Mikeitz: Something to Notice

BERURIAH THE SCHOLAR EXPLAINS: The story of Joseph is the most elaborate in the Torah, spanning four parshiyot, more than the stories of any of the patriarchs and matriarchs. And yet women are virtually absent from the tale. This is a tale of brothers, of patriarchy, of male power relations….

MIRIAM THE PROPHET PROCLAIMS: Like the ancient Rabbis, we need to imagine lives for the many women who must have been involved in this drama: the brothers’ wives, left behind to fend for themselves while their husbands go down to Egypt; the many maidservants who prepare for the journeys, tend Pharaoh’s court, weave and cook, nurse and wipe bottoms, sing lullabies and keen at funerals. Indeed, a whole world of women contributes, albeit behind the scenes, to this drama. We owe it to them to serve as archaeologists and imaginers of their lives.Continue Reading

Vayeishev: Something to Notice

Reuben returned to the pit — and behold! — Joseph was not in the pit [ein-yosef ba-bor]! So he rent his garments. Returning to his brothers , he said, “The boy is gone! [ha-yeled einenu] And I — where can I go [va-ani ana ani-ba]?”– Breishit/Genesis 37:28 (Stone translation*)

Alter* notes: “The Hebrew says literally, ‘the boy is not.’ The phrase could be a euphemism for death or could merely indicate disappearance. It is a crucial ambiguity the brothers themselves will exploit much later in the story.”

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg bases a fascinating and useful commentary on parashat vayeishev, in part, on this phrase. (Beginning of Desire*) She also discusses this verse in “The Pit and the Rope” chapter of The Murmuring Deep.*

In this context, also recall what occurs on the wedding night of Jacob and Rachel, who eventually becomes Joseph’s mother:

Jacob said to Laban, “Deliver my wife for my term is fulfilled, and I will consort with her.” So Laban gathered all the people of the place and made a feast….And it was, in the morning, that behold it was Leah! — Breishit/Genesis 29:21-25

*For complete citations and more details, please see Source Materials.

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.

Vayishlach: Something to Notice

The following excerpt, based in part on this week’s portion, is from “Godwrestling: Jacob and Esau,” the first chapter in Arthur Waskow‘s 1978 book, Godwrestling.*

I first learned of Fabrangen** through this book, recommended by Chuck Fager, a Quaker writer who thought Fabrangen had some things in common with unprogrammed Friends. More than a decade after joining Fabrangen in real life, I now find that Arthur’s words capture an aspect of my own experience: “My deepest learning was precisely the process of wrestling itself, not particular conclusions,” and, although I don’t generally write about Fabrangen — or Temple Micah or the Jewish Study Center, I do struggle with how and where to include fellow Godwrestlers in writing they might not necessarily endorse.***

I think this excerpt, and this weekly portion, offer a great reminder for each of us to take note of those who struggle with us to glimpse the “outlines of God’s Face”:

I was learning to grapple with Torah in the midst of a community of Jews….

The community of Jews was, is, called Fabrangen* — the Yiddish for “coming together.” In it people come together around the effort, the hope–sometimes bright, sometimes flickering–to create a modern path of life that draws authentically from Jewish tradition but is expressed in new ways… (pp. 2-3)

We have no rabbi and no rebbe….

From our many different life experiences, we wrestle with each other. And we wrestle with Torah and all of Jewish tradition…. (p.4)

By telling stories about Fabrangen I give Fabrangen a shape. Because the stories are my stories, the shape Fabrangen takes on is, of necessity, the shape I see…

Perhaps I could avoid this problem by simply writing down the result of the process….Leave Fabrangen to an honorable footnote. But that would be unfaithful to my sense that my deepest learning was precisely the process of wrestling itself, not particular conclusions.

…for now this is one of the many struggles in which we are still straining our eyes in the dark before daybreak, straining to see —

…I welcome wrestling partners to this book. Together may we be able to begin to see the outlines of God’s Face. And of each other’s. (p.12)
— from Godwrestling, Arthur Waskow. NY: Schocken, 1978.

* I believe the 1978 version is out of print. A later edition, God Wrestling-Round 2: Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths, was published in 1998.

** “Farbrangen” is a Yiddish word that means “coming together,” as for a meeting. “Fabrangen” — with no “r” — is the name of a Washington, DC, havurah founded in 1971 and focusing on “coming together in joy.” The name might have been a simple misspelling, the result of translating a Bostoner’s pronunciation, or an indication that Fabrangen has no rabbi.

** Now, footnotes — endangered species though they be — are actually among the most exciting spots in some reading material….Did you ever notice, for example, the footnote in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Grammar that begins “Compare the joke”? (I’ve hit the jackpot and he wants to give me lessons) [hypernote]

—–
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.

Vayishlach: A Path to Follow

Twice in this portion, Jacob is told he will henceforth be called “Israel”:

“Not Jacob shall your name hence be said, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and won out,” Jacob is told after his wrestling match on the bank of the Jabbok river (Genesis/Breishit 32:23-31). In Genesis/Breishit 35:9-10, we read: “God appeared again to Jacob on his arrival from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. God said to him, ‘You whose name is Jacob, You shall be called Jacob no more, But Israel shall be your name.’ Thus He named him Israel.”

In his Five Books of Moses* (2004), Robert Alter comments on this name change:

It is nevertheless noteworthy–and to my knowledge has not been noted –that the pronouncement about the new name is not completely fulfilled. Whereas Abraham is invariably called “Abraham” once the name is changed from “Abram,” the narrative continues to refer to this patriarch in most instances as “Jacob.”

This is an odd statement, given the plethora of comments — from very different views of Torah, stretching back centuries — referencing the fact that “the pronouncement about the new name is not completely fulfilled.” Here are just a few:

Jacob no more. But in fact the appellation Jacob continues at once. Critics have attempted to distinguish between an “Israel tradition” and a “Jacob tradition.” If these every existed, they have been thoroughly interwoven, and the names have now become interchangeable. — Plaut,* (1981)

Your name is Jacob. Although He was about to give Jacob the additional name of Isreal, God told him that he would continue to be called Jacob (Ramban [16th Century CE Italy]; Sforno [12th Century CE Spain]). From that time onward, the name Jacob would be used for matters pertaining to physical and mundane matters, while the name Israel would be used for matters reflecting the spiritual role of the Patriarch and his descendants (R’ Bachya [Ibn Paquda, 14th Century CE Spain]).

Although both Abraham and Jacob were given new names there is a basic difference between them, for the Talmud states that anyone who refers to Abraham as Abram is in violation of a negative commandment (Berachos 13a), whereas both names continue to be used for Jacob….

Or HaChaim [18th Century CE Italy] explains the reason for the difference. Every name in the Torah reprsents the sould that God emplaced in that person. Consequently, the name “Jacob” represents his soul, while the name “Israel” represents an enhancement of the soul, which Jacob earned by growing and transcending the mission signified by the original name…. — Stone,* (1993)

Alter does elaborate a bit differently (although I’m not sure that it’s a unique perspective):

Thus, “Israel” does not really replace his name but becomes a synonym for it — a practice reflected in the parallelism of biblical poetry, where “Jacob” is always used in the first half of the line and “Israel,” the poetic variation, in the second half.

For more on this rich path, here are just two of the many further avenues to explore: Shefa Gold’s Torah Journey, including a personal spiritual practice, for this portion and/or a discussion of universalism versus nationalism based on the work of Rav Kook (1865-1935).

*See Source Materials for Torah commentary citations and further details.

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.

Vayeitzei: Something to Notice

UPDATED: November 24, 2019

In this portion, Bilhah, maid to Rachel, bears Dan and Naphtali, while Zilpah, maid to Leah, bears Gad and Asher. As when Sarah arranged for Abraham to father a child with her maid Hagar (Genesis/Breishit 16:2), the product of such a union was considered a child of the master-woman/wife rather than of the maid who conceived, carried, bore and nursed the baby.

In recent decades, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah have been added, in a number of non-Orthodox prayerbooks, to the first blessing of the Amidah — the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy — after Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Bilhah and Zilpah did not join the list of “Matriarchs,” however, in the official prayerooks of the Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist movements.

Jews continue to question the place of Bilhah and Zilpah in this list. Not including them gives “tacit approval to the idea that woman is property,” goes one argument. Recognizing these women as Matriachs, according to others, would do honor to the many couples — including gays and lesbians — for whom full-status marriage has not been an option. On the other hand, it is argued that it is inappropriate to include women who were not active partners with in the covenant and prophets in their own right in “the ancestors” blessing of the Amidah.

Here, for example, is question and response on this topic from the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) as the Union for Reform Judaism was preparing its 2007 Mishkan T’fillah prayerbook. Similar issues were discussed as the Reform movement in the United Kingdom prepared its 2008 Seder Ha-T’fillot prayerbook (link no longer available).

Mishkan T’fillah was eventually published without Bilhah and Zilpah; I believe this is also the case with Seder Ha-T’fillot, but I have not seen the latter myself. On the other hand, Siddur B’chol L’vav’cha, which arrived earlier [in 2009], does include these mothers (congregational and ordering information). Siddur Sha’ar Zahav also provides more alternatives for the Amidah “ancestors” blessing.

The Jewish Women’s Archive includes an article on the maids’ place in Jewish prayer.

2019 Additions:
See also Torat Bilhah: The Torah of a Disposable Woman by Wil Gafney, who argues for including Hagar as well.

The website “Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations” includes thoughts from David Mosenkis on “Why I include Bilhah and Zilpah in the Imahot.” After reading earlier this year (2019), I added my own comment:

For several years, I included Bilhah and Zilpah as imahot for the reasons described above. Eventually, though, I worried that I was, in my attempt at inclusion, erasing them in the same way that decades of attempts at “color-blind” society effectively erased the differences in realities around color in this country. The attempt at equalizing Bilhah and Zilpah, by including them along with Sarah and Rachel and Leah in the Amidah, can have the effect of flattening out the women’s experiences, so that the subservience of the two is discounted. Now, in the individual Amidah, I pause and leave a space for acknowledging a wider, more varied group of ancestors, who contributed in some way to my standing before God at that moment. Have not really figured out how to succinctly express this when leading….Cantor Sue Roemer, z”l, used to hum a blank, so to speak, after listing the seven: “Elohei hmm-hmm, Elohei hmm-hmm.”

For more on “innovation” in recently published [as in 2007-2009ish] prayerbooks, see “When the Ground Breaks” and “Groundbreaking Part 2” here.

See Source Materials for full siddur citations.

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.

Lekh Lekha: Something to Notice

This portion is rich in narrative: the famous command to “go forth [lekh lekha]” (Genesis/Breishit 12:1ff), the “say you’re my sister” episode in Egypt (12:10-13:2), Abraham’s parting with his nephew Lot and then rescuing Lot from captivity (13:3-14:24), the story of Hagar (chapter 16), and the announcement of Sarah’s pregnancy (17:15-22).
Continue Reading

Noach: Something to Notice

Before the first yearly portion, Breishit [“in the beginning”], ends, Noah and his sons are introduced (Breishit/Genesis 5:28-32). Similarly, the second portion, Noach [Noah] — which is highlighted by the Flood (6:9 – 9:17) and Tower of Babel (11:1-9) stories — closes with an introduction of Abraham and Sarah (then called “Abram” and “Sarai”) and their family members (11:26-32).
Continue Reading