Vayak'heil-P'kudei 5772: Sermon Delivered at Congregation Moreshet Israel, Jerusalem, Israel in celebration of womens' leadership in Jewish life
In a progression of verses that is in no way unusual, this week's parasha comes to remind us that at the time of the revelation at Sinai, God, Moshe, and, apparently the people, all assumed that a patriarchal societal structure was the norm: in Sh'mot 32, the people, panicking at Moshe's prolonged absence, crowd Aaron: And the people saw that Moses lagged. The people. In the next verse, Aaron responds: take off the golden rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters. In other words, "the people" are the men.
Professor Tikva Frymer-Kensky, z”l, in the introduction to her book, Reading the Women of the Bible, pointed out that the Torah does not challenge the patriarchy of the society to which it was revealed, just as the Torah does not challenge the institution of slavery. The Torah does not conceptualize such cultural revolutions as an egalitarian society or the eradication of the institution of slavery.
Biblical thinkers, as Frymer-Kensky refers to biblical authorship, were very aware of social problems, trying to emeliorate the suffering of the downtrodden, curtailing abuses, helping runaway slaves stay free, redeeming those sold into slavery, and calling for a limit to capitalist aggrandizement.
Today, we might turn to the Torah, the foundation document of our faith, and feel disappointed or embarrassed by what seems to be the biblical embrace of patriarchal structure, not to mention a sanguine acceptance of slavery.
I think we err in the reading of the Torah if we lapse into embarrassment and disappointment at these junctures. Indeed, I see in the Torah's challenging, incremental, insistent pushing back on societal assumptions the key to the deepest values of our tradition and the key to the eternal vibrancy of Judaism.
It is easy, too easy, to sit in this sanctuary today and look with disdain on the poor primitive creatures of the past who didn't "get it" that women simply do fulfill the same spectrum of roles in Jewish community as do men. It is too easy to sit in this sanctuary today and look with disdain on the poor primitive creatures of the past who didn't "get it" that a mitzvah observed by a gay guy is a mitzvah that has been observed by an obligated Jew.
In a drash on the parashah Mishpatim, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses asks a perceptive and challenging question:
"...after all the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt, the very first laws of Mishpatim concern slave ownership. Not the prohibition of owning slaves, as one might want and expect, but the rules detailing the treatment of a slave, slavery an institution that is simply presumed by the text. After all that, after all those years enslaved, after witnessing the plagues, after passing through the red sea to escape slavery, why in the world are the Israelites permitted the ownership of other human beings?"
The key phrase, in Rabbi Cohler-Esses' question is: "an institution that is simply presumed by the text." In other words, the institution of slavery was a common and integral part of ancient economies and societal structures. As common as salaries and taxes are today.
These passages in Mishpatim make it clear that the slave held by an Israelite master was never to be treated with the harshness and cruelty that the Israelite slaves experienced at the hands of Egypt's taskmasters.
For certain, there are also passages in the Torah about the treatment of slaves that seem brutal to us and repugnant in the document we embrace as revealed sacred text. All this is a reflection of the reality of the time and place in which the Torah was revealed.
I recently saw a TV advertisement in which a person in very authentic-looking medieval dress hands another person a gift: something wrapped in the folds of a cloth. The recipient carefully opens up the folds of the cloth and a very modern-looking television remote control is revealed.. The gift is received with very understandable confusion and incomprehension.
If the Torah reflected our 21st sensibilities towards slavery, toward the basic economics of debt service, toward women and even employer-employee relations, the response at the time and place of revelation would have been even more profound confusion and incomprehension. There would have been no collective of people to accept the Torah and declare "na'aseh v'nishma" / "we will do, we will obey" because there would not have been a human alive at that time capable of understanding and committing to such a covenant.
Even a sacred revelation rooted in the cultural assumptions of the day was ultimately responded to with the golden calf. Can you imagine what the response would have been to a Torah unilaterally and with no warning casting aside patriarchal society, abolishing slavery, prohibiting capital punishment? Crickets. Instead of a heartfelt na’aseh v’nishmah (“we will do, we will obey,” our communal response to the revelation of the Torah) you would have only heard the chirping of crickets...
The power of our tradition, right from the very beginning, has been our commitment to connecting our faith, our religious commitments, our observances to the myriad of times and places in which we have lived. We have demonstrated, time after time after time, that the covenant, laws, mitzvot of our tradition travel with us, reflect and inform the realities of our lives wherever and whenever we live in Jewish community.
This makes looking back confusing at times . . . as if we, in our 21st century culture, mindset and dress were to unwrap a present and find chain mail armor. These anachronistic moments, though, serve to remind us that our faith, our brit/covenant with God, has always been about the lives we are leading right now. Whenever and wherever right now might be.
In this season of “nahafoch hu” (Turn things on their heads / referring to the irreverent spirit of Purim) it behooves us to remember that profound change does not happen . . . or does not happen well . . . when we begin by overturning tables and standing things on their heads.
Indeed, it is our Torah...that sacred document steeped in patriarchal and slaveholding assumptions that models for us the path to the kind of change that made this Shabbat in this place possible. We need to start where people are, not where we expect them to get to. Really, there is little that is more irritating than having someone approach from the heights of enlightenment to say: "you poor misguided thing, follow me and you'll get it right.". How much more effective, as the Torah models, to say: "here's where we are. Look what's ahead. We can figure out together how to get there!"
Profound change comes from modeling, suggesting, teaching, persevering, relying only on the eternal, sacred values that reflect profound truth. Having faith. And a little humility.
We, the Masorti community here in Israel, as well as the American Conservative community, need to do a little remembering.
Here are a few things I remember from the not-distant-enough past:
I remember being all but frog-marched out of the daily minyan at my own (pre-rabbinical school) Masorti kehillah in Jerusalem and being told that I was not welcome in the room if I was going to wear my tallit and Tefillin.
I remember members of the Israel Rabbinical Assembly standing up at meetings
and insisting that Israel was not ready for women in the rabbinate.
I remember a high-ranking member of the Machon Shechter administration informing me that women belonged in the rabbinate as much as an orange belongs on a Seder plate.
I remember: here's a little back story to this memory: when I began my studies in the rabbinical program at Shechter, I was actually registered as a student of JTS while studying in the Israeli program. JTS had been ordaining women since 1983, but then, in 1991, Schechter was not yet accepting women. Therefore, I ... and a few other women ... were in the unique position of studying in a program that did not officially accept us. The other women at that time were studying at Shechter as Masters students. So...back to remembering: I remember a fellow student gave a d'var Torah one day at minyan urging the Schechter faculty and administration to change their policy and to accept women. A high-ranking member of the Schechter administration came up to him immediately and within hearing of several of us said: “atah bogeid,” you are an iconoclast, you are a traitor.
I've had a moment or two like that myself: I had been davenning in minyanim at shul and at school as the only woman in the room wearing Tefillin for close to a year before I finally walked into a minyan where there was another woman wearing Tefillin. I watched her wrap up and I remember saying to myself: Wow! That looks really weird!
All of that is to say that we need to have a little rachmonis (compassion) for those who don't quite get it yet. We need to acknowledge that the kind of change that addresses the way people engage in society and community is complicated and frightening and confusing. Obviously that does not mean we don't proceed with change, it does mean we must manage change with wisdom and compassion and allegiance to sacred values.
For all that the Torah assumes a world that marginalizes women and condones slavery, the most sacred principles which will ultimate overthrow those assumptions are embedded in that same revealed text and have served as the basis for the revolutions which overturn those institutions:
And God created the Adam in His image. He created it in the image of God; He created them male and female. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it . . .”
Adam is male and female, a type of gendered creature, like so many others. Both genders of this Adam are created simultaneously and equally. Both genders of this Adam are blessed equally and charged equally with reproducing and with managing the rest of creation. This first relating of the creation of humanity considers both genders equally blessed, equally in partnership.
How many times have we heard that we are partners with God in completing and perfecting creation? How often are we uplifted by the concept of Tikkun Olam? The idea that God needs our collaboration to bring ultimate completion and peace, to the act of Creation?
The blueprint for our collaboration are the "first principles" of the Torah: Tikkun Olam is the enterprise of integrating these first principles of Torah into the world.
God had the chance to foster a homogeneous, uniform humanity . . . all speaking the same language, all building towards the same goal: the destruction of the Tower of Babel is the signal that God expects diversity, creativity, the exercise of our various intelligences from us. Humanity begins with one language, one set of words, and ends the passage dispersed and speaking many tongues. Yes, perhaps, as is expressed in Genesis 11, humanity would have been more formidable were we to speak one language and see one vision...but if that state of affairs reflected God's aspiration for the Adam we would, today, be speaking but one language and aspiring to one goal.
Hence the blueprint for our collaboration with God must include the embrace of diversity within the Adam / humanity.
It's rather exhausting, isn't it, to contemplate how many millennia it has taken to achieve just a few steps forward in establishing God's first principles. After all, the catalyst for this awe-inspiring Shabbat is the rejection of the equality of genders within the Adam among certain misguided groups within Israel. Really, what on earth could a little orthodox girl be wearing to school that could possibly be deemed inappropriate by anyone save a truly misguided soul?
So let us, today in this sanctuary, respond to Professor Frymer-Kensky's concerns and Rabbi Cohler-Essess' probing question with pride and reassurance: the Torah does not abandon 21st century Jews, the Torah provides us with the wisdom, perspective and inspiration to understand the scope of the challenges and to be compassionate and focussed as we pursue those first principle truths that shine through the cultural anachronisms of the text.
In this season of nahafoch hu, I suggest there are times when up-ending tables is the order of the day: most effectively when grassroots support for change wells up against an authoritarian loathing to abandon long-held assumptions.
In place of disappointment and embarrassment, let us be guided by both patience and determination. The patience to inspire those around us with the challenging and uplifting first principles of the Torah: equality, inclusivity, diversity--and the determination to up-end each table of bigotry, narrow-mindedness and intimidation in their turn.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.