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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cartoon by the wonderful Jacky Fleming

If you would like to calculate the value of your own unpaid work, follow this link http://visual.ons.gov.uk/the-value-of-your-unpaid-work/

Behar: to treat with respect is the essence of holiness

The bible is very clear – everything we have belongs to God and is at best ‘on loan’ to us. And we have to treat it properly and with respect. Even the land must be allowed to rest, rather than be worked to produce more and more. Besides giving the land a chance to return to a good condition, the sabbatical year also meant that all people, whether they were rich or poor, would find themselves dependant on what the land produced naturally, as all of them would have to collect and gather the food that was there, rather than the usual experience of the richer ones harvesting a good amount and leaving a proportion in the field for the poor to glean. This would have been a transformational experience in that the ones who always had food would become aware of the conditions the poor faced all the time, and one imagines that the bible hoped this learning would motivate them to help support the needy.

Leviticus is a book that is primarily about the ritual system and how holiness is created, and reading some of the narrative here we become aware of the agenda of social justice that is threaded through it, how the world cannot be made perfect if justice is not available for all. Even during the shemitta year, the year when the land is to rest and recuperate, the obligation for tzedakah for the poor continues – in other words just because you are tightening your belts, you don’t forget the needs of others who rely on the help they get from society in order to survive.

Everything we have belongs to God and is, at best, on loan to us. When we harvest the land we leave food for the poor. When we help a fellow human being who is in financial difficulties we give them their dignity and are not to charge interest on any loan we give. The laws remind us that even the money we have is not ours to use as we please. It is a conditional loan, to be partially used for the benefit of others.

As we look into an uncertain future where politically, socially, financially we know that times will be tough and we will almost certainly feel ourselves to have lost some of the security we felt in earlier times, the message that comes through this part of Leviticus could comfort us a little – and could teach us a lot. We must – even now -continue our obligation to a just society where the gap between rich and poor must be actively narrowed (if not removed) on a regular basis. We must – even now – continue our commitment to tzedakah, to the dignity of our fellow human beings, and to our land. And if we maintain our understanding that each of us has a part to play in bettering the world, and that sometimes that process requires us to start again in a different way, then even now when following news sites may leave us feeling impotent angry and depressed, we can stop, take stock, and get on with helping to create a healthier and holier world.

 

 

Parashat Behar: the obligation to look after each other sooner rather than later

Again and again in sidra Behar we are told some variation of the scenario: “if your brother becomes poor so that he has to sell his possessions or himself, then his kinsman (go’el) shall come and redeem that which he has sold”. In other words, when someone experiences financial difficulty such that they have to sell their possessions or even enter bonded labour, their family or extended community are expected to provide a safety net, helping them recover their ability to maintain themselves. And if they do not, then time will come to his rescue, and the Jubilee will release him from his debts and return to him his economic means of survival.

Perhaps the most powerful formulation of the statement is that found in Leviticus 25:35-36 “ V’chi yamuch achi’cha, umattah yado imach, v’che’che’zakta bo, ger v’toshav v’chai imach. If your brother becomes poor and his means fail in comparison to yours, then you shall uphold him, as a stranger and a settler shall he live with you. Take no interest from him or increase, but fear your God, so that your brother may live with you”.

Two ideas spring out from these texts which read together become an unmistakable chorus of social concern – the first is the repetition of the word ‘imach – with you. The second the imperative ‘v’che’che’zakta bo’ and you will uphold, or strengthen him.

The bible is legislating here for a society of mutual responsibility. From its point of view we are all in relationship with each other, obligated to ensure the continued existence of each other, and unable to say “what happens to someone else is none of my business”; or else ”there are structures and systems to help these people, I need not get involved”.   Instead, we are described as being ‘achim’ – siblings, and we live amongst each other in an interdependent symbiotic world. We have the responsibility to pay attention to how others are managing in the world, to compare their resources with our own, and to support them when it seems that they will otherwise be unable to cope. Rashi tells us that this verse also teaches that we should help others as soon as they show signs of being unable to manage, a comment based on the Tannaitic midrash the Sifra which says:

“In other words, don’t allow him to fall unto utter poverty. The mitzvah may be explained with the analogy of a donkey which is carrying a heavy load. While the donkey continues to stand under the load, it is a relatively easy task to grab him and to steady him so that he is able to remain upright. But if he falls over, then even 5 people do not have the strength to raise him up again” (Sifra Behar 109b).

I love this analogy, because it works in such fine contra-distinction to the sibling analogy. Calling someone else your ‘brother’ and seeing them as an integral part of your own world requires one kind of world view – the slightly saintly sort that says “we are all children of the same God, we are all of equal value and worth, we must help each other out”. It is a beautiful ideology and one that I aspire to consistently holding, but I confess that sometimes it is almost too hard to see the spark of the divine in the soul of some people.

But the Midrash appeals to a different part of us – the pragmatic part that says “think of how difficult it would be to help someone if they reached real poverty – think of how many resources we would need to provide, of how inefficient it would be to have them in some sort of revolving door of social or medical care”. Better to help them BEFORE they start to sink to the point they won’t find it easy to rise from, better to help them NOW so that they won’t need so much more help later….

It is, I suppose, the ultimate political argument. It appeals to our pockets rather more than to our souls, to our selfishness rather than to our altruism. And it provides for members of society who are in need, earlier rather than later.

It seems to me that we ought to take more note of the wisdom of these texts. Clearly a society where some are allowed to subsist in abject poverty is not a healthy society, nor one which would be able to continue for very long – once an underclass is created, it undermines the very foundation of the society of which it is no longer a part. We all know that, and in various ways we try, as a society, to provide a system of checks and balances, of material benefits and of inducements to become self-sufficient. But there are many people who fall between the various services and who are not helped in any way. Asylum seekers find themselves unable to work, and unable to live on the restricted funds they are given. Mentally ill people frequently are helped to the point where they are beginning to get better, only to be then left to their own devices until their illness spirals downward to a point where they need radical assistance once more. Single parents unable to cope with the isolation, young people who have never, ever held down a job, the list could go on and on.

We struggle with all this, complain that we are already heavily taxed and what more can we do? We might toss a coin or donate to a charity working with vulnerable groups of people, but essentially we get on with our own lives, feeling regret when faced with such misery and pain, but otherwise pushing most social problems into the back of our minds. There is a limit to the responsibility we feel for the other, and we assume the State will take on the role of provider, while we tell ourselves that charity begins at home.

But bible challenges our comfortable complacency. Again and again we are told about our brother who becomes less and less able to sustain himself, and about our responsibility towards the one who is amongst and of us. How it is so important that each person have the rights and the resources to run their own lives that even if there is no one who can redeem their debts, they should be able to live as a hired servant in someone else’s household until the jubilee year itself will set them free.   But it is that one little phrase “ve’che’che’zakta bo” – you will uphold him – and its ancient interpretation – you will help him BEFORE he gets to the point where his life seems to be hopeless to him – that seems to me to be the essence of the matter. It is a way of ensuring that no one enters into the realms of degradation, that no one loses their basic right to self-determination, their claim to humanity, no one should become so poor or so hopeless that returning to take their part in society is just too big a task.

We all see people who seem to have fallen into a trap so enormous and so energy sapping that they don’t ever seem able to see a way out of it. Vulnerable people treated in hospital and then left unsupported when they go home, often too early in terms of their rehabilitation and the recovery of their confidence in their own ability to live independently. People who would like to train for a profession or trade, but who will lose the small financial support they are receiving if they do so. Our systems often maintain people at the lowest levels of society, and this is because we have seen only one part of the text, we have created boundaries around how much we are prepared to care and have delegated the responsibility to others, paying them to deal with it.

We have recently read the golden rule of torah – the command to love our neighbour as ourself – and one commentary on this rule always catches me – ‘you never say about yourself that you have loved yourself enough, that you need do no more for yourself but have fulfilled your obligation to yourself. In the same way you should love others”

It is an ideal for us to aspire to. Mostly we try to do about enough, but there are limits to our giving, to our patience, to our sense of connection and obligation. This is where the ingenious interpretation of the Sifra comes in. Yes it says, there are limits, and the calculation we must make is this one – which will be the most efficient way of caring for someone? Caring just enough so as to keep them in the revolving door of needing support? Or caring more than that, to help them change direction BEFORE things get too hard, to look after them until they are not simply not-ill, but actively able to live their own lives and support themselves properly? It may take more resources in the immediate term, but ultimately it is by far the most efficient way to create a healthy and harmonious society.

In the days before the State took on the role of provider of care for the vulnerable, bible created a structure where the nearest relatives would help those in need – and failing that there would be an amnesty of the debt – the jubilee. The expectation was that everyone would be able to own their own means of production. That they could sell first possessions, then land, then their own bonded labour. It was a system that allowed dignity and honour even for the poorest person. You might say that it was way ahead of its time. But the biggest innovation – and the one most relevant to us today is the timing of the rescuing of the vulnerable people. If they got to the point where they had to sell possessions, one redeemed the possessions to put them back to where they were. If they had to sell land, the land was to be bought back and given to them, if they were to sell themselves, even then they could be redeemed and given the freedom to work for themselves. The bible didn’t wait till people were at rock bottom but required intervention as soon as need became apparent. It is a lesson that if we were to put into practise today, would not only would create a more efficient and caring society, but would prevent a great deal of misery.

Today we have a new Government in the UK. I hope and pray they will strengthen and uphold all the people who live in our society, so that all may have the dignity of having enough and none may have to reach the hopelessness of despair before a helping hand is offered to them.

image of poverty statistics uk 2015 from fabian society http://www.fabians.org.uk

Parashat Behar:different kinds of deception and the obligation to avoid them

In sidra Behar we find the source texts for the prohibitions against two different kinds of deception – ona’at mammon and ona’at devarim. The verb ona’ah literally means “to overreach”, and describes the act of wronging another by selling an article for more than its real worth, or conversely, by purchasing an article for less than its real worth.

              The proscription is based on the verse in this sidra (25:14) “when you sell anything to your neighbour, or buy anything from your neighbour, you shall not deceive one another”. Talmud (Baba Metzia 49b) specifies what level of price variation is valid and what is not. For the merchants among us, it is deemed permissible to make a fair profit (seen as charging less than one sixth above the accepted price), but it is not permissible to overcharge and deceive a customer.
              The ban on verbal deception arises from a statement three verses later where we read (25:17) “Do not deceive one another but fear your God, for I the Eternal am your God”. Since the previous verse explicitly mentions monetary deception, the rabbis decided that this verse must refer to another kind of fraud – that of verbal dishonesty. The Mishnah (Baba Metzia 4:10) tells us “Just as there is deception in buying and selling, so too there is deception in words”
              The example that is given is the raising of the expectations of the merchant that he has a sale when the person posing as a buyer has no intention of such a transaction, something I suspect we may all have been guilty of doing, when we look at an item on the High Street but then go on to buy it on the internet at a discounted rate. But of course verbal dishonesty is a great deal more than the behaviour of people around a transaction and I find it curious that the Talmudic tradition stayed so close to the mercantile metaphors.

               Verbal dishonesty is so ingrained a habit in our behaviours that we can often barely notice it, from the telling of “little white lies” through to being “economical with the actualite” in an effort to stave off embarrassment or worse. We have all learned to speak “diplomatically” or “tactically” or “strategically”. We can hide behind many a circumlocution in order not to say what should really be honestly and transparently available to the people with whom we “do business”.

I am not suggesting we all suddenly become aficionados of what is sometimes called “blunt speaking” – that is another way in which we can bludgeon the other into not taking on board the whole meaning. I am however suggesting that we look seriously at how we communicate with each other, at what we choose to communicate and to whom. To hear second or third hand about a matter that is important to you; to be the subject of gossip or speculation – even to be forced into issuing public denials; to be told that “people are saying about you…” rather than “I think…”; these are all forms of verbal dishonesty that do more than to raise expectations unfairly qua the Mishnah – they are forms of dishonesty that start to destroy the soul of the people deceived and of the people deceiving.

We are in the Omer period, a time of reflection and sombre thoughtfulness before Shavuot when we will celebrate the giving of Torah. Sidra Behar actually refers back in time to the words that Moses was given by God on Mount Sinai – in particular the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Matters or Words sometimes called the Ten Commandments. Now would be a good time to examine ourselves and our behaviour in the light of the prohibition against ona’at Devarim – the use of words to deceive each other.    

Parashat Behar Behukotai “And I remember the Land”

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The Hebrew bible is essentially the story of how a group of diverse individuals came to be formed as a People through a covenant relationship with God, the Creator of all things, and how that relationship was supposed to help them to be a righteous People who lived out their ethics on a small land to which they gave their name – Israel.

We are used to reading the texts and narratives, deriving from them a system of laws and of ways to behave in order to create our society and ourselves. We are used to the stories that form a narrative history, albeit one that is often read more as metaphor or myth than as literal record of events.  We are comforted by the story of the relationship with God that, even though interspersed with episodes of extraordinary pain and even a feeling of temporary estrangement, is shown to be constant and caring and ever present.  

The people Israel really came to existence at Sinai, when they agreed to the covenant relationship with God, with all of its rules and obligations. As God said when they were encamped at Sinai before the formal giving of Torah  “ Now, if you will really listen to My voice, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine” (Exodus 19:5). Though of course much earlier when speaking to Moses in Egypt, God reminds him of the earlier promise of Covenant relationship and Land given to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob,  that “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name YHWH I did not make Myself known to them.  And I established My covenant with them, to give them the Land of Canaan, the Land of their sojourning, where they lived…..So say to the children of Israel: I am the Eternal, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage;…  and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am the Eternal your God, …  And I will bring you in to the Land, concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am the Eternal” (Exodus 6:3-8)

What becomes clear as we read these texts of the formation of a people was that the Land which God gives to them is a critical element of the covenant, it is a partner in the relationship, and it is not simply an object which is given as reward or gift. The Land in the biblical narrative has a personality and a power. It is not a passive backdrop to be lived upon and worked for its produce– it is an active force in the relationship, a player in the narrative and character in the events. Like the people it belongs to God. It is only ever on loan to the Jewish nation, and that loan comes with strings attached.

Here at the end of the book of Leviticus we return to the Sinaitic meeting to emphasise once again the importance of the Land in the Covenant agreement. In Sidra Behar the text presents the laws regarding the sabbatical and the jubilee years. For six years the people are to sow their fields and prune their vineyards, but in the seventh year, the Land must be allowed to lay fallow. In other words, it must be given a rest – a Sabbath for the Land.
Every fiftieth year is a jubilee year which will not only to have all the rules of a sabbatical year but also is the time that all the Israelites who had sold themselves into servitude during the previous forty-nine years would be freed. Property (especially land) is also to be returned to the original owner-families. Thus the clock is reset and the original distribution of land among the tribes of Israel is to be preserved forever.

Then Parashat Bechukotai reminds us that if the people follow God’s laws then they will be protected, but if not then God will punish them – specifically the Land will not produce, the people will live in fear of their enemies who will remove them from the Land, and they will not return to it until they had atoned for their sins, included in which is their refusal to have let the Land have rest:  “Then shall the Land be paid her sabbaths, as long as it lies desolate, and you are in your enemies’ land; even then shall the Land rest, and repay her sabbaths. As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest; even the rest which it had not in your sabbaths, when you dwelt upon it. (Lev. 26:34-35)

So if the covenant is broken and the people forget their responsibilities to each other and to God, then the Land will lie desolate without its people, the people desolate in the land of their enemies, but ultimately, says God  “ I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the Land” (Lev 26.42) and God goes on to say: “I will not reject them, neither abhor them to destroy them utterly and to break My covenant with them; for I am the Eternal their God, and I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations that I might be their God, I am the Eternal (Lev 26:44,45)

The Covenant is ultimately unbreakable, however strained it may become. The Land remains connected to the people and to the Covenant, but it will not be abused. It too has its own relationship with God. It too is cared for and remembered by God, and it will not allow itself to become the setting for unrighteous behaviour.  It is not a prize for its inhabitants to use as they will, rather it is the test bed for the mitzvot that form the detail of the Covenant to be carried out – the commandment of compassion for the stranger, of thoughtful use of resources, of caring for all the poor and needy who are living amongst us, of the awareness that ultimately we do not own the Land but are allowed to lease it, so we should remember and give thanks to God who is giving us the food we need.  The Land is content to be in a mutually respectful and symbiotic relationship with us, a sibling relationship with us,  but we should never take it for granted. To impose ourselves on the Land and those who live on it, to oblige them to bend to our will, to arrogantly arrogate to ourselves the power to dictate to the Land and those who live on it, be they human, animal or plant life – this the Land will not accept, we will forfeit the benefits of the covenant and we will ultimately forfeit the Land if we do not quickly return to the ways of righteous behaviour.

Again and again Torah reminds us that our behaviour has consequences, and the ultimate consequence is displacement from our Land. Again and again the prophets rail against behaviours that place us and the Land in danger. Again and again a harsh experience results, a lesson must be learned, behaviour must change.

And yet the sidra gives us a clear instruction and it gives us hope: “If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments and do them, then I will give you rains in their season, and the Land shall yield her produce and the trees of the field will yield their fruit. …and you shall eat your bread until you have enough and you shall dwell safely in your Land. And I will give peace in the Land, and you shall lie down and no one shall make you afraid… (Lev 26:3-6)

Peace in the Land comes at a price – the price of how we behave in the Land and to the Land. To treat her well, and to treat all those who live on her well, will bring about the “shalom ba’aretz” we all crave and which comes, ultimately, from God. Not to do so – well the warning is explicit in the sidra with the tochecha listed here. The Land will not provide any place to hide.