On the Good and the Bad of Behar by Ivy Helman

The Torah portion for May 21, 2022 is Behar (Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2).  In it, the Israelites receive instructions for sh’mita and yovel – two types of sabbatical years.  These years attempt to set up right relations between the community, the inhabitants of the land, and the land itself.  From an ecofeminist perspective, not all is as idyllic as the Torah wishes it to seem.   

Behar begins with sh’mitah, a sabbatical year that takes place every seventh year.  During sh’mitah, the land must lay fallow.  Both humans and animals can eat from what the land will naturally grow.  

Yovel is then introduced before sh’mitah is fully developed.  Thus, using this parshah alone (see below, note 1), it is often hard to distinguish between the two. Nonetheless, yovel happens once 7 sh’mitot have occurred (note 2).  It is ushered in by the blowing of the shofar; sh’mitah has no such ritual.  Yovel requires that: the land be left fallow; debts are forgiven; and the freeing of non-Israelite slaves (exceptions, see 25:45-46) and indentured Israelite workers (25:10, 28, 40, and 54).  Within this, there are drawn-out discussions of how and when to return land, who can be enslaved, specific rules for houses purchased in walled and unwalled cities, and numerous exceptions and exemptions from most of these rules for the Levites (note 3).  

Interestingly, many scholars have looked at this parshah and seen the majority of the humans in it (Israelite or not) as participating in some sort of slave/master relationship. The non-Israelite residents of the land can be enslaved by Israelite masters.  The Israelites also have a master, the deity.  Once, the Israelites had had Egyptian masters, the Pharaohs; now, upon their liberation, the deity has become their master.  (Verse 25:42 is traditionally used to argue this case.)  

Let us now examine what is problematic in Behar beginning with slavery. It is reprehensible as an institution and because it supports a patriarchal, power-over mindset.  Patriarchal power-over, about which bell hooks so eloquently writes, exerts control often through abuse and violence.  Do we really want to support the relationship between humanity and divinity as described in this parshah as one of slave and master?   I think not.

Similarly, humans cannot and do not own other humans.  Just look at the history of slavery in this world and the damage, death, and hurt it has caused.  One might, look at this parshah and argue, it allows for the slave to be freed on Jubilee years.  When the average life expectancy in ancient Israel was 35-45 year, and the Jubilee year happens once every 50 years, enslavement is, more or less, for life (note 4).  

In Behar, it is also troubling that different rules apply for Isrealites versus non-Israelites and between classes of Israelites (the Levites, the convert, and everyone else).  For example, in verses 25:39-42, the Israelites are to express more care and concern over their Israelite peers than resident non-Israelites.  In 25:32-33, the Levites have certain privileges that other Israelites do not have.  Finally, there is the (most likely) prescriptive declaration that the Israelites must treat the convert like an Israelite (25:35). First of all one could argue that when different rules apply between and within groups, such a rule-based system favors a patriarchal hierarchical dualist mindset, where “us” is better than “them.” In addition, these examples of favoritism run contrary to what was said just a few chapters before in Leviticus: “…love your neighbor as yourself..,” (19:18). 

Lest we despair too much, Behar is not all troubling. First, let us examine an alternative model for the deity. Verses 25:20-21 address the Israelites’ concern regarding food during the sabbatical years.  In verse 25:20, the Israelites wonder what they will eat when they do not sow the fields.  To that, the deity responds, “[Know then, that] I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years.”  Here, Behar offers an understanding of divinity that highlights care, concern, and providing, a deity who looks after the welfare of the people, their animals, wild beasts (as they are called), and the land itself.  All that is required is trust.

Second, Behar contains a rather worthwhile understanding of the land focusing on care. Verse 25:23 declares that humans do not own the land but are only temporary residents.  Importantly, the Torah does not contain the concept of an afterlife; that is not the reason why the Israelites are temporary residents.  Rather, the land is their this-worldly reward for a life well-lived.  That means the Israelites are rooted, grounded, in the land of a specific place, and it would be foolish and wrong to use the land to the point that their gift was no longer good.  Thus, for every sh’mitah and every yovel, the land must lie fallow (25:2 and 11).  Rest assured though, every human and animal (25:7) will have enough (note 5). 

Finally, Behar’s sabbatical years address economic relationships.  One is supposed to charge fair prices, be fair with interest rates, forgive debts, help out those who are struggling, and generally support each other.  I find all of these suggestions agreeable. In fact, what would our world look like if there was a system in place to forgive debt?  I cannot think of a person or an entity that would not benefit from the reprieve or the chance to change their situation (except those that thrive on the difficult times of others).  When my students ask how do we leave capitalism and its greedy materialism that is destroying our world, I wonder if something like this might be a start.  

In summary, Behar’s sabbatical years have their pluses and minuses.  For the Israelites, they were a prescription for right relations and how to live on the Land.  We do not see them always as such.  Slavery is morally repugnant and, like slavery, Behar’s insider/outsider mentality supports patriarchy.  Yet, there is a way that letting the land rest once every seven years, trusting that life will be better because of it, and the forgiveness of debts may be just what we need to help us move away from our capitalist, planet-destroying ways.

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. 

Notes:

  1. Much of the detail and differences between sh’mitah and yovel come from their further descriptions in Exodus and Deuteronomy.  But, because I want to look at each parshah as its own entity, I will not be using those books here as my help. Thus, some of what I will say about sh’mitah does not capture the larger tradition as it is defined in the Torah.
  2. There is some debate as to whether the 7th sh’mitah and yovel, the Julibee year, happen on the same year, the 49th, or not.  It should be noted that most scholars believe yovel to be the 50th year in the cycle.  The idea that yovel is an additional year is also accounted for by the description of the land giving for three years in verse 25:21.  
  3. Any land sold for the payment of debt(s) should also be returned to its previous owners, except for property in walled cities and that owned by the Levites.  If the sale of walled houses happen to pay off a debt, those houses do not return to the person who sold it.  Be that as it may, if the property sold is a Levite’s house or any land a Levite owned, possession of the property or house returns to the Levite, even if it is in a walled city (25:32-34). 
  4. Here is an instance where Behar’s sh’mitah differs from both Exodus and Deuteronomy. (For more, see here.) In both books, sh’mitah also requires the freeing of slaves. Thus, most slaves’ maximum slavedom would be 6 years (at a time), unless they freely choose to be a slave for life (like anyone would!). Must it be said that slavery is slavery no matter how long it lasts?
  5. For more about the care humans were supposed to have for domestic and wild animals, see Rashi’s commentary on verse 25:12


Categories: animals, Ecofeminism, General, Judaism, Patriarchy, Slavery, Torah

Tags: , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. My goodness, the work you do with your holy book is complicated! You give the text and its historical context a great deal of thought. I still have zero interest in your god, and I still have a great deal of respect for the Hebrew/Israeli culture you write about. Bright blessings to your work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this post – I always learn so much from you. I had no idea that these insightful ideas about the land, especially, were in the Bible. I so appreciate all the work you do to bring the depth and complexity of these Torah portions to us.

    Liked by 1 person

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