Shabbat Pinkhas: Our People’s Feminine Side

There is quite a surprise in our parashat hashavua, called Pinkhas. Our ancient Israelite religious narrative presents us with what we presume to be a Patriarchal framework for understanding our lives. Certainly, the caricatures of traditional Judaism (and, sadly, often the reality) diminishes and even calumniates the strengths and characteristics of the feminine. This has led to the political and social oppression of women in Jewish culture.

But how much of the ancient narrative is actually Patriarchal, and to what extent has it been taught through a lens which emphasizes the Patriarchal, while ignoring the evidence of strong women, and the presence of much feminine imagery? Books such as Merlin Stone’s When God Was A Woman or Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess trace a pre-Patriarchal world in which spirituality was equally male, female, and included other genders as well.

But what of the Torah? This is where parashat Pinkhas comes to surprise us. The Israelites have been journeying toward the Promised Land for nigh unto forty years at this point. To recap in a nutshell: our ancestors are led out of Egypt, brought to Mt Sinai, entered into a Covenant, given laws by which to frame their lives and thrive as free people, and are now pretty much settled into a routine. Pitch camp, feed the sheep, settle whatever differences are currently causing social upset, and then, at a propitious moment, strike camp and travel onward.

Then something happens that hasn’t been foreseen by the Giver of the Halakha, the path we are following. A man named Tzelafkhad dies. He had five daughters, no sons. And the rules for inheritance as the Israelites have them do not allow for that situation, for they specify that when a man dies, his son shall inherit him. Tzelafkhad’s daughters go to Moshe and ask the obvious question: if there is no son, shall not the daughter inherit? 

A wonderful thing happens: Moshe indicates that he does not know, and rather than try to work out the correct halakha on his own, he asks the women to wait while he goes to ask G*d. And then another wonderful thing happens: G*d tells Moshe that the women are right; they should inherit. And so the law stands to this day. Jewish law, challenged, expanded and changed by women. This is not a singular narrative; it beckons us to examine our inherited texts ourselves, rather than let another’s lens tell us what we see.

There is nothing particularly misogynistic about the story of Tzelakhad’s daughters, although the narrative, by assuming that fathers will have sons, is clearly Patriarchally biased. But there is hope for a bias, especially when one who carries it is willing to be enlightened, expanded, and changed through lived experience and learning – and, most of all, willing to hear questions and admit ignorance, just as Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher, did.

This week, our parashah acknowledges the strengths and gifts of the feminine side of life, even as Jewish mystics teach the essence of G*d as equally feminine and masculine – as are we ourselves. This week, the United States sees a woman nominated for President by a major political party and hails this new thing. But we know that  women as well as men have always been building human life, discerning the path, and summoning the future. It is only a matter of seeing, and lifting up the good that we see beyond the cultural expectations that we are supposed to have.

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Shabbat VaYetze: Rediscovering the Power of Leah and Rachel

 In this week’s parashah we read about the “baby wars” between Leah and Rachel as each try to outdo each other in giving their shared husband sons. It’s easy to dismiss as a misogynistic satire of two women fighting for their husband’s attention, but that’s only the top layer of this fascinating story. A closer look offers deeper insights.

 

Consider: Jacob was a follower of his father’s and grandfather’s G-d. But what was the focus of Rachel’s and Leah’s reverence? Note Leah’s words upon the birth of her second son. She exclaims b’oshri! which has been explained as a form of ashrey, “joy”. Leah names her son Asher (Gen. 30.13), and some scholars see a note of thanks to the Goddess Asherah in both the exclamation and the name.

 

Leah and Rachel name their children when they are born. (So does Eve.) When the world is created, G-d brings all the animals to Adam, and he names them. The power of naming is akin to the power of creating; to name something is to bring it fully into existence. When it comes to new human beings, the power of their names in is the mouths of their mothers. 

 

What other powers did our Matriarchs wield, of which no hint has remained in the final redaction of our Torah text? And what else is buried in our Torah text, between the lines, half-hidden, covered over by later re-shapings of meaning and context?

 

My teacher, Dr. Byron Sherwin, taught me that everything a feminist needs to argue against Jewish patriarchy is already there in our ancient sources. One need only know how to look. So let’s look at words and their power in Judaism.

 

As the Psalmist has noted, clumsy human language is not suited to G-d’s praise; yet we, described in Jewish medieval philosophy as “the creature that speaks,” keep trying to name our sense of kedushah, holiness, and its Source. By definition, the One G-d is not defined by borders, by tribal ethnicity, by age or politics or nature; the irony of arrogating kedushah to an exclusive group is that it empties the term of meaning. Here the case of gender is enlightening.  As feminist theologians have pointed out, naming G-d “he” at the expense of the use of the word “she” defines G-d as less than All: and this is the basic definition of idolatry, i.e. revering something less than G-d as G-d.

 

Restriction of kedushah by gender, or by any other means, is not a religious statement; rather, it is an example in antiquity as in modernity of a social expression, or even political use, of the concept of the holiness of G-d. Such definition suits limited purposes. To the extent that feminism stands as a corrective to patriarchy, and leads us toward the equal cherishing of all aspects of creation, it re-captures an ancient cultural weighting of the feminine. Life brings change; cultural perspectives come and go;  each time, we must bring careful thinking about texts we respect and so expect to contain more than meets the eye. Each new challenge, met thoughtfully, can help us find a new balance between opposites that need each other to exist at all. Only the embrace of opposites brings one closer to the One Source of All Being.