Gathering Sources: Bechukotai

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Bechukotai — occasionally spelled “Bechukosai,” or “B’hukkothai” — Levitucus 26:3-27:34. 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”:

A Path to Follow: Clearing Out the Old
Something to Notice: Women, Vayikra, and Progress
Great Source(s): Anonymous Commandments to God (9-11th Century CE)

See also on the Haftarah: “Notes on Jeremiah: Max Ticktin’s Scribbles”

Next read in most of the Diaspora on May 25, 2019;
Bechukotai is read in double-portion with Behar in non-leap years.

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By Yonidebest


Photo credit: By Yonidebest – Self-photographed, Public Domain

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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Bechukotai: Great Source(s)

“…if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you…”–Leviticus/Vayikra 26:15-16

“…You shall not prolong Your anger with Your sorrowing people to all generations…,” an anonymous author — dated somewhere between the 9th and 11th centuries CE — replies, presenting God with 22 commandments, from aleph to tav:

You shall not withhold [t’acher (aleph)] Your answer from him who cries to You with all his heart. You shall not despise [t’vzeh (bet)] the afflicted wretch when he implores You for mercy. You shall not berate [tig’ar (gimmel)] the poor and downtrodden, when he appears before You. You shall not turn Your creature away from Your door empty-handed. You shall not grieve him or shame him for his sin and guilt. You shal not rebuke him in Your anger once he forsakes his ways. You shall not remember against him his early sins, buried in his bosom. You shall not take his pledge in pawn for having defiled himself with crime. You shall not banish him who strays afar, but shall draw him near when he returns…You shall not prolong Your anger with Your sorrowing people to all generations….You shall not hide Yourself [titaleim (tav)] when I beseech You: let my sighs come before You!
–translated by T. Carmi. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse*

Anonymous 9th-11th Century CE poem

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

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.