This week’s Torah portion is a double one, Vayak’hel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1 – 40:38 and Exodus 12:1-20). Vayak’hel covers the construction of the Mishkan, or the temple that traveled with the Israelites while in the desert, and Pekudel outlines the requirements for Pesach, particularly the sacrificial lamb, the blood on the doorposts, and the requirement to eat unleavened bread. For this post I will focus on Vayak’hel as it is the only portion that makes direct mention of women. It reminds us of the ways in which religion and religious institutions would not be possible without the contributions of women.
Vayak’hel centers on the construction of the Mishkan beginning with the general assumption that everyone (here men and women) will donate the items needed to construct the Mishkan. The text also contains verses in which women are specifically mentioned. They donate their gold jewelry (35:22) and mirrors (38:8) as well as spin wool and linen into yarn to be used for the Mishkan’s copious amounts of curtains (35:25-26).
Women also receive praise for their work and donations. For example, they are called generous (35:22, 29), wise-hearted (35:25), and possessing “hearts uplifted with wisdom.” (35:26). It might surprise the reader to know that Rashi praises the Israelite women’s ‘exceptional’ ability to spin goat hair into yarn while it is still attached to the goat (35:26). Ok then. Moving on.
I, for one, find it amazing that women’s contributions here are acknowledged and that they receive praise for them, since in many parts of the Torah specifically detailing the establishment of the religion and its offices, women are not mentioned at all. In addition, from a feminist perspective, it is important to highlight this acknowledgement because of its effect. Without the contributions of women, the Mishkan, the place of divine in-dwelling, would not have been constructed. In other words, the divine would never have dwelt among the wandering Israelites.
That being said, not all is rosy; Vayak’hel is rife with sexism. First of all, there is quite a distinction division of labor among the Israelite men and women. Women spin; men weave. While women and men donate gold, only men work those donations into objects of religious significance.
Let us also look at the sexism in Rashi’s commentary on verse 38:8, where the women’s gift of mirrors is acknowledged. According to Rashi, Moses at first rejects the mirrors, commenting that they are a source of temptation for men since women would use them to beautify themselves. However, Rashi describes how the deity rejects Moses’ ideas instead asserting that the mirrors are actually very important. Without the mirrors, the men would not have been seduced by the women (assumed to be their wives), and there would not be the legion of Israelites that now exists. In addition, the mirrors are to have a specific purpose in the Mishkan. They will form the washbasin which will be used to test women for infidelity. Ironic, isn’t it?
Let us now turn to the historical record and see if we can contextualize some of what we have read here. While I do not know much about metal working (or mirrors) during the days of the Israelite wanderings in the desert, I have read quite a bit about spinning and weaving in ancient times. Archeaological evidence and academic research seems to contradict the Torah. Spinning and weaving were often women’s work from ancient times although occasionally men did weave. In ancient Greece, for example, around the same time as the Israelites wanderings, women were the spinners and weavers. Jewish tradition itself also associated both spinning and weaving with women, specifically the Temple curtains. Even if we look at Christian Europe until relatively late, women were the weavers.
Might I take a minute here to recommend an interesting read about spinning, weaving, and the construction of work and gender in rabbinical times by Mariam Peskowitz, entitled Spinning Fantasies: Rabbis, Gender and History. She explains that one of the major concerns of the rabbinical times was men and women working in close association. According to Peskowitz, men did not want to by working effeminate themselves, and thus the rabbis often drew clear distinctions between men and women’s work (66). It was also during rabbinical times that men began more and more to want to associate their jobs with closeness to the divine and thus Torah study became the ultimate (idealized) form of ‘work’ (73-75). In fact, Jewish tradition again relies on the art of spinning to describe the gendered difference says Peskowitz. The simple man and all women become, in Jewish writings, associated with the spindle as their only source of learning, while the godly, wise men study Torah (74). Here we are, right back to the spinning of Vakay’hel.
Certainly, Vayak’hel is replete with the patriarchal sexism of ancient Israel. However, we would be remiss if we ignored two things. First, Vayak’hel remembers women’s contributions to the Mishkan. Without their donations and their work, there would have been no divine in-dwelling. Second, Rashi describes the deity’s rebuke of Moses for refusing women’s gifts (albeit for rather sexist purposes). Thus, Vayak’hel says: see the women around you, acknowledge their gifts, and value their contributions: the divine certainly does.
Of course, we cannot replicate the sexism of Vayak’hel, though, and that is where contextualization comes in. Historically, we see the ways in which women have been held back and cast aside into certain paths. They have been purposely pushed away from Torah study so that men benefit and because men are afraid to be labeled effeminate. Given the limitations on women’s lives that is not surprising. However, this cannot happen any longer.
Thus I say, the Torah, like the Mishkan before it, belongs to us all. Vayak’hel agrees with me. Vayak’hel also says: let all women take part just as they took part in the construction of the Mishkan.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she is currently teaching a variety of Feminist, including “Gender and Religion,” and Ecofeminist courses. She has also taught a variety of Jewish Studies courses at the university level as well as students preparing for their bat/bar mitzvahs.
2 thoughts on “Vayak’hel-Pekudei: On the Contributions and Gifts of Women by Ivy Helman.”
This is fascinating, and, as always, I have learned so much! I find it so interesting that two elements that seem to have common roots in women’s spirituality across many societies — spinning/weaving and mirrors — are both mentioned, showing our deep connections to one another across cultures. Thank you for sharing your scholarship!
Very interesting observations. Indeed, there would be no Mishkan without women. And yes, let women take part! An excellent article. (Also, I still can’t believe Rashi praised the “exceptional” ability to spin goat hair into yarn while it is still attached to the goat…)