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

The priesthood of ancient Israel was a complex and important part of the identity and formation of the people, and here in Emor we are continuing the narrative of priestly behaviour and purity, begun when Aaron and his four sons took on the role of hereditary priesthood back in the book of Exodus (chapter 28) and the special garments they were to wear were described in detail. The priesthood was a sanctified position, the role to minister to God and to carry out the rituals perfectly.

So Emor begins with instructions about how the priest may not render himself unfit for his role, and the phrase early in the chapter is curious  לֹ֥א יִטַּמָּ֖א בַּ֣עַל בְּעַמָּ֑יו לְהֵ֖חַלּֽוֹ:he shall not render himself impure as a chief among his people, and he shall not profane himself.  The impurity issue is clear – for a person approaching God he needs to be in a state of ritual purification – but the question of profanation (or defilement or pollution) is less so – how does it differ from the impurity of being tamei?

First we are told the priest is not to become tamei (ritually impure) by contact with a corpse, unless the dead person is a first degree relative (no wife is mentioned in the list, and the priest may only have contact with a sister if she is still virgin at the time of her death)

The priest must not make his head bald, nor shave the corners of their beard, nor in any way cut their flesh – presumably these are all practises of a non-Israelite priesthood to be avoided at all costs.

This is followed by another exhortation, this time cast in a more positive light

קְדשִׁ֤ים יִֽהְיוּ֙ לֵאלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם וְלֹ֣א יְחַלְּל֔וּ שֵׁ֖ם אֱלֹֽהֵיהֶ֑ם כִּי֩ אֶת־אִשֵּׁ֨י יְהֹוָ֜ה לֶ֧חֶם אֱלֹֽהֵיהֶ֛ם הֵ֥ם מַקְרִיבִ֖ם וְהָ֥יוּ קֹֽדֶשׁ:

“They will be holy to their God, and they will not profane the name of their God, for the fire-offerings of God, bread of their God, they bring close (offer). And they will be holy” (21:6)

So far so explicable. The priest is to be holy, separate and distinct from the rest of the population. Their role is to offer to God, and they must be in a state of ritual purity in order to do so – failure to do exactly as required has already been demonstrated in the fate of Nadav and Avihu two of the sons of Aaron. This is dangerous territory, meticulous care must be taken in all one’s actions where one might contract ritual impurity or fall into the rituals of a different religious group.

But then we come to who the priest can marry, and the sexual history of the potential wife, or her past relationships  suddenly come into the category of being able to cause HIM to become defiled. And worse, the behaviour of his daughter, if it be seen to be licentious, will cause her to receive the death penalty by fire, because she has defiled her father.

אִשָּׁ֨ה זֹנָ֤ה וַֽחֲלָלָה֙ לֹ֣א יִקָּ֔חוּ וְאִשָּׁ֛ה גְּרוּשָׁ֥ה מֵֽאִישָׁ֖הּ לֹ֣א יִקָּ֑חוּ כִּֽי־קָדֹ֥שׁ ה֖וּא לֵֽאלֹהָֽיו: ח וְקִ֨דַּשְׁתּ֔וֹ כִּֽי־אֶת־לֶ֥חֶם אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ ה֣וּא מַקְרִ֑יב קָדשׁ֙ יִֽהְיֶה־לָּ֔ךְ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֹ֖ה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶֽם: ט וּבַת֙ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּהֵ֔ן כִּ֥י תֵחֵ֖ל לִזְנ֑וֹת אֶת־אָבִ֨יהָ֙ הִ֣יא מְחַלֶּ֔לֶת בָּאֵ֖שׁ תִּשָּׂרֵֽף:

A woman who is a Zonah (prostitute) or a Challelah (defiled) was not to be taken in marriage, nor was a woman who had been sent away by her husband (divorced) because “he is holy to his God”.

And you shall make him Kadosh (sanctified/distinct) because the bread of your God he offers (brings close), he will be Kadosh to you, because I the Eternal am Kadosh and make you Kadosh.

And the daughter of a priest who defiles herself with prostitution, she defiles her father, she will be burned by fire”

Just how can it be that the previous actions of women with whom the priest might come into contact can defile him? Taken in conjunction with the requirement of a state of virginity of the dead sister for whom he is permitted to defile himself the text reads clearly that the sexual history of woman has a real and serious effect on the status and purity of the priest.

And yet prostitution was clearly a part of Israelite society and we have biblical stories that speak of it without passing any moral judgement. Be it Tamar with Judah, determined to get her son or Rahab who helped Joshua, the harlot in Gaza visited by Samson or the ‘backdrop’ of prostitution described in the book of Kings, Isaiah, Proverbs, Jeremiah, Hosea etc. Prostitutes were a known sector of society, disparaged but tolerated and most certainly used. Little snippets appear woven into the biblical text about the prositutes– both male and female. We see them bathing in public pools, playing their music in public places; they were seductive and bible warns against their charms. Possibly the most powerful story in late bible is that of Esther, given by her uncle Mordechai into the harem of the King and how many little Jewish girls are dressed as Esther at Purim, how few want to be Vashti!

The rules for the High Priest are even more strict – he can only marry a woman with NO previous sexual history. Whereas a widow is an acceptable wife for an ordinary priest, the wife of the High Priest must be a virgin. The biblical take on this is fascinating – he shall not profane his seed among his people.  Rabbinic commentators take this to mean the problem that arises should he contract an unsuitable marriage – to a widow or a divorcee – and subsequently have children who are ‘profane’, but I wonder if this is indeed the plain meaning of the text, or if there is not some sexual politics and fantastical belief system at play – that a woman who has had sexual relations with another man will in the following years still have something of that man within her that could contaminate later relationships.

The fear of a woman’s sexual history permeates this section of bible. The idea that a woman can defile the priest, not within the system of tamei/tahor with her menstrual fluids (which to be honest is bad enough) but within some other system of Chall’lah, of profaning or polluting or even just making ordinary and common and mundane, simply by having been intimate with another man, is deeply problematic. It bespeaks the ownership of a woman’s body, of the rights to have intimacy with her in a particularly controlling way, by linking it to the proper workings of a priesthood whose role is to ensure the continuing relationship between Israel and God. It diminishes also the relationships which were not transactional in the way prostitution is – the divorced woman, the abandoned wife, the widow – these are all in the category of defiling the priest even though their sexual activity may have been impeccably within the boundaries of sanctioned relationships.

And another issue is noticeable by its absence – the sexual history and activity of the priest himself. No ban is given here about the priest not frequenting prostitutes, no rules are given for his faithfulness or his expected standard of behaviour in order to keep himself ritually pure and appropriate for his work – only the woman’s behaviour is legislated for here as if only the woman’s sexual activity has bearing on the man’s ability to function as priest.  It seems to me to have less to do with the appropriateness to function as priest and much more to do with the need to control that most feared of activities- the sexual behaviour of women.

It is against halacha even today for a Cohen or Levi, a person whose family name and tradition speak of them being part of the hereditary priesthood, to intentionally marry a divorcee, although if they do so the marriage is valid ex post facto although the priestly status of the children will be diminished. Inevitably such couples arrive at the offices of non-orthodox rabbis, hoping for a chuppah and some semblance of Jewish blessing. For we progressive rabbis the status of someone claiming to be part of an unaltered and untainted biblical line descending directly from Aaron is at best safek in doubt, and anyway the special status of the Cohanim is no longer relevant, we no longer wish for a return to the Temple and its ritual structures, and therefore maintaining some notional and doubtful purity to facilitate some outdated religious system which has long been superseded by prayer and mitzvot is a stringency we are unlikely to want to defend.

But to add to that the realisation that the woman is judged to be defiling to the man simply because she has been sexually active – makes the whole structure indefensible. When we look at the text and see that the stated aim – again and again – is holiness for the people just as God is holy, then we surely cannot allow these verses and their implications to stand unchallenged. The classical commentators have tried their best, limiting the definitions of zonah and chall’lah to women who either engaged in illicit relations or who were the product of them, but this is not the plain meaning of the text and it leaves unchallenged the unpalatable position that women defile men through sexual activity that has nothing to do with those men.

As increasingly women are finding ourselves the object of fundamentalist ‘religious’ statements, sexualised and objectified and curtailed and forcibly hidden from the public sphere, it is time to go back to the source of some of this activity and expose it for what it is – in this case the real fear the priesthood had that any ritual impurity might impede the communication between people and God – or might prove fatal to the priest involved, has been diverted to cement the ownership of women’s bodies, sexuality and sexual activity firmly in the sphere of men’s power. Enough is enough – the various prostitutes going about their business in bible should remind us that people’s sexual activities have no bearing on their value in society and we are not expected nor entitled to make judgements. And even if we believe ourselves to be part of the priesthood and expect to one day step up to that role – all well and fine, but let’s leave it till the days of the third temple and the judgment of the messianic age, and until then leave people’s personal relationships and sexual pasts where they belong – in the private and personal sphere of each individual man and woman.

Parashat Emor: the importance of knowing our boundaries.

And the Eternal said to Moses: Speak to the priests the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for the dead among his people”(Leviticus 21:1)

Judaism likes the idea of boundaries and separations, of creating different categories in order for the world to work properly. From the moment the Torah narrative begins with the chaos of primeval creation, God first creates the earth and the heavens and then begins to separate everything out – light from darkness, dry land from the sea, the firmaments from the earth, day from night.   The psalmist tells us that God gave the earth to people to live on, while the heavens belong to God. They are different and separate domains.

Biblically the Jewish people were divided into the Levitical priesthood (descendants of the tribe of Levi) and the rest of the Israelites; and the Levitical priesthood itself was divided into the Cohanim (the priests who were direct descendants of Aaron), and the Levi’im – the priests whose work was to service the Cohanim in their duties. Different and separate domains.

Creating categories and boundaries is what we do. We filter and we sort, we include and exclude, we oblige and prohibit.

In the case of the priesthood there are rules which separate them from the rest of the Jewish people. So, for example, even today someone whose family tradition is that they are Kohen will avoid going too close to a dead body – Jewish cemeteries will have rooms and paths to allow the Kohanim to approach in an halachically acceptable way. Whatever we Reform Jews may think about the division amongst the Jewish people which still puts an extra load on the families of the Levitical priesthood, (the Reform response takes into account both the reality that whatever you may believe about your family the hereditary priesthood cannot be a status you can be certain about; and also has moved away from laws specifically to enable Temple ritual, so given that there are substantial disabilities in Jewish law for people identified as Cohanim, we have decided that this category is no longer of importance to us and have effectively removed this particular boundary), we are aware of its ramifications.

 Why must a priest not come into contact with a dead body? It may be a matter of chukkat ha’goy, of copying and assimilating the traditions of the people with whom we live until we are indistinguishable from them, blurring the boundaries of our identity. Egypt we know had a cult of death, with huge tombs and sarcophagi in which the embalmed bodies of the dead were prepared for the afterlife. The rich would stay rich; the poor would stay poor even after death. Torah most certainly is reacting to some of this cult as it reacts to many of the practices of the people amongst whom the Israelites were living. Our whole imperative rejects the cult of death for the cult of life and living, with Moses reminding us in parashat Nitzavim to “Choose Life”.

It may be that the ritual impurity is less to do with the problem of being in a fit state to offer a Temple sacrifice as keeping in a fit state a very important boundary. The separation boundary between life and death is the most powerful that we experience and it must be kept as tight and impermeable as possible. The verse that ended last week’s portion Kedoshim, (Lev 20:27) reminds us “a man or a woman that divines by a ghost or a familiar spirit shall surely be put to death… their blood shall be upon them”

We must keep our focus on this life, in this world. We must pay attention to how we live here and now, rather than make assumptions about, or even try to make forays into, whatever exists outside of our own domain.

Parashat Emor reminds us of the importance of operating within our own world, and within our own time. It contains the laws around sanctifying time – the festivals are given within this sidra, Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. All of these not only set aside time for particular worship, they also remind us of the boundaries of nature, the limits of our behaviour, the importance of stopping the everyday and mundane and remembering the reason for our being.

We are known as an Am Kadosh – often translated as a holy people. But Kedushah is not about holiness in the sense that we are specially sacred and righteous and blessed. We are an Am Kadosh because we follow the rules of Kedushah – of separating out and making (and keeping) boundaries. The root of the word k’d’sh means to make different or separate – hence when we marry (Kiddushin) we make that relationship a different one, we separate our partner for a unique relationship. When we think about our dietary habits, eat certain foods and not eat others, separate milk and meat products and so on, we are forcing ourselves to think about what we consume, rather than mindlessly devouring anything presented to us. When we give a proportion of our income to help others as a matter of principle rather than viewing all our income as being rightfully only to be spent on ourselves; When we choose not to automatically adopt the customs of the surrounding culture but to think about our own identity and absorb the best of what we see around us BECAUSE it is the best of what we see; When we keep in place these boundaries we may find we are able to negotiate the world with more clarity. I am not suggesting that we pull down the defences in order to protect any notional purity or to keep out the modern world, but that knowing who we are and in what area we should focus our energies will give us a greater chance in partnering with God in the work of completing the creation.

Parashat Emor reminds us of the importance of knowing our boundaries. It reminds us that to be Kedoshim – the imperative of last week’s sidra – we have to clarify our context and so to understand it and be able to work within it.

Not Kohens nor Levites, but all the people are holy

It is shocking to read in sidra emor about the particular physical qualifications which must be met by the hereditary priesthood, in particular the restrictions which the bible describes in this week’s sidra. “No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lords offerings by fire.” we are told, “he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Eternal have sanctified them”

The defects are described in the text – blindness, lameness, hunchback, cataracts – all of them physical and external, all of them beyond the control of the individual. Indeed we are told in later rabbinic commentary (on Bechorot 45a) that an internal defect does not disqualify one from priestly service, only external defects do this.

The priests were a group apart, their status protected and hedged around with strict regulations. They could not touch a dead body except that of an immediate blood relative. They could not shave their heads nor cut the sides of their beards. They could not marry a divorced woman- their wives had to be above any suspicion and come from families that also were seen to be pure. In return for their work in the Temple service they were given special privileges and obligations. To this day in Orthodox Judaism the person who considers themselves to be of a priestly family is called to the Torah reading first, is privileged to do the duchenan (the priestly blessing) on festival days, and will perform pidyon haben – the ritual of release of the firstborn son. Reform Judaism does not make such people more special than others in the community. We do not aspire to a third Temple so the role of priest/ Kohen, is defunct. The disbenefits for a Kohen are real, and can complicate their lives, which, given the reality that we have no real way of knowing who is actually a descendent of the Aaronide family can cause problems that do not need to be caused, and anyway Reform Judaism understands that religious leadership is no longer in the hands of the hereditary priesthood, but has passed into the hands of rabbis and scholars and is now embedded in Rabbinic Judaism.  

It is often a surprise to Jews from a traditional orthodox background to find that we do not accord any special privileges to the Cohens and the Levites in our services; that we have no difficulty with them attending funerals like other Jews; that we perform their marriages to proselytes. It is sometimes a shock to them that we have taken for ourselves the wonderful “priestly blessing” formula, and that we use it at the end of most of our services to invoke the blessing of God on the community on a daily or weekly basis. I have occasionally overheard complaints about what is seen as our lack of respect for the priesthood, yet I do believe that this particular reform was one of the most powerful and significant for us. Far from rejecting our history, I am certain that by making all Jews equal within our liturgical practise we are proclaiming that we are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Instead of defining holiness within the confines of the ritual of the Temple service, we are opening it out into the lives of all who are looking for it. By rejecting the notion of a priesthood whose holiness or lack of it is expressed in terms of physical defect or perfection, we are free to become a people whose holiness or lack of it is expressed in more inner terms, in our prayers, our hopes and intentions, our yearnings, as well as in the actions which result from our inner lives.

The priesthood described in the bible is a complex structure designed to contain purity and holiness as it was understood then, and shows, I believe, clear signs of having accepted concepts from outside societies as well as creating new forms and ways of being. The notion that physical perfection was required in anything which came near to the place of the sacrifices was taken on board in the biblical tradition, but that doesn’t mean it was divine, nor that it was right. Today one can argue that we know much more about physical disability and are less afraid of it, But more than having a different approach to disability, we have developed a different approach to holiness. Maimonides tells us that the sacrificial system was a necessary step to the more religiously sophisticated and satisfactory practise of prayer. His argument could be extended to communal holiness – we no longer need a special group of people to be holy on our behalf, the professional liturgists and holders of ritual power. We have graduated from such a need and now the special privileges and obligations are the property of the whole Jewish people. It means that we must all take on the work of attending to God’s service, rather than leave it to the people who were born to it, or who are the heirs presumptive. We all have the job of seeing to it that holiness is part of the practise and the being of the Jewish people, that it is expressed both internally and externally, that we truly work together to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. If we don’t do that now, then we will be, in the words of sidra Emor, “profaning Gods holy places”, for the holy places of God are always found within a community of people.

Emor: and the principle of proportionate Justice

A piece of case law enlivens this sidra. The son of an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother gets into a fight with an Israelite man and utters a blasphemy against God. He is put into prison while the people go to find out from God what they should do.  God speaks to Moses and tells him to bring the man out, that everyone who heard the cursing should lay their hands on his head, and that everyone shall stone him till he died. This does happen in the text, but first there is an interlude of six verses where we are told about the death penalty for murder, then the requirement for compensation in the case of an animal that is killed; then the requirement for appropriate compensation when a person is maimed – lex talionis, the law of eye for eye and tooth for tooth. Then there is a reprise of the law that if one kills an animal one should ‘make it good’ and if one kills a person they shall be killed, followed by a reminder that there is one law for both the stranger and the home born because God is our Eternal God  – and only then are we told that the people did as commanded in the case of the blasphemer – they brought him out of the camp and stoned him, as God had commanded Moses.

We have to ask ourselves – why is there a disruption in the smooth flow of the narrative? Why this strongly framed reminder that the law is given by God, that human life and animal life are both to be taken seriously, if not seen as equal in compensation?

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein teaches that the interruption in the narrative comes because this is the first time in the history of the Jewish people that judicial capital punishment is enacted. Murder has certainly happened before – Cain killed Abel, Moses killed the taskmaster – but judicial execution is something else.  We are reminded that life is not cheap, that taking a life can be a response only to something so heinous that no other punishment is adequate. So in between the sentence and its enactment there is a pause – for reflection, to remind us that the  event is not carried out in a state of heightened emotion, to consider whether this is really what has to be done, to remind us that the taking of life is a terrible thing.

The interpolation in the text is one that catches our attention. First found in the book of Exodus, the law of lex talionis – of retaliation and retributive justice is one that must be unpacked thoughtfully. While a surface reading may understand the text to be demanding that whatever is done by the perpetrator should be done to the perpetrator, any sense of justice would be outraged by the lack of equivalency in such a response. People are not identical so any retaliation would not be identical. For example to remove the eye of a person who already has poor sight might cause effective blindness. So rabbinic exegesis makes very clear that this is about compensation for damage rather than a mechanistic damage to others. It reminds us that human life is valuable, diverse and complex and must be thought about, cared for and appreciated.  And why is this excursus here between the sentence against the blasphemer and his execution? Surely again to remind us that all justice must be proportionate, equivalent to the crime, and must be thoughtful about the people to whom the justice is to be applied.  Whatever we may think about biblical law, it is set against systems of either randomly applied justice or justice which favoured some over others. This text teaches us that one law is applicable to all, and that that law has to be considerate of all the people it serves. It is a principle well worth upholding.