This month’s blog post marks my 10-year anniversary writing for feminismandreligion.com (FAR) and my 122nd post. I would just like to take a moment to acknowledge this milestone and thank the community for both its dialogue with me and support over these years. I look forward to writing for FAR for years to come.
Speaking of dialogue and support, this post is structured in the form of an answer to Barbara Ardinger’s question on my last post. She asked in what language I read Torah. I found that intriguing. To me, what I do is obvious. Yet, for the reader, I have never explicitly walked through the steps of how I create these Torah commentaries. In this walk-through, the reader is getting a rather unedited look into my process.
I start by finding the Torah parshah for the Shabbat immediately after my blog posts. That would be the 15th of January and Beshalach. However, I have written on Beshalach before, and, as my goal is eventually to cover all 52 parshot, I have looked a week ahead to the 22nd of January and Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23). (Yitro in English is Jethro, who is Moses’ father-in-law. For ease, I will use Yitro to refer to the parshah and Jethro to refer to the man.)
My first step is to read Yitro in its entirety and take notes. Now, I could do this only in Hebrew, but my Hebrew is a little rusty. Instead, I rely on Chabad’s side-by-side English/Hebrew version. Helpfully, Chabad also has a toggle function for Rashi’s commentary (which, as I have explained, is the only commentary I read as it is the most traditional). Methodologically, it is easiest to converse with texts whose translators do not hide or gloss over the patriarchal nature of the text, but perhaps at times even amplify it.
Next, I focus on three questions. First, are there any women, named or unnamed, in the parshah? Second, what is patriarchal about the parshah? And, finally, what do I like about it or what could be helpful from a feminist perspective?
Let us begin. Yitro contains many references to women. Moses’ wife, Zipporah, is mentioned almost immediately (18:2), although her role is limited to this mention. Next, the Isrealites are commanded to physically purify themselves in order to hear the giving of the Torah. Thus, 19:15 reads, “Be ready for three days; do not go near a woman.” On the surface, this verse is about men (given the heterosexual assumptions of the Torah). However, if one reads Rashi’s commentary, he actually focuses on women and how the three days ensure their ritual purity after immersion. Finally, in the Aseret Ha-dibrot, women are mentioned three times. First, daughters and maidservants are included in those who should rest on Shabbat (20:10), mothers should be honored as well as fathers (20:12), and the prohibition against coveting includes neighbor’s wives and maidservants (20:14).
Patriarchy in the Torah often concerns war and other forms of violence such as rape, destruction, threats, punishments, etc., uses of power that include force, control, domination, coercion and so on (often named as power-over), a concentration on, or perhaps preoccupation with, men, their authority, and their lives, and understandings of the divine that privilege power-over, maleness, fear, jealousy, punishment, and so on. These manifestations of patriarchy are often intertwined and interrelated.
Yitro contains at least the following patriarchal elements. First, there is violence associated with the worship of the divine through animal sacrifice (18:12 and 20:21). Second, Jethro warns Moses of burnout and suggests that he appoint judges to help him settle disputes among members of the community (18:13). Although we know that the Isrealites had women judges, Jethro specifically speaks only of men as judges here (18:21). Finally, Yitro’s most patriarchal elements surround the deity. Perhaps the most problematic aspects of the divine are the death punishments for coming too close to Mount Sinai (19:12) and, relatedly, the zealous nature of the divine when it comes to idolatry (20:5). In verse 20:5, we read that Israelites should only bow and worship him and if they do not swift punishment comes to them and their descendants. The whole structure of abide-by-these-rules-or-else wreaks of power-over tacks; the divine will only show loving-kindness to those who keep the commandments (20:6).
There are aspects of the deity that are not all patriarchal though, and here is where, from a feminist lense, I look at the parshah’s redemptive qualities. Verse 19:4 reads, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and [how] I bore you on eagles’ wings, and I brought you to Me.” This speaks of divine concern, care, and love. In other words, these principles were the driving force behind the deity’s rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Emulating divine principles, Jethro also shows care and concern for all the work that Moses is doing for the Israelites (18:18).
After I have covered these three questions, I set my notes aside and wait a day or so. Letting the ideas permeate allows me to think clearer. Then, I sit down to write my first draft. The following days focus on editing. On the second Sunday of the month, no matter how much editing I would still like to do, the post publishes.
If I were to have done a more formal post on Yitro, I think I would have focused on two related ideas. First, there is the contradiction between the deity as jealous, angry and quick to punishment with one who is concerned, cares, loves, and can be moved toward loving-kindness. To me, this speaks to a clear difference between power-over and power-among/power-shared. Second, all of Israel was present when the Torah was given. This most important day for the Israelites and for us, Jews, is steeped in the principle of equality. That is worth celebrating.
This concludes my rather rough take on Yitro and a walk-through of my methodology. I would be happy to address other questions the reader might have.
In the meantime, thank you for the ten years of community, dialogue, and inspiration. I look forward to more.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.