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Naomi Graetz

Assembling for a Cause: Parshat Va-Yakhel

Depiction of Va-yakhel by Yoram Raanan

I thought I would not have anything to write about this week’s double parsha, va-yakhel pekudei which concludes the book of Exodus. That is because I am too riled up at, and preoccupied with, what is going on in the country. Not only are there demonstrations against our government in the big cities, but even in our small town of Omer, there will be a demonstration outside the house of MK Shalom Danino of the Likud. Then there is the impressive assembly of Women in Red who are justifiably fearful of the ultra-Orthodoxy’s antipathy to women. So with that in mind I found the opening words of the parsha to be both timely and ironic:

And Moses convoked [gathered, assembled] וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל all the community of Israelites and said to them, “These are the things that the LORD has charged to do: Six days shall tasks be done and on the seventh day there shall be holiness for you, an absolute sabbath for the LORD. Whosoever does a task on it shall be put to death כָּל־ הָעֹשֶׂ֥ה ב֛וֹ מְלָאכָ֖ה יוּמָֽת.  You shall not kindle a fire in all your dwelling places on the sabbath day” (Exodus 35:1-3).

Given all of our fears about our country being ruled by a theocracy, imagine what would happen if some rabbi upon hearing this week’s parsha, will be inspired to advocate putting to death sabbath violators. Or telling the secular person or non-Jew who brings hametz into the hospital during Pesach that he or she will have an untimely or painful death (see Exodus 12: 15). It’s bad enough that there is a rabbi in Haifa who is trying to impose shalom bayit [peace in the home] on a couple where the husband just got out of jail and refuses to give his wife, Lital, a get and has threatened to kill her; yet the rabbinic court wants them to get back together (See here). 

SHALOM BAYIT

The dead end: Divorce proceedings in IsraelIn 1983, Leah Ain Globe wrote movingly in her pamphlet, The Dead End: Divorce Proceedings in Israel about the many women who have suffered at the hands of the modern rabbinate in Israel. Writing from the perspective of an Orthodox woman, her thesis was that modern-day rabbis perverted the ancient Jewish tradition where women were protected by the Torah, when women were not considered inferior. She presented case studies of women who had been physically or mentally abused by their husbands and applied for justice in the rabbinical courts and were sent back to their homes (which she showed were anything but sanctuaries). This was done for the sake of shalom bayit. After each case study and its unhappy conclusion, she quoted from  halakhic or midrashic sources to demonstrate by juxtaposition the perversion of justice in present-day rabbinical courts.

Lital the victim in today’s case is quoted as saying:

The rabbinical courts are “a system that I no longer have any faith in. It’s a completely male system which prefers to leave women without rights, without the ability to move on, and [my freedom is] dependent on one man,” she said. “I really feel like I’m in prison and he’s the only one with the key.”

Presumably she is referring to her husband, but the ones with the keys are really the rabbis who have many halachic options available in their tool boxes to unlock all women from a lifetime of fear, abuse and being chained women (agunot). The overwhelming need to preserve marriages, homes, and families is behind the concept of shalom bayit. The idea of shalom bayit,  is a slippery slope concept. It is referred to in order to hold marriages together. It works with good marriages that just need a little push to help them work. But unlike good marriage counseling, which is stopped when the marriage is so bad that nothing can help it work, shalom bayit is often invoked as a holy principle, one which overrides individual personal problems for the sake of the institution of marriage.

According to a midrash, Aaron (Moses’ elder brother) is the consummate maker of peace, in particular between unhappy husbands and wives. The rabbis are told to be one of his disciples for that reason. Thousands of grateful couples named their babies after him (Avot de-rabi natan, Chapter 12).  How did he manage to keep the peace? In an apocryphal story (also attributed to R. Meir) there is the case of an irate husband who told his wife to spit in the high priest’s face or else he wouldn’t have her in his bed. Aaron, who was a high priest, heard of this and told the woman to spit in his face. Aaron’s willingness to lose face and allow his official position to be disgraced saved the marriage (Rashi on Avot Chapter 1:12 here). The implication is that, since shalom bayit is the overriding principle, marriages must be preserved at all cost.

Behind all of this lies the dangerous idea that the wife is property: she is “bought” in marriage (still referred to as kinyan—purchase). Sure, she still has rights in that reparation for “damages” (to her) are sometimes paid. But if she does not carry out her duties toward her husband she will be considered a “rebellious wife.” It seems as if some rabbis still prefer to allow no grounds for divorce, because of the principle of “shalom bayit.” Fortunately, up until now, most rabbis lived in a real world, not a theocracy and recognized some grounds for divorce and even annulled marriages. But in today’s atmosphere, some rabbis might choose to take even stricter measures towards releasing women from abusive marriages. Perhaps the demonstrators should go to the rabbinical courts and start protesting there as well.

ASSEMBLING TO PROTEST

Our nation has chosen to assemble and protest on a weekly basis all over the country.  Robert Alter presciently writes in his commentary that the opening clause “Moses assembled all the community”

is a neat reversal of the inception of the Golden Calf episode: “the people assembled against Aaron” (Exodus 32:1). Instead of a rebellious assembling of the people, their leader now assembles them in order to rehearse before them all that God has enjoined them.

If only we had a leader who could gather us in unity and speak to us and assuage our fears. In contrast to the desperation felt today and the animosity against and fear of the new government, the whole community of ancient Israel was moved by God’s commands and with high spirits and a feeling of volunteerism continued to build the Ohel Moed (Meeting Tent) and brought offerings of all sorts of gold objects of their own free will.

However, Alter’s last words about this double parsha are ominous and equally prescient, if we read them in light of our current events:

We have been left with a sense of harmonious consummation in the completion of the Tabernacle, likened by allusion to the completion of the tasks of creation; but the condition in which the Israelites find themselves remains unstable, uncertain, a destiny of wandering through arduous wasteland toward a promised land that is not yet visible on the horizon. The concluding words of Exodus point forward not to the priestly regulations of the Book of Leviticus, which immediately follows, but to the Book of Numbers, with its tales of Wilderness wanderings, near catastrophic defections, and dangerous tensions between the leader and the led.

I’d like to conclude with Lital’s words who wants us to understand her present day suffering:

“If I was younger, if I was in my 20s and childless, I would go to battle over this system, over rights for women — how could this system put us in captivity?” she said. “We’re in a country with equal rights for everyone, but suddenly with this we don’t have rights.”

We owe it to the Lital’s of the country to take a stand, not only against the government but also against the rabbinic courts. If not, who knows we may soon see in Israel a similar headline to that which appeared yesterday: “South Carolina GOP lawmakers propose death penalty for women who have abortions” (See here).

The slippery slope is getting more slippery day by day–we are staring into the abyss.

Staring into the Abyss
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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