The Feminist Torah

Hope you all enjoy this d’var I gave on the online Shabbat service with Sim Shalom.  Please make sure you are part of the Cool Shul email list to know when the next online service will be (email Rabbi Di at diane@coolshul.org to get on our mailing list).


There is so much going on this week in Parshat Nasso, it’s hard to even know where to begin.  So, I’m going to focus on 3 elements that I am going to attempt to tie together in the name of feminism.  Now, This is definitely not a favorite parshah for feminists, but I am actually going to do my best to turn it into one.

In this parsha, the ordeal of the sotah (going aside) is outlined by God.  It goes like this:  If a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful – innocent or not, he takes her to the Priest with an offering.  The Priest sprinkles dust from the ground of the tabernacle into a vessel of holy water.  He lets down her hair and musses it up (in a degrading way, not a Pantene commercial kind of way).  Then the Priest tells the woman to swear to her innocence and he announces that if she is innocent, the curse of the waters (the dusty water he created)  will have no effect on her if she drinks it.  If she is guilty, the magic potion will make her thighs fall away and her body swell (believed to mean she will become infertile).  The Priest writes these curses on a scroll and then dissolves the text into the waters. The woman drinks these waters of “bitterness.”  If her body swells, she’s guilty.  If nothing happens, she is innocent.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  This section of the Torah sounds far from a feminist statement.  However, I wonder if the complete opposite is true.

Most commentators agree that this process was probably never carried out, or that if it was, the cursed waters had no chance of making the woman’s body swell or her thighs fall.  Whether you believe in human or divine authorship of Torah, one thing is clear to me, whoever came up with this system of determining innocence or guilt wanted the families to remain in tact and for the woman to be perceived as innocent, whether she was or not. 

Even Imagine that perhaps a WOMAN author wrote this, or at least, God’s feminine voice. 

See, here’s what’s really going on from a feminist point of view — Allow the men to feel they are in control.  Allow them to think they have humiliated this woman.  Allow them to think that the truth is about to be uncovered in a most demeaning way.  Allow them to believe in the magical properties of the water… but actually, the men are duped.  The woman has zero chance of being biologically affected (unless her guilt allows some psychosomatic symptoms to appear).  Maybe even the priest knows she will be safe!  I can hear the priest now, whispering to some poor feminine soul standing there scared out of her mind, “Don’t worry, I have to do this to appease them, but nothing is going to happen to you.  Just play along.” 

So, Is it possible this was a woman’s idea?  A feminist idea?

The next section of this Torah portion deals with the rules for when one takes the vow of a Nazarite, giving himself or HERSELF completely to God.  That’s right, I said HERSELF.

The Torah clearly states that either a man or woman can make this special vow.  Yet, the following 19 verses, which outline the rules and regulations of becoming and being a nazarite, use only male pronouns.  HE shall separate HIMSELF from wine.  Shall no razor come on HIS head.  HE shall be holy.  The Torah makes a choice here, long before the days of saying “he or she” to describe these acts in the masculine only.   The Torah adheres to the male pronoun even when women are specifically named and included.

So, this made me think… well, how often does the Torah remain in the masculine when the feminine is supposed to be implied?  Even God is mostly referred to in masculine pronouns and possessives, but is the entire Torah like this moment?  Is it ALL supposed to read “he or she”? 

Before this chapter is even over, we have the Priestly Blessing.  God tells Moses to tell Aaron that he should bless the children of Israel (assuming this includes the ladies too) using the following words… words used and beloved, since these ancient times, that are now essential pieces of Judeo-Christian practice…

Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishmerecha — God will bless you (masculine) and protect you (m)

Ya’eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka – God will shine HIS face upon you (m) and be gracious to you(m).

Yisa adonai eilecha v’yaseim l’cha shalom – God will lift HIS face toward you (m) and place in you (m), peace.

All of this is in the masculine, both as it refers to God and in the masculine form of the word “you”.  But by what we learned just a few verses ago, this masculine form very well implies the feminine too.  

For modern men and women, no matter how much we try not to give God a gender, or to think of Jewish practice as being for men alone, all of this masculinity weighs on us.  Even if we know there is a feminine aspect of God, understand the feminine of these rules, are aware of the feminine existing beneath the surface of all of those male pronouns… we just can’t FEEL it in our bones.  We women feel excluded.  We can’t help but feel like visitors in this male Jewish world.  But let’s try this, with all of that femininity that is implied being brought front and center…

 Ladies AND gentlemen, imagine you are about to be blessed by the words of God.  This is a feminine God.  A God that knows these waters will cause no harm.  A God who welcomes women into complete service for Her.  A God who wants to protect you with Motherly love.  The priest raises his (yes HIS) hands before you and says:

SHE will bless you, brothers and sisters, and She will protect you.  SHE will shine her face upon all of you and be gracious to you.  SHE will lift her face to yours, Her sons and Her daughters, and will implant within you an inner-completeness known as “Shalom”.

How does that feel?  Any different???

Shabbat Shalom to all of you.  May we all embrace our masculine sides, our feminine sides, and never forget that the Torah is for all of us.

Feminist Torah

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