Lech Lecha: the covenant of Abraham and Sarah

The idea of covenant with God was already present with the narratives of Noah. In Genesis Chapter 6 we find “And God said to Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make an ark of gopher wood…. I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, and your sons, and your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort you will bring into the ark to keep them alive with you….So did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he.”

After the flood comes another covenant – (Genesis Ch.9) “And God spoke to Noah, and to his sons with him, saying: ‘As for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you… never shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of the flood; nor shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ And God said: ‘This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth. …And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.’ And God said to Noah: ‘This is the token of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”

So when God makes the covenant of the pieces with Abram in Genesis 15 “And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and there was thick darkness, behold a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch that passed between these pieces. In that day the Eternal made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…” while we may find the description opaque, the idea of the divine promise given to one individual but extending into the future is familiar.

Parashat Lech Lecha introduces the covenant that is central to Jews and Judaism – brit milah – circumcision.  In Genesis 17 we read “God appeared to Abram, and said to him: ‘I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be wholehearted. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply thee exceedingly.’ ‘ My covenant is with you and you will be the father of a multitude of nations. Your name shall not anymore be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham…And I will make you exceeding fruitful, I will make nations of you, and kings shall come out of you And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant….. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. He that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed…must be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. …..And God said to Abraham: ‘As for Sarai thy wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.  And I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son of her; yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her.”

Judaism is based on the particular covenant relationship between God and the Jewish people. And this relationship begins with Abraham and Sarah, travelling down the generations through their son Isaac. This covenant relationship is unbreakable, however much we let God down or God lets us down. God has other covenantal relationships with humanity, but the specific Jewish relationship of responsibility and purpose is the one that underpins all Jewish teaching.

Pretty much every Jewish family circumcises their 8 day old baby boy in the ceremony of brit milah as bible requires. The child is brought in ceremonially to the mohel and blessings said, which include the blessing “who has commanded us con­cerning circumcision” and   “who has commanded us to  enter [him] into  the covenant of Abraham our father.”

Bible is clear on this – all baby boys, whether born into the Jewish family or adopted into the household, are to be given this sign in their flesh that they too are part of the Abrahamic covenant.  It is a patriarchal society into which they are born, the brit is their male right – but what exactly is the position of women in this covenant so central to Jewish self-understanding?

A closer reading of our texts reveals something interesting. The covenant of the pieces, opaque and full of dark magical symbolism, is deeply patriarchal and refers to the continuity of possession and power of the Abrahamic line. There is a prefiguring of the terrifying experience at Sinai, with smoke and fire and a God who overawes. Yes the childless Abram will have heirs, countless descendants, but their fate will be difficult and painful as slaves and exiles,  until they finally inherit the land, displacing the nations living upon it. Abram himself will die peacefully in old age encountering nothing of the complex future.  The second covenant is different – here it is personal and intimate. While land and descendants are still the critical core of the covenant, here the land is an ahuzah, a family holding, rather than a nation state as in the earlier covenant. Here  Abram’s line is described in terms of family, it is described positively as being fruitful, a multitude of nations including king. There is no mention of a terrible period of time in exile and slavery, instead the focus is on the mutuality of the covenant – Abram and his line must keep the covenant as well as God, and his name is changed to show the personal transformation. And in parallel we are told that Sarai too is part of this promise, she will bear a son, and through that son nations and kings will be born, and the covenant will be held within this familial line. She too has her name changed; she too is radically altered by the encounter. This is a covenant with real people who are active in the creation and expression of the covenant, and who are transformed by the event – both have the letter ה added to their names, a letter used to signify God and both will shortly by transformed by the birth of their child.

While the sign of the covenant is to be embedded in the flesh of the male member, the covenant itself is not limited to those who carry the sign – it is enshrined in the peoplehood that descends from Abraham and Sarah, in their activity and participation.

Looking at the biblical texts we can see that each covenant apparently made with one individual is in reality made with an extension from that individual – be it the covenants with Noah that are in reality made also with his extended family or secondly with the whole of humanity, or the covenants with Abraham which extend to his descendants through Sarah, the notion of the individual limited covenant is a mistake. When we get to Sinai it is clear that while the discussion is with Moses, the covenant is actually with all the people both present and yet to be born or to choose Judaism. Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy in parashat Nitzavim make this clear – everyone, male, female, adult, child, high status or low – is in the covenant.

So how come we only seem to celebrate or mark the entry into the covenant of male children? How are women supposed to see themselves as integral to the covenant too?  Traditional texts assume simply that women need no such entry point. In the Talmud (avodah zarah 87a) we read a debate about who can perform circumcision. The focus is on the repeated words “himol yimol” in the passage from Genesis 17 – this can be translated as the individual must be circumcised to enter the covenant, or it can be understood as ‘the circumciser needs to be circumcised’. Following this second reading, one would imagine that only a man can act as mohel (circumcisor) and yet we know that Zipporah herself circumcised her child. From this the Talmud decides that women are classed as ‘among the circumcised’ – in other words, women are already born with the sign of the covenant in their bodies, and need no extra marking in their flesh.

What this natural state is is subject to debate – it seems to have something to do with the blood released- could it be menstruation or the ability to give birth, both of which involved natural bleeding?  Is it to do with the ability to procreate – certainly the idea of circumcision is also seen in the treatment of fruit trees whose fruit cannot be eaten for three years – they are ‘orlah’, literally ‘uncircumcised’. So possibly the act of milah is an act to make the male ‘fruitful’, something a woman is seen as being ab initio?

But while our texts understand women to be part of the covenant even without ceremony, and the traditional debate is only to clarify the reason for this, it seems to me that a real issue is being overlooked. We bring a boy child into the covenant surrounded by family and community, with great joy and love, a week after his birth. But a girl child is simply noted, a mi sheberach (blessing) recited in her father’s synagogue when neither she nor her mother are present, end of story.

It is not enough. It is not enough to say that women are on a spiritually higher level than men and therefore need not be obligated to do mitzvot. It is not enough to teach that a woman’s glory is internal, that she should be shielded from the outside world, protected from public space. It is not enough to recite platitudes to try to flatter or distract women from living full and public lives, from actively taking their place in the covenant, from operating openly in public space, their voices and ideas heard in study and in action.

By denying women a public recognition of our place in the covenant, we have slid into the position where women’s roles have become seen as lesser than those of men, where women are somehow not counted in the legal or spiritual community of Jews.  It begins to be taught that women are only in the covenant by virtue of their relationship with men – fathers or husbands or sons. It begins to be understood that women’s rights and women’s voices are contingent on their relationship with men. And then we slide into a deeply dangerous place, where women are not only removed from the public space, their voices silenced to protect male ‘sensibilities’, but women’s reality is eroded, women’s experience downplayed, and the covenant is deprived of what was clearly there at the beginning – the particular contribution of women.

Judaism is not only a religion, not only a set of beliefs, not only a genetic inheritance, not only a set of shared values and stories and way of seeing the world – it is a peoplehood in covenant with God. And that peoplehood contains a complex variety of souls. Like the lulav and etrog which are seen as symbolising the Jewish people – some with learning but no mitzvot, others with mitzvot but no learning, yet others with both learning and mitzvot and still others with no learning and no mitzvot – we encompass the full range of what is possible in a people, and we need each other to fulfil ourselves.

So the ceremonies that bring daughters into the covenant – simchat bat, zeved habat, brit bat, – these are important ceremonies and while some date to the 17th century, they are not yet in common usage across the community, nor always recognised as being more than a nice way to celebrate having a new baby in the family or to welcome a daughter into the world.

Women are, and always have been, part of the covenant. Abraham may have had to circumcise himself, but Sarah too was physically altered, bringing her child into world long past the age of childbearing. Both were named, both were transformed, both were necessary

It is time we took more seriously the rite of passage to bring a daughter into the covenant. Time to bring the creative ceremonials out of the shadows and into the mainstream liturgy and life of the synagogue community. Respect for women begins with treating the births of female children with the same communal enthusiasm and joy as the birth of male children is celebrated. From publicly entering a girl child into the covenant may come a greater understanding that women have our own part in the covenant, must explore it and explain it and be creative with it as the men have over the centuries.

Merle Feld’s poem “We all stood together at Sinai” is a salutary reminder of what happens when we don’t give equal value time and space to women’s covenant experience.

We All Stood Together   By Merle Feld   (for Rachel Adler)

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him

I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there

It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down

And then
As time passes
The particulars
The hard data
The who what when where why
Slip away from me
And all I’m left with is
The feeling

But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute

My brother is so sure of what he heard
After all he’s got a record of it
Consonant after consonant after consonant

If we remembered it together
We could recreate holy time
Sparks flying

 

 

 

 

 

Vayishlach: Politics before People always leads to disaster

This sidra is choc a bloc with story after story waiting to be told, and one of the most painful is that of the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dina, and the retaliation taken on the rapist, Shechem, and his whole city. 

Horrific as the story is presented to us, and with so much detail, there is a great deal that is omitted. We hear nothing of the feelings of Dina herself, see nothing through her eyes, and also there is nothing told of the horror or pain of her father whose only daughter has been abducted and raped.  The only feelings reported are those of Shechem who falls in love with the girl he has violated, and possibly the outraged feeling of her furious brothers.

Shechem and his father came to discuss marriage between the rapist and the victim, proposing in effect an alliance between the tribe of Israel and the tribe of Shechem. Strangely, Jacob is not involved in the discussion; instead it is his sons who respond to the request, and they make only one demand – that if Shechem is to marry their sister, then the men of Shechem must undergo circumcision, as Dina could not marry an uncircumcised male because this would be a disgrace to THEM! Rashi tells us that wherever this verb (Chet, Reish Peh) is used, it is an insult. So the men are negotiating the fate of Dinah only in relation to the honour or dishonour they feel, and with no concern whatsoever for the woman at the centre of the negotiation. 

One could argue that this ritual of circumcision actually converted the men of Shechem, bringing them into the covenant between Israel and God – they would undergo milah – and so they would become, as the Shechemites clearly believed, one people. While the word ‘brit’ is conspicuous by its absence, the mass circumcision was clearly supposed to align the two peoples in more ways than the physical. And becoming part of the people of Israel in those days did not seem to entail much more than the ritual of milah.

 The enabling of the prince of Shechem in order to marry the daughter of the House of Jacob was clearly supposed to create an alliance of equals from which it is not hard to understand that the two peoples would integrate fully. So the Shechemites agreed to the condition that every male be circumcised, and three days later, when they were all still in great pain from the procedure, Shimon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, entered the city, killed all of its male inhabitants, and took the women and children as captives.

Jacob’s response when he found out about this is only about the practical impact it will have  – he and his household are in danger from the other tribes around in the land. Surely they will gather together to destroy him and all his people. He is troubled, but not (as we are) by the morality of what has happened. He didn’t seem to be concerned about the personal damage done to his only daughter or about what would happen to her in the future, and now he is only worried about the immediate consequences of the actions of his sons. Increasingly we see that the focus of this story is jarringly political at the expense of anything remotely personal.

The Torah in this narrative is hugely disturbing.

Where is the voice of the victims? First Dina and then the people of Shechem are silenced as the political agenda is pursued.

Where is the voice of morality? Can the response of the sons of Jacob really be seen as justification when they ask “should one deal with our sister as with a harlot?” And why is Jacob himself silent when they plan to attack a people who have made themselves vulnerable in a belief that they are trustworthy?

Where is the voice of the God of all peoples who allows the act of circumcision to become the vehicle for murder?

The meta-Torah is perfectly clear from this narrative: When we think about politics and about political gain at the expense of thinking about real living breathing people then we make the wrong decisions, we allow violence to become justifiable, we think that retribution is acceptable. When we forget the reality of others, their needs and their lives, we narrow our focus deplorably, we think only of our own situation and not that of others.

The voice of Dina calls to us from this piece. I am sure I can hear her calling out “First I was treated without respect by Shechem and then without respect by my brothers, and finally  I was silenced by the choices of the Torah narrative. And this happened because you were focussing on your own enhancement, your own security, and your own needs.”

The voices of the men of Shechem call out to us too. “We did what you said we needed to do to make a peaceful alliance through marriage, and our action was callously used against us, our lives taken from us, our women and children taken captive, our wealth appropriated”.

 What can we learn from this sorry tale spun around Dina, daughter of Leah and Jacob?  It is this. If we put politics before people, the outcome will always be violence and pain, and the gain will be as nothing compared the anger we store up against us.

In the light of the Begin-Prawer bill currently before the Knesset, it is time for us to remember the story of Dina and to remember that nothing has changed in humanity since this story was first told. Putting politics before people will result in hostility and anger, violence and pain.

Please see http://rhr.org.il/eng/2013/05/position-paper-the-time-has-come-to-truly-and-fairly-resolve-the-negev-bedouins-rights/  for more information on this.

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Parashat Lech Lecha: the covenant of circumcision

This sidra contains a number of different covenants, but the covenant of circumcision is one which continues to resonate with us as a sine qua none of Jewish identity. “God further said to Abraham, As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” Genesis 17:9-11  

The Brit Milah is the first of the rites of passage, and it quite literally etches into the child the central values of Judaism, connecting him to the past and future of the Jewish people.   In the midrash (Kohelet Rabbah) we find a story which makes this clear – it tells of a father of a baby who gives to the guests some good wine to drink in celebration, and says “Drink of this wine, and I trust in my God that I shall also be able to give you wine on the day may son marries”. The guests replied with a blessing that is also found in the ceremony – “Just as the child has entered the covenant, so may he also enter into Torah and into good deeds and be married under the Chuppah”. With this blessing is the clear hope that the Brit Milah is the beginning of a child entering the Jewish community, and the expectation that this will be a lifetime’s commitment. The Brit Milah does not make the child Jewish – that is acquired through birth to a Jewish mother – but it gives the child the mark of Judaism, and with it a Jewish identity.

 Brit Milah may or may not have other reasons to support (or not) its usage – some talk of hygiene, of lower levels of cervical cancer in women whose partners are circumcised, of social or psychological reasons to do it-or not. But the reason why Jews have fulfilled the obligation of Brit Milah down the generations – often at serious personal sacrifice or danger – is precisely because it is just that – an obligation, a mitzvah. It symbolises our willingness to be connected to God, it reminds us of the relationship begun between God and Abraham of which we are a part.

 Circumcision is also seen as an act of completion or perfection. The ceremony is understood traditionally to be one of ‘finishing’ the creation of the child, so that we participate with God in the act of Creation. It is also seen as a willingness to submit, to give up a part of the child for the sake of the whole. As Judah HaNasi (c200CE) wrote – “Great is circumcision, for despite all the commandments that Abraham our father carried out, he was called complete (shalem) only with his circumcision, as it is written (Gen 17) “Walk before Me and be perfect” .

 Whatever one’s view about circumcision, it has become the sign not only of the biblical covenant, but of the male Jew. It has been said that it is not so much the mark of a Jewish man, as the mark of a man whose parents have chosen for him to be Jewish, who were prepared to undergo this ceremony in order to enter him into the Covenant. It is the mark of one generation upon the next, the physical expression of what we want for our child. There is much debate as to its meaning – and the changes in its meaning – over the years. Was it simply a transformation of a pagan fertility ritual, done not to a man at puberty or marriage in order to increase sexual potency but to a child at eight days in order to increase spiritual connection? Was it a fertility rite that extended through agricultural practise to human beings – a sacrifice of a small part for a greater good? Was it a divine requirement to cleanse the people, separating the idolatrous ancestors of Abraham from his monotheistic descendants? Or a blood rite parallel to the Temple sacrifice, that found echoes in Christianity and the crucifixion, returning to express salvation through self not another?  It is all these and more, but when one considers the importance of the rite throughout Jewish history it is hard not to see it as a unifying symbol, the mitzvah which most Jews have practised and with which we pass on covenantal Judaism to this day.