On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Emor: Unnamed Women

Tucked at the very end of Parashat Emor we meet Shlomit bat Divri, the only woman whose name we learn in Leviticus. But, why do we learn her name and not others? In this episode of On the Other Hand, Rabbi Rick Jacobs discusses the theories of different commentators, including, surprisingly, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

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Welcome back to On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares his ideas about the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Emor. He wonders whose voices we aren't hearing, and specifically, where are the women?

This week we focus our attention on Parashat Emor from the Book of Leviticus. And we're going to focus on Chapter 24 of the parashah, the parashah describes all manner of our holy days in antiquity, what were the sacred occasions that our community came together to pray and to appreciate their blessings, to live out the seasons of the year. And then tucked in the very end is a section about a woman. Her name is Shlomit bat Divri and, amazingly, I will quote from a feminist commentary that was written -- not 20 years ago, not 50 years ago -- it was actually written in 1895 by a remarkable American leader. Her name is Elizabeth Cady Stanton. You know her as one of the great suffragists. But did you know that she is one of the authors of the Woman's Bible? And it is a pretty radical feminist commentary long before there were any feminist commentaries being written about anything and she wrote it about the Bible.

So let's just think for a moment she wrote this commentary and she's also fighting tooth and nail to get women the right to vote. I actually think there's a connection here.

But here's what she says about the end of this week's parashah. She comments on Parashat Emor the 24th chapter of Leviticus. And it's a section that mentions Shlomit bat Divri, who's an Israelite woman who whose son blasphemed the name of God. So what does Elizabeth Cady Stanton say about this? I quote: "The interesting fact here is that a woman is dignified by a name, the only one so mentioned in the entire Book of Leviticus." She continues, "This is probably due to the fact that the son's character was so disreputable that he would reflect no luster on his father's family and so on his maternal ancestors rested his disgrace. If there had been anything good to tell of him reference would no doubt have been made to his male progenitors."

Now here she is picking up something that not too many others had noticed, and that of course is that she's the only woman mentioned. But it's not a noble section as you heard from her commentary. Her son is guilty of blaspheming God and suffers the ultimate consequence in Biblical law and is put to death. But I want to just get inside the whole notion of women in the Biblical tradition, women throughout our Jewish tradition and we're living in a time now where we think things have always been more egalitarian, but friends, it was not that way not too long ago. I remember when I was interviewing to be a rabbi in a wonderful congregation in 1991, they asked me if I would bring any liturgical changes to the synagogue. I said well, there's one I do already which is I don't use male pronouns in referring to God and when we say the prayer of our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob -- wasn't yet in the prayer book -- I always add the names of the matriarchs. And you would think that would be that proverbial lay-up. But there were a lot of eyebrows that raised and said, "Really. What gives you the license to be able to make changes like that?" And I said well we're Reform. We're always trying to adapt and keep the tradition growing expanding deepening, and correcting some of the deep oversights.

So Rashi, who is the super commentator of all things Biblical and even Talmudic, Rashi wants to comment on Shlomit, and it's not actually the most positive commentary. So if you know the words Shlomit, the name of this woman, Shalom is in there, right. Now when you see somebody in our community and you want to say "hi" you could say "shalom." Well turns out Rashi says she was someone who's saying "shalom" to everybody. She was a chatterbox says Rashi, and she was always talking and being friendly. And that always got her into trouble. I say, "Really?" Oh my goodness, Rashi, I don't know what was going on in your family and you had some strong daughters, but I got to tell you I can't quite imagine that that would that would work as a categorical statement that someone who is friendly and talks to people automatically is problematic.

But let's just think for a moment about some of the places where we're still working to find a real sense of equality, egalitarianism in our community.

I was recently in Israel and I had the privilege of being at one of our newest congregations in Shoham which is it's just a little a little bit outside of Tel Aviv. And one of our newly ordained rabbis, Rabbi Rinat Safania, who is one of the -- you know we just had four rabbis that made it -- a hundred Reform rabbis ordained in Israel. Unbelievable milestone. And she was one of the four and she is a powerhouse of creativity and warmth. And she does talk to everybody and it's the most wonderful thing because she forges relationships. While I was there that night, I looked around and all the rabbinic colleagues who were there besides me including two visiting from Long Island and a number visiting from other parts of Israel. Basically the sanctuary is filled with amazing women rabbis. So I was really struck because in Israel we're still fighting to have women be fully recognized in religious terms and egalitarian terms.

So I remembered when I was a newly ordained rabbi in Brooklyn I had this great cantor, Amy Daniels. The kids growing up were so at home with having a woman cantor just was so so natural. And this one day this little boy comes into my office sobbing away. I said, "So what's the matter?"

He said "(sniff) I really want to be a cantor. But boys can't be cantors." I thought well actually they can. In fact most of the cantors at that moment were boys. What was the truth of his experience? The truth of experience was that he's only known women cantors and he's loved that, but he couldn't see himself there. Well just think of the reverse of that. That's what went on for millennia. Young girls thinking, "I've got that gift. I could be that leader. But no no no."

So I told this story in and Shoham, that the kids who are going to grow up in this wonderful congregation one day there's going to be a little boy coming into the rabbi's office and going to start crying and say, "I really want to be a rabbi but I know only women can be rabbis." That's going to be a redemptive moment because in Israel every time there's a rabbi at a microphone or on the television their beautiful beard, usually a very traditional rabbi. We are changing and it goes back to Leviticus Chapter 24 when we can mention a name but not say anything about what her teachings were. And I think about even the Talmudic times there was one of the greatest sages of the Talmudic period or name was Ima Shalom. And we don't know her. We know all the great male sages of the Talmud. We know Rabbi Hillel, and Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. But somehow in these remarkable volumes are the sages that we don't know because our tradition has missed the voice of women, the voice of women in Leviticus, the voice of women in the Talmudic literature. So this one great sage I'll just tell you Ima Shalom. She was so remarkable she's actually mentioned very briefly. She belonged to an unbelievably distinguished rabbinic family. Her father and her brother headed the Sanhedrin. That's a big deal right. And the Jewish governing body that made the most important decisions. Her husband Eliezer ben Hurcanus was also a great scholar.

So here's Ima Shalom. She was known for her keen intellect, for her outspoken ways, and her very wise teachings. So her husband insisted that a woman's place is at the spinning wheel. Oops. But this Ima Shalom she wasn't going to be kind of given a little narrow role in Jewish life as she once said quoting the Talmud "All gates are closed except the gates of wounded feelings." She meant that God will always hear the prayers of those who have been wronged. Those that have been wrong surely include the millions of Jewish women who've been kept outside the heart of Jewish life for millennia.

I just want to sneak in another text from from Ima Shalom. So another time in the text, Ima Shalom responds to the Emperor who challenged the Jews concerning fundamental beliefs. The Emperor said, "Your god is a thief because he stole a rib from Adam." Ima Shalom is said to have answered, "Well last night a robber broke into my house and carried away some silver vessels leaving gold ones in their place." The Emperor responded, "I wish such a robber visited my house every night." Ima Shalom answered him, "Well this is what happened to Adam. God took a rib from him and gave him a wife in its place." Can you imagine how much richer our Jewish tradition would be if the Ima Shaloms had been allowed to sit on the Sanhedrin, had been given their rightful place within Jewish life?

And God bless Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Not now coming to us from our own Jewish tradition but from a place of faith. Was it possible that her commentary in the Bible calling out the lack of equality and recognition of women's voices and women's teachings helped to pave the way for her and those who joined with her to fight for women to have the right to vote? I think there is a connection between our sacred texts and the policies of our community. And Elizabeth Cady Stanton said we've got to correct our understanding of the texts and then we've got to correct our public policies. And she did.

And we are still doing that work within the Jewish community and everywhere else. We're working really hard on a very serious subject which is pay equity. Are women paid the same wages for the same work that a man does? That's just Judaically about doing the right thing. So. So we've got this Shlomit bat Divri. And it's a story that troubles us. It fills us with not just righteous indignation. It fills us with even more determination to both understand and to not just add commentary but at times to add liturgy, to add the names of the matriarchs, to make sure that our words talk about God are reflective and then our way in which we treat all of those who lead our communities, all those who participate will be recognized and free. And the last word goes to Anat Hoffman. Because after all Women of the Wall led for over 25 years by Anat Hoffman, one of those courageous people who found certainly her voice next to Ima Shalom and next to Shlomit bat Divri. Anat is making sure that the Kotel will be a place of equality and egalitarianism and we've got a lot of work to do friends. But just look how far we've come to date.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? Download a new episode each Monday on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts, and if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend. For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident. On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l'hitraot!