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Naomi Graetz

A Blank Page: Parshat Kedoshim

 

Author’s messy drawer

Last night I had a dream. I’m neither a Joseph, nor a Sigmund, but I tried to understand to what or whom the dream was related. I thought I had finished the first draft of this blog before going to sleep. Apparently, the fact that the title is “a blank page” means something–perhaps unfinished business. So here goes: The dream was that I left my octogenarian mother in a theater which was dedicating a performance to her life story. I could not find her afterwards, and when I got home and called her the next day, she wasn’t angry at me for leaving her. First of all, the anniversary of my mother’s death 25 years ago is coming up soon (right after Shavuot). Second, she always wanted me to type her handwritten biography. I did type a few pages, but never finished. My youngest daughter thought she would do it and it sat with her for a while. But then she gave back the handwritten manuscript to me and it is still languishing in my “to do” drawer! If you skip to the end of this blog, you might understand where my dream came from. If you figure it out—write to me! Better yet, any volunteers to type the manuscript!

In the middle of the book of Leviticus we read the following:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. You shall not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of your God: I am God You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning. You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am God You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kin fairly. Do not deal basely with members of your people. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow: I am God You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against members of your people. Love your fellow as yourself: I am God (Leviticus 19: 9-18).

Of course, a simple explanation of these passages which seem to be totally out of context to the rest of the book, is that they connect to the opening lines:

God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your God יהוה, am holy. You shall each revere your mother and your father, and keep My Sabbaths: I am your God (Leviticus 19:1-3).

In other words, if we want to be holy like God, we have to behave ethically and not just sacrifice animals to God and hope for expiation. And of course, these opening words of parshat kedoshim reminds us of two of the Ten Commandments (honoring the Sabbath and one’s parents). But the list of ethical mitzvot goes much further than the Commandments, culminating in the famous “love your fellow as yourself”. It is not clear if the fellow is our immediate community (namely the Israelite) or includes all of humanity. I will not go into that thorny issue here. This week I am not hinting at politics.

I have always been fascinated by the insertion of this list of humane laws in the middle of the Book of Leviticus which deals with sacrifices, skin diseases, forbidden foods and other unsavory topics. Many have noticed this and Rashi’s comments appear in parshat Emor when gleanings are mentioned for a second time:

Abdima the son of R. Joseph said: What reason had Scripture to place it (the law concerning the corner of the field) amidst those regarding the festival-sacrifices … To teach you that he who leaves the gleanings, the forgotten sheaf and the corner of the field to the poor as it ought to be, is regarded as though he had built the Temple and offered his sacrifices therein.

WHO INSERTED THESE HUMANE LAWS?.

I thought to myself that surely the “voice” of the scribe who inserted this list was not a priestly voice. It was almost as if the detailed descriptions of sacrificial offerings, the body parts of animals, the clothing of the priestly family, the discussions of who is a leper vs. who just has an ordinary skin disease, got to be too much for him (or her) and so the scribe decided to sneakily insert something in the middle of the book and hoped that it would survive the editorial process which was sure to come later.  Perhaps s/he hoped that this would serve as a hidden polemic against the whole concept of animal sacrifice. Perhaps the author was a vegetarian! And how thrilling it is that what s/he subversively wrote did survive—albeit seemingly, totally out of context!  So, whose voice was it? Could it have been one of the prophets? After all, most of them argue that God prefers tzedakah over ritual and sacrifice? The prophet Isaiah famously says:

But there are other lost voices in the bible: In a modern midrash I wrote many years ago, I decided that it was Aaron’s wife, Elisheva, who influenced him to insert it. But I also gave her a lover, who was Moses, and he too served as a counter-voice to Aaron the priest, and that’s how these passages got past the censor of the times. I depicted the loneliness and ambiguities of women’s leadership in a patriarchal society. I was consciously feminist when I attempted to imaginatively rediscover a past in which biblical women were active participants. In the case of Elisheva I suggested that given the opportunity to be leaders, women’s form of leadership would lead to a better world. Although Elisheva is only a name in the Torah, I fleshed out the gaps in the text, by inventing a daughter, a lover and an independent role for her. I suggested that her feminist vision no doubt amplified the male‑bound Torah. The midrash began with a conversation that Elisheva had with her daughter Batya. Below are some excerpts of what I wrote then:

“Sometimes it bothers me that I am known solely as sister-in law to Moses, wife to Aaron, daughter of Amminadab, sister to Nahshon, mother of the deputy High Priests, grandmother of Phinehas.“

Elisheba pointed to the three men gathered around and continued talking:

 “All these scribes hang on to my every word. They interview me, ask me intimate questions, write my words down as if they are historical facts. Yet to them my significance rests in my family connections–as if I am not important.” “But you don’t feel that way about yourself, do you?” her daughter asked. Elisheba answered her daughter.  “I haven’t felt that way for a long time.  I’m beginning to have more of a sense of who I am; who I am is not only in relation to others.  I think I changed after the death of the two sons of Aaron”.

I hope she [her daughter] wasn’t too shocked about Moses and me. Did I say anything compromising? Moses and I can’t afford to have rumors starting about us, even if we’re both past our prime. I remember the time when he came to my tent. Did Aaron ever guess why I chose the name Batya? I doubt it. Yet he dedicated the central chapter of his book to the subject of adultery and incest–and showed it to me. [see Leviticus 18: 6-30]

Enough of that.  My heart’s been divided long enough.  If I want to make an impact it will have to be through Aaron, not Moses.

Clearly Moses and Elisheva were on the same wave length and managed to convince Aaron to include some moral laws in his boring book about priestly laws. Elisheva, foreshadowing the later prophets, is against sacrifice and says:

 “I don’t know.  I will never agree with those who say that God’s spirit rests in the sanctuary, yet I fear we are heading for a period of intolerance and ritualistic behaviorism because of our ignorance and lack of faith.”

Elisheva is Batya’s mother–and Bitya in the midrash is the name of the Egyptian princess who found Moses in the basket in the Nile and raised him as her son. Elisheva has access to scribes and talks to her daughter about her grandiose ideas. One thing Elisheva got right and it is still true today: we are indeed in a a period of intolerance! This Shabbat is called Shabbat Tekuma–it is a very liminal time, when we are betwixt and between Holocaust Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day. It is a time for reflection and dreams.

A time to hope for the best, even when the light at the end of the tunnel is flickering.

Shabbat shalom!

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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