Chayei Sarah, Shabbat and Transgender Remembrance

Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 – 25:18), begins:

וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה
And the life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.

We have not heard from Sarah since Chapter 21, when she asked Abraham to send out the maid-servant Hagar and her child, Ishmael, born to Abraham. Midrash offers many suggestions for what happened to Sarah between that moment and her death, reported here. Avivah Zornberg suggests that Sarah died from an experience of “the reversibility of joy,” in relation to the Akedah [binding of Isaac]. (Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, [JPS, 1995], p. 399)

Without short-changing what Zornberg has to say about Sarah’s life and death — which I recommend everyone read — I thought this single idea of death by “reversibility of joy” worth considering…especially as we enter Shabbat tonight, with Transgender Remembrance Day ahead of us and weeks of turmoil behind us.
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Remember Miriam: Process & Patience in Parashat Ki Teitzei

“Remember what your God YHVH did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt.” — Deuteronomy/Devarim 24:9 — What is this personal remembrance doing in the midst of a portion which consists largely of commandment after commandment? And what might it tell us, in these days leading up to the high holidays, about memory and return ([teshuvah])?
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Do/Can We Have “Perfect Harmony” in Solidarity with WoW?

Washington, DC’s cross-community Rosh Hodesh Elul service, held on August 11, was an experiment in creating a prayer service that allows DC-area women and men from different streams of Judaism to pray together. In showing solidarity with Women of the Wall, the service exceeded expectations. Many participants found the service a great opportunity to welcome the new month and begin preparations for the new year. Especially given the short planning period and complete lack of official organizational support — many congregations pitched in, but on an ad hoc basis at the very last minute — I believe the event was a successful first endeavor into inter-denominational prayer.

However, it was only a first endeavor.
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DC Voices for Religious Freedom — Solidarity with Women of the Wall

Hallel is my favorite prayer service. As an individual who cannot carry a tune in a satchel but loves to sing and loves the psalms, I find a Hallel [psalms 113-118] sung with gusto a great opportunity to join my off-key voice into a larger sound of praise.

So, as I watched video of Women of the Wall suffering through abuse for raising their voices in prayer on Rosh Hodesh Av and heard reports that a loud Hallel appeared to be a driving force behind the arrest of WoW Chair Anat Hoffman, I decided I would have to raise my voice…in Hallel for the new month, as a wake up call toward a more just new year and in solidarity with WoW.
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Then Israel Sang: Leadership Variation

“Then,” after safely crossing the Sea of Reeds, the Egyptians’ pursuit thwarted, “Moses and the Israelites sang…Miriam took her timbrel…and all the women followed her” (Exodus/Shemot 15:1, 20-21). “Then” — forty years later, after God tells Moses: “Assemble the people that I may give them water” (Numbers/Bamidbar 21:16) and without apparent prompting or leading — “Israel sang this song:”

Come up, O well — sing to it —
The well which the chieftans dug,
which the nobles of the people started
With maces, with their own staffs.
–Numbers/Bamidbar 21:17-18 (JPS translation**)

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Be Not Afraid: Community and Challah

Two of the most iconically gendered concepts in Jewish prayer — that “tenth man” for a minyan, on the one hand, and taking challah, one of three “women’s commandments,” on the other — come from this week’s portion. But gender issues can, I think, distract from other prayer ideas suggested by these same verses.
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Beha’alotekha and the Torah Service

Traveling with God did not make for a smooth trip through the wilderness, and prophecy seems to have engendered more conflict — in the community at large and within the leaders’ family — than clarity in this week’s portion. The Israelites appear in deep struggle with on-going revelation and with life together in the Presence….a condition not altogether unfamiliar today: Our Torah services — shaped, in part, by three verses from this portion — reflect the struggles of Beha’alotekha [“…when you mount (lamps)”].

God’s presence among the people (Bamidbar/Numbers 10:36) directly precedes widespread complaining (Bamidbar/Numbers 11:1), which results in fire, plague and burials. Prophecy in the camp results in community strife (11:24-30) and serious trouble in the family of Miriam, Aaron and Moses (12:1-16).

Every congregational Torah reading is understood as a re-enactment of the Sinai experience. But we are also re-enacting something of this portion’s struggle as individuals, congregations and groups/movements of Judaism constantly re-interpret, and sometimes re-design, the liturgy surrounding the Torah reading in response to evolving understandings of revelation and to new realities in our communities. Continue Reading

Bechukotai: Something to Notice

“To the last, Parashat Bechukotai challenges us,” writes R. Elizabeth Bolton in “Mir Zaynen Do — We Are Here,” an essay in the The Women’s Torah Commentary:*

If the text excludes us when we are not named, then should we include ourselves in such passages as blessings and curses? Surely contemporary Jewish praxis would look different if we read the covenanting passages as excluding or exempting a whole class of Jews. And yet this has been the experience of many Jewish women, who have searched in vain for a reflection of themselves in Torah, particularly once thy move beyond the family narratives of Genesis and the nation-founding narratives of Exodus….

Can a feminist rereading of Bechukotai and other Torah with difficult theological implications help reconfigure a healthy relationship with brit (covenant) for girls, women, Jews by choice, lesbian and gay Jews, Jews with disabilities and all who question the notion of a Divine figure and punishes?

It can, and it must, for the simple reason that we were all there.

We were at Sinai, we witnessed the Temple’s destruction, we stood at the abyss of history and we are here. — Bolton, pp. 251-252


Note (updated 5/19/19) : Bolton now (2019) serves as rabbi for Or Haneshama in Ottawa.


Women, Vayikra and Progress

Bolton published the above essay in 2000. In it she references, among other sources, Ellen Frankel’s 1996 The Five Books of Miriam.*

By situating a women’s response to issues of suffering in the voices of Rachel (who suffered), Lilith (who was excluded), and ourselves (“our” daughters and mothers), Frankel expands the window frame, enabling us to see the larger picture of women in the Bible leaning to, and including, our generation and those to come. — Bolton, p.250

By commenting on Frankel’s work, Bolton makes a place for women’s scholarship and feminist commentary before her own. By including a variety of commentary, from women and men over the centuries, she places her own remarks within the wider context of millenial-old Torah discussion.

In the 1997 collection Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,* several authors grapple with food, sexuality and other issues relating to holiness of body and soul in the essays on Vayikra. Rachel Adler re-examines her own 1972 (Jewish Catalogue) publication on mikveh and describes the many ways in which her thinking had evolved in 25 years:

…It seemed inadequate to tell them I had changed my mind….I did not know how to be accountable to the people who had learned from me. I had never heard a theologian say that he or she had been wrong….

…I thought that God’s Torah was as complete as God: Inerrant, invulnerable, invariable truth….hard as I tried to make it truthful, it unfolded itself to me as a theology of lies.

…Sacred need not be inerrant [as believed in 1972]; it is enough for the sacred to be inexhaustible. In the depths of Your Torah, I seek You out, Eheyeh, creator of a world of blood. I tear Your Torah verse from verse, until it is broken and bleeding just like me. Over and over I find You in the bloody fragments. Beneath even the woman-hating words of Ezekiel I hear You breathing, “In your blood, live.” — Adler, pp.204-206

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (TWC)* on the other hand, highlights the following and similar sentiments:

“This book [Leviticus] shows how women contribute to Israel’s quest for a holy life.”

“The legislation in this parashah [Vayikra] applies equally to Israelite women and men.”

“This troubling passage [opening words of Tazria] can be understood as a way to promote God’s loving community.”

Not much tearing of Torah, verse by verse, here.

TWC does sometimes engage deeply with gender issues in its Vayikra commentary — “Contemporary Views” from Judith Plaskow and Elyse Goldstein, for example. References to previous works of feminist scholarship are almost non-existent, however. And rarely does the verse-by-verse commentary include a citation of any kind.

Having used TWC since beginning this blog series a year ago, my experience has been — overall, with some valuable exceptions — akin to this:

You’re participating in a meeting where an important and difficult point is hashed out for some time. Then, someone at the far end of the table — perhaps hard-of-hearing or maybe focusing elsewhere — raises one of the initial points as though it were a new idea: It’s disrespectful to all who spoke earlier — especially those who really grappled with some difficult things — frustrating at best for all participating, and no way to progress.

I wish it were possible to make TWC part of a larger conversation, but I don’t see that happening….yet.


* Please see Source Materials for full citation and additional information.

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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 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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Kedoshim: A Path to Follow

A college friend and sailing fan once told me a story about a sailor who was about to win a ’round-the-world-solo race when he tacked away from harbor and, returning to open ocean, headed around again.

On May 20, 2009, I had a kind of fit and decided to launch “Torah: Opening the Book” on this blog. I began the four-posts/portion series with “Bamidbar,” the first portion in the book of Numbers/Bamidbar. At a number of points in the last year [2009-10], I have looked forward to completing the task I so impetuously established for myself. However, I recently looked at a calendar and realized that there are only three more portions — two more weeks in this non-leap-year reading cycle — before we complete the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. So…

…Pull into harbor? Continue around? Sail a different sea?
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Tazria: A Path to Follow

“…and on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin is to be circumcised.”
— Leviticus/Vayikra 12:3

Don’t be deterred by the blood-pink cover of Lawrence A. Hoffman’s Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism* or by an apparent narrowness of the topic: “Our focus is the rite of circumcision,” Hoffman says early on. “Our topic, however, is nothing less than rabbinic culture as a whole.” He proceeds to offer a fascinating tour of Jewish thought and practice over the centuries, with particular attention to “private,” “public” and “official” ritual meanings.

It is not necessary to master every detailed argument to follow the book’s overall line of thought, especially helpful in understanding Leviticus and its later interpretations:

…precisely because rabbinic Judaism was a religion of the body, men’s and women’s bodies became signifiers of what the Rabbis accepted as gender essence, especially with regard to the binary opposition of men’s blood drawn during circumcision and women’s blood that flows during menstruation….

…the Rabbis made Judaism inseparable from the male lifeline. Like it or not, they had no idea of a female lifeline….

…women are party [to the Covenant between Jewish men and God] only in a secondary way, through their relationships with fathers and then husbands. I repeat: I do not like it that way; I did not expect to find it that way. But that is the only conclusion my evidence will allow. Better to drag this latent cultural presumption out from beneath the rocks to see what else is attached to it than to let it lie undisturbed as if it were not really there. We can work with what we know, not with what we don’t….
Covenant of Blood, p.23, 25, 26

Along the way, Hoffman offers interesting views of girls and women at various periods in Jewish ritual history: Evidence, e.g., for an ancient “shevua habat” — literally, “week of the daughter” — a birth celebration for girls paralleling that for boys. “[A]s much as gender opposition was part of rabbinic culture, average Jews, even those who followed the Rabbis in their religious life, did not necessarily discriminate against girls as universally as rabbinic rites might suggest,” he adds (p.177).

* Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996. See also Source Materials and “Metzora: Great Source


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 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.