Bamidbar/Numbers, Naso 4:21 – 7:89

For Naso, I chose to only read two things: the JPS translation (p287-300) of the text and The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (p815-842). I considered reading the Torah Queeries commentary or chabbad.org discussion but decided that I wanted to try to start posting these more on schedule and closer to Saturday – obviously posting on Tuesday isn’t exactly accomplishing that goal, but it’s better than Thursday which is what I did for last week’s parasha.

Shavuot, a Jewish holiday, was celebrated this week and is about commemorating and celebrating the Torah and renewing commitment to it and God. This makes a lot of sense because the weeks following Pesach (Passover) up until now have been about, once the Israelites escaped from slavery, the commandments that Moses received from God and the rules/guidelines that are laid out for the Israelites to follow. I did not end up reading the texts that accompany Shavuot, but I skimmed them a bit and, maybe, next year when I’m (hopefully) returning to these parashot, I’ll take the time to read them more thoroughly.

This parasha covered a lot of ground. It starts by completing the census and delegating various tasks having to do with sacred things and the Tabernacle to men within different clans of the Levite tribe. The rest of it is about purity and impurity, punishments and rituals, before a section at the end describing offerings and payments that a prince from each of the twelve Tribes brought as a dedication to the altar and God. I am mostly focused on the middle section – the discussion of purity.

My initial thoughts when reading the JPS translation was about how physical the rituals and punishments were. If a woman was suspected of cheating on her husband, (referred to as sotah, a “woman who strayed”), her body was put on display and she was forced to ingest a ‘spell,’ potion of some sort, of bitter water, that would reveal whether she had indeed betrayed her husband. Not only were women subjected to this ordeal in a public place, but what proved them guilty was if their stomach swelled and their thighs sagged. The Women’s Commentary talked about different interpretations: that this was more of a test of fertility – if the woman did not miscarry, it was a sign that she had not had sex with another man, but if she did miscarry, then her suspected betrayal was proven true (p836). Another interpretation is that the guilty woman would end up infertile. At the end of the ritual, the woman is expected to say ‘Amen, Amen,’ further bringing attention to herself. This entire process is about women’s bodies instead of their own experiences and voices.

For people who were nazir or n’zirah (individuals that dedicated themselves to God), their hair was a sign of their dedication. They were mandated not to cut their hair, as it “reflect[ed] a characters strength” and showed their devotion (p.827). If the person somehow got contaminated, they would have to cut off their hair because hair cannot be purified. Hair is very visual; it has the ability to set people apart and show something about a person. In the Game of Thrones book series (which is not actually called that, but I can’t remember the title of the series), there is a group of people whose honor and strength is tied into the length of their hair. If they lose in battle or to someone, their hair gets cut off and they become disgraced. Hair says a lot about a person and, in this case, it was a big part of vowing one’s dedication to God.

The section about hair struck a chord with me. I am someone who has very, very long wavy hair. I haven’t had more than a trim since I was in fifth grade and, at this point, when wet, my hair reaches my waist. But recently, I have decided to cut it for real, not just get it trimmed in order to maintain it. Since the beginning of April, I have toyed around with the idea of actually getting it shortened to about my collar bone, so that is still longer than my shoulders. This past Saturday, I officially made an appointment for Wednesday (tomorrow) to get a haircut, and I’ve been ridiculously nervous about it ever since.

In some ways, this section in the parasha could act as a reason for me not to go through with my haircut. Obviously, hair is important and cutting it was a sign of contamination of some sort for religious people. On the other hand, this could be a process of renewal or rejuvenation. In order to escape from contamination, people would cut their hair. Maybe, getting rid of all the split ends and knotty hair could be a good thing, allowing me to move forward and rejuvenate myself. Maybe, as I am starting this new project and finding new ways to connect myself to Jewish texts, deciding to take on a new appearance and relationship to parts of my body could be a really good thing. I’m not sure, and I probably won’t know until I’m actually in the hair salon if I’ll actually go through with it or not. But I kind of like the idea of cutting away the old or the ‘contaminated’ in order to start new and ‘rededicate.’

A big part of this parasha, and something that the women’s commentary concentrated on, was the juxtaposition of a n’zirah (a woman who dedicated herself to God) and sotah (a woman who betrayed her husband). They become opposites and undergo different rituals and practices which parallel each other. The n’zirah must abstain from many things such as cutting her hair or drinking alcohol, but the sotah is forced to drink a potion. The n’zirah declares nazir and chooses to take on the role of devotee, the sotah is not given a choice and is at the mercy of her husband and the priests (who of course are all men). A representative quote is:

“Just as the priest brings the sotah before God, the priest assumes the active roles and presents the nazir […] the nazir comes willingly before God, […] the sotah is forcibly brought before God” (p835).

Women are forced into two categories:

“A disciplined woman who controls her wildness and dedicates herself to God [as opposed to a woman] who does not discipline her wildness” (p824)

This is a kind of double standard that women still are forced to struggle with. Women are either completely desexualized and praised for their passivity and innocence or hypersexualized and treated in negative in violent ways. This traps women in impossible positions where in order to be seen as normal or in a positive way, they must conform to an oppressive and derogatory standard. This manifests in different ways in society. For example, a female lawyer must overcome the assumptions that her femininity makes her weak and remain seemly approachable by not over-masculinizing herself. Or women who chose to remain less sexual are generally accepted but can be ridiculed for their chastity but women who chose to be more sexual are looked down upon for their promiscuity. There is no way a woman can win here, not matter what label she ascribes to.

The normalcy with which responsibility or blame is placed on women while men remain free is troubling and also telling. Eve usually receives much more of the blame than Adam when it came to the ‘fall of man’ and the ‘original sin’ when the two of them disobeyed God and got sent out of Eden. In the early 1900s when homosexuality came to be viewed through a medicalized understanding of same-sex desire, women were (and still are) often blamed in one way or the other for their sons being gay. One of the section in the women’s commentary states:

“The Rabbis viewed the errant wife [sotah] as a metaphor or the entire Jewish people, whose betrayal to God and divine commandments was understood to have led to the dstruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.” (p836)

A Short Sikkum (Conclusion):

It has been meaningful for me to be able to think through something that is important to me (my hair) and figuring out how to say goodbye to some of it (because I’m getting it cut tomorrow D: which is nerve wracking). Looking at this with a bit of a spiritual twist has made this feel better for me and allowed me to connect with this parasha in a way I had not anticipated. It will be interesting to see how different parashot in the future will be relevant to my life at a specific time. Additionally, I am looking forward to analyzing more ways that women are discussed in the Torah and the complexities and consequences that may come from it.

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2 thoughts on “Bamidbar/Numbers, Naso 4:21 – 7:89

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