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.
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.
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.
Parshah Vayigash covers Genesis 44:18 to 47:27. It involves the reunification of Joseph with his brothers and his father, the immigration of Jacob’s entire family to Egypt and Joseph successfully leading Egypt through famine. In other words, the parshah provides the backdrop for how the Israelites become slaves in Egypt.
Any mention of women is confined to verses 46: 14-26. They are not active participants, but are remembered as mothers and (a few) daughters and help explain the size and development of Jacob’s family. It is most striking that they are mentioned at all as the text is heavily preoccupied with sons. Nonetheless, according to the account, Jacob’s family has 70 members and a seemingly very small number are women and daughters.
Clearly it comes as no surprise that this text is highly influenced by its patriarchal roots and we could dismiss it for that reason. Nonetheless, it has become a project of mine in this blog over the past few months to find redeeming qualities and food for thought within these texts. In other words, despite its sexist pitfalls, there are still holy insights and life lessons as my previous blogs attest. Continue reading “Vayigash: Lessons from Joseph’s Behavior by Ivy Helman”
I recently began a new job as the Associate Director of Admissions for the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, one of the seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This week was orientation for our new and returning students and much of the time has been focused on getting to know one another as well as getting to know the corner of Chicago in which we are located. There have been so many life giving conversations as well as so many questions!
Our mornings featured speakers who helped us to engage one another in conversation as well as to start thinking about the unique reality of our place within not only the LSTC community but also within the rest of the Chicago community and the larger world. Throughout these presentations and getting to know you activities my thoughts continued to be pulled back to the question of how to have life-giving conversations in a time when so many of us feel emotionally and spiritually drained by the world around us.
Chittister began her historic journey on the Peace Train to the UN Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. As she entered a conference room to register as a Peace Train participant, she was handed a large manila envelope. To her surprise it was filled with condoms. At first, she thought that the woman who handed them to her meant to hand them to someone else. However, Chittister was told (quite emphatically according to her) that she should distribute the condoms to the health workers she encounters while on the train and in the small towns she visits along the way to Beijing. Eventually after much thought, Chittister decided to do just that and stuffs the manila envelope into her backpack. Trying to find some humor in what she considered an awkward situation for a nun to be in she remarked, “Now all I have to do is to try not to die in front of some bishop with condoms in my backpack.”
In patriarchal heterosexist societies women do most if not all of the cooking for their families. Women are also usually assigned the tasks of cleaning, raising children, tending the family garden, gathering water and anything else that is considered part and parcel of caring for the family. These feminine tasks are often devalued compared to the activities men spend their time doing. I wholeheartedly support the reevaluation of the significance of these tasks and the movement toward shared responsibility for family life among heterosexual couples, however that is not what I want to discuss today.
I want to explore the religious and spiritual significance of the food cooked by our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and female friends, especially those dishes we would consider to be comfort food. Every person, every family has their own idea of what meals are comfort foods. Bubbe’s matzah ball soup on Shabbat maybe? Aunt Betsy’s Easter ham? Mom’s turkey, gravy and oyster stuffing on Thanksgiving? Your sister’s famous mac and cheese? Continue reading “On Cooking and Eating by Ivy Helman”
Gilligan’s In a Different Voice was a revelation when I discovered it three years ago. At the time I was struggling within my Mormon tradition, wondering if I could continue to remain practicing when doing so, in a sense, perpetuated an institution which I saw as limiting women’s opportunities. Many of my Mormon feminist friends had made the painful decision to leave. They left on principle, as they could no longer lend their support to an institution which promoted teachings which violated their core beliefs in men’s and women’s equality. They were willing to face the pain and disappointment their families would undoubtedly experience, as well as possible ostracism.