This week’s Torah portion is Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20). Mostly, it concerns itself with: a census; the organization of the Isrealites in camp as well as while traveling; who is responsible for which parts of the Tabernacle; and the redemption of the firstborn males. The parshah contains only two allusions to the existence of women. As Jewish feminists, what are we to make of it?
Before we get to answering that, let us look at where women are in the parshah. The first indirect reference to women (and children) is hidden within the census. In 2:34, the text describes how the camp should be organized according to the tribes of male descendants. The verse also explains, that even though the camp is organized around men, their families should live with them. The other indication of the very existence of women can be found in verse 3:12. Here, the firstborns are described as the ones “who open the womb.” It is disheartening that, here, women appear only as a body part. Likewise, there is no acknowledgement that firstborns may be female.
Looking at Rashi’s commentary alongside this text, as is common in Torah study, we find that women do make somewhat more of an appearance. Rashi comments in verse 1:2 about tribal affiliation. It is patrilineal. He explains that if a child’s mother is from one tribe and their father from another, that child has the father’s tribal affiliation.
Another comment from Rashi which includes women in a much more serious way is on verse 3:15. Rashi cites the story of Yocheved in the Midrash Tanchuma Bamidbar 16. He uses this to explain why male Levite babies are counted from one month old. When Jacob’s family left Egypt, they numbered 70. The midrash points out that one can only arrive at the number 70 if one counts both Yocheved and her unborn child (a girl). The child’s father was Levi, and thus this child is too. Therefore, the Levites are counted from one month old and up, while the rest of the Israelites are not.
Speaking of Rashi, his legacy as a learned rabbinical scholar is quite well established, but his record when it concerns women is mixed. There are sources out that that praise Rashi for his openness to teach his daughters Torah and Talmud. They may have even laid tefillin. Rashi is also honored for his perspective toward the niddah. He argued that the niddah’s ritual impurity only affected the relationship between her and her husband, granting women more freedom and social interaction while menstruating.
Yet, not everyone agrees that Rashi permitted his daughters to don tefillin, since many claim there is no evidence of this. Even the Jewish Women’s Archive supports a mixed record when it comes to Rashi’s inclusion of women. According to it, Rashi ruled quite often against women’s participation in time-bound mitzvot. This is because he favored the Babylonian Talmud which rejected women’s participation in time-bound mitzvot. In that way, he was consistent in his rulings.
Part of me thinks: wouldn’t it be nice if we could uncover or rediscover some obscured, but unabashedly, protofeminist decision-maker from tradition? Certainly, it would make challenging institutionalized forms of patriarchy within Judaism so much easier as those who continue to relegate women to the margins of Jewish life would be forced to rethink their ways. Yet, this tactic is both wishful thinking and, in the end, useless because it does not disrupt the power that men have had over women’s lives. It also does not disrupt the institutionalized male-dominated religious authority under which many Jews still live.
Rather, it is up to us to do the work, up to us to critique the patriarchy we see. That being said, in addition to the parshah’s dismissal of women, the parshah problematically promotes violence. In fact, it religiously sanctions it. There are two main instances of this sanctioning of violence in Bamidbar. First, the census takes place because the Israelites are forming an army. Second, the parshah endorses the death penalty for an unpermitted person to approach the Tabernacle and/or the Holy of Holies or to touch the temple’s utensils.
All of these reasons alone would be enough for Jewish feminists to write off the parshah as thoroughly patriarchal. I sympathize. At the same time, I am, at heart, an optimist and think that the Torah teaches valuable insights despite its atrociously patriarchal elements.
On this subject, I find verses 3:25-37 quite perceptive. The verses divide the tasks for the maintenance, use of, and transport of the Tabernacle. Each division of the Isrealites is responsible for only a part of the workings of the Tabernacle. For example, the sons of Kohath are responsible for “the ark, the table, the menorah, the altars, and the holy utensils…and the screen and all the work involved,” (3:31), while the sons of Gershon are responsible for the curtains and other fabrics used in the construction and travelling of the Tabernacle (2:25). There does seem to be some overlap in these divisions especially regarding the utensils. Nevertheless, this division of labor, to me, suggests that everyone has a task or position which they are to fulfill. This work is unique to who we are. It is important. No one person is responsible for everything, nor should we try to do everything. We have to trust others to do their part; we have to do ours.
Most importantly, when we labor together, we can bring about the in-dwelling of the divine. That is, after all, Bamidbar’s main concern: the preservation of the divine dwelling amongst us. That is the reason why the Israelites create an army. That is the reason why the census occurs. That is the reason why each tribe is assigned a specific part of the construction and transport of the Tabernacle. And, that is the reason why close contact with the Tabernacle by an unpermitted individual warrants such a violent response.
This method of sustaining divine in-dwelling in our world is no longer acceptable. Neither is the parshah’s dismissal of women. While it was an interesting exercise to see if Rashi’s commentary helped elevate some of the patriarchal milieu of the text, it didn’t in the end.
Yet, hope is not lost. There is still an important message in Bamidbar: every Jewish person has their own unique part to play in the fostering the divine in-dwelling, and we have to work together for the in-dwelling to occur. This message far outweighs the parshah’s patriarchal failings.
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.