Power, Language, and Settling: Questions from Joseph’s Story

The Joseph story, which begins in this week’s Torah portion raises questions about language, about power and how it is used, and about the possibility of learning an entirely new narrative about a story of which we are a part:

  • How does the language we use, even inside our own heads, affect the way we view an encounter?
  • How does the way one individual is described affect our views of others who share some background with that individual?
  • What does it mean for one person or group of persons to have power over another? Is it as changeable as a garment? Do we recognize when we are wearing a garment of power?
  • Do we sometimes pretend a sense of brotherhood when it suits us and drop it when it doesn’t?
  • Can we, today — like the biblical Joseph — create circumstances that lead to a “dizzying awareness of new narrative” that leads to different action?
  • Do we, as individuals or as part of a collective, try to settle for our own peace, even if we know others are suffering? How hard do we, like the biblical Jacob, work to remain oblivious to strife before us, even if we helped engender it?

Finally: what does this portion say about “living in the midst of history” and entering the eight days of Chanukah, designed to bring us out of the lowest level of light?


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Tefillin Barbie Tries a New Siddur

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Soferet [scribe] Jen Taylor Friedman uses her scribal arts to create a variety of ritual items: ketubot [marriage certificates]; scrolls of the Book of Esther; scrolls to be used in mezuzot [doorpost markers] and tefillin [ritual boxes bound to arm and head]; as well as complete sets of tefillin. In 2007, she became the first woman we know to have completed a full Torah scroll. (More about female scribes)

UPDATE: An earlier version of this blog listed vegetarian tefillin among HaSoferet offerings. This was in error. Apologies. See discussion and comments below.

Barbie_ArrivedSince 2006, Taylor Friedman has also been providing mini-tallitot [prayer shawls] and tiny tefillin for Barbie® dolls.

One of these “Tefillin Barbies” recently traveled from Montreal to Washington, DC.

DC Tefillin Barbie arrived with a volume of the Babylonian Talmud in her hand. Seems she was studying something in Yebamot. This tractate focuses on marriage of a widow to her brother-in-law, but I believe Barbie may have been exploring passages, which appear near the beginning of the volume (4b, 5b), about tying of tzitzit, ritual fringes.

Study vs. Prayer

Early critics of Tefillin Barbie argued that, because tefillin are donned for prayer, Barbie ought to have a prayerbook in her hand, not a Talmud volume; some also criticized the particular edition of the Talmud she uses. (See, e.g., DovBear; more below).

In response, Taylor Friedman’s website now explains that Barbie is engaged in “daf-yomi” [page a day] study of the Talmud. (This practice requires seven years of daily discipline to complete. Some women in Israel and in the U.S. engage in this study, but it is usually considered a male enterprise; in addition it’s usually considered an orthodox practice, although non-Orthodox Jews also participate.) She adds:

Barbie is hardcore, see? She’s taking daf-yomi shiur before minyan starts, telling you that she’s sorry you don’t get that Tosafot but we don’t have time to get into it right now and she’ll go through it with you if you can stay afterwards.

Perhaps a real hardcore Barbie fan might get a whole set of mini-Talmud volumes, so she is carrying the right volume for any particular day of the seven-year Daf-Yomi cycle: For example, she’d be starting Moed Katan/Hagiga [Minor Feast/Festival Offerings] today (8/13/14). But I’m pretty sure DC Tefillin Barbie downloads her learning off the internet or uses a local library volume.

Meanwhile, having been warned “that tallit and tefillin are not designed to come off, and that this is a collector Barbie, not a toy suitable for small children,” I assumed Barbie might be pretty set in her ways. But when she arrived, I realized that she was, in fact, a Barbie doll…

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Pekudei: A Path to Follow

Speaking of weaving and women’s work…

SERAKH BAT ASHER THE HISTORIAN ADDS: Since we were principally a sheepherding people in ancient times, Israelite women mostly wove wool. Some even say that it was we women of Israel who first introduced colored wool garments into Egypt. For did not Joseph have a splendid “coat of many colors”!

THE SAGES IN OUR OWN TIME ADD: Modern scholars have found pictures of colored garments in Egyptian tomb paintings dating from about the time Jacob’s clan supposedly arrived in Goshen. Anad not only did the Israelite women bring technical expertise to Egypt; they probably acquired from their Egyptian sisters the special technique of splicing and twisting linen that first appears in Canaan about the time the Israelites would have arrived from the Nile Delta.

MIRIAM ADDS: As it is written: “EACH WOMAN SHALL BORROW FROM HER NEIGHBORS” (3:22)

BERURIAH THE SCHOLAR TEACHERS: The Torah describes the women in the wilderness who spin linen and goats’ hair “WITH THEIR HANDS” as “WISEHEARTED” (35:25). Similarly in the Book of Proverbs (31:13, 19, 22, 24-25), a “WOMAN OF VALOR” is described largely in terms of her weaving skills:

She looks for wool and flax
And sets her hand to them with a will….
She sets her hand to the distaff;
Her fingers work the spindle….
She makes covers for herself:
Her clothing is linen and purple….
She makes cloth and sells it,
And offers a girdle to the merchant,
She is clothed with strength and splendor.

— Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam*

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Tetzaveh: A Path to Follow

A bell and a pomegranate: erotic poetry and bellman’s verses…

And you shall make on its hem pomegranates of indigo and purple and crimson, on its hem all around, and golden bells within them all around. A golden bell and a pomegranate [paamon zahav v’rimon], a golden bell and a pomegranate, on the hem of the robe all around [al shulei hamil saviv].

A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate. The sheer splendor of the ornamentation is evoked in poetic incantation through the repetition of the phrase. Judah Halevi, the great medieval Hebrew poet, echoes these words in a delicate, richly sensual love poem, registering an imaginative responsiveness to the sumptuous sensuality of the language here.
— Exodus/Shemot 28:33-34, Alter**

Alter doesn’t give a citation for the “delicate, richly sensual love poem,” its name or first line. (Alas, poor footnote, I knew him well!)*

It seems likely that Alter is referencing the poem T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse,** entitles “Song of Farewell” or “Why, O Fair One?”:

Mah lach, tz’viya, tim’n’i tzirayich
midor, tz’laav malui tzirayich

[Why, O fair one, do you withhold your envoys
from the lover whose heart is filled with pain of you?

lu acharei moti b’aznei yaaleh
kol pa’amon zahav alei shulayich

[Oh, after my death, let me still hear
the sound of the golden bells on the hem of your skirt]
–Judah Halevi, T. Carmi’s translation

This type of poem — using biblical imagery for human, sometimes erotic, themes — is quite different from Halevi’s religious poetry. One interesting path to follow is to read a few of Halevi’s poems — and those of his fellow medieval writers — with different subjects or aims. Consider the contrast between religious and secular uses of biblical language and images, described in Alter’s Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture.**


Double Canonicity

Where Shall I Find You?” — one of Halevi’s religious works — references the Cherubim, for example, from the portion Terumah. This is meant to evoke God’s dwelling place and a longing for a relationship with the divine.

The poem above, on the other hand, uses imagery from the portion Tetzeveh, referencing priestly garb, but unabashedly describes human passion — “radical freedom of allusive play with the Bible” (Alter, p. 47).

Such free use of biblical language might seem blasphemous “from a doctrinal point of view,” Alter writes. “[B]ut the poet does it without compunction, for in his sense of the literary canonicity of the Bible, considerations of doctrine are suspended” (p.50). The Bible, in this view, is a “literary repository of the language of the culture” (p.48).

To read more about Hebrew poets’ varying use of biblical texts, see Canon and Creativity.

*The Bell’s Path

To follow another, somewhat diversionary, path, consider the trail of the bell itself, rather than that of the lush biblical description. Plaut** notes — in reference to Exodus/Shemot 28:34 — that bells were widely used to ward off evil. He cites James Frazer (Folklore in the Old Testament, 1919, and The Golden Bough, 1922), noting that the older work was “updated and republished in Gaster’s book.” This book, in turn —Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament, by Theodor H. Gaster (NY: Harper and Row, 1969) — is listed fully in Plaut’s bibliography and cited by footnote and endnote (yeah!!).

(According to Frazer, as in the poem from Milton here quoted, bells had a prophylactic function, and hence the High Priest was to have a bell attached to his garments so that when he entered the sanctuary he would not die, 28:35)

…the bellman’s drowsy charm
To bless the doors from nightly harm. — John Milton***

What Plaut doesn’t say, but I find interesting, is that night watchmen in the 17th and 18th Centuries CE regaled their customers with rhymes designed to elicit gratuities at the Christmas holidays.

“The benediction which thus broke the stillness of the night was usually cast in a poetical form of such unparalleled atrocity that bellman’s verses have been proverbial ever since” (Frazer , p.456…through Google Books, you can read the entire chapter on “The Golden Bell,” and Frazer cites Lord Macaulay’s History of England, 1871, also available through Google, should you desire further details about bellman and their verses.)

Thus, this one pair of bible verses is associated with some of the best-loved and most reviled poetry ever.** Please see Source Materials for full citations and additional information on Torah translations and commentaries. Note: Tetzaveh is also transliterated Tetsaveh or T’tzavveh.

***Plaut doesn’t name Milton’s poem: Il Penseroso, 1633.

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The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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Tetzaveh: Great Source(s)

“And it [a robe hemmed with bells] shall be upon Aaron when he serves, so that its sound shall be heard when he comes into [v’nishma kolo b’bo-o] the sanctum before the Lord and when he goes out, that he shall not die.”
— Exodus/Shemot 28:31-38, Alter* translation [bracketed material added]

R. Simeon ben Yohai said: The man who enters his own house, or needless to say the house of his fellow man unexpectedly, the Holy One hates, and I too do not exactly love him.

Rav said: Do not enter your city nor even your own home unexpectedly [footnote: without informing your kin of your coming].

While R. Yohanan was about to go in to inquire about the welfare of R. Hanina, he would first clear his throat in keeping with “And his voice shall be heard when he goeth in [v’nishma kolo b’bo-o] ” (Exod. 28:35)
— Bialik & Ravnitsky, Sefer Ha-Aggadah* (citation to Lev Rabbah 21:8)

Alter notes: “In the ancient Near East, the inner sanctum was a dangerous place. Any misstep or involuntary trespass of the sacred paraphernalia could bring death…The sound of the ringing golden bells on Aaron’s hem goes before him as he enters the sanctum, serving an apotropaic function to shield him from harm in this zone of danger.”

Cassuto* says: “…shall be heard… for it is unseemly to enter the royal palace suddenly; propriety demands that the entry should be preceded by an announcement, and the priest should be careful not to go into the sanctuary irreverently. And likewise when he comes out, as he prostrates himself before departing, the sound of the bells, together with the act of prostration, will constitute a kind of parting blessing on leaving the sanctuary. Lest he die for not showing due reverence for the shrine.”

* See Source Materials for full citations. Note: Tetzaveh is also transliterated Tetsaveh or T’tzavveh.

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The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group which for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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Vayeishev: A Path to Follow

Chapter 38 of Genesis/Breishit — the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar — is sometimes ignored in the story of Joseph or considered an interruption that, at best, heightens the tension of the “main” story line. But there are important parallels thematically:

The other function of this story seems to be to carry out the major theme of Genesis as we have presented it: continuity and discontinuity between the generations. What is at stake here is not merely the line of one of the brothers, but the line which (as the biblical audience must have been fully aware) will lead to royalty — King David was a descendant of Pertz of v.29. This should not be surprising in a book of origins…

The narrator was woven Chaps. 38 and 37 together with great skill. Again a man in asked to “recognize” objects, again the use of a kid, and again a brother (this time a dead one) is betrayed. — Fox*

Compare verses 38:24-26 — in which Tamar sends Judah’s pledge to him and asks him to “recognize, please” [ha-ker na] the items — with the brothers asking Jacob to “recognize, please” [ha-ker na] Joseph’s torn and bloodied tunic. (37:31-34).

Also consider links of this story with others relating to ancestors of King David and the messianic line — see, particularly, Lot’s daughters (Genesis/Breishit 19:30-37) and the Book of Ruth.

It is interesting to explore the role of women in these stories. One resource for the Tamar story is “The Harlot as Heroine” by Phyllis Bird in Women in the Hebrew Bible.* This same volume, edited by Alice Bach, offers other essays on women and sexual politics in the bible, including several on the Book of Ruth. (See also notes here on Va-yera and Balak.)

* Please see Source Materials for full citations and more notes.

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Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.
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