And the woman shall say, “Amen, amen!”

22 May

Naso: Numbers 4:21 – 8:1

For this week’s parshah, I want to focus on the theme of adultery, which is central to the section 5:11-31, the ordeal of the suspected adulteress.

Throughout the ANE (ancient near east), adultery (which means infidelity by a married woman) viewed as a crime against the gods as well as the husband., so it is a civil and a religious crime.

But there are differences between the rest of the ANE and Israel:

a)      rest of ANE: husband can mitigate/waive the death penalty; not so in Israel, where it’s not up to the husband to waive execution.

b)      because it’s included in the 10 Commandments, and thereby the Sinaitic covenant, God punishes the community if the death penalty is not imposed.  An act that transgressed that covenant endangered the whole community, notes the ABD, so the prosecution of adulterers morphed from a right that individuals may forgo to a duty falling on the entire community.  But some scholars think that in practice, it may have been true that the husband could accept compensation from the lover etc.

c)      some have sought to explain the paradox whereby the woman who takes the bitter waters is not subjected to the death penalty.  This is a case in which a woman has not been detected by human beings committing adultery, but she is suspected  of it by her husband.  Milgrom argued (e.g. his JPS commentary on Numbers) that therefore the punishment must be administered by God, that the matter lies beyond a human court, and therefore execution is not acceptable.  He also noted that the technical term for adultery, ‘na’af’ which is found in the Decalogue, Ex. 20:13…and  Lev. 20:10…reflects that jurisdiction lies outside the human court. G metes out a punishment that fits the crime, as elsewhere (Israel must wander forty yrs because of forty days spies spent gathering their data, Num. 14:33-4).  The text seems to mean, and has been read as meaning, that her genitals would be affected by the waters so she was unable to conceive.  So the woman who accepted forbidden seed is “doomed to sterility for the rest of her life” (Milgrom).  As for the ordeal itself, Babylonian law provided for an ordeal by water that involved being thrown in the river and drowning if guilty, so here there is what Milgrom describes as a modification of that law, prescribing a form of ordeal by water that cannot lead to drowning.

So there you have it.  Marital infidelity by a woman is a sin against God, and, if Milgrom is right, God will judge it directly, and via poetic justice, if humans don’t detect it.  I don’t really see why an adulteress who doesn’t get caught avoids the death penalty while one who is caught doesn’t…but there it is.  No firm answers anywhere in any case.

Something I’d like to think about further – if the Decalogue, a/c to biblical scholars (e.g. the Anchor Bible Dictionary 82a) only means infidelity by women, it hasn’t always been so understood…I recall that scene in The Crucible, which I read many, many years ago, in which the husband who had had that affair stumbles over reciting that commandment…because he was guilty of it himself… so the history of interpretation would be interesting.



17 May

I could comment on the unfortunate fact that it has been several months since my last posting…but I’ll just say that I really hope to make this a regular thing henceforth!

So – We enter the book of Numbers.  And we see that God has the following orders for Moses: ‘Take a census of the whole Israelite community…every male, head by head.’ The word that JPS translates ‘head’ BDB explains as ‘a skull, a head or a poll’…

Rashi: ‘head by head’ = ‘by means of [counting] shekels, a half-shekel per head’

Eh? Well…he gets this from Exodus 30: 12-16: ‘”When you take a census of the Israelite people …each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled..a half-shekel by the sanctuary an offering to the expiation for your persons’. On this same Exodus passage, he commented: ‘

It means ‘When you wish to take the total of their not count them by heads.  Rather, let each one give a half-shekel and you will count the shekalim, and you will know their number [from this].’

As for the mention of plague, Rashi says: ‘for the evil eye can affect that which has been counted, and pestilence can come upon them, as we have found in the days of David’.

This is a reference to the tale in II Sam. 24 and I Chron 21:1 [the latter has Satan prodding David to do this, rather than God] in which David gets into terrible trouble with God for counting the Israelites.

Clearly, the mention of plague in Ex. 30:12 does need explaining.  For Rashi, it’s the evil eye that explains it…because it can affect/rule the counted…but what does that mean?

Truth is that it is a big puzzle why census-taking is linked to averting a plague, and why in David’s case G is indeed angry about it, and v angry at that.  So Rashi wants to say in our Numbers passage, where (as in other census passages, e.g. I Sam. 11:8, 15:4) NO punishment results from census-taking, that the point is that it should be done in this indirect way, by means of the half-shekels, and that if done so, it’s all kosher – so that there is an actual method of counting that is stipulated in the Exodus ‘half-shekel’ passage, a method that avoids directly doing a head count.  And he clearly thinks that David/Joab erred in not making sure that this indirect method was used.

Nahmanides finds David’s vanity a likely reason for divine anger.  He thinks that the reason David got into hot water was vanity: what really nettled God was that David did the census not out of need – not because he needed an army, but because of vanity: to be able to say, ‘look how many people I rule!’

I am not clear at this point quite what Rashi means by suggesting that evil can get a grip through numbering…something to do with power…perhaps the root of the problem is that when you, as a king, number your subjects, you act as if you were in charge and not God.  Or a more superstitious thing like controlling someone by knowing their name.  But this doesn’t explain why Saul gets away with it.

Well, sorry this is so sketchy and preliminary, but anyway – that’s it for now..any thoughts much appreciated!

No, what he actually said…

20 Nov

Once again, short of time…but, moving to Toledot, this week’s portion… here is a thought on Genesis 27, vv 19 and 24.  Here we have the episode where Jacob robs his brother of his father’s blessing.  You might possibly think this doesn’t put J in a very good light.
v 19: Jacob said to his father, “I; Esau your first-born; I have done as you told me”

this is my own translation, to fit in with Rashi, who reads it thus: “I am the one who is bringing you your meal, and Esau is your firstborn”.  The point is made again on v 24

v24: And he said, ” You are that one, my son Esau?”  and he said, ‘I [am]”.  Rashi says, ‘And he said, “I am”.  He did not say, “I am Esau”; just “I am”.
So there it is – Jacob does not actually tell a bare-faced lie to his visually-challenged father.
Rashi apparently draws on the medieval ‘Bereshit Rabbati’ and on ‘Tanchuma Yashan’, no I haven’t read either text.

Happy thanksgiving, and wear your glasses at all times when someone offers you food…

VAYERA…pass the salt!

4 Nov

I did have various notes on the intervening parashiyyot, but nothing I felt compelled to post…and now I’m moving on to this week’s parshah, and wishing I hadn’t had to reread that story about Lot offering his daughters up to the people of Sodom, the which tale fills me with fury.  Don’t you just long to throw Lot out of the window?

Anyway, here is just a silly thing.  Why, you may wonder, is Lot’s wife turned to salt in particular? (Gen. 19:26).  Well, Genesis Rabba, aka Bereshit Rabba has the answer.  ‘because, R. Isaac said, she sinned through salt.  On the night that the angels visited Lot, Lot said to his wife, “Give these guests a bit of salt.”  But she replied, “is it your wish to introduce into Sodom another vile custom [that of seasoning their food] [eh?] ” What did she do? She went around among all her neighbours, saying to each, “Give me salt – we have guests,” intending thereby to have the townspeople become aware of the presence of guests in her home [and penalize Lot for it]. Hence, “she herself  became a pillar of salt”.  In a nutshell, this evidently appears a bit differently in different editions, but anyway I see no explanation from my brief foray as to why using salt should be frowned upon….anyway, point appears to be that she didn’t do as told, but tried to cause problems for Lot, and therefore when she further chose to look back  – she got her commeuppance…er…Merriam Webster spells commeuppance this way, looks odd to me…

Bereshit – better late than never!

21 Oct

Finally, I’ve found the time!! (Well, I know we’re now one reading past Bereshit, but I’ll catch on that during the week, I hope).  Reminder: the parshah ‘Bereshit’runs from the start of the Bible to Gen. 6:8.

I had various thoughts on this parshah…so much of an obvious nature to comment on…but something in particular caught my eye and I just thought I’d say something about that.  I just hadn’t noticed the strong parallel between Gen. 3:16 and Gen 4:7 before.  In the former passage, God is giving his/His/Her  angry response to the Taking of the Fruit.  Having bawled out the serpent, he turns to Eve:

‘And to the woman He said,

“I will make most severe/Your pangs in childbearing;/In pain shall you bear children,/Yet your urge shall be for your husband,/And he shall rule over you.’

It’s the last couple of lines I’m interested in here.  ‘Ve el-ishekh t’shuqatekh/ve-hu yimshal bach’ (No, I have no consistent transliteration system, sorry.  I am using the latest JPS trans, by the way).
He uses the noun ‘Teshuqah’ for ‘urge/desire’ and the verb ‘mashal’ for ‘to rule’.
And now the 2nd passage. In 4:7, God addresses Cain who is upset that God thinks less of his offering than Abel’s, and says:

‘”Why are you distressed…?/..if you do right..There is uplift,/But if you do not do right/Sin couches at the door;/ Its urge is toward you,/Yet you can be its master.”‘

Again, I’m focussing on the last two short lines: again for ‘urge’ the Hebrew is, once again, ‘T’shuqato’ and what the JPS translates as ‘Yet you can be its master’ is “ve-atah timshal-bo’ so once again the verb ‘mashal’ is used for ‘rule’.

So…it’s as if Eve is placed in some parallel relationship to ‘sin’ itself; and maybe, if we read the two passages in direct parallel, we can read that God is saying that Eve needs to be kept under control, under governance, like the potential force for bad that she is, and Adam is therefore given that control…sin is not about to be eradicated, but can be kept under control, and so can Eve.  I had always read the first passage as ‘and now you are going to be stuck in this situation where you will be ineluctably drawn to your husband but that means being ruled by him, and that’s a price you have to pay…(and perhaps also, that because you are so drawn, you are going to have to suffer the miseries of childbirth that result from that attraction. And perhaps the use of ‘Yet’ in JPS to translate the ambiguous ‘ve’ in ‘Ve el-ishekh t’shuqatekh’ reflects that interpretation – despite knowing what misery childbirth is, YET you won’t be able to escape it because you will desire your husband etc )  But this other reading would mean something, shall we say, worse: ‘and here’s how I’m going to minimize the harm you can do…’

I don’t know if this is silly…anyway, I”m enjoying thinking about it.  Let me know any thoughts/ reactions.  I haven’t access just now to the JPS commentary, but I’m guessing it JPS didn’t make much of this similarity or they could have translated them to reflect it, e.g. using ‘rule over ‘twice and not ‘be ..master’ the 2nd time.

or thoughts about anything else in the parshah…

welcome to my blog!

25 Sep

So happy that I finally started my blog…and please watch this space.  We’ll reach Ha’azinu this weekend…aha, finally working our way out of Deuteronomy and on our way to the beginnning of Genesis! I want to share my own thoughts and welcome new ones, and my idea for now – this is a brand new blog – is to start an informal discussion on the weekly parshah, thinking about how a person who’s not necessarily religious, and  doesn’t necessarily know Hebrew (I’m going to go by the up-to-date JPS translation, but will want to refer to Hebrew) may relate to the content of the Torah in all its many facets, both wondrous and downright…alienating.

Whether you like to focus on the ‘what exactly is Rashi saying here’ (I do want to look at him each time, tho may not get to any other commentators) or more the ‘what should all this mean to me in this day and age’ angle, I’d love to hear from you.  And very open to taking this in various different directions..

I think I’ll add my profile when I figure out how to do it etc.