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Emor and the Myth of the Goddess

It is Saturday night, May 6. I had a very choppy Shabbat. It started out great when I learned that an amazing Sephardic cantor was at shul. I davened Shacharit and sang what sounded to me like a very nice Kedushah. The Sephardic hazzan gave a beautiful mussaf. Schmoozing after lunch was great, until I got ticked off by somebody in particular and was in a funk for a few hours. Then I had a great Torah conversation with my mom, and my Shabbat was righted again. And now here I am, transmitting that Torah conversation to you.

I am currently reading a book called The Myth of the Goddess. It tracks the consciousness of a feminine divine through ancient cultures and into our own. It identifies the feminine divine as being imminent in the world, as opposed to transcendent, beyond the world. The feminine divine was thus a strong presence in the ancient idolatrous religions among which Judaism found itself. These religions saw the divine in nature and its cycles. It describes Biblical Judaism as opposing the feminine divine. Judaism teaches that God is completely transcendent, the Creator of this world, but not manifest in it whatsoever. Additionally, God is unchanging. The cycles of the seasons reflect God’s wisdom in creating the world, but not God Himself changing. Notice I said God Himself. The Torah refers to God in the masculine (every noun in Hebrew is either masculine or feminine). Many times in prayer we refer to God as Avinu, our Father. Why?

Let us consider some basic gender dynamics. An infant’s relationship to its mother is based on imminence, on immediate physical presence. The baby is physically connected to the mother in the womb. Then, in infancy, is often in physical proximity to the mother. Whenever it is in distress, the physical presence of the mother comforts the baby. One’s relationship to one’s mother is very much based on the immediate presence of one’s mother. A father, on the other hand, is connected to his child only through the concept of authority and ownership. A fetus is physically connected to its mother, but only connected to its father by the fact that people believe that the father was essential in creating that baby. In the baby’s life, the father is traditionally less imminent of a presence. Fathers have not traditionally been physically close to children for much of the day. The father-child connection, therefore, is based on the concept of authority and ownership owing to trust in that father’s hand in creating the child. The mother is imminent in the child’s life, the father transcendent. In this sense the mother is a more real presence. In truth, though, the father is a more constant and commanding presence, because the relationship and respect does not depend on physical closeness. The relationship is predicated on bonds which exist in a non-physical realm and are therefore non-fluctuating and absolute. So too with humanity’s relationship to the divine. The cultures which identify a feminine divine in nature would seem to have a closer, more real connection with the divine. In truth, though, the divine is not a constant presence in the lives of such believers, as nature is not constant, it is cyclical. It comes and goes. The presence of the deity is literally seen and felt, but not known. And when that presence is not seen and felt, the people, in their own eyes, have truly become abandoned. Again, Judaism teaches that God is transcendent and constant, and not cyclical and imminent. Therefore, the image of the father makes more sense than the mother when relating to God.

In general, males are associated with constancy more than females. Men, after becoming sexually mature, generally remain fertile throughout their lives. Women, on the other hand, fluctuate week-to-week in terms of fertility via menstruation, and, on a lifetime scale, via menopause. These processes are cyclical, non-linear. Also, if we imagine a traditional society in which women and caring for children and men farming, women are less constant because they are bound to an unpredictable being. They must tend to the child’s needs whenever they arise. The men, on the other hand, have a predictable day of work, a schedule of leave and return, not subject to the variable whims of a child. I believe that God is constant, non-cyclical. Therefore, if forced to relate to God as male or female (obviously not in a biological sense, but a conceptual one), we should choose male, with the important caveat that this is only a tool to help us reach a proper understanding of God and not reflecting some literal metaphysical sexuality.

All that being said, I would like to move on to today’s parsha, Emor. First, let us examine the fact that only males without a physical deformity are allowed to serve as Kohanim in the Tabernacle. At first glance this appears to reflect a sense that physical deformity reflects some spiritual defect which must be kept away from the Presence of God. This, I will argue, is a mistaken impression. Let us consider the function of the Tabernacle and its Kohanim. If we are going with the idea that God is transcendent and not imminent, then God’s Presence is not in the Tabernacle in any physical way. There is no confinement of God in the Holy of Holies. No, the entire enterprise exists rather as an educational edifice to evoke thoughts and emotions which will lead the People of Israel to feel God’s constant presence among them in a non-physical sense. All of the korbanot and kohanim exist not as a big kitchen dedicated to feeding the hungry cloud that resides in the Kodesh HaKedoshim, but rather to bring the people to a proper understanding of God and a connection with God. Remember, Judaism teaches the transcendent father-like God, not the imminent mother-like God. The Tabernacle and its priests should serve to inculcate a sense of God’s constant, unchanging presence, and therefore it cannot be a physical sense, as physical presences are subject to change. This idea of constancy can be seen in much of the work of the kohanim. They are bound by strict ritual and regulation. Everything is to be carried out precisely according to regulation. Deviation is not tolerated, nor is spontaneous service, such as that of Nadav Avihu, whose spontaneous offering, prompted perhaps out of religious ecstasy, landed them burned alive in the Tabernacle. The kohanim are not to become drunk before service, and thus be unpredictable and variable and deviate from regulation. They are not to appear physically changing or deviant by having their hair bald or very long, but rather at a constant shorn length. They are not to become emotionally unstable and non-constant by being exposed to the dead, except for immediate family. Also, death demonstrates the non-constant, cyclical nature of life. Therefore, it must be kept apart from the constant, robot-like kohanim. Additionally to corpses, such things as menstruation, ejaculation, and birth impart impurity which must be kept apart from the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle, the education edifice for imparting the constant presence of the transcendent God, is not to be mixed with the cyclical stuff of the cycle of life. If you were too young or too old, you did not serve as a Kohen in the sanctuary, as these stages of growth and decay suggest non-constancy. Judaism, unlike the pagan religions it was surrounded by, sees God not in the cycles, but as above the cycles and above nature, as constant.

Now, back to the fact that only “unblemished” males can serve as priests in the Tabernacle. Physical deformities hint at the variability of life. They expose the fact that the kohanim are not robots. This is of course true and not a bad thing, but I think the Torah wants the Israelites to have the impression that in their uniformity and constancy, the kohanim are robot-like. Why? Because it strengthens the message that God is constant. God cannot be present in the variable physical world, which is subject to variation–”deformity.” No, God is beyond all that. And imagine if women were kohanim. They would be forced to drop what they were doing and attend to the needs of their children. This is obviously the epitome of non-constancy. Or they were impure due to menstruation, as they are wont to be, and could not perform their service. Again, this just doesn’t send the message of uniformity and constancy, which should parallel God’s oneness and unchangingness.

It is not in the religious passion of spontaneous service that Judaism locates a relationship with God. No, it is in consistency. Think of davening. Those great, soulful, 1/100 type of days or great. That, unlike in pagan religions, though, is not what it is all about. The connection with Hashem lies in the consistency of davening. Similarly, the consistency of the korbanot establishes the connection with Hashem, not the spontaneous offering. This is also very helpful in understanding womens’ exemption from time-bound positive mitzvot like thrice-daily davening.

It is no coincidence that in Emor we find strict prohibitions of consuming sacred gifts to the kohanim while in a state of impurity. There must be total separation between cyclicality and conceptions of God. It also no coincidence that we find in Emor regulation of offerings of volition. Towards the end of the parsha we get the holidays, with their regulated korbanot. Earlier in Vayikra we have seen the prescribed korbanot for specific situations. However, perhaps as a concession to the occasional religious passion of human beings, the Torah allows for offerings brought out of free-will or a self-imposed vow. These offerings exist right on the line between the transcendent consistency of Judaism and the world of passionate cyclical communion with the imminent divine common to the pagan religions. Nevertheless, they exist. They must be, though, male and unblemished. This is a regulation on spontaneous religious passion. The offerings brought out of such passion must be symbols of consistency and non-variability: male and without deformity. Additionally, this prevents religious passion from causing a mass killing of too many animals. Females are extremely important in that they bear children, while only one male is needed to father many broods. Therefore, since females can’t be offered at will, the Israelites cannot end up genociding any species of their animal. But, you might say, they could sacrifice every male. No, they can’t. Because, presumably, there are going to be some specimens with disqualifying defects. These cannot be sacrificed and can thus father children, ensuring the survival of that herd. We know that religious passions can be dangerous and destructive. These regulations attempt to limit the damage that such passions can do to one’s impression of God and one’s physical world. Credit to my mom on that amazing pshat.

Let us know go to the beginning of the parsha, the regulations on kohanim coming into contact with dead bodies. Obviously the kohanim are not actually robots, and so they are allowed to mourn their father, mother, brother, and unmarried sister. Also, the daughter of a kohen can eat kohanim-only food, except if she gets married to a non-kohen. But if she divorces and moves back in with pops, she can eat it again. Okay, what’s going on here? Massive patriarchy? Undeniable. But what’s behind it?

The daughter of a kohen seems to constantly be in a state of possession by a male, husband or father. Obviously this idea is really offensive to many people, but I just don’t have the energy at the moment to sugarcoat it. So let’s just examine it, no punches held.

A women, in ancient Israelite society, was not consistent in her legal status. Men would always be of the family they were born into. Women, however, changed identities with marriage, much like many women today change their surname to their husband’s upon marriage. This is reflected in the way that a bat-kohen can eat consecrated food pre-non-kohen marriage, and then not, and then again if divorced and moved back in. When she is out in the non-constant non-kohen world, she can’t eat that constant kohen food. Her bro can’t go to her funeral; it’s just too much non-constancy.

Her bro can’t marry anybody that’s divorced or widowed. Why? Because that person’s life has not been constant. They’ve gone through status change in their life, possibly exposed to death. We can’t have that mixed up with our conceptions of God.

There is one place in the parsha where we see the cyclical role of nature mixed up with the constancy of the Tabernacle. That is with the holidays previously mentioned. For example, after Pesach we bring the omer for forty-nine days. This is an offering of the newly ripened grain. We bring the realm of nature, the realm of the cyclical and imminent, into the realm of God, the constant and transcendent. These products of nature, though, are the objects of the rituals and not the elements of it. We bring these products into the realm of the eternal and constant and divine. In doing so, we consciously recognize that God is not in the cycles of nature, but above them. When we wave the omer offering, we recognize that God is above all of this, Created it, and is directing it, and we owe God the recognition a child does his father. We are not saying that in the grain itself is there anything divine. We are using it to recognize, in fact, the distance between it and the divine.

If we think of the Tree of Life, we can think of the fruit as the feminine and the tree as the masculine. This is for multiple reasons. One: fruit is seasonal and cyclical, growing and ripening. Two: fruit carry seeds and are symbols of fertility, non-constant and feminine things. Three: the fruit is the physical element of the tree we directly relate to. The tree itself is the essence of the thing. It is the source of the fruit. And interestingly, Eve, the woman, is more associated with the fruit. From God may come Knowledge of Good and Evil, but the Source is beyond this world. And it is off-limits, guarded by Kruvim.

And speaking of Kruvim. There are twelve sets of them in the Tabernacle: 10 woven into the strips that make up the Tabernacle, one pair on the parochet, and one above the ark. There are ten loaves of shewbread.

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