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Torah Study: First Day of Shavuot   May 17, 2021

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Bex Stern Rosenblatt, who’s words have appeared frequently in these study sheets, last week raised an important issue that we should contemplate on this first day of Shavuot. Shavuot is the holiday we celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. A close reading of the text may cause us to wonder if this was a book/scroll handed to us by God when Moses stood on top of the mountain, or if the teachings that God taught to Moses became the core of what the Torah, written later, would be about. 

If we see the Torah as a gift given to us by God, then we have to accept every word in it as God’s teaching directed to us. But if we believe that God taught us the essence of what the Divine is all about then the Torah is humanity’s best attempt to understand what God wants from us, an important source of information about God and humanity but not a document in “God’s handwriting”.
In her D’var Haftara sent out by the Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem, Bex Rosenblatt in her essay, “Retold Relationships” writes: “There are plenty of people who do not like the Bible. Often, they see it as a patriarchal text that supports the suppression of women. I hear this in many of the classes I teach, from everyone from twenty-something year old queer rabbinical students to learned octogenarians with a fondness for tradition. I usually respond by explaining that the dominance of misogyny often comes from the way that the Tanakh is read rather than what is present in the Tanakh itself. The women in the Tanakh are present and powerful. They take up space and dominate narratives. Their stories are not always happy ones and they are not usually presented as perfect beings but neither are the men. We encounter lifelike, messy characters when we read the Tanakh.”

Pesach does a good job of showing us the power and influence of women. The Haggadah itself points out the importance of women in the story of the Exodus. The Book of Ruth, read on this day, has as its major protagonists, Ruth, and Naomi. The men in their lives die in the very beginning of their story and how they live and the kindness they extend is the stuff of legends. 

But Dex Stern Rosenblatt does note in the rest of her essay, that often, God is described as an angry abusive husband to Israel, the wayward, adulterous wife. We saw this clearly in the Haftara from last Shabbat, from the second chapter of the prophet Hosea, where God abuses and humiliates Israel in a show of power to bring her to submit to God alone.  This is clearly not an equal partnership. God has all the power, and we must humbly bear the abuse from God. Maybe there are other places in the Bible where things are more equal, but this is clearly a rough place in the relationship between God and the Jewish People. 
It is unfortunate that the misogyny of the Bible has led some Jews to practice misogyny in their private lives. Women may act as equal partners in Jewish homes, but outside the home, they find themselves treated in synagogues and in other religious settings, as second class to the men who are there, sitting in separate sections often far from where the spiritual action is happening, where the Torah is read and where they might participate. 

The Torah does not pretend that life, for both men and women, is messy. Nobody in the Torah, not one character that is introduced, including God, is without flaws in their personality. They all make mistakes, hurt others, are unkind and sometimes selfish. But both the men and women of the bible are celebrated for their perseverance and for the good that they do. It is a reminder to us all that we too live messy lives and what is important is not being perfect but trying hard, each day, to live by the words of Torah. 

It does not matter at all the method by which the Torah and the rest of the Bible came to be in human hands. We recognize that we can find holy words and holy lessons in the text that we are commanded to study. But like life, the words of Torah are also messy. We are not always careful how we apply the Mitzvot of the Torah to our lives. We often focus on a few that we find easy and ignore the others. So, we can see the misogyny, but are often blind to the important moments in history that depended on a woman’s intelligence, wit and/or wisdom. It is not just Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, but it is Hagar, the daughter of Pharoah, the Hebrew midwives, Miriam, the women who donated their mirrors, and the daughters of Zelophehad. Esther is a formidable Queen, but Hannah has her prayers answered, Samson’s mother, though unnamed, is clearly more practical than her hapless husband, and the Shulamite woman is kind to Elisha the prophet and demands kindness in return. 

How many of these strong women do you know from your studies? Is the problem of misogyny in the text or in how we read it? Is the Torah worthless because it is not always equal in its description of the genders?
1.    Do we have to “like” every verse in the Torah? In the Bible?

2.    Do we ignore the parts of the Torah we don’t like? What should we do with them? How can we explain these parts, or explain them away?

3.    Is it fair to call God misogynist, homophobic or xenophobic? 

4.    If life is so messy, why are we often so quick to label others.
5.    Why would such messiness be included in the Torah? What do we learn from the parts that are offensive to us? 

Fri, March 24 2023 2 Nisan 5783