The minor daughter sold to another man:parashat mishpatim asserts her rights.

 

“And if a man sell his [minor] daughter to be a maidservant (le’amah) she shall not leave as the male servants do. If she does not please her master who should be espoused to her/ who is not espoused to her, then he shall let her be redeemed.  He has no power to sell her on to a foreign people for he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he espouses her to his son then he will treat her as he would treat a daughter. And if he takes another wife [having married her himself] he must not diminish her food, clothing allowance or conjugal rights. And if he fails to provide her with these, then she shall be able to leave freely, without any money to be paid” (Exodus 21:7-11)

Sometimes in bible we are taken aback at the worldview of the text, a perspective that is so far from ours as to seem it comes from a completely different universe.  One response has been to effectively excise some texts from the biblical canon, never going to far as to physically remove them perhaps, but certainly to ensure that they are not read or brought forward to support our current system of beliefs or actions.

At first reading the fate of a minor daughter seems to be that she is powerless and of use only insofar as money can be made from her. It appears that the daughter is an asset to be leveraged for the benefit of the father or the family. And this must have seemed to be reasonable to some, for otherwise why would we find in the Babylonian wisdom literature the maxim – “The strong man lives off what is paid for his arms (strength), but the weak man lives off what is paid for his children” which is surely warning people not to sell their children for profit.

Bible however is a subtle text and we cannot simply read the first half of the verse without the conditions required in the second half and the following verses on the subject. It begins with the presumption that a man may sell his daughter to be a maidservant   (AMAH ).  Immediately we note that this must be a minor daughter over whom the father has authority, which already limits the possibility for him to take this action. Then we see that while the word ‘AMAH’ is used and is posited against the male servants (AVADIM) the word that is NOT used is ‘SHIFCHA’ a word which is more servile in its usage. AMAH can be used of a free woman when speaking to a social superior; SHIFCHA is not used in this way. So she is being sold not as a slave but as an AMAH, a status that Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah are also described as having, and as Ruth and Hannah, Abigail and Michal will also  describe themselves later in bible.

After this introductory phrase that must have been familiar to the original audience for the biblical text, that a many might sell his daughter to another, comes a set of conditions that make clear that whatever the girl is being sold for, her rights are clearly stated and they are tightly drawn and powerfully asserted.

First – she is not someone who is sold as a male slave for whom the sabbatical year of jubilee year will end the contract being made and from this we can clearly deduce that while the context of the narrative is the rights of the Hebrew slave, the rights of this minor girl are different. Something else is happening here and the contract is quite different.

The first clue is the expectation that she is being sold into the household of a man who will later expect to marry her and raise her status accordingly. What is she doing in his household? She is learning the business of becoming a wife and director of the household, something that for whatever reason she does not have access to in her own parental home.

The text then goes on. If the master of the house does not wish to marry her at the appropriate time of her maturity, then he must arrange that she is redeemed from the contract. Rabbinic law assumes that someone in her family will act as go’el and pay out the remaining debt her father has incurred.

The master of the house is expressly forbidden from passing her on to another family – she is not property to be sold on, she is not to be given in prostitution. The bible is absolutely clear – if he does not marry her then he has broken the original contract and so he now has no legal power or ability to direct her future.

The one curiosity here is that there is a kerei ketiv – that is the text is written in one way but understood differently. The negative LO (Lamed Alef) is written, but the text is read as if the word were LO (Lamed Vav). As written it would read “Her master who has not become espoused to her”, as read it is “Her master who has become espoused to her”.  It seems that the Masoretic text cannot imagine that her master did not begin by arranging the engagement, the first part of the marital contract, and instead they think he must have changed his mind once she grew up and was unwilling to go through with it. I think this underlines just how deeply the assumption was that the contract between the father of the girl and the master of the house was that she was being given up early to be married in the future – either because the father was too poor to offer a dowry at the time it would be needed, or too poor even to support her while she grew up. It may even have been done in order to settle the girl’s future in times of political unrest. We know that the Jewish marriage ceremonies which are nowadays done either in one day or at least very closely together were originally separated into the two ceremonies of betrothal and subsequent marriage and that these could take place years apart from each other, the ‘bride’ and ‘groom’ continuing to live in their respective homes after the betrothal for many years before the actual marriage took place and the couple came together as a new family.

Bible gives the possibility that should she not marry the father of the house, then she might marry the son of the house – something which may have delayed her future status but not otherwise significantly alter it. And if she did marry the son rather than the father, her rights as a full member of the family are once again asserted. She is to be treated in every way as a daughter of the house.

The passage then lays down the rights of the girl should she subsequently find that her husband takes another wife – something that might damage her status in the home and leave her marginalised and potentially poorer than before he did so. Thus bible clarifies that the rights of the wife to food, clothing and sex are absolute, and that nothing and nobody can diminish these rights.

It ends with the clear statement about the limits of the contract even if the man has broken it by espousing the girl to his son and therefore lost all rights of ‘ownership’ or privilege.

Should the girl find that she is not being given the full status of married woman, that she is not given the food, clothing and sex that are her rights, then she is free to go – the man has broken his contract and has no hold over her whatsoever – she does not need to be redeemed by a goel or even pay any remaining debt incurred by her father and by her own maintenance in the household – she is a free woman in every way

This passage, which on first reading appears to say that a minor girl can be treated as a chattel to be sold at the whim of her father to a man who would then establish his own ownership is nothing of the sort. The bible actually stops a man selling his daughter as a slave for the purposes of prostitution, and in this first and only legislation in the ancient near east to discuss the rights of a girl who is sold, the girl is protected by some quite draconian legislation, her rights and the obligations to her spelled out beyond the possibility that someone might try to reinterpret what is happening.  Interestingly any obligation of the girl is not mentioned. While we assume she will work to pay for her maintenance, this is not specified. The text is interested only in protecting her and putting boundaries around what the men in her life may think they are able to do with her.

While it would be nice to think that she would be consulted in the betrothal as Rebecca was (albeit without seeing Isaac) we must be grateful for what we get in the world view in which bible was formed. We have here the basis for the rights of all wives – to food, clothing and a home/ sexual relations. Rabbinic law took the text from here in order to provide a basic minimum for every woman who threw her lot in with a man in marriage, and thus protected women in a world which was otherwise potentially disrespectful and without care for her needs.

The unknown AMAH of Mishpatim is the beneficiary of quite phenomenally forward thinking law. Her personhood was respected far more than the mores of the time. There might even be a case to say that a girl from a poor family who might otherwise only be able to look forward to a life of hardship and work either married to a man too poor to offer her much or not able to provide a dowry in order to be married at all, would in this way be able to jump out of her impoverished setting into one of economic security.  One cannot help but think of the women from less economically thriving countries offering themselves in marriage on the internet to men from wealthier countries in order to better their own standard of living.

I cannot say I am thrilled by this passage, but we must be aware of the context of the narrative and the legal codes it comes to replace. The sale of minors was common throughout Assyria and Babylonia and there are documents to suggest it was also in practise in Syria and Palestine. And we see in the book of Kings (2K 4:1) that children might be seized into slavery by their dead parents’ creditors. Nuzi documents show that sale into a conditional slavery was practised, whereby the girl would always be married but not to the master of the house, rather to another slave. The genius of the biblical amendment was that the girl was to be raised in status and treated properly for her whole life, and that she would be freed if certain conditions were not met.

The minor daughter of a man who needed to be free of the economic burden she represented was vulnerable. To this day in some societies daughters are perceived as less valuable, less giving of status to the family, and as people who will never be as economically worthy as sons. It remains true of course that women’s work is not valued in the same way that work done by men is and sadly many women have bought into this viewpoint so even high flying career women will see an increasing gap between their remuneration and that of their male colleagues.

It would be wonderful for this perception to be erased. There is no intellectual or scientifically validated case for it to be held, and yet even in modernity it holds great power in society.  Bible cannot help us here, but it is something to hold on to – that bible restricts the rights of men over their vulnerable daughters and over the defenceless women in their household and it clearly and powerfully ascribes and asserts rights for those women, rights which Jewish legal codes have had to uphold even in highly patriarchal and paternalistic times and groups.

It looks to me from this text that God is aware of the problem humans seem to have with gendered power, and has set a model for dealing with it we could emulate. As the Orthodox Union just tried to curtail the rights of women in scholarship and leadership positions with a  responsum so out of touch and lacking respect for its own constituency, it is good to see that this ancient text gives a lead on the building of the status of women who may need such building, and does not try to either take advantage of them nor to diminish their place in the world.

 

To study further I recommend reading:

“Slavery in the Ancient Near East”. I Mendelsohn in “The biblical Archaeologist”  vol 9 number 4

Josef Fleischman in The Jewish Law Annual ed. Berachyahu Lifshitz. Taylor & Francis, 1 Sep 2000

http://www.jta.org/2017/02/02/top-headlines/ou-bars-women-from-serving-as-clergy-in-its-synagogues

 

 

 

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 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.