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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Vashti: a heroine not just for Purim #nastywoman

The story of Vashti is found in the first chapter of the book of Esther. We are introduced to her as she makes a feast for the women in the royal household, paralleling the feast made by the king for the men. There is no description of her feast, unlike the detailed account given of the King’s event where the extravagance of the decorations, the furniture, the utensils and the food and wine are described in all their excessive bling.

After seven days of feasting and drinking, the King decides to show off to the assembled hordes and bring his beautiful wife to his event, and the text does indeed tell us that she was “tovat mar’eh” – good to look at. He sends the seven eunuchs (sarisism) who served him to bring Vashti before him, wearing the crown royal (no other clothing is described leading the commentators to assume she was to appear naked before her husband and his friends). But Vashti refused to come at the king’s command given via his sarisim, and this angered the king greatly.

The King asked his advisors what legal consequences should follow for the Queen Vashti having refused to do the request of the King as relayed by his sarisim.

It is a strange few verses. First we are told that the King said to the wise men who understood the times – but we are not told what he said, instead there is a narrative insertion to tell us that this was his custom before those who knew law and judgment. And what does it mean that the wise men understood the times? That they were political advisors? that they were close to public opinion? Then we are given the names of the seven princes of Persia and Media – are these the wise men or are these a different group? We know that they were sitting right next to the king at the feast, that they were the first/highest in the kingdom; and we know too that they saw the king’s face.

Then comes the question – oddly phrased as a legal enquiry, and in the third person. “’What shall we do to the Queen Vashti according to law, forasmuch as she has not done the bidding of the King Ahasuerus by the chamberlains (sarisim)?”

And what is the position of sarisim? Is the request greater or smaller because of their involvement? Why is their presence and role as messengers repeatedly pointed out? Is Vashti offended that the message has come through them? Is she asking for a direct conversation with the King?

It is Memucan, one of the princes of Media who responds. And he exaggerates and inflames the situation in an extraordinary way. “’Vashti the !ueen has not only done wrong to the King, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples that are in all the provinces of the King Ahasuerus. For this deed of the Queen will become known to all women, [and the effect will be] to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes.  It will be said: The King Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the Queen to be brought in before him, but she did not come. And this day will the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the deed of the Queen say the like to all the King’s princes. So will there arise enough contempt and wrath.”

Suddenly the Queen’s refusal to attend her husband’s banquet in order for her beauty to be appreciated by his friends is escalated into an insult to all the peoples in the 127 provinces ruled over by the King. Suddenly she is a role model to every woman who will now defy their husbands – or at the least find them contemptible.

It makes you wonder about Memucan, about his own sense of self, his arrogance and his male privilege which seems to mask a very thin skin and a deep fear of women finding him laughable.  If twitter had been around he would surely have tweeted “Vashti is a nasty woman. Disobedient and harmful. Arrogant! Bad!  #nastywoman”

He has a solution to the threat that Vashti’s behaviour might cause if other women heard of it and wanted to emulate it:

“If it please the King, let there go forth a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before King Ahasuerus, and that the King give her royal estate to another that is better than she.”

She is to be banished from ever coming to the King again. She is to be stripped of her title and her possessions. She is to be treated as a bad woman – there will be others who are ‘tovah mimena’ – better than her.

And so Vashti disappears from the story. And just to rub in the reason for her treatment we are told that letters were sent in every language of the empire to remind the people “that every man should bear rule in his own house”

Vashti is a pawn in a game about explicitly retaining and building up male power and privilege. Anyone who challenges the status quo will be callously punished and that punishment held up as an example to anyone else who might think about challenging in the future.

To that extent, she is a foreshadow of the struggle of the Jews in this self-same Empire. She chooses not to kowtow to the servant/sarisim/chamberlain just as Mordechai chooses not to kowtow to that servant of the King – Haman. But unlike him she has no other channel of communication – what does the book of Esther learn from this? That the Jews are going to need a number of routes of communication if they are to survive the experience of living under a petulant dictator with enormous powers at his disposal. They are going to need to build many different and diverse relationships.

The midrashic tradition treats Vashti with great unkindness – seeing the need to denigrate her in order to build up the passive and obedient Esther. Both women become pawns in the game of male power and privilege, and they are set up against each other in a literary fiction in order to heighten the reader’s understanding of which is the right way to respond.

So poor Vashti, whose name means ‘beautiful’ or ‘good’ in Persian becomes a cautionary tale in the hands of the rabbinic tradition of the Talmud. They decide there is a connection in her name with the Hebrew verb “shoteh” – drinking, and suggest she was alcoholic and thus her disobedience was done in her cups.

They decide that when the king specifies she must come wearing her crown, that she is supposed to wear nothing else – her immodesty is legendary.  But then the Midrash suggests that she refuses to do so not because she is appalled at the request, but because she has a defect – a skin rash, a tail, leprosy – and the men will find her ugly.

There is a Midrash that she is of much grander ancestry than her husband – she is the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar and daughter of Belshazar, while Ahasuerus began life as the servant of her father. The problem – that she never lets him forget that she had a more powerful and higher status ancestry, she was a nagging and bitter wife, the sort of wife who would try to emasculate her husband with every opportunity. Of course she deserved her punishment, the arrogant woman.

And while she was busy trying to oppose her husband, the Midrash posits that she humiliated the other women, in particular those who were powerless, the Jewish maids whom she made work on Shabbat, whom she made work without their clothes – all this because she was called on the seventh day of the feast, and the punishment had to fit the crime, so this extraordinary crime was deduced.

Poor poor Vashti. She is indeed a cautionary tale. Beware of men in power who are scared of mature and confident women.

The story that she could not come and dance naked because she had a defect has an extra layer – that the Angel Gabriel came and fixed upon her not a tail, but a penis. Vashti is the ultimate unfeminine woman, the woman who challenges men on their own terms, the woman who behaves like a man.

You get the feeling that the storytellers who needed to diminish Vashti in this way had their own problems. They feared women who were in control of their lives, who were not dependant and therefore not in a supplicatory position in their relationships.

And you hope that the writers of this aggadic hate-fest are safely in the past. That men no longer fear women routinely, that we can see the stories for what they are – the projections of people who inadequately prepared to relate to others on an equal basis.

But of course we read this story on a yearly basis for a reason. We see that irrational fear of others never leaves the discourse entirely, that be it a woman who refuses to bow to the unreasonable demands of her husband or a Jew who refuses to bow to the unreasonable demands of a political force, or a human being who refuses to bow to an ideology of hatred, the battle continues.

Vashti is the bellwether, the indicator that something is deeply wrong in the system that is meant to be delivering good governance. Right now we see a President signing acts against religious groups or a Prime Minister choosing to use vulnerable groups as bargaining chips in their negotiations. Right now we see children and families fleeing from war and terrorism being refused sanctuary in a country which could easily afford to help them if it chose to do so.  Right now we are seeing bellwethers warning us that fascism is on the rise in Europe, that the learning and structures that were set up after the second world war to prevent such horror happening again are being forgotten, being overridden, being despised.  What will happen to our bellwethers if we don’t pay attention to them? Vashti disappears from the Esther narrative in a scant twelve verses. How quickly the world can change and progress and goodness erode into nationalism and hatred, into asserting power over the vulnerable, into anger that burns so fiercely that everything is consumed.

Vashti comes to tell us something important. A feminist icon she may be, but more importantly she brings a reminder that when we act out of fear of the other, out of fear of losing our privilege, a whole world can disintegrate and many people suffer.

Naamah, wife of Noah, sings as she goes about her work. Her voice calls to us as the world is remade

The first thing we learn about Noah is his genealogy  as the generations that separate him from Adam are listed – he is the tenth generation since the creation of humanity and ten is a powerful symbolic number in bible. (Gen5)

The second thing we learn about Noah is a connection between him and the ur-ancestors Adam and Eve, with the verbal root ayin-tzaddi-beit, (the noun itz’von – hard work/ creative work being used earlier for Eve and then for Adam and then not used again in Hebrew Bible)

The third thing we learn is that his name, Noah, meaning ‘rest’ or ‘repose’, but midrashically stretched to mean ‘comfort’ is somehow the counter to the idea of itz’von, that this one,  Noah, y’nachameinu – will comfort us – in our work (ma’asei) and the creative work of our hands (itz’von yadeinu), from the ground which the Eternal has cursed (Gen 5:29)  This is the first time that a name has been explained in bible since the first couple were named.

And the fourth thing we learn is that unlike his nine ancestors, Noah waited a long, long time before having children.  Five times longer than the usual delay – he was 500 years old before fathering a child.

The text has signalled that this man, the tenth generation of human beings, is notable. In some way he is born to mitigate the sheer hard work of creative exertion that has been the lot of human beings since leaving Eden.  And indeed he does alter the course of human history, becoming himself the ur-ancestor for the post-flood generations. And he is a late starter.

Why does Noah wait to have his children? One midrash tells us that God had made him impotent for the first 500 years in order not to have older children at the time of the flood which took place in his 600th year. (Gen Rabbah 26:2). Had his children been wicked they would have been killed alongside the rest of humanity, had they been righteous they would have had to make arks of their own, so the midrash places them at the cusp of adulthood – hence the delay in their births.

A much later commentary (Sefer haYashar) suggests another reason – that Noah knew that he would be bringing children into a corrupt world and chose not to do so. God had to remind him of his duty to find a wife and to have children, and to take that wife into the future in order that more children might  be born after the end of the flood.

I would like to add a third explanation – that just as the child of Sarah was to be the chosen heir to Abraham, so too does the saved remnant of humanity need to be the child of a particular woman.  For the text signals something very powerful about the mother of Shem, Ham and Japhet – she appears five separate times in the bible, and yet her name is omitted from the text.

In all but one of her appearances she is listed after Noah and his sons, and before the wives of the sons, but in the penultimate verse God tells Noah to “Go forth from the ark, you, and your wife, and your sons, and your sons’ wives with you” but they actually leave in a different order –Noah, his sons, his wife and their wives.

It feels like a moment has been missed. That moment is in need of revisiting and the wife of Noah in need of being rescued from her erasure.

The midrash tells us that the wife of Noah had a name, she was called Naamah.  How do they know? Because we know of a Naamah, the daughter of Lamech and Zillah, and sister of Tubal Cain – she is the only single woman listed in these early genealogies (and the other two women are the two wives of Lamech) and so must be of some importance, though the text does not tell us what.  Her name may give us another clue to her special abilities- the root primarily means to be pleasant, but it also has the connotation of melody and of singing. Naamah, whose brothers are each named for an aspect of human activity (the children of Lamech’s other wife, Adah are Jubal, the founder of the music of harp and pipe, and Jabal the patron of tent dwellers and cattle raisers, while her full brother Tubal Cain is the forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron)is not given a role in the text – but surely her pleasant and calm singing voice forms a backdrop to the story much as the singing of a niggun helps us to focus on our own prayer.

Maybe this is her downfall – the musicality of a woman’s voice has certainly become something to fear for some rabbis and commentators.  Maybe her name had to be erased from the text lest her singing lead us to really notice her, make us ask why Noah waited so long to marry her and have children with her, make us wonder what qualities she had that would lead her to being effectively the second Eve, the mother of all living after the flood.

And there is something else that makes the modern feminist want to winkle out more about this unnamed but significant woman – the later midrash and the mystical literature choose to take her name (pleasant/lovely/musical) and transform her into the feared seductress of men, the woman who married the fallen angel Shamadon and who mothered the most fearful demon of all, Ashmodeus, the king of the demonic world. Whenever a woman is trashed in rabbinic literature, called a seducer, a demon, a killer of babies, a prostitute or a witch– there we know we can find a woman whose strength of mind, whose scholarship, whose sense of self is powerful and outspoken. We find a strong woman who scares a certain kind of weak man. Lilith the first wife of Adam who chose not to be secondary to him; Eve whose actions led to the curse of ceaseless work;  Deborah likened to a wasp who moves from being a judge in biblical text to a teacher of established laws as commentaries take over; Huldah described as an irritant, a hornet; Beruriah the scholarly wife of Rabbi Meir whose end was to be seduced by one of his students and so committed suicide…..

A woman’s voice is her sexuality, and takes her from her assigned role of quiet service to others, to one of power and of public awareness. No wonder poor Naamah was hidden in the text, no wonder that even when God said she should leave the ark immediately after Noah and before her sons and their families, when it came to it she was described as having left after her sons, relegated to the status of secondary character  yet again.  Midrash goes on to trash her further, calling her an idolatrous woman who used her voice to sing to idols (Genesis Rabbah 23) The statement by Abba b. Kahana, that Naamah gained her name (pleasant) because her conduct was pleasing to God is rapidly overturned in majority opinion and recorded texts. She is other, she is frightening, and she is the mother of the demon king. Let’s keep her quiet, unassuming, disappeared….

The role of women beyond child bearing and rearing is sometimes frustratingly alarming to the rabbinic world view. Naamah has adult children who themselves are married – her role is apparently fulfilled, we learn of no further children of Noah after the flood, so what else should she be doing? No doubt she knew, but we can only guess.

There she is, the descendant of Cain, bringing his descendants back into play in the world, providing a sort of redemption to the first biblical murder and fratricide.

There she is, the new mother of all living, as everyone now will descend from her and Noah, bringing to fruition the promise made on the birth and naming of Noah, “’This shall comfort us in our work and in the toil of our hands, which comes from the ground which the Eternal has cursed.”

There she is, released from the burden of Eve, having finished with the work of childbirth and instead supervising the recreation of the post-diluvian world while her drunken husband passed authority to their sons.

There she is, the singer, whose voice echoes the voice of God as the world is once again put back together after the chaos of the flood.

Abba bar Kahana, the 3rd century amora and one of the greatest exponents of aggadah tells us that she was called Naamah (pleasant) because her conduct was pleasing to God. This teaching has been overlaid and overturned in tradition, the idea being apparently too awful for some rabbinic teachers to contemplate. Her conduct was pleasing to God. God noticed her. She was the woman destined to be the mother of all who live since the flood. About time her voice is heard again, singing as she goes about her work.