Ancient Israel Patriarchal? P’shaw.

Ancient Israelite Woman playing a tambourine -- ca. 8-9th BCE Esteemed scholar and eminent theologian Rachel Adler once quipped that if you took all the patriarchal bits out of Tanakh, you’d be left with a pamphlet.

But no, the Torah is not a “patriarchal” document. And no, women were not simply under the thumbs of a male-dominant culture in Ancient Israel.

The term “patriarchy” comes from nineteenth-century Western scholars. According to scholars even of the present day, a patriarchal society is one in which men organize social and political realms to exclude women from positions of authority.

Nineteenth-century scholars mostly relied on a narrow set of sources (legal texts, largely) to make such claims, though. But there are ancient legal texts which assert what their authors thought should be; they didn’t necessarily describe what was. Was there a rebellious son stoned in Ancient Israel? Who knows? Lived culture is not the same thing is written culture.

According to the archeological records of Ancient Israel, women were responsible for a range of important responsibilities. These included food processing, textile production, creating household implements, and the like. Women of Ancient Israel, like their forbears of ancient Sumerian and Babylonian societies, functioned as professional musicians and mourners.

Clay statuettes show women holding musical instruments in their hands. Biblical texts describe women celebrating with musical performances. Miriam is the stock image, but not the only one. Just consider how Jepthah’s daughter goes to greet her triumphant father, timbrel in hand (Judges 11:34). Even King David acknowledges the importance of women’s laments: “Daughters of Israel,” he says, “Weep over Saul, Who clothed you in crimson and finery, who decked your robes with jewels of gold” (2 Samuel 1:24).

When a mysterious scroll is discovered some centuries later, the story goes that King Josiah commanded priests, scribes, and servants to “..[G]o, inquire of YHVH on my behalf, and on behalf of the people, and on behalf of all Judah, concerning the words of this scroll that has been found” (2 Kings 22:13). Off they go – not to priests, high or low, but to a prophetess by the name of Hulda, who declares the scroll kosher, along with all its dire predictions and warnings.

The Shunammite had the chutzpah to order her husband around and to bypass the prophet Elisha’s servant to make a direct appeal to the prophet himself (Kings 4:8 – 37). Women in Tanakh function not only as underwriters and supporters for prophets, but as queens, counselors, leaders, poets, judges, and avengers, too.

I am not suggesting that women had as much power as men in the political realm or the public arena. But neither can we claim that Ancient Israel’s male society intentionally organized to exclude women. In agricultural settings, women may have done more of the technologically advanced work than men. In those settings, there may have been a sense that everyone in the family had to partner with everyone else. The archeological record seems to support a vision of family and communal life that looks less like patriarchy than hierarchy.

Social and economic status, slave or free, child or adult, urban or rural – these things complicate matters and don’t support a simplistic judgment that insists that men had all the power. Which men? In what context? In what realm of daily life? Why would men write the stories of Deborah and Hulda and what might they have been telling us?

We need a more subtle understanding both of our biblical literature and of the culture of Ancient Israel. We need a more accurate one.

In the meantime, the term “patriarchal” – at least where Ancient Israel is concerned – needs to be consigned to the dustbin of inadequate analysis.


Duke University and the Heart of the Matter

heart with thornsI asked her to look into her heart. What question was it asking?

She was silent for a short time.

“Oh,” she said, “that’s unexpected.”

“Can you tell me?” I asked.

“I saw something I haven’t seen in many years,” she said. “I saw a heart, crowned with thorns.”

The image she evoked was uncomfortable for me, at least initially. Silently, I prayed to stay open. I needed to meet her, as all spiritual directors must, on her territory.

“You see a heart crowned with thorns,” I repeated, giving myself time to look at the image. “Can you tell me more about what it means, what it might be telling you?”

For almost a year, I have been working with a devout Christian. We have explored her spiritual path. I have asked who her guides were and sometimes invoked them: Jesus, of course, the Virgin Mary, and God, the Father.

In every encounter, I enter her devotional and sacred space. I learn how to look through her eyes, if not with them. I must see and honor her spiritual constellations; they sparkle with life and faith. They are her life and her hope.

They are not mine. But they are as true as mine.

Last Wednesday, I returned home from an annual conference held under the auspices of Ohalah, a transdenominational association of rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic chaplains. The conference is heavily populated by Jewish Renewal clergy and students. But representatives from a wide spectrum of Jewish denomination settings also attend, as well as clergy from other faith realms. This was my tenth such conference.

As usual, the conference included plentiful opportunities to discuss the work of deep ecumenism, including an entire session led by Rabbi Dr. Victor Gross on the subject.

Our minds were populated with images from Paris. We also discussed the ramifications of a rising tide of antisemitism in Europe as well as continued threats of terror in Belgium, Germany, and elsewhere.

But look up terrorism in the dictionary. Do you find the word “Islam” there?

Duke BelfryThe day after I returned, North Carolina’s Duke University reversed its decision to allow a Muslim call to prayer from its iconic chapel. The newspaper quoted Franklin Graham, the heir to Billy Graham’s throne.

Muslims should not be allowed to use the chapel for the call to prayer, Graham insisted, “because it’s a different god.” Using the bell tower is for worship of Jesus Christ, he explained, and added: “Islam is not a religion of peace.”

Clearly, there are people in the world who are writing their own dictionary – without enough regard to veracity or accuracy.

Graham called for people to cease funding Duke University until the decision was reversed. Duke caved.

I should have been enraged, I suppose. Instead, I cried.

Our task is to enter each other’s devotional space, not to condemn it. If we can’t do that work with other systems of faith and philosophy, then none of us can claim to be representing peace.

Deep ecumenism is hard work. I admit: I find it challenging to see images of Jesus on the cross. I may respond viscerally; I may find myself reminded of the millions of Jews who have died at the hands of others. But this is not what a Christian sees. It is my job to understand that Jesus on the Cross can be – and is for many – an image of hope, not an image of despair.

The adhan, the call to prayer, nearly came forth from Duke Chapel’s belfry. Adhan is derived from a root that means “to listen, to hear, be informed about.”

“Shema, Yisrael,” I imagine saying. “Listen, Israel.”

I hope I would have tried to listen to that prayer the way I tried to understand a sacred heart crowned with a cross. These are neither my words nor my image for the divine.

But they are as true as mine.


Not History. Still Truth.

dancing_figuresI know it didn’t happen that way. It may not have happened at all.

Instead of a grand Exodus, there may have been a release of Semitic slaves from Egypt – that, after all, is attested in Egyptian annals. Or a small group of slaves may have escaped the horrors of forced labor.

We have no proof that Moses existed, that any larg(ish) number of Israelites won their freedom or made their way through the wilderness. There is no archeological record to prove that a mass number of people trekked through the landscape between Egypt and Canaan.

Neither is there any historical corroboration for the actual existence of Joseph. Or Abraham, Isaac, and the rest of our patriarchs and matriarchs.

These stories are literature. They are myth. They are folktales. Though they are certainly attached to the experience and time of their composition, they are not history.
This fact has never prevented them from telling us truths.

We are, this week, standing at the juncture between the conclusion of Bereishit and the first parsha of Sh’mot. Waiting for the ancient freedom ride to begin, I have been preoccupied with a particular vision. It seems as real to me as the desk I write at, the gum tree branches against the gray sky outside my window, the sound of Beowulf, our cat, snoring in the kitchen.

I see the first aron. I see the second aron.

The first is the Ark of the Covenant which contains the tablets of the law – both the shattered version and the whole one. The first was inscribed by YHVH (Ex. 31:18) and destroyed by Moses. The second was created and carved by Moses, but inscribed by divine and patient agency (Ex. 34:1).

The second aron is the one that contains Joseph’s bones – aron also designates a coffin.

An ark. A coffin.

The mixed multitude that trembled with fear, that danced in rejoicing, the mixed multitude that will experience a lifetime of vicissitudes in the wilderness, that people carries with them both memory and hope, both death and the law that sustains life.

The act of ritual remembrance has been one of the most powerful ways by which we have maintained our multifaceted, diverse, and ever-changing sense of what it means to be Jewish. We know who we are when we can identify who we come from. This is fact, even when our ancestors are mythical creations, the stuff of stories told around campfires under ancient skies and brilliant stars. They are real to us – or can be. Their flaws are our flaws; their struggles are heartbreakingly familiar.

What child with brothers and (or) sisters does not worry that her mother favors a sibling? So, too, did Esau suspect Rebecca, and not without reason. How many women have found themselves trying to do everything right, only to be pushed aside, misused, even abused? Both Tamars of Tanakh will be, though Judah’s daughter-in-law will win the day in the end. David’s own daughter will be disgraced and humiliated by a half-brother who mercilessly ignores her pleas and rapes her. Afterwards, like so many women of our own time, she will be told to hush, to keep silent, to say nothing.

Memory binds us. And the law? Most Jews of our time hardly live by it. Yet it still sustains us, still teaches us, still asks us to consider: What is ethical speech? What is thoughtful, kind behavior? Do we not know this in our bones (did Joseph?): Treat the stranger kindly and love your neighbors.

Perhaps there are few Jews who study the commentary Hillel directed us to explore. But most Jews know something of its existence. Our law can be our hope to be better human beings as well as better Jews.

I see those people (who never existed?) before me. I see them carry that aron, the one holding our ignorance and failure in the form of shattered shards of stone, but holding the whole ones, too, the Second Chance.

I see them carrying the other aron, the coffin holding memories of an earlier time, of a patriarch and our family of origins, of a man who acted both cruelly and mercifully.
This Shabbat, we begin the story of Exodus. We will read of terror and darkness, of death and daytime horrors. We will read of freedom and joy, too. Memory and law, knowing where we came from and who we must be: This is my vision of those two arons.

Perhaps it is not history. But it is true.


My Law is Better Than Your Law

Esther kippah
Esther’s High Holy Day Kippah in raw silk

Recently, I received an email from someone who looked over my website, I had made the point that I do not use leather when making my kippot.

Goyisherebbe (that was the author’s email address) wrote, “There is no problem wearing leather kippot on YK anymore (sic) than there is wearing a leather belt. The only prohibition of leather is in wearing shoes. Mishna, 8th perek of Tractate Yoma.”

There was neither salutation nor signature. A non-Jewish rabbi? Someone who thinks their rabbinate is a little “goyish”?

Whatever the appellation, the email deserved a response. I wrote:

Dear goyisherebbe,
Thanks so much for your comment! …[T]here are rabbinic authorities who have suggested a prohibition against wearing any garment that is made from a living creature on Yom Kippur, and it is minhag in some communities to think and act in that way. For those whose custom it is to abstain from all such garments, my kippot can support their practice. For example, Rabbi Moses Isserles (quoted in Agnon’s Days of Awe, p. 201): “…how can a man put on a garment for which it is necessary to kill a living thing, on Yom Kippur, which is a day of grace and compassion, when it is written, “And His tender mercies are over all His works”? [Siddur ha-Minhagim].

But I got the point goyisherebbe was making. I promised to go back to the website to clarify the leather matter as one of minhag rather than halakhah and thanked my correspondent. Goyisherebbe was right to make me rethink my language.

I did not get a response, but I didn’t expect one, either. Goyisherebbe had found an opportunity to correct and did so in summary fashion, without any special kindness, conviviality, or grace.

Halakhic one-upmanship can be a brutal sport in Jewish circles. During the time I was in rabbinical school, I twice observed students justifying reproofs by appealing to Leviticus 19:17, “you shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.” In both cases, the apparent offender had not violated any halakhah I know of. There were, as there often are, egos in play.

In fact, one student invoked levitical law while openly humiliating a colleague, violating a cardinal halakhic rule against embarrassing someone according to the Sixth Commandment. Our sages interpreted the prohibition against murder to include causing the blood to drain from someone’s face, thus “shedding blood.”

As a rule, Jews don’t tell other people whether they are going to end up in hell or not. Most of us don’t think there is such a thing.

But we are perfectly capable of judging each other’s knowledge, practice, and observance of Jewish law, despite the fact that most of us are not exactly experts on the subject.

In fact, sometimes I am astonished by the Jews who grant themselves permission to use halakhah as a spiritual cudgel – even when those self-same Jews don’t (for example) possess any Shabbat practice to speak of.

Jews, Jews. We must stop using one of the sweetest contributions of our tradition to intimidate each other. Halakhah is a thing of beauty (at least it’s meant to be so), not a means of belittling. Halakhah is meant to uplift and enoble us, not to limit and confine us.

It’s the first day of the secular new year, about a quarter of the way into 5775. So very much is wrong with this world. In the name of halakhah, we are to name things we find troubling. We must call for redress of injustice. We should pursue justice and love peace.

We can use our exploration of the ethical to act.  But humility is a prerequisite. Kindness is essential.

Halakhah tells us that.


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