Neviim Tovim/TheHaftarah Circle Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for June 2016

milk and honey

I never take much notice of the Eurovision Song Contest, least of all the songs, but I sometimes watch the voting, with some slight interest in how countries often vote in clusters. The Balkan countries back each other and the Danes and Swedes seem to have a reciprocal arrangement, while the UK and Ireland give each other a bounce on the voting board, as if Gerry Adams had never existed.

The strange thing is that neighbouring countries are as likely to go to war across the border as to appreciate each other’s musical artistry.

I wondered how it would have worked in biblical antiquity. After all, the Ammonites and the Moabites were related to Terach, same as Abraham, and even the wicked Amalekites were descended from Isaac, via Esau.

As for the Canaanites whose land is spied out by Moses’ agents, would they bestow their douze points on the Israelites, or take revenge on them by giving everything to the Jebusites, the Amorites and the Hittites?

The spies Moses sent into Canaan brought back disheartening reports of giants inhabiting the land, but they’d noted that it was rich and fertile and they coined the phrase, ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’.

The word supposed to mean giants is Nephilim, fallen ones, suggestive of fallen angels, in other words, beings possessed of supernatural power. Everyone was afraid, except for Joshua and Caleb, who were convinced that they could gain the land by conquest. As usual, the people blamed Moses for bringing them out of Egypt, where they said they’d been better off. You can imagine how they would have been ready to give Egypt all their points in the North East Africa Song Contest.

The people were so rebellious that God said to Moses, ‘How long will this people despise me?’ and was about to smite them with a plague, only Moses pleaded with God, on behalf of the Israelites. God then replied ‘Salachti kidvareycha’ – ‘I have forgiven, according to your word.’

However, that generation of Israelites wandered forty years in the wilderness and never reached the promised land, with the exceptions of Joshua and Caleb, who had not despaired or rebelled against God.

Joshua would go on to enjoy good relations with a Canaanite woman called Rahab, who sheltered Joshua’s Israelite spies before the Battle of Jericho, described in the book of Joshua. In Midrash, Rahab is a beautiful prostitute, or possibly an innkeeper, and these midrashic versions are quite romantic because Joshua marries Rahab, even though she’s a Canaanite. The people across the border – what are they, enemies or neighbours? And can they sing?

 

written on the day of an EU Referendum in the UK, 23 June 2016

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Numbers 5, 1 – 16 Naso
‘Leprosy’, restitution and the law of Sotah

The word apologetics generally means putting a positive spin on a difficult scriptural text or religious doctrine. As I’m occasionally invited to introduce our Torah readings, I’m aware that it’s often quite difficult to justify what we read. Today, we’re looking at topics, which, in the lifestyle section of a modern newspaper, might be covered by health care, law and marriage guidance.

The three topics are all connected with ritual impurity. Those suffering from certain illnesses are sent out of the camp. The Hebrew word for the illness in question is Tsara’at, which used to be identified with leprosy. Anyone suffering from a discharge is excluded from the camp. It isn’t specified whether this is a condition of a sexual nature. Defilement by proximity to a corpse is a third reason for temporary expulsion.

The reason for sending ill people out of the camp is made explicit in verse three – that they should not defile the camp of the Israelites, where God dwells among them. Quarantine, easier to justify, is not mentioned, so one cannot assume that those suffering from uncertain contagious diseases are excluded as a measure to protect public health.

The second subject addressed in this Torah reading concerns compensation for damages. If one person wrongs another, the purity of the community is compromised until restitution is made to the plaintiff, or to his surviving relations, or to God, via the priesthood.

The word goel occurs, with reference to a kinsman receiving restitution from someone who has wronged his relative. Goel in our liturgy refers to God the Redeemer, but the word is sometimes used in biblical texts to refer to a person performing duties on behalf of his relatives. The concept of the goel as kinsman is central to the book of Ruth, which will be read during Shavuot. The role of the kinsman in this Torah reading is to stand in for a relative who is deceased or otherwise unable to receive compensation, so the kinsman becomes the beneficiary.

The commandments in this reading provide a blueprint for managing impurity caused by disease or death, impurity of betraying trust and now we come to the impurity attached to a woman suspected of adultery. Note that the suspicion of adultery is enough for the woman to undergo an ordeal before the priest. If the husband is gripped by jealousy, he is to bring his wife to the priest, for her to undergo the ordeal of Sotah. She is given so-called bitter water to drink, some kind of solution of water and dust. She is deemed guilty of adultery if, after drinking the water, she has symptoms of illness, apparently related to her reproductive organs, but, if she has no symptoms, she is acquitted. I’m sure this trial by ordeal will make you think of the actions taken against suspected witches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These ordeals rely on God’s interventions, so that the suspect is acquitted or convicted by means of miracle.

The husband was required to bring to the altar an offering of barley meal, unaccompanied by oil or frankincense. As sacrifices went, this was rather basic. There is much commentary in the Mishnah and the Talmud, regarding the treatment of women suspected of adultery, in tractates entitled Sotah, which means, ‘the straying woman,’ and the Mishnah cites Rabban Gamliel, saying, ‘Since her deed was the deed of cattle, her offering is the food of cattle.’

Can it be that our Oral Torah is, in places, as disfigured by misogyny as our current social media? Probably yes, but misogyny may have been a default position in the ancient world. Look at Pandora. Look at Eve.



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