Sacrifices, Holiness and Equality

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Simone Schicker is a second year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. Her favorite area to read and write about is Judaism and relationships – including women and LGBTQ issues, reproductive rights, sex, gender identity and marriage. Check out Simone’s Double Mitzvah column from last week, Giants in the Land – LGBT Rights Torah Style

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Equality. We all talk about a need for it, but what does it really mean? When a woman says that she wants to be treated equal does that mean she wants to be treated as a man? I would say no. Rather, she wishes to be treated as a person just as a man should be treated as a person. The sex or gender that a person is or identifies as should have nothing to do with how one person treats another. We are all made betzelem Elohim (in the image of G-d) and therefore should all be treated the same – with respect and with care.

Speaking about equality seems odd when discussing this week’s parsha, which is made famous by its namesake Korach. The parsha covers the story of Korach and of a second rebellion, which were both against Moses. These two stories are woven together and conclude with G-d killing those who have rebelled against Moses. While the story of the rebellions comes to an end, the parsha does not. It continues with the Israelites receiving rules about a few of the many offerings they are to give to G-d. As the head priest, Aaron receives these instructions directly from G-d.

“G-d spoke further to Aaron: I hereby give you charge of My gifts, all the sacred donations of the Israelites; I grant them to you and to your sons as a perquisite, a due for all time. This shall be yours from the most holy sacrifices, the offerings by fire: every such offering that they render to Me as most holy sacrifices, namely, every meal offering, sin offering, and penalty offering of theirs, shall belong to you and your sons. You shall partake of them as most sacred donations: only males may eat them; you shall treat them as consecrated. This, too, shall be yours: the heave offerings of their gifts, all the wave offerings of the Israelites, I give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as a due for all time; everyone of your household who is clean may eat it.” (Numbers 16:8-11)

Immediately the issue of gender equality arises when reading this portion. Why is it that only the sons, only the males, are allowed to eat the meal, sin and penalty offerings that are brought? It is only the heave and wave offerings that are made available to the daughters (this would also include daughters-in-law) but even that lessened when the daughters are lumped in with “everyone.” This shows a very stark hierarchy in regards to who is allowed to eat the offerings.

The hierarchy is tied into the offering themselves, repentance offerings are a higher level than heave offerings. The commentator W. Gunther Plaut seems to consider it an unavoidable truth of male-centered religion: “Only they [men] could partake of meal, sin, and penalty offerings, while heave offerings and first fruits could be shared by the women in the priestly family. The former offerings related to the forgiveness of sins and, in a male-oriented religion, only males were priests and could therefore participate.” (1)

While I appreciate Plaut’s attempt at smoothing over this piece of Torah, I don’t believe he goes far enough. It is not only an issue of hierarchy, because the entire system of the priesthood was a system of hierarchy, it is the continued problem that women are not given status but are rather seen on par with “everyone of your household.” Placing women of the family, wives and daughters, on the same level as servants, slaves and children is nothing new in our text. Throughout the Tanach, Midrash and Talmud there are examples of this, for our religion is filled with the troubles brought on by patriarchy. Women are seen as only a means to an end (children) and are not viewed as individuals. They move from their father’s house to their husband’s house, and while there are a few stories of strong women in our text, the stories in which they shine generally have to do with beauty or sex. This is in direct contrast with Numbers 16:3, which states: “For all the community are holy, all of them, and G-d is in their midst.”

What makes one holy? According to the rules for the priesthood and therefore for the eating of the offerings, it means to not only be clean, in a ritual sense, but also to be male. In today’s world we know that not only are men and women equal but that people do not always fall into a simple binary system. While today we no longer have a tabernacle or the Temple to offer sacrifices in, these ideas of a woman’s place are still causing trouble for women around the world and right here at home. Whether it is the right to a legal, safe and accessible abortion or the issues of equal pay for equal work, or danger of sexual violence, women are still seen as “less” than men. Less valuable, less needed, less human. But our tradition also says that “all the community are holy” and that we are all made betzelem Elohim. We must remember to keep these two ideas in our minds as we continue to fight for the day when all people will be treated as pieces of the Divine.

Footnotes

1. The Torah: A Modern Commentary (1981).

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