Lech Lecha – the story of a famine which displaces vulnerable people needs to be heard

When Abram and Sarai, his nephew Lot and the souls they had made in Haran travelled on God’s instruction to the Land of Canaan, they arrived and stopped at Shechem, where Abram built an altar and where God promised that land to his descendants. Abram journeyed on, via the mountain near Beit El, where he built another altar, and continued southwards travelling the length of the land of Israel until they exited the Land on its southern border with Egypt.

It reads rather as an anti-climax to that famous imperative in the first recorded encounter between God and Abram:

 וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ:

God said to Abram “Go for yourself from your land and your birthplace, and from the house of our father, to the land which I will show you”

No introduction, no explanation, no conversation – just a command to go elsewhere, the trust that the journey will have an end is implicit, God will show Abram the place when he gets there.

But it isn’t exactly what happens. Because there is famine in the land – very heavy famine.  Abram and Sarai will die if they stay there, so, prefiguring the Joseph narratives, they travel into Egypt for refuge.

Famine appears with grim frequency in bible. Each of the patriarchs will suffer serious famine – Abram goes to Egypt, Isaac goes to the Philistine King in Gerar rather than go to Egypt(Gen 26:1). Jacob and his sons go down into Egypt to buy food when the famine takes hold. The book of Ruth describes the famine that led Ruth and Elimelech to flee to Moab (Ruth 1:1). In David’s time there was a famine lasting three years (2Sam 21:1). The story of Elijah records the famine in the land (1Kings 17:1) and in Elisha fed the famine starved people of Gilgal (2Kings 4:38). Famines are also recorded in Jerusalem in the time of Tzedekiah (2Kings 25:3) (see also Jeremiah’s painful description of the drought 14:1-6) and in Canaan in the time of Nehemiah (Neh. 5:3)

The Land of Israel was dependent on the rainfall for its crops and trees, so drought and therefore famine were always to be feared. There was also fear of pests or diseases that would destroy the crops (Joel 1:4ff)and which we see most dramatically in the plague in Egypt just before the Hebrew slaves were able to leave.

War and sieges would also bring famines – again described in biblical texts with painful clarity. Famine, along with Pestilence and the sword (war) (Dever v’Herev v’Ra’av) appears regularly in a triumvirate in the Hebrew bible (cf. Jer. 14:12; 21:7, 9; 24:10; Ezek. 6:11,) and has entered the liturgy in both Avinu Malkeinu and in the Hashkiveinu prayer  (second blessing following shema)

הָסֵר מֵעָלֵינוּ אוֹיֵב דֶבֶר וְחֶרֶב וְרָעָב וְיָגוֹן

 

Talmud also discusses the problems of famine. We read in Ta’anit 5a “Rav Nachman said to Rabbi Yitzḥak: What is the meaning of that which is written: “For the Eternal has called upon a famine and it shall also come upon the land seven years” (II Kings 8:1)? Specifically, in those seven years, what did they eat?

Rabbi Yitzḥak said to Rabbi Nachman that Rabbi Yoḥanan said as follows: In the first year they ate that which was in their houses; in the second year they ate that which was in their fields; in the third year they ate the meat of their remaining kosher animals; in the fourth year they ate the meat of their remaining non-kosher animals; in the fifth year they ate the meat of repugnant creatures and creeping animals, i.e., any insects they found; in the sixth year they ate the flesh of their sons and their daughters; and in the seventh year they ate the flesh of their own arms, to fulfil that which is stated: “Each man shall eat the flesh of his own arm” (Isaiah 9:19).”

The starvation and breakdown of social norms that famine brought can be seen across the literature.  In the Talmud we read the pitiful story of one of the wealthiest women in Jerusalem, Marta bat Baitos who could not buy food with all her silver and gold, and who died after picking out the grain from the animal dung she stepped on (Gittin 56a;  Josephus mentions the eating of children in Jerusalem during the Roman War (Wars 6:201–13). There are at least three historical references to famine caused by the observance of the Sabbatical year, one during the siege of Jerusalem by the forces of Antiochus IV (Ant. 12:378), one in the war of Herod against Antigonus (Ant. 14:476) and one during Herod’s reign (Ant. 15:7).

Drought, with the rains withheld, has generally been theologised into punishment for transgressions, a tool wielded by God when we do not follow the rules that acknowledge God’s ownership of the land by bringing tithes both to thank God and to feed those who cannot grow food for themselves,  and when we fail in our our obligations to the Land to treat it well and allow it to rest.

Rabbinic responsa are also very sensitive to drought and famine, with a growing list of actions to pray for rain with special prayers added into the liturgy, fasting etc. So seriously did the rabbis take the realities of famine that they permitted emigration from the land of Israel in the case of famine, albeit only when survival would become extremely difficult(BB 91b; Gen. R. 25).

Rabba bar bar Ḥana says that Rabbi Yoḥanan says: They taught that it is prohibited to leave Eretz Yisrael only if money is cheap, i.e., not excessively difficult to obtain, and produce is expensive, similar to the case in the baraita where two se’a of wheat are sold for a sela. But when money is expensive, i.e., it is difficult to earn money for sustenance, even if the price of four se’a of grain stood at a sela, one may leave Eretz Yisrael in order to survive.(BB91b)

Basing themselves on Genesis 41:50 the rabbis (Ta’anit 11a) also forbade procreation during the years of famine.

Our tradition knows about the difficulties of living and thriving in a world where the rains may not come, where crops may fail and people may starve. It understood that while famine may come as a result of war, it is more likely to be because we, the human stewards of the world, do not treat the world as it must be treated, and the consequences of this lack of care will come to haunt us.

Abram and Sarai left their home to reach the land God had promised, but having reached it they immediately became environment migrants. The land would not let them stay and thrive, they had to put themselves at greater risk and depend on a foreign power to survive.   This part of their story is not often emphasised – the great journey to the promised land is a far more palatable thread to take from this sidra, but the short verses that tell of the famine that would have killed them should they have stayed are maybe more instructive in these times of climate change happening across the globe as a direct result of human carelessness and greed.

Lech Lecha is the call to activism – Get up and go, make something happen! We Jews are called as our ur-ancestors were called. We should pay heed to the increasingly serious warnings our planet is giving us, and return to the work of stewarding, protecting and  supporting a healthy and diverse world.

 

 

20th Elul – the great shofar sounds…

20 Ellul

Even though the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Biblical decree, it hints at something, i.e., “Wake up, sleepers, from your sleep! And slumberers, arise from your slumber! Search your ways and return in teshuvah and remember your Creator! Those who forget the Truth amidst the futility of the moment and are infatuated all their years with vanity and nothingness that will not help and will not save, examine your souls and improve your ways and your motivations! Let each of you abandon your wicked ways, and your thoughts which are no good.” (Maimonides Mishneh Torah, Hilchot teshuvah 3:4)

The shofar is a peculiarly powerful instrument. Its call pierces the air – we cannot ignore its sound.  It has been used to summon people for battle, as a warning, as a blast to terrify the enemy. It was heard at Sinai – though it is not clear who was blowing it. The ram caught in a thicket at the binding of Isaac was caught by its horn, from which comes the rabbinic idea that God instructed Abraham that his descendants should blow the shofar whenever they were in danger of divine punishment – the merits of the protagonists in the Akedah would be brought in front of God who would therefore forgive us.  Bible tells us to blow it to announce the New Moon of Tishri, and from that comes the idea that every new month is publicised in this way.

The sound of the shofar is also close to the sounds of wailing and of more gentle but insistent crying.  The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) discussing the sounds has one tanna saying the Teruah means a wailing sound, the Sh’varim denotes moaning or broken sighs.  The Tekiah, the straight blast of sound, is both introductory and closing sound, to contain and to announce the sorrowful nature of the other calls.

The shofar does much of our work for us. It is designed to wake us up, but also to give voice to our fears and anxieties, and then to strengthen us in our battle to become our best selves.  There is a debate in the Talmud about whether the shofar should be bent or straight, and the implication is that the shofar represents the person who is approaching God – should we approach with our backs straight and, so to speak, look God in the eye while asking for forgiveness, or should we be bent with the weight of our sorrow at the sin we are carrying, and looking down to the ground?

There is no answer given – all shofarot whether straight or curved are permissible. Each of us, however we feel about ourselves, can come before God and under that divine gaze, be open about what and who we currently are.

 

 

5th Elul – fragmenting ourselves or unifying ourselves?

5th Elul

“On Judgment Day God will not ask you to which sect you belonged, but what manner of life you led” (Chafetz Chaim)

We Jews have a habit of fracturing into different groups, and cordially disliking or despising those not in our particular corner of the Jewish world.  The famous joke of a desert island with one Jewish inhabitant having two synagogues – one he would go to and the other he would never go to, has a kernel of truth at its heart. I’ve lost count of the people who tell me that Reform Judaism is not authentic, or that the stricter one is, the more Jewish one is. The lurch towards increasing humras (strictnesses) in behaviour, of being more pious than anyone else has happened in my lifetime, possibly because the confidence of doing things like our parents did them has taken a knock, as the generation of survivors who were dislocated from their destroyed communities began to look instead to texts and guidelines rather than trust their custom and family habits.

I belong to many on-line groups where the questions are put – is it allowed? Is it kosher? Is it forbidden? Instead of living a life of continuation, many Jews are now living a life of uncertainty, of the need for being told how to do their Judaism – with the information usually coming from books and compilations of judgments, rather than from lived generational experience which may not always match with the letter of the “law” but which was how Jews did it for centuries.

The problem with this need for certainty, is that it leads to a univocal Judaism that will not tolerate difference in practise. It leads not only to “orthodoxy” but to “modern orthodoxy” and “ultra-orthodoxy” and “Haredi orthodoxy” and even the group lev tahor (google them and weep) or neturei karta – and heaven knows what else.

Judaism is not univocal and it never was. There are local customs and traditions that suit the community that has them, and that should not be given up for the sake of recognition by other Jews. Yet they are often under pressure to do just that.

The Talmud tells us “Jews were not exiled until they separated into sects” (Johanan bar Nappaha in TJ Sanhedrin 10:5). That “the command in Deuteronomy 14:1 (You shall not cut yourselves) means, according to Shimon b Lakish that “You shall not cut yourselves into separate sects” (TB Yevamot 13b)

Yet still we do it. The Hasidic world follows many different dynasties which often do not have good relationships between them. The progressive world is divided into different movements which have developed n the last few hundred years. Time was a Jew was a Jew was a Jew. We trusted them to follow their Judaism without fear or favour, criticism or taunt. There were plenty of other problems without having to have the internal squabbles, or at least without spending so much time and energy on them

During the Yamim Noraim and our preparation for these days, when we will all stand before God as one people, and all differences of nuance and practise fall away, let’s try to savour the feeling that we are Am Yisrael, and hold onto it when these days are done. And so go into the New  Year giving each other respect for our differences, and support in our Jewish living – however it may be expressed.

 

3rd Elul: birthday of Menachem Meiri

3rd Elul birth of Menachem ben Solomon Meiri or Ha’Meiri (1249–1306)

The Meiri was a Catalan rabbi, Talmudist and Maimonidean, regarded as one of the most brilliant commentators of his time. His works, which have often been ignored by much of the halachic process since, show a clear and logical – and scientific – approach to our great foundational texts.  He was a philosopher whose learning kept him open to new approaches – from the Jewish Encyclopaedia we read that “Meiri was too much of a philosopher himself to interdict the study of philosophy. Thus, when solicited by Abba Mari to give his adhesion to the excommunication launched against the secular sciences, Meiri wrote him a letter in which he emphatically defended science, the only concession he made being to forbid the study of secular sciences by any one before he has thoroughly studied the Talmud.”

He is especially famous for his writings on Jewish-Gentile relationships, repeatedly holding that the statements against the other nations in the Talmud and the discriminatory laws against them, were only about the long-disappeared idolatrous nations of that time, and in no way were to be used in his contemporary setting.  He was also a clear early voice in support of women’s reading of the Sefer Torah and the Megillah within the community.

Other comments of his are also worth bringing forward for attention– for example on the fractious dispute that has surfaced in our time: Kol b’isha ervah – the idea that a woman’s voice is sexually provocative and must therefore not be heard – also provide useful early texts to remind those who would silence women en masse in public spaces, that their viewpoint is not miSinai. On the nature of Ervah as it relates sexuality he is clear that this is highly subjective. “That a person knows himself and his inclinations” and that Kol B’isha does not apply when one knows that her voice will not be sexually stimulating. And concerning this the Torah says I am the Eternal your God” — indicating that each person must draw an honest and individual boundary”

He rules that even a minor may read from the Torah scroll for the community. He believes that one’s obligation to read the Torah publicly is not one that falls under the halachic concept that a person of lesser obligation cannot perform a commandment on behalf of a person with a greater obligation, for that is holds only for individual obligations and not communal ones. Hence, women too can read from the Sefer Torah.

There are downsides to his writing. In particular I found his comments on who to marry disappointing: Commenting on BT Yevamot 63a where Rav Pappa advises “Be patient and marry a woman who is suitable for you. Descend a level to marry a woman of lower social status, and ascend a level to choose a friend”   Rashi glosses: “Do not take an important woman as your wife, lest she find that you are unacceptable to her” But the Meiri goes further in his commentary -“Never seek a wife among those who are greater than you, lest as a result of her higher standing, she rules over you. Surely then she will not obey you regarding household tasks.”

We are all children of our time, and we have all absorbed the generation norms in which we live, to a greater or lesser degree. The Meiri was of his place and time, but had the courage to speak against much of the prevailing fear of “the other” – be they women or gentiles.  And he continued to be open to knowledge from whatever source, defending the learning of the sciences and a good and rounded education. We need more such voices today.

2nd Elul – the Shulchan Aruch and why we need to examine the pre-set table and also our own received certainties

2 Elul

The great legal code compiled by the Sephardi Rabbi Joseph Caro, and called the Shulchan Aruch (“The prepared table), was published in Venice in 1555 on the 2nd day of Elul. Along with the commentary by Moses Isserles, which builds on the Sephardi rulings and adds the Ashkenazi traditions – and which he called the Mappah – the table cloth – it is the go-to code of choice for anyone wanting to decide what the ritual and legal requirements might be for their issue, and is core learning for those who wish to have orthodox semicha.

Structured in four main sections following the pattern of the earlier Code of Law the Tur (Arba Turim of Jacob ben Asher) and the Beit Yosef, (Caro’s earlier and much more detailed work commenting on the rulings of the Tur): there is Orach Chaim– the laws of prayer and synagogue custom for daily,, Sabbath, and holiday times;   Yoreh Deah – Laws about kashrut; family purity, relations with non-Jews; vows; Israel; conversion, death and mourning, offerings etc.   Even Ha-Ezer– Laws addressing marriage, procreation and divorce; and Hoshen Mishpat– Laws for courts of justice; loans and claims; agents; finance; acquisition, purchases and gifts; legacies and inheritance; lost and found property; theft, robbery, damages.. The Shulchan Aruch was designed to provide and exhaustive but relatively easy guide for those without deep knowledge of Jewish law. Caro himself saw it as an entry point into halachah rather than embodying the final conclusive rulings of Halacha. In his introduction it is clear that for him the main text is to be the Beit Yosef, with its citations, its legal arguments, its logical threads. The Shulchan Aruch was for young students not yet able to cope with the complexities of drilling into the text to derive legal precedent.

When I was a rabbinic student, I was taught Talmud by a very orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem. When I asked about learning more Rabbinic Codes, he would say “You are training to be a Reform Rabbi. For that you need to learn how the Rabbis who wrote and codified halachah would think, and for that you need to be well versed in Talmud, not just look up the Codes”.  I used to joke that it would be for us to write the mappiot – the napkins.

Indeed my teacher was not alone. Many of Caro’s contemporaries were concerned that this book would end up being the definitive answer for many people, and they would stop their own investigation and curiosity that might provide different ways for Jewish practise to go. And their worries were well founded – an answer may be found in the Shulchan Aruch that gives no indication of why it was decided, on what grounds, and whether it was a matter of substance or of opinion.

There is a strand of Judaism that tends to the conservative, in the sense that once something is written or done, it is no longer open for question. We no longer notice that it is no longer appropriate, or that the context has radically changed. There is a well-known story of the synagogue where, when the Torah scroll was paraded, it was the custom to bow at a particular place. No one knew why this custom was there, many stories were created to explain it – and the answer only came to light when doing renovations it became clear that there had been a low level gas light on the wall, which would have knocked into the Sefer Torah had the scroll not been lowered momentarily in what appeared to some to be the carrier bowing.

We all have our habits that once served us well and that now we don’t even notice, even though they may actually be harmful or prevent us from living our full lives. We all cling to memories or traditions – such as my refusal to eat kitniot on Pesach despite knowing it is a minhag shtus – a stupid custom. It may be a minhag shtus, but it is my mother’s and her mother’s….

The kitniot minhag is not dangerous or life limiting, indeed for me it is part of Pesach despite all rational proof of its irrelevance. But we all hold other ideas, which we have not examined and simply taken on another person’s word.  Whether it be a low self-image derived from childhood experiences, unconscious misogyny or low level racism, a sense of supremacy of our own nation/ religion – whatever, we have all swallowed uncritically and with absolute certainty all kinds of things we should really have critiqued and reflected on and had the courage to work on or even deny.

So as Elul moves on into the Yamim Noraim, now is the time to say to ourselves – what ideas have we absorbed uncritically and then not bothered to examine again? It’s time to read the Beit Yosef alongside the Shulchan Aruch, to go back to the creativity of the Talmud and the extraordinary openness of the Bible. As my teacher said, Reform is nothing if it does not critique from foundational texts the accretion of beliefs and folklore and rulings of the Codes and challenge them.

And we are not doing our job if we are not critiquing the accretion of beliefs and folklore and certainties we hold and on which we unconsciously act.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tu b’Av: an especially joyful festival to be reclaimed

The three weeks that lead from the 17th Tammuz (breaching of the walls of Jerusalem)  to the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av) are traditionally a period of mourning, known as bein hametzarim – in the narrow straits. So it is all the more surprising that just one week after Tisha b’Av comes an especially joyful festival – the full moon of Av brings us Tu b’Av – when we are told:

Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel said: Never were there any more joyous festivals in Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement, for on them the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments – borrowed ones, however, in order not to cause shame to those who had none of their own. These clothes were also to be previously immersed, and thus the maidens went out and danced in the vineyards, saying: Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose; (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8)

The rabbis of the Gemara are perplexed – ““On the 15th of Av and on the Day of Atonement,” etc. It is right that the Day of Atonement should be a day of rejoicing, because that is a day of forgiveness, and on that day the 2nd tablets of the Law were given to Moses; but why should the 15th of Av be a day of rejoicing?”

And so begins a fascinating rabbinic journey into what is behind the celebration of the fifteenth (Tu) of’Av :

Said R. Yehudah in the name of Samuel: “On that day it was permitted to the members of the different tribes to intermarry.” Whence is this deduced? Because it is written [Num 36: 6]: “This is the thing which the Eternal has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad,” they claim that “this is the thing” implies the decree was only for that generation, but for later generations the decree doesn’t apply.

  1. Joseph in the name of R. Nachman said: On that day the members of the tribe of Benjamin were permitted to intermarry with the other tribes, as it is written [Judges 21. 1]: “Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mizpah, saying: Not any one of us shall give his daughter unto Benjamin for wife.”

Rabba bar bar Hana said in the name of R. Johanan: On that day the last of those who were destined to die in the desert died, and the destiny was thus fulfilled;

Ulla said: “On that day the guards appointed by Jeroboam to prevent the Israelites from coming to Jerusalem were abolished by Hosea the son of Elah, and he said: ‘Let them go wherever they choose.'”

  1. Matnah said: “On that day permission was given to bury the dead who were killed in battle at the city of Beitar”

Rabba and R, Joseph both said: On that day they ceased to cut wood for the altar, as we have learned in a Baraita: R. Eliezer the Great said: “From the fifteenth day of Av the heat of the sun was lessened and the timber was no longer dry, so they ceased to cut wood for the altar.”

There is a golden rule in rabbinic exposition – the more explanations given for something, the less likely it is that anyone knows what the explanation actually is. Clearly a celebration on the 15th of Av, which coincided with the beginning of the grape harvest, is part of the custom and practise of the Jews by the time of the Talmud, but its origin is already lost in the mists of time.

Let’s look briefly at the Talmudic explanations before looking at the festival itself.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is told in the book of Numbers- a rare piece of case law in that book and a powerful piece of text about women confronting Moses in order to attain fairness under the law. Zelophehad is dead, he had 5 daughters and no sons, and according to the rules of inheritance at that time, the girls would be left without anything. They approach Moses and argue their case, including the fact that their father will be forgotten in his tribe. Moses has to ask God about the merits of the case, and God tells him that the case of these daughters is valid; they should indeed inherit from their father. Later a problem arises, the leaders of the tribe of Manasseh – which the family of Zelophehad belong to – also bring a petition to Moses. Should daughters inherit when there is no son, and then marry into another tribe, the inheritance and land that would normally stay within the tribe will be given to the tribe that the woman marries into.

So the law is amended – such women who inherit land from their fathers must marry only within their own tribe – a limiting phenomenon that itself causes problems. So Rabbi Yehuda quotes Samuel by saying that tribes may now intermarry freely – and the date of this decision was the fifteenth of Av on the last year before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel.

The second explanation in the gemara is from a much darker story found at the end of the book of Judges, where a woman staying overnight in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, was gang raped until she died. The other tribes went to war against the Benjaminites who would not give up the criminals for justice, and a ban was proclaimed which meant no one could marry into that tribe. This ban was eventually lifted on the fifteenth of Av. One assumes that this idea comes from the commonality of Tu b’Av to the statement in the Book of Judges ““And see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in dances, then come out of the vineyards, and let every man catch  his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin.” (21:21)

The third explanation – This comes from a midrash found in the Jerusalem Talmud amongst other texts, which say that the generation who were to die in the desert because of their connection to the sin of the Golden Calf expected to die on Tisha b’Av. This would cause a problem – if there were to be so many deaths on one day, then who would be able to dig the graves and bury the people? So Moses sent out a decree: On Tisha b’Av everyone must dig their own grave and sleep in it. Those who would die would die, and the survivors would simply have to fill in the graves with the bodies already in them. But many did not die who felt that they too were destined for this fate, and so they continued to sleep in the graves they had dug for themselves until they saw the full moon of Av and realised that Tisha b’Av was well and truly behind them. They would live!

The fourth explanation: King Jeroboam (c900BCE) had challenged Rehoboam the son of Solomon, because of his authoritarian rule, and took the ten Northern tribes with him to his capital Shechem. He built two temples as rivals to the one in Jerusalem (Bethel and Dan) and banned his people from going to worship in Jerusalem.  Fifty years later, the last King of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, rescinded the ban – on Tu b’Av – and the joy that ensued is encoded in the festival.

The fifth explanation also involves graves, in this case the ones slaughtered in the rebellion against Rome led by the false messiah Shimon bar Kochba in 135. The massacre of the Jews by the Romans was estimated by one Roman historian as being at least 580 thousand dead and many more taken captive into slavery in other parts of the empire. The majority of the Jewish population was exiled from the land and the land given a new name by the Romans – Syria Palestina – to try to sever the connection between the land and the Jews. Tisha b’Av saw the final destruction of Temple and hopes, and the fortress of Beitar was breached and its inhabitants murdered and left unburied. So Rav Matnah’s explanation for Tu b’Av is that 6 days after the tragedy (some stories say a year and six days), the Romans finally permitted the burial of the slaughtered Jews – on Tu b’Av.

After such dramatic explanations the final one in the list is more prosaic, but also most likely to be the case. Simply that the full moon of Av is around the summer equinox, the days are beginning to shorten and one might be less sure of enough dry weather for the wood cut down for the Temple sacrifices to be sufficiently prepared for its use, and any wood cut down later would be liable to smoke unpleasantly. This explanation is bolstered by the fact that we know of customs in the near East whereby the end of the season for cutting wood is marked by celebration including dancing and music.

So having established that Tu b’Av was being celebrated in Mishnaic times, that the young women would go out into the vines wearing white dresses they had borrowed so as not to be identified by their clothing, that they danced and sang and that clearly a shidduch market was in full swing on that date – the young men would chase them and choose their brides – the rabbinic tradition tried to explain the event using stories of rape, graves, massacre, orphaned women claiming economic rights and hence losing the right to marry outside of their tribe, civil war and rebellion against both internally among the Jewish people and also against an oppressive occupying power. One has to wonder why.

I am reminded of a recent “tweet” that asks why a prominent politician is tweeting terrible racism, and suggests that the deflection is to stop people paying attention to something worse – the statutory rape of underage girls.  Here the rabbinic tradition has a clear story of strong young single women in public space, helping each other with their clothing and “seductively” dancing and singing among the grape vines, with their symbolism of wine and wealth and fertility. So immediately there is a deflection – Beitar! Bnot Zelophehad! Possibly the darkest story in bible of a young concubine gang raped and murdered, whose fate was to be cut into twelve pieces each of which was sent to one of the tribes of Israel! Sin and death and lying in the grave! Rebellion and Massacre!

It seems to me that the Tannaim (the rabbis of the Mishnah, c50-200CE) were fine with the celebrations of Tu b’Av and the fact of young girls out on a summer evening enjoying their bodies, their strength and their music, but the Amoraim (the rabbis of the Gemara c200-500CE) were decidedly not. So Tu b’Av became a date more often ignored than celebrated. The single attention was liturgical – Tachanun (the penitential section of prayers of supplication and confession) are not said on Tu b’Av. Only since the modern State of Israel has been established has Tu b’Av been celebrated – it has become a kind of Jewish “Valentine’s Day”, a day for love, for weddings, for romance. The 19th century Haskalah poet Judah Leib Gordon wrote about its celebration in the newly planted vineyards and certainly for the more secular Israelis this is a Jewish festival to take to their hearts.

It’s worth noting the framing of the Mishnah where Tu b’Av is recorded. It is mentioned in the same breath as the most solemn day in the calendar – Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the white fast. On this day people traditionally wear kittels – the white shrouds they will be buried in. The day is a day of joy as well as penitence, because when we have truly repented, God will forgive us. We leave the day lightened by our activities and return more able to continue with living our lives.

There are real similarities between the two festivals, albeit one is a day out of time “as if dead” and the other a day of sensuous delight. Each reminds us of the importance of living our lives as fully and as well as we can. Each reminds us about living” in the now”, each helps us create our future selves.

So – let’s reclaim Tu b’Av, the full moon that follows three weeks of mourning,  that takes place 6 days after the blackest day in the calendar. Let’s remind ourselves that life must continue, joy must be part of our living, that relationships with others matter and that the future is ours to create

Tetzaveh:

The interface between God and human beings is fraught with potential both creative and destructive. It is uncharted territory where we wander, sometimes alone and sometimes with companions and while we might pay attention to the stories told by those who have more recently gone before us, our constant and most useful guide is Torah.

Torah teaches us the boundaries others have met, the pathways our predecessors have taken, gives us a glimpse into what we might be looking out for.

To some extent, we could call Torah a manual for those who wish to undertake a spiritual journey. But it is a limited manual. It offers no guarantees about reaching the desired destination, it offers some advice sketches out some road signs and extends the hope that as others have done, then so maybe can I.

This limited manual can be a great comfort, but it also creates many problems for us. We have a desire to know “how to do it”, we want to be told that if we behave in a certain way we will reach such-and-such a place. We often want to have concrete guidelines like all those recipe books and television programmes that state very clearly “if you follow my instructions you will have a perfect cake every time”. Increasingly I am asked how to do something or is something allowed or forbidden, not out of curiosity and a genuine need to explore, but because people are seeing religion as the repository of the skills needed to achieve – or rather they are seeing rabbis and priests as the people who hold the secret and can either open or close the door to God.

There is a second problem in modernity – we have forgotten how religious language works, we are so goal centred we pay too little attention to the process, we have lost understanding of symbolic language and our sensitivity to metaphor and allegory is blunted in our need for certainty. The chain of tradition in which generations told the stories they had heard from their ancestors and fed their descendants with the ‘hiddushim’ the innovations they had found, has been disrupted and dislocated. The multiple varieties of ways to understand the torah text that can be seen in Midrash, in the aggadic texts recorded in Talmud, in the rabbinic commentaries on bible and on each others works – they might be recorded but their meaning is often either misunderstood or completely lost.

I am not talking here about the knowledge of Hebrew – indeed there are certainly many more people fluent in the language alive now than ever before – but rather about the understanding of religious process, of symbols and thought processes and of whole concepts that unspokenly underpinned the midrashic and aggadic texts .

Rather than admit to ourselves that our understanding is weakened, it seems to me that we have created structures that make sense to our modern minds and our need to know the recipes, and we try to ignore or dismiss the rest of our tradition as being archaic or irrelevant or magical thinking.

So how does one get back into the living meaning of Torah in order to be able to delve deeper into our spiritual search and come closer to the God who revealed Godself with such clarity to our ancestors that it seemed they were meeting almost face to face.

One way certainly is through studying the Hebrew text, examining the original words both with and without the overlay of rabbinic commentaries in order to reveal the clusters of meanings that are embedded in those words.

Another way is to personalise the text, to find its echoes resonating within our own souls and to extend the meanings into our own experience.

In traditional rabbinic exegesis, these two methods go hand in hand, creating a dynamic and relevant understanding of Torah, to help us use the ‘guide book’ in our own spiritual journey.

Sidra Tetzaveh is, on the surface, a continuation of the instructions about the Mishkan, the physical structure erected by the Israelites in the desert as a constant symbol and reminder of the presence of God.  There are instructions about the building followed by the details of the priestly garments, the anointing of the priests and the offerings they are to bring.

The challenge is to find the relevance to us – progressive Jews who have given up the special status of the Cohanim, who have a real revulsion against animal sacrifice, who have expunged the prayers for its return and for the return of the Temple with all of its offerings, hierarchies and structures from our prayer books.

The relevance to us can be found once we begin to look past the minutiae of the detail of the ritual and let the text speak to us. We are dealing here with the creation of symbols that speak of the presence of God and of the boundaries that will prevent us from getting too close to a power that could overwhelm us so that we lose our own self. We are looking at creating a conduit, to find ways to relate to God. And this is an age old problem every generation must address.

In Sidra Tetzaveh we see the making of a structure that will operate through time and space, connecting the outer world and the inner one, involving both action and prayer, uniting us as one people while at the same time connecting each one to God. It was a structure for its time, one we can hardly comprehend, yet we continue to read it because it has things to teach us still.

The verse which begins the sidra “v’ata tetzaveh et b’nei Yisrael, v’yikhu elecha shemen zayit zach katit l’maor leha’a lot ner tamid”  You shall command the children of Israel that they will bring pure beaten olive oil for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually” is an important one for us. Each of us has a responsibility to keep alight a ner tamid, a continually burning light. Each of us has the responsibility to do it for ourselves, to keep a spark alive in our own souls and our own lives.

The ner tamid in a synagogue is usually explained as being a symbol of the continuing presence of God, and we have taken the idea of externalising it by having one in every synagogue, hanging over the Ark. A light is kept burning in every synagogue to be an outward sign of the light that is burning in every Jewish soul.

Sometimes the symbolism can take on a new and even painful dimension – I remember hearing a survivor of the Shoah, Hilda Schindler, describe how after Kristallnacht in Berlin she saw the ner tamid of the Fasanenstrasse Synabobe burning brightly on the ground.

There are other symbols in this sidra – the anointing and ordaining of the priesthood whose special task is to take care of the boundaries between the Jews and God, and whose economic and functional dependence on the Israelites only points up their special task rather than diminish it – a task that we now have in our own homes and study houses. There is the focus on the garments of the High Priest, on which we model the clothes for the Sefer Torah, and so once again remind ourselves that people and objects can function at the interface of God and humanity.

Our texts speak in many languages in order to make their meaning available to us. It is improper of us to try to distil down the lessons, to accept that there is only one accepted meaning that is taught by someone else and should not be challenged. The beauty of traditional Judaism and the beauty of contemporary progressive Judaism is that we have refused to join in the process of passively accepting the judgements of others.

My first synagogue President, Mervin Elliot z”l used to say that for us Reform Jews tradition had a vote but not a veto. I liked the pithiness of the language when I first heard it,  but now some thirty years later I appreciate more the acceptance of the past and the willingness to explore the present and the future that is embedded in it.

When we come across texts like those in Tetzaveh we can either treat them like a manual or recipe book, decide that those people who are descendants of the Cohanim must have some special power and role that we cannot decipher, and walk away from the challenges of how we build the bridges and the protective structures whereby we can come close to God in this day and age. Or we can take up the challenge, see a product of its time have something that can speak to us today, transmuted perhaps or extended or even echoed, and create the Judaism that does the same work today that the mishkan and priesthood did in biblical times.  We can remind ourselves that we are supposed to be (as we read only a few chapters earlier) “a nation of priests and a holy nation”. Each of us can take on the role, keep alight the ner tamid in our own places and lives, and find that each of us has something to teach, each of us has something to offer the community, each of us protects and nurtures the spark of divine in the world.

(sermon given 2017 lev chadash)

Chayei Sarah: how Sarah’s legacy got lost or “undermining the pillars of the women’s gallery”

As we read about the death of the first matriarch, the woman chosen to transmit the promise through her son with Abraham, the woman who “made souls” along with her husband, the woman who laughed at God, it seemed a good time to post an article I wrote in the 1980’s for the first book by women rabbis in the UK – “Hear Our Voice”.  The article was entitled “Undermining the pillars that support the women’s gallery: an examination of the foundations of the custom of segregated seating” and examines and lays bare the paucity of reasoning and of sources for this custom that keeps so many of Sarah’s daughters out of public space and public dialogue.

“As women slowly gain an increased profile and greater power in the management of synagogues, they find themselves disadvantaged within its religious expression. In some cases they are literally hidden from view, their presence screened over and muted.

The reasons given for this are fourfold:

  1. That it is a biblical/rabbinic prohibition for men and women to sit together in worship
  2. That in Temple times there was a separate women’s courtyard (Ezrat Nashim) and a synagogue by Talmudic principle is a sanctuary in miniature (mikdash me ‘at)
  3.  That male worshipers would become distracted from fulfilling their obligations to pray, if they had to do so in mixed company
  4.  That it is the long established custom and practice for Jews to worship in this way, and to change it would be to “Christianize” the synagogue

Tracing the phenomenon of separate seating – and in particular of Mechitza, (the separating screen) – what emerges is that the historical, legal and theological case for such behaviour is not at all substantial. This is surprising, given the vigour with which it is promulgated and defended.

What is the legal source for the prohibition?

In the responsa literature there is some debate as to whether the separation of the sexes (and how it is to be done) is a biblical prohibition or a rabbinic one (and therefore less authoritative).

The few responsa that argue for a biblical prohibition find themselves unable to provide any verse whatever from Torah to underwrite the claim. The single biblical verse quoted to back up the claim for separation of the sexes being a biblical command in Zechariah (12:12)

“And the land shall mourn, every family apart.

The family of the House of David apart, and their wives apart.

The family of the House of Nathan apart, and their wives apart.”

The plain reading of the verse is that it is set within an oracle in which Zechariah describes the future Jerusalem. The city will be besieged by many nations, but God will strike them with madness and confusion. God will protect Jerusalem, destroying all who make war on her, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will mourn the nations they have “thrust through”. The mourning will be done family by family alone, and Zechariah goes on to name a number of households separately, and to state “and their women [will mourn] alone”

How can this be read as a biblical injunction not only for separate seating but for segregated seating – Mechitza? The logic would seem to be that if, in this quasi-messianic period, men and women were to be separated, and if they were specifically segregated during a period of terrible mourning, how much more should the separation be enforced in our corrupt times, and how much more so when the spirit is not depressed by sadness. For who knows what frivolity might be encouraged if men and women are allowed to be together?

As Moshe Feinstein wrote

“Nowhere do we find that this instance of future mourning was to be in the sanctuary….it therefore indicates that wherever men and women must gather, they are forbidden to be without a dividing Mechitza between them, so that they cannot reach a state of levity…..And so in our synagogues too….”[i]

Clearly this understanding is not the plain meaning of the passage in Zechariah, and clearly too Feinstein’s is a partial reading, as the issue of each family mourning separately is not developed into their behaviour at worship. More important however, is the fact that this source – the ONLY biblical text used to support segregation, comes not from Torah but from Nevi’im – the prophetic books. Feinstein deals &with this by writing:

“And even though its source in the Bible is a verse from the Prophets, in which the rule is that it cannot establish any biblical prohibition, here a biblical law can be derived from it, for it does not seek to originate any prohibition, but merely requires that mourning be observed in accordance with the [apparently pre-existing] scriptural law – men separate and women separate. We learn similarly of many biblical laws from the actions of the Prophets, Judges and Kings, out of verses quoted in passages of Oral Tradition” [ii]

In other words, Feinstein views this as coming under the category of received wisdom – i.e. that we can infer from the narrative the existence of an older law which is then assumed to be a biblical law. So had the text in Zechariah overtly prohibited men and women from mourning together it would not have been a biblical prohibition, but since it does not say that, then we can legitimately infer such a prohibition (!)

Leaving aside such convoluted processes, the main objections, that nowhere in the Bible is the separation of men and women in public worship or assemblies commanded,(and indeed we find many examples where men and women clearly do worship together, see below) and that the one verse that is even remotely applicable is in the Prophets, are not addressed.

So it would seem that the prohibition must be, in fact, a rabbinic one.    Many responsa, including those of Rav Kook, take this view.

If we look to the Talmud we find that it addresses the separation of men and women only in terms of the Ezrat Nashim (the women’s courtyard in the Second Temple), and of the great amendment made to the Tempe to accommodate the celebration of Simchat Beit HaSho’eva, the water libation ceremony which took place during Sukkot.

In the Second Temple there was a system of courtyards of increasing holiness, culminating in the Holy of Holies. One outer courtyard was ‘the Courtyard of the Women – Ezrat Nashim’, beyond which it is thought that women did not normally go.  Likewise there was a ‘Courtyard of the Israelites – Ezrat Yisrael’, beyond which men who were not of priestly descent did not normally pass.

The Ezrat Nashim, however, was certainly not a secluded and enclosed place designed only for the women, as a synagogue gallery is meant to be. It was a large outer courtyard where both sexes could mingle freely. It could not have been an area where women could go to pray quietly and separately, because the men had to pass through it to get to the courtyard of the Israelites and beyond.

Therefore we cannot deduce from the Temple architecture that the sexes were separated for the purpose of worship or assembly. Ezrat Nashim here means not a place reserved for the women, but the furthest point that the women generally went into the Temple (unless of course they were bringing a sacrifice to the priest)

Furthermore we know that the Ezrat Nashim was a busy place. Mishna Middot tells us:

“The Ezrat Nashim was 135 [cubits] in length by 135 [cubits] in width. And there were four chambers at its four corners each forty cubits square; they were not roofed over….And what purpose did they serve? The south-eastern one was the Chamber of the Nazirites, because there the Nazirites cooked their peace offerings, and cut their hair, and cast it beneath the pot; the north-eastern one was the Chamber of the Woodstore, and there the priests that were blemished searched the wood for worms, for any wood wherein a worm was found was invalid [for burring] upon the altar. The north-western one was the Chamber of the Lepers; the south-western one – Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob said “I have forgotten what it was used for”, but Abba Saul says “there they stored the wine and the oil and it was called the Chamber of the House of Oil” [iii]

The place described scarcely sounds like the paradigm for separated and segregated seating, such as that above the main body of the synagogue in a balcony, or behind a mechitza. We come a little closer to such a possibility further on in the same mishnah:

“Originally [the Ezrat Nashim] was not built over, and[later] they surrounded it with a balcony so that the woman should look on from above and the men were down below in order that they should not intermingle. And fifteen steps went up from within it to the Ezrat Yisrael, corresponding to the fifteen degrees in the Book of Psalms, and upon them the Levites used to sing” [iv]

So a women’s gallery did exist for part of the time the Second Temple stood, and it was added after the Temple was built.    To find out why this structure was built we need to look at the mishnah and gemara in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sukkah.

The mishnah reads:

“One who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water drawing (Simchat beit HaSho’eva) has never seen rejoicing in their life. At the conclusion of the first festival day of Tabernacles, they (the priests and the Levites) descended to the court of the women (Ezrat Nashim) where they had made a great enactment”

The gemara asks:

“What was the great enactment? R.Eleazar replied ‘As that of which we have learned. Originally [the walls of the court of the women] were smooth, but [later the court] was surrounded with a gallery, and it was enacted that the women should sit above and the men below.” Our Rabbis have taught. “Originally the women used to sit within [the Court of the Women] while the men were without, but as this caused levity it was instituted that the women should sit without and the men within. As this however still led to levity, it was instituted that the women should sit above and the men below”[v]

Note that the men and women swapped their quarters for the celebration, the men in the Court of the Women and the women in the smaller, inner Court of the Israelites.

So we have found the very first enclosure or gallery for women, but are left with two problems if we want this to be the source for the phenomenon either of separate seating or of mechitza.

First, the gallery spoken of in tractate Sukkah is of a temporary nature, erected only for this festival of Simchat Beit HaSho’eva (a festival which has not been observed for centuries).

Secondly, there are always problems in drawing a parallel between the Temple and the synagogue. While a synagogue may be a miniature sanctuary[vi],many activities particular to the Temple are not transferred to the synagogue (for example, the use of musical instruments is not acceptable in an Orthodox synagogue).

There is no reason why this once-a-year change in seating so as to prevent an over-enthusiastic celebration should transfer to the synagogue as a permanent relegation of women to a gallery or separated enclosure.  As Steinsaltz wrote:

“Simchat Beit HaSho’eva; as well as it being a religious commandment to be joyful every festival it is a particular commandment to rejoice on the days of the festival of Sukkot and thus they used to do in the Temple. On the eve of the first day of the festival they would prepare a gezuztra (enclosure or balcony whose finished side faced upwards) in the Court of the Women, so that the men and women would not mingle, and would begin festivities at the end of the first day. And so it would be for each of the intervening days of the festival. From the time that the evening sacrifice was offered, they would rejoice and dance the rest of the day and all of the night”[vii]

This is scarcely the practice today.

If the Talmud only mentions separated and segregated seating in the setting of the annual erection of the gezuztra in the Court of the Women (from which we can also infer that the gezuztra was taken down for the rest of the year), where does the practice begin?

The Codes do not specifically discuss the special women’s galleries in synagogues. Neither the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (1135-1204) nor the Shulchan Aruch of Joseph Caro (1488-1575) refer to such a thing. This could be for one of two reasons:

It could mean that the law referring to mechitza and the separation and segregation of women was so well known that it was pointless to codify it, or else it could signify that the law was not known at all.

Certainly there are many instances in the Bible where the women are involved in public worship. The earliest example is in Exodus 38:8 when we are told about the serving women who did service at the door of the tent of meeting. Other references can be found in Leviticus 12:16, the Prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:12, the Shunammite woman in 2Kings 4:23 and there are many more.

The book of Nehemiah contains a specific reference to Ezra the priest reading the Book of the Law “before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding…in the presence of the men and the women” (8:2-3) and in 2 Chronicles we are told:

“And all Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. And Jeremiah lamented for Josiah, and all the singing men and singing women spoke of Josiah in their lamentations unto this day” (35:24-25)

Interestingly here we have a text which speaks of joint mourning, both men and women public lamenting, as distinct from the verse from Zechariah, used as a prop for the custom of separated worship.

We know too that the early Christians – who modelled themselves on contemporary Jewish observance – did not have separation of the sexes in worship. We read in Acts (1:13-14)

“These [male disciples] all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers”  Further sources are Galations 3:28, Romans 16:12 etc.

Professor Shmuel Safrai of the Hebrew University is clear “from numerous sources” that women attended synagogue in antiquity, but that “there were no women’s galleries or any other known form of sex separation in synagogues”. He acknowledges that there might have been some internal division of sexes (for example women seated to the side or to the back), but if there were “there are no contemporaneous sources to describe them”[viii]

The exhaustive survey of the remains of ancient synagogues by Bernadette Brooten[ix] backs up Safrai’s claim. Having examined synagogue remains from the ruin of Masada (first century) onwards, her conclusion is unequivocal. There is absolutely no archaeological evidence for a women’s gallery or a separate women’s section in ancient synagogues. Instead she found much evidence of the prior assumptions held by the archaeologists who investigated this subject. She writes:

In a lecture on the Galilean Synagogue ruins held on 16 December 1911 in Berlin, Samuel Krauss said to his audience: “Now that we are inside the synagogue, let us first of all – as politeness demands – looks for the rows of the seats of our dear wives, non the supposition that something will be found which could be viewed as the remains of a ‘Weibershul’ in the synagogue ruins”

Following the demands of politeness, Mr Krauss did look for, and did find, the remains of what he called the women’s gallery in the ancient Galilean synagogues. The majority of modern Judaica scholars and archaeologists follow Krauss in both method and result – i.e. they look for a women’s gallery and they find one.

An example: In Gamla (destroyed 67CE) the synagogue is approached in its southeast corner by stairs coming up the side of the hill. An article in the Biblical Archaeological Review states that these stairs ostensibly led to an upper [women’s] gallery….. Further excavation in 1979 revealed that these steps are a continuation of a road leading up the side of a hill to the synagogue, and are thus leading to the synagogue itself, rather than a gallery”

Bluntly stated, Brooten’s conclusion is that a number of Palestinian synagogues clearly never had a gallery, and of the few where a case was made for a gallery by the archaeologists, the evidence examined did not support such a hypothesis. In the case of side rooms in the excavated sites, the general rule seemed to be that if a gallery could not be imaginatively reconstructed, then the side room was perceived as the women’s area. Otherwise it was assumed to be storage or a school room.

So, given that there is no strong biblical, Talmudic or archaeological case for a women’s gallery or a separate women’s section, we are left with a mystery. Where does such a fixture (and custom) come from?

The earliest written source is from the thirteenth century. Mordechai ben Hillel haKohen (1240? – 1298), a German rabbi and author, who wrote a commentary on the Talmud. On a discussion about permitted and prohibited actions on the Sabbath he noted:

“It is forbidden to set up any screen whatever on the Sabbath, unless it is for chasteness in general…. But a screen for general chasteness is permitted. For example, we are permitted to erect on the Sabbath the partition curtain between men and women, which is set up during the time of the rabbi’s sermon”[x]

Mordechai is using an existing practice to illustrate his point about work on the Sabbath. This is the first we know of such a practice, and it clearly shows that normally the women were not segregated within the synagogue, and that the segregation of men and women was done only to prevent impropriety during a sermon when the synagogue building was full.  By the time of R. Jacob ben Moses Moelin(Cremona 1565) the curtain is said to have been made from prayer shawls, strung across the room to form a divide[xi]

Other responsa on the subject of the separation and segregation of women in the synagogue all stem from the mediaeval period or later. For example Rashi (1040 -1105), commenting on a Talmudic passage which is dealing with men and women being alone together, says, “Where men and women come together either for the sermon or for a wedding, he should arrange earthenware jugs between them so that if they approach each other these would make a noise”[xii]

The Yalkut Shimoni (a midrashic work dating from the first half of the thirteenth century) cites the Tanna d’bei Eliyahu Rabba (a midrashic work composed in the second half of the tenth century, probably in Southern Italy) as follows:

“A man should not stand among women and pray, because he is likely to be distracted by the presence of women”[xiii]

It would seem that at some point in mediaeval times the notion of men being distracted from their obligatory prayer by the presence of women (also praying?) took hold. What was a problem in Second Temple times only during one very energetically celebrated festival became a problem for the Jewish community permanently. What remains unclear is – why?”

Several theories have been advanced. The dispersing of the Jewish population in Europe as the Crusades swept through Europe in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries may have forced a hardening of attitudes towards the women, in common with the non-Jewish world outside. Some scholars believe that it is the influence of Islam on Judaism, which has encouraged it to hide its women away [xiv]

Possibly the separation and segregation was done to protect the women in some way. Certainly the separated and segregated seating is required only when there is an halachic obligation to gather, and so for weddings for example there is no need for such a partition. In the same way as the Talmudic law works on the principle that women do not need to put themselves in danger by exposing themselves to a dangerous situation in order to fulfil a religious commandment, the separating and segregating may have been a technique to protect those who were seen as the vulnerable sex.

Israel Abrahams wrote:    In the separation of the sexes the synagogue only reflected their isolation in the social life outside. The sexes were separated at Jewish banquets and home feasts no less than in the synagogue. If they did not pray together, neither did they play together. The rigid separation of the sexes in prayer seems not to have been earlier however, than the thirteenth century. The women had their own court in the temple but it is not impossible that they prayed together with the men in Talmudic times. Possibly the rigid separation grew out of the mediaeval custom- more common as the thirteenth century advances – which induced men and women to spend the eve of the Great Fast (Yom Kippur) n the synagogue. By the end of the thirteenth century, and perhaps earlier, Jewish women had their own prayer meetings in rooms at the side of, and a little above, the men’s synagogue. With which the rooms communicated by a small window or balcony. Or if they had no separated apartments, they sat at the back of the men’s synagogue in reserved places, screened by curtains [xv]

The idea that the separation and partition came about to protect chastity during Yom Kippur (and which then took on a life of its own) makes the most sense in terms of the innovation which was brought into the Temple on Simchat Beit HaSho’eva, and of the first textual reference by Mordechai ben Hillel haKohen

The Synagogue is seen as a place of reverence, and levity would be out of place. Thus, when the opportunity arose- a rowdy minor festival, a sermon in crowded building, a night when both sexes would be sleeping in the same large room – the erection of a separate screen would seem logical and desirable. The only problem is the ex post facto legitimization of this screen into a biblical command, building into it the devaluing and disappearance of the women. One must also question whether it is the right way to combat levity in the synagogue today, or whether it actually induces people to ignore the service in favour of elaborate signalling communication with each other

This would lead us into the question of where it is possible to change an age-old custom, and whether this would ‘Christianize’ the synagogue. To take the latter first. The early Christians copied the Jews in matters of ritual. They had men and women praying together because that was the age-old Jewish way. Add to that the fact that the gallery was taken into synagogue architecture from outside the Jewish tradition (it certainly did not feature in the ohel moed, the tent of meeting in the desert – nor the Temple as described in the Book of Chronicles, and one could ask whether removing the mechitza and the galleries from our synagogues might not in fact be bringing us closer to our architectural roots.

Krauss believed that the gallery was adopted by the Jews from the Greek style, and later copied by the Christians. Certainly many Christian chapels have very similar architecture.

Regarding the changing of a time honoured custom (and as this is the true source for the mechitza this is the crux of the matter) there is, as ever, more than one opinion.

One view would be that this is a relatively new custom which was made to prevent the reverence of the synagogue from being tainted by levity and unchastity. Since it now has the effect of alienating women from the service, and in their alienation causing them to chatter and laugh and try to catch the eye of others, tis innovation no longer serves its purpose and should be allowed to lapse, as so many customs have done throughout Jewish history.

The stringent view would be that in effect custom takes on the force of law. In the Jerusalem Talmud the response of the Sages to a request to change an ancestral custom was “do not deviate from the customary practices of your fathers whose souls rest in peace”. Thus it is inferred that to disregard customs instituted by earlier generations to safeguard religious practice is to dishonour those dead earlier generations. The proof text for this desire not to amend or to innovate within Jewish practice is taken from the Book of Proverb (1:8).  “Forsake not the teaching of your mother”. Somehow, when applied to the segregating of women behind thick curtains, or up into galleries away from the heart of the synagogue service, that is the biggest irony of all.

[i] Responsum by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein “On the law of Mechitza” reprinted in B.Litvin, “the sanctity of the synagogue” KTAV, New York 1987, 124

[ii] Ibid 120

[iii] Mishna middot 2:5

[iv] Ibid

[v] Babylonian Talmud tractate Sukkah 51a

[vi]Babylonian Talmud tractate Megillah 291

[vii] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Orach ha Halachah, ad loc

[viii] Professor Shmuel Safrai, Tarbiz 32, 1963

[ix] Bernadette Brooten “women leaders in the ancient synagogue” Brown Judaic Studies 36, Scholars Press, California 1982

[x] Mordechai on Mishnah Shabbat 3 (n.311)

[xi] Sefer Maharil 38a

[xii][xii] 12Rashi on Babylonian Talmud tractate Kiddushin 81a

[xiii] Yalkut Shimoni 1, 934, cited in Litvin, The Sanctity of the Synagogue (note 1)

[xiv] Professor Shmuel Safrai interviewed in the Jerusalem Post 8th August 1986

[xv] Israel Abrahams “Jewish Life in the Middle Ages” 1896 Athenaeum, New York 1985

 

Parashat Korach : The women behind the men emerge. Take a bow Ms On ben Pelet

The rebellion of Korach is a powerful and pivotal moment in Torah, as the leadership of Moses and Aaron is challenged by their cousin who proclaims that they have taken too much of the power for themselves, that all the people were holy, and Moses and Aaron are raising themselves up above the ‘kehal adonai’ the community of God.

With Datan and Abiram the sons of Eliav, and On the son of Pelet, all of them grandchildren of Reuben the oldest son of Jacob, Korach the great grandson of Levi, third son of Jacob and ancestor of Moses and Aaron, musters 250 men of stature – this is emphasised in the text: “n’si’ei eidah, k’ri’ei mo’ed, anshei shem – princes of the congregation, elect men of the community, men of renown”.

The testosterone level is so high in this story we can practically smell it. The clashing of antlers of the big beasts jousting for power and control. There might be a pretence about the need for all the people to be recognised as holy, but the reality is clear that this is a palace coup, and Moses doesn’t know what to do.

A great deal has been written about this, but I want to focus today on one of the more minor characters, On ben Pelet. Because while he is there at the beginning of the revolution he is missing from its denouement. And he doesn’t appear again.  The other rebels go down into the yawning pit as the earth opens, On ben Pelet however simply disappears from history.  Why?

The midrash provides a wonderful explanation. His wife gets involved. In this testosterone soaked challenge the men have essentially lost the plot. Where there are reasonable grounds for saying that Moses and Aaron have taken on too much of the leadership, there is no accountability and there is no transparency, the plotters went too far themselves, scenting regime change. It takes, in the view of the midrash, the calm and thoughtful intervention of the women we never really see (except as witnesses to the divine destruction of the hard line conspirators).

Talmud tells us this: (BT Sanhedrin 109b-110a)

“Rav said: On, the son of Pelet was saved by his wife. Said she to him, ‘What matters it to you? Whether the one [Moses] remains master or the other [Korach] becomes master, you will be nothing but a disciple.’ He replied, ‘But what can I do? I have taken part in their counsel, and they have sworn me [to be] with them.’ She said, ‘I know that they are all a holy community, as it is written, “seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them. [So,]’ she proceeded, ‘Sit here, and I will save you.’ She gave him wine to drink, intoxicated him and laid him down inside [the tent]. Then she sat down at the entrance and loosened her hair. Whoever came [to summon him] saw her and retreated. Meanwhile, Korach’s wife joined them [the rebels] and said to him [Korach], ‘See what Moses has done. He himself has become king; his brother he appointed High Priest; his brother’s sons he made vice High Priests. If Terumah is brought, he decrees, Let it be for the priest; if the tithe is brought, which belongs to you [i.e., to the Levite], he orders, Give a tenth part of it to the priest. Moreover, he has had your hair cut off, and makes sport of you as though you were dirt; for he was jealous of your hair.’ Said he to her, ‘But he has done likewise!’ She replied, ‘Since all the greatness was his, he said also, Let me die with the Philistines. Moreover, he has commanded you, Set [fringes] of blue wool [in the corners of your garments]; but if there is virtue in blue wool, then bring forth blue wool, and clothe your entire academy with it.  And so it is written, Every wise woman builds her house — this refers to the wife of On, the son of Pelet; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands — to Korach’s wife.”

The Talmudic midrash sees the minor figure of On ben Pelet, notices his disappearance by the end of the story, and pins this on the even more minor figures of “the wives”.

The unnamed wife of On ben Pelet is a politician to her fingertips. She can see that her husband is of lowly status and is never likely to amount to much. Whoever wins in the rebellion, he will never be an important part of the hierarchy. He isn’t much of a catch, one gets the feeling, but he is hers and she would rather he were alive than dead. Whether this is love or not is irrelevant, his fate would have repercussions on her status, she does not want to be the widow of a dissident – that would make her even more vulnerable than she is now.

So, in time honoured fashion, she gets him drunk. We think of Boaz and Ruth, of Noah and his daughters, of Yael and Sisera – when a woman wants to get a man pliant and to do her bidding it seems, the answer is to ply him with intoxicants. The drunken On ben Pelet is ushered into the tent to sleep it off. But this is still not enough to ensure he doesn’t rouse and put himself – and her – into danger. So she sits at the entrance with loosened hair – immodest, sexually charged, a terror to the scouts who may come to demand his presence. Like Rachel she uses her body to prevent anyone coming to search. And her husband slumbers on all unknowing.

On ben Pelet is, in the story, a nudnik, a schlemiel, scion of a great family maybe, but incompetent and easily led. He needs all the skills of his competent wife to survive. And it would be lovely if the midrash ended there. But no, the Talmud having decided on a verse in Proverbs (14:1) feels the need to explicate the other half of it.

“Every wise woman builds her house; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands.”

The wise woman here is clearly aligned with the wife of On ben Pelet, but who is the foolish wife? After all, 250 men joined Korach, Datan and Abiram in the failed rebellion.

It is interesting to me that the midrash decides that the parallel is with the wife of Korach – the main protagonist in this affair. And more than that, they give her great knowledge and legalistic reasoning – this is an educated woman able to debate and hold her point.

She begins first with the nepotism: Moses has made himself king. He has made his brother the High Priest, he has made his brother’s sons vice High Priests – something that is new to this text. Then when the Terumah offering is brought, it is immediately taken up by his own close family. This food (or oil or wine) can only be eaten by the Cohanim. Korach being only a Levite, is not permitted to have use of it.

Then she points out the tithing which would go to the Levites – Moses had set a limit of a tenth to go to the priests.

Then she moves on to the cut hair done as part of the purification rites. Before her husband can object she layers meaning over it – Moses was jealous of Korach’s lovely hair. He now laughs at him once the hair is cut off and Korach is, presumably, less attractive. No matter that Moses also had his hair cut according to Korach, his wife clearly believes that the impact on Moses was much less than that on her husband. Moses comes out the winner.

Now she moves onto ritual grievances. Moses had told them to wear blue threads on the fringes of their garments, but this is simply tokenistic in her eyes – if blue is to be worn as a mark of honour, then the whole garment should be blue. Otherwise, her reasoning seems to be, there is no real honour, just pretence, a token and perfunctory nod to the status of her husband; Korach is damned by faint praise and his wife notices.

She is painted as an intelligent and ambitious woman. Curiously she too seems to have the upper hand in the relationship – and she gives Korach the intellectual underpinnings for his challenge.

But her ambition for her husband is too much. He is not a strategist, not really a leader. Having made his alliances his own thirst for power comes through – why else would On ben Pelet feel uneasy having agreed to join the alliance? Korach cannot deviate from the path he is on. He doesn’t seem to realise that the atmosphere is changing, that his leadership is doomed.

His wife too is given no more voice. Who knows whether she had she would have been able to persuade her husband to reverse his challenge. Instead we see from the text that Datan and Abiram, their wives and children, stand at the doorways of their tents; And we see the earth opening and everything that pertained to Korach was swallowed up alive into the pit. The 250 men who were offering their own incense were destroyed by divine fire. Yet curiously Korach and his wife are not mentioned in the text as explicitly as Datan and Abiram were. Did Mrs Korach have one last trick up her sleeve? Did they melt away from the scene of destruction they had caused, in the hope of living to fight another day?