This summer, I visited Iceland, a beautiful and magical land. While I was there, I saw the Kerid Crater, which is a caldera: a volcanic crater with a lake inside. My family and I hiked around the edge of the crater and then down close to the lake. The perfect roundness of the crater-lake gave the impression of a circular container—a jewel-box shaped by some immense hand— or else a massive eye looking up from the earth. My daughter and I sat by the lake’s waters and anointed one another, having the sense we were in a sacred place.
Later that summer, I grappled with a story that reminded me of the crater. In Numbers 27, five sisters—the daughters of a man named Tzelafchad—approach Moses with a question. Their father had daughters, not sons, and it seems this means his family will receive no land allotment in Canaan. The daughters ask that they be given land allotments: “Let our father’s name not be lost to his clan just because he had no son!” (Numbers 27:4). Moses takes their complaint to God and brings back an answer: the daughters have spoken rightly, and will receive a land allotment as they request. However, they must marry men of their own tribe so that the tribal land is not lost— if the women married men of another tribe, their heirs would belong to that other tribe and so the land would change its tribal designation. Thus, patriarchy is mitigated but not ultimately contradicted—the women become heirs to their father, but primarily for their father’s sake, not their own.
A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to take a class with Chava Weissler, a scholar at Lehigh University who studies Jewish history, community, and sacred practices– particularly those practices related to women. My fellow students in the class were other rabbis, taking a break from their work in order to do some learning. Dr. Weissler was teaching about an Ashkenazi Jewish women’s practice known as “soul candles”—the making of candles during the High Holiday season to honor the dead of the community as well as the mythic ancestors. Candles for Abraham and Sarah were made alongside candles for grandparents and other deceased relatives, using wicks that had been laid out along the graves to take the “measure” of the dead. During the making of the candles, the candlemakers would ask that these ancestors would pray for the living, just as the living prayed for the dead. As Dr. Weissler described this practice, a nervous giggle passed through the room.
I remember being shocked. I understand that my colleagues have varying beliefs around life after death and around spirit in general. And, hearing my colleagues laugh at such a ritual and its attendant beliefs surprised me. Those same colleagues would never laugh at the idea that God wrote the Torah (even if not all of them believe that) or at the idea that God answers prayers (even though I’m sure many of them struggle with that idea too). But the belief in ancestors who could intercede on behalf of their relatives was alien enough to be funny. This caused me to notice that the contemporary spirit world, for some Jews, is rather empty. It contains an abstract God, and no one else.
Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The Jewish Museum has long been a favorite museum for me. My wife and I took our daughter to this particular exhibit because we knew she’d like it. The exhibit is entitled “Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress from the Collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.” It consists of many, many garments created and worn by Jews, from Moroccan wedding clothes to German prayer shawls to Yemenite amuletic (meant to protect the wearer) dresses. Accompanying the garments were placards explaining the folk traditions giving rise to the various garments. What I realized (again) after viewing the exhibition was how much I could learn about the culture of Jewish women, and Jewish culture in general, by looking at things, not texts.
The sacred texts and laws central to Jewish life, while they certainly discuss Jewish women, tend not to be created by or for Jewish women. This means many aspects of how Jewish women thought or acted (before the present day) are obscured. However, these garments were created by and often for Jewish women, and their shapes and symbols tell a great deal. For example, the Moroccan Jewish wedding clothes I mentioned were embroidered with spirals, representing (according to the accompanying written material) the spiral of life. These spirals were also found on Jewish tombstones. The spirals resembled, to me, the spirals I’d seen carved on stone at Newgrange and Knowth in Ireland—the ancient symbols of life and journey. I was amazed to see them in a Jewish context. Another dress that mixed Sephardic and Moroccan style also had spirals featured prominently.