Naso – On skin disease, on sacred time, and on the Sotah (suspected adulteress) 

In Parshat Naso we find the organization of the camp and also the purity regulations. Anyone with skin diseases, sexual discharge, menstruation, or those “defiled by a corpse” had to be excised. While many of us find these pronouncements exclusionary (particularly to women who were the only group to regularly experience one of these), it is also understandable that the control of disease and other concerns over cleanliness and health, particularly in the absence of medical knowledge, were paramount. 

The text is not simply about purity in terms of cleanliness but also creating sacred space. While the word “sacred” is controversial in Humanistic Jewish circles, we can all identify with the idea of creating space and time that is set apart. The Levites are in charge of “worldly” (i.e. secular) and “sacred” matters. We sometimes label this division the sacred and the profane, but can also think of it as the regular and the special. When we celebrate Havdallah, we mark the division between special time and regular time. It is not that the rest of the week is “profane” as in offensive, but it is not special as is the Shabbat. Of course we try to bring elements of depth and light into our regular time and space, but we also all have certain times and places that are marked for deep critical reflection, quiet, or thoughtfulness. We also designate times and spaces for celebrating special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, commemorating yahrzeits, etc. Naso challenges us to consider how we make spaces special – by placing a mezuzah on our door with a text that is meaningful for us perhaps – and how we designate certain times to be set apart from others. The text can remind us to consider how we bring the idea of the “sacred” into our secular lives.

 Naso also contains a very interesting idea concerning the relationship between people as it corresponds with the relationship between people and God. In chapter 5 the God-character instructs Moses to “Speak with the Israelites. When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him who he has wronged (5. 5-8). It goes on to describe how, in the event that no restitution can be made directly to the person or his kinsman, it shall go to the priests. But it is significant that restitution be granted to the person directly when possible. Even though ethical behaviour is justified through the mechanism of the “faith with the lord” that must not be broken, really the idea is that people must behave well towards and with one another. In excerpts such as these we find evidence of how our earliest ancestors tried to create a just society. The particular law being referenced in this passage is that one should not steal from a convert. The relationship between the people and outsiders is tricky. In trying to create a distinct identity lines must be drawn. But the “ger” or stranger/convert is to be treated ethically. This is a reminder that our tradition holds as an extremely high value that we behave ethically within and without our own people. Our treatment of converts, those intermarried into Jewish families, or our neighbours, is a reflection of our cultural values as well as our personal ones.

 Just as we think the Torah might be a text wholly in pursuit of justice, Naso also contains the idea of the trial by ordeal for the Sotah, the “suspected adulteress.” Any man who suspects his wife to have been with another man brings her before the priest (notice there is no parallel for a suspected male adulterer). The suspected adulteress is given water laden with written curses and dirt from the tabernacle, which the text says will not harm the innocent but will create a distended belly (implying the lack of ability to carry children to term) in the guilty. It is a horrific scene designed to produce guilt and shame, and perhaps even physical torture. 

Women are tightly regulated because of the “purity” of the birth line. Thus the parshah’s themes of purity, and the book of Numbers’ themes of loyalty and peoplehood, coalesce through the control of women. The English word “nation” comes from the root “natio” or birth/to be born. All nations depend on the loyalty of women to keep bloodlines pure. Societies throughout time and across the globe have created measures to ensure women stay within the bounds of marriage. Nationhood and sexism have thus reinforced one another. 

 Perhaps what is most disturbing is that the ritual occurs even if the man has a vague suspicion. We can imagine instances where even a man who had no such suspicion but wanted to control, torture, or threaten his wife might take advantage of the ritual. We can also imagine instances of men having suspicions of innocent wives but the wives dying anyway. There is no consequence to a man for going through the ritual – he bears no guilt, the text says – but the woman, regardless of guilt, is shamed and harmed in the process. It is a remarkably sexist passage in Torah.

Interestingly, there is no evidence to suggest the ritual of the Sotah was ever practiced. Rather, the text here serves as a cautionary tale for women. It is not encoding the law as such but projecting a potential legal practice in order to regulate women. What is Torah? Law book? Fictional narrative? It’s not really both or either. 

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Bemidbar – on Shavuot, on showing loyalty, and on standing together

I delayed writing this until after Shabbat/Shavuot to be able to reflect upon the incredible experience of being at the Tikkun Leil Shavuot (all night learning session). We honour the tradition of studying Torah all night by experiencing learning sessions on a range of Jewish topics. This is my favourite community-wide Jewish event in Toronto! Hundreds of Jews from all denominations and walks of life come together to learn, eat, and be together. The panel I was on that offered the most material related to the weekly parshah was entitled “What happened at Sinai? Who cares?” Four rabbis from many movements discussed the meaning of Torah, the story of the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai (the rabbinic explanation for Shavuot), and more. We often disagreed but there was lovely overlap as well, particularly about the Jewish expression of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) being a core part of what we value about Judaism. I also had the opportunity to co-lead the Havdallah ceremony with a Kohenet from Jewish Renewal, Annie Matan. I loved this experience! We asked everyone inside a packed theatre to imagine that this night was their mountain. To look around and notice who they were standing with. To realize that we may not believe literally that “all Jews were at Mt. Sinai the moment of revelation” as the religion teaches, but we can use that metaphor to imagine ourselves as part of a community with long-standing roots who come together to experience significant moments together. 

All of this is a lovely lead in to the book of Numbers. The title in Hebrew means in the wilderness/desert, but the title in English – “Numbers” – comes from the Greek Septuagint version which took the title from the census at the book’s beginning. In this book we’ll experience a narrative about loyalty and betrayal. While most religious interpreters understand that the narrative is about loyalty to God, in a Humanistic understanding we might find more interesting the lessons about loyalty to humans and about leadership in general. Moses has sacrificed for his people and is trying to deliver them to their promised land, but the people rebel. While the book is clear that those who make moves against their own people should be condemned, there are also hints that Moses and his siblings are a) disloyal themselves at times and b) sometimes let their power lead them to act unfairly. The book of Numbers can remind us of other literary texts, such as Hamlet, that focus on both how power corrupts but also how loyalty/disloyalty can have a significant impact on a kingdom or people. In the book of Numbers we have censuses, land divisions, and appeals for justice, which all work to solidify the people as a people. Loyalty is going to be paramount to keep this group together. Passover is celebrated in the desert for the first time, and the commandment to wear tzitzit is prescribed – both powerful ways of distinguishing the Israelites from others and making them cohere as a unified group. Thus the narrative continues to describe how a people becomes a people and, although we know the narrative is almost certainly not historically accurate, readers through the generations have identified with the characters in the desert and the story has served to solidify loyalty amongst the people through the generations. 

In this parshah, we have the first census mentioned in the bible. The idea of a census being written into the text is likely simply a reflection of a practice that was happening in order either to collect some form of tax or to count those who might qualify to fight against enemies. The census here comes up with a number of over 600,000, which is clearly impossible. While commentators have theorized that the census was so God could count his most beloved people(oddly suggesting that the all-powerful deity did not already know who or how many his people were), this idea of chosenness weaves its way throughout the book of Numbers. Many modern Jews take issue with the idea of the chosen people, but one can also understand that in a text about inculcating people into a coherent group, the concept was one that could wield a lot of leverage.  

The idea of leadership, or at least of those set apart, is inscribed in this first section of the book. Chieftains of each clan are put in charge of counting the people, and the Levites are not counted in this initial census but rather put in charge of the Tabernacle. Midrash indicates that the Levites are granted special status because of their continued loyalty to God, thus reinforcing the themes of loyalty and power that run throughout the book. As the camp is arranged, the tribes are organized according to their matriarchs from Genesis and the attributes of Joseph’s sons. Again, this reinforces the idea that God rewards those who have been loyal and instrumental in defining the Israelites as a people. 

Lastly there is the idea of the wilderness/desert. Midrashim often highlight that Yahweh shows his love to the people in the desert, the most barren and desolate of places, to highlight that he is ever-present even in times of distress. From a Humanistic perspective, it is interesting to consider the meanings of the desert as well. We all find ourselves feeling lost at times. Our wanderings might not be so long or so dangerous, but many of us feel stuck or without a particular direction at different points in our lives. The way through the wilderness is often to lean on others. Community is essential for both survival and also finding hope and peace – especially in the “deserts” of our lives. The coming together of the people as a people in the desert is a reminder that finding our own place in community is a way of garnering strength as we face our own challenges. Standing with Toronto’s diverse Jewish community at our mini-Sinai for Shavuot each year is a good reminder of that. 

Behar and Behukkotai – on shmita, sabbatical, sustenance

In this double parshah, we have the rules for leaving the land fallow on the shmita, the sabbatical year. We know that agriculturally land requires time to be left fallow in order to maintain good soil quality. But there are ways in which the agricultural can give rise to the cultural. Many of us are considering the idea of shmita metaphorically, especially now as we are in currently in a shmita year.

We live in an age where there is a lot of talk of mindfulness, of living in the present moment. And yet we simultaneously live with the expectations of being able to multitask, of being constantly accessible, and of being able to manage our many roles seamlessly. We are overworked, overcommitted, and overwhelmed. Devices meant to make our lives easier often make us feel that we can never take a break. They are there to enable us to be “connected,” and yet I believe there has never been a time in history when people feel less connected to their families and communities.

Shmita literally means release. What if we released ourselves from some fear, guilt, and obligation? What if we asked ourselves what can I let go of? Fields which give us food and sustenance, if overworked and overwrought, will stop producing. And we are the same. If we are overworked and overwhelmed then we will be unable to be fully available to those we love. We too have a limit. And in this culture that measures goodness by productivity, it is good to remind ourselves that rest breeds productivity. Just like the harvest will be better if we rotate our crops and let the land rest, we will be better if we have a chance to rest and recuperate as well.

Emor – on bloodlines, on biblical holidays, and on blasphemy

This parshah lays out further rules for the priests. It is notable in a text so laden with patriarchal rules of leadership and control, that the place of women is often delineated based on the threat they pose to that very control. If women, through their sexual and reproductive choices, taint the bloodline, they threaten the nation building that obsesses the text writers. One example is the rule that if a “daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she defiles; she shall be put to the fire” (21.9). The sexism is blatant. But the more the text tries to rob women of their power, the more it underscores the fact that women’s capacity for reproduction always posed a challenge to patriarchal power. 

The nervousness may have come from the fact that the power structure in the Priestly period, as typical of all periods, was contested. In this parshah, we see that Priests (here marked as descendants of Aaron) have special prohibitions. Just as the people is being set apart from their neighbours (see Aharei Mot from last week), the leaders are being set apart from the common people. Our societies all function through divisions and stratifications. This is sometimes a problem – such as when one class oppresses another, and it is sometimes healthy – such as when leaders are chosen by the people to take on certain roles and tasks. Our communities often struggle with how leaders should be of the people and also for the people. Rabbis and Madrikhim, educators and administrators, have training, skills and expertise that may not be common to most of our community. We are, in a sense, set apart. The difference is that we do not claim superiority and, certainly, we do not claim divine authority. The Priestly prohibitions are to signal a divine separation; Priests are more godly than other humans. This is understandable in the text as the Priests are attempting to inscribe and enshrine their own power. But when we take on a “holier than thou” attitude today, we run the risk of delegitimizing ourselves and alienating others.

The theme of separation continues in the parshah. Some separations are good. We demarcate between holidays and other special times, and the regular work week. This parshah lays out practices for the Sabbath and other holidays, reminding us that these special times only remain special through the rituals, practices, texts, and observances that are particular to them.  The holidays mentioned here are some of the earliest we know were practiced: Sukkot, Shavuot, and Pesach. It is not a surprise that these holidays are rooted in the agricultural and climatic calendar, thus meaning they were likely adapted from earlier practices not particular to Israelite/Jewish culture. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are also mentioned in this parshah, including the “loud blasts” (the shofar) that must ring out. Sometimes it is awe-inspiring to consider how old many of our holidays are. We know that their practices and meanings have changed over time. Still, it is wonderful that Jews throughout the ages have celebrated these special times, and have made the meanings of these holidays fit their lives according to the place and time where they have lived. Our holidays show that there has always been great diversity amongst Jews and our ancestors, and also that we are united through our cultural heritage. 

The parshah ends with a short narrative, which interrupts the flow of the divine commandments, about one who speaks God’s name in blasphemy. The blasphemer vignette, the JPS commentators suggest, is purposefully an interruption in the text in order to highlight that God does not enjoy un “untroubled relationship” with his people. I think this is a delightful reading of how the form reflects the content. The blasphemer interrupts the narrative in text just like “blasphemers” interrupt a common narrative about what Judaism is (monotheistic, religious as opposed to cultural, based on prayer, etc.)  In today’s Jewish world, Humanistic Jews are sometimes seen as the “blasphemers,” not in defiling the name of God, but denying the need to believe in one or pray to one at all. But we are part of a long line – even reflected in Torah! – of skeptics, unbelievers, those willing to challenge the status quo in their belief and in their communities. Indeed, the relationship between God and the Jews has never been untroubled and easy. We have always wrestled with deistic belief. Humanistic Jews are, ironically, traditional in that sense. Our texts highlight that there have always been those like us amongst the people, and that we serve an important role.

Aharei Mot — Kedoshim – on the ban on homosexuality, on brotherly and sisterly love, and on bridging divides

This double parshah week is particularly interesting because the two seem to be in conflict. Aharei Mot contains some of the most objectionable ideas we find in Torah, particularly a condemnation of homosexuality. In Kedoshim, conversely, the theme is brotherly love. This is the enigma and the beauty of Torah: sometimes beautiful wisdom comes alongside pieces that make us uncomfortable. The tension I love in studying Torah is that between tradition and change. In Leviticus 18.22 we have many prohibitions, including the very controversial ban on homosexual relations. This prohibition is repeated in parshah Kedoshim (20:13). The context for the prohibition suggests that it is less about sexuality and more about cultural identity. God tells the people that they must separate themselves from the practices of the Canaanites. In this context, it makes sense that the culture of the Canaanites be demeaned in the text. If homosexual relations were deemed germane to Canaanite culture, their prohibition may be more to do with establishing power over a united, and distinct, people than condemning the practice for something inherent to it.

Jews are a distinct people, however we are rarely fully united. We see the world so differently from one another. Leviticus 18 has turned a lot of Jews away from Judaism. As have other prohibitions, such as the ban on intermarriage. It is useful to consider that in this same parshah, God considers the “ger” (stranger, someone among the people, later understood by rabbis as convert) to have the same rights and obligations as the Israelites. We are the people who believe, after all, that we must love our neighbour as we love ourselves. We find this wisdom in the parshah too.  

A meaningful Jewish life is to find peace amidst the tensions of tradition and change, and to honour Jews as a distinct people while being good, kind and inclusive to all. This parshah includes a lengthy description about Azazel, the scapegoat. We know many examples of when Jews have been scapegoated by those who viewed us through a xenophobic lens, when we lived largely under the cross or crescent moon. Tragically, Jews sometimes scapegoat one another, blaming the problems of our community and people on those who do not conform or, as a friend of mine says, those who are “Jewing” it wrong. We read parts of Acharei Mot on Yom Kippur, a time when we are hoping to cast off our sins. Like the scapegoat, like the cleansing rituals detailed in the parshah, we are hoping to make ourselves clean of our mistakes. One mistake we continue to make, I believe, is to let our pride in our peoplehood sway us to hurtful tribalism, even xenophobia. Once, perhaps, we needed to distinguish ourselves from the Canaanites. But what allegiance do we owe now to our countries, Canada, America, etc.? Surely we are secure enough in our Jewish identities and cultures that we no longer need laws that are so fiercely and strictly trying to determine who is out and who is in. When we let our pride make us feel superior to others, when we try to rank Jews as “better Jews” or worse, when we tell people that they are not pure enough to be married or Bar Mitzvahed with us, while we despair our congregations are emptier and emptier, when we completely stop evolution and change – even in the face of doing what is right – because of tradition, then we have lost sight of who we are, who the Torah intends us to be. 

This is the wisdom that comes in Kedoshim, the second of the double parshah we read this Shabbat. Kedoshim is about moving from wrong to right – from abomination to holiness and righteousness. We have laws that are meant to enhance moral human behaviour, such as to leave part of what we reap from the field for the poor and the needy, to deal honestly with one another, to care for the weak and disabled, and, again, to love your fellow as yourself which, as Rabbi Akiva said, is a “fundamental principle of the Torah”. Whether we are talking about loving our “kinsfolk” in terms of the Jewish community or our broader communities, when I look around, I think we could be doing a better job. Towards the end of Kedoshim, God says (20.22 – 24):  You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them. You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I the Lord your God has set you apart from other peoples. And therein lies the contradiction: be a people set apart, but a people who love and care for others. The people of Israel (by that I mean both the country and all of us as Jews), are duty-bound to set a high moral standard. We must find the balance between pride and xenophobia, tradition and change. To me, there is no point in studying Torah, except to learn how to be a better Jew and a better human being. There are therefore sections that I find very difficult. But this challenge is part of what makes the study great. 

The Rabbi of the Birmingham Temple (flagship of the Humanistic Jewish movement), Jeff Falick, who identifies as gay, says he loves reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur. It reminds him of how far we have come as Jews – that we have become more open, accepting, and loving of difference among us, even as we continue to struggle with the tradition/change dichotomy. As Humanistic Jews, we care about social justice, some of which springs beautifully from the deep roots of Torah. The main idea in Kedoshim is that we are all holy. If we retain this belief, that all people have value, we do the work of the Torah with the best of intentions for others.