Ruminations on Emor by Ivy Helman

29662350_10155723099993089_8391051315166448776_oThis 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.  

Author: Ivy Helman, Ph.D.

Jewish feminist scholar, activist, and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic and currently teaching at Charles University in their Gender Studies Program.

6 thoughts on “Ruminations on Emor by Ivy Helman”

  1. Ivy, You raise a great (and broad) question. When is Judaism no longer “Judaism?” (One can replace the word Judaism with any other religious tradition.) I’ve worked with the Islamic Studies scholar, Nasr Abu Zaid (1943-2010) who spoke and wrote about how “we” (Muslims) read and interpret the Qur’anic text. How to get hold of it and make it relevant? Who gets to interpret? How do we insure that justice emanates from the Qur’an? Etc., etc. Religions do change over time. You’ve noted the huge change in Judaism from the focus on the Temple with all its rites to a rabbi-centered Judaism with no Temple. When I teach a section on Judaism, focusing on women’s experiences, I often show the class this 17-minute video–Rabbi Benay Lappe–speaking about her own experience within Judaism. She identifies as a “queer Jew” and forsees a time of radical change in Judaism because Jews are beginning to read Torah with queer eyes. We absorb the ways of thinking in whatever society we exist. It’s never in a straight line, but the hope is that as we evolve, we are becoming more just, yet I’m keenly aware that justice is a fluid term. Anyway, here is the link to the video:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Esther Nelson for the link to the video —
      I strongly agree, that is, I wonder if gay people being openly gay are teachers by way of example, that is, in themselves, simply by way of their courage to be who they are, regardless of how they might be judged.


  2. I always appreciate your posts explaining parts of Torah, Ivy, and that you approach Scripture as a living tradition, alive and changing, instead of something set in cement.

    I searched Shelomit bat Dibri and read her story from the Jewish Women’s Archive. (Your post btw, was number 3 in the Yahoo search list) So much injustice and cruelty is done “in the name of God”.


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: