Gathering Sources: Shemini

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion, “Shemini,” Leviticus 9:1-11:47. (Sometimes spelled “Sh’mini” or “Shmini.”) This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

Shemini is next read beginning at minchah on Shabbat 3/23/19 (Shabbat Tzav).

A path to follow — mourning and hair

Great Souces-1 — a father’s silence

Great Sources -2 — strange crossings

Something to Notice — hairy goat, Torah’s center

Language and Translation — son who remained

See also “In Praise of Silence

Gathering Sources: Tzav

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion, “Tzav,” Leviticus 6:1-8:36. (Sometimes spelled “Tsav” or maybe “Zav.”) This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2010 series called “Opening the Book.” Tzav is next read beginning at minchah on Shabbat 3/16/19 (Shabbat Vayikra).

A Path to Follow — on taking out the ashes and Seder night misgivings

Something to Notice — changing clothes and gait on Shabbat

Language and Translation — a foreshadowing of disaster

Great Sources — “The Altared Table”

Image by Riala on Pixaba

Gathering Sources: Vayikra

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion, “Vayikra,” Lev 1:1-6:7, which also begins the new book, Vayikra/Leviticus. Posting a little early for anyone who wants to get (re-)oriented as we leave the Book of Exodus and enter The Book of Leviticus. (Less variation in transliteration for this portion, but sometimes appears at “Va-Yikra” with a hyphen, older sources sometimes use “W” rather than “V” for that initial vav, so wayikra.)

This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

Great Sources — some general background sources on the Book of Leviticus/Vayikra

Something to Notice — that tiny aleph at the start of Vayikra

Language and Translation — when a “Soul Unintentionally Fails”

A Path to Follow — calling out and Derekh Eretz

Also “Women, Vayikra, and Progress
And He Called“/Stop Street Harassment.

Moral State of Emergency (Beyond 34)

“God has declared a state of moral emergency,” writes Rabbi David Kasher in his commentary on this week’s Torah portion.

Kasher points out that a command to care for the poor suddenly appears in the midst of a portion otherwise dedicated to ritual matters stressing holiday observances, and comments:

Mind you, everybody agrees that charity is good and just. Everybody recognizes that feeding the hungry is a wonderfully noble thing to do. But, they think, nobody can be forced to do it. And so, in time, nobody does it. People speak of poverty with eloquence and compassion, but nobody actually gives to the poor.

It is a situation reminiscent of words written by another great 20th-century rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, in a telegram he sent to President Kennedy, in the midst of the civil rights movement of the 1960s:

I look forward to privilege of being present at meeting tomorrow at 4pm. Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church synagogues have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary toward fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare a state of moral emergency.

Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Racism, like poverty, is one of those social ills we can condemn with our reason, but leave completely unattended by our laws. We build up a great society, so orderly and so civilized… but the most vulnerable are left to fend for themselves.

This is what the Meshech Chochmah was worried about when he warned of the savage beast that we could too easily become. That is why he believed that we needed God to help us turn charity from an option into an obligation. Heschel, too, saw religious faith as a force for compelling social action, and the worship of God as all bound up in the preservation of human dignity.
— R. David Kasher, “State of Grace”
Read the whole commentary at ParshaNUT

And we might also call to mind the way Algren closes the 1961 addendum to Chicago: City on the Make (discussed yesterday and “beyond 23”):

For the [1951] essay made the assumption that, in times when the levers of power are held by those who have lost the will to act honestly, it is those who have been excluded from privileges of our society, and left only its horrors, who forge new levers by which to return honesty to us. The present revolution of a new generation of Negro men and women, now forcing the return of the American promise of dignity for all, sustains the assumption.
— Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make, p.105

Thanks to Rabbi Alana Suskin for sharing the link above.

We counted 34 on the evening of May 7. Tonight, we count….
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And He Called: Stop Street Harrassment

(And) he called [va-yikira]… (Lev. 1:1)

“I don’t care how she’s dressed, it’s not OK!”
“I don’t care how she’s walking, it’s not OK!”
“It’s not a compliment…It’s street harassment”

Vayikra” is a singular masculine verb (all action in Hebrew is gendered). These are the first words, and the Hebrew name, of the Bible book known in English as Leviticus. We know from context that the implicit “he” is God and that God is calling, from within the newly constructed Tabernacle, to Moses. But this year [2012], our reading of Vayikra — (Lev. 1:1-5:26) in the annual Torah cycle — coincides with “Stop Street Harassment Week,” and I’m hearing those words a little differently.

Vayikra is the first portion in a long series of instructions for the sacrificial system, designed to restore balance in the universe when a wrong has been committed, intentionally, unintentionally or even unknowingly. YouTube is not exactly the Tabernacle, and videos are not sacrifices, but I do believe that StopStreetHarrassment.org has managed to make powerful use of tools at hand.

As I watched “Shit Men Say to Men Who Say Shit to Women” (below) I realized I was crying. Gradually, I came to understand that I heard these guys speaking across the decades and the miles to all the men who yelled shit at me in my youth, to all the men who intruded on me, who made the streets feel less safe for me, for other women and for gay and transgendered folk. (for more resources, please visit Stop Street Harassment)

And as I heard these young guys tell others — including those men, now gray as I am or gone, who once hassled me — “it’s not OK,” I felt a balance restored to the universe. These guys cannot atone for mistakes of others. But they did, powerfully, repair something for me.

And he called….

“Are you serious?”
“You’re embarrassing me, man.”
“Stop it.”
“It’s street harrassment.”

Amen. And thank you!

Bechukotai: A Path to Follow

“Clearing Out the Old”

You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make room for the new. — Leviticus/Vayikra 26:10

Meant to suggest plenty lasting from one harvest to the next, perhaps to connect with the promise of a sufficiency for the sabbatical year. But also, as noted in Torah in Motion,* to suggest that the old must be cleared out before the new is used. You don’t have to have a dance troupe, or even feel like actually moving, to consider Tucker’s and Freeman’s perspective on this verse:

[Consider] garage sales (the decision to have one; preparing for one; the end result of having had one, i.e., old things gone, new things in their place, more space in the house, etc.). How does it feel to get rid of something and replace it with a new item?

Take the garage sale and make it personal. What old habits would participants “clear out”? What new habits and attitudes would replace the old ones?

Challenge: Each dancer imagines that he or she is a house. In each room of the house is an old habit or attitude which the dancer wishes to get rid of. The dancers improvise solos in which they go through each “room,” confronting the imagined old habit or attitude, and gradually “replacing” it with a new, improved one. After they complete the change in one “room,” they go on to the next (up to six or so rooms).

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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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