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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Shavuot: the voice of God is heard in the voices of ALL the people. (Or women were at Sinai too, and at the kotel)

In a very few days we will be celebrating Shavuot, a festival of biblical origin which can lay claim to being  one of the most mysterious of our holy days. To begin with, it has no fixed date but instead we have to count towards it from the first day of the Omer, the bringing of a sheaf of the new barley harvest which must be offered in thanksgiving before the harvest can be used. In Leviticus 23 we read “And the Eternal said to Moses, Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them, ‘When you are come into the land which I am giving you, and you reap its harvest, then you will bring the first omer of your harvest to the priest, and he will wave the omer before the Eternal for you to be accepted, on the morrow after the Sabbath, the priest will wave it…and you will not eat bread nor parched corn nor fresh corn until this day, until you have brought the offering of God, it is a statute forever…and you will count from the morrow after the Sabbath from the day that you brought the omer of waving, seven weeks shall be complete, until the morning after the seventh week you shall count fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to the Eternal” (9-16)

In this opaque text a few things stand out: That we must bring from the new harvest in thanksgiving to the Creator of all before we can eat from it. That we must count a period of fifty days from the bringing of one harvest (barley) till the next harvest (wheat), and that the fiftieth day is also to be a festival with full ritual panoply.

It is a feast of harvest, a festival of first fruits – but so are other festivals. It feels like there is something missing in the text, some other layer that was either so well known as to be pointless to explain, or something so deeply mysterious as to be impossible to explain.  Its name is also problematic – in the same chapter we are told of the festival of matza called Pesach and of the festival of booths called Succot but Shavuot – it just means weeks.

The lacunae were noticed very early on and if nature abhors a vacuum, rabbinic tradition refuses to allow one too, rushing to fill any apparent jump or void in text with explanation and midrash. So to begin – what is the date of Shavuot? Should it always be a Sunday, as it would be if we really counted seven weeks from the ‘morrow after the shabbat’    הַשַּׁבָּת  מִמָּחֳרַת

The Second Temple period was one of great disruption and great creativity. Two powerful groups – the Pharisees (forerunners of the Rabbinic tradition) and the Sadducees (political and priestly elite) differed as to the date of Shavuot. The Sadducees read the text literally – the counting began the day after the Shabbat, while the Pharisees interpreted it, specifically that the word “Sabbath” was a word meaning not just the seventh day, but also “festival”, specifically in is case the festival just described before the text quoted, and therefore the omer counting would begin the day after the first day of Pesach.  At a stroke Shavuot was linked to Pesach and with a little creative accounting with the days of the journey towards Mt Sinai the Rabbis could attach the events at Sinai, the giving of the Ten Commandments and the creation of peoplehood with Torah as its powerful identifier to this date. So Exodus linked to Revelation, Freedom to Responsibility, and Shavuot stopped being simply an agricultural festival on a date that could vary and became a fixed point – a high point – in our journey to Judaism.  Shavuot became zeman matan torahteinu – the time of the giving of our Torah – the oral as well as the written – and more than that became the date of the unbreakable covenant made between God and the Jewish people.

So by extension, Shavuot became understood to be the date that we became not just a people, but God’s people. God descended far enough from the heavens to build a different kind of relationship with us, offered us a gift in order to delineate that relationship. And the language of marriage came into play – God wooed us in the desert and brought us to Sinai where the ‘wedding’ took place. God plays the part of the groom, Israel of the bride, and the words of Hosea are used “I will betroth you to me for ever, I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, In love and compassion, I will betroth you in faithfulness and you will know the Eternal (Hosea 2:2.1-2.). The mystical tradition went so far as to create a wedding liturgy within the Shavuot service, and famously Israel Najara, the poet and mystic of Sfat, created a ketubah to be read before the Torah reading in which God as bridegroom and Israel as bride are symbolically betrothed.

Some texts see the marriage as between God (groom) and Israel (bride) with the Torah as the binding contract; others see it as between Israel as groom and Torah as bride, with God as witness and the Oral Torah with Shabbat as dowry. Whichever role the participants took, the imagery of the marriage relationship is one of the most potent of the festival, and it points to the power that the rabbinic tradition saw in the marriage relationship.

The people of Israel as the bride of God, the covenant of marriage being marked with Torah, with Shabbat, with gifts that bring us closer to God – it is extraordinary in so many ways.  The position of the woman in this image – that she is Israel, that Israel is fundamentally feminine, and that the relationship is one of real love and partnership between both parties to the agreement -this is the ideal of marriage. Right from the creation stories in Genesis, where God created men and women at the same time, or where God created woman to be ezer k’negdo, a partner and help who was equal and in dynamic tension to the man, the relationship of marriage between two companions in bible and in the early rabbinic world was real partnership and both parties had their own agency and autonomy which contributed to a strong and confident enterprise.

Quite how we got to the position today from this ideal and idealised partnership to women being marginalised and disempowered in many areas of ‘traditional’ Judaism is a long and painful journey.  How has Israel, the bride of God, relegated its own women to behind a mechitza, distanced us from prayer and from learning, spun stories of idealisation that turn the Shavuot ideas on their head, (for example those about the special spirituality of women which means they don’t need to perform mitzvot). Over time there has been a persistent and incremental and continuing removal of women from the discourse of partnership, from the public space and from the partnership which is developed and rooted in the Shavuot mythology of the marriage between God and Israel.  At Sinai the mountain trembled and the people trembled and all the people stood together at the foot of the mountain and all the people answered together saying “everything that God has spoken we will do” as the voice of the shofar was heard and God answered Moses with a voice.  Voices mingling and speaking and answering – God’s voice, Moses’ voice, the voice of all the people, the voice of the shofar. But now it seems that some voices have precedence and other voices must be stilled. After generations of lying fallow and unused in Talmud the dictum of kol isha has surfaced in rabbinic thinking as a prop to their wish to remove women’s voices from their hearing.

Yesterday on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the women of the wall (WOW)  in Jerusalem held their service for the new month early in the morning. 80 women and more prayed together from their hearts, welcoming the new month and the upcoming festival where Torah was given to ALL the people at Sinai. The prayer was respectful and peaceful and yet – Lesley Sachs, the Director of WOW was detained with the Torah scroll immediately following RH Sivan prayers. Despite a quiet prayer, Sachs was held by police for “disturbing the public order”.  The man who oversees the administration of the wall Rabbi Rabinowitz told journalists that she had smuggled the Torah scroll in under her skirt. An extraordinarily offensive accusation that was provably untrue – she was wearing trousers. But this insight into the mind of the ‘traditional’ rabbi tells us a lot as to why women’s voices are being silenced – what exists under a woman’s skirt is somehow terrifying, our sexuality must be controlled and restrained, a woman’s voice is her nakedness/lewdness in the minds of those who distort the biblical quotation (from a woman’s voice is her sweetness)

We are approaching the anniversary of what happened at Sinai when ALL the people witnessed the divine theophany and ALL the people accepted Torah.  This Shavuot it is even more important that we make sure that ALL the voices can be heard in our public spaces and places, in teaching and learning, in work and in play.  For if God chose to do to Israel what some in Israel choose to do to women, then the marriage must surely be voided on grounds of complete deviation from the agreement.  The countdown is nearly over, the last days of the omer are here. It has been a period of reflection and quietness, readying ourselves for the revelation. Let’s hope the revelation takes us back to our roots, and that the voice of women in prayer and learning will once again be heard with the voice of men doing the same.

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