Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

‘Her People’ – In the Parasha and at the Protests (12)

'Obliged to Oppose', March 27 Knesset demonstration. Photo: Diana Lipton

This is my twelfth consecutive post connecting the parasha and the protests. Like most people I know, I have no faith in the negotiations, and no peace of mind. The militia promised to Ben Gvir in return for his consent to pause the reforms is a terrifying prospect. This is no time to be silent.  

This week’s parasha, Tzav, issues a dire warning. A person who eats meat from the sacrifice while in a state of uncleanness will be cut off from his people, (Leviticus 7:20). The Hebrew word translated as ‘person’ is nefesh, a feminine noun perhaps better rendered ‘living being’ or ‘soul’. The word translated ‘his people’ is amey’ha, literally ‘her people’, to agree with the feminine nefesh.

The warning is repeated in the following verse. A person who touches anything unclean and then eats meat from the sacrifice will be cut off from his people (Leviticus 7:21).

A few verses later it’s applied to the person who eats the fat, meaning the hard fat, the suet, of a sacrificial animal: that person will be cut off from his people (Leviticus 7:25).

And yet again: A person who consumes blood will be cut off from his people (Leviticus 7:27)

My interest here is not what it means for a person to be cut off from his, actually her, people, though that is indeed interesting. I’m asking a simpler question: who in this case are her or his people?  

The New Jewish Publication Society translation of the Tanakh rejects the usual translation of am as ‘people’ in favor of ‘kin’. At first glance, this seems compatible with another occurrence of the identical formula in the context of brit milah, circumcision (Genesis 17:14). Any uncircumcised male who fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person – again, the feminine noun nefeshwill be cut off from his people, again, in Hebrew, ‘her people’.

On reflection, though, ‘kin’ – family relationships bound by blood or law – does not fit. The males who must be circumcised include homeborn slaves and slaves bought from outsiders who are ‘not from your offspring’, literally, ‘your seed’ (Genesis 17:12-13). Here too, the more intuitive ‘people’ is indeed preferable to ‘kin’.

This is reinforced in an almost identical occurrence of the same legal formula in Numbers 15:30, where ‘kin’ certainly does not belong. Any person, nefesh, whether citizen or ger (in the Bible, always ‘resident alien’ or ‘stranger’) who reviles, literally raises his hand against, the Lord, will be cut off from among his people. The resident aliens or strangers are also part of the people. This point is reinforced by the preceding discussion of unwitting failures to keep the commandments (Numbers 15:22-29). These require specific sacrificial offerings that apply to the Israelite citizen and the resident alien alike (v. 29).

So ‘people’ is a broad category that expands far beyond family or tribe, to include the non-Israelites who live among you. It’s made up of nefashot, ‘souls’ or ‘living beings’, a designation that – though it appears occasionally in legal contexts as above, or in relation to specific families, such as Jacob’s in Genesis 46:26 – is most at home in Genesis 1:24, ‘Let the earth bring forth every kind of ‘living being’, nefesh chaya’, human and animal.

‘People’ often has national connotations that highlight exclusivity. But in conjunction with nefesh – the most basic life form, free from all qualifying identities such as race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or even species – it becomes inclusive. In Hebrew, am, people, is a masculine noun. That the masculine ‘people’ is built from feminine, nefashot, souls, further deepens its inclusivity.

In the other direction, a nefesh, living being, without an am, people, is at best vulnerable, at worst non-viable. That’s why the threat of being ‘cut off’ is so dire.

For some time now, the notion of the modern-day state of Israel as a home for a people has been sorely tested.

In recent years, the government has made it more challenging to make Aliyah. Even Jews regarding whom there is no shred of doubt about their Jewishness have been forced to jump through impossible hoops.

Within Israel, old wounds have reopened, the gaping flesh exposed for all to see.

The government is sowing division and dissent that will only intensify as their position weakens. The Prime-Minister’s Monday night speech announcing the pause in the reform legislation appeared to emphasize togetherness, but between the lines was precisely the opposite message. You are not second-class citizens, he told his followers, implying that others think they are.

Resentment against Haredim is burning among secular and mainstream religious Jews who see their taxes supporting, and their children protecting, them, with nothing obvious given in return.

Incited by their leaders, the mostly young extremists who’ve been terrorizing Arabs for years have turned on fellow Jews, and their ranks are swelling. A friend whose sister lives on a kibbutz near Beit She’an shared deeply disturbing videos of young men intimidating locals known or assumed to be protesters.

And, of course, the violence against Arabs continues — intensifies — while what rights they have are undermined by the reforms. As I write, I hear the sounds of a demonstration outside the President’s house against Ben Gvir’s militia. If the militia goes through, we’ll all be in danger, but Arabs most of all.

Yet somehow, from this point of extreme alienation, some sense of belonging must be restored to all these souls – right and left, secular and religious, intimidators and intimidated, men and women, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, and Jews and Arabs. What miracle can produce it?

Paradoxically, since the last elections, I’ve experienced a sense of belonging, of being one among many connected souls, only when I’m demonstrating. And I know I’m not alone. Yes, not all groups are well represented at the protests, but so many sectors of Israeli society are, especially when Arab and Haredi speakers are factored in. The combination of diversity and, for the most part, mutual respect is a powerful shot to the system, and more than that, the demonstrations serve as an albeit imperfect microcosm of what we’re fighting for.

When God told Moses to tell Pharaoh to let his people go (Exodus 7:16), he seemed to have in mind the children of Israel. But a ‘mixed multitude’ left Egypt with them (Exodus 12:38). Together, they became a people, comprising many diverse souls. That will be the vision I hold when I read the Haggadah next week, and that’s the vision of Israel today that will keep me demonstrating until the danger we now face has truly passed.

‘Obliged to Oppose’, March 27 Knesset demonstration. Photo credit: Diana Lipton

Pesach Sameach!

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.