“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

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And he who invokes the LORD’s name shall be doomed to die; and the community shall surely stone him, sojourner and native alike; for his invoking the Name he shall be put to death. And should a man mortally strike down any human being [adam], he is doomed to die. And he who mortally strikes down a beast shall pay for it, life for life. Continue reading

In the biblical world, there was no separation of ethical and ritual behaviors. Purity, in the physical sense, was inseparable from morality, for both the individual and the group. Holiness presumed a special state of being that included both symbolic purification through ritual and ethical behavior. In addition to its lengthy regulations about purification, Leviticus also presents moral instructions as intrinsic to holiness. Leviticus 19, known as the “holiness code,” charges the community with its ethical responsibilities, including respect for parents, truthfulness, care for the needy, and regard for the disabled. It preaches: “Love your neighbor as yourself. I am God” (Lev. 19:17). Just as there is an order to food, sexuality, and sacrifice that must be preserved, so there is a God-given moral order to the world. In both ethics and rituals, order is created by making distinctions. Blessing follow from respecting order and the commandments that uphold it. Curses follow from ignoring or violating the order (Lev. 26:3ff). Continue reading

Acharei mot [after the death].”

This expression refers to the deaths of Nadav and Abihu after they “came near” (elsewhere: “brought strange fire”) before the Lord (see parashat Shemini). For some readers, I imagine, it’s a relatively simple chronology-determining statement: this happened after that. For people who have experienced a cataclysmic loss — the early death of a parent/care-giver, e.g., or the untimely loss of a partner — at some point in their lives, however, “after the death” can be a more powerful divisor: there’s pre-loss life, and then there’s life acharei mot: no simple ordering of narrative events; there’s a fundamental change in the person’s universe “after the death.”

For a long time, I believed that my own father’s death, when I was 16, was simply one of many elements that shaped my life. As I get older, however, I am more and more aware that I have experienced life in two distinct portions: the first 16 years of life in a family with my father, and acharei mot…. So, the title words of this week’s portion usually stop me cold.

This year, untimely loss in a friend’s family laid an even stronger focus on those words, as I watched another family struggle with figuring out how to manage life “acharei mot.” But this year I also noticed some interesting things about the other words that open this portion.

Va-yedaber YHVH el-Moshe acharei mot shnei bnei aharon…dabeir el-aharon achicha…

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD. The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother

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Elaine Goodfriend, who edited the commentary to accompany the portion Metzora in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,* notes a number of reasons that menstruation was probably less common for ancient women compared with contemporaries:

sparser diet and later onset of menstruation;
earlier marriage and more pregnancies;
breast-feeding for 3 years (based on biblical stories).

I have read similar comments over the years. Was menstruation regarded in the ancient world, then, as out-of-the-ordinary, rather than a regular, natural process for women? I don’t know the answer, but it could explain much of the disconnect between the biblical and the modern understanding of women’s bleeding/discharge.
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“Now about the hairy-goat of hattat,* Moses inquired, yes, **
inquired [darosh ** darash]…” (Vayikra/Leviticus 10:16).

*Fox leaves this untranslated; usually rendered “sin offering.”

** According to those who count such things — the Masoretes, for example — the word “darosh” appears in the first half of the Torah, word-wise, and “darash” appears in the second half. I.e., the words “darosh darash” are at the center of the Torah.

Other translations use “investigated carefully” (Onkelos), “inquired about” (JPS), and “insistently sought” (Alter) for this phrase. Only Fox preserves the repetitious nature of the emphatic Hebrew construction.***

Why is Moses inquiring about the goat? What is this particular verse/phrase doing at the center of the Torah? Why mark half and not, e.g., thirds? Those questions are beyond “Something to Notice” (which is not, please notice, “Something Fully Explained.”)

Other Centers

Verse 11:42 “Anything going about on its belly [al-gachon]…” contains the middle letter, by the way, and the vav is written larger for this reason: gimmel-chet-VAV-nun.

There is some disagreement about where the middle verse is to be found: “then he should shave around the bald spot…” (13:33) is listed as the middle verse in Babylonia Talmud Kiddushin 30a.*** The Masoretes list “He placed the breastpiece on him…” (8:8) as the middle verse.
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“‘And he shall put off his garments, and put on other garments,’ (Lev. 6:4). Sages in the School of R. Ishmael taught: The Torah teaches you good manners. The garments in which one cooks a dish for his teacher, he should not wear when he mixes a cup of wine for him.” Continue reading