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

 

Shemini: The Case of the Disappearing Priestess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miketz: the strange case of the disappearing women

Dr Ruchama Weiss points out that sidra Miketz is the first in Torah that is devoid of any stories of women : – she identifies it as the point at which bible begins to actively exclude women from the focus of the narrative. Over the fourteen years that the sidra spans in three and a half chapters of the book of Genesis, women are indeed conspicuous by their absence. The matriarchs have died, the only daughter of Jacob that we know of, the unfortunate Dina, has disappeared following her experiences with Shechem, no other daughters or indeed wives of the sons of Jacob are recorded here. They must have existed, but the biblical author does not see fit to document their presence.

There is in fact one woman who briefly makes an appearance – Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera a priest of On. Our introduction to her is laconic and almost imperceptible, she rates less than a third of the verse in which she appears, coming after the renaming of Joseph and before his status is recorded: “And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Potiphera priest of On. And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt.—“(41:5). She reappears five verses later as mother to Joseph’s two sons: “ And to Joseph were born two sons before the year of famine came, whom Asenath the daughter of Potiphera priest of On bore unto him.” (41:50). She doesn’t get to name her sons, up till now the privilege of the mother, nor do we see her relationship with them – all we see is Joseph naming Manasseh and Ephraim in order to make statements about himself: “And Joseph called the name of the first-born Manasseh: ‘for God has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house. And the name of the second he called Ephraim: ‘for God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.’ (51,52)

Asenath

Her lonely presence in the sidra, useful only as a wife for Joseph and mother to his children, is picked up in the 6th century pseudepigraphical work “Joseph and Asenath” , though to be honest there too she is still the plaything and chattel of men. A pagan woman, she falls in love with Joseph and gives up her idolatry in a painful and protracted process in order to marry him and have his sons. Later the son of the Pharaoh tries to take her for himself but the plot is foiled, and Joseph takes the crown of Egypt. So there is not much more to her there either. She may be the daughter of a powerful priest of the Egyptian cult, the wife of the most powerful man in the country bar Pharaoh himself, the mother of the founders of the tribes of Ephraim and Menasse, but she is unknowable, mysterious and all but erased from history. Her fleeting presence in the sidra that is filled with the powerful men who control all the resources of the country only really serves to highlight the poignancy of her disappearance. And to complicate matters further, there are those who say that her presence in the sidra at all, inserted quite clumsily into the text as daughter, wife and mother, is only tolerated because she acts as a counterbalance to the physical beauty of Joseph which drives women into a sexual frenzy while he himself remains emotionally detached and essentially sexless. She is there as an answer to the questions about his sexuality, to put paid to any idea that he may not conform to the heteronormative ideal of the Hebrew bible.

This year – 2015 – is the eightieth anniversary of the private ordination of the first woman rabbi of modern times, Rabbiner Regina Jonas; and the fortieth anniversary of the ordination of the first woman to be given semicha by a European rabbinic institution (Leo Baeck College) Rabbi Dr Jackie Tabick.

One of the most shocking things about the life and times of Rabbiner Regina Jonas was how quickly she was forgotten after her death in Auschwitz in 1944. When I was studying at the Leo Baeck College in the 1980’s we knew only of rumours that there had been a woman who may or may not have been ordained Rabbi in Germany – even though some of the teachers and founders of the college had known her well. It was only with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the emergence of some of her papers and photographs from an archive that she once again became real. And now her life and name are being researched and reclaimed, yet there is so much that is lost beyond recall. She disappeared even while there were people alive to remember her. Her story is an object lesson, a cautionary tale, how quickly can the stories of people disappear if there is no interest, no will to record them and to keep them alive.

In the forty years that Rabbi Dr Jackie Tabick has been working as a rabbi the world has moved on. There is less anxiety (at least in the progressive Jewish world) about women working as rabbis, but still there are those individuals who ask for a male rabbi for a life cycle event, or synagogue search committees who worry what will happen to their community if a woman is appointed as rabbi, or as the senior rabbi.

So we should not be complacent and believe that the battle has been won. The erasing of the inconvenient from history goes on everywhere, and it is a truism history is written by the winners. If the narrator of the biblical text is not interested in the women then the stories of the women will not appear. If we don’t have a multiplicity of voices recording history as they see it, then we will have a thin and diminished version of history, seen through the narrowest of lenses. And this too has knock on effects. Because there are so few women fully described and fully voiced in our foundational texts, it is a short leap for some to believe that this must not be a function of the (lack of )interest of the narrator but a function of the divinely inspired status of women in society.

As the societal norms are impacting on Judaism, as the eightieth anniversary of the ordination of Regina Jonas and the fortieth of Jackie Tabick begin to filter into the consciousness of orthodox feminism, and as more Jewish women demand that their voice be heard, there is a corresponding kick back from some in the orthodox world. Only this week A senior haredi rabbi suggested at a conference for high school principals held in Bnei Brak that higher education for women constitutes a more severe blow to the haredi world than the Holocaust and a responsa was given to a man about letting his daughter go to university that “ to do so would be worse than stealing money since material goods may be recovered but the “spiritual damage” of permitting the young woman to achieve higher education could not be undone.”

The spiritual damage envisaged when a woman is allowed to study at a high level, to learn to think and question and understand the world around her is not to the woman herself – it is damage to the structure of a community which relies on unquestioning following of self-appointed sages. When people think for themselves, the artificial consensus breaks, and a real consensus, based on challenge and debate, logical argument and building of agreement is allowed to emerge. In sidra miketz the women are submerged in the narrative with just the flash of one woman’s presence that serves to point up all the absences. We should be warned, there is nothing new under the sun, and women are being ‘disappeared’ from public space in the Jewish world with increasing determination, just as they are in this sidra. In the book of Exodus the presence of women will reassert itself, but their silence as the book of Genesis begins to move towards its close is a telling one. And a nudge to us to take responsibility not to allow it to happen again.

Shabbat Bereishit: the yahrzeit of Rabbiner Regina Jonas

Fraulein Rabbinerin Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained Rabbi in modern times, was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944 and her name and story submerged until the fall of the Berlin Wall meant that some of her papers were retrieved and studied.

Jonas-Regina

Her story is a complex one. We know tantalisingly little about her; there are some basic facts about her birth and parentage. She grew up in a poor part of Berlin, and after the early death of her father when she was only eleven years old, she, her older brother and her mother became ever poorer. She lived amongst Jews from Eastern Europe, whose religious practise was orthodox (as was hers). In her teens she found the comfort of the synagogue, and never really left. The rabbi helped her to take her Jewish studies to a level where she could make a living teaching, and so she supported her widowed mother and herself as best she could, and she continued to study, and she dreamed of rabbinic ordination, writing her thesis on the subject “Can Women Serve as Rabbis?” and proving to her own satisfaction that according to Halachah the answer was ‘yes’

While her thesis was sound, academic scholarship was no match for centuries of misogyny and custom. Her teachers would not ordain her as a Rabbi. She was the victim of a collision of circumstances- her teachers did not want to cause a problem in the wider Jewish community by going outside of orthodox tradition and ordaining a woman. The conditions in Germany in 1933 were preoccupying the German Jewish world as they cast about looking for a rational response to an insane situation. More than that, she was an orthodox woman studying at a Liberal institution. She was widely perceived as being ‘strange’, a woman who did not care about her looks, an academic whose mind did not deal with frivolity, a radical and transgressive figure who yet wore the clothes of convention and tradition. She challenged many social and religious norms, demanding her right and coping with what was clearly some hostility towards her. She was said to be a good teacher, a good pastoral worker, yet even with the dwindling number of rabbis in Germany she could not find a community willing to take her. Her work took place in the old age homes and the hospitals – the traditionally gendered “caring” roles.

Regina Jonas comes across as an isolated and lonely figure, a trailblazer and pioneer who did not however achieve a following in her lifetime. Yet she did not give up. She worked wherever she could, and before deportation to Theresienstadt she ensured that her papers would be lodged in the archive from where some fifty years later they would emerge. She deposited photos of her in her rabbinical gown, her ordination certificate and some press cuttings. She held on to a hope that she would be remembered, not go nameless and forgotten into the future.

She worked in Theresienstadt for two years, teaching, giving a series of lectures, acting pastorally and rabbinically and working in the team of the famous psychoanalyst Viktor Frankel – her job was to meet the trainloads of shocked and frightened Jews transported to the ghetto and to try to comfort them. She worked hard and with great dedication for two years until she too was sent to Auschwitz where she was later murdered.

Her date of deportation was 12th October 1944. It was Shabbat Bereishit, the first Sabbath after Simchat Torah, when we finish the book of Deuteronomy with the death of Moses and the transition in leadership to Joshua and we immediately begin to read the book of Genesis with its universal story of the creation of the world.

On Shabbat Bereishit we learn that leaders die but leadership goes on. That ideas are stronger than individuals. That out of endings come new beginnings.

We don’t really know very much about Regina Jonas except what we can try to piece together from scant evidence and tiny remnants of memory. Having been officially forgotten from 1942 until the early 90’s she has re-emerged, as ambiguous and as perplexing as she seems to have been in life.

We progressive women rabbis have taken her for a standard. She has become “the first woman rabbi”. Her story reads as a cautionary tale for the rest of us – will we too disappear after working so hard to achieve, after caring so much, after labouring at the coal face of the community rabbinate?

Anger has been expressed at her ‘disappearance’ from the narrative when so many who knew her or knew of her never bothered to pass the information on to the next generation of women studying rabbinics who felt so lonely, so trailblazing, so exposed. There is the sense that if only we had known about her when studying ourselves, we would have been able to speak of her and so be comforted by her earlier initiatives. She would have stood between us and the void of women rabbis in history.

We have taken her for a standard, and now we have adopted Shabbat Bereishit for her yahrzeit, the probable date of her death. In Bereishit we read the two stories of creation – the first where women are created equal to men and at the same time as them; the second where woman is created from the side of the first man to become ezer k’negdo, a help and an opposition to him.   Regina Jonas’ life expresses so many ideas in this Torah reading, read both on Simchat Torah and the following Shabbat – it is almost as if it were bashert. The way she lived her life demands of us that we take seriously the questions she posed to the conventions and community of her time as we look at how those questions are asked and answered in our time and communities.    But maybe we should also be more honest and say that Regina Jonas is not the forerunner of women in the non-orthodox rabbinate – she is really the forerunner of women in the orthodox rabbinate. That now there are women with orthodox semicha is exciting, though there is still a long way to go for them to be much more accepted than Regina Jonas was when she finally received her semicha eighty years ago.

Eighty years – twice times 40, the signifier of “a long time”. Eighty years, the biblical length of a long life. And so much has happened since her ordination. The number 80 is signified by the letter Peh. It is an explosive sound. It means an opening or a mouth. The Torah is both written text (bich’tav) and oral (she’b’al peh). It give me some satisfaction that at 80 years since ordination there are women rabbis in every stream of Judaism. Regina Jonas’ mouth continues to open and to teach, and each of us embroiders what we hear.