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?

Terumah: the Shechinah dwells amongst us but are we driving Her away?

There is no woman in parashat Terumah. Indeed there is barely any human presence at all as the bible instructs the people via Moses about the materials needed to build the tabernacle that will travel with them in the wilderness – the mishkan, and all its vessels and accoutrements.

There is no woman, but there is God, and it is this aspect of God that I would like to focus upon.

In Chapter 25 v8 we read

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם:

And they shall make me a mikdash/special place and I will dwell among them/in them.

The notion of God dwelling among/within the people of Israel is a powerful one, one that removes God from any ties to geography or history, but allows God to move freely wherever the people may be. And this idea of God is given a name, one not found in bible itself but found extensively in rabbinic literature post 70CE – Shechinah.

The Shechinah is an explicitly feminine aspect of God. Whereas many of our other names for God imply transcendence, a God-beyond us, the Shechinah dwells right here where we are. Talmud reminds us that “When ten gather for prayer, there the Shechinah rests” (Sanhedrin 39a, Berachot 6a). That “The Shechinah dwells over the head of the bed of the person who is ill” (Shabbat 12b).  It tells us that wherever we go, this aspect of God goes with us – “wherever they were exiled, the Shechinah went with them” (Meg 29a), and yet this aspect of God also remains in Israel waiting for our return “The Shechinah never departs from the Western Wall” (Ex.Rabbah 2:2)

The Shechinah is experienced by people engaged in study or prayer together, and by people who engage in mitzvot such as caring for the poor and giving tzedakah. It is said that She is the driver that caused prophets to prophesy, that enabled David to write his Psalms. She is the enabler of translating our feelings into words and actions, a conduit to relationship with the immanent God. She is associated with joy and with security. It is no accident She makes an appearance in the bedtime prayer for children – the four angels Michael, Gavriel, Uriel and Raphael invoked to protect the four directions, and the Shechinah to be at the head of the sleeping child.

The Shechinah is the constant presence, the nurturer of the Jewish soul. She is with us in times of joy and she is with us in times of suffering and pain. She connects Creation with Revelation – the universal with the particularly Jewish, the sacred with the mundane.

This week as I was mulling over the sacred feminine embodied in the Talmudic and mystical traditions, I joined in the prayer of the Women at the Wall for Rosh Chodesh Adar, albeit by ipad from thousands of miles away. I sang with them and followed the prayers as best I could, for there was a terrible cacophony picked up by the technology that sometimes threatened to overwhelm this joyful female prayer. Some in the men’s side of the area had turned their loudspeakers directly towards the praying women in order to drown out their song. Some in the women’s side (an artificially inflated crowd of seminary and high school girls bussed in for the morning by their institutions in order to prevent the Women of the Wall getting anywhere near the Wall itself) were blowing whistles loudly in the direction of the women – including the young batmitzvah – who were praying with grace and with joy.

The spectacle – for it was a spectacle – was painful in the extreme. Jews were determinedly drowning out the voices of other Jews in prayer and seemed to think that this was authentic religion, rather than a particularly vile form of sectarianism with little if any connection to any Jewish custom or law.

And it made me think of the Shechinah who never leaves that Western Wall, the remaining stones of the Temple. The Wall itself was built as part of the expansion of the area surrounding the second Temple in order to artificially create a larger flattened area for the sacred buildings above.

According to the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 21b), the Second Temple lacked five things which had been in Solomon’s Temple, namely, the Ark, the cherubim, the sacred fire, the Shechinah and the Urim and Tummim.

It is easy to see that the Ark of the Covenant, the Cherubim, the sacred fire, the Priestly and mysterious Urim and Tummim were lost by the time of the second Temple – they were artefacts which could disappear. But the Shechinah – that fascinates me. The redactor of Talmud, clearly anxious about the statement, continues the narrative by saying that they were not gone, just less present than before.

It is clear to me that the artefacts are gone and lost to history, replaced by our system of prayer and study. But I wonder so about the Shechinah in the light of the events that are now almost normal at the base of the remaining Western Wall.  For while the midrash may tell us that the Shechinah is there, waiting for us to return from our exile; While it may say that She is waiting to be among us, to welcome us, never departing from the Western Wall, waiting to connect us to our deepest selves, to link us to a God of comfort and compassion – if she was, she must have had her head in her hands and been close to despair at what She saw.

When people pray and study together, when they enact law to help the society, when they are sick and frightened and when they are doing mitzvot that bring joy and comfort, there the Shechinah will be. But when they abuse their power, ignore the other, hold only disdain and triumphalism as their values, it is no wonder that the Shechinah finds it hard to hang around. She wasn’t there in the Second Temple, rife as it was with political machinations and abuses of power. And I only caught a glimpse of her yesterday at Rosh Chodesh Adar when so many Jews were at the Wall, but so few were there to pray from the depths of their hearts in joy. I saw her flee from the shrieking women and men determined to drown out prayer. I saw her flee from the passivity of a police force refusing to intervene to protect those who needed their help.

But I saw her in the faces of the group of women celebrating a bat mitzvah together in song and dedication, in the sounds of a young girl reading Torah with grace and mature sensitivity.

http://www.jta.org/2017/02/27/news-opinion/israel-middle-east/hundreds-of-yeshiva-seminary-students-disrupt-women-of-the-wall-service

Elisheva: challenging the patriarchal structure with her mixed feelings. Parashat Va’era

Early in the sidra is a partial genealogy, which leads us rapidly to the Levitical line. A genealogy of the Levites takes us from Levi through Kohat to Amram father of Aaron and Moses. Unusually, three women are named in this genealogy:

Amram married Yocheved the sister of his father, and she gave birth to Aaron and Moses (Miriam is not mentioned here).

Aaron married Elisheva, the daughter of Amminadav, the sister of Nachshon; and she bore him Nadav and Avihu, Eleazar and Itamar.

Eleazar Aaron’s son took him one of the daughters of Putiel to wife; and she bore him Pinchas.

It is unusual for the wives to be named in these genealogies and so we must explore this further to see what Torah is trying to tell us.   Amram and Yocheved are nephew and aunt –both descendants of Levi, so Aaron and Moses are, so to speak, doubly Levitical.

It is not clear who Putiel is – he appears only here. Nor do we know how many daughters he had, or the names of any of them.

But Elisheva is given a much fuller ‘yichus’ – she is the daughter of Amminadav, the sister of Nachshon and we know from later in bible that her tribe therefore is that of Judah.  Not much is known of Amminadav, but Nachshon features further in text and tradition.  We learn in the book of Numbers that under God’s instruction, Nachshon ben Amminadav was appointed by Moses as ‘Nasi’, leader/prince of the Tribe of Judah (Num. 1:7), to stand with Moses and to help him lead the people.  We can also see that through Boaz he will be a direct ancestor to King David; and curiously he sits exactly half way in the biblical genealogy that leads directly from Judah to David.

Because of his descent from Judah and his many regal descendants, Nachshon is praised in the rabbinic literature. Most famously – even though the biblical text does not mention him there – he is said to have shown real faith at the Reed Sea. The Israelites having left Egypt after the final plague, found themselves trapped. In front of them was the water and behind them the furious pursuing army. They complained bitterly to Moses asking why he had brought them there only to die in the wilderness.  And while they were standing there, each one angrily refusing to go further, and while Moses was praying to God for help, Nachshon ben Amminadav jumped into the water and when it reached his nostrils, the waters parted. (BT Sotah 36a; Mechilta Beshalach)

This is the brother of Elisheva, a man apparently of great qualities – and as Elisheva is introduced to us as his sister – an unnecessary addition in the generational genealogy- it is assumed that something else is being alluded to here beyond the blood relationship. Elisheva brings into the Priestly line that will descend from her and Aaron the qualities of leadership embodied by her own family which will provide the Royal line.

Elisheva will give birth to the four sons of Aaron, two of whom, Nadav and Avihu, will suffer a terrible and violent death shortly after being inducted into the priesthood. The other two will continue the hereditary line of the Cohanim – the Jewish priests.   She is, with Aaron, the root of the priestly tradition. And she also brings together the two formal leadership roles within the biblical tradition – she brings the royal line of Judah which is already generations old, (Judah having been blessed by Jacob on his deathbed as being the Royal line), together with the brand new line of hereditary priesthood.

Elisheva is understood in tradition to be a woman who had reason for great pride and joy by virtue of her relationships to male leaders:  The Talmud (Zevachim 102a) tells us that on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan “Elisheva had five additional joys over other daughters of Israel. She was the sister-in-law of the king (Moses), the wife of the High Priest (Aaron), her son (Elazar) was the segan (deputy high priest), her grandson (Pinchas) was anointed for war, and her brother (Nachshon) was a prince of the tribe of Judah [and the first of the twelve tribal leaders to make a gift offering for the inauguration]  One can add to this list that it was Betzalel ben Hur her nephew  of the tribe of Judah, who was the architect appointed by God to build the Mishkan.

Talmud however goes on to note “yet she was bereaved of her two sons”

I find this extraordinary. The Talmudic text is well aware that Elisheva, like Aaron, is bereaved of two of her adult children in a moment – destroyed when beginning their work as priests, but offering strange fire before God. We don’t really understand what happened here – were they drunk? Idolatrous? Inefficient?  Improperly dressed? – but we do understand that they die instantly. And we also understand that while a male response is described to these deaths, (Moses speaks to Aaron about God’s demands for the priesthood, Aaron is silent, Mishael and Elzaphan the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron are instructed to bring the bodies out of the mishkan and put them outside the camp, Elazar and Itamar are instructed about their priestly duties, along with Aaron…) Nothing is said about the response of Elisheva, the mother of the dead boys.

Aaron is famously silent – we are told this and it is understood that he is able to accept that the greater good of the priesthood is more important than the individual fates of his two sons. But his enigmatic silence is at painful odds with the complete erasure of the response of Elisheva. I cannot for a moment imagine that she would have taken the deaths quite so phlegmatically.

In the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 20:2) we see the situation from the viewpoint of Elisheva. “Elisheva, the daughter of Amminadav, did not enjoy happiness in this world. True, she witnessed the five crowns [attained by her male relatives] in one day…but when her sons entered to offer incense and were burnt, her joy was changed to mourning.”

The Midrash not only allows her mourning, it accepts that the deaths of her sons affected her profoundly so that even the achievements of her other male relatives would not give her any happiness.  Mourning as a parent is all-consuming. It is not ever something that one can recover fro;  the best that can happen is that joy can once again be experienced tinged with sadness, with an awareness that life is incomplete and will remain so.

Elisheva, the woman who brings together the lines of power and leadership – monarchy and priesthood, who is the foremother therefore of all those who have to care for the people, who have to lead it thoughtfully and in is best interest; Elisheva, matriarch and founding spirit of all the leaders whose job is to serve, to provide security, to be thoughtful about the impact of their decisions in the wider world –  brings not only the qualities of power that leadership needs, she brings another quality – the awareness of incompleteness and imperfection that we must live with.

It is a truism that peace/shalom is never fully here – the most we have is an absence of conflict and we must work to stop such conflict breaking out and gaining ascendancy. Our hope for each other uses the prefix le – leshalom, TOWARDS shalom, rather than b’shalom –IN/WITH peace because we are constantly striving towards it – we only reach our individual shalom when we are dead, as the biblical language confirms.  It is also true that every joy we have in life is good but it is temporary and it is always susceptible to change. We live in a world of uncertainty and entropy, change will happen and we must be able to cope with it.

Elisheva had so much in life – she came from a successful and value driven family, she married into another one, she had children and grandchildren, she features (albeit briefly) in bible. But as the midrash tells us, she did not enjoy happiness in this world, she lived in the liminal space where the pain of her mourning, and her awareness of the continuing fragility of the lives of those we love can  tinge, if not overshadow all happiness.

At a Jewish wedding there is a tradition to break a glass at the end of the ceremony. There are many reasons given – to scare away demons who may be lurking and to remember the destruction of the Temple  are two of the most famous, but the most likely is to remind everyone in the room that joy is transitory and good times must be enjoyed when we encounter them.

Life is hard and we shall all encounter a mixture of good and bad, of ease and difficulty, of problems and effortlessness as we go through it.  We will all meet difficulties, many of us will face fear and anxiety, some of us will have to deal with tragedy. We cannot allow fear or pain or sadness to overwhelm us but neither must we suppress the realities that they exist.

Elisheva encountered both extreme highs and lows of life. Bible is silent on her way of dealing with it, but rabbinic tradition uses her as a model, in the full knowledge that the people it is writing for would also face good times and bad, and needed to find resilience beyond that of blind faith. Elisheva lives on after the tragedy of the deaths of her sons, she continues to experience joy and sadness, she is able to experience both but neither of them can be untouched by the other. She is a human being who copes with life.

The name Elisheva can mean either “my God has sworn an oath” or it can mean “my God has satisfied”. What is the oath that is sworn? That God will remain our God through the ages, through good times and bad. And in what way is Elisheva ‘satisfied’? She has had a lot of good in her life, which enables her to deal also with the bad.

We learn from Elisheva that we can both enjoy life and mourn for what we no longer have, or might never have. We must live with the mingling of light and dark, knowing that each will tinge the other but each must be lived through. We learn that holding a constant sense that we are still connected to God, even in the dark times, even when may be afraid or sad or even angry with God, will help us through our lives.

No one gets away with a life that has no loss and no pain. No one escapes pain – it is an elemental human condition and closely allied to the ability to love. The men around Elisheva take refuge in their status, but Elisheva stands out, a scion of the royal line, the mother of priests. She may appear to have everything, but what matters can be taken away in a heartbeat and then the “everything” shows what it truly is – momentary, material, and irrelevant. Elisheva reminds us that relationships not only underpin our lives, they provide connection and the place to be ourselves. Everything else will pass.

Tetzaveh: the flames that ascend on their own

אַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר:  לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד

And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring to you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually. (Ex 27:20)

For those of us who enjoy parsing bible, this very first verse of the sidra gives us a rich seam of learning. God is instructing Moses on what will happen inside the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle used for worship in the wilderness years. The sidra gives us elaborately detailed instructions for the clothing of the priests, and about the ceremony of ordination in which they will be dedicated to the service of God. The purpose of the clothes and the rituals are made clear – it is to make the priests holy.

The holiness of biblical times was not the abstract quality we think of it today, it was for them an important state of being for those who were to approach God. Holiness could be acquired through ritual and clothing, washing and the abstention from some actions, people and places. Holiness was a quality which was necessary for those who wished to serve God in the rituals of worship, as it would somehow protect them from what was understood to be a potentially dangerous and certainly unknowable presence of God.

So we have verse after verse of what they wore and when and how they wore it, what they washed and what they daubed in blood; what they ate and when and in what condition, what they slaughtered and what they sprinkled, what they burned and what they waved.

Reading it one can easily fall into a modern-minded trap of wondering how on earth they could believe that this ritual of sacrifice and incense brought people closer to God – but I think the clue is in the very first line I quoted – this is not for God, it was never for God, this is for the people.

אַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר:  לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד

And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring to you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually. (Ex 27:20)

Rabbinic commentators noticed two surprising words in this verse.

The first being that the oil that is being brought to light the lamps in the Mishkan – and to symbolise the eternal relationship between God and people – is brought not for (or to) God but Alecha – for you. The midrash is clear (Lev Rabbah 31:8) when it tells us that God already has the sun as a servant, there is already fire in the world so God does not need the light that we have burning in the Mishkan. God does not need it, we do. Bringing the olive oil into the Mishkan is an action only for our benefit; it is a way to come closer to God, a way to create relationship with the Eternal. The Midrash tells us that God gives us the mitzvot as a way to let us have as many opportunities as possible to come closer to relationship with God, even in the smallest and insignificant actions of our lives – such as providing olive oil for a lamp.

There is a second curiosity in this verse. The verb used to describe kindling the light is not the normal one for lighting a flame – lehadlik – but instead the bible talks of le’ha’alot Ner Tamid – to cause to ascend a light continually.

In the Talmud are two ideas about this verb and what we can learn from it. Rabbi Samuel bar Isaac in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sukkah 29b) deduced that the unusual word לְהַעֲלֹת, le’ha’alot, literally “to cause to ascend,” meant that the wick had to allow the flame to ascend by itself. And thus the Rabbis concluded that no material other than flax — as in the fine linen of the High Priest’s clothing — would allow the flame to ascend by itself. Similarly, in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 21a) Rami bar Hama deduced from the use of word לְהַעֲלֹת, le’ha’alot, that the flame had to ascend by itself, and not through other means (such as adjustment by the priests).

Taking these comments and in particular the idea that the flame should ascend on its own, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the famous nineteenth century founder of the school of “Torah im Derech Eretz” orthodoxy which negotiates the  relationship between traditionally observant Judaism and the modern world, wrote that “the description of the act of kindling a lamp by the term ‘ascending’ is peculiar to the service of the lamp in the sanctuary. It alludes to the action of the priest in applying the flame to the wick which is ready to be kindled until the flame ascends of its own”. The task of the teacher of Judaism is to make themselves superfluous to their pupils. It is not their function to keep the people – the ones who receive instruction from the teacher – continually dependent on them”

The statement is a beautiful distillation of what Jewish education – formal and informal – should be aiming for. That we want our children (and of course our adults) to be themselves ‘flames which ascend on their own’. The goal of Jewish community is that individually and collectively we gain the knowledge and the confidence and the inspiration to live active and thoughtful Jewish lives, that each of us is able to stand up and be a light in the world, living with Jewish values and ethics, striking out for righteousness.

There is an idiom in the English language – to pass the torch – and this is, to some extent what all of us in the Jewish world hope to be doing within our communities. However this sidra reminds us that we are not passing the torch on in order to relinquish our responsibilities, but rather that we nurture the flame of learning and identity of the next generation with our own learning and experience.

The image of Aaron each and every day nurturing a flame in order to have it stand upright and unaided, giving light through the darkness is an image that appeals to me and speaks to me of how we have kept our traditions and our teachings alive through the generations.

candles

From Bar Hedya to Charlie Hebdo: the power to shape the world is in our hands

In the Talmud in tractate Berachot (56a) we learn of Bar Hedya, the interpreter of dreams, who would give a favourable interpretation to the one who paid him, and an unfavourable interpretation to the one who did not pay. The third century amoraim Abaye and Rava went to see him, each claiming to have had the same dream, and Abaye paid him whereas Rava did not. The Talmud records a collection of his interpretations to each man, where Abaye is told of all the wonderful things that his dreams portend, and Raba is told only terrible outcomes. Subsequently Rava revisited him with new dreams, and still was given terrible news of his future, some of which the Talmud records as happening. Then finally Rava went to him and gave him money for the interpretation and suddenly his future looked rosy – he would be miraculously saved from danger, he would take over Abaye’s role as teacher par excellence (which again we know happened). One day Bar Hedya was travelling with Rava in a boat, when he said to himself “why should I accompany a man whose dream I have interpreted to mean he will be miraculously saved from danger [and therefore I will drown] and so he quickly got off the boat, letting his book fall as he did so. Rava found the book and looked into it to find the words “All dreams follow the mouth”. Rava exclaimed “you wretch – it all depended on you, and you gave me all this pain”….

The narrative reads with almost comedic intent, although real tragedy ensues. It seems to be an empirical experiment by two scholars as the power of dreams and their interpretation – are they really prophetic foretellers of the future or do they have no power over us in the waking world? And is the dream itself the power or the interpretation and understanding of the dream?

I was reminded of this passage as I read article after blog post, social media comment after theological discourse in the last days, trying to make sense of the terrible murders at Charlie Hebdo.

I believe in religion. I believe in the power of religion to do good in the world. I believe it is one of our most important tools to visualise and to create a better world. I understand religion to be designed to take some of the most frightening and frightful options away from human choices. When Moses quotes God as saying “Li nakam ve’shilem” (Vengeance is Mine, and recompense) (Deut 32:35) this is not describing a hateful angry and punitive God, but is taking away the obligation of vengeance against one’s tormentor from the person and ascribing it to God. Religion transforms our mortal powerlessness and allows us to let go of our frustrations with what we cannot change, in order to address ourselves to our lives with the power and abilities we have. We leave to God the things we cannot face or cannot deal with, and we move on.

All religions do this essential thing, albeit in differing ways. They function to give us the head and heart space in order that we are able to forward the aspirations expressed in every religion – the treating of all others with respect, the working for a better world, for peaceful living together, for growing our own souls….

Every religion has its foundational myths and texts, and every foundational text shares and restates the basic premise that every human being is of absolute value, and how we get on with each other is of absolute importance, and that there is a bigger arena than we can see or even imagine from within our own contexts.

Every religion has within its foundational texts and myths texts of horror which seem to sacralise violence against individuals or nations; every religion also has within its foundational texts and myths texts of hope and assurance, which mandate loving care of the other, and the search for peaceful living together, valuing each other’s humanity.

And so to the blogs and articles and social media comments which everywhere protest that murderous things done in the name of religion or people of faith or in defence of God are distortions of that true religion, the result of false teaching, and the reassuring quotations from Hebrew Bible or Quran or New Testament are applied to the arguments. Because, as Bar Hedya knew, everything is open to interpretation, and it is the interpretation which gives the power to the text/dream rather than the text/dream simply standing on its own. Every religion can defend itself with its texts of hope and love for the other, can gloss its texts of terror as being of a particular period or not meaning what it seems to mean. The Jewish teaching of every word or verse having a ‘pardes’ of possible interpretations and exegisis: (the pshat- plain meaning of the word/s; the remez – allusion or hints of deeper symbolic meaning; the drash – enquiring or comparative meanings; and the sod – the esoteric and mystical meaning) surfaces the importance of understanding a text in as rich and complex a way as we can, for this is what will ultimately create the meaning of that text for us within our own contexts.

So when I read of the apologetics for whatever a particular religion has done now/ someone has done in the name of a particular religion, part of me is so grateful for these urtexts of shared values and aspirations towards love and justice for all, and part of me is furious and wants to scream out to the writers – well that may be in your sacred book, but why are people not interpreting this original intention of religion for the sake of justice and humanity and valuing others above all? Why are people instead interpreting their religious texts for the purpose of murder and hatred and violence and repression of otherness? Why are people oppressing others or murdering them in the name of their God?

We cannot rely on the texts of hope in our sacred literature and ignore what Bar Hedya knew – that how we choose to interpret the basic text matters even more than the text itself because it gives us the power to ignore what our religion is for and to weaponise our traditions to use against others. Everything has to be in the interpretation, and the reality is that the interpretation we allow to prevail at any given time isn’t the most “true”, it is the one most amenable to the power of the time. We choose to allow interpretations that let us hate the other, or ignore their plight, or suppress or even oppress them. We choose to allow the interpretations that mean that people murder others in the name of their religion. We choose the interpretations that give us a sense of power over others. Our urtexts may be screaming out that these interpretations are not what were intended, but until we hear the voices of modern scholars of every religion both admitting to our own texts of terror and neutralising them, until we hear the voices of religious people refusing to accept teachings of hatred of the other, we will be stuck with the teachers of hatred, the radicalisers of those who feel powerless, the focusers of chaotic feelings of aimlessness and anomie where no good future can be envisaged let alone aspired to.

It is time to admit that the interpretation of our texts have a real power, and to give those who interpret them the necessary tools to understand that it is in their hands to bring forth the future into existence.

Women in Public Space – a proud Jewish tradition in danger of being forgotten

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Where has it come from, this strident male voice insisting that women are so dangerous that they must neither be seen nor heard? When did woman, created equally and simultaneously alongside man in the first creation story  (Genesis 1:27) lose that position in the eyes of some commentators so that they not only feel the need to hide women away from the public eye and mute our voices, but go on to claim that this is God’s will as indicated in bible? And then, for good measure, decree that women cannot study these texts for reasons of modesty?

The position of women in Judaism is under assault and despite what some may say, this is essentially a modern phenomenon. Biblical women are strong personalities, active players in the narrative. Sarah, like Abraham, “makes souls” (Genesis 12:5). God tells Abraham “in all that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice (obey her); for through Isaac shall your descendants be called. (gen 21:12) making Sarah as important a transmitter of covenant as Abraham. The other matriarchs are equally powerful players in the narrative, as are many other women in bible. The Talmud tells of the seven prophetesses in bible (BT Megillah 14a) including Deborah, the only person in the book of Judges to actually be seen making judgements for the Children of Israel  who came to her for rulings  (Judges 4:5). Women scholars can be found in our tradition down the years: Talmud records the comments if first century Ima Shalom,  In the 2nd Century Beruriah, daughter of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon was such a scholar that Talmud tells us “she learned three hundred laws from three hundred teachers in one day” (BT. Pesachim 62b).  Rashi’s daughters learned Talmud.

We have archaeological evidence that there were women leaders in the ancient synagogues from the second century on, that they were active participants in ancient Jewish society long before the rabbinic period. Women have affected tradition through the generations, be it taking on mikveh for themselves or creating their own prayers and techines. Even the way we pray the amidah is based on Hannah’s prayer (BT Berachot 31). So why now as the rest of the world is waking to the benefits of women in public space of is one part of the Jewish world going in the other direction? And how can traditional Jews recite Eshet Chayil (Proverbs 31:10-31) which celebrates the  domestic and commercial skills of a good woman, and at the same time declare that the mere presence of a woman in the public sphere will cause licentious thoughts and so must be prevented at all costs?

The segregation of women in prayer and study is a case in point. Mechitza is sometimes cited today as the gold standard of orthodoxy – yet less than a generation ago many orthodox synagogues did not require such a barrier between the sexes. Its origin is neither biblical nor from Temple period – indeed it most likely entered Jewish practise in medieval times from the practises of the people among whom the Jewish people were living. According to Talmud there was only one day in the year when men and women were separated, on the exceedingly festive Simchat Beit Ha’Sho’eva.  (Sukkah 5:1) Fascinatingly, according to the Talmud, on this day in order to prevent too much rowdy behaviour, there was a rabbinic enactment (takkanah) to separate the men and women, and after some trial an error putting the men outside the courtyard and the women inside, then vice versa, the solution was hit upon – to build a gallery above the courtyard and to place the women safely above the fray. Fancy that- a rabbinic enactment changing the plans of the Temple! Imagine the daring to create an architectural reformation that goes against the original divine blueprint.

The Talmudic Rabbis are well aware of this huge dissonance and dislocation in the tradition in order to respond to the people and attempted to support it with a verse from Zechariah, and as all those who study or write response know, supporting verses from the prophetic books are not enough to create Halacha, and most certainly they are not of the category of biblical law. The sleight of hand would be amusingly audacious if it has not meant within the last generation or so that it has disappeared behind the “because I say so” school of responsa, and emerged as a biblical imperative that must not be questioned.

 The area of the Second Temple known as the Ezrat Nashim was not an area designated especially for women as is popularly imagined, but the first courtyard as one entered the Temple precinct and it is clear that both men and women mingled within it. There is no evidence – either textual or physical, that men and women were separated during public worship until the middle ages when we find the statement in the tenth century Tana D’vei Eliyahu that “a man should not stand among women and pray, because he is likely to be distracted by them” – a statement that seems to imply that men are indeed praying alongside women.  

So why in the last few years has one part of the orthodox world chose to focus on taking women out of public space? Why have the laws of tzniut (modesty) become not a spiritual aid, but a stick with which to beat girls and women, to force them to suppress much of their own selves as an act of piety. Posters abound in the frum world, such as the ones shown on this blog, warning women that if they do not wear suitably modest clothing the messiah will not come, they may cause ill health to others and even to themselves, the world is dependent on their covering up and ensuring that no one might notice them at all as women.  There are attempts to silence the voices of women in public, to prevent women singing even at secular events such as Israel Independence Day or Holocaust Memorial Day, although confusingly the responsa about what and where women may sing are so many and varied that what one rabbi may see as the worst possible time and place is noted by another as the only permissible way for women to sing….  And now women’s prayer minyanim are under attack, something that has happened throughout the ages in the Jewish world as attested by the many prayer books left behind, women praying together, studying and reading Torah together, are suddenly in the firing line for some rabbis determined to have a ruling calling them inauthentic, and outside the orthodox fold.

As a woman rabbi trained and working in a progressive stream of Judaism, this concerns me deeply. While I know enough to know how to challenge some of the so called traditions and see them in their context, and can read and critique the responsa which are steering this flight into a mind-set one cannot even really call medieval, I also know that there is a growing determination to control women as never before, and this worries me. Where is it coming from this strident male voice that is insisting that women are dangerous, that sexuality is impure, that authenticity can be found in a mind set so far from biblical and most rabbinic sources as to be from a different world. What is happening in some parts of the Jewish world that it is consuming not only the rights to self expression of women, but also the dynamism and scholarship and thoughtfulness of so many years in order to make a one size fits all costume to clothe and smooth away and hide from view the diversity, the openness and the audacity of our rabbinic ancestors.

Sidra Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. The limits of following the Laws of God

God spoke to Moses and said “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the Eternal your God. You will not follow the practices of the land of Egypt where you lived, nor of the land of Canaan to where I am taking you, nor shall you follow their laws (Lev 18:1-3)

Not to follow the laws of the country in which we are living, but only to follow the laws of God – it is potentially a recipe for disaster, particularly in the modern world in which we live. The Hasidic rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, (1847–1905) known as the Sfat Emet, understood this verse to be unlimited in its reach -: we are not to imitate “Egypt and Canaan” in any way in which we live our lives – even in matters of clothing. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888) who is credited with founding Torah im Derech Eretz, modern orthodoxy, said that there were limits, and that we may “imitate the nations among who we live in things that are based on reason, but not on things relating to religion or superstition.”

The prohibition, to “not follow the law of the land” is one which is considered and worked upon in Jewish literature – what exactly does it cover? Is it simply the idolatrous practises of the other nations or is it more? And where does one draw the line?

In the Talmud we find a ruling which is well known in every Jewish community, and which seems to cut across the biblical statement should it be interpreted as done by Sfat Emet.  In several places in the Talmud (Bava Kama 113a, Nedarim 28a, Bava Batra 54b-55a and Gittin 10b)  we find the words of Samuel:  “Dina de’Malchuta, Dina” – the Law of the Land is the Law. This halachic principle does not mean simply that Jews have to follow every secular law (the “law of the land”); it means that Halacha incorporates the law of the land in which Jews live. In other words, where dina de-malchuta dina applies, a requirement of secular law becomes a halachic obligation as well.  And it is an immutable and absolute principle of halachic process.

In the Talmud in  Bava Kamma 113a we are told that it is an absolute obligation to pay taxes imposed by Government. But then a baraita is given (a text that is of the same age as Mishnah but which did not make it into the final edit of the book in the 2nd century) which tells of an argument about the legality of evading tax. The Talmud asks in amazement about the existence of such an argument – “How can it be permitted to evade a tax? Surely Samuel said the law of the land is the law!”  The resolution comes that if the tax is being collected on behalf of recognised government, then one is forbidden to take steps to evade it.

 Surely a lesson for modern times!