By Rabbi Aaron Gol...
May 9, 2012
This week’s Torah portion, Emor, has all to do with priests, the cohanim: who they could marry, who they could bury (since they could not become defiled by interring those who weren’t first degree relatives), and who in general was fit to be a priest. Something that emerges clearly from the text is that priesthood was seemingly a completely male institution.
There was a concept called priestly holiness, a supernatural quality which priests possessed and allowed them, for example, to partake of holy foods forbidden to the general public, such as the leftovers of some sacrifices and portions of the tithes the people had to separate from their produce. The women of the priestly clans, however, were not considered to possess this priestly holiness. The Torah tells us that wives and daughters of priests are allowed to consume some of these holy foods only because they are members of the priest’s household and not in their own right. According to our Torah portion, for example, if the daughter of a cohen gets married to a non-cohen, she can no longer eat of these items, unless she divorces or becomes widowed and returns to her father’s home. And it is obvious from the texts that the women of priestly families were not allowed to participate in the rituals which priests carried out in the Temple.
When we encounter texts such as these we often get the impression that women always stood on the sidelines, excluded from what was a man’s world and from the positions of prominence in their society. However, taking texts at face value with regards to the status of women in antiquity can be problematic. According to Daniel Boyarin, Professor of Talmudic Culture at UCLA, doing so “negate[s] the possibility that women had in fact a much more active, creative role than the texts would have us believe.”
We can learn more about that active role from the research conducted by Bernadette Brooten, a scholar at Brandeis University. She studied 19 Greek and Latin inscriptions which ranged in date from the first century BCE to the sixth CE. They refer to women as “president of the synagogue,” “leader,” “elder,” “mother of the synagogue,” and, listen to this, “priestess.” Whilst archaeologists knew about these inscriptions for a long time, they dismissed them as mere honorific and not real titles, probably assigned to women in honour of their husbands, who were the ones who supposedly carried those roles. Brooten, however, proves in her work that this was not the case and that these were actual positions held by women. So there you go, we had women priestesses too.
What is perhaps even more surprising is the hypothesis offered by feminist biblical scholar Savina Teubal in her book Sarah the Priestess. Based on an astonishing amount of circumstantial evidence from the ancient Near East and hints from the biblical narratives, she concludes that Sarah the matriarch belonged to a privileged class of priestesses in her Mesopotamian homeland, women who enjoyed prominent roles of leadership both in communal and family life. When she journeyed with Abraham to the land of Canaan, Sarah sought to preserve the matriarchal traditions she was accustomed to in spite of the patriarchal and misogynistic Canaanite norms. This seeps through perhaps in Sarah’s assertiveness and strength of character, both apparent in the Genesis stories. Regardless of whether Savina Teubel’s theory is correct, what is clear is that history has taught us that women did not sit complacent and accept to be treated as mere chattel.
We are delighted this Shabbat to be celebrating April Miller’s Bat Mitzvah. Tomorrow, she will be reading from the Torah and the Haftarah, and she will be delivering what I’ve heard is an excellent sermon. Aaron is in fact anxious that she will out-do his. This comes to show how far we have come since that Saturday morning of March 18th 1922, when twelve-year old Judith Kaplan, the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, nervously stepped onto the bimah to read from the Torah, celebrating thus the first ever Bat Mitzvah. How far we have come since December 25th 1935, when Regina Jonas in Germany became the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in modern history. Today the two flagship synagogues of the Reform and Liberal movements in the UK are headed by women, as is Leo Baeck College, the Reform movement in general, and the Liberal Rabbinic Conference. We still have a long journey ahead of us, but how far we have come.
However, in line with what I said earlier, it is important not to assume that until we reached these important milestones in modern times, women were simply bystanders in the Jewish community. To do so would be to ignore the power women have had in challenging the submissive roles others would confine them to and asserting their position in dignified ways. April will today form a link on that millenary chain of valiant Jewish women who have fought to establish their rightful place in Judaism. May that chain continue after her, and be strengthened with each subsequent generation.