Emor and the Challenges of Our Past
Rabbi’s Note: The Torah portion this week represents my Bar Mitzvah portion. What follows is a revised version of my remarks this past Monday; during the Sisterhood program featuring renown author and activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin.
When I was old enough and more engaged about the state of the world, I began questioning some of the themes in this week’s Torah portion called Emor. The portion details the physical qualifications necessary for Priesthood.
From the outset it was clear that only a man could enter the profession. To further narrow the field, a Priest (Kohayn) had to be from the lineage of Aaron. As yet a further restriction, those initially qualified but living with designated physical disabilities were then excluded.
To compound the issue, Emor describes certain stigmas applied to divorced women and to women with ‘questionable’ lifestyles. The same standards do not apply to men.
Growing up, many of us were encouraged by the ideal: YOU CAN BE WHATEVER YOU WANT. At initial glance the Torah portion suggests otherwise; it sets a pattern which still reflects reality.
In our democratic nation, no woman-of ANY party has become President. Women still suffer from unequal pay for equal work. Some of you may be aware the Kentucky Derby was run last Saturday. I do follow the major horse races throughout the year; but until this week I was not aware of an unsettling discrimination against female jockeys. Ironically, despite the fact that so many women ride horses, few become accepted as professional jockeys. Those who succeeded in doing so became objects of ridicule. Of the twenty horses competing in the Derby, not one female jockey participated.
The irony extends to many professions: In individual homes, for example, I dare say that women still represent the majority of cooks. Yet, how many of the nationally acclaimed chefs are women? So with these concerns in mind I wrestle with my Bar Mitzvah Torah portion of Emor, because it establishes a pattern of exclusivity and discrimination which still exists.
For some alternative observations, I turned to The Five Books of Miriam/ A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah; written by Ellen Frankel.
The book examines the Torah from a woman’s perspective. In the chapter about Emor, great concern is expressed by women over laws which appear biased against women. To this concern, the following comment is ‘placed’ in the mouth of the male sages:
If you want to abrogate all the laws nothing will be left.
To this question, Frankel places an imaginary (yet ideal) response in the mouth of Dinah; female child of Jacob. In the Torah, Dinah is barely mentioned; but in this book, she is granted a central voice. Dinah argues that laws which discriminate against women cannot be classified as Holy.
Yes, certain professions require designated skills and unique physical abilities. However, I continue to wrestle with Emor’s descriptions about exclusivity. I suggest that we read the portion to understand our past and to appreciate how the ancients understood the will of God for their time. But as we read, we must also continue to re-write and re-interpret; so that Emor reflects what we believe represents the will of God for us today.
Holiness is not limited to one gender; nor to one individual lifestyle. Therefore, we look toward the portion as a beginning of a journey to spiritual fulfillment and certainly not as an end.
Our responsibility is to appreciate the meaning of holiness within our contemporary world; a world where YOU CAN BE WHATEVER YOU WANT reflects not the ideal but the reality.
…This past week, I wrote articles to the local papers; sharing reflections about the Great Neck School Budget/Bond/School Board Vote this coming Tuesday (please vote). As my online article in the GN Record has received some attention, I invite you to read it. The site: http://greatneckrecord.com/support-the need-of-our-town-ad-its-children. The article also appears on the Record’s Facebook page. My assumption is that the GN News is publishing the letter this week.
Wednesday, 5/31: FIRST DAY SHAVUOT Torah reading and discussion 9:45am. There is no regular service.
Topic: The recent Conservative Movement vote to enable
non-Jewish partners of Jewish members to become synagogue members in their own right. We will examine the issues and Jewish texts.
Thursday, 6/1: SECOND DAY SHAVUOT
Regular 9:30am service with Yizkor