This week’s Torah portion is Emor, or Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23. It details purity and the priesthood including whose funeral a priest can attend, who can marry a priest, bodily blemishes and temple services, and under what circumstances daughters of priests can still eat temple food. Emor also discusses the treatment of animals. A baby animal must be 7 days old before it can be sacrificed and cannot be killed the same day as its mother. In addition, the parshah describes the holiday calendar, including the counting of the Omer, how to harvest fields, and what type of oil should be used in the Temple’s Menorah. Finally, it outlines punishments for various crimes including blasphemy and murder.
To say that there is a lot there would be an understatement. In fact, a good question about this parshah is where does one begin? An obvious place would be the mention of the named woman, Shelomit bat Dibri of the tribe of Dan, almost at the end of the parshah. First, it is remarkable that a woman has been named and more so that her name has been remembered as significant. It begs the question of who was she? Why remember her name? Why mention her at all? The discussion about her son’s crimes could easily not have needed any mention of her name! So why is it there?
My first thought was that perhaps this part of the pashah is not as much about the punishments for specific crimes, but that no one in the community should be treated differently no matter who their mother is. As in, see here! Look at who this man’s mother is! We will not treat him different because of her. Likewise, it seems like his mother was Jewish but his father was Egyptian. In that regard then, her inclusion would be for an emphasis on equality, in terms of fame and/or foreigner status, when it comes to justice.
She could also be mentioned to emphasize the effect one’s crimes have not just on the victim but also on the assailant and his or her family. That blasphemer was someone’s son! She suffers too. Or, perhaps, unlike other parts of the Torah and Tanahk that suggest that punishments pass down through generations, this tradition doesn’t agree. Hence she was not guilty; he was. Not only that, only he gets the punishment that fits the crime. Although it is not clear how the death penalty for blasphemy is the same as an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, etc.
What her inclusion means is not clear. Nonetheless, it does give one food for thought in regards to why remember her when so many women go unnamed. In fact, there are probably a million other reasons why she’s mentioned which I haven’t discussed here.
Anyway, the other idea I had in terms of this parshah was about feminism and sacred texts. In fact, my first reaction to this parshah had nothing to do with Shelomit bat Dibri. I was concerned with the basic assumption posed a lot here in the comment sections of my posts: what I choose to hold on to and what I choose to dismiss when it comes to sacred writings. There is so much in this parshah that is just plain patriarchal and essentially useless from my perspective. For example, I’ve made it quite clear that the recreation of the temple would not be liberatory. Thus, no need for the temple, animal sacrifice and a priesthood or any of the rules regarding these (essentially Leviticus 21:1 through 22:33 and 24:1-9).
I also cannot abide by the death penalty. The judicial systems and juries that dole them out are racist and classist. The idea of stoning, especially how it has been used so often against women, sends shivers through my spine. In fact, if you haven’t seen The Stoning of Soraya M, I highly recommend it.
Even though I do think equality and justice in the legal system are basic requirements and the parshah points in this direction, haven’t we moved past an eye-for-an-eye-and-a-tooth-for-a-tooth types of punishments? What’s more, the patriarchal assumption of violence in these punishments is another bone of contention for me. So, there goes Leviticus 24: 10-23.
So that leaves us with chapter 23: the Jewish holiday calendar and how to plow fields so as to care for the poor, widows and orphans. Good content, but after all of this critique and the rejection of most of the parshah’s text in terms of its patriarchal bias, can you build or sustain a religion off of what’s left? What would Judaism look like with just the acceptable bits of Torah?
At the same time, should we use such pick and choose methods when it comes to sacred texts? As even the patriarchal sections have something to teach us, such a methodology seems problematic. Yet, when we decide to keep the Torah essentially intact, are we sacralizing patriarchy by continuing to include its violent ways?
Many people have suggested that I tend to emphasize those parts of the Torah that fit my agenda and dismiss those whose messages or rules I don’t find match with my underlying sense of Judaism as better-world-building and justice-seeking. I suppose I do. Is that any different than how Judaism itself has struggled to understand the Torah without the Temple? The underlying assumption of the Torah is temple worship and temple sacrifice. Yet, when you take the Temple away, there is still something left on which to base Judaism.
I’m convinced that a similar process can happen in regard to patriarchy. It’s just hard to see how, as we haven’t gotten there yet. Imagine asking a Jew living in Temple times if they could imagine Judaism without it. Probably not! But now it exists. I have hope that the same can be said for a feminist Judaism. We just aren’t there yet.
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.