The Torah parshah for this week is Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 – 30:10). Mostly it describes the priesthood, both of Aaron and his sons. It details how they should be consecrated, what they should wear, the difference between the garb of the high priest and the others, institutes the daily burnt offerings of rams, and provides instructions for the construction of an altar for locally-sourced incense.
The parshah works to establish differences between members of the Israelite community through consecration as well as in function and in dress by decreeing the institutionalized of the priesthood. Priests undergo an elaborate consecration ceremony which includes the sacrifice of animals, the smearing of their blood, the waving of various animals parts into the air and the burning/cooking of the sacrificed animals’ flesh. In addition to the blood smearing and animal sacrifices, the priests are also anointed with oil and offer oil and grain offerings to the divine. In terms of function, priests should offer daily sacrifices to the divine in the form of two rams (one in the morning and one in the evening). Also, all priests have four items of similar clothing: tunic, girdle, turban and short pants. However, the high priest has four special items only he wears, like the breastplate and a golden forehead piece. His clothes are laden with gold, precious stones, and royal dyes.
Considering that in ancient times, many deities were worshiped by animal sacrifice it is not surprising that it turns up here. This is what the Israelites initially thought the divine wanted. It isn’t until the Israelite prophets appear that it becomes quite clear that animal sacrifice isn’t as pleasing to the divine as right behavior, right relationships and the institutionalization of just practices are.
That being said, the institutionalization of the priesthood establishes a hierarchy in terms of gender, power and class within the early Israelite community. In fact, verse 29:9 says that Aaron and his sons have full authority. And, that authority is visible in the elaborate and expensive outfit the high priest wears. The colored fabrics alone are expensive. The dyes that made the colors crimson, purple and blue (the colors of royalty) were rare, made from typically non-kosher categories of animals: worms (crimson) and the shells of snails (blue and purple). The high priest’s outfit also had huge amounts of gold and his breastplate contained 12 precious stones, one for each of the twelve tribes. That full authority is also visible, as already mentioned, in the role the priests fulfill for the community: being their main connection to the divine. This parshah makes clear that the priests are also the ones who get to eat the sacrificed animal’s flesh after it is offered and then cooked. This eating of offered food to the deity is a common feature of many religious traditions even today. Yet, the fact that this food was animal in origin compounds its associations with power, prestige and class, all of which were the purview of only men.
So, what do we take away from a parshah such as this? Obviously, there are many similarities between the authority of a certain class of men in ancient times and the ways in which patriarchy functions even today. The fact that this authority is grounded in some sort of divine plan for life makes it all the more problematic. Clearly, we could take away a clear imagining of the way we don’t want society to be. Is that enough?
I don’t think so. One question I pondered as I read the parshah was: who makes the priestly garments? In ancient times, women ran the production of fabric, from the cultivation of the raw material all the way through the dyeing of fabrics. While the parshah doesn’t say, I wouldn’t be surprised if women weren’t heavily involved in their construction. And, if their construction had been left to the priests themselves, there’d have been little to nothing to actually wear.
The second question comes from the end of the parshah where there are instructions for building an incense altar (30:1-8). That altar was supposed to be continually burning incense. Why don’t we, Jews, use incense anymore? Yes, of course, because the temple doesn’t stand, most associated activities are no longer considered applicable, which in terms of animal sacrifice is a good thing. But, many Jews still trace a connection to the priestly class and you can often see that in Torah services in terms of who has which aliyah. I think the incorporation of incense could be a way to further or enhance prayer experiences, add to kavanah. First, it brings in another sense. Second, it would be a good symbol of our prayers filling the world just as the smell (and if there is enough – the smoke) of incense pervades a room.
Sometimes, the weekly Torah portion seems so out of touch with reality in ways that are extremely patriarchal just like this week’s parshah is. Yet, I’m convinced that even in the most inaccessible text, there is something that can be gleaned. This week, it seems important to acknowledge the role of women in the establishment of the priestly class and the people’s ability to recognize who was and wasn’t a priest by what they were wearing. And, secondly, to question why some practices, such as the use of incense for worship, went out of style when it could be beneficial.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.