Initial Thoughts (JPS p.265-275)
Last week I read my first parasha hashavuah for this project and it ended up being two parashot in one, which I thought was really interesting – I’m still not sure exactly why, but I assume it has something to do with how the calendar is working out this year. or maybe these two always come in a pair….? For these parashot, I read the JPS translation of the sections as well as two chapters each from both Torah Queeries and the Women’s Torah Commentary. As I read, I highlighted sentences or passages that stood out to me and wanted to focus on. I’m not sure if you’re actually allowed to mark up a Tanakh, but I don’t really care all that much, and doing so helped me understand better what the two parashot were talking about.
It was fun to start this project and I was able to read some of the Hebrew which helped me understand the translation better. Behar made sense to me as I read it and was full of concepts that I had learned about and discussed before, but I found Bechukotai kind of confusing. I didn’t really understand some of God’s rule was making and why they were being made.
These parashot are the last two in VaYikra (Leviticus) and are about what God tells Moses on Mount Sinai what was some of the rules that the Israelites needed to follow. Behar began by talking about the shmita (every seventh year) and yovel (the 50th year) years which are about giving the land a shabbat, a time to rest and recuperate. A few things that stood out to me was the emphasis on the number seven, that during these two special kinds of years they were about breaking down inequalities between living beings, and the way that God, and by extension, the Israelites, understood ownership. In this text is the idea that no one can not truly own land because land belongs to no one but God which disrupts normal ways of thinking about ownership, which I think is pretty cool. Something else that stood out to me what the emphasis that Jews cannot and should not sell themselves or be sold into slavery because they can only be slaves to God. I’m not sure how I feel about that and I think that sentiment mars the ways one would think about the Covenant between the Jewish people and God – though, to be fair, I’m not sure I understand much about the Covenant. It just seems a bit weird to think about someone’s relationship to God if they see God in such a way.
Bechukotai did not make that much sense to me, I think because it was mostly about God warning the Israelites about what would happen if they did not obey the rules, and the theme of the number seven comes into play here as well, because anything they do that goes against what was commanded of them, they will be punished ‘seventhfold.’ I thought it was really interesting that God makes sure to remind the Israelites that even if God is punishing them for disobeying or doing something wrong, God still respects the covenant they share, so the punishment would not be something that would permanently destroy them.
Torah Queeries (Chapter 32 and 33 p.174-183)
The Torah Queeries commentary helped me expand my initial understanding of Behar, but did not help me understand Bechukotai. The Behar commentary focused on the idea of queering things, in this case, queering how land ownership, class distinctions, and economic and social status in ancient Israel were understood. During the shmita and yovel years, everything under those categories kind of got thrown out the window and people were supposed to treat others as equals. There was a warning brought up, however, that under this utopic view of how everything could or should be, there is also the underlying dystopia for those who do not fit, in this case, people who are not Jewish. This idea, of one person’s utopia as some else’s dystopia, is a concept that I have been grappling with for a while. It is something that has come up in a bunch of my classes these past two years as well as discussions that I have within my youth movement.
A quote from this text which really stuck out to me was:
“… however we try to interpret and execute the divine will, we can never get it right, because God’s will is beyond transcription. How very queer!” (p.177)
This quote kind of felt like a “Welcome” message for this project. Like whatever I do, however I approach these parashot and readings and everything, as long as I am trying my best and can derive some kind of meaning and understanding from it, it’s ok and it’s important. It doesn’t have to be perfect in order for it to work.
Some of Torah Queeries commentary on Bechukotai didn’t sit right with me. From what I understood, it was discussing different ways of giving and receiving and placed them on some kind of gendered economic binary: masculine economy (“tit for tat” type of giving, giving and expecting a return) and feminine economy (giving without expectation or need of return). It just feels kind of strange to look at these things in this way and focus on a dichotomy that is more interested in pitting one against the other than reconciling differences. It’s possible that because I didn’t understand the parasha in the first place, the commentary was lost on me, but I’m not really interested in gendering things that don’t need to be gendered and then furthering divides between two attributes that shouldn’t be opposite in the first place.
Women’s Torah Commentary (Behar and Bechukotai p.238-252)
I really enjoyed the Women’s Torah Commentary chapters. Two sections in the Behar chapter that stood out – one about God and the other about the word dror (freedom, liberty). The discussion about God was about how God is made out to be the owner of the Jewish people which is pretty strange and oppressive. The commentator suggested trying to see God instead as a form of shmita:
“…the ultimate Sabbath on which we rest, the place where we do not need to produce anything but are accepted as we are. God is the ram’s horn that sounds our liberation from all that oppress us” (p.244)
This is an interesting take on God and I want to keep thinking about it and what it means for a while. The word dror stood out to me because it is a Hebrew word that I am familiar with. It’s pretty special to see it in this way – to see shmita and yovel years as ways to practice and achieve dror, liberation from imposed authority, materialism, oppression, and inequality.
Unsurprisingly, I was still confused by Bechukotai, even when reading the Women’s Torah Commentary chapter. I think both this and the Torah Queeries discussion just seem so different that it is difficult for me to understand the original text. The commentary on it was interesting though. Here, the parasha was seen as a way to discuss the invisibility of women from the narrative when it came to God’s commandments and what was expected of the Jewish people. Women are mentioned very little and often as part of a punishment for men who do not do as they should. A quote I thought was important was:
“Once we assert our claim that we were there, we are obligated to figure out how to fully be here” (p.247)
It’s about women reclaiming but also creating a space for themselves both in a present and past narrative. It is calling for women to be both interested in the present and in the history of the Jewish people. I want to add that maybe we should apply this to all people who are not cisgender men, because people who are binary nonconforming are as much if not more erased from these texts as women are.
I’m sure I have more to say, but I think this post is long enough as it is. I hope that in the future, these posts will be less of a summary of what I read and more about my interpretations. As it stands, I’m feeling pretty comfortable with the methods I chose in order to read and understand these parashot and chapters. I am feeling welcomed into these religious texts. Both of the commentary books that I chose to had some kind of call to action or message that resonated with me and that feels pretty great. I’m excited to see where next week’s parasha takes me!