Shavuot: A new model of relationship where women are (also) in the narrative

We first find the festival in the book of Exodus where it is called called הקציר חג hag ha-katzir “the  festival of harvest” later clarified with the information that the harvest is of “the first-fruits of your labours” (Exodus 23:16). When we meet it in Leviticus (ch23) it has no name but we are told to count seven complete weeks plus one day -fifty days- and then bring a new meal offering and other sacrifices – the first fruits – to God. In the book of Numbers (28:26) we are told it is  “the day of the first-fruits, הבכורים יום when you bring a new meal-offering to the Eternal in your feast of weeks” and in Deuteronomy it is called the festival of Shavuot because of the counting of seven weeks from having put the sickle to the standing grain.

There is nothing in bible about this being the festival of the giving of Torah, the name we use now in our liturgical marking of the festival. Shavuot as we know it is a construction that builds on the ritual of bringing first fruits as sacrifices to the Temple to acknowledge God’s presence in our lives, and replaces this with the covenantal relationship we have as a people with God, a relationship which is documented and defined by the giving and receiving of Torah.

So how amazing it is then that this festival which is the bridge par excellence between Temple and Rabbinic Judaism has as one of its major texts the story told in the book of Ruth, one of only two books named for a woman in the whole of Torah, a book which places women and women’s relationships right at the centre of the narrative, as one of them freely accepts all the obligations of Torah to join the Jewish people, and the other acts as her guide and support.

Other women also feature in the book, with strong supporting roles. Orpah, the other sister in law, who chooses to go back to her own people rather than go forward with Ruth and Naomi to an unknown future. The women of Bethlehem who act like a chorus and comment on the situation of Naomi. Even the matriarchs Rachel and Leah and the brave and resourceful Tamar make an extraordinary appearance, when the elders tell Boaz: ‘We are witnesses. The Eternal make the woman that is come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel….and let your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, of the seed which the Eternal shall give thee of this young woman.’ (Ruth 4:11-12)

As we are modelling a new relationship with God that has moved from the cult of sacrificial worship to a Judaism based on words and actions that aspire to bring us closer to God, the leading figures are the women, and we have two pairs of women – Naomi and Ruth, Rachel and Leah, who have modelled for us an extraordinary generous and compassionate relationship. The sisters had had the misfortune to marry the same man, and therefore be thrown into competition with each other, something that is not referred to in the text before Jacob came along, and we know that Rachel took pity on her older – and less loved -sister Leah by giving her tokens to seduce Jacob. Naomi and Ruth had the misfortune to be widowed and left without masculine support in a patriarchal world, but Ruth’s determination to stay with Naomi and Naomi’s supportive matriarchal abilities meant that all ended well for them both – indeed it is in this book that we find the only time a woman is described as loving another woman – right at the end of the book the women of Bethlehem say that Ruth loves (a.ha.v) Naomi, and Naomi nurses Ruth’s child, an act of extraordinary love and unity. Their relationship is the exact opposite of the parody of mother-in-law / daughter-in-law. It’s true there is no husband/son to fight over but they do not fight over the child/grandchild but instead are both functioning as its mother – indeed the women of Bethlehem say “a child is born to Naomi” rather than to Ruth – the mothering is from both women without problem.

The blessing given when Boaz is to marry Ruth is another extraordinary piece of text. “The Eternal make the woman that is come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel”. There is a clear resonance with the blessing by Jacob of his two grandsons by Joseph (Genesis 48:20) “By you will Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh” – itself a blessing of harmonisation, given that Ephraim (the younger) is placed above Manasseh, with no complaint or jealousy shown by the boys, a first in the blessing of sons in the book of Genesis. So again this is a blessing of resolution of any rivalries, a bringing together of two who might fight against each other but instead choose to work together without hostility. Then comes the naming of Rachel and Leah, sisters whose relationship may have been poisoned by the actions of Jacob, each wanting what the other had from him – one wanting love, the other wanting children. Apart from the disruption in their lives caused by Jacob, there is no textual reference to any hostility between them. And here they are credited as being the two who built the house of Israel.  Sarah and Rebecca here are less important as matriarchs – it is the mothers of the twelve tribes who take centre stage as with the tribal configuration Israel becomes less one family and more one people. I am aware that Bilhah and Zilpah are also the mothers of sons of Jacob and are not credited with this – I think because legally they are surrogates, the children not belonging to them, and this is a subject that will be given space in the future.

So here as the denouement of the text, the marriage of the foreign woman Ruth to Boaz a descendant of Tamar and Judah, and the bringing into the house of Naomi (who midrash gives a genealogy that will also lead to Judah and Tamar) means that the house of Boaz will be built like the house of Israel – the Jewish people will grow in numbers and in strength, but also be ready to receive Torah in its life, as Ruth has demonstrated her willing acceptance out in the wilds Moab just as the Israelites demonstrated their acceptance in the wilds of Sinai. There is a harmonisation, a sense of bringing together loose ends and readying for the next stage, and it is all done through the relationship of women with each other, choosing not to try to best each other or outdo each other, but to work together to build for the future.

And what an edifice was built on the foundations of these women. Of Tamar who boldly waylaid Judah in order to have the child that was rightfully hers and that would liberate her from yevamah. Of Rachel and Leah who became the matriarchs of tribal Judaism. Of Naomi who survived the deaths of her husband and sons, who ‘came back empty’ in her own words but who found the way to replenish and rebuild, based on her relationship of love and dvekut with her foreign daughter in law. Of Ruth, whose behaviour would not now pass the test of tzniut in many communities, but who also found a way to replenish and rebuild a life that may otherwise have dwindled into nothing.

The edifice built was ultimately the Davidic line of monarchy as the genealogy at the end of the book tells us.  And this is another ‘wild card’ in the patriarchal narrative we are so used to. For David is the grandchild of a Moabite woman and a descendant of more than one woman who used their bodies and their sexuality to gain what they needed. He is the descendant of men who left Beit Lechem to go to the hated Moab in time of famine and paid for it with their lives. He is the scion of a family with more skeletons in their wardrobe than one can imagine, and at the same time he is the descendant of women who broke the mould of sibling rivalries and patriarchal power plays, who chose to work together, to love each other in the most unlikely circumstances, to help each other unselfishly.

Torah was given to a people who were afraid and trembling, in a desert where they were insecure by a God who was so terrifying that they begged Moses to act as intermediary and agent for them. Sinai is a powerful piece of theatre with smoke and mountains that shook and the sound of a shofar piercing the air. At Shavuot we get a different model – a young woman who willingly and with love stays with an older woman and helps her return to her home, an older woman who willingly and with love guides the younger towards a future that will be blessed with security and warmth. No great theatre, no powerful revelation, just the day to day living of two people helping each other out.

I think the rabbis chose well when this book became the story read to parallel the theophany at Sinai. Here are the women, who were so hidden from view in the Exodus telling of the story. Here are the ordinary and quotidian activities of people caring for each other. Here is a true story of love and of people helping each other to what they need – no fireworks, no drama – just the reality of covenantal relationship in its quiet and extraordinary glory.

 

Chol haMoed Pesach: the love affair begins – the view from the harem

During Chol HaMoed Pesach it is traditional to read Shir HaShirim (Shir haShirim), one of the five ‘megillot’ read in synagogues over the year.  Esther is read at Purim for obvious reasons, Ruth at Shavuot, Eicha (Lamentations) at Tisha b’Av, and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) at Succot.

While the Midrash Rabbah groups these books together (along with the Five Books of Moses), they were not written at the same time or indeed in the same way, and date from between the 5th and the 12th centuries as far as we can tell.  Purim is predicated on the Book of Esther, Tisha b’Av is clearly connected to Eicha, but the three pilgrimage festivals having their own Megillah is rather more complicated and the links between them somewhat fragile.

So why is Song of Songs read during the festival that commemorates the exodus from Egypt?

It is, quite plainly, a book of love poetry. It describes the story of a Shulamite woman who is passionately in love with a shepherd but is separated from him, having been taken into King Solomon’s harem. In an erotically charged and physically explicit series of poems she remembers the relationship she yearns for, the imagery is bucolic and sensual, using imagery of the field and the vineyards, painting a picture of intense love between two people. In a dialogue structure we hear the voice of the lover describing her and their encounters, lingering on her face, her body, her breasts and thighs and neck, her face, her smell. A third voice, that of narrator or chorus, also appears in the structure and the protagonist occasionally turns to speak to or to give advice to the daughters of Jerusalem.

The book begins with a superscription informing us that this is “Song of Songs which is Solomon’s” and so it is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon, a factor which was critical into its acceptance into the biblical canon. But this authorship is unlikely in the extreme. The language shows it to be much later than the Solomonic period – probably 3rd to 1st Century BCE; It has parallels with other love poetry of the region and with Greek poetry and it fits into the genre of women’s poetry for the harem.

Yet it was taken into the biblical canon and treated by the rabbis as an allegory of the love story between Israel and God, with Israel taking the role of the female protagonist and King Solomon standing for God. The book was clearly controversial and only the powerful and passionate defence by Rabbi Akiva in the first century ended the argument. Famously he said” Heaven forbid that anyone in Israel would ever dispute the sacredness of Shir HaShirim for the whole world is not worth the day on which Shir Hashirim was given to Israel;  all of the Writings are kodesh (“holy”) but Shir Hashirim is kodesh kodashim (“holy of holies”).

Quite why he defends it so robustly, or why he plays on the name with the idea of holiness (kodesh kodashim) is left in history, but it has the effect of reframing how we read this book so fully that the voice of the woman is all but muted, the physicality and comfort with her emotions and desires are practically erased, and the book is taken into the men’s domain of ‘holiness’ and of the patriarchal God, and the religiousness of the woman and of women in general is diminished to the point of invisibility.

This is a book that speaks of the power of love through the voice of a woman. It bespeaks young and untested love, the intense first love that nothing ever quite matches again.  One can see why it fits Pesach which happens in the springtime when all the animals and birds are coming out of a long winter and going through their mating rituals prior to settling down. One can see how it fits into the first love of the Exodus from Egypt, when the beloved can change the world for their lover, in this case quite literally. Nothing bad has happened yet, no quarrels, no golden calf, no element of falling short of the mark, the beloved can do no wrong and as yet is untainted by doubt.

Yet having been appropriated for the patriarchal view of covenantal religion it is easy to miss that this book is women’s religious literature, that Solomon is not the desired or the lover, but instead represents a disruption to the older, earlier love that is both more pastoral and more prosaic. Religion in the hands of men created a structure of ritual purity, a hierarchy and a priesthood who ministered in mysterious inner sanctums where no one could see or could enter. Religion in the hands of women was more nature based, more in tune with the rhythms of the body, focused on the creation of new life and the dwindling of energies as life diminishes. It is no accident that there were women in the liminal space at the doorway before the tent of meeting, performing their poetry and songs, welcoming the bringer of the sacrifice and facilitating their leaving the ritual. It is no accident that it is women who mark important events with song – there are more women’s songs in bible than men’s by far. Women from Deborah to Jephthah’s daughter, from Hannah to Miriam, sing across the boundaries of events.

I think that Rabbi Akiva was right when he says that this book is so holy, but probably not for the reasons he gives. It is holy because it records the religious expression of women, it is forthright and unashamed about the physical space that women take up, and while written from an inner world of the harem it reminds the reader that the author is well aware of the outer world and all its gifts. The voice of the woman is equal to that of the man in this book, it is ideal in that it takes us back to the first story of Creation and the simultaneous formation of men and women.  It can bespeak the love affair between God and Israel in the sense that a truly matched couple in love must not have a power dynamic where one is so much greater than the other – in this love affair God enters our world as lover not as sovereign. There is much eye contact and kissing in the poetry, it is a relationship where both participants give and receive equally.

I fear that the book which reflects the spirituality of women has been so reframed and reinterpreted that it is almost heretical to read it in what I believe was its original voice. It seems to be no coincidence that the mangled punning of Shmuel to alter the beautiful phrase from this book “…har’ini et mar’ayich, hashmini et kolech, ki kolech arev umarech naveh” – “show me your countenance, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your countenance is pleasant” is made to read instead “kol b’ishah ervah” the voice of a woman is nakedness/sexuality. (BT Berachot 24) and then offered as a proof that women’s voices should not be heard.

Did he choose the verse from the very book of women’s voices singing in public space to try to mute that very voice from discourse as a deliberate act in order to add insult to injury? To assert the patriarchal norms and taking up of all public space for masculine voices in order to silence any other way of worship?  Is this the first attempt in recorded history of mansplaining?

Whatever the process, for a long time the voice of women in religious worship and religious relationship has been quiet, a whisper, the voice of slender silence. Yet there are hints throughout our tradition that the voice is still speaking – the bat kol, literally the daughter of the voice, is a rabbinic term for communication from the divine.

The book ends with a plea for the voice to continue to be heard: “You who dwell n the gardens, the companions listen out for your voice: Cause me to hear it. Make haste my beloved” (8:13,14)

There is another reason that shir hashirim is read on Pesach, the great festival of our liberation, our freedom from oppression, the fulfilled desire of the Israelites to be able to worship their God in their own way – it is a reminder that the voices of women in Judaism are still struggling to be heard, still searching for a space in the discourse, still asserting viewpoints that are seen as less valid or less important or less authoritative. We have not yet achieved our liberation within the Jewish tradition. But our voices will continue to sing, to speak, to shape the world we see and to counter and add counterpoint to the other voices heard so loudly in our tradition.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Tamar: taking her destiny in her own hands she will enable the messiah. Parashat Vayeshev

judah-and-tamar-chagallInserted into the Joseph narratives that take up much of the last half of the book of Genesis, is a chapter about Judah and about his family. It is also a chapter about the actions of a woman who is determined to right a wrong and how she achieves this goal. Situated as it is so discordantly in the Joseph narrative it is easy to turn the page, to ignore the text as we continue to read about Joseph’s troubles and his subsequent elevation. Because it deals with sexual acts, and with apparent impropriety, it is studied much less than it should be. The lens of the narrator is narrow, detail is sparse, but it is a text worth a great deal of attention, for it reminds us that in bible the women were actors in the story and not observers, they were out in the public space, their behaviour often created pivots in the chronicle. The story of Judah and Tamar shouts out “notice me” – the sons of Jacob are yet again challenged by a woman and this time they cannot cheat her or hide from her or marginalise her. Tamar is a risk taker while all the time behaving within the law. She is a model for modern Jewish women, her story reminds us our destiny is in our own hands.

Judah leaves his brothers and marries a Canaanite woman, the unnamed daughter of Shua, and has three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah.  Without comment from the narrator, time passes and he takes a wife for his first born son -Tamar. What do we know about her? Her antecedents are shrouded in mystery though we may assume that she was also a Canaanite woman. There is one tradition that suggests that she is the daughter of Malchitzedek, King of Shalem and Priest to the Most High God, and certainly she behaves in a way that bespeaks confidence and determination to get her rights fulfilled.

Tamar is married to Er, who was “wicked in the sight of God, and God killed him” (38:8). She was then married to his younger brother Onan, specifically (and anachronistically) for him to perform the act of yevamah, to provide a child who would legally be the child of the dead and childless Er.

But Onan knew that the child would not be formally his, as so when he went to her he deliberately spilled his semen on the ground rather than create a child who would inherit the portion of his dead brother, and the bible tells us “Vayera b’eynei Adonai asher assah vayamet gam oto: The thing that he did was evil in the sight of God, and he killed him too” (v10)

What did Er do that was so wicked he deserved to die? Bible doesn’t tell us. While there is a strand of tradition that suggests that the boys die as punishment for the wickedness of their father, so that he should feel the pain of the death of a child as he had caused his father to feel that grief when he did not protect Joseph, the general consensus of tradition is that the sin must have been Er’s and must have been similar to that of his brother. Hence one Midrash suggests that he did not want Tamar to spoil her beauty by becoming pregnant and therefore his relations with her were designed to prevent pregnancy. This I think tells us much more about the commentators than it does about the text, but the reality is that he does not provide a child for his wife before his sudden death.

Onan’s wickedness however is clear, and it is not the sin that bears his name. It is not the spilling of the seed that was the real problem in God’s eyes, it was the fact that he did not want to give his dead brother a stake in the future, a child who would inherit both the name and the material benefit that would have belonged to Er. He denied his dead brother an heir and he denied his wife the protection that having the child would give her.

What we are told and what we are not told in this text is fascinating. The bible is keen to make sure we know that Judah has left his brothers, that he has built a deep friendship with Hirah an Addullamite (va’yet). It tells us of his Canaanite wife bat Shua and his children with her. It tells us that the action takes place in Chezib – and here is the clue to the whole sorry tale, for the name Chezib comes from the root-verb כזב (kazab), meaning to lie, to disappoint, to fail. As an idiom the word is also used to describe a brook or stream that has dried up – a river that disappoints, rather than one that will provide water. Judah has three sons, and yet the likelihood of his having descendants after them diminishes as the disappointment and the lies build up.

The bible signals that the story is about deceptions and disappointment, and Judah as the fourth son of Jacob and Leah is born into deception and disappointment, even while he will ultimately become the ancestor par excellence, the tribe from whom we will descend.

After the deaths of the two older sons, Judah tells Tamar to “stay a widow in the house of your father until Shelah my son grows up” Assuming the practise of yevamah, this appears to be a reasonable request, though why Tamar is kept in her father’s house rather than that of her in-laws bears further examination. But it seems that he is trying to keep her at a distance, for bible continues that same verse with the words “Lest he also die like his brothers”.

The superstition that a woman who loses more than one husband is somehow responsible is dangerous and a killer of men who come close to her has deep roots. It is a classic example of blaming the victim. Widows were economically and socially vulnerable, classed in bible along with orphans and strangers in the land/refugees. There are many exhortations to protect the widows in biblical texts, but in this story in the first book of Genesis, before Torah had been given and before its challenge to established norms, the superstition drives Judah, and sadly his behaviour means that the idea of the “black widow” has permeated into our awareness too.

Widowed now himself, Judah goes to see his great friend Hirah in Timnah. We do not know how much time has passed but Tamar is able to observe for herself that Shelah has grown up and that he has not been given to her as a husband in order to both provide a child in his brother’s names. Tamar is trapped in a situation that does not allow her to marry within the family of Judah nor to marry anyone else. She must feel desperate.

Judah doesn’t tell Tamar that he is travelling near to where she is. He has left her exiled in her father’s home living as a widow and he seems to have no communication with her, nor any interest in her continued well-being.  Someone unnamed tells her that Judah will be travelling through and Tamar takes her chance.

She removes the widow’s weeds she is wearing and covering herself with her veil she sits “petach Einayim” – which could mean “at the entrance to Einayim” but which also means “at the opening of the eyes”. This is a pivot in the story. There has been up till now lies and deception, the suppressing of the reason that God found Er wicked, the betrayal by Onan of his brother’s rights to the future.   Tamar has been hidden from sight in the household of her father, there is no communication between the two households, she is out of sight and out of mind. But here she is, sitting by the roadway Judah will travel, determined to be noticed, to open Judah’s eyes to the injustice done to her.  Her action is eye opening.

Judah certainly sees her. He notices her. At least, he notices there is a woman there and he makes the assumption that she is a prostitute. And the reason for this? Because her face is covered.  Think about this. He reaches his conclusion that this is a woman available for hire for sexual relief because her face is covered. In today’s world a veiled face is supposed to designate modesty, protecting the beauty of the woman from the crassness of the world – yet here in bible the clear assumption is that the veiled face designates woman only as object. She stops being a person. She doesn’t exist as living breathing yearning thinking woman. She is a prostitute, available for the pleasure of men who pay. There is at least some honesty in this approach – the reality of the woman is unimportant in the world of the biblical text, who she is is irrelevant to the man who buys her. In today’s world of extreme tzniut used to oppress women in some communities, the deception is back. Telling women that their covered state and hiddenness from the public space is a way of increasing their holiness, protecting their modesty etc is a lie to hide the fact that their very self is being controlled by others, to keep them as possessions and as subjects rather than as active and authentic people with their own agency.

Judah is polite, he speaks to her with courtesy, not knowing who she is at all. The same verb is used as with his relationship with Hirah – vayet eleha – he turns to her. This could be the beginning of a real connection, but it is not because he does not see someone with whom connection can be made. He sees only the possibility of a sexual moment and this is what he asks for. So she begins the negotiation “what would you give me in payment for sex?” He offers her a future payment, a young kid from the flock, and she counters with the request for a pledge that she can keep until such time as the payment is made. It seems that Judah is unused to this type of negotiation. He asks her what such a pledge should be and she requests three deeply personal and unique items that will be recognisable and indisputably his.  Having given them to her, they have intercourse and Tamar conceives at last.

The interlude over, she leaves and removing the veil she puts on her widows weeds once again. Judah keeps his promise, sending the animal as promised with Hirah his friend, and expecting the return of his pledge, but she is gone, and when Hirah asks around where the prostitute who had been sitting there was, the response is that there had been no prostitute. This he relays to Judah, who doesn’t seem to be at all perturbed by the woman’s disappearance with his personal possessions, and seems rather to hope that by ignoring what has happened he will escape any shame. But how can he just leave his pledge, his signet, cords and staff, as if nothing has happened?  These days we might call it identity theft, we would desperately search for our missing items and try our best to make good the loss. Judah’s response “tikach la, pen nihyeh lavuz” is more than laconic, it is negligent and it is fearful of any shame attaching to him and his friend. Why?

Three months later the news reaches Judah that Tamar is pregnant, and the assumption is that she has prostituted herself. No communication has happened between the two as yet and when she is brought to Judah in order to be punished by burning, she still does not immediately identify the father by name. Instead there is a sort of choreography – she is brought to the household of Judah from her father’s house. She does not appear to meet Judah, instead she sends the pledged items he had given her and says “Clarify please whose are these tokens? The signet the cords and the staff?” It is of course a rhetorical question but it is a dangerous one. For a man who had been trying to avoid shame, Judah could have taken and sequestered the items. She would have been burned to death along with her unborn children. But instead he acknowledged them and speaks of the justice and rightness of Tamar’s act – she had simply been trying to fulfil the requirement for a child for his two dead sons, and in doing that to protect her own vulnerable situation too.

Like Rebecca, Tamar has twins. Like her too the birth is eventful – the first child puts out a hand and then withdraws it but not before a scarlet thread has been tied around it, the second child is then born, and the elder one is fully born second. Their names are given, but not it seems by Tamar. The elder child is named Zerach which means brightness or shining. The younger is Perez – meaning to burst forth, to breach. There are many echoes of Rebecca here, the colour red, the description of the older child in terms of his appearance and the younger in terms of his actions.  There is a clear subtext that these children were designed to be born, they are necessary in terms of the biblical narrative. They would not have been born had Judah followed his plan to keep Tamar in purdah to protect his one surviving son from what he saw was her danger – a superstition roundly exploded in the story, for Judah is not endangered by his encounter with Tamar.

The story is tidied up – both dead brothers have a child to take their place in history. Tamar does not need to marry again, her status is established. Judah has come to realise that his behaviour was not as righteous as that of his Canaanite daughter in law and has acknowledged this.  But the questions arising from the story only multiply. Why this story at all? Why put it here in the Joseph narratives? Why did the children need to be born?

One question is partially answered in the genealogical line given in the book of Ruth, the Moabite woman who also took her status as childless widow into her own hands and had a child by a family member of her dead husband in order both to honour his future and to protect her own vulnerable status. We will learn from this genealogy that King David will descend from the line of Perez – that both Tamar the Canaanite woman and Ruth the Moabite woman will pivot history in order to bring about the birth of the messianic line.   But why does King David and why will his messianic descendant need to be born of such deceptive sexual encounters orchestrated by the women? This is a question yet to be satisfactorily answered.

Why is it in the Joseph narrative? With the themes of clothing to hide identity, of deception and betrayal, of promises made and not kept and of the painful loss of children, with mis-communication and with the lack of communication, with fear and shame and hopelessness and exile –  there is much to connect these narratives.  But Tamar herself is not echoed in the Joseph stories, except maybe in parody when the wife of his master desires him and lies that he tried to sleep with her. Tamar stands alone in these narratives, a woman who is married twice to unworthy and wicked men yet who retains her own integrity and keeps her eye on the future. Blamed as a husband killer when we know from bible that God kills the men because of their wickedness, exiled to her father’s house and marginalised from the narrative, she uses her marginal status and plays out the scene whereby she becomes not-woman, a body, a prostitute for hire at the roadside, and moves her descendants into the centre of the narrative.

One of my favourite lines of any film comes in “My big fat Greek Wedding”. It tells the story of a woman of Greek descent trying to find herself and her place in society outside her father’s home and the struggles she endures as she grows. Her father makes a decree about her future and she is despondent. Her mother tells her that indeed she must obey, the father is the head of the house. In their culture, his word is law. But the mother goes on to say, the father is the head but the mother is the neck, and the head points whatever way the neck dictates.  It speaks to me of biblical narrative, when the men make the decisions and hold the power, but with great regularity the women subvert that decision making, and from Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah onwards they gently manipulate in order to produce the desired outcome. The list of these women in bible is long, yet often they escape our attention as they escape the attention of the men with whom they live. Tamar is a rare exception – by getting herself noticed she will disrupt the course of the narrative and change history.

Lot: a cautionary tale of superficial success and the victimisation of the powerless

Lot, the nephew and heir apparent of Abraham is a man with barely any redeeming features in the biblical account. We meet him first in the genealogies following the flood, when we are told that “Terach begot Avram, Nahor and Haran, and Haran begot Lot, and Haran died in the presence of his father Terach in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldees.” The fatherless boy is taken into the household of his grandfather, and Terach, Avram and Lot leave Ur to go to Canaan, but settle in Haran, where Terach dies. God speaks to Avram, and he moves on towards Canaan, taking Lot with him. Famine drives them to Egypt where Avram claims that Sarah is not his wife but his sister, and while this saves his life it also puts Sarah into Pharaoh’s harem – until God intervenes and together they all leave Egypt much richer than they had arrived.

The land could not support the flocks and herds of both Avraham and Lot; there is fighting between the herdsmen of the two men, and Abraham suggests that they part company and go in separate directions.  Lot journeys east towards the cities of the plain, Avraham goes to Canaan and again he is promised all the land as far as he can see, to be the eternal possession of his – so far non-existent – descendants.

We hear no more of Lot for a while, instead we witness the births of first Ishmael and then Isaac, and it becomes clear that Lot is no longer the heir apparent – the two households have separated permanently, whatever might have been is no longer a thread in the narrative.

And then comes the cataclysm at Sodom, and Lot’s family are back, centre stage, as we watch with horror the different tragedies unfold.

We get a good, close look at Lot, and we learn too about his family. It is not a pretty sight.

To begin with he parallels his uncle Abraham’s hospitable behaviour. The two messengers of God arrive at Sodom in the evening, and come across Lot sitting at the city gate. It is a significant time as the night is coming, and a significant place in the city where all the communal activity is centred. The implication is that Lot, whose youth was rootless and dependent, is well integrated into the city, either doing business or demonstrating his status in some other way.

Lot is keen to offer his home hospitality and we soon find out why – a mob surrounds his house apparently demanding he hand over his guests for the sexual pleasure of the crowd. Lot goes out not to send the people away but to suggest a compromise – he will not hand over the men who were guests under his roof and his protection, instead he will hand over his two virgin daughters for the use of the crowd. It is at this point the modern reader despairs. While apparently taking his hospitality duties seriously, Lot is prepared to sacrifice his daughters to the baying crowd. We can only wonder what he learned from the actions of Avram who called Sarah his sister rather than his wife and allowed her to be taken into the pharaoh’s harem in order to protect his own life.

The visitors reach out to Lot, bring him back into the house, and smite the crowd outside with blindness so that they are comically unable to find the doorway, though they kept on trying. Lot is told to find his family and take them out of the city which God will destroy. Lot goes to speak to his sons in law, but they do not take him seriously. He makes no attempt to talk to his daughters.  As dawn rises the angels urge him to go with his wife and two unmarried daughters but inexplicably he lingers, and a merciful God transports them out of the city almost magically, warning him to head for the mountains and not to look back, but Lot prevaricates, saying the mountains are too far away, asking if he can survive in a nearby city, Zoar, and God agrees to protect that city from the coming catastrophe.

The fire and brimstone comes, the cities of Sodom and Gemorah are destroyed, Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt, but through the merit of Abraham Lot is saved. He and his daughters are afraid to stay in Zoar, so they leave and go to live in the mountains, where his daughters conclude that no one else is left alive and so they make a plan to sleep with him in order to ‘preserve his seed’. Having got him drunk, first the elder and then the younger daughter sleep with Lot in order to become pregnant by him, and thus bible tells us of the origins of two important – and inimical – peoples, the Moabites and the Ammonites.

Lot comes over as a man who has been given wealth and status but who below that surface is a weak and selfish buffoon, a man of straw. He is interesting to the narrative only through his relationship with his uncle Abraham, a branch of the family tree that might have been important but which now is irrelevant. He is the father of four daughters, none of whom he thought to protect. His  wife deserves our pity – unnamed, unspoken to, she is referred to only in relation to leaving the cataclysm, she isn’t given the message not to look behind them and so she does, with fatal consequences, though I can’t help feeling that there may have been some relief in no longer having to hitch her life to his.

She is a “Netziv melech” a standing monument made out of an easily eroded material. Salt represents value and wealth, it is used to preserve food, it has medicinal qualities, the beautiful crystals reflect light, it speaks to us of the sea and of tears. Salt is the symbol of the covenant (see Lev 2:13, according to Talmud salt from Sodom was burned in temple ritual (Ker 6a) and it is present to this day on the Kiddush table alongside the challah as an echo of that ritual. Lot’s wife escapes the fate of the rest of her family, she is preserved at one with her environment before the descent into degradation that follows.

The younger daughters of Lot do not escape. Bereft of their mother and older sisters, left alone in the mountains with the weak old man who is their father, fearing the world has ended – theirs is a sorry plight.  They have grown up in an emotionally abusive family; their father cared for the superficial success he could enjoy living in his adopted city, working out his own damage of three times losing his own father figures, he did not himself seem to know how to be a good husband or father. He had already offered these daughters for rape by the baying crowd seemingly in the bizarre belief that this was the action of a good host. He must have known the nature of the city he had chosen to make his home and the home of his daughters. His sons in law clearly had no respect for him, he was a weak and laughable figure to them. In a patriarchal world, Lot was no alpha male. Even his name, meaning ‘tightly wrapped’ or ‘covered’, seems to describe a man who draws his blanket around him and hides inside.

With such a father what chance do the girls have?  Yet they seem determined that he will have descendants. Is this a case of Stockholm syndrome whereby the captive will do anything to support and empathise with their captor? Are they actually fearing more for themselves than for their father, whom they describe as old – possibly near to death – and they may be left without any male relative to support and defend them? Will a son born from incest be better than no man at all? Have they believed the story of his superficial success, and refused to look deeper? It is interesting that his wife actually looks mei’acharav – from behind/after him rather than behind her – she is not looking at the city she is fleeing, but instead maybe she is really seeing who her companion in the escape really is and crystallising in horror about both the past and the future, fixing in an eternal present.

The daughters of Lot had not known any man. Their choice to get their father drunk in order to sleep with them is curious – did they think he would refuse them? Did they think he would be easier to control if he was so stupefied he would remember nothing about what happened?  Is it believable that they would choose the actions described in bible, or is it possible that bible is subtly shifting responsibility, making what can only be described as incestuous rape the fault of the young women involved, rather than the responsibility of Lot himself? We already know that he was ready to hand them over for rape in Sodom, have they internalised their use as sexual objects of no real value otherwise? And is there an ambiguity in the statement that “there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth”? The daughters must surely have seen that Zoar was not destroyed, they must have been able to realise that not everyone had died. Are they saying that they are tainted already simply by their relationship to their father. That no man would want them, coming as they do from a city so wicked and a family so weak? Given that they would be unmarriageable in their society, might they at least preserve some kind of descendant who might even remedy their faultlines in some way? Why the use of the word ‘seed’ rather than children? Is this an early intimation of the messianic line which will eventually derive from Ruth the Moabite woman?

The problem with Lot – damaged from childhood, whose name implies that he is tightly wrapped up and thus insensible to the realities of the outside world, who argues over money with his patron and uncle Abraham, who chooses to live among wicked people and be honoured in their society, who does not value his wife or children – the problem with Lot is he is, from the point of view of the bible, family. Somehow the narrative shifts the blame from him again and again, because of the merit of Abraham. He is the progenitor of two of the tribes most hostile to the Israelites, the incest resonant in their names – Moav (from my father) ben Ammi (son of my people). He has distorted the narrative horribly. But bible and midrash choose instead to focus on the faults of his wife who, all unknowing, looks backwards (and midrash ascribes a whole series of unpleasant attributes to her in order to explain her punishment), and to ascribe to his young daughters the rapists charge that they were complicit, that they wanted it, that the drink removes all culpability. It is almost as though the text continues to abuse the daughters, to blame them, to disappear them into only being the objects of sexual exploitation.

There is no more mention of Lot after this episode. He disappears into history drunk, insensible, incestuous, irrelevant. There is no more mention of his daughters – they have served their purpose and they were always irrelevant from the point of view of the narrative.

The individuals have gone, but the systemic abuse goes on. Weak men who crave status and who use their families to win what they want. Superficial signs of wealth with no respect underlying it. Blaming the victims rather than challenging the abusers. Narratives that shift blame, horror hiding in plain sight, the emergence of different groups determined to assert themselves against others.

Lot is the ultimate cautionary tale – of what we could become if we don’t pay attention, if we don’t try to follow the path of Abraham, if we don’t challenge what we see is wrong. And if we allow Lot to sit in the gates, to achieve status in our society, then we risk being his victims, just as surely as his wife and daughters were.

Behukkotai:rebukes that remind us we must work together

Sidra Behukotai ends the book of Leviticus, and while frequently read in conjunction with sidra Behar, it differs from it substantially in the tone of the narrative. It opens by describing the blessings and rewards that the Israelites will receive if they uphold the covenant with God and follow the mitzvot that are the conditions of that covenant, and ends  with a brief series of teachings about tithing, the sanctification of voluntary gifts to the Temple, and about vows. But the centre of this short sidra is the passage known as the rebukes – tochecha – when Torah lists the tragedies that will befall us should we abandon God’s covenant and our obligation to do mitzvot.

One particular verse stands out for me as being emblematic of the tochecha: In Leviticus 26:23-24 we read:

“Ve’im b’eileh lo tivasru li, v’halachtem imi keri, v’halachti af ani imachem b’keri,v’hikeiti etchem gam ani sheva al chatoteichem.” (And if after these [punishments] you are not disciplined/corrected but [instead] will walk ‘keri’ with me, then I will walk, even I, with you in ‘keri’, and I will smite you, yes me, seven times for your sins”)

This word, which is found right at the heart of this narrative of rebuke, appears nowhere else in Torah in this grammatical form, yet in this text we find it repeated seven times within twenty sentences (vv 21,23,24,27,28,40,41) forcing us to notice and explore it. Our behaviour clearly b’keri has terrible consequences. And yet it is not clear what the writer means by it.

Many classical commentators follow Rashi and Maimonides and understand the root of the word to be k.r.h – meaning something that happens by casual chance or by accident (mikreh), though it may also be translated as being in opposition or contrary, or indeed it may come from the root k.r.r meaning to be cold.  But we also know that when used in bible, the apparent casual chance of the text is not ever quite what it seems to be on the surface, but instead is a coded phrase used to let us know that something of significance is about to happen.  So it is that Ruth meets Boaz the language of k.r.h is used to alert us to the significance of her choosing his field to glean in.   There is something curious about a phrase used to describe a chance that is not exactly chance, a casual encounter of enormous significance, but that is how the word keri is used, and to find it so definitely  emphasised in the text of the tochecha means we need to look closely at just what God means when God says “If you walk ‘keri’ with me, then most definitely I will walk ‘keri’ with you.

The three most common teachings about this are: the classical idea expressed by Rashi and Maimonides that there is a lack of interest or intention in walking God’s way – a sort of going through the motions without really caring or understanding or being principled in doing God’s will; The extension of this mechanistic approach of indifference which is developed by R.Samson Raphael Hirsch of modern orthodoxy, and which overlays on the classical understanding the idea that when we do God’s will b’keri it is essentially not simply a casual coincidence but a phenomenon that happens when our will and God’s will coincide so that while it feels we are doing God’s will with intention, in reality we are following our own self-interest and priding ourselves on acting with more righteousness than should be claimed; and thirdly the position of the founder of the ethical mussar movement R.Israel Salanter who layers in the idea of coldness to the behaviour to suggest that when we walk with God b’keri it is that we follow God’s commandments not only mechanistically but also without any warmth or passion for it – there is no possibility of our doing the mitzvot changing us or developing our relationship with the creator.

I like this idea that if we follow God’s commandments to the letter, but without any passion – without committing ourselves and our hopes and fears – that this is viewed by God as b’keri: casual indifferent and cold religion. It bespeaks irrelevance – the acting out of what is required but in no way coming from the commitment of the self.  It is act but not attitude. How do we bring God closer into the world if we do not ourselves make the effort to make the world a better place? How do we bring ourselves closer to God if we pay attention more to how things look than how things are?

The warning in the tochecha, of all the things that will go wrong if we act b’keri – is so powerful an imperative that we are told that not only will God mirror our indifference, God will go further and punish us seven fold – the designation of maximalist or absolute punishment, the other end of the spectrum from casual/chance/indifferent.  If anything is designed to catch our attention, it must be the severity of this response.

And after it all, the horror story painted so dramatically of famine and war and terror and starvation and expulsion and yearning and pain – there comes this: “Then will I 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….And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them; for I am the Eternal their God. But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the Eternal.”

God promises to remember – to actively recall the relationship of Covenant between God and the Jewish people which will never be broken no matter how badly behaved we might be. And God compounds this by naming the Avot, the three founding patriarchs of the Jewish people, and unusually lists them in reverse order, the only time this is found in bible.

This bringing in of the patriarchs leads to the concept of zechut avot, the merit of our ancestors, which we can call upon to weight our case before the heavenly court. The midrash (Vayikra Rabbah) explicates this, asking  “Why are the Avot listed backwards? To say: If the acts of Jacob are not worthy, then the acts of Isaac are worthy, and if the acts of Isaac are not worthy, then the acts of Abraham are worthy. The acts of each one is sufficiently worthy that the world can be saved for his sake.”

Rashi mitigates this a little, saying Why are they listed backwards? As if to say: Jacob, the youngest, is worthy of that; and if he is not worthy, behold, Isaac is with him, and if he is not worthy, behold, Abraham is with him and he is worthy.”

It is, I think, a little dig or reminder to the Jews of modernity – the greatest zechut/merit is that of Abraham, and as time goes on the merit is by its nature in decline. So we need to add the merit of our ancestors rather than assume any one is sufficient by itself. We, so much further away from biblical times are expected to have less merit than the founding patriarchs – so how much more do we need each other to fulfil our task. If we just do our tasks with indifference, or follow God’s will where it coincides with our self-interest, or do not attempt our holy task with all the passion and awareness we could bring to it, then we will fail. And to do our holy task well enough we must do it together, in community, with shared and common interest. We need not only the combined merit of our ancestors in tough times, we need the combined merit of our fellow human beings. Only in this way, by working together to make the world a better and holier place, by rebuking each other where necessary, by paying attention to what we do and its effect on others – only in this way will we create the blessing we yearn for.

What we can learn from Balak : acceptance of the other is the best strategy for survival

Twice in Torah, we are privy to the thoughts of a powerful leader about the children of Israel. The first time, at the beginning of the book of Exodus, we see the rise of the melech hadash – the new king who did not know Joseph, and his view that “Hinei Am b’nei Yisrael rav v’atzum mimenu”, “Behold the people who are the children of Israel are more and mightier than we” (Exod. 1:9).  From this fearful perception came the enslavement of the Israelites, and eventually their liberation from Egypt to journey towards the Promised Land. And now here, Balak, the king of Moab, having seen what the journeying Israelites had done to the Amorites, and distressed at the power and size of the Israelites, calls to Balaam: “V’attah l’cha na ara li et ha’am hazeh, ki atzum hu mimeni”, “And now come pray, and curse for me this people, for it is too great for me” (Num. 22:6).

There are many parallels between the narratives in Egypt from enslavement to liberation and the narratives of Balaam’s attempted cursing for Balak, but it is the phrase describing the mightiness of the people Israel that draws attention.  For when the Pharaoh describes this group of descendants of Jacob as “Am”, “a people”, he ascribes to them for the first time coherence beyond family connectedness. He has changed them from a genealogical group into peoplehood. The category shift is vast. Whatever we may know about Abraham and Sarah making Jewish souls and converting the people they met into their way of being, here for the first time is textual evidence that Bnei Yisrael is more than a family or genetic inheritance; it is peoplehood, a community brought together by something other than ancestry. Posited against the Egyptian peoplehood (rav v’atzum mimenu, “more and mightier than we are”), they are perceived to be a threat to the Egyptian way of being and must, in the eyes of Pharaoh and his court, be constrained.

But for Balak, something different is happening, albeit in almost the same words. V’attah l’cha na ara li et ha’am hazeh, ki atzum hu mimeni, “And now come pray, and curse for me this people, for it is too great for me.” (Num. 22:6). This is personal, something to do with Balak king of Moab himself, and so we must look into his own history and his future to determine what it could be.

Balak is a Moabite, a member of a people said to be born from the drunken coupling of Lot and his older daughter in a cave after the destruction of Sodom, when they thought they were the only survivors of a destroyed world. Her son, Moab (the name meaning literally “from my father”) is the progenitor of this people, though we do not have any direct chain of genealogy back to Lot (Gen. 19:37). So Balak is of the family of Abraham through Lot, someone who represents “what might have been” had different choices been made. Unlike Pharaoh he has a connection with the children of Israel, albeit a tenuous one, and a connection to the covenant that Abraham made with God.

The Hebrew phrase “atzum hu mimeni”, besides being cast in the singular and personal frame, can also be translated as: “This people is mighty from me.”

Balak may have been asserting that had Lot not chosen to separate from Abraham and go to Sodom, the line of transmission would have been different, with Lot’s descendants claiming the covenant. But there is another way of viewing this phrase, one that may speak to us more in the struggles of today’s Jewish world. Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham Halevi Horowitz (1565-1630) chose to understand this verse as referring not to what might have been in the past, but to what would certainly be in the future: that the anointed kingly and messianic line of David would descend from Balak.

Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David was herself a Moabite woman, descended from Eglon [the grandson of Balak], king of Moab (Nazir 23b).

And their direct connection is made plain at the end of her eponymous book. From King Balak would ultimately come King David – No wonder Balak felt that the strength of Israel was coming from himself! He was inadvertently contributing to the continuation and wellbeing of the people Israel.

In an added twist we have the story told as a moral tale twice in Talmud: “Rav Judah, citing Rav, said: A man should always occupy himself with the Torah and [its] precepts, even though it be for some ulterior motive, for the result will be that he will eventually do them without ulterior motive. For as reward for the forty-two sacrifices which the wicked Balak offered, he was privileged to be the progenitor of Ruth, for R. Jose son of R. Hanina has said that Ruth was descended from Eglon [the grandson of Balak], king of Moab (Nazir 23b and Horayot 10b).”

What Balak is recognising, albeit in his case with horror, is that the merging and mingling of other people into Judaism is of enormous benefit to the people of Israel. Like Pharaoh, he sees not a bloodline, but a covenant line, an “Am” a people whom one can join and in joining can benefit.

His horror is because he is an enemy of the Israelites. One can only wonder what the dismay of modern naysayers of conversion into Judaism can be based upon.

The recent trend in some parts of the Dati Jewish world towards the annulment of some conversions for perceived breaches of behaviour, and the disbelief of the sincerity of Jews by choice is the curse that Balak asked for Balaam to give come into fruition in our own time.  When Balak asks Balaam “V’attah l’cha na ara li”, we can read him as saying “come now and curse me,” understanding that in his spite he is asking to be cursed himself, rather than allow his descendants to enter into and to strengthen the Jewish people. Today we seem to have those willing to place a curse on the Jewish people rather than accept the benefit and goodwill of those who have chosen to join us.  They would rather rip apart the Jewish world in their quest to follow their own desire single-mindedly for some notional (and decidedly not traditional) purity, rather than work to include and welcome those who wish to join us. One might ask, “Where is the donkey of Balaam now when we need a clear sighted and generous spirit?”

Conversion procedure and law in Judaism is based on the texts surrounding Ruth, a Moabite woman, descendant of Balak, who would rather not have mixed his bloodline with ours. And about Ruth and her conversion there is nothing but praise: Rabbi Abahu said, “Come and see how precious are proselytes to the Holy One, blessed be He. Once she [Ruth] had set her heart on converting, Scripture placed her in the same rank as Naomi, as it is said: “And they both walked till they came to Bethlehem” (Ruth 1:19) (Yalkut Shimoni, Ruth, Chapter 1, 601).  There was no need for her to prove by her subsequent life choices that her conversion continued to be valid. The famous phrase “Al tifg’ivi l’ozveych lashuv may’acharayich”, “Do not entreat me to leave you, or to return from following after you, for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge, your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16),  can be translated somewhat differently. The verb peh, gimmel, ayin means “to meet, encounter, reach” and can mean both to encounter with kindness or with hostility, to encounter with a request as in “entreat” or more frequently  “to fall upon and kill”  (1 Sam. 22:17-18 ; Judges 8:21. etc.)

So what if Ruth was saying, “Do not destroy me by making me leave you or not allowing me to be with you”? The verse would then have a whole extra dimension. Instead of asking Ruth to go away (the traditional three time refusal of a person wishing to convert that is derived selectively from these verses) and putting the onus on the convert to be brave enough to return to ask once more, and yet again, the problem becomes ours: we would bear responsibility for the sin of destroying another person by our cold shouldering of the prospective convert.

In Talmud Yevamot 24b we find the following :

MISHNAH. “If a man is suspected of [intercourse] with a slave who was later emancipated, or with a heathen who subsequently became a proselyte, lo, he must not marry her. If, however, he did marry her they need not be parted. If a man is suspected of intercourse with a married woman who, [in consequence,] was taken away from her husband, he must let her go even though he had married her.” GEMARA. “This implies that she may become a proper proselyte. But against this a contradiction is raised. Both a man who became a proselyte for the sake of a woman and a woman who became a proselyte for the sake of a man, and, similarly, a man who became a proselyte for the sake of a royal board, or for the sake of joining Solomon’s servants, are no proper proselytes. These are the words of R. Nehemiah, for R. Nehemiah used to say: Neither lion-proselytes, nor dream-proselytes nor the proselytes of Mordecai and Esther are proper proselytes unless they become converted at the present time (ie when there was no benefit to becoming a proselyte). How can it be said, ‘at the present time’?-Say ‘as at the present time’! -Surely concerning this it was stated that R. Isaac b. Samuel b. Martha said in the name of Rav: The Halachah is in accordance with the opinion of him who maintained that they were all proper proselytes. If so, this should have been permitted altogether! – On account of [the reason given by] R. Assi. For R. Assi said, ‘Put away from you a disobedient mouth, and perverse lips, etc.’”

In other words, there were always those who found a reason not to accept proselytes. There were those who worried that behind someone’s wish to join the Jewish world there would be some material benefit they could claim, so their request could not be said to be pure or acceptable. But the Halachah does not go that way, even if the discussion has to proceed in order to make clear that the point of view is recorded in order to be invalidated. And later commentary on the Mishnah records an overwhelming majority of halachists who agree with the opinion of Maimonides that conversion in order to marry a Jew (which may not be of noticeable benefit) also does not invalidate a conversion.

So back to Balak. Why was he so afraid that the Children of Israel would become stronger through him? Why would he rather have been cursed himself with no descendants than accept the existence and energy of the Israelites. Well we have no idea, just as we can have no sensible idea for the balagan that is conversion in Israel at the moment. Any logical analysis is both too depressing and too frightening to contemplate. Can we have removed ourselves so far from the golden rules – to be a holy people as God is holy, to care for others as we care for ourselves, to concern ourselves with the strangers and the vulnerable and the defenceless – that we have removed ourselves from the divine force that nourishes and sustains us? Only time will tell.

Balak himself failed in his curse, and his hatred and enmity was turned into acceptance of the other and the messianic promise. May the curse that stalks our people now go the same way so that once again we will be able to say, and to mean, Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael, “How good are your tents O Jacob, and your dwelling places O Israel”

 (a version of a draft first written for Leo Baeck College Parashat HaShavuah 2008