Ekev I: Towards a Feminist Theology within Judaism

Devarim 8:9- “a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills are quarried copper”.

The Avodat Yisrael points us to a reading of this verse by the Targum Yonatan, an early Aramaic translation/Midrash (parts of which are quite ancient, others as late as the seventh or eighth century) in which this verse is read as “a land whose sages proclaim decrees as forceful as steel and whose wise men ask questions as solid as copper”. He then points us to a verse from Isaiah 49:18 referring to being dressed like a bride in ornaments and jewelry, which is read by the Alshich as also referring to the arguments of the sages. The AY goes on to explain that while arguments per se might be perceived as a negative phenomenon, in the end they will all coexist as part of a more complex structure, serving as the “ornaments of the bride”. He argues that the differing positions in Talmudic disputes reflect the limited nature of the individual soul operating within its own perspective; but in the future we will see how all the different positions taken on spiritual matters will all be part of one totality, like a work of art, like ornaments of a bride, which work not as individual objects but as part of an array, of a full image. (This position, of looking at disagreement within spiritual sources as itself constituting an “ornament” arouses within me a temptation to turn again to architectural theory and Adolf Loos, but this week I’m after a more foundational idea, so to speak).

The AY continues with this analogy in order to explain our verse. He explains that the word avanim, stones, described in our verse is also used in the Sefer Yetzirah to refer to the letters of the alephbet, and thus explains that these stones are composed of barzel, literally steel, but here can be read creatively as an acronym, the letters standing for Bilhah Rachel Zilpah Leah, the wives of Jacob. The link is that they too seemed to have arguments, but in the longer view their whole goal, together with Jacob, was to bring about the twelve tribes, that is, the ‘foundational moment’ which would in the long run create the world of scholars and wise men whose ‘ornamental disagreements’ are favorably mentioned in the Targum Yonatan. Here then, is a reading inclusive of the Matriarchs in the “soil” (almost literally) of the Jewish project.

Dr. Tamar Ross has pointed out that while many of the Halachic hurdles that prevent full participation by Jewish women in Jewish life can be overcome by proper analysis of the Halachic texts, there is still not yet an adequate theology of the specifically feminine in Judaism to provide meaning to the contemporary observant woman. For many years (even back in Seattle and Juneau, Alaska), I have been attempting to conceptualize just such a theology, without recourse to an essentialist argument, or one that derives from male defined gender roles. The failure of with many approaches derived from essentialist positions is that gender definitions themselves tend to be the product of an exclusionary bias. For example, Genevieve Lloyd in her study of the concept of “reason” so important in Western civilization- “femininity itself has been partly constituted through such processes of exclusion” (Lloyd, The Man of Reason: ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy). The following quote could easily be applied to the Jewish world as well: “Feminists have argued that these concepts of reason and knowledge, as well as those of man, history, and power, are reflections of gendered practices passing as universal ones” (Alcoff, Feminist Theory and Social Science). In the drive to rectify this situation in the Jewish world, new “myths” and stories are created, and new prayers written, with varying degrees of success. Is it possible that the most radical and progressive approach is found in texts already canonical? Follow this reading:

This past week we celebrated Tu B’av, the fifteenth of Av, that enigmatic holiday of which the Mishna at the end of Taanit tells us:

“there were no better days for Israel than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur; for on these days the women of Jerusalem would go out and dance among the vineyards…”

The Talmud asks “It is understandable what the celebration is on Yom Kippur, as it is the day of atonement, but why the dance on Tu B’av? One answer presented by the Talmud is that Tu B’Av was the day upon which the generation of the Exodus, the Dor Hamidbar, had their sentence commuted. Rashi explains: Throughout all of the forty years of the desert sojourn, on the night of the ninth of Av, (as a result of the sin of the spies, which condemned all those age twenty and over to die in the desert rather than enter the land), a call went out announcing that all the men must go out and dig graves (lest they die that night prior to digging the grave), and spend the night sleeping in them. The next morning there was a call stating “those alive now separate from the dead” and all those who were still alive got up out of their graves and carried on until the next Ninth of Av. Every year this was repeated, until the fortieth year, when in the morning, the call went out, and every single man was still alive. Figuring they had erred in discerning the correct day of the month, the Israelites continued to sleep in the graves every night until the fifteenth, when the moon filled out (menaing that the midpoint of the month had astronomically passed) and it was clear that the men had been pardoned.

So who survives the sojourn in the desert and enters into the land? According to the midrashim, we know of Calev, Yehoshua, now we know of this fortieth year cohort of male survivors- and all the women. The Midrash tells us that none of the women who left Egypt died in the desert, because of their demonstrated love for the land, in other words, the women were not demoralized by the report of the spies as were the men, and hence were ready to keep moving toward the land on the basis of faith. For this reason, explains the Sefat Emet (in the likkutim), the women dance on Tu B’av- because the women were right- had the men listened to the women, this forty year anguish and the death decree for all the men would never have occurred. Furthermore, the Sefat Emet continues, what reason could possibly justify that on Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the year, when in the temple the most awesome sacrificial rite transpired, the women would dress up and go out to dance (imagine this in today’s religious climate)? The explanation is the same: Among other things, Yom Kippur also commemorates the day on which the second set of Luchot were given, the second attempt at giving the Ten Commandments. This implies that Yom Kippur is thus the day of forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf.

In their analysis of the golden calf debacle, the midrashim teach us that it was the men who were the enthusiasts; the women refused to participate (the midrashim, for example, read that the men tore the nose rings out of their unwilling wives’ noses in order to contribute to the production of the calf). This explains, adds the Sefat Emet, that strange epilogue to the Talmudic portrayal of the Tu B’av dance, where the fourth group of women, those without money, family, or beauty, say to prospective grooms “marry us for the sake of doing a mitzvah” but then add- “as long as you crown us with gold”, meaning that the men must recall that the women did not sin with gold, in the sin involving gold, the golden calf.

In summary, the Sefat Emet explains that the women dance on Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur because on those two days the women were right while the men had been terribly wrong. In order to recognize just how dramatic all this is, we must keep in mind the changes that were brought about as a result of these errors. For example, the Sefat Emet points out (ekev, trn’a) that were it not for the sin of the calf, the Israelites would have reached tikkun, entered the land with Moshe, and never been driven from the land. The Talmud in Nedarim tells us that had Moshe entered the land, there would have been no need for the Oral law, only the Torah and the Book of Joshua. In Tikkunei Zohar 21 we are told that the sins of the Dor Hamidbar cause the Torah to become difficult, to be understood “tipin tipin”, drop by drop. R. Zadok in several places (see the other shiur on Ekev) argues that were it not for the sin of the golden calf, the entire book of Vayikra, as well as all of the Oral Law would not have been given, being superfluous! So we see that so much of what difficult and argumentative in the Jewish tradition is a direct result of the errors of Man at the formative time of the Exodus, and that had the women prevailed, we would be heirs to a very different history and tradition.

I will suggest that there is a message relayed by the term used for the women’s dance, “cholot”, from the word “machol”, which means specifically refers to dancing in a circle. This is the term used to describe the the dance the righteous will perform around Gd, as it were, at the End of Time (cf. Michael Fishbane’s article regarding dance in the Breslov tradition). The reading of this in Likutei Moharan is that the circle imagery is specifically used to point to a mathematical equality among all the participants, as the radius of a circle from any point at the circumference is the same. Everyone in the circle is equidistant to Gd. This Torah of the Messianic time is what the women allude to in their dance, the dance of those not tinged by the sins of the golden calf and the spies, the dance of Gd’s original intention for the world now postponed but ever ready for realization.

This then, suggests a theology of unity and equality in relationship to Gd, one in which perhaps the current gender regulations would become irrelevant, one in which the difficulties inherent in the normative practice would become sublated to a more direct relationship with Gd. It is interesting that so much of the Sabbath literature uses wedding imagery; perhaps we have some taste of this once and future Torah, this “feminine Torah” every Shabbat…

Perashat Ekev II: Salvation Underfoot

Devarim 7:12 “V”haya ekev tishma”un- And it shall come to pass, if you keep my statutes to observe them, then Gd will uphold the covenant as promised to your forefathers”

There is an odd word inserted in this verse, which catches the idea of all commentators. Instead of merely stating, “And if you observe”, the strange word “ekev” is inserted. It is usually translated as per the Aramaic translation, also followed by Ramban, as “because of”, “as a result of”, derived from the concept of ekev as the end of something, here the “end result”, as in means to an end, as explained in Saadia and Ibn Ezra. However, there is a remarkable reading in Rashi, which uses a different derivation for the word ekev:

“if you observe the minor commandments which tend to be ‘trod upon as with the heel (ekev)”, (that is, ignored) then Gd will keep his promises”.

This combination of etymologies, that of “heel” and that of “end”, was stretched to various extremes in the Hassidic commentators. The “end”, for example, was taken to mean the eschatological end of days, the time when suffering and “history” ends, the time of the arrival of the Messiah, which in Aramaic is referred to as “ikvita (containing the root “ekev”) d”moshicha”. The Or Hameir, for example, provides a lengthy discourse about how it appears that we have several senses, sight, smell, etc, but underlying them all (the same conclusion Husserl arrives at) is a sense which unifies all the individual sense datum, and, well, makes sense of them. Thus, there are times when, at very high spiritual moments, such as Sinai, the people could “see the sounds”. This unity of sensorium will transpire at the end of time, and thus we will, when in total communion with the divine, experience the spiritual efflux of our actions as we do sensations.

The Or Penei Moshe adds that this is the reason why the specific content identified as what we shall hear are the “mishpatim”. Mishpatim are “legal statutes”, that is, the type of laws which make legal and social sense, the “rational” commandments (as opposed to “chukim” which are devotional or disciplinary laws, laws we don’t intuitively understand). However, what we consider rational in our current level of understanding is very limited; at the “end of days”, when we transcend the current limited level of spiritual understanding, we will have the experience in which ideas we thought we understood, we will “hear” in a radically different, expanded way.

On the other hand, the etymology of “ekev” as pertaining to “heel” also leads to interesting readings. The Chozeh of Lublin, following the lead of the Noam Elimelech, understands the term “heel” as suggesting a practice of extreme humility, of self abnegation: If you make yourself like one who is trodden upon while observing the commandments, then you will “hear”, that is, understand the reason for the commandments. The Sefat Emet reads the heel metaphor as suggesting yet another practice: one in which one must follow through all action until its is properly completion. The Or Hameir, as we saw before, reads ekev as referring to the end of days, but offers another reading which borrows the “heel” etymology to suggest that our loftiest spiritual attainment in our current existence is but the “heel”, the lowest level of the actual spiritual energy as it will be actualized at the End of Days, when our consciousnesses will be sublated into much greater spiritual presence.

A reading which builds upon the above readings, using both the “end” and the “heel” etymology for ekev, which seems to resonate with the contemporary situation of much of humanity is that of the Esh Kodesh. The Esh Kodesh, writing in the Warsaw Ghetto, reads Rashi closely: How could Rashi suggest that anyone “stomps” upon a mitzvah, regardless how insignificant it appear to be in comparison with other commandments, and furthermore, why with their heel, a rather strong term of derision? Rather, his poignant reading of the verse and Rashi’s comment is as follows: When it comes to pass that the people who keep the mitzvoth are smashed and downtrodden as with a jackboot, despair, hold on to what can be salvaged, and perhaps as a result of your outcry, Gd will remember the covenant,  and have mercy on the world. Thus, the verse reads: in the end, you will tishma’un, you will understand the meaning of all the mishpatim, mishpatim being translated here not as commandments but as trials and suffering- a meaning will be derived for all the travails you have been through- even if the meaning of all this suffering is inexplicable at the present.

In other words, it is the outcry in response to injustice that is mandatory in order to bring blessing to the world.

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