“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: Bolton has served, for the last nine years, as rabbi to Congregation Beit Tikvah in Baltimore, a congregation advertising welcome to “families, interfaith couples and individuals regardless of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Our building is wheelchair accessible.” (A former opera singer, she also directs the Jewish Reconstructionist Federations’ music and liturgy program.)
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.
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.