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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Emor: Something to Notice

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

Kedoshim: Something to Notice

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).
— Jane Rachel Litman, p.144 IN Lifecycles: v.2*

This note is from the book‘s introduction to “Themes of Leviticus/Vayikra RabbahThe Sacred Body of Israel.” Litman also notes:

Women’s lives are collections of little details. We spend our days focused as much on the small items as on the sweeping vistas of human endeavor. Cleaning, cooking, mending clothes, making beds, these traditionally been the concerns of women. The writer Tillie Olsen perfectly captures this feature of female self-understanding in her story, “I Stand Here Ironing,” in which the entire account of a woman’s life is set against the backdrop of this simple repetitive task. Beyond the home as well, women are generally the social workers of culture, tending to the poor, the sick, the aged, and the young.

The “female” attention to minutia is most evident in the Torah in the book of Leviticus….Leviticus is the recipe book, the operating manual, for a complex and finely drawn system of communal holiness…–p.134-135

* 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.

Acharei Mot: Something to Notice

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

Continue Reading

Metzora: Something to Notice

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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Shemini: Something to Notice

“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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