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.

Vayakhel Pekudei:What women do and Why women are rewarded as they carry the burden of faith into the future

For the last few weeks it has not been easy to find the women in the Torah readings, but now in Vayakhel the women are up front and unmissable. The mishkan/tabernacle is being made as a response to the failings of the people that led to the creation of the golden calf, an idol to comfort the people in the absence of Moses while he was away on Sinai sequestered with God.

It has become abundantly clear that the people are not yet ready for a God with no physical presence or aide-memoire. The mishkan will remind the people that God is dwelling among them. It is a powerful symbol they will carry around with them as they go on their journey. It will, so to speak, keep the people on the religious straight and narrow.

The details of the mishkan have been given in the last chapters – long dry lists of materials and artefacts. Now the text warms up with the human and emotional dimension:

וַיָּבֹ֕אוּ כָּל־אִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־נְשָׂא֣וֹ לִבּ֑וֹ וְכֹ֡ל אֲשֶׁר֩ נָֽדְבָ֨ה רוּח֜וֹ אֹת֗וֹ הֵ֠בִ֠יאוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמַ֨ת יְהֹוָ֜ה לִמְלֶ֨אכֶת אֹ֤הֶל מוֹעֵד֙ וּלְכָל־עֲבֹ֣דָת֔וֹ וּלְבִגְדֵ֖י הַקֹּֽדֶשׁ:

 “And they came, every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whom his spirit made willing, and brought the Eternal’s offering, for the work of the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments.” (35:21)

All the people for whom this project truly mattered, everyone who was invested in the creation of the reminder of the divine, brought their gifts. Gifts of valuable materials, gifts of their time, gifts of their dedication to make this work.

And then comes the strangest of verses.  (35:22)

וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֖ים עַל־הַנָּשִׁ֑ים כֹּ֣ל ׀ נְדִ֣יב לֵ֗ב הֵ֠בִ֠יאוּ חָ֣ח וָנֶ֜זֶם וְטַבַּ֤עַת וְכוּמָז֙ כָּל־כְּלִ֣י זָהָ֔ב וְכָל־אִ֕ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֵנִ֛יף תְּנוּפַ֥ת זָהָ֖ב לַֽיהוָֹֽה:

And they came, the men upon the women, as many as were willing-hearted, and brought nose-rings, and ear-rings, and signet-rings, and girdles, all jewels of gold; even every man that brought an offering of gold to the Eternal.

The construction of the verse is notable and odd. The phrasing “hanashim al hanashim – the men upon the women” suggests that the women carried the men, brought them along with them, that they came first with their jewellery, and only then did the men bring their gifts. All of the emphases on the voluntary nature of the donations, the repetitions that only those who wanted to give did so, culminates in the idea that it is the women who are keen to give their valuables in the service of God, that the men were carried along by the enthusiasm of the women.

The role of the women is reinforced a few verses later:

וְכָל־אִשָּׁ֥ה חַכְמַת־לֵ֖ב בְּיָדֶ֣יהָ טָו֑וּ וַיָּבִ֣יאוּ מַטְוֶ֗ה אֶֽת־הַתְּכֵ֨לֶת֙ וְאֶת־הָ֣אַרְגָּמָ֔ן אֶת־תּוֹלַ֥עַת הַשָּׁנִ֖י וְאֶת־הַשֵּֽׁשׁ: כו וְכָ֨ל־הַנָּשִׁ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָשָׂ֥א לִבָּ֛ן אֹתָ֖נָה בְּחָכְמָ֑ה טָו֖וּ אֶת־הָֽעִזִּֽים:

And all the women who were wise-hearted did spin with their hands, and brought that which they had spun, the blue, and the purple, the scarlet, and the fine linen. And all the women whose heart stirred them up in wisdom spun the goats’ hair. (35:25-26)

The vignette continues with yet another verse emphasising the role of the women in this work:

כָּל־אִ֣ישׁ וְאִשָּׁ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָדַ֣ב לִבָּם֘ אֹתָם֒ לְהָבִיא֙ לְכָל־הַמְּלָאכָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֧ה יְהוָֹ֛ה לַֽעֲשׂ֖וֹת בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֑ה הֵבִ֧יאוּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל נְדָבָ֖ה לַֽיהוָֹֽה:

Every man and woman, whose heart made them willing to bring for all the work, which the Eternal had commanded by the hand of Moses to be made, the children of Israel brought a freewill-offering to the Eternal v29

The repetition of the activities of the women, of their enthusiasm, their public role in both providing materials and in working those materials for use in the mishkan is surely telling us something important.

The commentators of course have noticed this. While Rashi in the tenth century plays down the idea of ha’anashim al hanashim meaning anything more than the men came with the women, the tosafists of the 12th and 13th century build on the idea of the women carrying the men along. They note the list of jewellery described were essentially feminine possessions and say that the verse is alluding to the men taking the women to bring their jewellery under the impression that they would not want to give it away. Imagine their surprise then when the women are not only willing to give their jewellery for the mishkan, they are actually pleased to do so. This stands in direct opposition to the earlier incident when jewellery was given to the priesthood – the incident of the golden calf, when the midrash tells us – and the tosafists remind us – that the women did not want to give their jewellery to such an enterprise, seeing through the project for the idolatry it was, and the men had torn the jewellery from the ears, fingers and necks of their reluctant womenfolk.

This midrashic interpretation places the women in the role of truly understanding the religious response, and the men showing less emotional intelligence. It is supported some verses later in the creation of the mishkan when the women give their mirrors for the copper washstand.

וַיַּ֗עַשׂ אֵ֚ת הַכִּיּ֣וֹר נְח֔שֶׁת וְאֵ֖ת כַּנּ֣וֹ נְחֹ֑שֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת֙ הַצֹּ֣בְאֹ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֣ר צָֽבְא֔וּ פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד:

And [Betzalel] made the washstand of copper, and the base thereof of copper, of the mirrors of the Tzevaot/ legions of serving women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting. (Ex 38:8)

Who were these women who did service at the door of the Tent of Meeting? What was the service that they did? And why did they have copper mirrors?

They appear also in the Book of Samuel (1Sam:2:22) Now Eli was very old; and he heard all that his sons did unto all Israel, and how that they lay with the women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting.

In both occasions the women are at the door of the tent of meeting, the place where people brought their vows, where the priesthood purified themselves before entering, a liminal space of enormous importance.  The verb צֹּ֣בְא֔ tzaddi beit alef is best known to us as something God does – We often call God Adonai Tzeva’ot, the God of the Hosts/Legions – it  has a military context rather than a religious one.

But in the Book of Numbers we find the verb used to describe something else – not a military action but the service of the Levites done in and around the Mishkan. This verb is the priestly activity, a ministry, something done by the members of the tribe of Levi, whose role is to ensure that the priesthood is able to fulfil its sacred function. (see Numbers 4:23, 35, 39, 43 and 8:24)

So while there is a tendency in tradition to see these women as low status, cultic prostitutes or camp followers, the text does not support this view and indeed it is possible to read it quite differently. The women who give their mirrors to have the polished copper washstand that is so important in the system of ritual purity are women of status and dignity, whose work in ministry is more important to them than what are often seen as the more usual girly activities of makeup and grooming.

The midrash (Tanhuma) again picks up the story of the mirrors, and while it does not give the women any status in the priestly activities (instead ignoring their position at the doorway), it does give them some real honour by telling the story that in Egypt, after the decree of Pharaoh that all baby boys would be killed, the men became despondent. Slavery had sapped their strength and their emotional resilience and they had decided not to create a stake in the future but to live separately from their wives and desist from intercourse or procreation. The women however were not prepared for this to happen, and so they used their mirrors to make themselves as beautiful and irresistible as possible, then going to their husbands in order to seduce them and become pregnant.

It was the role of the mirrors in this activity that is so important. The women had used them in order to show their faith in the future, they were a symbol not only of sexual attractiveness and sensual preparations, they were a symbol of faith, of resilience, of the emotional and religious intelligence sadly lacking in the men.

Rashi quotes this midrash at this verse, and goes even further. He says that Moses [and Betzalel] did not want to take the mirrors (they are listed separately from the earlier donations), presumably because they associated them with sensuality, with women’s actions to initiate sex, but Rashi tells us that God ordered him to take them.

It seems that God is less fearful of women’s bodies and sexuality than Moses was. Indeed God is reported to have said “These mirrors are more precious to Me than anything else”

Because the mishkan is said to have been dedicated on Rosh Chodesh Nisan (the beginning of the new month of Nisan), there is a tradition that the women should be rewarded for their faith, their resilience, their innovation and proactive donations, and given a special holiday on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. Over time it appears that every Rosh Chodesh has become  women’s special days, when no work is done and women celebrate and enjoy the time.  Many women and women’s groups celebrate Rosh Chodesh together, but I wonder how many realise that the root of this tradition is the power and resilience of the women when the men failed to live up to what was necessary. I wonder how many women realise that the ease  which the women had to initiate intimacy, the ministry which they offered at the liminal border between the sacred space and the secular space, the understanding the women showed to not offer their jewellery for idolatry but to run to offer it for the mishkan – all of this is in our tradition and deserves to be highlighted. For it isn’t only the women for whom this story is unfamiliar, it is particularly those men who have studied and who know these texts but who choose not to teach or to publicise them.

If we learn anything from these verses is that the women had a role every bit as important and active as the men, that they were not only routinely alongside but that they were also on occasions the leaders, the ones who carried the flow, the agenda setters.

Vayakhel means to bring together a community. Pekudei has a number of meanings, to visit, to account, to calculate, to encounter. When we read these texts we need to remember that a community is accounted, encountered and needs ALL its members.