Shemini: The Case of the Disappearing Priestess

There used to be a joke told about how barbecues happened in the suburbs. It went like this “When a man volunteers to do the barbecue this is what happens. First, the woman buys the food. Then the woman makes the salad, prepares the vegetables, and makes the dessert.
Then the woman prepares the meat, placing it on a tray along with the necessary cooking utensils and sauces, and takes it to the man who is standing by the barbecue with a nice cold drink. The man puts the meat on the grill. The woman goes inside to organize the plates and cutlery, coming out briefly with another cold drink for the man. He flips the meat, watches it a while and then takes it off the grill and puts it on a plate which he gives to the woman.
The woman brings plates, salad, bread, utensils, napkins and sauces to the table.  Everyone eats. After eating, the woman clears the table and does the dishes. The man accepts the praise for his cooking skills. Then he asks the woman how she liked her night off from making dinner.”

I sometimes think of this joke when listening to the instructions about the sacrificial system – only the final stages are really described, the process from a live animal being brought to the door of the tent of meeting to the burning of flesh and dashing of blood is strangely fuzzy. And I wonder who were the other people who supported the work of the ritual system, what were their roles, what were they thinking? Were there women involved as well as men?

This last question comes to mind in part from reading the midrashim which discuss what was the actual sin of Nadav and Avihu, that in this earliest moment of priesthood they offered strange fire and were struck down by fire.

A variety of reasons for their deaths are contrived from the text: their sacrifice was made at  the wrong time; they were drunk or unwashed or were not wearing the right clothing for the ritual. None of these speak to the ‘strange fire’ that they offered before God.

But there are other reasons suggested for their deaths and these reasons bespeak arrogance and self-importance and a huge lack of self-awareness: firstly that they had added to the fire already burning, something they had not been taught to do by Moses, so their crime was as much to do with dishonouring their teacher as the ritual they performed – they believed they knew better (Leviticus Rabbah 20:10). This arrogance is spoken of in another midrash recorded in the Babylonian Talmud: “Moses and Aaron were walking together with Nadav and Avihu behind them, and following them were all of Israel. Nadav said to Avihu, “When these two elders die, you and I will lead this generation.” God said “Let’s see who buries whom.” (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 52a)

The implication is as described by Rashi, middah kneged middah, the punishment matched the crime, the sin of offering strange fire was death by strange fire, the sin of arrogance and ignoring the rights and existence of others was addressed by their own death.

So whose ‘death’ or lack of rights to existence are we talking about here? The midrash tells us, intriguingly, the following viewpoint: “Rabbi Levi said, “They were conceited, many woman awaited them eagerly (to marry them) but what did they say? ‘Our uncle is King, our other uncle is a head of a tribe, our father is High Priest, we are his two assistants. What woman is worthy of us?'” (Leviticus Rabbah 20:10)

The sin of Nadav and Avihu was the ignoring of the legitimate rights of women. In their self-satisfaction they did not feel the need to marry, and in their refusal they consigned women to a problematic limbo. But there is more to this refusal to attend to the needs of women than a quick reading suggests. We are back to the ‘joke’ I began with. Israelite society was the only one of its kind in the region at the time that does not appear to have had priestesses – at least according to the biblical texts. Yet archaeological evidence suggests that there were indeed women who functioned within the priestly ritual system, at least in the later period. For example there are a number of grave inscriptions in Beit Shearim which show women with titles including that of priestess. The general view has been that as women were not priestesses these women could not have been priestesses, a circular argument which Bernadette Brooten demolishes thus: “It is my view that [the titles] were functional, and if the women bearing these titles had been members of another Graeco-Roman religion, scholars would not have doubted that the women were actual functionaries….what the male rabbis said about women does not necessarily reflect who the women were, what they did and what they thought. Rather it reflects on who the men making these statements were”  (from “Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue” by Bernadette Brooten). Brooten has collected all kinds of inscriptions and, having removed the lens of “tradition says women didn’t do this” sees that the physical evidence is clear that women clearly did. My favourite was when, having done a thorough review of the archaeological literature and finding that many synagogues had no separate gallery or room apart from the single room, she challenged the assumption that that must have meant that no women prayed there, rather than the more likely assumption that men and women were not separated in prayer. It was my first lesson in how we notice what is important to us and ignore anything that is not important or that conflicts with the model of the world we have in our heads.

So – women and priesthood in Torah. Were there really no women involved in the structural priesthood of the Israelites unlike that of all the other groups around them? Or is that what bible wants us to think. Was it as patriarchal a society as we tend to think or is that a later gloss in order to create the patriarchal structure of Rabbinic Judaism? We know that the matriarchs were powerful figures who clearly had agency in their lives and the decisions that mattered. We know of a woman who both judged and directed battle – the formidable Deborah – even while midrash diminishes her role as it also does for Huldah the prophetess whom bible records as being consulted by the agents of King Josiah at his request – she is described (2Kings 22:13,14) as relaying God’s words to Hilkiah and the others and she speaks truth to power bluntly and without fear. She is described as a prophetess in the text, a role that requires mediating God’s words to the world. We know of women who played drums and who sang and processed, of the women at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 38:8) and of the Temple (1Sam 2:22). We know of the idolatrous cults that also used the Temple, that there were women weaving cloth for the Asherah there (2Kings 23:7). There are intriguing glimpses of women involved in the worship systems of the time, but they are almost erased from the biblical text. Asherah is our best entry point – who was she, what was her cult that it was so necessary to destroy? Archaeology comes to  our aid again, for there are texts that describe her as the wife/consort of God – was there a cleansing of all that Asherah meant in order to promote the power of the single divinity YHVH? In that cleansing were the female attendants also swept away from the power base of the Temple?

There is another possibility –that the Jerusalem Temple which had to fight hard to become the focus of worship for all Israel – was clearly a political entity as well as a religious one. We know, again from the Books of Kings, that under the monarchies of Hezekiah and Josiah the strictness of the boundaries of this Temple was increased to the point that only the members of the Levitical tribe and specifically only the descendants of Aaron had access to the power bases in the priesthood. As the status descended through the paternal line, there was no room for women in the records of genealogy, no need to record them or to give them space in the structure.

So in the tight control of the Jerusalem Temple in order to concentrate power at that time (around the seventh century BCE), the women paid the ultimate price. And slowly their history was lost, their roles seen as less important. They could buy the food, make the salads, set the table, prepare the vegetables, help the man who would make the barbecue, they could eat from the meat if they were relatives connected to the priesthood, but their role in keeping the show on the road could be ignored, unappreciated, forgotten. The meat is what is important in a barbecue, forget the vegetable kebabs or the nibbles.  The animal sacrifice is what is important in the ritual system, and even though the flour and the oil and the wine offered are also recorded in the texts they just don’t have a starring role.

The joke about the barbecue has an ending in some variations. After the man has taken all the praise, the woman has cleared up, and he has asked her if she enjoyed her time off, he notices she is fed up and exclaims “there is just no pleasing some people”.

At least he notices her feelings and that she is not happy. Maybe in this century he might go further, see why she is feeling unappreciated, ignored and excluded. Maybe he might notice that she is not happy and fulfilled in her role, and work together with her to create what was presumably the expectation behind the midrash about Nadav and Avihu not being willing to marry– it takes two to fulfil the role of priesthood, both the masculine and the feminine are needed to represent the human being. One alone who thinks they can do it by themselves are conceited, arrogant and destined to fail. We need each other, we need our diversity and our differences, our separate strengths and our individual gifts if we want to really create a bridge towards the divine.

Shemini: When Silence is the only response

One of the saddest moments in bible is found in Shemini – Aaron and his sons have just been inaugurated as priests in a week long ceremony and now the tent of meeting is being dedicated. The first offering is given by Aaron and is accepted as a fire descends from the heavens to consume it. The people bow down and worship. And then Nadav and Avihu the two older sons of Aaron offer a strange fire before God and the fire descends once more from the heavens – to consume their lives.

Aaron’s response – “va’yidom Aharon” – is to be silent. How can this be? To have finally reached the climax of priesthood only to see two children of your children destroyed by the object of that ministry. To be a father twice bereaved yet not to protest and shout out. Why does Torah tell us that Aaron, the man whose speech was smooth and fluent and who would act as the mouthpiece of his brother Moses in Egypt, had no words at this moment?

Words can be so healing – we are taught always to express clearly what we need in order to communicate with others, to use words to acknowledge our feelings be they painful or joyous. From private prayer to modern psychotherapy we are taught about the power of words to change or to complete us. Creation begins with words: God speaks and creation comes about. We transmit our tradition in storytelling, we see ourselves as a people who argue with God, who are not ever silenced – we are a noisy, challenging people who will argue with a text, giving voices to the long dead sages of our tradition. Yet “Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:3). And this silence is seen in our tradition as a right and proper response – the Midrash Leviticus Rabbah comments on this verse: “Aaron was rewarded for his silence.” Clearly we have to look deeper. Why is the silence of a man so unfairly hit by tragedy seen in our tradition as a response to be rewarded? Why should he not be crying out against a God who did not protect the young men whose only wrong seems to have been an excess of religious fervour, who certainly did not deserve to die?

In the Talmud we find the statement that “the world is preserved only because of those who stop themselves from speaking out in difficult moments of strife” (B.T. Hullin 89a). We also find that it is an attribute of God to be seen to be silent at such times, – a rereading of the verse ‘mi chamocha ba’elim Adonai’ is understood not as “who is like you amongst the Elim – the mighty gods of other peoples”, but rather as “Who is like You, able to be silent?” – “Ilmim” (BT Gittin 66a). Sometimes silence is the only response. Anything else would diminish the enormity of the experience.

In Jewish tradition one does not speak to a mourner until the mourner speaks to you. It is a tradition that understands the depth of grief. When grief is intense any statement is bound at best to be irrelevant and at worst a serious intrusion. That is not to say we ignore a mourner or their grief, we do not cross the street to avoid meeting them nor leave them in their pain – but there is a communication that surpasses language, which any words would disrupt or divert. In mourning that may be simply sitting with and being with the mourner, in shared silence. It may be a warm embrace or a fleeting touch of the hand. It may be a meeting of the eye, a moment of contact which says “I am here and I care”. There is nothing more to offer than the compassionate presence – certainly there is nothing further to say.

There are times in our history when words are not just unhelpful – they might be actively destructive, causing a break in the relationships between us or between us and God. And these are the times when the silence of Aaron becomes understandable.

The text emphasizes that Aaron’s two elder sons were acting “before the Eternal.” Both the offerings they made and their death were “before the Eternal.” The plain sense of the text indicates that, apparently moved by religious fervour, they added an extra incense to the usual incense offering without having been commanded to do so. That is all. One would have thought this is no great crime for young men who have just finished their priestly training and are one day into the work. They are simply intoxicated with the role, acting out of extraordinary piety to add yet more offerings to God. At most they are guilty of what we are told in a later passage in Leviticus – that “They drew too close to the presence of God” (Leviticus 16:1). Surely we could expect for Aaron to respond to their violent and sudden deaths by arguing with God, just as Moses had done on several occasions before this. Surely Aaron could justify the actions of his sons to God and demand some compassionate – even miraculous – response. But Aaron was silent. He made no attempt to communicate his anguish – and surely his anger – to God.

This is unusual in our picture of Aaron, which has been improved in rabbinic teachings so that he becomes an active pursuer of peace (Avot 1:12 etc), a man who advocates peace and who is the earliest practitioner of what we now call “shuttle diplomacy. Yet in this situation his skills are redundant. There is nothing to do, nothing to say. His tragedy is too raw, too personal, too much. Should he speak what could he say? If he is able to put into words even the smallest part of his pain he would surely only create a rift between himself and God – how could he not? And what benefit would his speech produce? God is clearly not going to perform a miracle, turn back time, resurrect his dead. There is nothing, nothing at all, he can say.

This week we will be commemorating an event as raw, as incomprehensible, as painful as the event in Shemini – it will be Yom HaShoah and we will be coming together to be with each other in order to remember. But what will be able to say in the face of the enormity, the singular extra-ordinary time when our people were persecuted and destroyed with terrifying efficiency on a grand scale by national governments? There are those who railed against God, whose words led them to a permanent rift, losing their faith and any possibility of comfort from our Jewish God. There are those who attempted to make sense, who spoke of the implicit guilt of the victims – just as there are those who say that Nadav and Avihu must have been guilty of arrogance or even idolatry. And those whose attempts to make sense of the Shoah lead them to see the State of Israel as having emerged from it as a sort of divine compensation. There are those who are able to forgive God for the silence in the Shoah, but will never forgive people and so live lives of alienation and bitterness. But any response is too small, too diminishing of the event, pointless. Some things require us not to understand, not to argue against, not to justify nor to console – they are things about which the only response is a silence in which we can be. Not a silence that suppresses or ignores, but a silent being together.

During the service of brit milah (circumcision) there is a verse taken from the book of Exodus about the blood of the Passover lamb – God says “va’omar lach b’damayich chayee” –I say to you by your blood you shall live. The Dubner Maggid asks – why the extra word – lach – for you? And answers his own question – this is about the precious blood that is spilled – God will respond, will not leave you in despair. But B’damayich chayee can also be translated a different way – damayich does not have to mean ‘your blood’ but ‘your silence’. Sometimes it is only with silence that we can go on – any other response would be too destructive to us, would drag us into a vortex of pain from which we would be unable to emerge.

I cannot find it in me to believe that the shedding of blood is the call to which God will always respond, regardless of the teachings of our tradition. But I can understand the need for silence, that silence sometimes is the only thing that will allow us to go on, to not be desperately searching all the time for an elusive explanation, for a response that will make sense, for a grand plan in which such terrible sacrifice is given honourable meaning. Like Aaron knew, some things are beyond words, beyond reason, beyond our ability to contain or order their meaning. Sometimes you just have to simply be, to witness, to remember, and to be with the people who themselves experienced the horror in compassionate wordless togetherness.

Shemini – The Eighth Day. How to make a new beginning and get on with life

The sidra continues the story begun last week, when Aaron and his sons were dedicated to the priesthood in a ceremony lasting seven days. And now, on the eighth day, it is time for them to begin their work, to offer sacrifices at the altar, to prepare the place and the people for the imminent arrival of the presence of God.

We begin with a verse that has always caught my attention. “Vay’hee bayom ha’shemini, kara Moshe l’Aharon u’le’vanav, ul’zik’nei Yisrael” And it came to pass on the eighth day that Moses called to Aaron and to his sons, and to the Elders of Israel… “ (Lev 9:1)

Why does it catch my attention? Firstly because the eighth day is such a particular description – we have had a full week of seven days of preparation and now here we are with a new beginning. The eighth day always makes me think of the seven days of Creation and then – this day, the first day of the life of the world fully made. It makes me think of the mitzvah of circumcision to be enacted on the eighth day – the day a male Jewish baby is brought into the Covenant. It symbolises to me the moment of starting out, the first steps of independence once the groundwork has been laid.

So it seems right and proper that the priests should be starting their sacrificial work on this day, when the world is somehow shiny and new and all things are possible.

And then the second ‘catch’ – why does Moses call not only Aaron and his sons, but also the Ziknei Yisrael, the Elders of Israel? This is apparently a priestly activity, the instructions specifically for them to do, and yet the Elders are also there.

The Ziknei Yisrael are present at a number of pivotal events in the bible. At the burning bush Moses is told to gather the Elders of Israel (Exodus 3:16), at Sinai (Exodus 19:7) again they are gathered and told what God had said to Moses, in the wilderness after one of the rebellions again God tells Moses to gather them to hear God’s words (Num. 11:16). The Ziknei Yisrael are often the witnesses and the support to Moses at times of change or vulnerability. While they do not speak and seem to have no active or proactive role in the text, their presence is vital to the stability and robustness of Moses’ leadership.

So here we are, a verse denoting new beginnings for the worship system, witnessed by the Elders who have been with Moses every step of the way, and within a short time we have the story of a tragedy. The new beginning has gone badly wrong; Nadav and Avihu, two of the sons of Aaron have died because they have not followed the ritual correctly, and Aaron is unable to speak, and explicitly told that he must not show his grief in a public manner.

And then the dedication ceremony continues, with Aaron and his remaining sons Itamar and Elazar fulfilling the ritual, though it is clear in the text that their hearts are not really in it. They are traumatised and unable to eat the portion marked for the priesthood. And yet, like consummate professionals, the work of the Tabernacle goes on.

I always read this section with a sense of great sadness – the death of two of his sons clearly marks Aaron and the remaining sons forever. It seems unfair that whatever Nadav and Avihu did, the consequences should have been so drastic. Moses comes over as unfeeling and demanding, focussed on the continuation of the process more than on the desperate distress of his family.

And the elders? Well they observe it all, solidly present, quietly linking the past to the future, the witnesses to the trauma of our people

The response of Moses which seems so unfeeling is maybe not as cold as it first appears. He tells Aaron and the surviving sons to continue with the important work they have to do, not to allow themselves to stop and to interrupt all that they have prepared for. They cannot indulge in paralysing grief, but must get on with life. And so they do. They are dejected and in anguish, but they get on with the work of their lives, and so the people of Israel pick up once more and continue in their journey. I am reminded of all those Holocaust Survivors who did not speak a great deal of what had happened to them and to those they loved, but who got on with rebuilding life, defining themselves not by what had happened then but by what they do now. Their response which seemed so odd when I was a child now seems sensible. They were not held back in their grief, they continued to build life. Maybe that is what the eighth day is really about. Whatever happened before there is always a new start, the history may prepare us and shape us, but it can never hold us back if we chose to see ourselves as beginning the next stage of our lives.

 

parashat shemini

The laws of Kashrut can be sourced back to this sidra – the types of animals, fish, birds and insects that we as Jews may eat, and those we may not.  There is no explanation for these laws, just as there is no explanation for what happened to Nadav and Avihu the sons of Aaron who died after offering an inappropriate sacrifice – but both stem from a system that is both rigorous and spiritual. Both are about the spiritual discipline acted out in life. Judaism creates holiness out of the ordinary. Kashrut in relation to food is partly about choosing to partake or abstain, and in so doing to show that we are not ruled by our animal instincts, but always remember that we are human beings who have been created in the image of God.

 Kashrut is also a way to make choices in order to encourage spiritual enhancement – for example treifa (meaning torn) has at its base meaning a food that has been torn from its source, either through violence or disease.  And Nachmanides teaches that the character of the animal we eat will in some way influence us – so we should eat only peaceful and kind animals, and not animals who are predatory or vicious.

 The sacredness of food – be it as an offering to be burned or waved before God, or be it the food that we consume – is a primal sense. In the bible, Jews understood about God through food – be it drought or plenty, manna or abundant fruits and grains.  Through a consciousness of food, by choosing what, where and when to eat, Jews developed an awareness of the Source of all. Food was the symbol of our relationship with the earth, and that itself is a symbol of our relationship with God. Think back to Genesis when Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden for eating the wrong fruit – and now they are told that they must earn their own food and work the earth hard for it in order to get what God had given so freely before. Food is the medium through which we learn about our tradition and theology – matza at pesach, cheesecake at Shavuot, the seven species that grow in Israel during Sukkot and so on. Two loaves of bread at each meal on Shabbat – teaching us through food about rest – the manna was given in a double portion in time for Shabbat so that we would not have to go out searching – and working – on that day. Food connects us to the seasons, to the earth and to God. So how we choose to use it, or to abuse it; how we choose to partake or abstain – this can be an important spiritual tool for us to learn, to experience, to teach.