Thursday, March 17, 2016

Generation to Generation? / Parshat Vayikra—Shabbat Zachor 2016-5776

This week, I want to weave together several strands: a passage from this week’s parashah; Shabbat Zachor, which is this shabbat; and Purim, which is around the corner. Together, the three strands weave a tapestry depicting the creation of gender stereotypes. I will end with an uncomfortable question the tapestry engenders (so to speak).

In our weekly cycle of reading, having completed Sefer Shemot (Exodus), this Shabbat we dive into Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus), aptly known also as Torat Kohanim because it reads like a playbook for priests. It catalogues the diverse sacrifices offered and provides detailed instructions concerning when, how, and who brings them. Here we find (4:22ff) that if a chieftain unwittingly violates a commandment, he brings a male goat without blemish as his chatat (sin offering) to atone. However, if an ordinary person (the Hebrew is am ha-aretz) inadvertently violates a commandment (4:27ff), that person brings a female goat without blemish.

Why does the gender of the animal matter? The JPS Torah Commentary suggests that most likely the concern had to do with maintaining the reproductive potential of flocks and herds; more male animals were sacrificed because fewer males are needed than females to sustain flocks and herds.[1] Traditional commentators, however, concoct a different story—and keep in mind that it is just that, a story, because Torah doesn’t tell us why male animals are brought in some cases and female animals in others. Abraham ibn Ezra (12th century) comments: “Because the status of ‘an ordinary person’ is less than that of a chieftain.” It seems obvious to him that the status of a female goat is lower than that of a male goat—because it’s a female. Isaac Abravanel (15th century) presumes that the chieftain is a reference to the king[2] and states without equivocation: “Just as the male rules the female, the king rules the people. Hence his sacrifice is a male and theirs a female.” The commentators exploit what is wholly unsaid in Torah to reinforce social constructs of male power and presumptive norms of male supremacy. It’s not a new story.

Parshat Vayikra is not the only Torah passage we read this shabbat. In honor of Shabbat Zachor (the “Sabbath of Remembrance” preceding Purim) we read a special Maftir:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

The Torah describes how that the nation of Amalek launched a cruel and unprovoked assault on the Israelites at Rephidim, gratuitously attacking the most vulnerable— the elderly and the young—at the tail end of the caravan.[3] According to rabbinic tradition, Haman descends from Amalek and so, on the shabbat preceding Purim, we recall the dark origins of the Purim story.

On Purim we will unroll Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther), and read the witty parody of the Persian Empire. One would think that Haman’s diabolically evil plan to commit genocide against the Jews, coupled with King Ahasuerus’ stupidity and buffoonery (especially his six-month long party of drunken debauchery to show off his wealth)[4] provide sufficient fodder to poke fun at the ancient kingdom. Do we need more? Why not: the names of the Jewish heroes, Mordecai and Esther, are thinly disguised versions of the two primary Persian deities, Marduk and Ishtar/Astarte.

Among the remarkable features of this marvelous story are the roles allotted two particular women (the only female characters in the story), who are relegated to the king’s haram where they are guarded 24-7 by eunuchs, baubles trotted out only at the king’s behest. Queen Vashti is the wife of King Ahasuerus as the story opens, and Esther replaces Vashti after she is banished. The story famously opens with a description of King Ashuerus’ over-the-top, six-month-long bash, whose only rule applied to the consumption of alcohol: “No restrictions!” (Esther 1:8). While the king partied with the men, Queen Vashti simultaneously entertained the women (1:9).

The Bible says little about Vashti, and what I’d like you to focus on is not only what is said, but more importantly, what is not said.

On the seventh day [of the last week of King Ahasuerus’ extended wine banquet], when the king was merry with wine, he ordered Mehuman, Bizzetha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven eunuchs in attendance on King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing a royal diadem, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials; for she was a beautiful woman. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. The king was greatly incensed, and his fury burned with him. Then the king consulted the sages learned in procedure, as was royal practice [to rely on] all who were versed in law and precedent…”What shall be done, according to law, to Queen Vashti for failing to obey the command of King Ahasuerus conveyed by the eunuchs?” Thereupon Memucan declared in the presence of the king and the ministers: “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and all the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard of the queen’s behavior, will cite it to all Your Majesty’s officials, an there will be no end of scorn and provocation! If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you, and let it be written into the laws of Persia and Media, so that it cannot be abrogated, that Vashti shall never enter the presence of King Ahasuerus. And let Your majesty bestow her royal state upon another who is more worthy than she…” (Esther 1:10-19)

Why does Vashti refused to appear before Ahasuerus and his inebriated guests? The biblical story does not say. Vashti has many guests to entertain; perhaps she feels she cannot abandon her guests. Perhaps she feels it unsafe to enter a room filled with drunken men, which surely the eunuchs have reported to her. Whatever is the case, Vashti refuses to come, Ahasuerus becomes furiously angry, and his purportedly brilliant legal advisor, Memucan, who is supposed to advise based on precedent, conjures up a completely new law out of thin air in response to this one incident: If Vashti is permitted to say “no” to the king, all women may decide that they, too, can refuse their husbands, and the entire social structure of Persia will go to hell in a hand-basket. (So much for Memucan being a learned legal sage who draws on precedent; clearly this, too, is a parody of Persian law.)

One would have hoped that the Rabbis, who devote an entire tractate of the Talmud to the Megillah, including lengthy commentary on the story, would have recognized that the author(s) of Esther was poking fun at how unsophisticated and capricious Persian law could be—in contrast to the Torah and their own deliberations in the academies. Alas, they utterly fail, I am sorry to say, and this reflects more on the Rabbis’ anxieties about women than on anything else. (For another treatment of the passage I am about to quote, please see my recent Talmud blog post here.) In BT Megillah 12b, the Rabbis tell us that King Ahasuerus’ inspiration for summoning Queen Vashti that day is an absurd argument concerning who are the most beautiful women in the world. The king asserts that his wife, Vashti, is the most beautiful, and orders her to appear naked to prove him right. Gemara then adds a juicy tidbit: All of this came about as divine retribution because Vashti would force Jewish girls to work in the palace naked on shabbat, violating both their religious commitments and the human dignity. Heaven operates on the principle of middah k’neged middah (“measure for measure”), the Rabbis assert, and Vashti is punished for forcing the Jewish girls to worked naked by being commanded to appear naked before the king and his guests. Please keep in mind that none of this is found in the biblical story—it all derives from the imaginations of the Rabbis.

Why do the Rabbis feel the need to create a backstory that transforms Vashti into an evil character (which the biblical story of Esther does not in any way support)? In accordance with the rule of unintended consequences, they inadvertently give the king a moral boost, making him an agent of God, rather than a self-aggrandizing buffoon.

But wait, it gets worse.

The behind-the-scenes explanation for why Queen Vashti is commanded to appear naked at King Ahasuerus’ banquet does not explain her refusal to come, so the Rabbis supply this, as well:

Now, [Vashti] was a lewd woman, as the master said: Both [Vashti and Ahasuerus] intended to transgress. What is the reason she did not come [when the king commanded]? R. Yose bar Chanina said: This teaches that she broke out with tzara’at.  In a baraita [Mishnaic era teaching] it was taught: Gabriel came and made her [grow] a tail. (BT Megillah 12b)

A few words of explanation before commenting: The term tzara’at covers a cluster of skin afflictions discussed at length in Leviticus chapters 13–14 because they render one ritually impure. The Rabbis understand tzara’at to result from immoral speech. Thus the first explanation offered is that Vashti’s immoral behavior has caused an ugly skin affliction that she does not want seen publicly. The second explanation suggests heaven’s direct intervention: the angel Gabriel causes Queen Vashti to grow a tail, not only making her physically hideous, but marking her as an evil serpent. With two brief comments of “explanation,” the Rabbis paint Vashti an evil person who deserves the terrible fate awaiting her.

Why do the Rabbis go out of their way to trash Vashti? I cannot help but wonder if the fear of women’s power expressed by Memucan in the story of Esther didn’t resonate for the Rabbis, as well. The very thought that women might reject their subordinate positions in society and family was anxiety-provoking, perhaps threatening. And indeed, we see that happening today around the world. The ultra-Orthodox have grown increasingly rigid and domineering in recent years, harassing young girls who are modestly dressed and demanding segregated seating on public buses in Israel (women in the back, of course). Even two modern Orthodox day schools in New York were in an uproar two years ago about two girls who wanted to lay tefillin—which is perfectly permissible according to the Talmud.[5] Rather than laud Vashti as a heroine for opposing the wicked scheme of an evil king—as the midwives are extolled for subverting the insidious designs of Pharaoh—the Rabbis paint Vashti as the quintessential evil woman, a temptress and a rebel.

Imagine the Rabbis had noted, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton far more wisely did: “Vashti added new glory to [her] day and generation… by her disobedience; for ‘Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.’”[6]

This brings me to an uncomfortable question, the elephant in the Jewish living room we inhabit together when we have communal gatherings across streams of Judaism: In the 21st century, is non-egalitarian Judaism morally supportable by those of us who consider egalitarianism an essential ethical norm? We learned long ago that separate is never equal[7]; it is, rather, an excuse to deny the full humanity of one group of human beings.

Hiding behind a nebulous banner of “Tradition!” (cue Fiddler on the Roof) is hardly justification; tradition can serve to protect and privilege continuing wrongs. Claims of “authentic Judaism” ring hollow when injustice and inequality are a pillar of practice. When we gather for communal events, should we lower our ethical standards for the sake of “unity” or should we insist, as did the prophets, that justice be the standard by which the people Israel operates?

Vashti was a courageous woman. In her honor, I want to end with her 21st century name-sake:
Vashti Cunningham, an 18-year-old high school senior, holds USA Track & Field record in the high jump (1.99 meters = 6 feet 6.25 inches; see the video here) and hopes to break that record at the Olympics this summer. This level of achievement is extraordinary at her age; most jumpers peak in the late 20s. Vashti is the daughter of retired NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham, who is his daughter’s coach these days. To Vashti, to all the Vashtis—run faster, jump higher, reach for the stars.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] JPS Torah Commentary, Leviticus, p. 25.
[2] This is a peculiar assumption, given that the laws of Leviticus were presumably to apply to the sacrifices made in the Mishkan (Wilderness Tabernacle), long before Israel had a king.
[3] Exodus 17:8-16.
[4] King Ahasuerus is Xerxes, 519–466 B.C.E. Xerxes, who ruled from 486 to 465 B.C.E., was the son of Darius and the grandson of Cyrus the Great.
[5] BT Eruvin 96a.
[6] Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Women’s Bible: A Classical Feminist Perspective, p. 83.
[7] Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) paved the way to Jim Crow segregation laws, a heinous denial of civil rights.

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