It's Raining Men
EMOR: LEVITICUS 21:1 - 24:23
5 MAY 2018 / 20 Iyar 5778
God gives Moses a series of laws specific to the priests; God then instructs Moses to tell the people about the festivals in addition to laws of blasphemy and murder.
What does it mean to be a Jewish man?
Often, this question is raised with parshat Toldot. For many, Jacob and Esau represent the paradigmatic dichotomy of two different versions of masculinity: the Jewishly preferred calculating, spiritual, scholarly Jacob, and the much maligned spontaneous, athletic hunter, Esau.
I am well-aware of my hubris in challenging the paradigm as a cis-gendered queer woman, but I find the Jacob/Esau dichotomy harmful. I think it fractures our community.
This week, we have parshat Emor. Let’s see what we can find in it that informs an alternative perspective.
And God says to Moses: Instruct Aaron that if his offspring has a defect (a “moom”), he is not to come near the Holy Shrine to bring a food offering to God. . . . whether the man is blind or lame, has crushed testes, is too long-limbed or has a broken leg, broken arm, or skin ailment. Aaron’s offspring who have a defect may eat from the food offerings, but they may not enter behind the holy curtain, nor approach the slaughter site, for this would profane God’s holy shrines.
Physical disability renders a person restricted in some way from access to God?
Over the centuries the likes of Rashi, Maimonides, the Kli Yakar . . . countless sages debated this text in relationship with physical disability. Today there are discussions about the exclusion of blemished bodies and queer folks, of the imagined desire of the ancients to make sure people with disabilities were not ‘hidden away’ in Temple service, and attempts to assure us that what feels like discrimination is actually elevation. (For what it's worth, I'm not buying it.)
This year, I came to the text with a different question - a question about masculinity - and found something new.
In context, moom - translated as defect - seems clear. Physical disabilities or disfigurement are disqualifying. However, I discovered this same word, shows up in other places, too. In Ha’azinu, it is used to mean corrupted - not whole-some. (Deut. 32:5) In Job, moom is employed in reference to a lack of integrity. (Job 31:7) Having integrity means living a life in which all of the parts come together in one whole. Da’at Zkenim (in Kiddushin 66 on Numbers 25:12) taught that “here I bless him with My covenant of shalom” which was said to Pinchas (a complicated reference to be sure) was based on this verse, making shalom the antidote for moom.
So what do we know of this word “shalom” that we usually translate as peace?
To get at the meaning of the root, shin-lamed-mem, we lean on the concept of repayment - returning the person to whom one is indebted to a state of wholeness. When we greet one another, “Mah sh’lom - ech?” or “mah sh’lom-chah?” - “How are you?” - we are literally asking, “How is your wholeness?” Our “get well soon” wish is “refuah shlema”, a wish for whole healing.
In this text, we have inherited this idea that to have a physical disability means to be somehow incomplete. Our tradition has been waiting for us to redeem these verses, and we need not accept our ancestors’ understanding of disability. Indeed, if we focus on the concept that being whole facilitates closeness with God, maybe we can gain some insight about the concept of masculinity in Judaism.
Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya (a kohen, a descendent of Ezra, and a 1st-century CE Mishnaic sage who was a junior contemporary of Hyrcanus, Hananiah, and Akivah) relied on our verse to rule that a child may perform the service in the Temple when he has grown two pubic hairs demonstrating physical maturity. Others ruled he must be twenty to fully develop an integration between his maturing physical and spiritual selves. If these men looked to this verse in discussions about what it means to be a man, we must be onto something.
What’s more, throughout Emor we have many examples of different ways to express masculinity:
Be invested in Jewish religious service. (Lev. 21:1) Be close to your family. (Lev. 21:2) Be hairy. (Lev. 21:5) Be holy. (Lev. 21:8) Be responsible. (Lev. 21:9) Know how to prepare food, be generous with it, feed everyone. (Lev. 21:22-23) Be trustworthy. (Lev. 22:2) Be mindful about what you eat. (Lev. 22:11-14) Be inclusive and treat people with dignity. (Lev. 22:19) Apply laws fairly to Jews and non-Jews. (Lev. 24:23) Raise animals. (Lev. 22:22-30) Be a historian; remember where you came from. (Lev. 22:33) Work hard. Rest. (Lev. 23: 3) Farm. (23:10) Grow grapes and make wine. (Lev. 23:13) Be a baker. (Lev. 23:17) Have an occupation. (Lev. 23:25) Be in community. (Lev. 23:36)
And all of these examples come just before a description of the lulav’s four species for Sukkot. (Lev. 24:40) The Kabbalists say that these species represent different types of Jews:
The etrog - Jews who weave Torah learning and acts of loving kindness
The myrtle - Jews who focus entirely on acts of loving kindness
The palm branches - Jews who focus entirely on Torah learning
The willow - Jews who neither learn Torah nor engage in acts of loving kindness
If any one of the species is missing, if the lulav is incomplete, the entire thing is invalid.
Perhaps now we could say . . . moom.
Jacob and Esau aren’t a helpful frame for Jewish masculinity because masculinity isn’t a dichotomy. Bifurcating what these two men represent leaves us disintegrated. It isn’t enough to choose between being Jacob or being Esau, the list of possibilities is incomplete. To be a whole people, we need a full spectrum of what it could mean to be a Jewish man. I offer a different generation:
Ruven - the first, Simeon - the aggressor, Levi - the cleric, Judah - the leader, Dan - the judge, Naphtali - the free spirit, Gad - the warrior, Asher - the prosperous one, Issachar - the scholar, Zebulun - the business person, Joseph - the survivor, Menashe - the reconnector, Ephraim - who is transformative, Benjamin - who is ravenous . . . and Dinah - the one who goes out. We must include Dinah. After all, Dinah may have been conceived male, transitioned in the womb, and born female. We don’t know how Dinah self-identified, and if Dinah were to claim a male identity, I’d take Dinah’s word for it.
There are many ways to be a Jewish man and be one’s whole, complete self in community and in relationship with God.
When we explore questions of Jewish masculinity, we would do well to do so more broadly and support the men among us in being who they are, in all that they are.