Shemini: The Case of the Disappearing Priestess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vayikra: when a Jew tries to come closer to God

Beginning the book of Leviticus we enter into a world which so far has been peripheral to the thrust of the narrative since Adam and Eve left the sheltered privacy of Eden and entered the real world. Even the long and cumbersome details of the building of the Mishkan,, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, which took up some sixteen chapters at the end of the book of Exodus hasn’t really prepared us for the focused detail of the sacrificial system, the almost obsessive choreography involving altars, animals, incense and blood

The book of Leviticus brings a whole new approach to religion. People and their actions are categorised and prescriptions given to make restitution for having broken God’s commands. For particular kinds of sin you would bring particular kinds of animal. You might bring an animal from your herd, and would lay your hand of the head of the offering, which would then be slaughtered, cut into sections, laid on the altar and burned. Five different sacrifices are detailed at the very beginning the book of Leviticus, each one with its own set of regulations.

We look today at the book, described in rabbinic literature as ‘torat cohanim’ the priests legal and practical manual, and it makes very little sense to us. Animals brought to the sanctuary, identified as being expiation for our wrongful behaviour, and killed. Some parts splashed, some parts burned, some parts made into a thick smoke and some parts even sometimes eaten. A fixed ritual for a category of behaviour. It seems miles away from our current spirituality which trends to be personal, private, sedentary, tailored to our particular experience – modern.

We experience the text as atavistic, regressive, somehow uncivilized, or else maybe we see it as a way for people who didn’t know better to try to relate to their God. We have moved on to using prayer, to building relationship on our own terms, to introspection. We no longer need to make a public sacrifice, to act out any external ritual, to follow the rote and regulation of offerings for knowing sins and unwitting misdeeds, for individual breaking of vows or the collective responsibility of communal wrongdoing.

So we read through the book of Leviticus with our minds neatly closed against the horror, the smells, the hierarchy, the blood – and the meaning behind them all.

The sacrificial cult is, it is fair to say, anachronistic. It is not of our time. But that does not mean that it has no lessons for us, or that we can’t draw out real spirituality from exploring the things our ancestors did, and were so anxious to make sure that we could know how to do so too.

Firstly for these Jews, what they were doing was ‘korban’ a word meaning to draw near to something, to come closer. The building of the tabernacle had been effected by freely given offerings, by taking the best of what they had to put to the service of God, but the whole purpose of the building and of the system which it was designed to service was not simply giving up wealth, of sacrificing something of value, but it was korban – drawing nearer to God. In terms of the purpose of worship, over all this time the foundational idea simply hasn’t changed – we still want to experience closeness with the divinity.

When people offered up an animal in the specific rituals laid down in Leviticus, one of the things they were doing was showing how they were not defined by what they owned – before approaching God they would let go of the materialism that distorts and distracts all human beings from can and Abel onwards. It is a problem we wrestle with to this day – coming from the outside world with all the pressures and problems, we walk into the synagogue still defined by the things which seem to own us, our problems and situations, as well as clinging as if for dear life to all the external validators and bolsterers of our identity. It’s hard to let go of the world and our preoccupation with it, to relax into the state of being a Jew at prayer, offering the service of the heart with full attention and intention. Without some sort of structure it is more than hard – it is practically impossible.

So still today we create a structure for our own korbanot, our own drawing closer to God. Maybe it isn’t so clearly recognisable a construction as the rituals described in the book of Leviticus, but it is a construction nevertheless.  Be it the habit of daily prayer, or simply the formal system at work in the siddur, we still today go on our spiritual journey clutching a map and a set of implicit directions which, if written out, would probably rival the words of Leviticus in their attention to detail and in their unfamiliarity.

The service prescribed in the siddur is built to take us somewhere. We follow it carefully, even if it sometimes happens that we know longer have a deep familiarity with the signposts. It has taken on some of the elements of magic that must also have been perceived by those who followed the ritual of the tent of meeting – which bits are important, which bits left over from another meaning are no longer distinguishable to us.  One of the most significant changes of the reform movement 200 years ago was to take out of the siddur whole swathes of repetitious texts, as well as texts devoted to the sacrificial cult, the Temple and the messiah. We edited the siddur and tried to bring it back to its core purpose – a means of bringing us closer to God. We kept in the concept of Avodah, of work and worship, we kept in the idea of korban, of approaching God, we kept in too the distancing of the material world, the shrugging off of the layers of worry and doubt and of making a living and striving to have ownership of things. We created, and continue to create, a siddur to be proud of, a siddur which can really lift us in prayer, elevating the holy in our thoughts. But there is something which continues to nag at me and which I miss – though we took out a lot of things that needed to be excised, the accretions of a long and complicated history of trying to come closer to the mysterious divine, we also took out the idea of being active in this search, of action that is so much an intrinsic part of the sacrificial system.

We honed a beautiful liturgy and created a more coherent theology while doing so, but we have left it innocent of much ritual, and ritual, bizarre as it seems to the outsider, is part of worship too. Now I’m not advocating a regression to the sacrificial system, nor that we suddenly take up what is sometimes known as prayerobics, the shochelling of yeshiva bechurim while they chant their texts, but I do feel that a bit of action and taking part, together with a bit of unpredictability which must also have been a component of the sacrificial system, would be in order in our oh-so-orderly prayers. With all the senses awash with sensation, the sacrificial system would have overwhelmed the person who came to pray, brought them into a spiritually different place. Our more hygienic services can also be experienced as bland, neutral, less than spiritually satisfying, making it hard to let go and really sense the presence of God as we pray the beautiful words of our prayers. For all its directions and instructions for an ancient – and to our eyes cruel – practise, I sometimes wonder which generation really understood what is important to do when a Jews tries to reach God.

Parashat Tzav

What can we do when we feel anxious about what is happening around us, when we have no clear sense of why or how things may have come to this point, and we are faced with the limits of our own power to understand, or feel ourselves to be only partially in control of our existence?

This isn’t a novel or even an especially contemporary anxiety. The subjects of the bible narrative knew it well.

All religions dedicate themselves to working with the unknowable in some way, try to find ways – rituals and words – which will help their adherents to at least survive the vicissitudes of a potentially hostile universe, and at best to learn and grow and be able to operate with a degree of confidence as they go through life.  The great innovation of Judaism was the unification of the deity, the belief that the universe was neither random nor hostile, and that it and we were not at the mercy of some conflicting or haphazard forces, but that there is One God who cares for us, who listens to our fears and who responds to our frailty. 

With this one insight Judaism transformed the human experience.  We no longer see ourselves as flotsam and jetsam that floats in an uncaring universe, subject to random disruption and indiscriminate forces; or as the objects of the whims of higher beings, whose pain and whose lived experience make no difference in the scheme of things. Instead we know ourselves as the children of a caring Creator, whose very being we reflect as we live our lives. God may not necessarily give us what we want or even protect us from suffering, but God does give us a context in which we can live lives of value, tries to teach us and to nurture us, and is with us in the pain and in the happiness.  Because of the One God, we have meaning. And how we live our lives has significance.  And we matter.

The book of Leviticus is also known as Sefer Cohanim – the book of the priests. It is the manual, so to speak, of the group whose job it was to provide a link between the One God, unknowable and impenetrable, and the people who strive to be more godly, who follow the imperative to be holy without being quite sure what that might mean.

It is a book that we can find quite troubling, or at the very least barely relevant, as the description of the system of animal sacrifice carried out by an hereditary priesthood with arcane ritual and shadowy setting.  We can respond to it in a number of ways – as being of only historical interest, as describing a stage in a process in which we are much further down the religious line, as holding deep secrets of ethical and spiritual significance which we must study and meditate upon in order to glimpse the esoteric meaning beneath.

But however we choose to view the sacrificial system, the burning fat and incense, the sweet savour rising up into the heavens, the sprinkling of blood upon the altar – what we must accept is that this ritual, like many rituals, was designed to create something different in the world – it was a way of being able to take on the randomness of lived experience and create something far from arbitrary.  It was a recipe for creating a conscious and purposeful existence, for dealing with the existential angst of the human condition. It gives us a role and a world view in which we are not simply unknowing and impotent pawns in a bigger game – usually warfare – between two or more powerful figures, but people who matter, who are able to impact upon their environment, who by doing specific things are potentially able to change outcomes, who begin to bring forth our own realities.

            Maimonides, in the Mishneh Torah – a guide for every-Jew on Judaism, talked about some of the laws – the chukkim- as being unknowable.  He follows one strand of rabbinic tradition which tells us that some mitzvot exist whose reason is not known and for which no rational purpose can be constructed. We simply do them because God told us to. They might hold no meaning for us except that of submission to the will of God, even when – especially when – we don’t see any validation or underlying principle. 

But in the Guide for the Perplexed, a philosophical work that was not written for the ordinary Jew, he has a slightly different take on the subject.  Instead he sees such mitzvot as having an educational purpose quite different from one of blind obedience. The chukkim in this work are, so to speak, the gateways to the ethical and spiritual dimension – if we begin to understand them in their context then we will derive from them great lessons of principle and deep moral values.  Taking the sacrifices enumerated in the book of Leviticus, Maimonides uses the principle that it is impossible to ask people to take on too much at once, unfeasible to expect religious – or any – change to go from one extreme to the other. And so he explains that the ritual sacrifice of animals and of other produce was a tradition the people saw all around them, a deeply powerful ritual that, although pagan and idolatrous in origin, was able to connect the people to their spirituality. So Torah did not abolish the sacrificial system, it harnessed it for Divine Service, and it began to neuter it.  It did this, says Maimonides, by legislating a number of boundaries and limitations around the practise.  They could only be brought in one place, for example, only by the hereditary priests, only in ways that were specified in detail. The laws of purity also limited access to the Temple, and so limited people’s ability to participate in the sacrifice of animals.   This becomes yet more powerful when we realise that sacrifice is the only form of worship that Torah limits for us, and when we read the prophets who remind us continually that God does not want our sacrifices but our prayers and our good deeds. 

            If one reads Leviticus – and the notion of laws that seem to have no real purpose or use – in the way the Rambam reads them in the Guide, a number of ideas begin to emerge for us. 

One is that God is understood to be not only the Creator who provides for us a structure and a meaning that did not exist in the human world before, but that God is able to be compassionate towards us even when we are attached to behaviours that are not the most helpful. God will help us change in stages, as we are ready to take on the next step and not before.

Another idea to emerge is that God listens to us – even bends God’s will to what we are able to do and to give.  If God truly didn’t want sacrifices yet allowed us to practise them – albeit in a limited way – then we have some ability to change how God is towards us, or at least one might say that God is willing to adapt to and to accommodate our needs.

These are radical perceptions, and I find them helpful. They tell us that there is space, theologically defined and protected space, to feel insecurity and doubt. There is opportunity to try out ways of being until we find one that provides what we need to be able to say. We don’t have to be certain, we don’t have to know, we don’t have to face a hostile universe that doesn’t care about our state of mind, or about the very fact of our lives.  We can take our time to think, to cling to what we know, to explore innovative perceptions, to challenge and to be confronted in our long held perceptions.