the King successfully and asks him to come with Haman for a feast that very day. At the feast, the king again asks her what she wants, and she replies that she will tell him tomorrow, if he comes again with Haman to another feast. Haman is overjoyed to be included in the feasting, but his mood darkens when he sees Mordecai at the gate, still refusing to bow to him. He keeps his cool and goes home where he tells his friends and Zeresh his wife of all the honours that have come his way, but says he cannot enjoy them as long as “Mordecai the Jew” is sitting at the gate. Zeresh and the friends offer advice – he should have a gallows built immediately, then in the morning get the permission from the king to hang Mordecai, and after that he will be able to enjoy his good fortune and high status.

But that night – another plot twist! The king cannot sleep, he asks for the book of records to be read to him and finds that Mordecai was never repaid for his information about the plot against the life of the king. Haman, come early to get permission for the hanging of Mordecai, is invited to offer suggestions on “What shall be done for the man whom the king delights to honour?” and Haman, so certain of his favour in the court asked himself: ‘Whom would the king delight to honour besides myself?’ and comes up with no contender. Thinking the king wants to honour him he suggests that such a man should be dressed by other noble princes in regal clothing complete with crown, settled on a horse and taken through the city with the proclamation “This is being done for a man that the king wishes to honour”

The king is delighted with the suggestion and tells Haman to carry it out on Mordecai. Afterwards Mordecai returned to the king’s gate and the humiliated Haman goes home. Haman’s friends and wife tell him that if Mordecai the Jew has prevailed over him, then it is a sign that he will fail in his quest to destroy all the Jews of the empire. At that moment, before he can really process the information, the servants come to take him to Esther’s banquet.

And it is getting worse for Haman. For the king now asks Esther what it is that she wants, and she replies that she would like her life and the life of her people who are condemned to be killed. When the king asks who has condemned them, she answers quite bluntly ‘An adversary and an enemy, even this wicked Haman.’

Haman is terrified. The king is furious. Esther is silent. The king goes into the garden to think, and Haman pleads for his life before the queen. In a moment of farce the king returns from the palace garden “into the place of the banquet of wine; and Haman was fallen upon the couch where Esther was. Then said the king: ‘Will he even force the queen before me in the house?’ ”

What happened while the king was outside? Did Esther engineer the situation as a tableau before his return? Did Haman trip and fall on her? The text doesn’t tell us. But we know now that Esther, compliant and beautiful, has also been strategic and thoughtful in getting her request met. She is not an ignorant young girl at this point, but a mature woman who has been queen for some time…

Haman is taken out and hanged on the gallows built for Mordecai, a lovely tidy twist to the story. His house was given to Esther, who also told the king of her relationship with Mordecai. Mordecai was promoted and given the king’s signet ring that had originally been given to Haman. And curiously it is Esther who then sets Mordecai over the house of Haman. No doubt now who is the boss in that relationship.

Esther then works to reverse the decree against the Jews engineered by Haman. She cries before the king and asks him to write new letters contradicting the original orders to destroy the Jews. But he cannot for the king’s letters signed with the king’s seal are immutable. Instead he suggests that as Esther is now in charge of the house of Haman, she and Mordecai can now send out other letters also signed with the seal of the king to inform them that “the king had granted to the Jews in every city that they gather themselves together and stand for their life, to destroy and to slay and to cause to perish all the forces of the people and the province that would assault them, their children and women, and to take the spoils.” They were to do this on one day – the 13th day of Adar.

This was seen as a great day for the Jews and many people in the Empire converted to Judaism. So when the date for the pogrom came around all the king’s officers were on the side of the Jews and it seems that there were relatively few enemies to slay throughout the empire – 75 thousand in total in that huge expanse of territory – except in Shushan itself. There 500 men and the ten sons of Haman were killed on the 13th Adar and 300 more on the 14th Adar but no spoils were taken.

The book then concludes with an explanation of the festival of Purim, to be kept throughout the generations and tells us that “Esther the queen, the daughter of Abihail, and Mordecai the Jew, wrote down all the acts of power, to confirm this second letter of Purim.” And that “the commandment of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim; and it was written in the book.”

Power seems to be firmly in the hands of Esther, but the book ends with an addendum that “For Mordecai the Jew was second to king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his fellows; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his seed.”

So what do we, as modern women, make of the story of Esther and the festival of Purim which the book attempts to explain?

We see that a vulnerable orphaned girl ends up a powerful woman. Having been compliant and obedient, passive in the hands of the men around her, she later reveals herself as being a woman with a shrewd strategic mind, who ends the story as a woman of great power and control, the owner of Haman’s estates, the writer of letters in the name of the King.

In this she forms a literary counter to Vashti, the woman who began the story with great power but whose choice to refuse her husband’s wishes in a public snub made her the ultimate powerless ‘outsider’.

But Esther does not use her tactical instincts and rise up to defend her people until she is reminded that even living in the palace would not protect her from sharing the fate decreed for her people. Only the realisation that she too is vulnerable makes her act.  In this we might see the pattern of abused women everywhere whose lack of confidence cause them to lose agency and accept with painful passivity until the moment when they finally realise the lack of choice – to act or to die.

It is generally accepted that the book of Esther is a late book, probably written @4th century BCE and it seems to be a polemic written for diaspora Jews to remind them that life will always be hard, there will always be people who hate them in the lands they are living in, and yet unlike modern rhetoric the book seems to be adding to this information that there are ways of dealing with this situation: contact with government, integration into the society, walking the fine line between accepting the mores of the country and taking a principled stand to retain Jewish identity.

I am always struck by the line from the havdalah service – the Jews had light, gladness joy and honour – so may we also” which is a reference to the book of Esther. It is placed liturgically at one of the most frightening times of the week, when Shabbat is going out and we are to face the world again, with all its uncertainty. The ‘extra soul’ departs until the following week, we are bereft and diminished. And we comfort ourselves with the words that come from the end of the book after all the fighting and fear that the Jews of the empire faced. Essentially we repeat each week that living in Diaspora is insecure, and yet we can do it. And more than that, we can grow in confidence and skills just like Esther.

written for Beit Deborah magazine

illustration from BL Hebrew Project digitised collection – the beauty parade with Esther

Esther: il libro, la donna, i cambi di potere.

Di Rav Sylvia Rothschild, pubblicato il 13 marzo 2019

 

Il libro di Esther è uno degli ultimi ad essere stati aggiunti al canone ebraico, per una serie di motivi, non ultimo il fatto che il nome di Dio in esso non compare. Il libro è un puzzle, pieno di allusioni e indizi nascosti in profondità. Persino il nome dell’eroina eponima, Esther, deriva dalla radice ebraica “str” ​​che significa “nascondere” sebbene possa essere naturalmente una forma ebraica del nome Ishtar, la dea babilonese dell’amore, della guerra, della fertilità e della sessualità, o possa derivare dal persiano ‘satarah’ che significa stella.

 

È anche un libro il cui significato non si comprende restando al livello superficiale dello peshat (uno dei quattro metodi esegetici del testo, corrispondente al significato letterale, ndt). Il libro Ketuvim, gli Agiografi, collocato all’interno della sezione finale del Tanach (la Bibbia ebraica), è saldamente nel regno degli “scritti” invece  che in quello della “parola di Dio”. Questo libro non è storia nel senso di registrazione di eventi accaduti: è storia nel senso di rivelazione di una verità continua che parla ad ogni generazione.

 

Il libro inizia nella capitale persiana di Shushan, con il re Assuero che ospita un enorme banchetto per i nobili e i principi della sua provincia, un banchetto che poi cresce fino a includere altri nella fortezza. Nel frattempo Vashti, la regina, organizza il proprio banchetto per le donne e tutto va bene finché il re non decide di chiedere a Vashti di venire a mostrarsi,  e mostrare la sua grande bellezza agli ospiti, indossando la corona reale. Vashti dice di no. Ora, molto è stato scritto su Vashti: su come sia un’icona femminista, una donna che appartiene a se stessa. La tradizione rabbinica dice che lei rifiuta perché capisce che le era stato chiesto di venire SOLO con la corona. O che avesse una coda! Vashti era più reale di suo marito, racconta un midrash in base al quale ella era la figlia orfana di Baldassarre, mentre Assuero era stato il maggiordomo nelle stalle di suo padre, e così lei rifiuta di obbedirgli e mostrare le insegne regali. Qualunque fosse la sua ragione, Vashti dice di no e questo manda la compagnia degli uomini al banchetto nel panico. Il re ed i suoi consiglieri sono preoccupati che se lei si allontana rifiutando di obbedire al marito, allora le altre donne avranno l’idea che anche loro potranno non essere obbedienti ai loro, e poi chissà che cosa potrebbe succedere?

 

Quindi Vashti viene bandita (alcuni dicono giustiziata), non principalmente per il suo atto di disobbedienza, ma per il suo “encourager les autres”, lo si fa quindi per evitare che altre donne imitino il suo comportamento. Il testo è sfacciato e molto chiaro sulla sottomissione delle donne agli uomini: “Quando il decreto del re sarà pubblicato in tutto il grande regno, tutte le mogli daranno onore ai loro mariti … e invierà lettere … che ogni uomo dovrebbe governare nella sua propria casa”.

 

Quando il re si fu calmato (e presumibilmente era tornato sobrio) si rese conto che avrebbe voluto una compagnia femminile ora che Vashti se n’era andata, e che i suoi consiglieri avevano ancora una volta la soluzione. “Si cerchino per il re, giovani vergini, belle da vedere, e che il re nomini ufficiali in tutte le province del suo regno perché riuniscano tutte le belle e giovani vergini a Shushan, la fortezza, nella casa delle donne … e che siano dati loro unguenti, e che la fanciulla che piace al re sia regina invece di Vashti” e questo consiglio piacque al re. Scegliere una moglie in questo modo avrebbe significato scegliere una giovane ragazza non ancora formata che avrebbe potuto essere modellata per soddisfare i desideri di suo marito.

 

Esther appare come una di queste vergini raccolte per il concorso di bellezza il cui premio era di essere consorte del re. La incontriamo come un’orfana, la figlia di Avihail e cugina di Mordechai, un Beniaminita. Sappiamo molto poco su di lei come persona, ma scopriamo che è descritta come bella e che è ubbidiente alle istruzioni di Mordechai di non rivelare la sua identità o ebraicità, che trova favore negli occhi dell’eunuco responsabile delle donne e sembra accondiscendere a tutte le richieste che le vengono poste. Il testo ci dice anche che Mordechai è in grado di camminare ogni giorno davanti al cortile della casa delle donne, per sapere come stia Esther e cosa ne sarà di lei, cosa incredibile per un qualsiasi harem, e tuttavia critica per la narrazione. Mordechai mantiene il controllo su Esther in questo modo anche mentre la stanno preparando per il re.

 

Quattro anni dopo che la gara di bellezza era iniziata, Esther andò dal re e lui la amò e la fece regina mettendo la corona sulla sua testa, degna sostituta della bellissima Vashti. E ancora Esther teneva nascosta la sua ebraicità, “perchè Esther obbediva al comando di Mordechai, come quando era cresciuta con lui”.

 

La narrazione si trasforma in una storia in cui Mordechai scopre un complotto contro il re, lo racconta a Esther, che a sua volta lo racconta al re e cita chiaramente che l’informazione viene da Mordechai, ma apparentemente non aggiunge l’informazione di essergli consanguinea, e così i cospiratori sono esaminati, vengono giudicati colpevoli e giustiziati; e il nome di Mordechai viene scritto nel libro delle cronache del re. Eppure a quanto pare non viene data alcuna ricompensa…

 

Ora ci rivolgiamo ad Haman l’Agagita, che era stato promosso al di sopra di tutti gli altri principi e consiglieri e il re comandò che tutti si inchinassero davanti a lui. E così, naturalmente tutti fecero, tutti tranne Mordechai, che disse che inchinarsi davanti a una persona era contro la sua religione. Haman decise di sbarazzarsi di tutti gli ebrei nell’impero.

 

Sono passati cinque anni da quando Esther era diventata regina,  cinque anni in cui non aveva reso noto il suo yichus, né sembra che avesse avuto un figlio. Il re continuava a provare le belle giovani vergini dell’impero, e secondo il midrash Esther non stava solo osservando lo Shabbat (in virtù di avere sette schiave in modo da sapere sempre in quale giorno della settimana fosse), non solo osservando la casherut, come una dei primi ad adottare il vegetarianismo, ma stava anche ricevendo istruzioni da Mordechai sulle leggi della purezza familiare, per quale altro motivo egli sarebbe entrato nella corte della casa delle donne se non per mantenerla strettamente in linea con le regole halachiche?

 

Haman tirò delle sorti (purim) per decidere la data più propizia per il pogrom contro gli ebrei: sarebbe stato ad Adar, dopo undici mesi. Haman pose la sua trappola. Disse al Re “c’è un certo popolo disperso in tutte le province del vostro impero, e ha leggi diverse dagli altri, e non obbedisce alle vostre leggi. Non è una buona idea per voi averlo nell’impero, quindi stabilite un decreto per distruggerlo, e io aggiungerò molto argento al vostro tesoro. Il Re semplicemente prese il suo anello col sigillo e lo diede ad Haman, dicendo che sia l’argento sia il popolo erano di Haman e che avrebbe potuto farne qualsiasi cosa volesse. Il rifiuto del re di accettare il denaro raccolto per permettere il pogrom sembra una risposta passiva, e inspiegabile. Eppure la narrazione è imperturbata.

 

Il decreto fu inviato in tutto l’impero, permettendo al popolo di “distruggere, uccidere e far morire tutti gli ebrei, giovani e meno giovani, bambini e donne in un solo giorno, nel tredicesimo giorno del dodicesimo mese, che è il mese di Adar, e fare bottino. “Il re e Haman si accomodarono per bere e il testo riporta che la fortezza di Shushan era perplessa. Per loro, se non per il narratore, questo sembrava strano.

 

Mordechai si rivestì di abiti da lutto di sacco e di cenere e sfilò per la città e alla porta del re. Attraverso Hatach, un ciambellano del re, Esther scoprì cosa stava succedendo e Mordechai le mandò una copia del decreto con le istruzioni che ora era il momento di andare dal re e chiedere pietà per il suo popolo. Ma Esther gli disse che non poteva: era a rischio di esser messa a morte se si fosse avvicinata a lui a meno che il re stesso non l’avesse chiamata e, peggio ancora, non era stata convocata da un mese,  forse stava perdendo la sua posizione negli affetti del re.

 

Ma le parole di Mordechai erano agghiaccianti. “Non pensare che sopravvivrai in sicurezza se il resto degli ebrei sarà attaccato. Tu e la tua discendenza perirete, anche se la liberazione da qualche parte sicuramente arriverà. E comunque, chissà, forse questa è la ragione per cui sei stata condotta nella tua posizione nell’harem?”.

 

Esther mostra le proprie qualità. Nel primo, e unico, cenno del rituale religioso nella storia, chiede che gli ebrei digiunino per lei per tre giorni, e decide che anche lei digiunerà insieme alle sue ancelle, e dopo di ciò andrà dal re senza nascondersi. “E se perisco, perisco”. Purtroppo il midrash rimprovera questa presa di potere alla sottomissione: la tradizione babilonese intende che Esther fosse in effetti la moglie di Mordechai e sua cugina. Ciò significherebbe che la sua vita nell’harem del re costituirebbe adulterio, la cui punizione sarebbe la morte. Tuttavia, si potrebbe giustificare il fatto che fosse costretta a vivere con il re, e quindi la punizione era attenuata, ma se lei si fosse avvicinata volontariamente al re, allora questo caso non avrebbe ragione d’essere e Esther diventerebbe un’adultera e quindi proibita per sempre a Mordechai. Povera Esther, le viene chiesto di rimuovere la difesa salvavita della costrizione ….

 

Ma per ora le carte in tavola sono diverse. Mordechai andò per la sua strada “e fece tutto quello che Esther gli aveva comandato”. Al momento la dinamica del potere è spostata.

 

Esther si avvicina al re con successo e gli chiede di venire con Haman per una festa proprio quel giorno. Alla festa, il re le chiede di nuovo ciò che vuole, e lei risponde che glielo dirà l’indomani, se verrà di nuovo con Haman ad un’altra festa. Haman è felicissimo di essere incluso nel banchetto, ma il suo umore si oscura quando al cancello vede Mordechai, che nuovamente si rifiuta di inchinarsi a lui. Si mantiene tranquillo e torna a casa dove dice ai suoi amici e a Zeresh sua moglie di tutti gli onori che gli sono stati offerti, ma dice che non può goderseli finché ” Mordechai l’ebreo” è seduto al cancello. Zeresh e gli amici offrono consigli: dovrebbe costruire immediatamente una forca, poi al mattino ottenere il permesso dal re di impiccarvi Mordechai, e dopo sarà in grado di godere della sua buona fortuna e dello status elevato.

 

Ma quella notte: un altro colpo di scena! Il re non riesce a dormire, chiede il libro dei documenti da leggere e trova che Mordechai non è mai stato ripagato per le sue informazioni sul complotto contro la vita del re. Haman, arriva presto per ottenere il permesso per l’impiccagione di Mordechai, ed è invitato a offrire suggerimenti su “che cosa deve essere fatto per l’uomo che il re si diletta ad onorare” e Haman, così certo del suo favore nella corte, si chiede: “chi il re sarebbe deliziato di onorare oltre me stesso?”, e non presenta alcun contendente. Pensando che il re voglia onorarlo, suggerisce che un tale uomo dovrebbe essere vestito da altri nobili principi con abiti regali completi di corona, sistemato a cavallo e portato in giro per la città con la proclamazione “Questo è stato fatto per un uomo che il re desidera onorare”.

 

Il re è soddisfatto del suggerimento e dice ad Haman di applicarlo a Mordechai. In seguito Mordechai torna alla porta del re e l’umiliato Haman torna a casa. Gli amici e la moglie di Haman gli dicono che se Mordechai l’ebreo ha prevalso su di lui, allora è un segno che fallirà nella sua tentativo di distruggere tutti gli ebrei dell’impero. In quel momento, prima che possa davvero elaborare le informazioni, i servitori arrivano per portarlo al banchetto di Esther.

 

E per Haman le cose stanno peggiorando. Poichè il re ora chiede ad Esther cosa vuole, e lei risponde che vorrebbe salva la sua vita e la vita del suo popolo che è condannato a essere ucciso. Quando il re chiede chi li ha condannati, risponde in modo abbastanza schietto “un avversario e un nemico, proprio questo malvagio Haman”.

 

Haman è terrorizzato. Il re è furioso. Esther è silenziosa. Il re va nel giardino a pensare, e Haman implora per la sua vita davanti alla regina. In un momento farsesco il re ritorna dal giardino del palazzo nel luogo del banchetto delle libagioni; e Haman giace caduto sul divano dove stava Esther. Quindi il re dice: “Costringerà addirittura la regina dinnanzi a me in questa casa?”

 

Cosa è successo mentre il re era fuori? Esther ha progettato la situazione come un tableau prima del suo ritorno? Haman si è spostato ed è caduto su di lei? Il testo non ce lo dice, ma ora sappiamo che Esther, compiacente e bella, è stata anche strategica e riflessiva nell’ottenere la sua richiesta soddisfatta. Lei a questo punto non è una ragazza inconsapevole, ma una donna matura che è stata regina per qualche tempo …

 

Haman viene portato fuori e impiccato sulla forca costruita per Mordechai, un bel colpo di scena alla storia. La sua casa è data a Esther, che racconta anche al re della suo rapporto di parentela con Mordechai. Mordechai è promosso e riceve l’anello con sigillo del re che era stato originariamente dato ad Haman. E curiosamente è Esther che poi colloca Mordechai nella casa di Haman. Nessun dubbio su chi ora in quel rapporto sia il capo.

 

Esther poi lavora per invertire il decreto contro gli ebrei progettato da Haman. Ella piange davanti al re e gli chiede di scrivere nuove lettere in contraddizione con gli ordini originali di distruggere gli ebrei. Ma egli non può perchè le lettere del re, firmate con il suo sigillo, sono immutabili. Invece suggerisce che siccome Esther è ora responsabile della casa di Haman, lei e Mordechai possono inviare altre lettere, firmate anche con il sigillo del re, per informare che “il re aveva concesso agli ebrei in ogni città di radunarsi e difendere la loro vita, per distruggere e uccidere e far morire tutte le forze del popolo e della provincia che avessero ad assalire gli ebrei, i loro figli e le loro donne, e prendere il bottino. “Dovevano fare questo in un giorno, il tredicesimo giorno di Adar.

 

Questo fu visto come un grande giorno per gli ebrei e molte persone nell’impero si convertirono all’ebraismo. Così, quando arrivò la data del pogrom, tutti gli ufficiali del re erano dalla parte degli ebrei e sembra che ci fossero relativamente pochi nemici da uccidere in tutto l’impero: settantacinquemila in totale in quell’immensa distesa di territorio, tranne che nella stessa Shushan. Lì cinquecento uomini e dieci figli di Haman furono uccisi il tredici di Adar e altri trecento il quattordici di Adar, ma non venne preso alcun bottino.

 

Il libro si conclude quindi con una spiegazione della festa di Purim, da serbare attraverso le generazioni e ci dice che “la regina Esther, la figlia di Abihail, e Mordechai l’ebreo, scrissero tutti gli atti di potere, per confermare questa secondo lettera di Purim.” e che “il comandamento di Esther confermava queste questioni di Purim; ed è stato scritto nel libro.”

 

Il potere sembra essere saldamente nelle mani di Ester, ma il libro termina con un addendum: “Perchè Mordechai l’ebreo era secondo al re Assuero, e grande tra gli ebrei, e accettato dalla moltitudine dei suoi simili; cercando il bene del suo popolo e parlando di pace a tutti i suoi discendenti”.

 

Allora, cosa facciamo noi, come donne moderne, della storia di Ester e della festa di Purim che il libro tenta di spiegare?

 

Vediamo che una ragazza orfana vulnerabile finisce col diventare una donna potente. Essendo stata obbediente e passiva nelle mani degli uomini intorno a lei, si rivela in seguito come una donna con una mente strategica acuta, che conclude la storia come donna di grande potere e capacità di comandare, l’intestataria della proprietà di Haman, e la scrivente delle lettere nel nome del re.

 

In questo lei costituisce un contraltare letterario a Vashti, la donna che ha iniziato la storia con grande potere ma la cui scelta di rifiutare i desideri del marito in un affronto pubblico l’aveva resa un caso estremo di impotenza ed emarginazione.

 

Ma Esther non aveva usato i suoi istinti tattici e non si era mossa per difendere il suo popolo fino a ché non le era stato ricordato che persino vivere nel palazzo non l’avrebbe protetta dal condividere il destino decretato per il suo popolo. Solo la consapevolezza che anche lei è vulnerabile la fa agire. In questo possiamo vedere il modello delle donne ovunque maltrattate, la cui mancanza di fiducia fa perdere loro la capacità di agire e le fa subire con dolorosa passività fino al momento in cui finalmente si rendono conto della mancanza di scelta, agire o morire.

 

È generalmente accettato che il libro di Esther sia un libro tardo, probabilmente scritto nel IV secolo a.E.V. e sembra essere una controversia scritta per gli ebrei della diaspora per ricordare loro che la vita sarà sempre dura, ci saranno sempre persone che li odieranno nelle terre in cui vivono, eppure a differenza della moderna retorica, il libro sembra aggiungere a questa informazione che ci sono dei modi per affrontare questa situazione: il contatto con il governo, l’integrazione nella società, camminare sulla linea sottile tra l’accettazione dei costumi del paese e l’assumere posizioni di principio per mantenere l’identità ebraica.

 

Sono sempre colpita dalla battuta del servizio dell’ havdalà: “gli ebrei avevano luce, gioia, gioia e onore, così possiamo averlo anche noi” che è un riferimento al libro di Esther. È collocato liturgicamente in uno dei momenti più spaventosi della settimana, quando Shabbat sta uscendo e dobbiamo affrontare di nuovo il mondo, con tutta la sua incertezza. “L’anima aggiuntiva” se ne va fino alla settimana seguente, e ne siamo deprivati ​​e sminuiti. E ci consoliamo con le parole che arrivano dalla fine del libro, dopo tutti i combattimenti e le paure che gli ebrei dell’impero hanno affrontato. Sostanzialmente ripetiamo ogni settimana che vivere in Diaspora è insicuro, eppure possiamo farlo. Inoltre, possiamo aumentare la fiducia in noi stessi e nelle nostre capacità proprio come Esther.

 

Scritto per la rivista Bet Debora                                                      traduzione di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

Vayelech: the time for us to grow up and take responsibility for our choices is upon us. or: the bnei mitzvah of the people of Israel

Eight years ago one of my dearest friends was about to be seventy years old, and she decided to celebrate this momentous and biblical age by having her batmitzvah. I had tried to persuade her to do this for years and she had brushed me off; it is typical of her that she made her choice by herself on a date that had such resonance, and then throw herself into study and thinking for herself.  We talked a little about the date and the sidra, and then she chose to direct her own study and do her own research. Luckily she sent me a near final draft. I say luckily because she never read this drasha or celebrated that long awaited day, for with everything planned and organised and ready to go, she suffered a cataclysmic and sudden bereavement and the weekend was taken over instead with grief and shock and the arrangements to honour the dead.

We spoke a while afterwards about her celebrating her batmitzvah on a different date but we both knew that was not really going to happen. The anticipated joy would never be the same, the shadow of grief never quite left her, and she too would depart this world suddenly and unexpectedly and quite dramatically, leaving the rest of us a small flavour of the shock she had experienced on the day of her birthday batmitzvah, to grieve and to question, and to process the reality of what happens when a life is torn from the world without warning.

Checking my computer recently, and thinking also of her as I do at this time of year, I came across an email where she had sent me this draft of the drasha she was to give to the community she had been at the heart of for so many years. With the permission of her children, I want to share it here.

“Vayelech is the shortest parsha in the Torah. It is 30 verses long, and I don’t recall ever hearing it read. In non-leap years like this one it is linked with Nitzavim. When I read Nitzavim-Vayelech they held together. They are followed next week by Ha’azinu which, when I looked it up I discovered is one the 10 Shirot [songs] conceived or written as part of the Almighty’s pre-Creation preparations. The only one still to be written is the song we will sing when the Messiah comes. 

We are coming to the end of the Torah. This name, given to the first of the three sections of the Hebrew Bible, is better translated as Teaching. We are coming to the end of the month of Elul the month in which we begin to prepare for the approaching High Holy Days, and in the coming week we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah which in turn is followed by the 10 days of penitence and Yom Kippur. Then in roughly a month’s time on Simchat Torah we will finish reading the Teaching, the end of Deuteronomy, and seamlessly begin Bereishit – Genesis – again. 

Vayelech must contain the most important rite of passage in the whole history of our planet. But we will come to that.  

Israel is camped in its tribal groups on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to cross. The preceding parsha, Nitzavim, tells of Moses addressing the whole of Israel, in preparation for entering the land God has promised them. He reminds them they are standing before God, and is clear that every person is included in this relationship.

 [my son] tells me I can tell one joke… a clear example of don’t do as I do, do as I say …but I have two, and we will come to the second soon. A very good friend sent me a card, writing in it “I saw this, and thought of you.” The cartoon was a line drawing of 2 dogs, the larger one saying: “I understand more commands than I obey.” I hope you agree with me, that this is arguable!

Moses and God know from experience that the Children of Israel will fail to follow God’s Teaching. 

Moses warns those listening to him that the consequences of disobedience will be that the land will become desolate, but mitigates this by prophesying they will make t’shuvah, return to the right way, and God will reconcile with them and bring them back.

 And he says something that has always troubled me:  that the commandment he is giving to them and so to us “is not beyond you, or too remote. Not in Heaven, or across the sea. It is very close to you… in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it.”

 What I have never been sure of is what this is, what it is that is in my heart, and in my mouth?  Not the 10 Commandments – too many!    And not the 613 mitzvot buried in the text. And then the man who is not my chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks said quite plainly on radio 4, no less, what it is, even quoting where I should find it. It is found in Genesis chapter 18, vv 17 – 19, where God is choosing Abraham because he deals with his household with Tzedakah and Mishpat:  two words which together give the meaning of justice tempered with mercy. This is how we hope God will deal with us on Yom Hakippurim.

 And finally Moses said that we have a choice, God has given us the choice of life and death – blessing and curse. We should choose to love God and walk in God’s path and keep God’s commandments. And just as the penalties for not doing so have been listed, the rewards of obeying are explained. 

What we have been told is that all Israel is equally bound by this covenant, regardless of social position or occupation. And that even if we disobey God’s Laws there can be future redemption.

Further, we know that obedience to God’s Laws is within our scope. 

And also that we are to have that freedom to choose that sets us apart from the animals.

 And then we come to today’s portion, .Vayelech “And he went” which is the beginning of the rite of passage for the Children of Israel.

 There is to be a change of “Top Management”. This is the day of Moses’s 120th birthday, and Moses has finally accepted that it is also his death day. It’s been hard for Moses to come to terms with his mortality, and he has behaved a little like a child trying to justify not going to bed, not just yet. There’s no time to discuss this today, try reading Louis Ginsberg’s Legends of the Jews. God has been forbearing with this servant with whom God has been in conversation for the last 40 years.

 In this time the generations born into slavery have died, and the people who are born into freedom have known no other Leader. Moses has taught them, settled disputes, referred knotty halachic problems directly to God, and brought back the answers. It is explained that God will go with them, and lead them across the Jordan. Further, that although Moses may not go, they will have Joshua.

 Moses has been frightened of dying, and the Almighty has shown him Aaron’s painless death. God is giving him the signal honour of dying on the anniversary of his birthday, and although Moses is not to be allowed to cross the Jordan God has taken him to look down upon the land.

 Moses is kept busy on this day – there are the tribes to address, and writing enough copies of the Teaching to give one to each tribe, and lodge one in the Ark of the Covenant. This is talked of as a witness against the people, but I suppose it’s the master copy, and proof of God’s promises and provisions. Moses writes The Scroll to the very end, until it is finished, which is taken to mean that it is prophetic, containing as it does an account of his death. Further, the Almighty gives him a message to deliver, and a song of 43 verses, one of the 10 Shirot, to teach to the people.

  How many people do you think there were, camped by the river? How many going into the Promised Land?

 Jacob went to Egypt with 72 souls in his household. A rabble of 600,000 freed slaves left Egypt – and these were the men of fighting age. Add their relatives – minimally a wife each, one child. – Not parents and siblings – this could cause doubtful accounting – a conservative estimate would be 1,800,000 people. No wonder manna was needed!

Nor was it just Jews who escaped Egypt, plenty of escapee opportunists would have taken the chance, and been the “strangers within your gates” who are to have equality under the covenant with Jacob’s descendants.

 The instruction was given for this to be read every seven years in the shemittah year. All Israel is commanded to gather at Succot in the place God has appointed (eventually the Temple in Jerusalem) and the King read to the people from the Scroll.

 And the chapter ends with the prediction that Israel with turn away from God, and that God’s reaction would be to turn God’s face away from them – but also with the promise that their descendants will not forget the words which will remain in their mouths.

 So what is happening?

 It seems that with the completion of the Torah and our entry into the Promised Land, our Creator considers we are grown up. We have the Torah; we have the record in it of discussions and decisions. We are aware that we can judge matters between human beings – but not matters between human beings and God. We cannot deal with these because it is not our business to govern or over-rule another’s conscience.

 God will not appoint another Moses – there is to be no dynastical continuity. No further theophanies. Israel has become a nation of priests with everyone having access to the Almighty and to God’s mercy.

 And when we begin Genesis all over again, we go back to Creation and the dysfunctional families of Adam and Noah. When we come to Abraham, look out for the Teaching and how it is built on chapter by chapter.

 And where’s the second joke? – listen to the translation.”

Sadly, we never heard the second joke. And the poignancy of some of the comments in the drasha make for difficult reading for those who knew her and knew her later story, though the mischief of her personality comes through this text for me, as does her clear and certain faith in God. This was a woman who, as administrator in the synagogue, would regularly leave open the door to the sanctuary in her office hours “because God likes to go for a walk”, but actually so that visitors would feel able to enter and sit and offer their prayers or order their thoughts. She would tidy up the siddurim and make sure they were properly shelved, saying that upside down books “gave God a headache”, to cover her need to honour God by keeping the synagogue neat. She spent hundreds of hours talking to the lonely, reassuring the frightened, supporting the vulnerable. She spent hundreds of hours creating the databases and systems to ensure that the synagogue ran as effectively as it could. And the roots of all this voluntary caring for the synagogue community was her own life’s struggles and her awareness that if God considers we are grown up now, with equal access to the Almighty and no “top management” to direct us, then we had better get on with it, with the work of creating and sustaining the world with tzedakah and mishpat, with righteousness and justice.

In this period of the Ten Days, as we reflect on the lives we are leading, the choices we are making, and the mortality that will come for us all, either with or without warning, I read her drasha as a modern ”unetaneh tokef”, and, as I was for so many years when I was her rabbi and she my congregant, I am grateful for the learning I had from her.

 

In memoriam Jackie Alfred. September 1940 – January 2017

 

 

 

 

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

 

Lech Lecha: the covenant of Abraham and Sarah

The idea of covenant with God was already present with the narratives of Noah. In Genesis Chapter 6 we find “And God said to Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make an ark of gopher wood…. I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, and your sons, and your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort you will bring into the ark to keep them alive with you….So did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he.”

After the flood comes another covenant – (Genesis Ch.9) “And God spoke to Noah, and to his sons with him, saying: ‘As for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you… never shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of the flood; nor shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ And God said: ‘This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth. …And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.’ And God said to Noah: ‘This is the token of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”

So when God makes the covenant of the pieces with Abram in Genesis 15 “And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and there was thick darkness, behold a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch that passed between these pieces. In that day the Eternal made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…” while we may find the description opaque, the idea of the divine promise given to one individual but extending into the future is familiar.

Parashat Lech Lecha introduces the covenant that is central to Jews and Judaism – brit milah – circumcision.  In Genesis 17 we read “God appeared to Abram, and said to him: ‘I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be wholehearted. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply thee exceedingly.’ ‘ My covenant is with you and you will be the father of a multitude of nations. Your name shall not anymore be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham…And I will make you exceeding fruitful, I will make nations of you, and kings shall come out of you And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant….. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. He that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed…must be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. …..And God said to Abraham: ‘As for Sarai thy wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.  And I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son of her; yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her.”

Judaism is based on the particular covenant relationship between God and the Jewish people. And this relationship begins with Abraham and Sarah, travelling down the generations through their son Isaac. This covenant relationship is unbreakable, however much we let God down or God lets us down. God has other covenantal relationships with humanity, but the specific Jewish relationship of responsibility and purpose is the one that underpins all Jewish teaching.

Pretty much every Jewish family circumcises their 8 day old baby boy in the ceremony of brit milah as bible requires. The child is brought in ceremonially to the mohel and blessings said, which include the blessing “who has commanded us con­cerning circumcision” and   “who has commanded us to  enter [him] into  the covenant of Abraham our father.”

Bible is clear on this – all baby boys, whether born into the Jewish family or adopted into the household, are to be given this sign in their flesh that they too are part of the Abrahamic covenant.  It is a patriarchal society into which they are born, the brit is their male right – but what exactly is the position of women in this covenant so central to Jewish self-understanding?

A closer reading of our texts reveals something interesting. The covenant of the pieces, opaque and full of dark magical symbolism, is deeply patriarchal and refers to the continuity of possession and power of the Abrahamic line. There is a prefiguring of the terrifying experience at Sinai, with smoke and fire and a God who overawes. Yes the childless Abram will have heirs, countless descendants, but their fate will be difficult and painful as slaves and exiles,  until they finally inherit the land, displacing the nations living upon it. Abram himself will die peacefully in old age encountering nothing of the complex future.  The second covenant is different – here it is personal and intimate. While land and descendants are still the critical core of the covenant, here the land is an ahuzah, a family holding, rather than a nation state as in the earlier covenant. Here  Abram’s line is described in terms of family, it is described positively as being fruitful, a multitude of nations including king. There is no mention of a terrible period of time in exile and slavery, instead the focus is on the mutuality of the covenant – Abram and his line must keep the covenant as well as God, and his name is changed to show the personal transformation. And in parallel we are told that Sarai too is part of this promise, she will bear a son, and through that son nations and kings will be born, and the covenant will be held within this familial line. She too has her name changed; she too is radically altered by the encounter. This is a covenant with real people who are active in the creation and expression of the covenant, and who are transformed by the event – both have the letter ה added to their names, a letter used to signify God and both will shortly by transformed by the birth of their child.

While the sign of the covenant is to be embedded in the flesh of the male member, the covenant itself is not limited to those who carry the sign – it is enshrined in the peoplehood that descends from Abraham and Sarah, in their activity and participation.

Looking at the biblical texts we can see that each covenant apparently made with one individual is in reality made with an extension from that individual – be it the covenants with Noah that are in reality made also with his extended family or secondly with the whole of humanity, or the covenants with Abraham which extend to his descendants through Sarah, the notion of the individual limited covenant is a mistake. When we get to Sinai it is clear that while the discussion is with Moses, the covenant is actually with all the people both present and yet to be born or to choose Judaism. Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy in parashat Nitzavim make this clear – everyone, male, female, adult, child, high status or low – is in the covenant.

So how come we only seem to celebrate or mark the entry into the covenant of male children? How are women supposed to see themselves as integral to the covenant too?  Traditional texts assume simply that women need no such entry point. In the Talmud (avodah zarah 87a) we read a debate about who can perform circumcision. The focus is on the repeated words “himol yimol” in the passage from Genesis 17 – this can be translated as the individual must be circumcised to enter the covenant, or it can be understood as ‘the circumciser needs to be circumcised’. Following this second reading, one would imagine that only a man can act as mohel (circumcisor) and yet we know that Zipporah herself circumcised her child. From this the Talmud decides that women are classed as ‘among the circumcised’ – in other words, women are already born with the sign of the covenant in their bodies, and need no extra marking in their flesh.

What this natural state is is subject to debate – it seems to have something to do with the blood released- could it be menstruation or the ability to give birth, both of which involved natural bleeding?  Is it to do with the ability to procreate – certainly the idea of circumcision is also seen in the treatment of fruit trees whose fruit cannot be eaten for three years – they are ‘orlah’, literally ‘uncircumcised’. So possibly the act of milah is an act to make the male ‘fruitful’, something a woman is seen as being ab initio?

But while our texts understand women to be part of the covenant even without ceremony, and the traditional debate is only to clarify the reason for this, it seems to me that a real issue is being overlooked. We bring a boy child into the covenant surrounded by family and community, with great joy and love, a week after his birth. But a girl child is simply noted, a mi sheberach (blessing) recited in her father’s synagogue when neither she nor her mother are present, end of story.

It is not enough. It is not enough to say that women are on a spiritually higher level than men and therefore need not be obligated to do mitzvot. It is not enough to teach that a woman’s glory is internal, that she should be shielded from the outside world, protected from public space. It is not enough to recite platitudes to try to flatter or distract women from living full and public lives, from actively taking their place in the covenant, from operating openly in public space, their voices and ideas heard in study and in action.

By denying women a public recognition of our place in the covenant, we have slid into the position where women’s roles have become seen as lesser than those of men, where women are somehow not counted in the legal or spiritual community of Jews.  It begins to be taught that women are only in the covenant by virtue of their relationship with men – fathers or husbands or sons. It begins to be understood that women’s rights and women’s voices are contingent on their relationship with men. And then we slide into a deeply dangerous place, where women are not only removed from the public space, their voices silenced to protect male ‘sensibilities’, but women’s reality is eroded, women’s experience downplayed, and the covenant is deprived of what was clearly there at the beginning – the particular contribution of women.

Judaism is not only a religion, not only a set of beliefs, not only a genetic inheritance, not only a set of shared values and stories and way of seeing the world – it is a peoplehood in covenant with God. And that peoplehood contains a complex variety of souls. Like the lulav and etrog which are seen as symbolising the Jewish people – some with learning but no mitzvot, others with mitzvot but no learning, yet others with both learning and mitzvot and still others with no learning and no mitzvot – we encompass the full range of what is possible in a people, and we need each other to fulfil ourselves.

So the ceremonies that bring daughters into the covenant – simchat bat, zeved habat, brit bat, – these are important ceremonies and while some date to the 17th century, they are not yet in common usage across the community, nor always recognised as being more than a nice way to celebrate having a new baby in the family or to welcome a daughter into the world.

Women are, and always have been, part of the covenant. Abraham may have had to circumcise himself, but Sarah too was physically altered, bringing her child into world long past the age of childbearing. Both were named, both were transformed, both were necessary

It is time we took more seriously the rite of passage to bring a daughter into the covenant. Time to bring the creative ceremonials out of the shadows and into the mainstream liturgy and life of the synagogue community. Respect for women begins with treating the births of female children with the same communal enthusiasm and joy as the birth of male children is celebrated. From publicly entering a girl child into the covenant may come a greater understanding that women have our own part in the covenant, must explore it and explain it and be creative with it as the men have over the centuries.

Merle Feld’s poem “We all stood together at Sinai” is a salutary reminder of what happens when we don’t give equal value time and space to women’s covenant experience.

We All Stood Together   By Merle Feld   (for Rachel Adler)

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him

I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there

It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down

And then
As time passes
The particulars
The hard data
The who what when where why
Slip away from me
And all I’m left with is
The feeling

But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute

My brother is so sure of what he heard
After all he’s got a record of it
Consonant after consonant after consonant

If we remembered it together
We could recreate holy time
Sparks flying