Vayak’hel-Pekudei: On the Contributions and Gifts of Women by Ivy Helman.

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).  

Continue reading “Vayak’hel-Pekudei: On the Contributions and Gifts of Women by Ivy Helman.”

On Mishpatim, Feminism and A Caring Community by Ivy Helman.

Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1 – 24:18 and 30:11-16) is the Torah portion for February 18, 2023.  Its name, mishpatim, means laws or ordinances, and the portion is essentially just that – a list of laws to be followed.  It is not the easiest parshah to follow as it jumps around, backtracks numerous times, and sometimes contradicts itself, particularly in the sections with Moses. 

That being said, there are two main themes in Mishpatim; both of which I have discussed in past blogs.  First is the death penalty.  There is an overabundance of crimes that result in the death penalty in this parshah.  Way, way too many.  Another theme is idolatry.  In many ways, that is a theme in the Torah itself.  For more on these themes from my feminist perspective, see here: Sh’lach; Ki Tisa; Shofetim ; and on b’tzelem Elohim.

Continue reading “On Mishpatim, Feminism and A Caring Community by Ivy Helman.”

Vayeishev: A Feminist Reflection on the Women in Joseph’s life and Dreams by Ivy Helman.

This week’s Torah portion is Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1-40:23.   The portion covers too much information to address it adequately in one post.  Therefore, in this post, I will examine, from a feminist perspective, Joseph, the women in his life, and dreams. While the women in Vayeishev leave much to be desired, its dreams point to an important connection between humanity, divinity, and nature.

Vayeishev starts with the raw jealousy that some of Jacob’s sons have for Joseph. This jealousy is so great that it sends Joseph all the way to Egypt. As a feminist, I have always found it both comforting and completely realistic the way the Torah delves into emotion.  Since even the lofty patriarchs are jealous, no superhuman behavior is expected of us. Despite this comfort, I am not happy that it is once again men and boys who take centerstage. We know that these men and boys also had women and girls in their lives.  

Continue reading “Vayeishev: A Feminist Reflection on the Women in Joseph’s life and Dreams by Ivy Helman.”

The Mixed Bag that is Toldot by Ivy Helman.

The parshah for November 26th is Toldot, Genesis 25:19-28:9.  In it, we have the struggles of Isaac and Rebecca to conceive, the relations between Abimelech and Isaac’s family, the birth of Esau and Jacob, and the loss of Esau’s birthright and his father’s blessing.  As we will see, this is a tricky portion from a feminist perspective because of Rebecca, yet, from an ecofeminist perspective, I find the way in which the portion discusses the interconnection between the water, the land, and divinity helpful.

Let me begin with the water and then we will look at Rebecca.  Toldot takes place in and around the city of Gerar in Philistine territory, while Abimelech ruled.  Isaac and his family travel through the land quite a bit between verses 26:16 and 26:32.  Most of this section pertains to them moving and then digging new wells, the covering of wells, and the finding of water.  What I find particularly interesting here is the way in which water and peace seem to go together.  For example, in 26:20-21, Isaac and his family have constructed a well but it is causing them to have troubles with the locals.  Isaac seeks peace and thus leaves.  In verse 26:26, Isaac is visited by Abimelech and eventually a formal peace is declared.  This is followed in 26:32 by Isaac’s servants finding water in a freshly dug well.  In other words, Isaac is willing to uproot his family time and again to cultivate peace; he is not willing to go to war over what in the desert really is a quite limited resource.  

Continue reading “The Mixed Bag that is Toldot by Ivy Helman.”

Is the Divine the Unknowable Unknown? A Feminist Take by Ivy Helman

I attended a number of High Holy Days services (online) over the past couple of weeks. In one of them, one of the rabbis said that the divine is the unknowable unknown. I cannot remember what the Rabbi said to contextualize or explain their train of thought; I think I was too intrigued by the idea that I got lost in my own thoughts. In fact, I have been thinking about the unknowable unknown ever since.  

As I write this, I’ve come to this conclusion: if the divine is present among us and the world around us, then there is much we can intuit. In addition, there is much that we can experience the more we interact with other humans and nature.  On the other hand, if the divine is understood as a detached, distant being of a completely different essence than humanity, of course, what can we really know about such a divinity?  How would we even know if that divinity even existed? We probably wouldn’t.  Here is the difference between a  feminist understanding of the divine as this-worldly and empowering and a patriarchal conception of a distant divinity wielding power-over. Yet, interestingly, even the most patriarchal image of the divine has insisted on being relatable to human beings. Nonetheless, how we imagine the divine does matter.

In her book, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, Sallie McFague argues that the words and ideas we use to describe the divine are important. She advocates for the use of metaphors to describe the divine, stating that we can only describe what the divine is like, not what divinity actually is. In fact, she warns the reader of long-lasting models for the divine as these can lead to idolatry, an understanding that limits divinity and, because of this, is essentially untrue. She writes on page 99 that, “[i]f we use only the male pronoun [for the divine], we fall into idolatry, forgetting that God is beyond male and female…” In other words, we are limiting the divine and furthermore speaking an untruth.  

This talk makes we wonder if she too is of the camp that we cannot understand divinity; that the divine is quite different from us. I mean if we cannot and should not have any long-standing model for the divine but only use shaky fleeting metaphors, our understanding of the divinity is genuinely limited and amorphous. Yet, there is a difference between some knowledge and experience of the divine and the idea of the divine as the unknowable unknown, isn’t there?

That being said, I find much of what she has to say extremely helpful when it comes to traditional understandings of divinity.  In her book, she implicates as problematic the long-standing models of divinity as Father and King, among others.  These out-dated models move us further and further away from the divine because they are thought to definitively explain who the divine is in relation to us.  

Let us look at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as an example of this in Judaism.  Here, we have a day in which we are highly vulnerable as we reflect on the ways in which we have not always treated ourselves, others, the world around us, and the divine as we should (had hoped to). Yet, we enter the synagogue and repeatedly address the divine as Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King).  Why is the understanding of divinity that we approach one of judge, strict parent, and ruler over us?  Does that not drive a wedge of sorts between divinity and humanity? Does that not make being inscribed in the book of life seemingly impossible unless we are non-human-like?

Contrary to what we often hear in shul, Judaism recognizes some 70 diverse understandings, or names for the divine. These names range from Hashem (the Name) and Shalom (Peace) to Shechinah (the in-dwelling) and Kadosh Israel (the Holy One of Israel). And there are many, many more.  

Returning to our example again, instead of the umpteen rounds of Avinu Malkeinu, what would it be like on Yom Kippur if we approached the divine as Shaddai (Comforter), Hamakon (the Present One, literally the Place), or YHWH-Rapha (The One Who Heals)? These understandings seem to offer the compassion we need on a most vulnerable day.  How much easier would it be to connect to divinity that understands us?  Perhaps we could learn a little more about divinity in that case, and we could in the process become much closer to the holy?  And, isn’t that the point of Judaism? To be holy like the divine is holy?  I think so. 

From a feminist perspective, how we understand the divine has real-life consequences which can shape how we understand ourselves and the world around us. Just imagine what Yom Kippur would feel like, if we called on the divine that day as the comforter, the present one, and the one who heals. It would feel totally different, and for very good reasons.

Who would have thought that some three weeks ago or so, I would have heard a phrase about the divine that still has me in a quandary? I mean, in the end, I suppose there are ways in which the divine is unknowable. Importantly, though, that does not make the divine wholly unknown. Rather, it is often the language we use about the divine that puts distance between us and divinity, that makes divinity less and less known.

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.  

From the Archives: Yom Kippur as Seen (With Respect) by Barbara Ardinger

This was originally posted on September 30, 2012

No matter which or how many gods we believe in, thinking about what we’ve done wrong and how we can set it straight is useful. The Day of Atonement, the Talmud says, “absolves from sins against God, but not from sins against a fellow man unless the pardon of the offended person is secured.”

 Back in the Stone Age, otherwise known as the early 1980s, I had jobs as a technical writer and editor in five different industries, including aerospace and computer development. Hey, I was trained as a Shakespearean scholar, but in those days—pretty much like today—there were almost no jobs in the academy for newly-hatched Ph.D’s. So I tried technical writing. At one of the aerospace jobs, I sat in the “bullpen”—me and nineteen middle-aged white guys—whereas all the other women slaved—on typewriters in that pre-computer age—in the typing pool. There was a major class distinction in that aerospace firm, and I was glad to be with the guys. (Yes, shame on me.) Those were the days of 9 to 5. As far as I’m concerned, that movie is nonfiction.

One of my tech-writing buddies at the aerospace company was a former Jehovah’s Witness who had been disfellowshipped because his beard was the wrong shape and he’d refused to correct it. Another was an older man who had studied with Earnest Holmes himself and had also known Manly P. Hall in earlier days. A third friend, the project librarian, was a Conservative Jew. All three of these guys soon noticed the books I was bringing to read at lunch. These included the works of Dion Fortune and Gerald B. Gardner, and numerous metaphysical authors, plus every book I could find on alchemy, the tarot, New Thought, reincarnation, trance channeling…well, you get the idea. I was exploring occult worlds and ideas. When we weren’t talking about how to help the engineers write gooder English and I wasn’t trying to figure out how a FLIR (Forward-Looking InfraRed) helmet works, my three buds and I had some majorly interesting conversations on comparative religion and the occult (the word means “secret, hidden”) aspects of religions in general.

One day the Jewish librarian brought me a book to add to my library. This was the 1973 edition of The Jewish Catalog. What a wonderful book! I still have it. It’s sitting next to my keyboard as I type this.

Back in those innocent days, I still believed the pagan myth of the nine million witches burned by the inquisition during the Middle Ages. Yes, it’s a myth—there were never that many witches on the face of the earth at the same time; such a holocaust would have nearly depopulated medieval Europe. I have since learned that it is shameful to compare a mythological holocaust with the real Holocaust of World War II. I read The Jewish Catalog from cover to cover and learned a great deal.

Now flash forward to 2002 when the owner of RedWheel/Weiser phoned to ask me to write a book for them. I immediately said yes. The book, which they titled Pagan Every Day, is not, however, a pagan tome. It’s a daybook, a year and a day of short essays on topics that include goddesses, gods, and old pagan festivals and philosophy, and also saints and holy days from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, plus less well known religions, plus interesting historical events…and then I also named Miss Piggy as The Goddess Of Everything. I get fan emails from people saying they reread the book, a day at a time, every year and still enjoy every page.

For September 24, I wrote about Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, which was the most amazing exhibition I’d ever seen. The next day that year was Yom Kippur. I turned to my copy of The Jewish Catalog, where I learned about an obscure custom called kapparot. Here is what I wrote. Yes, I believe that we can borrow—but not pirate!—other people’s customs, acknowledge and express our gratitude to those other people and their religions, and then adapt what we borrow to a pagan perspective. After all, we’re all kin.

September 25: Yom Kippur

 The Jewish Catalog describes custom called kapparot, which “entails swinging a chicken around one’s head as a…symbol of expiating sins. The chicken is then slaughtered and given to the poor….” Most people these days tie money in a handkerchief and swing that around their head, saying, This is my change, this is my compensation, this is my redemption.

Yom Kippur, the last of the ten days of Yamim Noraim, occurs at nightfall on the ninth day of Tishri. The rites for Yom Kippur are set forth in Leviticus 16.

No matter which or how many gods we believe in, thinking about what we’ve done wrong and how we can set it straight is useful. The Day of Atonement, the Talmud says, “absolves from sins against God, but not from sins against a fellow man unless the pardon of the offended person is secured.” People seeking recovery in Twelve-Step programs likewise turn their lives over to the care of “God as they understand him” (Step 3), make a list of people they have harmed and become “willing to make amends” (Step 8), and then actually make amends (Step 9).

Pagans can make amends before Samhain. We want to have a clean emotional field in which to rest over the winter and plant fresh seeds in when spring comes. Let’s revive that old Jewish custom. But not swinging the chicken! That’s cruelty to swinger and swingee. Tie crystals or red corn or other symbolic items in a clean white handkerchief and swing it around your head, reciting the blessing quoted above. Then go around and see the people you need to see. Speak heart to heart with them. Give them something blessed from your handkerchief. Get on with your lives, as friends or no longer as friends, but not as enemies.

BIO: Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (, is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic.  Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every DayFinding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations.  When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the Neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.

On Ki Tavo and its Absence of Divine Compassion by Ivy Helman.

Grounded in an ancient theodicy, Ki Tavo (Deutoronomy 26:1-29:8), the Torah portion for September 17th, is an emotional rollercoaster.  In it, the Israelites find their lot in life directly linked to their own behavior.  Follow the commandments to gain blessing; ignore them at your own peril.  While the commandments listed here are laudable from a feminist perspective, the deity’s response to non-concompliance is problematic.  It is full of victim-blaming and empty of compassion.  Furthermore, Ki Tavo’s portrayal of divine expectations leaves no room for human nature to actually be anything other than complete perfection.  This is unacceptable.   

As should sound familiar to the reader by now, Ki Tavo speaks to a specific historical context: the Babylonian exile.  As we are aware, the typical theodicy of the Babylonian exile places blame for the Israelites’ lot in life on the Israelites themselves, specifically on how their behavior (or their ancestors’ behavior) has warranted divine punishment.  In other words, the Isrealites have not observed the commandments and thus deserve what is happening to them.  This justifies an understanding of the divine as vengeful, spiteful, jealous, and victim-blaming.

That being said, what exactly happens in Ki Tavo?  Ki Tavo, also like many Torah portions, discusses commandment observance.  From a feminist perspective, the portion rightly focuses its description of the commandments on justice and fairness within the community (27:16-25)  as well as care for the widow, stranger, orphan, the poor, and the disenfranchised (26:12-13, 27:18-19).  Its interpretation of the commandments seem to be truly about how, according to its time, a community, that puts the downtrodden and outcast first, should function.  These are generally good principles.

Taken by author.

Ki Tavo then lists, in varying degrees of specificity, what happens to the Israelites when and if they observe the commandments.  If they heed the commandments, they receive abundant blessings.  These blessings focus on material, this-worldly rewards (28:3-13).  Most offer abundant crops, flowing, deep rivers, good bread, fertility of human and animal, and rain, while, unfortunately, there are a few which mention blessings in terms of gaining power-over and, thus, influence.  (Here it is impossible to give specific verse references as many verses have a combination of material blessings and less tangible, power-focused ones.)

When the Isrealites fail to heed the commandments, they incur divine wrath.  This is depicted in Ki Tavo as curses or cursing.  The curses are sometimes quite mundane and other times absolutely disturbing.  There are the typical droughts (28:22, 24), plagues (28:22, 38-39, 42), diseases (28:22, 27-28, 35, 59-61), wars (28:49-53) and so on.  

And, then, there are some not-so-common curses.  One intriguing curse is exile, which forces the Israelites to practice idolatry (28:36). Interestingly, here idolatry is not a breaking of the commandments, but a punishment for doing so (28:36).  Exile signifies the physical breakdown of the group, while idolatry distances that same group from their covenantal relationship with their chosen deity (28:64). They are not a people any longer as they live in foreign lands and worship different gods.

The uncommon curses go one step further and remove any semblance of the Israelites’ humanity through cannibalism.  In Ki Tavo, this is a result of war.  The deity wages a vicious war against the disobeying Israelites, using other humans  (28:57).  Their cities are so mercilessly besieged to the point that the people completely run out of food.  With nowhere else to turn, they are forced to resort to cannibalism (28:53).  Even the most gentle and well-behaved man and woman becomes, when this happens, cannibals (28:53-55), eating their own children to survive.  

Yet, who is to blame for the death of their community and their own inhumanity?  The deity who punishes?  No.  Ki Tavo makes it clear that it is the Isrealites themselves.  By punishing the Israelites’ non-observance, the deity is only being faithful to the established covenant to which both parties freely agreed.  This victim-blaming might have made sense of the Babylonian exile for those who were living through it, but it is also clearly a product of patriarchy.  Back then victim-blaming justified war and disease. Now, it condones such practices as domestic violence, rape, and various manifestations of power-over.  It is problematic because it does not acknowledge who is most often truly at fault: other, more powerful, humans.

Ki Tavo also paints a one-sided picture of divine understanding when it comes to good and evil.  There is either goodness (in Ki Tavo, observance) and blessings or evil (non-observance) and curses.  There is no middle ground, no explanation, and certainly no compassion.  

This lack of divine compassion is what bothers me the most in Ki Tavo.  Even though humans are divine creations, the writers of the Torah have depicted the Creator as so disconnected from creation that there is no compassion and no understanding of humanity, only sheer anger and divine wrath.  According to Ki Tavo, our Creator is more than willing to shattered the community, our relationship with the divine, and even our own humanity than practice forgiveness and mercy.

Thank goodness that the Jewish tradition’s understanding of the divine does not stop at Ki Tavo.  Rather, Jewish tradition teaches us that we, in the covenant, have partnered with the divine who understands us, showers us with compassion and mercy, and does indeed forgive us (when we don’t always behave as we should).  We have a faithful deity who is abundant in goodness and rarely upset or disappointed.  We can put our hope and our faith in the goodness of the Holy.   

As we enter the High Holy Days, may Ki Tavo’s understanding of the divine as wrathful, angry, destructive, and vindictive stay in the past where it belongs. In this new year, may Compassion embrace us, gifting us with a sacred empathy for others and also for ourselves.  May mercy and goodness be with us this year and all the days of our lives.  And, may the world and our hearts be at peace.

L’shana tova umetukah! (For good and sweet year!)

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.  

On Eikev: Whose Behavior Should We Emulate? by Ivy Helman

The Torah portion for 20 August is Eikev, or Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25.  Eikev describes the importance of spirituality in one’s life and proscribes the actions of spiritually-attuned people.  The portion returns time and again to whom one should be spiritually connected: the deity, a jealous, angry, and fierce warrior who freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.  Yet, if we look closely at the language of Eikev, there is a disconnect between this warrior imagery, other language in Eikev about the divine, and how the spiritually-attuned should behave.  It is as if there are two understandings of divine nature here, and they are at odds with one another. In spite of itself, the language of the parshah decidedly favors a more feminist understanding of the divine.

Let us begin by looking at what Eikev says about spirituality.  Deuteronomy 8:3 asserts that one needs not just bread to live, but connection to the divine as well.  In other words, humans have concrete material needs that are extremely important.  However, there is also more to life than just the material.  

But, to whom is one supposed to spiritually connect?  It cannot be denied that there is a lot of language in Eikev that refers to the deity as a fierce warrior, quick to anger, whose principle act was freeing the Israelites from slavery.  A typical example of this language can be found in verse 7:19.  “The great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, the wonders, the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm with which the L-rd, your G-d, brought you out. So will the L-rd, Your G-d, do to all the peoples you fear.”  The deity showed strength and power when rescuing the Isrealites from slavery and will not hestitate to bring low those who threaten them.  The deity is also often depicted as jealous and vengeful and quick to anger at Israelite misbehavior (9:7-8, 18, and 22).  It is even said in Eikev that the deity gave the Israelites the Land not because of their goodness but because of the wickedness of the Land’s inhabitants (9:4-5).  

Yet, in Eikev, one can read other passages in which that fierceness is overshadowed, where instead the deity displays love, care, and concern, and blesses the Israelites.  This model for the divine is considerably more feminist because, as I have explained in numerous other posts, it is definitively not based on a patriarchal model of anger, jealousy, or power-over others.* The main example of the juxtaposition between the angry, vengeful warrior deity and the loving, kind one is in Deuteronomy 8.  The deity both punishes and provides. But, in the end, divine care and concern outweigh more warrior-like behavior (verses 3-4), because despite the tests and trials, the people had food, water, their health, and clothing.   

There are other examples in Eikev that highlight the divine as care and acts of loving-kindness.  In Deuteronomy 7:13-14, we read about the many blessings the divine will bestow on the Israelites including fertility of the people and of the land.  People will not suffer disease in the land (7:15).  The deity makes sure to bring the Israelites to a good land with water, hills and valleys for mining and fertile fields for raising animals and planting crops and various fruit trees; no one will go hungry (8:7-10).  

Why does the deity do this?  Because of love.  The parshah’s second verse (7:13) says that the Israelites are blessed because of divine love for them.  The deity operates out of love for the stranger as well (10:18).  Love is also part of how the Israelites should behave.  They should love the divine (10:12, 11:1 and 22).  And, because they love the divine and the divine loves the stranger, they too should love the stranger (10:18-19).

This very much reminds me of the sentiments expressed in Leviticus.  We are to be holy like the divine is holy (Lev. 11;44-45 and 19:2).  Just sixteen verses later, we read “…Love your neighbour as yourself,” (19:18). However, in Eikev, there is a more immediate connection between who the divine is and how the Israelites should behave. As I have already mentioned above, one should love because the divine loves, do acts of loving-kindness because the divine does, shelter, clothe, feed, and so on.  Operating out of an understanding of the divine as angry, vengeful, jealous warrior would produce very different behavior, would it not?  

Spiritual connection and action go hand-in-hand.  Be holy for I am holy.  Love because I love.  Be kind because I am.  Take care of others as I have taken care of you.   This is Eikev’s message, one I think we should heed.

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.  

*A partial list of my past blog posts that critique the patriarchal model of divinity as a jealous, fierce, angry warrior: Balak; Vayikr; Sh’lach; and Ha’azinu.

Be the Donkey: On Parshah Balak by Ivy Helman.

The Torah portion for July 16, 2022 is Balak (Numbers 22:2 -25:9).  Some of what happens in Balak is familiar: idolatry, divinely-sanctioned death penalties, and a plague.  But, did you know that this parshah has a talking female donkey who stands up to abusive behavior?  Perhaps not.  That talking donkey and the larger story of Balak’s attempt to curse the Israelites raises questions about gender, how we treat animals, choices, free will, violence, courage, and having one’s eyes open to what is really happening around one’s self. All of which is what we will be looking at today.

Balak begins with this story about Balaam.  The Moabite king, Balak, wishes to curse the Israelites because he is worried about their size and their impact on the land and its current inhabitants (22:3-4).  He sends representatives to bring  Balaam, a powerful man whose curses and blessings have tangible effects on their recipients (22:6), to him.  Balaam meets with those representatives and tells them to wait; he has to talk to the deity in order to know what to do.  The deity commands Balaam to stay put and to not curse the Israelites, for they are blessed (22:12). Indeed, a first in quite a while. 

Continue reading “Be the Donkey: On Parshah Balak by Ivy Helman.”

On Sh’lach by Ivy Helman.

The Torah portion for the upcoming Shabbat is Beha’alotecha, which I have already discussed here. Thus, in this blog post, I will discuss the Torah portion for June 25th, Sh’lach (Numbers 13:1 – 15:41).  Sh’lach contains the sending of scouts into the Land, the spreading of a bad report, more Israelite disobedience, conditional divine forgiveness accompanied by divine punishments, a description of types of offerings in the Land, the stoning to death of a Shabbat-breaker, and the commandment for tzitizit.  From a feminist perspective there are two main areas I want to focus on in this post: the many ways in which the death penalty is prevalent in this parshah and the commandment for tzitizit.

Sh’lach has essentially two examples of death penalties, both, if the reader can believe it, divinely-inspired/required.  First, let us look at the case of the man gathering wood.  In verse 15:32, a few Israelites catch a man gathering wood on Shabbat.  They take him to Moses, Aaron, and the entire congregation (15:33), all of whom were not sure what to do with him.  Moses consults with the deity, who pronounces a death penalty by stoning outside of the camp (15:35).  The people do as divinely instructed (15:36).  

Continue reading “On Sh’lach by Ivy Helman.”

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.  

Continue reading “On the Good and the Bad of Behar by Ivy Helman”

Iron Mothers: Iron as Embodiment of the Biblical Matriarchs in Jewish Folklore by Jill Hammer

Jewish amuletic objects come in many forms: salt, the hamsa or hand, the bowl, the scroll with verses, even sword-shaped amulets. These items are meant to provide spiritual protection from malevolent forces such as demons and the evil eye and vary across different times and places.  One protective item from Jewish folklore is iron. In medieval Germany, for example, pregnant Jewish women carried an iron object to repel malevolent forces.  This was part of a wider cultural norm: across Western Europe, iron was understood to repel fairies and spirits of all kinds, and was sewed into babies’ clothing, hung above cradles and doorways, etc.  According to one Jewish legend, when the waters of Egypt turned to blood during the first plague, water in metal vessels was 34245 the only water to remain unchanged. Pieces of iron were placed on all vessels containing water during the solstices and equinoxes—considered to be a time when spirits were roving the world—to protect them from contamination.

Continue reading “Iron Mothers: Iron as Embodiment of the Biblical Matriarchs in Jewish Folklore by Jill Hammer”

From the Archives: “Home: A New Pesach Reflection” by Ivy Helman

Author’s note: This post originally published on this website on March 11, 2018. How prescient it is. I live in Prague, about an 8 hour car-ride to the Ukrainian border. Over 300,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived here, with more arriving daily. They need homes, and this need is overwhelming our small country. Yet, we are doing all we can each and everyday to help those fleeing the war. Yet, this housing is not home, not when war still rages and when families are still separated. We need peace. Everyone deserves a home.

In ancient times, Pesach was one of three pilgrimage holidays, the others being Sukkot and Shavuot.  According to the the Torah, Israelite men were required to travel to Jerusalem to bring offerings to the temple. Supposedly, this reconnected these Israelites to their religion, to each other and to the deity.  Participating in these pilgrimages brought about a deeper sense of community. In short, three times a year, Jerusalem became a home away from home.

Continue reading “From the Archives: “Home: A New Pesach Reflection” by Ivy Helman”

Tzav: Holiness, the Situation in Ukraine, and Eating Animals by Ivy Helman

The parshah for this upcoming Shabbat is Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36).  It details the investiture of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood and lays out the basics of various offerings (mostly, although not exclusively, animal sacrifices) and the rules regarding the eating of them.  As I’ve mentioned before on this site, I would like to complete at least one commentary on each parshah of the Torah.  Yet, there are only so many times that one can question the establishment of the temple, condemn animal sacrifice, and denounce the absence of women.  Yet, as we approach another Torah portion this week, Tzav , this is more or less what we have.  So, what do we do?

Tzav starts, as parshot from the book of Leviticus often do, with descriptions of various laws.  Here, the laws focus on various offerings including the grain, sin, peace, thanksgiving, and burnt.  Only the male members of Aaron’s family can eat the offerings.  Consumption of the offering increases the holiness of the consumer as long as the eating of the animals falls into the guidelines outlined within the text.  

The parshah ends with an explanation of how to consecrate Aaron and his sons.  The process lasts a total of seven days.  It includes residing at the entrance to the tent for the duration, offering various animals as sacrifices, eating copious amounts of said animals, the donning of specific ritual clothing, and multiple anointings of the men and the altar (often with blood).   

Continue reading “Tzav: Holiness, the Situation in Ukraine, and Eating Animals by Ivy Helman”

The Patriarchy of Ki Tisa and a Call to Reimagine Divinity by Ivy Helman.

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11-34:35.  Its events revolve around the theme of creation, destruction, and recreation.  From a feminist perspective, it is quite clear that this cyclical process is a result of a patriarchal understanding of the divine as jealous, distant, and rage-filled.  

Ki Tisa begins soon after the Israelites have been delivered from Egyptain slavery.  This delivery creates a new people devoted to this divine liberator.  Yet, Ki Tisa starts with both that deity and their leader, Moses, nowhere to be found. So, what do the Israelites do being in such a vulnerable spot?  They create a golden calf in order to have a spiritual connection to something.  

Continue reading “The Patriarchy of Ki Tisa and a Call to Reimagine Divinity by Ivy Helman.”

To Nurse at the Same Breasts: Muslim-Jewish Kinship in Literature and Life by Joyce Zonana

It is tempting to read these recurring images of milk twins in Arab-Jewish literature as no more than a symbol, albeit a powerful one, of the profoundly intimate “brother- (and sister-)hood” of Jews and Muslims in the  pre-partition culture of the Middle East and North Africa.

But the image of “milk twins” is much more than a metaphor or a symbol: it represents a reality. For it seems that many Jewish and Muslim women, living side by side as they did, had in fact regularly nursed one another’s children.

Joyce Zonana. headshotTobie Nathan’s panoramic novel about Jews and Muslims (and Christians) in early twentieth-century Egypt, A Land Like You, revolves around one central image: two infants—one Jewish, one Muslim; one male, one female—peacefully nursing at the breasts of a young Muslim woman, Oum Jinane (“Mother Paradise”).

After the birth of her long-desired daughter Masreya (“The Egyptian Woman”), Jinane travels from her poor Muslim neighborhood to a poor Jewish neighborhood to help another young mother whose long-desired infant son is languishing because she has no milk.  “It’s a miracle, a great miracle,” the Jewish boy’s relatives declare:


Never had any neighborhood in Cairo been so excited by a baby’s nursing. Until bedtime, the child nursed three more times at the breasts of abundance. He took hold of one nipple, little Masreya  another, and the two children’s hands sometimes touched. You would have thought they were two lovers entering Paradise as they held each other’s hands.

Continue reading “To Nurse at the Same Breasts: Muslim-Jewish Kinship in Literature and Life by Joyce Zonana”

Of an Anniversary, a Methodology and the Parshah Yitro by Ivy Helman.

This month’s blog post marks my 10-year anniversary writing for (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.

Continue reading “Of an Anniversary, a Methodology and the Parshah Yitro by Ivy Helman.”

Vayechi’s Take on Fertility, Women and Theodicy by Ivy Helman.

This week’s Torah portion is Vayechi, or Genesis 47:28-50:26.  It is the last part of the Joseph saga (For my thoughts on two other parshot relating to Joseph, see Mikeitz and Vayigash).  While there is much that could be said, there are three aspects of the parshah which I would like to concentrate on for this post: blessings being associated with fertility; verses 50:19-20’s troubling theodicy; and its women.

Let us begin with the last topic: women.  Women are mentioned four times in Vayechi.  Jacob recalls the burial of Rachel in verse 48:7.  Joseph’s beauty is such that women often look at him (49:22). The blessing that Jacob gives to Joseph includes the blessings of both mother and father (49:25-26).  At present, I will focus my commentary on Jacob’s request for burial, the fourth mention of women in this parshah.

Continue reading “Vayechi’s Take on Fertility, Women and Theodicy by Ivy Helman.”

The Treasures of Vayishlach by Ivy Helman

The Torah portion to be read this Shabbat is Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43).  It contains the reunion between Jacob and Esau, the twice-renaming of Jacob to Israel, events relating to Dinah, the mass murder of all of the male inhabitants of Shechem, the birth of Benjamin, the death of Rachel in childbirth, the death from old-age of Isaac, and a long list of the descendants of Esau.  Like every blog, there is too much material on which to comment.  Therefore, I will focus on three examples.  Each of these examples in their own way turns expectations or aspects of the Torah on their heads.   

First, we have the way in which Jacob wholeheartedly avoids war.  This is despite the fact that, in the Torah, war is demanded, normalized, or doled out as a form of punishment.  Rarely does fear factored into the Torah’s discussions of war, yet this parshah starts with Jacob’s fears about war: his brother Esau is going to start a war with him.  To avert this war, Jacob sends, in advance of their meeting, large quantities of gifts, mainly in the form of animals.  In addition, as he approaches his brother, he prostrates himself on the ground seven times.  

Continue reading “The Treasures of Vayishlach by Ivy Helman”

Ha’azinu and Models of the Divine by Ivy Helman.

This week’s Torah parshah, as you can tell from the title, is Ha’azinu, or Deuteronomy 32:1-52.  This is Moses’ final speech to the Israelites before he ascends Mount Nebo to die.  It is traditionally associated with Yom Kippur and read somewhere very close to it (when exactly depends on the year).  The reasons for this association should become obvious as we continue.  

In the parshah, Moses describes how, even in the Promised Land, the Israelites will continue to be idolatrous, thus disobeying their deity and bringing divine wrath upon themselves.  From what I have already discussed in past blogs about the history of the Torah’s composition, clearly the exiled Israelites in Babylonian sought reasons for that exile; in traditional Isrealite fashion, they made sense of their current circumstances by reasoning whose disobedience was to blame.   

Continue reading “Ha’azinu and Models of the Divine by Ivy Helman.”

Rosh Hashanah and the Goddess – redux – by Joyce Zonana

On our table, the crimson pomegranate seeds my mother had carefully separated from the skin glistened like jewels illumined from within; a pale green jam made from the grated flesh of a gourd, scented with rosewater and studded with thin slivers of blanched almonds, shone with a numinous, interior light. Bowls of black-eyed peas simmered with cinnamon and tomatoes were arrayed beside a delicately-flavored leek omelet, breaded and fried brains, roasted beets, fresh dates, apples, and—best of all—a previously untasted new fruit of the season: usually fresh fig or persimmon or prickly pear.

Joyce Zonana

When I was growing up in my Egyptian Jewish immigrant home, each of the High Holidays was imbued with sacredness, thanks largely to my mother’s efforts to create a meaningful gathering of family and friends. Around a long table, covered with an embroidered white cloth and set with sparkling silver and delicately fluted china, she served at each season the festive meal that made manifest for us the presence of the Divine.

My father, an Orthodox Jewish man, followed the tenets of his faith, praying each morning and attending synagogue each week. But it was my mother who brought to life the seasonal festivals that also characterize Judaism. As a child, I longed to pray with my father and I envied my brother and male cousins who studied and recited the ancient Hebrew; I resented having to polish silver and set the table. But today I’m grateful for my mother’s quiet teachings.

Passover had special meaning for us because our family’s departure from Egypt seemed a reenactment of the ancient Exodus. But Rosh Hashanah, that holy day without explanatory narrative, seemed even purer in its celebration of abundance and blessing, renewal and return.  Each year, I looked forward to the new moon in Tishrei that coincided with the arrival of autumn in New York and the beginning of the school year.

Continue reading “Rosh Hashanah and the Goddess – redux – by Joyce Zonana”

Shofetim: The Divine Feminine, Magic, and the Role of Gender by Ivy Helman.

This post is dedicated to Carol P. Christ. I knew her first as my professor and then my friend for over 15 years. May her memory be a blessing.

This week’s Torah portion is Shofetim (also spelt Shoftim), or Deutoronomy 16:18-21:9.  I have written about this parshah before.   In that post from August of 2018, I reflect on how the patriarchal elements of the portion should not detract from its larger concern for justice, compassion, and peace. Yet, there is more to the parshah.  In fact, I have recently begun exploring Judaism’s connection to all things magical, and interestingly enough, this parshah fits right into my recent inquiries.   Let me share with you some of what I have learned as it relates to this parshah.  

Where Shofetim and magic meet is idolatry.  There are three instances in Shofetim where idolatry is condemned, punished by stoning to death.  All three of these prohibitions involve polytheism, either directly worshiping other deities or participating in practices associated with the worship of those deities.  What are they?

Continue reading “Shofetim: The Divine Feminine, Magic, and the Role of Gender by Ivy Helman.”

On Devarim: From a Feminist Perspective Problematic, but not Irredeemable by Ivy Helman

This week’s Torah portion is Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22).  In it, the Isrealites are preparing to enter the Promised Land, as the last of the sinful generation have died.  Most of the parshah consists of Moses recalling the divinely sanctioned wars they undertook and the mass murder they committed in order to possess the land.   

Needless to say, this emphasis on war is difficult from a feminist perspective. Starhawk argues, in “Why We Need Women’s Actions and Feminist Voices for Peace,” that, “Patriarchy finds its ultimate expression in war.” In other words, a parshah ripe with war is ripe with patriarchy.

Yet, it is more problematic than that. The deity is understood to be a warrior as are the Israelites. Verses 1:30 reads, “The L-rd, your G-d, Who goes before you… will fight for you, just as G-d did for you in Egypt before your very eyes.” In addition, this warrior mentality requires the Israelites to fight as well. G-d hardens the hearts of Sihon which requires the Israelites to fight (1:27). Thus, war and mass murder become divinely sanctioned methods which G-d and the Israelites use to further the sacred promise of the Land.

Continue reading “On Devarim: From a Feminist Perspective Problematic, but not Irredeemable by Ivy Helman”

Chukat: Miriam, Feminists, and the Power of Water, by Ivy Helman.

This week’s Torah portion is Chukat.  It covers a lot of ground.  There are the mitzvot concerning purification with a red cow, the deaths of important individuals, and the continued wanderings in the desert, which are rife with complaining Israelites, plagues of snakes and destructions of enemies.  It would be impossible to cover all of these events well in the length of this post, so instead I will am going to concentrate on a theme: water.  I also want to explain some of the ways Jewish feminists have enriched our connection to water. 

Water is first associated with the prophetess Miriam.  Miriam is first called a prophetess in Exodus 15, when she takes the women of the community out to sing about their deliverance from Egypt by way of the Re(e)d Sea.  Her “Song of the Sea” is thought to be, by many scholars, one of the oldest written texts of the Torah.  Yet, the connection between Miriam and water starts earlier in the Torah.   Miriam is Moses’ and Aaron’s sister and the one who watches over Moses when his mother, Joheved, hides him in a reed basket on the edge of the Nile (Exodus 2:4).  She approaches the Pharaoh’s daughter to secure a milkmaid for her brother (Exodus 4:7).  

Continue reading “Chukat: Miriam, Feminists, and the Power of Water, by Ivy Helman.”

Fragments of Sinai by Jill Hammer

Every year on Shavuot, the story of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai is read in synagogues around the world. It’s a dramatic story, with thunder and lightning and mysterious ram’s horns blasting, and Moses disappearing into a thick cloud.  It’s a powerful story.  It’s also a problematic story, for me.  As a feminist, ascribing divinity to an ancient text with a vision of women/gender that is very far from my own doesn’t work for me.  And yet, as a scholar and midrashist who often plays with the words of the biblical text, I do meet God/dess and my ancestors there.  I’m moved by the ancient legend that all Jewish souls, of every time and place, were present to receive Torah at Sinai.  How to express this layered and complex relationship with Torah?

The Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute has been holding Shabbat prayer online since the pandemic began, and we gathered on Shavuot morning to pray.  As a community committed to the liberation of all genders, I felt we couldn’t read the Torah portion the way it was—but I also felt we couldn’t not read it.  So I created an aliyah—a Torah reading—composed of fragments of the text.  Three of us read it together; I chanted the Hebrew, and Kohenet Ketzirah Lesser and Kohenet Harriette Wimms and I read the English.  I picked fragments of the text that spoke to me in some way.

Continue reading “Fragments of Sinai by Jill Hammer”

Bamidbar: Our Role in the In-Dwelling by Ivy Helman.

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.

Continue reading “Bamidbar: Our Role in the In-Dwelling by Ivy Helman.”

On Tazria-Metzora and Covid: Saving Lives, Saving Worlds, and Saving the World by Ivy Helman

It is often said that every year when you read the same Torah passages, you are in a different place, spiritually and otherwise.  Therefore, one will always be learning new meanings and discovering new insights from them.  No more is that true than in this week’s Torah parshah Tazria-Metzora.  

Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1- 15:33) is a double parshah containing a list of rules concerning ritual purity and impurity, mostly having to do with leprosy.  The parshah begins with the requirement for women a certain number of days after childbirth to immerse in a mikvah as well as offer animals for sacrifice at the temple.  Then, it commands the circumcision of a boy child at 8 days of age.  The next three chapters discuss an extensive list of what has to be all possible encounters with leprosy, including the infection of a home itself. The parshah prescribes various interactions between lepers, homes with leprosy, and the kohenim.  Mostly, the kohenim decide if the skin lesions people or houses have are leprosy, another skin disease or harmless.  If diseased or if the lesions are inconclusive, the people and houses enter quarantine. The kohenim also consult on whether a leper or house is healed and how to go about atonement.  For atonement, former lepers immerse in the mikvah and pay for the kohenim to offer specific sacrifices at the temple. Homes also undergo a type of ritual purification by the kohenim when they have been healed of leprosy. This double parshah ends with immersion requirements for emissions of semen and menstrual blood. 

Historically, there are two considerations, which I have discussed in other posts, to address first. To begin with, there is the ancient world’s understanding of disease as punishment for sin.  This sin can either be the sin of the diseased person or punishment from generations past.  For more about how this cycle of sin, punishment, repentance and atonement work as well as my thoughts on it, see here.    

Continue reading “On Tazria-Metzora and Covid: Saving Lives, Saving Worlds, and Saving the World by Ivy Helman”

God’s Womb by Joyce Zonana

The first time I came across the phrase, I thought I must be making a mistake. “Que Dieu l’enveloppe dans sa matrice,” the passage read in French, “May God’s womb enfold her.” or possibly, “May God enfold her in His womb.” His womb?

Joyce Zonana
The first time I came across the phrase, I thought I must be making a mistake. “Que Dieu l’enveloppe dans sa matrice,” the passage read in French, “May God’s womb enfold her,” or possibly, “May God enfold her in His womb.” His womb?

I’d just started translating Ce pays qui te ressemble [A Land Like You], Tobie Nathan’s remarkable novel of Egypt’s Jews in the first half of the twentieth-century, and I couldn’t be sure I was correct in thinking that “womb” was the proper rendering for “matrice.” But a quick search confirmed my hunch. Matrice (from the Latin matrix < mater) might be translated as “matrix” or “mould,” but that made no sense here. “Uterus or womb” was the anatomical meaning, and it was the first meaning listed in my French dictionary.

The phrase, or something very like it, kept turning up, always after a dead person was named:  

Que Dieu accueille son âme en sa matrice.

Que Dieu l’enveloppe dans sa matrice.

Que Dieu la berce dans sa matrice. 

May God’s womb welcome his soul.

May God’s womb enfold him.

May God’s womb cradle her.

In all, “God’s womb” is mentioned seven times in this novel set in Cairo’s ancient Jewish quarter, Haret al-Yahud. Each time, it’s part of a ritual prayer, a formulaic wish for the wellbeing of a departed soul. But what extraordinary wellbeing is wished for here, what a remarkable envisioning of God as the possessor of a welcoming, warm womb. Continue reading “God’s Womb by Joyce Zonana”

On Mikeitz: How Joseph Brings Meaning to My Hanukah Observance during This Pandemic by Ivy Helman

It is Hanukah.  I have discussed the reasons I have found observing it difficult in a past blog.  Namely, as an ecofeminist, I will not celebrate the violence of war or the slaughter of animals at the temple.  This year presents a new challenge: how to celebrate the miracle of the oil in the midst of a global pandemic.  For inspiration, I have looked at this week’s Torah portion: Mikeitz.  Its Joseph tale has helped me find a meaningful practice for my Hanukah observance this year: the power of a human community’s action to preserve life.

The parshah begins with pharaoh having bad dreams.  He has called on every interpreter he can think of and no one could interpret them for him.  That is until he hears tale of Joseph and summons him.  After hearing his dreams, Joseph satisfactorily explains the dreams’ meaning.  Joseph says that there will be seven years of abundant crops followed by seven years of famine.  The pharaoh believes Joseph and begins to make preparations.  He appoints Joseph to oversee them.  

Continue reading “On Mikeitz: How Joseph Brings Meaning to My Hanukah Observance during This Pandemic by Ivy Helman”

Was Sefer Yetzirah Written by a Woman? Jill Hammer

This year, I published a book called Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah (available from Ben Yehuda Press,  Sefer Yetzirah, or the Book of Creation, is an ancient Jewish mystical work (written in approximately the sixth century CE, though scholars offer dates from as early as the 1st century CE to as late as the 9th century).  This brief, cryptic, poetic book describes the process by which God creates the universe.  God engraves letters, which are also the elements and fundamental forms of being, into the cosmos.  These engraved letters act like energetic channels between the Creator and the Creation, allowing creative intention to flow from the One to the Many.  The book instructs the mystical practitioner to develop awareness of this creative process and seek to embody it, thus allowing energy to flow back from the Many to the One.

This flowing between One and Many is called retzo vashov, running and returning—the constant ebb and flow between unity and multiplicity.  Sefer Yetzirah says of the elements that “God’s word in them is running and returning.”  This means that the divine intention moves within creation, and the elements shape themselves in response to this intention.  In Sefer Yetzirah, as in most Jewish texts, the Creator takes a male pronoun.  However, the elements—water, air, and fire, since the book has a three-element system rather than the more common four elements— all have female pronouns.  These three elements, often identified with the Hebrew letters Aleph, Mem, and Shin, are sometimes known within the text of the book as the three mothers.  And, God’s breath or spirit, the ruach elohim chayyim or breath of the living God, which gives rise to all the other elements, also take female pronouns.  Not only that, but Wisdom, the feminine entity who is the sum total of all the engraved pathways between God and the world, is also feminine.  We can say with certainty that the text gives the feminine unusual primacy, compared with other Jewish texts of the time.  We also don’t see in this text any of the misogyny that is common in ancient texts of this time period. Continue reading “Was Sefer Yetzirah Written by a Woman? Jill Hammer”

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