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.

Tetzaveh: the flames that ascend on their own

אַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר:  לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד

And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring to you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually. (Ex 27:20)

For those of us who enjoy parsing bible, this very first verse of the sidra gives us a rich seam of learning. God is instructing Moses on what will happen inside the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle used for worship in the wilderness years. The sidra gives us elaborately detailed instructions for the clothing of the priests, and about the ceremony of ordination in which they will be dedicated to the service of God. The purpose of the clothes and the rituals are made clear – it is to make the priests holy.

The holiness of biblical times was not the abstract quality we think of it today, it was for them an important state of being for those who were to approach God. Holiness could be acquired through ritual and clothing, washing and the abstention from some actions, people and places. Holiness was a quality which was necessary for those who wished to serve God in the rituals of worship, as it would somehow protect them from what was understood to be a potentially dangerous and certainly unknowable presence of God.

So we have verse after verse of what they wore and when and how they wore it, what they washed and what they daubed in blood; what they ate and when and in what condition, what they slaughtered and what they sprinkled, what they burned and what they waved.

Reading it one can easily fall into a modern-minded trap of wondering how on earth they could believe that this ritual of sacrifice and incense brought people closer to God – but I think the clue is in the very first line I quoted – this is not for God, it was never for God, this is for the people.

אַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר:  לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד

And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring to you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually. (Ex 27:20)

Rabbinic commentators noticed two surprising words in this verse.

The first being that the oil that is being brought to light the lamps in the Mishkan – and to symbolise the eternal relationship between God and people – is brought not for (or to) God but Alecha – for you. The midrash is clear (Lev Rabbah 31:8) when it tells us that God already has the sun as a servant, there is already fire in the world so God does not need the light that we have burning in the Mishkan. God does not need it, we do. Bringing the olive oil into the Mishkan is an action only for our benefit; it is a way to come closer to God, a way to create relationship with the Eternal. The Midrash tells us that God gives us the mitzvot as a way to let us have as many opportunities as possible to come closer to relationship with God, even in the smallest and insignificant actions of our lives – such as providing olive oil for a lamp.

There is a second curiosity in this verse. The verb used to describe kindling the light is not the normal one for lighting a flame – lehadlik – but instead the bible talks of le’ha’alot Ner Tamid – to cause to ascend a light continually.

In the Talmud are two ideas about this verb and what we can learn from it. Rabbi Samuel bar Isaac in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sukkah 29b) deduced that the unusual word לְהַעֲלֹת, le’ha’alot, literally “to cause to ascend,” meant that the wick had to allow the flame to ascend by itself. And thus the Rabbis concluded that no material other than flax — as in the fine linen of the High Priest’s clothing — would allow the flame to ascend by itself. Similarly, in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 21a) Rami bar Hama deduced from the use of word לְהַעֲלֹת, le’ha’alot, that the flame had to ascend by itself, and not through other means (such as adjustment by the priests).

Taking these comments and in particular the idea that the flame should ascend on its own, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the famous nineteenth century founder of the school of “Torah im Derech Eretz” orthodoxy which negotiates the  relationship between traditionally observant Judaism and the modern world, wrote that “the description of the act of kindling a lamp by the term ‘ascending’ is peculiar to the service of the lamp in the sanctuary. It alludes to the action of the priest in applying the flame to the wick which is ready to be kindled until the flame ascends of its own”. The task of the teacher of Judaism is to make themselves superfluous to their pupils. It is not their function to keep the people – the ones who receive instruction from the teacher – continually dependent on them”

The statement is a beautiful distillation of what Jewish education – formal and informal – should be aiming for. That we want our children (and of course our adults) to be themselves ‘flames which ascend on their own’. The goal of Jewish community is that individually and collectively we gain the knowledge and the confidence and the inspiration to live active and thoughtful Jewish lives, that each of us is able to stand up and be a light in the world, living with Jewish values and ethics, striking out for righteousness.

There is an idiom in the English language – to pass the torch – and this is, to some extent what all of us in the Jewish world hope to be doing within our communities. However this sidra reminds us that we are not passing the torch on in order to relinquish our responsibilities, but rather that we nurture the flame of learning and identity of the next generation with our own learning and experience.

The image of Aaron each and every day nurturing a flame in order to have it stand upright and unaided, giving light through the darkness is an image that appeals to me and speaks to me of how we have kept our traditions and our teachings alive through the generations.

candles

Parashat Tetzaveh: Do clothes really make us who we are?

In this sidra, Moses is told toBring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that they may minister to Me in the priest’s office, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, Eleazer and Itamar, Aaron’s sons.  And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for splendour and for beauty.  And you shall speak to all that are wise-hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they make Aaron’s garments to sanctify him, that he may minister to Me in the priest’s office.  And these are the garments which they shall make: a breastplate, and an ephod, and a robe, and a tunic of chequer work, a mitre, and a girdle; and they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, and his sons, that he may minister to Me in the priest’s office.”(Exodus 28:2ff)

What is the connection between the sacred garments and the work of the priest? Why should the sacred garments be for splendour and beauty? And why should they be made by people who are especially wise?

Rav Kook reminds us that clothing has more than a utilitarian function, to protect us from the weather and to encase our fragile skin in more hardy materials. While animals have fur and feathers for such purposes, we humans are different, we are more vulnerable and have to create an outer layer for defence.  But that is not our only difference – in creating clothes we can also affect how we feel about ourselves and others, clothes can influence our attitudes and our feelings, alter our state of mind, signal something important to ourselves and to others. Essentially clothes can be powerful drivers of our sense of self. It may be simple such as the wearing of a uniform or professional outfit which gives us confidence and standing, it may be bridal wear or mourning outfits signifying change of status or emotional state. Rav Kook sees this function of clothing as having great theological and  ethical value. “It stresses those qualities that separate us from the animals and their simple physical needs. It enables us to attain a heightened sense of holiness and dignity. By covering our heads, wearing modest dress, and fulfilling the mitzvot of tefillin and tzitzit, we deepen our awareness of God’s presence.” (Ein Eyah vol. II, p. 354)

When God sends Adam and Eve out from the Garden of Eden to the exposed world outside, the first thing God did was to make them clothes – garments made of skin to replace the ones they had made themselves of fig leaves to cover their newly realised nakedness (gen 3). It is an act of protection and of love, and similarly to when God marks Cain in order to safeguard him as he wanders the world, it is also a reminder of an awareness of God, that we are more than we appear to be, that we have a spiritual hinterland,  a layer of security beyond the material.

Jewish tradition speaks of Hiddur Mitzvah – a concept derived from the verse in Exodus at the Song of the Sea  (15:2) “This is my God and I will glorify him”. The Midrash tells us that since it is not really possible to add glory to God, this must really mean that we glorify God by the way we perform the mitzvot – and from this develops the art of beautiful ritual artefacts – sifrei torah covers, tallitot, Shabbat candlesticks, Seder plates etc.  So clearly the notion of Aaron and his sons wearing splendid and beautiful clothes for the priestly function could be seen as part of this idea. And yet, it seems to me that more is being spoken of in the special clothes for priestly work.  Aaron’s clothing sanctifies him. It is not just the wearing of respectfully clean and tidy clothing that is happening here, the clothes literally change the person in some way.

The Talmud makes this idea of clothing changing our perceptions even more explicit “. Said R. Abbahu in R. Johanan’s name, and some derive ultimately [the teaching] from R. Eleazar the son of R.Simeon:  “Because Scripture says “And you shall gird them with girdles, Aaron and his sons, and bind head-tires on them; and they shall have the priesthood by a perpetual statute: When wearing their [appointed] garments, they are invested with their priesthood; when not wearing their garments, they are not invested with their priesthood. (Zevachim 17b).

So the Talmudic rabbis understood that the garments invest them with the priesthood – and removing their priestly clothing will separate them from the priesthood – it is a startling assertion if true, but I think something else is really meant here.  The priestly garments did not make the priesthood, nor did they remove it but they helped Aaron and the priests to feel like they were priests, they integrated the internal reality with the external appearance, and for something so important as ministering before God this was of critical importance.

I once heard of a condition called “Bishop’s syndrome” – I have no idea if it is really there in the medical textbooks, but essentially it describes the sense of disbelief when someone climbs high in the clerical hierarchy and fears that somehow they are not deserving of this status or title. It is characterised by the anxious thought that “one day they will find out I am not a proper bishop”. I guess it could be called “head teacher’s syndrome” or you could insert any role which requires competence and responsibility.   To wear the ‘uniform’ can help ‘create’ the persona, both for the person wearing it and for the person who sees it, and we see this most powerfully today in the medical white coat, or the hi-vis jackets.

I experience this phenomenon when I wrap myself in tallit. Not only am I delineating time for prayer and focus on meaning, I am delineating space around myself, and signalling to myself and to others that I am becoming my more prayerful self.  The fact that I am wearing the uniform of the mitzvot, that I am enwrapped and made rapt in the warmth of prayer, allowing myself to immerse in the sea of prayer and conversation with God helps me in both the preparation and the act.  The beauty of my tallit, the knowledge that it was made with love and mindfulness, all help to make this a special time.  

I also experience this phenomenon when sitting in shul and seeing all the people around me wearing tallit, people who walk in to the room as ordinary Jews somehow become the people of Israel, flocking together, shawls draped over shoulders, creating a sea of prayer – and the opposite occurs when they take off their tallitot and return to the world of the ordinary.

Aaron and his sons are to wear special garments in order to minister before God. The clothes help them cross the boundary from the ordinary to the extraordinary. They help the people to see them not as frail human beings but as priests of God. The fact that the clothes are beautiful, that they are made with mindfulness all help to foster the sense of transformation.

We see clothes today as signifiers often of role or of status – but rarely do we think of them as the agents of change. And rarely do we recognise the power of clothing to direct our thinking, so when we are impressed by someone in expensive or designer wear we may forget that the person inside is not the clothing. The person inside is special, is a child of God, is unique and has gifts and talents, feelings and thoughts –the clothing is an outer layer designed for protection and action. The body is the clothing of the soul – and our tradition reminds us that when the clothing of our material self wears out and is respectfully disposed of, the soul will continue with God.