Today black women in the United States and perhaps some of our allies are wearing geles, traditional West African head wraps like those worn in Nigeria to call attention to the hundreds of our daughters, kidnapped and sold like the Israelite daughters at Shiloh more than three thousand years ago. Some folk still have not figured out that women and girls are neither property nor breeding stock. I often refer to that kind of thinking as Iron Age theology. In truth, all Iron Age theology is not so heinous. There are powerful, vibrant transformative religious communities in the world, including this one because of Iron Age theology. The Torah which we study offers some of the best and worst of the theology of our ancestors.
Among the worst is the reduction of girls and women to salable objects. There is renewed focus on the trafficking of women and girls (and boys and men) in sex-service industries. But as the world was horribly reminded on the 16th of April, girls have been stolen and sold into marriage for thousands of years. This story is particularly heinous to me as the descendant of trafficked peoples. The mothers of my people, were raped and bred like cattle.
To my horror as a Christian, my own scriptures commend the abduction and rape of women and girls as war booty. Nothing has caused me to wrestle with God, scripture and my understanding of the authority of scripture than the sanctioned abuse and marginalization of women in the scripture. My recent post on rape marriage in the scriptures in light of the kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schools girls can be found here at Religion Dispatches.
In 2oo8 I wrote about the problematic notion of biblical marriage, polygamy, rape and incest being overlooked to invoke biblical authority on heterosexual unions to the exclusion of all others without acknowledging the reality of all forms of marriage acceptable according to the text:
Rape-marriage was a socially acceptable conjugal union in the worldview of the authors and editors of the biblical text and endures to this day in some parts of the world. While there are less vicious forms of biblical marriage, the construct cannot be invoked without sanctifying the abduction and rape of teen and pre-teen girls.
The ongoing abduction of girls and women in Ethiopia in Christian and Muslim communities and the abduction of as many as 70,000 women and girls by Hindu and Muslim communities during the partition of Pakistan from India that this on-going savagery transcends time, culture, and scripture. And there are accounts of Buddist citizens of Burma/Myanmar and Hmong Vietnamese in the U.S. abducting brides according to their ancestral traditions.
Today, there are contemporary prophetic voices crying out against the continued deployment of biblical marriage as normative social and religious construct. Challenging religious leaders or would-be religious leaders about what kinds of unions are divinely sanctioned, even biblical, is dangerous subversive work. They may call you names, they may even invoke the name of God, but your name will be written in the book of life and will never be forgotten.
It is well past time for all of us to raise our voices.
Will you use all of your resources to bring pressure to bear on our government and the Nigerian government to pursue and rescue the nearly 300 abducted Nigerian schoolgirls and to provide safe haven for them if and when they are rescued?
*Vayigash Mandela. Mandela stood. And now he is at rest. I dedicate this drash to the memory of Rolihlahla, Nelson, Mandela, Madiba. (Vayigash, “he stood,” is the first word of today’s Torah portion, Gen 44:18-47:27.)
Ex 46:20 To Joseph in the land of Egypt were born Manasseh and Ephraim, whom Asenath bat Potiphera, priest of On, gave birth to for him.
I was going to begin: “Jewish folk and black folk have shared experiences of diaspora, involuntary and voluntary.” But that language is not quite right. Those binary categories presume there are no black Jewish folk (or African Israelites). We know that’s not true, and no, I’m not about to convert. But what language should I use instead?
Slavery. Freedom. Diaspora. Migration. These are some of the themes that drew enslaved Africans in the Americans to the stories of the Israelites in spite of the best efforts of the slavers – black folk are the only folk in the United States for whom reading was illegal, primarily to keep my ancestors from reading the bible and concluding it called for their liberation. Though to be clear Africans were not dependent on slavery, white folk or Western Christians for their introduction to either testament, Judaism or Christianity.
Africa looms large in many of our hearts this week as one of her lions has taken his final rest.
South Africa is one of the spaces in which Jewish and African identities meet and mingle, in the very kohenic DNA of the Lemba people. (The Lemba are South African and Zimbabwean African Jews with genetic links to the Kohen, priestly gene, previously identified in Jewish populations.)
Joseph’s Egyptian sojourn complicates the issue in interesting ways. On the one hand, Joseph marries an Egyptian woman so the tribes of Ephraim and Manesseh are half-African. Westerners have worked really hard at separating Egypt from Africa although we don’t separate any other northern countries from their continents. American Biblical scholar Martin Noth writing in the 50’s and 60’s was scandalized by Egyptian art and wrote that the Egyptians were quite simply wrong to portray themselves with brown skin and wooly hair as though they were Negroes. (Clearly a Freudian reaction to issues at home.) I see similar motivations in the claims that aliens or the residents of Atlantis built the pyramids, anyone other than Africans.
Generations of folk of all races have asked what the Israelites looked like, for many, in order to identify with literal, cultural or spiritual ancestors. According to Mishnah Nega‘im 2:1: R. Ishmael stated: the children of Israel – may I be an atonement for them! – are כְּאֶשְׁכְּרַע like eshcara-wood neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.
Well, that settles that. According to Jastrow eshcara-wood is either box-wood – which looks to me like wood-colored wood, kind of tan – or eshcara-wood is ebony, which completely changes things. I published an essay on blackness and whiteness in rabbinic literature last year and am borrowing some of that today:
It Does Matter If You’re Black or White, Too-Black or Too-White, But Mestizo is Just Right
Rabbi Shimon bar Lakhish says in Bavli Bechoroth 45b:
לבן לא ישא לבנה שמא יצא מהם בוהק
שחור לא ישא שחורה שמא מהן טפוח
Lavan lo yisa’ lavanah sh’me’ yatza’ lahem boheq
shachor lo yisa’ sh’chorah sh’me’ yatza’ lahen t’fuach
A-white-man should not marry a white-woman lest they produce boheq, a-too-white-child, and a-black-man should not marry a-black-woman lest they produce, t’fuach, a-too-black-child. It is important to remember that the rabbis are discussing their own kinfolk, black, white, red, spotted and speckled, who are also their skin-folk.
The texts are about how to tell when someone has a plague spot on their skin and how skin-color affects the inspection and determination. Given the range of skin tones evoked by the range between “excessive whiteness” and “excessive blackness” – ebony, ivory, cocoa, mocha, caramel, sandalwood, perhaps even peaches and cream, along with black coffee – no sugar, no cream, how will the nega, plague spot appear on all of these skin tones?
The terms boheq and t’fuach, “excessive whiteness” and “excessive blackness” are not always negative in the rabbinic lexicon. Boheq means “bright” and “brilliant” and “beautiful” in reference to jewels and candlelight and Sarah’s beauty and the brilliance of scholars across the tradition. (Cf: Yerushalmi Pesachim 27b, Bavli Kiddushin 33a, Gittin 11a and Sanhedrin 100a.) “Excessive blackness,” t’fuach, is related to a particular type of pitcher used for hand-washing, t’fiyach, – leading to Rashi’s interpretation “black as a pitcher;” no one seems to know what sort of black pitcher Rashi meant, but it was certainly not pejorative. There is a secondary lemma that refers to “grass” and “grain” leading Jastrow to say that t’fuach might refer to the skin discoloration of a person dying from starvation due to lack of grain. Following Rashi t’fuach was the same shade of black as a well-known household object, now obscure but with no negative associations. So then, according to Resh Lakhish, the kohanim (and likely the rest of the Israelites) range in skin-tone from blacker-than-black to whiter-than-white with only the extremes on both ends perceived as problematic.
The full Mishnah Nega‘im 2:1 text:
The bright spot in a German (girmani) appears as dull white, and the dull white one in a Kushite appears as bright white. R. Ishmael stated: the children of Israel – may I be an atonement for them! – are like eshcara-wood neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.
Germani is used in rabbinic literature to refer to the inhabitants of the Roman province of Germania, the ancient Cimmerians (related to the Thracians), the biblical Magog and stereotypical white folk. FYI: The Cimmerians have crossed over into popular culture as the people from whom Conan the Barbarian emerged, played by the Austrian (not-quite-Germani) actor Arnold Schwartzenegger and by the half-Hawaiian – mestizo? – actor Jason Momoa.
Bringing us back to today’s parsha, Bereshit Rabbah 86:3, identifies Joseph as Germani: Everywhere a Germani sells a Nubian, while here a Nubian is selling a Germani! This refers to the sale of Yosef by an Ishmaelite, descended from Hagar the Egyptian.
Which brings me back to Joseph and Asenath and their children in our parsha. My ancestors looked to the ancient Israelites as spiritual kin and proof of a liberating God active in the world. Generations of lay and professional biblical scholars have charted out complex relationships between people of African descent and beney Yisrael, especially in the places where they overlap and intersect, like the land itself, a bridge that connects Asia and Africa. The ancient Israelites and Biblical Hebrew are characterized as Afro-Asiatic by scholars. Yet whiteness and Jewishness go together in the popular and rabbinic imagination though in neither are they completely inseparable.
Each of us is a series of interwoven and overlapping identities. We operate out of multiple identities at a time. As I offer this drash I am most aware of being a member of Dorshei Derekh, a biblical scholar and a black woman. Others may be more aware of my Christian identity than I am myself at this moment.
My questions are about identity:
Which of your multiple identities are at the forefront of your self-articulation in differing contexts and why?
Are you aware of others perceiving you through the identities that are more important to them than those that are for you?
So much of the bible and its interpretive literature is about constructing and maintaining identity, which of those constructions are still meaningful and which are being reconstructed in your life and religious practice?
Michael Jackson famously sang, “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.” The space between unacceptable blackness and unacceptable whiteness in Bavli Bechoroth 45b, what Soncino translates as “excessive blackness” and “excessive whiteness” is to borrow a term from the Latina and Latino interpretive lexicon, a mestizo space. Implicit in the prohibition, A-white-man should not marry a white-woman lest they produce boheq, a-too-white-child, and a-black-man should not marry a-black-woman lest they produce, t’fuach, a-too-black-child, is the solution, that black and white people should marry each other and produce beautiful mestizo babies. Shabbat Shalom.
Shabbat B’ha’alotkha 25 May 2013/16 Sivan 5773
בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ “When you set up (the stuff)…” There’s a lot of stuff in this parsha.
The purpose of this setting up in 8:1 is to give light, so too I hope will this drash. Let’s shine the light on some of the stuff in the text. First there is the consecration of the Levites who are frequently invoked as a trope for contemporary clergy in Judaism and Christianity. As chance would have it, seminarians at RRC and LTSP are in graduation and ordination season (less closely linked for Christians). Some may well turn to these texts for inspiration, for contemplation, for liturgical innovation. But I don’t think any will turn to Numbers 8:7 and shave their entire body in preparation.
Another place for illumination in this parsha is הֶעָנָן, the cloud in 9:15. This is one of my favorite articulations of God in the text: God is present. God is visible. God accompanies God’s people. Technically God leads God’s people but when they won’t follow, God comes back for them, waits for them, attends them. That’s what happens in ch 11, the reason I asked for this parsha although I guess there wasn’t much of a bidding war.
This is one of my favorite stories about Moshe Rabbenu. And I like Moshe – even though I critique him severely for failing to give Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah their inheritance as commanded by God, going to his death in disobedience on that score – I like Moses; I do.
I love that when he was on the run from a murder beef and had every reason to think about himself to the exclusion of all others, hi risked his own life and freedom for women he didn’t know because they needed help. And in the wilderness wandering, Moses interceded with God for the Israelites over and over again, even when they were cussing him and blaming him. Honestly, if I had been Moses that time God said, “Move over there. I’m going to kill them all and start over.” I’d have said, “Here good?” I would not have gotten between God and the folk while God was in a smiting mood waving incense in God’s invisible nose – how did he know which way God was facing? – hoping to calm (sedate?) God as Moshe did in 16:43.
Moses models an aggressive form of intercession: Going toe-to-(invisible)toe with God. Getting in God’s face – or at least her space. And She is she in this text, perhaps more so than in any other text.
Numbers 11 begins with the people grumbling to themselves as indicated by the hitpaal. (This text offers plenty of light for my fellow Hebrew grammar nerds.) Even though they are grumbling to themselves, God hears them and fries them. God is in a smiting mood. And Moses intercedes. Then the people grumble (again), this time craving-a-craving and weeping. And Mother God feeds her babies – more like toddlers. But they don’t want what she cooked – מָה נָא, what is this? מָה, the “what,” was not what they wanted. They wanted what they used eat for free – except it wasn’t free – before they were forced on this family road trip – except they weren’t forced.
Then God gets burning hot (again), וַיִּחַר־אַף. Literally, God’s nose was on fire.
I imagine smoke pouring out of God’s nostrils because that snorting bull image is never far away since an aleph in paleo-Hebrew is a bull’s head meaning every time someone wrote el or elohiym before the adoption of the Assyrian square script, they started with a bull (you can also see the origin of our “A”).
(You don’t know how happy I am to have found a free True Type paleo-Hebrew font that works on a Mac!) Or maybe God is just red in the invisible face. And it was in the sight of Moses, רָע, bad, wicked, evil, naughty.
Moses standing in judgment of God? That messes with my Christian sensibilities. But what I love about Job is his gumption to sue God – as a Gentile no less. So, OK, Moses is not pleased with the sight of God’s anger. Question 1) What does it look like when God is angry? Some decidedly unchristian folk say that natural disasters are what it looks like when God is angry. Ancient folk without malice thought that too. What does it look like when God is angry? What did Moses see?
In v 11 Moses has had enough – of whatever: Why are you doing me dirty? That’s how I translate it when רע)ע) is a verb. Verse 12 (follow along): Did I conceive these people? No you did. I don’t have the parts! Did I give birth to them? No you did. I don’t have the parts! Because you said to me, carry them in your bosom like a milk-nurse. I don’t have bosoms! You know what, I have had it with your whiny brats. JPS translates בכה, weep, in v 13 as “whine.” I tell you what Lady, if you are going to treat me like this kill me now.
In v 15 Moshe uses the feminine pronoun אַתְּ rather than the masculine one, אַתָּה, for God. There is an obscure point of Biblical Hebrew grammar in which the second person masculine singular takes on the form of the second person feminine singular, generally at the midpoint (atnachta) or end of a pasuq. Allegedly because of a change in inflection. I’ve always been suspicious of it because it doesn’t affect any other forms. Even if that rule is valid, it doesn’t apply here. The pronoun in question is not at the middle or end of the verse. Moses has called God a woman, or better contextually, a mother, one who needs to come get her kids.
Moses talks about being God’s unwilling male-nanny but not having the parts for the job. Question 2) What is Moses’ role in the analogy he crafts? Is he Israel’s nanny? Or Israel’s step-father? What is his relationship to God in the analogy?
Finally, what about God’s parts – and bosoms? According to Job 38:29 God does have a womb and give birth to ice and snow among other things. In Deuteronomy 32:18 Moshe will later say – or at least the torah will say he said – that God writhed in labor with us and gave birth to us. The divine Name Shaddai is rooted in “breastedness,” – see Gen 49:25 when Shaddai provides the blessings of breast (shad) and womb. Perhaps the source of all those “taste and see verses” and the Christian injunction to consume “spiritual milk” in 1 Pet 2:2.
Question 3) What if anything does gendered language in Biblical Hebrew mean? Is there a relationship between grammatical and ideological or functional gender?
The last chapter, 12, in the parsha is the one in which Miryam HaNeviah challenges Moshe and perhaps God on the perception that Moses is the only prophet in Israel while he is scandalizing the nation with his new Nubian wife, having abandoned Zipporah back in Exodus 18:2. It get’s pretty ugly. There’s some yelling and some more smiting. And Miriam was struck with a disease, צָרַעַת, (and according to me in Daughters of Miriam and Rabbi Akiva in b. Shabbat 97a, Aaron as well). Miriam was banished to what I call “the camp beyond the camp” in my current work, the place where those who were טָמֵא waiting to be pronounced טָהוֹר stayed. The text says that the people did not move until the “gathering,” הֵאָסֵף, of Miryam. I like to imagine that the illuminating cloud got up to leave but the people would not follow without Miryam. Or perhaps God herself refused to move without her daughter. The family squabble was over. For now.
Great Balls of Fire!
There is a single piece of text that directly connects Jewish and Christian liturgy:
קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ׃
Holy, holy, holy, is the Sovereign-Commander of angel-armies; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.
Isaiah 6:3 is not only part of weekly Shabbat and Sunday liturgies in addition to festivals, but it also comes up in the assigned reading of each tradition. In Judaism, Isaiah 6 is the haftarah for Parshat Yitro. In Christianity, it is the First Lesson for Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Christian Pentecost, just over 40 days past Easter. Isaiah, Yeshayahu, whom I call Yeshua’s, Jesus’s, patron saint had an experience that was…well…let me put it this way:
It was a set-up. God set Isaiah up. Isaiah was minding his own business. He was asleep and dreaming. Or he was awake and taken out of this world. One moment he was in the world he knew and the next he was in a world he could only imagine. He was in heaven – and he wasn’t even dead. He was in a large throne room, in a temple not of this world – although it was the original reflected in the one below. He couldn’t have gotten into the most sacred space of the Israelite temple. Most of the temple was what we would call a compound and most of its real estate was outside, plazas and patios. The large sacrificial altar was outside. The only building was the most holy place, the smallest but tallest part of the complex with the small incense altar and menorah in the front part and the ark of the covenant inside behind the veil. Only priests could enter the building and only the High Priest could enter behind the veil and then only once a year. Isaiah could have never gotten in on his own; he was not a priest. Yet there he was. And it seems larger and grander in his vision than it was in the sixth century BCE, during his own lifetime.
Perhaps in his vision Isaiah was transported to a reconfigured version of the temple, like in a Harry Potter movie, so that the insides were bigger than the outsides and there was room for the throne and its occupant and attendants. Isaiah was somewhere in the back, perhaps behind a pillar. And no one seemed to notice him. Perhaps I should say no thing noticed him, because there were things in there that he couldn’t imagine. There were great balls of fire, talking, singing, shouting and flying – although how they could see where they were going, I don’t know because they covered their faces with two of their wings and… I think they were naked because they were covering their lower halves – although how can anyone tell if a flying ball of fire is naked let alone what’s below the waist – and I use the word “waist” loosely, I don’t know. I say this because רַגְלָיִם, (the Hebrew word for “legs,”) includes everything below the waist and frequently means above the thighs and below the waist.
I imagine Isaiah’s eyes bugging out of his head. I tell my students that MyIkDaVlAm, (messengers in Hebrew) includes ordinary human message-bearers and supernatural beings – divine messengers such as those Isaiah saw were something like aliens in our culture. There were stories about them, and a few folk claimed to have seen them, but they were special people and not always in the good sense: There are volumes of scholarship dedicated to figuring out if Ezekiel was bipolar, schizophrenic or on hallucinogenic mushrooms or something else. In fact, הִנֵּה, (usually translated as “lo” or “behold”) – what most folk say when they see angels in the bible is much more like “Holy **** look at that!”
And Isaiah is not just seeing fire-seraphim, who were technically not angels or messengers – the Hebrew bible treats seraphim, cherubim and divine messengers as different species not to be interchanged. Isaiah is seeing God. Wait. That can’t be right, can it? Surely only Moshe got to see God – It’s not entirely clear that Yeshayahu or his community had a copy of the Torah; they knew many of it’s stories and traditions but may not have had the Torah we have. The elders of Israel saw God in the wilderness, but then there was that one time that God hid Moses and only let him look at God’s—well… Does God have a rump? More recently, the prophet Micaiah said that he had seen the God of Heaven enthroned in glory, but he was one of those controversial prophets and no one knew quite what to make of him. And, he said that God intentionally mislead God’s people. (1 Kgs 22) And since the scriptures hadn’t been written down yet it’s not clear if Isaiah even knew that story or viewed it as credible, let alone canonical. Could a human being see God and live? Was Isaiah going to die? Was he already dead? Might he make it out of this alive-ish as long as he didn’t try to look at God’s face? No worries on that score; Isaiah was clinging to my imaginary pillar with his eyes screwed shut as though his life depended on it. But then he peeks…
So Isaiah is peeping around this pillar, I think, it helps me understand why nobody saw him. But surely God knew he was there. It’s not like Isaiah turned the wrong corner out on his daily walk and wound up in heaven. He had been brought here, some kind of way. Set up, I say. But no one is talking to him. Yet, they’re just going about their business which oddly enough seems to be talking about God and not talking to God. וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל־זֶה (They say to one another):
קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ׃
Holy, holy, holy, the Sovereign-Commander of angel-armies; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.
Their voices rolled like thunder and the doors shook in their frames. Isaiah couldn’t tell if the doors were the only thing shaking or if everything was shaking. The whole world was topsy-turvy and his world was decidedly flat. It was after all, the Iron Age. And then this smoke filled the room, fragrant smoke, unlike any incense he had ever smelled. Incense in heaven? Isaiah didn’t have the language to describe God as a high church Anglican. But on the other hand, this was God’s home and people did burn incense in their houses, especially rich people. But Isaiah was a bit unsettled by the apparently self-tending incense altar. There was no attendant!
And not feeling particularly bold, not bold at all, overcome and overwhelmed, Isaiah said: אוֹי־לִי, Woe is me. I am undone, for I am a person of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the Sovereign of all the Worlds, the Commander of heaven’s armies!
And as soon as the words left his mouth, he clapped his hands over his mouth but it was too late. They heard him and one of them started flying in his direction. Isaiah held on to that pillar for all he was worth. And he couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t passed out yet. Half the people who had ever claimed to have seen an angel collapsed or passed plumb out. So why was he still on his feet? The death grip he had on that pillar I see when I imagine this story kept him upright.
The seraph that flew towards him stopped above the altar of heavenly incense and picked up a lit coal from the altar with a pair of tongs. Wait, how is she, he, it holding a pair of tongs with fingers of flame? And how hot is that coal if a creature made out of fire needs tongs to pick it up? And what is he – ok the grammar says it’s male but grammatical gender isn’t always biological gender, but then again biology doesn’t really apply here – so what is “e” going to do with that coal? The seraph flew to Isaiah and touched his lips with that coal. There are no words to describe what he felt. The text doesn’t give us any and I can’t imagine any. And I have a pretty vivid imagination.
The seraph pronounced the words of kippurim, the words of atonement that the high priest would only pronounce once a year: וְחַטָּאתְךָ תְּכֻפָּר, “your sin has been covered, atoned for.” Then God spoke. For a moment Isaiah had forgotten that God was there! On the throne, veiled in smoke. God spoke and Isaiah couldn’t see who God was talking to. God wasn’t talking to him. God was just talking. And he, Isaiah, was eavesdropping. Except that it was a set up. He had been brought here for a reason.
God said, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us. And Isaiah just happened to be in the right place at the right time, to hear God’s need for somebody, in a place he couldn’t have gotten into if he tried. That coal has had some kind of effect on him. He finally let go of that pillar. And Isaiah said: הִנְנִי שְׁלָחֵנִי, Holy **** it’s me; send me translated as “Here am I; send me.” The text doesn’t tell us how Isaiah got back to our world, or whether he experienced the whole thing as a dream or vision.
In Christian teaching, prophetic commissions become paradigms for clergy vocations; we are called by God and some of those calls have supernatural components. But how do Jews, liberal, progressive, not necessarily theistic Jews, understand Isaiah’s call? How do we understand Isaiah’s heavenly visit? What moral, ethical or socially just teaching does it inspire? And our society – including highly educated clergy, seminarians and rabbits – does not always take folk who have visions of God seriously, even as we celebrate our holy ancestors who have done so. Mystics and visionaries are often executed first and canonized later. Yet in New Age and Renewal iterations of our traditions many seek visions and mystical experiences of God. What are the lessons of this text for rational, modern peoples? And has anybody had a vision of God that they’d be willing to share?
Adapting the Apostle Paul: 2 Corinthians 12:2 I know a woman in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.
I know a woman who has seen visions of God and saints in heaven. And I know from the ordination boards on which I have served and with which I have worked that this would have rendered her unfit for ordination in the eyes of many. In the eyes of some, psychological evaluation and medication may have been deemed essential.
But the dreams, ah the visions!
A waterfall of molten metal, flashing gold and silver and reflecting a light dazzling and warm as far as the eye could see, straight up and to each side. The sound of thunder and crashing waves. She knew it was speech yet could not understand the words. And behind the curtain of undulating metal there was… The dizzying assaults of visual and auditory stimuli stilled just enough to interpret them. Not a curtain, but a hem. And above and behind the hem…
I saw the Living God sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of God's gown filled the temple of my sight. Shabbat shalom.
וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְהוָה׃ וָאֵרָא אֶל־אַבְרָהָם אֶל־יִצְחָק וְאֶל־יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם׃
God spoke to Moshe, and said to him: I am YHWH.
I was seen (va'era) by Avraham, by Yitzhak, and by Yaakov as God Shaddai,
but by my name YHWH I was not known to them. Exodus 6:2
The last time I drashed this parshah was the first Shabbat after the Inauguration of our forty-fourth President, Barack Hussein Obama. I thought about how his election wrote and rewrote history which led me to thinking about other radical re-writes, to the Constitution and even to some of our religious traditions. I decided to use an approach that I had assigned to my students for their mid-term examination, to read a passage, reversing elements of the narrative, I did some of this previously as well:
In a parallel universe in Parshat Va’era, God appears to Miryam HaNeviah, preferring her company and designating her as the prototypical and archetypal prophet. In yet another universe, God appears to Miryam and Moshe together. In other universes, God appears to Aharon, and to all the people together, eliminating hierarchy.
In one of these appearances, God declares, “I am the LADY” – as one of my students wrote in all capital letters signifying the holy four letters. GOD-WHOSE-NAME-IS-TOO-HOLY-TO-BE-PRONOUNCED – my preferred designation for the Most Holy Name – She spoke to her prophet (or prophets or people) and said:
I appeared to Hagar, Sarah, Rivka, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah as God who cradles and nurses the world at her breast, but by Most Holy Name, I was not known.
God told her prophets and people, “Go and tell the Her Majesty the King of Egypt” – here I imagine the gender-bending Hatshepsut who changed her public gender from female to male – “tell her to let my people go.” And she did. And she asked, “May I go with you? Can we worship at the mountain of the One together? Can we be God’s people too?”
In the alternate universes in my head, it’s a much shorter story. In these versions, God does not harden Pharaoh’s heart and then punish and kill him for being hard-hearted. In these versions, God does not hurt or kill the Egyptians created in her image; God does not inflict pain and suffering on the animals into whom she also blew the breath of life; God does not afflict the earth that she hand-crafted.
This alternative Torah comes with an alternative haftarah by the prophet Yechezqelet:
So says She Who Is the Sovereign GOD: “When I gather the house of Israel along with the peoples among whom they are scattered, and manifest my holiness in them all in the sight of the nations, then they all shall settle on their own soil that I gave to all of my servants, the daughters of Chava and their children, including the daughters of Hagar, Sarah, Rivkah, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah and all of their children. They shall all live in safety in it, and shall all build houses and plant vineyards. They shall all live in safety, when I bring justice to all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt and been treated with contempt themselves in turn. And they shall all know that I am the ONE, their God.”
Can anything be learned from rewriting the Torah? What happens when folk whose story is not the story of the Torah take that story for themselves? What happens when these parallel universes are not just in my head?
In one universe, some American Christians used the stories in this torah to exterminate as many of inhabitants of this land as possible. They did not see themselves as Pharaoh, but others did. In yet another universe, some German Christians, claiming allegiance to the God of this torah burned the Torahs that tell this story and the bodies of those who cherished Torah along with other undesirables. They did not see themselves as Pharaoh, but others did. Some of those who have rewritten this torah in their image have wreaked havoc on this world.
But they are not the only readers with an active imagination. In another universe, there were other readers, or perhaps hearers – most were not literate – who shared African ancestry with the Egyptians, and some with the Afro-Asiatic Israelites, but they knew they were not Pharaoh. They knew that they too were Israel, not because of the supercessionist Christianity that says God has replaced the Jews with Christians, but because they knew that they were God’s children. And they were slaves. And they knew that God would deliver them from bondage. Some of them may have known that they were farther from Egypt in slavery than their ancestors were in freedom. But they knew they were in Egypt. And God sent another Moses, and oh boy, oh girl, wasn’t she a sight to see.
Their children’s children’s children, kept reading themselves into other people’s stories. “All men are created equal,” but they were valued as 3/5 of a person, and their women – like the dominant culture women – didn’t count. Feminist women and queer folk seeking justice have read themselves into this story, whether or not they had an ethnic or religious claim on the Torah.
One more set of radical re-writes for your consideration: All women and men and children are created equal. What is rather than being counted as 3/5 of a person in the Constitution, black folk were entitled to 3/5 of the wealth generated by their ancestors? And what if we changed the haftarah for today from Yechezqelet to Yeshayahah? A text that is all the more intriguing because it is not in the lectionary or haftarah readings for any Jewish or Christian community that I could find: Isaiah 19:24-25, as it is written, “One day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the center of the earth, whom the COMMANDER of angel armies has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.’”
What’s the worst that can happen if we take this unauthorized haftarah seriously? Reconciliation between Africans and Assyrians, Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Christians in Israel, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Egypt? The US isn’t part of the geography of that holy land, but we could follow or even set an holy example. Dream a little dream with me as we discuss these questions:
1) The Torah is Israel’s story, yet they are accompanied out of Egypt by a mixed multitude – whom the rabbis don’t like too much and blame for nearly everything that goes wrong. Who’s in that mixed multitude today and what are they doing in this world?
2) What texts would you add in to the reading cycle? What texts come alive for you when you read them?
3) Can midrash change the world?
Shabbat shalom שבת שלם
Exodus 1:1 These are the names (shemoth) of the sons of Yisra’el who came into Egypt with Ya‘akov…
Baniym can of course mean "sons" or "children" and usually I err on the side of inclusion. But in this text, it is clear that only male progeny are indicated, demonstrated by the list of names that follow. These are the names of Israel’s sons, but what about his daughters?
5 So it was that all the souls, the ones who went out from Ya‘akov’s loin, יוצאי ירך יעקב, were seventy souls.
“The ones who exited, went out” – dare I say “squirted out”? – of Jacob’s singular loin, a euphemism for the specific male organ rather than “genitals” in general usually indicated by the plural or “thigh” when ירך is singular in other contexts, were seventy souls. There are twelve names given for those sons in v 1 and seventy souls altogether in v 5. Perhaps then, Jacob had fifty-eight daughters with Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah – the text being clear that Rachel had only Benjamin and died giving birth to him. Who were these fifty-eight benei-or perhaps better-banoth-Ya‘akov? We know Dinah’s name. What about the other fifty-seven? Were they all daughters or were there lesser sons deemed insignificant by the authors of the text?
Today I’d like to reflect on the stories of Shemoth from the perspective of Jacob’s daughters, daughters-in-law and the other women whose stories become intertwined with those of Israel: Shiphrah, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, an African princess, nearly invisible servant girls, Zipporah and her seven shepherding sisters – and their mother along with the daughters of Israel…
In response to this prompt the Dorshei Derekh Minyan engaged with me in some contemporary midrash – not bound to the rules of the classical schools – but allowing ourselves to retell the sacred stories in order to ask questions of and answer questions left by the Torah.
Here are some of the fruits of our sanctified imaginations (to use the language of the Black Church):
- Were Shiphrah and Puah Hebrew women or women who provided midwifery services for the Hebrew people? (The Hebrew is ambiguous.) Their names are Semitic: Shiphrah’s name is sh-ph-r, “to be beautiful” in Hebrew and “to be pleasing” in Aramaic; perhaps sapphire. Puah’s name might be Ugaritic for “girl-child,” like Nina in Spanish and Walidah in Arabic.
- What does it mean that Pharoah spoke to Shiphrah and Puah in person? Did he know them? How did he know them or know of them? What did it mean for them to speak to a man who was a living god in their world?
- Was the Egyptian princess who became Moshe's adoptive mother infertile? (Was she even married?) Did Moses grow up alone, a child among adults in a palatial home?
- Did Yocheved, Moshe's mother, arrange for him to be taught the ways of his people aftershe weaned him? Did she recommend a tutor? Did she and the princess collaborate in raising him? Did she send Miryam in to be his teacher? Did Miryam send herself in to be Moshe's teacher? (How many years were there between Miryam and Moshe? – enough that Miryam was old enough to watch over her baby brother: 5, 10, more?)
- How did Yocheved's experience growing up in Egypt watching things go from bad to worse after one Pharoah with whom her people had good relations was replced by one who would seek to anihilate them all affect her choices? It strikes me that Yocheved prefigures European Holocaust victims, watching the governments and people they knew turn into monsters whom they no longer knew or recognized. Then Yocheved became an agent of resistance: the very decision to give birth was an act of defiance.
- Yocheved’s experience, trying to maintain family unity as a slave-woman – albeit one with a beneficent mistress – was comparable to the experiences of enslaved African women in the American south, regularly separated from spouses and children, even if they labored on the same plantation. Indeed the experience of Moshe having more than one mother has ongoing corollaries in many African diasporic contexts where mothering is not limited to women who give birth. Many black churches in the Americas celebrate birth mothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers, heart-mothers, other-mothers and single fathers on Mother’s Day.
- What happened in Moshe's life in exile that prepared him for his encounter with the Burning Bush and for leadership. How did the hotheaded murderer become patient enough to observe that the Burning Bush was not being consumed?
- What effect did Zipporah's worship of the God whose Name Moshe did not know have in preparing Moshe to fulfill his vocation? What on earth is going on when God later tries to kill Moshe – I call it a Divine Drive-By – and Zipporah has to stave God off with a penile blood offering.
- What's going on in Moshe's family that he sends his wife Zipporah away – divorcing her – takes them back when her father brings them back to him but doesn't speak to them again in the text? Why are the biblical authors unclear about how to spell the name of Moshe's younder son? Why does their family virtually disappear from the pages of scripture?
- When the tribes are arrayed before the Presence of God with the tents of Aaron and Moshe in the fromt, in the vanguard of the tents of Levi, where is Miryam's tent? Isn't she in the vangard with them?
Today, Shabbat Shemoth, Sabbath of the Names, we remembered that not all names are named in the scriptures. We looked for their stories if not their names in the text, behind the text and in the spaces in and between the words in the text. And when necessay, we named them ourselves. Shabbat shalom. שבת שלם
Shabbat Mishpatim & Shabbat Shekalim 5772
On this Shabbat that we examine toroth, laws, that we hope are rooted in mishpat, justice I offer my mechatzi shekalim, my half-shekel, my two cents on this double-shabbat.
Imagine with me. We are our ancestors. We have been liberated from Egyptian slavery. There are Israelites and Nubians and Phoenicians and peoples from every nation conquered by the Egyptians, perhaps even a few Egyptians in the great Exodus. We are all looking for a new start. We have been on this journey long enough that we’re taking it for granted. We no longer wonder where we are when we wake up. The miraculous events of the past few weeks seem like a dream except the pillar of cloud is there and there is rumbling from heaven whenever Moshe goes in to the Mishkan. We have the water and food we need each day even though we are in a desert with no oasis in sight.
From time to time Moshe comes to us with Torah, words of teaching from God of Fire and Cloud who accompanies and guides us. God and Moshe are teaching us how to be a people, how to govern and conduct ourselves, how to treat others and how to revere God, so that when we get to freedom in our new home, we will know how to live, not as the Egyptians live, not as any of the other nations of earth live, but we will model a new way of living, we think, we hope. And yes, there are other nations with codes of law and we have some laws in common, but ours is special, different, singular, like our one God.
Those of us on this journey were born in slavery as were our parents and their parents before them, generation after generation. The freedom of this journey is the only freedom any of us have ever known. We can scarcely imagine what it would be like to have land, vines and fig trees, sheep and goats, our own homes with our families, to labor for ourselves and our community, to be free of the brutality and ravishment – but we don’t talk about that. We speak of our enslavement without ever mentioning how women and girls are treated by the slaveholders of every time and place, and sometimes boys and men as well. We tell the story of Yosef who got away from that evil woman, but we never mention those who did not escape their predators.
Today, Moshe’s words include something that we thought we’d never hear again. Some of us will be sold back into slavery. And there will be no escape, no Exodus. Lo tetze. She shall not go out. There shall be no Exodus, no liberation, no freedom for her.
Exodus 21:7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, lo tetze, she shall not go out as the male slaves go out. 8 If she is unacceptable in the sight of her lord, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be ransomed; he shall not sell her to a foreign people – he does not have the authority to do so because of his treachery against her. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall treat her justly as a daughter. 10 If he takes another woman for himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or intercourse of the first woman. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing – no money.
In Exodus 20-23 the treatment of Israelite and non-Israelite slaves is repeatedly addressed. The passage begins (Ex 20:10) and ends (Ex 23:12) with Shabbat rest for the Israelites, their livestock and any resident aliens within their midst; the call for Shabbat is universal. Yet there is an omission of the free women in the household.
Ex 21:7-11 speaks of unmarried women and girls who are sold into slavery by their own fathers, (or perhaps parents), setting this Torah in the middle of the Exodus journey, allowing for the literary possibility that some young women left Egypt as freedwomen but were sold off along the way or entered Canaan as slaves. Their own fathers nullified the freedom that God gave them through Moshe, for money. A critical reading of this text looks at this passage in light of its much later composition, and sees it speaking to a period of desperate poverty in Judea, perhaps after the restoration as in Neh 5:5 Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children; and yet we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.”
But this torah isn’t set in Nehemiah. It is plumb in the middle of Exodus. My first question is how are we to understand this torah in its literary context? Why would a father newly freed from slavery sell his daughter? It is striking that the text doesn’t require the family to be in debt, he can just sell her at a whim. Perhaps the best thing that I can say about this text is that it was revised in the canon, Deuteronomy 15:12-18 grants release to these enslaved women in the same circumstances as enslaved men and sens them both out with resources to help them establish themselves in the world.
Since yatza is the primary verb of the Exodus, I hear the “going out” as emancipation – but in this case, denial of emancipation, from slavery. In other words, women and girls who are sold into slavery shall not be released from bondage except as specified in this text. Yet there are some slight protections for her: The man her father sells her to cannot use her sexually and then sell her to non-Israelites. It seems he must be an Israelite himself. Her buyer cannot use her sexually if he designates her for his son’s sexual use and he cannot reduce her material provisions – food, clothing and the opportunity to conceive – if he acquires another woman. While these provisions leave much to be desired, they are clearly aimed at preventing sexual use and abandonment of vulnerable women having been sold by their fathers. I think that the very existence of this passage indicates that this is exactly what was going on, that girls were being sold, used sexually and then resold. The text refers to this as “treachery” “against” or “in” her, bevigdo-vah. The penalty – if one can call it that – for the slaveholder who does any of these things is that he forfeits all rights to the woman or girl. Verse 8 says that her enslaver shall let her be ransomed; it is not clear who will ransom her. It is hard to imagine her father buying her back.
Lastly, verse 11 says that the emancipated woman shall go out “for nothing, chinam,” “no money, ayin keseph,” that is, if someone does ransom her from slavery. She will not plunder her former enslaver as did the Israelite women plundered the Egyptians, and she will not be led to a land flowing with milk and honey. She will be on her own to make her own way in a world that may not value a formerly enslaved woman with a sexual history.
The fate of these women slaves, whether or not they are eligible for this conditional emancipation depends entirely on whether they “please” their lords or better, “if she is ra‘ah in his eyes.” So then if the woman sold by her father is not attractive to her new owner and he has sex with her anyway and then decides to get rid of her then the provisions of Ex 21:7-11 come into play. However, according to the logic of the text, if the slaveholder refrains from having sex with her, then he can sell her to a foreigner or give her to his son for his sexual and reproductive use. Then, lo tetze, she shall not go out to freedom.
My questions: How are we to understand this torah in its literary context? How does the tradition value individuals in relationship to the community? Then, reading beyond it’s context into our own, there is a belief that some people have the right to dominate and control the bodies of other people. This notion is fundamental to the scriptures but older than them even though it is sanctified by them – and by the scriptures of many if not all religions. The radical patriarchy assumed by the text is not a thing of the past. Men (and women) still sell their daughters. Some due to extreme poverty, others out of greed or addiction. Contemporary sex-trafficking and slavery keep this torah relevant. How do we fight the assumptions of this text as patriarchy continues to infect our public, religious and political discourses.
Lastly, I’d like to suggest that perhaps, Moshe’s promulgation of patriarchal toroth in the Divine Name, had something to do with his being barred from setting foot in the Promised Land. Perhaps. Shabbat shalom.
(The image: Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904): "Selling Slaves in Rome," Public Domain Photos)
[This D’var Torah led to a rich and ongoing discussion at the Dorshe Derekh Reconstructionist Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia on the possibility of adding the names of the enslaved Mothers, Zilpah and Bilhah, to the liturgy. Some of that conversation can be found here. Ultimately it was decided that prayer leaders would have the option to invoke their names as Immahoth, Mothers of Israel.]
Today, I’d like to share with you Torat Bilhah, Bilhah’s Torah, the torah of a disposable woman. Today’s drash is based on an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Womanist Midrash. Womanism is black feminism by another name, coined by Alice Walker.
Genesis 30:3 Rachel said, “Look! My womb-slave Bilhah – come in her, and she will give birth on my knees that I may also build-babies, through her.”
Bilhah is one of two slave-women whose bodies were used to produce a full third of the twelve tribes of Israel. Bilhah and Zilpah are often overlooked – in prayers naming the matriarchs in Judaism and Christianity – and, in my experience as a congregant and student they are combined as a footnote to Israel’s story. Bilhah figures more prominently in the scriptures than does her sister in slavery, Zilpah. There are eleven references to Bilhah; in comparison there are only seven for Zilpah.
Both amahoth and shiphchoth are enslaved women or girls regularly associated with sexual and reproductive duties. Translating either as “maid” intentionally obscures the sexual nature of their servitude. Both terms seem to refer primarily to foreign women; Lev 25:44 stipulates that they should be bought from foreigners. However, a survey of the passages in which these terms occur does not indicate that these women are entirely or even preferentially non-Israelite.
In some cases I translate amah and/or shiphchah as “womb-slave.” In these cases, the girls are given by other women to men for sex for the express purpose of impregnating them. I believe that it is more appropriate to describe the womb-slaves as girls rather than as women because they were likely young enough to have been presumed fertile and possibly virginal in order that the paternity of their children not be disputed, however, it may be that in some cases, perhaps Bilhah’s, that they were already proven fertile. Bilhah is first enslaved to Lavan the father of Leah and Rachel before being passed on to his daughter Rachel. While she is enslaved to Lavan, Bilhah is initially referred to as a shiphchah. Later, she is called an amah. The two terms are used nearly interchangeably in the Hebrew Scriptures although there was likely once a distinction between them.
The text is not interested in how a girl (or woman) young enough to be presumed fertile came into Lavan’s household. Was Bilhah once the woman-servant of Lavan’s mysteriously missing wife? Was Bilhah born in captivity or captured as spoils of war? How long was she in Lavan’s service before he gave her to Rachel? And what sorts of services did she provide Lavan? Given the absence of Lavan’s wife from the narrative it is entirely possible that Lavan used Bilhah sexually.
Bilhah’s sexual subordination to Rachel (with or without the possibility that Lavan used her sexually previously) evokes for me the sexual abuse of enslaved Africans in the United States, Caribbean and other places. Religious readings that valorize Rachel place the descendants of those held as chattel in the American slavocracy in the position of identifying with slave-holding values and against the interests and experiences of our foremothers. Rachel, like her foremother Sarah does not to hesitate to use the body, womb and sexuality of another woman for her own purposes. Unlike the white women who benefited from slavery in the Atlantic, Rachel does not pretend not to know about sexual contact between her man and her slave. And, when Rachel gives Bilhah to Ya‘aqov, she gives her as a primary wife, an isshah. Yet Bilhah remains Rachel’s slave; she is regularly referred to as a shiphchah. Bilhah proves fertile and gives birth to Dan and Naphtali.
In each slave-surrogate story the text portrays a singular accounting of the sexual contact between Avraham and Hagar, Ya‘aqov and Bilhah and Ya‘aqov and Zilpah. The reader must imagine how many times the slave-women were forced/required to have sex with these men in order to provide their mistresses with the children they craved. Rachel like other women who use their slaves as child-bearing surrogates claims the children; this is not comparable to the vast experience of enslaved women of African descent forced to bear children at the whim of their enslavers, whose children were sold off or abused to punish them for a sin that was not theirs. (Perhaps a modern parallel to Rachel’s use of Bilhah’s body might be the women of privilege who travel to the two-thirds world to pay a surrogate to bear their children at a tenth of the cost of an American surrogate. While the poor women do consent to the practice, the financial disparities and cultural consequences of carrying someone else’s child in traditional societies complicate that consent.)
Bilhah’s body is used again in Gen 35:22. Re’uven ben Leah, Ya‘aqov’s firstborn son, rapes Bilhah. That Bilhah does not consent is indicated by the Hebrew, vayishcav et-bilhah, “he lay Bilhah.” There is no “with” indicating consent. Bilhah is the grammatical and sexual object of Re’uven’s actions. Re’uven is young enough to be her son. He may have been like a son or nephew to her. But he uses her nevertheless, whether for his own power and control needs or as a pawn in a battle with his father. The pain, anguish, rage and shame that Bilhah must have felt are and are not difficult to imagine. No punishment is meted out to Re’uven in the text at the time of the assault. (It is held against him and eventually given as the reason he is demoted from the privilege of being the firstborn.) No comfort is offered to Bilhah in the text. Was she supported by other slave women, by Zilpah who shared her lot in life? I cannot imagine Rachel or even Leah coming to her aid. Her body has belonged to Lavan, Rachel, Ya‘aqov and now Re’uven. Bilhah may be the woman with the most sexual partners in the scriptures, none of whom she chose. In the rape narrative Bilhah is described as a secondary wife, a pilegesh. She has been degraded in body and status.
Yet something of Bilhah endures and transcends the abuse heaped on her body. In 1 Chron 4:29 there is a town named Bilhah settled by the descendants of Simeon. Textually speaking, the town is likely the same town called Ba‘alah in Joshua 15:29. Since Ba‘alah and Bilhah are more than one letter apart, scribal error does not seem to be responsible for the discrepancy. There are likely two different traditions about the ancient city list. The space between the two traditions provides a midrashic space. I’d like to think that Bilhah is the Ba‘alah, (“lady” or “mistress”), for whom the town is named, regaining the dignity that had been stripped from her. Finally, in Genesis 46:23-25, Bilhah takes her place in the genealogy of Israel as a matriarch, credited with seven children and grandchildren; this is largely repeated in 1 Chron 7:13.
In a womanist reading, Bilhah represents the woman who has had more than one abusive relationship, the woman who has been raped by more than one perpetrator, the woman who has been betrayed by women and men, who has never known anyone to value her for more than what they think about her body in part or the whole. And Bilhah represents the woman survives her abuse.
There is a prayer in the Mass of my church, (Eucharistic Prayer C in the Holy Eucharist, Rite II, in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church), in which the celebrant invokes “God of our Fathers, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” I always add Hagar, Sarah, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah. Because Bilhah is one of the mothers of Israel and after all that she has been through – after all that was done to her, to erase her name from the chronicle of her descendants and their people is to do further violence to her. Likewise when I pray the Amidah, I add Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah for the same reason.
Lastly, calling the names of familial and spiritual ancestors is a womanist practice with roots in a number of African societies. In ritual practice, the affirmation “Ashé!” from the Yoruba tradition concludes the name-calling of the ancestors. Mother Bilhah, womb-slave of Israel, we call your name. Ashé!
Who are some of the marginalized characters in sacred writings that you would like to see in the center of discourse? Given that this text functions as scripture – with all that entails – what torah does Bilhah offer you? What (if anything) does midrash from the margins offer the broader interpretive tradition? I welcome your questions and comments.
D’Var Torah delivered in the Dorshei Derekh Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Centre for Shabbat Vayetzei 7 Kislev 5772/3 December 2011
Parshat Eqev 5771
Ya‘aqov ben Yosef, (also known as James), the brother of Yeshua ben Miryam, (also known as Jesus), once asked a she’elah: Does the same spring pour forth bitter and sweet water? The answer to his she’elah in his writings is “no,” but that principle does not always hold true for me. The Torah is a fountain of living water and like this parshah, is in turns bitter and sweet and bittersweet to me.
The bitter: Having just returned from Yerushalayim where literal interpretations of toroth such as those appointed for today have lethal consequences, I was really disheartened to read among the opening verses of the parshah:
Deut 7:16 You shall devour all the peoples that the Holy One your God is giving over to you, showing them לא-תחס, no compassion…
Frankly the world doesn’t need any less compassion. We don’t need religious texts, religious traditions and religious leaders telling us in the name of God, the ancestors or the tradition to withhold compassion from anyone for any reason. One might understand the dispossession to be that claimed in Joshua’s conquest, or the more historical Assyrian and Babylonian conquests which dispossessed Israel as well, giving birth to revisionist history and aspirations. However, even a full exploration of the context that produced this text and its entirely comprehensible xenophobia doesn’t help. At least, it doesn’t help me in this present moment.
Then the sweet: I read near the end of the parshah:
Deut 10:17 For the Holy One your God is God of gods and Sovereign of sovereigns, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
And I thought, I can drash this part. After all Rav Yeshua ben Miryam the infamous brother of Ya‘aqov ben Yosef offered the world a famous drash on “Who is my neighbor” whose ethical teaching transcends religious identity.
The גר is the stranger, sometimes called a sojourner, an alien, a resident alien. The גר is a person who lives in the midst of a people who are not her own. Because the גר lives in another community, he has some obligation to the ethical standards of that community even if they, like the religion of the community, are not his own. This a Toraic – is there such a word? – definition. For the rabbis, the גרים are converts. I’d like to resist the rabbinic reading and leave the גרים וגרות with their religious and cultural otherness and distinctions in tact. The Torah describes the participation of the sojourners in the religious life of ancient Israel, from observing shabbat and celebrating Pesach to offering their own offerings. There are also limits, many of the toroth that apply to the Israelites also apply to those who live in their communities: neither Israelites nor resident aliens can eat blood, for example.
So in the spirit of Rabbi Yeshua, who is the stranger? Who are the גרים? Solomon counted 153,600 resident aliens in his day. (2 Chr 2:17) Are there any limits on who can be a גר? Are there some folk who due to one aspect of their identity or another could not be welcomed in the Israelite community? Are some folk destined to be regarded as enemies, never welcome in Israelite communities? Can sojourners come from the peoples of whom today’s text also says:
Deut 7:22 The Holy One your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you will not be able to make a quick end of them, otherwise the wild animals would become too numerous for you. 23 But the Holy One your God will give them over to you, and throw them into great panic, until they are destroyed. 24 God will hand their monarchs over to you and you shall blot out their name from under heaven; no one will be able to stand against you, until you have destroyed them.
Deut 9:5 It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the Holy One your God is dispossessing them before you, in order to fulfill the promise that the Holy One made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Deut 11:22 If you will diligently observe this entire commandment that I am commanding you, loving the Holy One your God, walking in all God’s ways, and holding fast to God, 23 then the Holy One will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and mightier than yourselves.
In short, what is the difference between a sojourning stranger and an enemy stranger? I’d like to suggest that there are no ethnic, national, cultural or religious differences between the people reckoned as acceptable strangers in the community and those reckoned as unacceptable strangers outside the community. The Israelites have been individually and collectively sojourners in foreign lands and there are people from virtually every known nation who live as גרים in ancient Israel. Kings tells us that even an Amalekite was a sojourner in Israel in the time of David and Saul, serving in the Israelite army. (2 Sam 1:13) And the Amalekites were the most despised of enemy nations by most accounts, with regular calls in the Torah for their annihilation, extinction, genocide, what we call today ethnic cleansing. So then, it appears that sojourners are Amalekite, Canaanite, Jebusite, Amorite, Hittite, Hivite, Perizzite and every other “-ite” you can imagine.
So how does an individual from a people whom the Torah says are wicked, have no longer any right to their own land, are to be faulted for following their own religion and culture, can have their women and girls abducted in to Israelite forced marriages, can have their men and boys – even – infants slaughtered and exterminated become a resident alien accepted into Israelite society, protected to some degree under the shelter of the Torah-tree of life?
One at a time. Perhaps even one family at a time. One relationship at a time. The sojourners are individuals who become known to their host community, and through that knowing become a part of the community themselves. Their unknown kinfolk remain the villains in sacred and secular stories alike, literary characters to be dispensed with at will. But they who are known occupy a liminal, fertile space between stranger and neighbor.
It strikes me that the lack of knowing on an individual basis makes it possible for the stereotypes of xenophobia to blossom into the toxic blooms of violent rhetoric and rhetoric-fueled violence. When no one knows any of “them” it is easy to believe every horror story and consent to the most inhumane practices in the name of self-preservation. But when one person knows another person from the outsider-stranger community then it’s no longer possible to talk about all of them as a collective.
Every place that I experienced hope about the future of Palestinians and Israelis living in justice and peace was a space in which individual Israelis and Palestinians were in contact and conversation – not necessarily agreement, in fact, they were often in disagreement on many issues. But those who knew each other because they saw each other and spoke to each other, cared for each other and rejected the radical cries of לא-תחס, no compassion, for them from their own communities. Likewise, the spaces in which I grieved the most for the future were the spaces in which members from each group called for the annihilation of the other beyond the wall – literal as well as metaphorical walls – the other a stranger whom they’d never met in person, whose children, lovers, elders, hopes and dreams were mythical creatures to be written out of the story.
Who is the stranger?
Are there any people to whom we as Torah-readers-and-keepers do not have any ethical obligations?
What is the sweetness of Torah to you?
What is the bitterness of Torah to you?
How and where is the Torah bittersweet to you?
Finally the bittersweet from today’s parshah:
Deut 7:12 If you heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them, the Holy One your God will maintain with you the covenant loyalty that God swore to your ancestors; 13 God will love you, bless you, and multiply you; God will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock, in the land that God swore to your mothers and fathers to give you. 14 You shall be the most blessed of peoples, with neither sterility nor barrenness among you or your livestock. 15 The Holy One will turn away from you every illness; all the dread diseases of Egypt that you experienced, God will not inflict on you, but God will lay them on all who hate you.
This is what I call incantational religion. If you do it just right you’ll get just what you want. If you don’t get what you want, it’s because you didn’t do it right. Anyone struggling with illness or infertility or economic losses is responsible for not dotting the I’s, crossing the t’s or curling the yuds in the Torah. Yet beneath this cause-and-effect religion is an image of a God who cares for, nurtures and provides for God’s people, extending that care to the strangers within their gates. And that’s not a bad thing. Especially from where I sit in this community. שבת שלם
Somehow I’m in Leviticus again. I didn’t do it on purpose. This time. I know I’ve drashed this parsha before, but according to my files it was in a year that B’har and B’chukotai were together and I scrolled to the B’har side of the Torah. Today we are plumb in B’chukotai which I would like to sum up as:
If…then…If you…then I will…If you don’t…then I won’t…
Some of you may know that in the next phase of my sabbatical sojourn I will journey “up” as the saying goes, לישראל. I’ve been thinking a lot about the place and the land and how much it means to so many and at what cost. The recent speech by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response frame (some of) the issues once again. There are passionate feelings, opinions, hopes, schemes, dreams, and demands at play on all sides.
The Torah preserves the passion for the land enflamed by despair at its loss, stoked by hopes of reentry, reoccupation and more than that, domination by those who collected, edited and preserved the Torah. And for some, the Torah shapes current conversations about the land, all of its occupants and their collective and/or separate futures. The Judean exiles spread from Egypt to Babylon, even with a re-entrenched outpost around a not-quite-Solomonic temple could have hardly expected to occupy every inch of the land they had previously claimed at the height of the golden age of David and Solomon. Surely they did not expect to murder every man and man-child with blood of other peoples in their veins living in the land. They could not have sought to rape every woman and girl-child into bearing children who would be counted as Israelites so as to eradicate their own peoples. No matter what the Torah says in some of its most troubling texts. A text without a context is a pretext. The post-exilic context of the editing of the Torah helps me with some of these texts.
When I teach difficult texts at the seminary I invite the students to employ a number of creative writing strategies to experience the text differently: how would it read as a newscast or newspaper article, as a social worker’s report, as an infomercial? What happens when one reverses the texts: trade insiders for outsiders, favored status among the nations, with reviled ancient enemy, reverse slave and slaveholder, swap monotheism for polytheism, reverse the genders of the characters and/or God?
I’d like to reframe Leviticus 26:3-13 by reversing the “if…then…” that frames the passage. One could read the text as, if we, or the ancient Israelites or even current day Israelis do something, God will do something else. But today let’s look at the things that the Torah says God will do and see if God has ever done them and what there might be for us to think about in the “if…then…”
Leviticus 26:3 If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, 4 I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.
Well, it was raining when I wrote this. For the most part it rains when it should in Israel, and even in the United States. Sometimes we get too much, sometimes too little, but the seasons turn more or less as they should – global warming aside. The respective farm belts produce enough food to feed their peoples and arguably the rest of the world. In modernity our food scarcity problem seems to be one of distribution and, well, will. I am the Wil, but not that will. So we may conlude by the seasons of rain and other weather at the approriate time and the production of foodstuffs that Israel and even the United States are full of faithful commandment-keepers.
The rest of this should be a piece of cake.
5 Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and the vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your bread to the full, and live securely in your land.
And cake it is, bread and booze. No lack of carbs in the US or Israel. Check. Wait, what was that last part?
… and live securely in your land. 6 And I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and no one shall make you afraid; I will remove dangerous animals from the land, and no sword shall go through your land.
Something of a hiccup here. There are real security issues in the United States and Israel and Palestine and everywhere else that I have ever heard of. I’ve never heard of a land or country in which no one was afraid. A number of animals, including predators, have disappeared from their natural habitats, due to extinction; we tend to think of that as a bad thing. A land without swords – may we say acts of violence? Has there ever been such since Qayin murdered Hevel west of Eden?
7 You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. 8 Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword.
Well, Israel has world-renouned military abilities. And the United States is still a super power, in spite of the changes in global and national economies. But there has never been an empire on the face of the earth that did not fall. Did the Israelites envision perpetual supremacy or that it just might be their turn again? (Egypt and Babylon each had multiple turns running the known world.)
9 I will look with favor upon you and make you fruitful and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you.
Modernity has seen human reproduction and life-expectancies soar. Even in parts of the world in which women regularly die in childbirth and only a fraction of children survive into adulthood, the whole people is not endangered.
10 You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make way for the new.
Back to the carbs. Americans have elevated storage to a hight art: basements, attics, pantries, freezers in basements and garages, storage units, and an entire industry represented by The Container Store.
11 I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. 12 And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people.
A few have claimed that God is in their midst and that they are the beloved of God. More than a few have feld abhored by God. The first of my questions for us: What does it mean to claim that the God of Torah or Tanak or ancient Israel is our God? What does it mean to be or call one’s people or nation the people of God? What do these things mean in light of this text and what has and hasn’t happened in the world?
13 I am the Holy One your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk with straightened spines.
There is a particular rhetoric of salvation in some black churches: It is not enough to say what you are saved from – for example, slavery – but what is it that you are saved for?
Leviticus 26:14 But if you will not obey me, and do not observe all these commandments, 15 if you spurn my statutes, and abhor my ordinances, so that you will not observe all my commandments, and you break my covenant, 16 I in turn will do this to you: I will bring terror on you…
The terror the text goes on to describe parallels accounts of the fall of Judah and destruction of Jerusalem and its temple and includes a mention of the exile. Perhaps the “if…then…” of this parsha has already been applied.
The book of Leviticus ends with the words: Leviticus 27:34 These are the commandments that the Holy One of Old gave to Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. Who are the Israelites? The Torah teaches that Abraham and Sarah were from the land that biblical folk would come to cla Babel, the home of Babylon, that we call Iraq. They had an incestuaous sibling marriage and their descendents inner-married nieces, uncles, aunts, nephews and cousins. And their descendents also intermarried with the peoples around them: Tamar with whom Hudah had children was not from the family. Other patriarchs also intermarried: Simeon married a Canaanite woman, and Joseph married Asenat, an Egyptian making two of the twelve tribes half Egyptian. And, an unknown number of peoples from unknown national contexts left Egypt with the Israelites and integrated to one degree or another. So then “Israelite” is more of a cultural, social and religious designation than it is an ethnic one.
What does it mean to claim that the God of Torah, Tanak, Bible or ancient Israel is our God? What does it mean to be or call one’s people or nation the people of God? What do these things mean in light of this text and what has and hasn’t happened in the world? Is the “if…then…” of this parsha ethically or theologically binding on us or anyone else? What does God’s behavior (past and present) teach us about this covenant? What does this Torah say to you?
Lastly, in a Jewish Bible, the last words of Leviticus or any other book in the Torah are not actually the last words. Rabbinic bibles have a refrain: חזק חזק ונתחזק. The congregational response to the end of a book of Torah, “from strength, to strength and may we be strengthened” represents the work of interpretation. When necessary, add words to the Torah herself, even if you have to write on her pages. The rabbis and volumes of interprters have modeled the ongoing work of midrash for us. חזק חזק ונתחזק!
17 Iyar 5771
21 May 2011
Dorshei Derekh Minyan
Germantown Jewish Center