Patriarchy Shmachiarchy — Let’s Re-dress Ancient Israel

Why do we keep assuming that Ancient Israel was a “patriarchal” society when it wasn’t?

Despite the evidence demonstrating how problematic the term “patriarchy” is, my university students employ it about as frequently as they do the expression “Old Testament.” Both slip from the tongue with aplomb.

It’s obvious why “Old Testament” is a problematic term, given the odor of supersessionism attached to it. But, you may be asking, why do we need to banish the term patriarchy from our discourse about Ancient Israel? 

In Greek, patriarchy means the “rule of the father.” We generally tend to use patriarchy to describe an entire society organized around excluding women from positions of power.

Men did have a great deal of power in the ancient world. But, as a number of scholars have pointed out in recent decades, they did not have the absolute rule the term patriarchy presumes. Male power may have been a legal construct, not a sociological reality. Roman law failed to mention any absolute authority of men over their wives. Elite Roman women managed both households and property. The women of Greece and Rome took part in public religious activities and acted as religious leaders in mainstream public cults and cultic activities.

What about Ancient Israel? Most Israelites lived an agricultural and pastoral existence in which women played a major role. Women were, among other things, responsible for food processing, textile production, and creating household implements. They were commodity producers. As managers of households, they likely allocated resources and tasks. We can tell from the position and number of weaving, grain-grinding, and other implements found at archeological sites that women worked in groups. How much family and village planning went on during the work? Women would be able and willing to negotiate connections, marriages, and sharing of resources when needed. That’s not private work – that’s public – even “political.”

In Tanakh, female characters are not wholly without access to power. The Shunnamite (2 Kings 4:8-37; 8:1-6) takes charge of inviting and housing a prophet, demands said prophet’s intervention when her son’s life is at risk without her husband’s help or involvement, moves her family out of town when drought threatens their survival, and negotiates their reentry and reacquisition of their land by talking over her situation with the king himself.

Women of Tanakh functioned as professional musicians and mourners, temple seamstresses, circle dancers, judges, prophets, and necromancers. They negotiated, argued, and formed clever plans and daring maneuvers. They are depicted as strategic thinkers in stories that demonstrate, time and time again, that they were hardly understood – even by the male elite authors who wrote their narratives – as either inferior or subordinate. While we do have difficult stories of male control (Dinah) and terrible narratives of outright brutality against women (the Levite’s Concubine and the hundreds of women kidnapped, raped and killed after her death), biblical women were not – per se — either voiceless or powerless.

Archeologist and biblical scholar Carol Meyers has suggested we consider the term “heterarchy” for Ancient Israel.  A heterarchy is a society in which different power structures exist at the same time. Hierarchies are at work, and these are not fixed, but shift and change. Is Sarah the one in control when it comes to her slave, Hagar? Is Abraham’s servant in charge when it comes to negotiating a wife for his master’s son, Isaac? Class is important, as is ethnicity, and we need to keep these things in mind as we read: servants, slaves, and non-Israelites are part of our stories and play different roles at different times.

No scholar is likely to claim that there was gender equality in Ancient Israel’s society. But when we think about that society, we need to think in terms that transcend the binaries of male and female. We need to see that there are nuances to be noted – ones that will give us a richer appreciation of the complexity of our narratives. Who had power or control in this society did not depend on a fixed, unalterable rule of male control.

Ancient Israel was not a patriarchy.

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Visioning the Godly in True Blue

Studying Torah begins and ends with a sweet realization: These texts reveal new truths at each reading.  The ancient authors of Torah knew that creating multiple possible realities was the very purpose of storytelling.

Last week, our congregational Torah study group occupied itself with Parsha Mishpatim, which includes the famed Book of the Covenant.  The Book of the Covenant, so scholars, likely began as a separate law code which was later integrated into a larger narrative composed by several different writers.

Personally, I think we’d be better off naming our writers “schools,” since the respective strands of text were themselves subject to internal revision before they were all redacted and re-redacted in later centuries.  But scholars are notoriously wedded to their terminology.  Hence, they call them the J,E,P, and D-writers, nodding in the general direction of a fifth R-writer for “redactor.”  In this case, the E-writer (I’d say E-school) is given credit for assimilating the Book of the Covenant into the E-narrative in Torah.

Has everyone fallen asleep?

Please don’t.  The fact that ancient Israelites wrote and retained different versions of certain stories (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 are the paradigmatic example) is proof positive that there was no one authoritative account for all Israelites even in the old days.  Some of Torah even “corrects” other parts.  Example?  Just check out the way the pashal lamb is, according to Exodus 12:9, to be roasted.  The same pashal lamb is to be boiled, according to Deuteronomy 16:7.  Chronicles 35:13 offers an ingenious resolution to the apparent dichotomy: The lamb should be roasted after being boiled.  The Chronicler was bothered by discrepancies in the two earlier accounts and reconciled them with a brand-new recipe.

Our ancient forbears preserved variant traditions even when they contradicted each other.  That fact grants us the right to our multiple interpretations: Torah is a flowing, changing, living thing because both then and now the people of that book understood their narratives, their law codes, and their ideas to be subject to change.

That, I believe, is a very good thing.  It has all sorts of wonderful implications.  We can (and have) put women in the rabbinate.  We can (and have) included GLBT Jews as members of our clergy.  We can…

Well.  The study group spent some quality time looking at the laws of the Book of the Covenant.  We discussed how the law code aimed to protect property, land, and justice.  Ancient Israelites were warned not to accede to a majority opinion rather than tell the truth.  If required to give testimony, they were reminded neither to favor the wealthy nor the poor.  There’s a lot in Parsha Mishpatim that can make Jewish folk proud of their ancestors.

There’s a lot to struggle with, too, just as ancient Israelites must have done.  Take the literal possibilities of “an eye for an eye” (Ex. 21: 23-4).  There is no example in Tanakh of this law being applied, which strongly suggests that our ancestors didn’t take this passage literally even way back then.  Still, my Torah study group sadly noted the ways Exodus 22:17, “You shall not allow a witch to live” was used in later centuries to justify persecution and murder on a grand scale – in some time periods, against Jews.

At the end of our time together, I asked everyone to look again at the final passage of the parsha.  Moses, the text tells us, ascends the mountain together with Aaron and his two sons, and seventy elders.  There they see the God of Israel, under whose feet is the likeness of a lapis lazuli stone surface, the very image of the sky in clarity and purity.  Miraculously, God did not raise God’s hand against the all-too-human beings who dared appear where divinity could be seen.  Instead, the Torah tells us: “They beheld God and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24:11).

Most English translations of this passage do not do the Hebrew justice.  The verb used here for “seeing” is formed from the root chet-zayin-heyKhazah does not mean, simply, “see.”  It implies visioning.  A khozeh is a seer.  A khazon is a vision.  Those who were on that mountain visioned God, envisioned God, or had a vision of God.

Afterwards, they ate and drank.

I asked our study group to recall a time when they experienced Godness of some sort, to re-imagine a moment of divinity so powerful it simultaneously commandeered and sustained everything around them, including themselves.

We are mere mortals, despite (or perhaps because) of our dreams.  Must visionary experience inevitably give way to the everyday realm of assiyah, of doing?  Must we eat and drink to remind ourselves of our mortality after an encounter with immortality, after entering the realm of atzilut?

Or did those who beheld God take in the vision by drinking in the experience, by nourishing themselves with the divine so that they could be changed utterly, body and soul?

God’s feet, the text says, rested on a foundation of sapphire.  Sapir recalls, for the Hebrew reader, a word made of the same essential letters: Samech-pey-reish is a root used for “counting,” “relating,” and “writing.”  A sofer is a scribe.  A sefer is written text, a book.  The linguistic presence of these near homonyms in my mind made me ask the others: Was God standing on our story, on the narratives we have revered and struggled with for centuries?  The Tanakh is, after all, the foundation on which we build and rebuild our understanding of Godness.

So we ended our discussion where we began: The Book of the Covenant, the law, the Torah, the Tanakh – it is sourced in many voices, many readings, many possibilities.  What is godly stands, in significant measure, on that fact.

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A Holly Jolly… Hanukkah?

I made a terrible mistake last week in my Hebrew Bible class.

The course is actually called “Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.” “Old Testament” comes first because most of our students have never heard of the “Hebrew Bible.” The latter is a respectable academic effort to avoid sectarian bias in naming biblical scriptures. Calling the Jewish scriptures the “Old Testament” assumes said scriptures existed only to give rise to the New Testament. For Jews, this is a pretty perilous proposition. It makes them grind their teeth.

Jews call their texts the Tanakh, an acronym for Torah-Neviim-Ketuvim. The Torah includes the Five Books of Moishe. These, in turn, are also known as the Chumash, Hebrew for “five” and/or the Pentateuch, which is Greek for the same. Neviim is Hebrew for “prophets” and Ketuvim is Hebrew for “writings.” The former includes prophetic texts and histories like Joshua, Judges, and Kings. The latter includes, among other writings, Psalms, Proverbs, the books of Esther and Ruth, Lamentations, and Job.

Academic types call all this stuff of ancient times the Hebrew Bible because the vast majority of the texts are written in Hebrew. A very small portion is written in Aramaic, which can look and act like Hebrew, but isn’t. The name “Hebrew Bible” is neutral. It makes no sectarian statement. It has no religious connotations.

Religious connotations, as I tell my students, are inadmissible in a secular classroom. “This class,” my syllabus reads, “assumes a scholarly attitude to religious beliefs and texts. We will look at religion scientifically as a historical phenomenon. We are not here to talk about personal beliefs, or to make moral judgments about the text. This is not the setting to deal with our own views on God or spirituality; the setting for that is a nice, comfy chair with some good coffee, and maybe a Danish.”

Or a bialy.

But, hey, I was in a silly mood last week. It was our last day. The students were about to take a final exam in which, among other things, they would have to explain intertextuality at work in Numbers 22 and Genesis 22. (That meant comparing the seer Balaam, who converses with his donkey, to Abraham, who doesn’t seem able to talk to his own son.)

I decided to let down my hair.

“Let’s sing some Christmas carols while we wait for everyone to get here,” I suggested brightly. “How about ‘Winter Wonderland’?”

You would have thought I had announced that the final was going to cover Sumerian hymns, insist on intimate knowledge of Ugaritic, and test knowledge of ancient Persian governance. There was a loud and raucous outcry. There was an “Occupy UNC-Charlotte” spirit adrift in the room. The peasants were revolting.

“Whoa,” I said. “Wassup? I was just trying to bring a little seasonable cheer into the room.”

I teach many students who have to work their way through college. A good many informed me in no uncertain terms that they had been forced to listen to Christmas carols since Halloween as they bagged motley plastic goods. They were mortally, thoroughly sick of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Little Drummer Boy.”

Some may have heard “Silver Bells” as many as fifty times in less than six weeks.

They threatened to gag, upchuck, or make rude noises if I so much as jingled a bell or decked the hall.

I demurred, of course. The room assigned for Old Testament/Hebrew Bible last semester is already dark and dank. It has no windows. The artificial light, as Shakespeare would have said, sucketh. We had studied in a version of Sheol all semester long, the gray and wretched place everyone lands after death according to Hebrew Bible. It doesn’t matter if you were naughty or nice in life – that’s where you go when you kick off. It’s like a nursing home with tenure.

Had said students done as threatened, the next group to trudge in would be met with gory smells and sights unbecoming to the student body. Any of them.

Sadly, I handed them their final exams. I watched them stress and worry, gnash their brows and furrow their teeth.

I mightily resisted the temptation to cheer them up by dreaming about a white Christmas – a song written by a Jew, by the by. I did not conjure up the image of old Frosty, who could have been Jewish. (He reminds me a lot of my Uncle Max – incessantly cheerful, that man and oy, the shnoz). I most certainly did not think of Scrooge. He evokes terrible associations and clichés about, well, Jews.

Instead, very softly – very softly indeed, I hummed a song that could not possibly offend anyone.

“I have a little dreidel. I made it out of clay…”

P.S. Chag sameach to clay-handling readers!

P.P.S.  A list of my Top Ten Christmas Songs Written or Composed by Jews is provided for general edification below, as is a link to explanatory materials.

  1. Silver Bells
  2. Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
  3. Winter Wonderland
  4. I’ll be Home for Christmas
  5. Let it Snow
  6. White Christmas
  7. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  8. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
  9. A Holly Jolly Christmas
  10. Sleigh Ride

http://www.interfaithfamily.com/arts_and_entertainment/popular_culture/The_Jews_Who_Wrote_Christmas_Songs.shtml

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The Key to the Treasure is the Treasure

Sita Singing in the Rain, Copyright Nina PaleySita Sings The Blues is a full-length feature film produced by Jewish superwoman artist-cartoonist Nina Paley (available for free download at http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/watch.html). In the film, Paley mines an ancient Sanskrit epic to retell an archetypal story: Devoted woman gets done by the egocentric man she loves.

The narrative of the epic (Sita and Rama love, lose, and love again only, in the end, to lose big time) is Paley’s comment on her own ex-husband-bum’s behavior, but the film is ever so much more than that. Envision diamonds and rubies and sapphires, golden tiaras and cascades of silver filigree. Sita Sings the Blues is so dazzling you simply can’t take it in in one go.

The key to the treasure is the treasure, as John Barth’s Scheherazade points out in Chimera. The key to Sita Sings the Blues is not – appearances aside – the wild display of color or the imaginative jazz soundtrack, but Paley’s willingness to ask questions, to provoke her audience. Sita and Rama are not All Nice, and their actions cause pain and suffering – even death. The shadow puppets who narrate events also comment on the epic, noting the difficulties with standard interpretations that paint the hero and heroine as paragons of virtue. One narrator points out that Sita’s demands cause a terrible loss of life for those who would save her (she’s a bloodthirsty woman, the narrator exclaims). Another counters immediately: “Don’t challenge these stories!”

When I visit churches to speak about biblical texts, when I unpack them in university settings, I often find folks in the pews or students in my classroom growing nervous. I ask questions, and they proffer the formulations they learned in Sunday school, interpretations that will reconcile difficulties.

They’ve been taught these readings as if they were the text itself. But the interpretations they offer are often designed to obscure contradictions, to paper over ambiguities, to create more comfortable characters and a reassuringly omnipotent deity. They don’t want to challenge God.

I don’t think God would fear the challenge, though.

The God of Tanakh is compassionate and mothering, tender and loving. But YHWH also bumbles, fumbles, and grumbles. God complains. God worries. God roars.

YHWH is a moody deity, even murderous.

In Exodus 3-4, God entreats Moses to agree to take on the mission of saving his people. Almost immediately after Moses finally sets off for Egypt, God launches an inexplicable and vicious attack on his prophet. Of course, there are many readings attempting to make sense of this bizarre passage, including the claim that Moses is threatened with death because he has failed to observe an important Jewish ritual. (Just guess which…)

But seriously, now. God first commissions Moses for a really big job, and then, in the middle of the night, reminds him of forgotten obligations? This particular divine reminder comes in the form of a direct assault on Moses’ life.

Seems just a tad over the top, no?

Interestingly, it is Moses’ wife, Zipporah, who figures out how to propitiate the deity. She takes a flint and manages to circumcise their son — in the middle of the night, no less. Tanakh is dark in places.

It’s also hilariously funny.

Take Genesis 2:5 – 3. In the entertaining second version of How Things Worked (Genesis 1 tells the story of creation quite differently), God creates Adam, decides he needs a helpmeet and parades a slew of animals before him for inspection. Turns out, our presumably omniscient deity is a bumbling yenta.

Imagine the scene: God and Adam just hanging out, being guys together, checking things out.  Both are strangely unaware that chickens and porcupines are not appropriate playmates for the recently created man-person. Woody Allen would have a field day with this material. He should, actually.

Adam, so the rabbis say, tries out each and every creation God produces. But the plumbing isn’t compatible.  No “fitting helper” was found. The rabbis conclude: “Adam attempted to have sex with all the beasts and animals, but his sexual desire (knowledge) was not cooled off by them” (see b. Yevamot, 63a).

You can imagine the response of my students and church audiences to rabbinic interpretations of this sort.  You can imagine their response when I point out that our Bible is – at least sometimes– awesome burlesque.

What I love about Tanakh and, in fact, any great literature, is the refusal to offer pat answers, to make life’s questions easy. The whole point is to challenge these stories, to ask questions, to wonder, to laugh out loud. Curiosity is a good thing – a great thing. No religious tradition should be without it.

Sacred stories can and ought to bear challenges of all kinds. That’s what keeps them alive.

It’s the questions that give us the rewards we seek. The key to the treasure is the treasure.

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