As the Jewish people worldwide make our way toward the conclusion of the fourth book of the Torah, we approach with the Israelites the end of our time together “in the wilderness.” Unfortunately, the material and agenda of the final two portions of the Book of Numbers are difficult to reconcile given our modern sensibilities.
This week in Parshat Matot, not only are we taught to commit genocide in the name of vengeance, but also our text reflects a society that is misogynist and considers women not fit to govern themselves. The beginning of our Torah portion relates that it is fathers and husbands who will decide which vows their wives and daughters enact that will stand and which are to be revoked. A woman’s word is not her word. How do we reconcile the power and purpose of Torah here with our modern understandings of Judaism today? What might we learn from this portion of the Torah?
The rabbis of the past had a method of studying text — a hermeneutic — several in fact. In the great Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumbedita, in Eastern European yeshivas, in Brooklyn cheders, in our local Jewish day schools and Reform religious schools, there are and have always been methods, theories of interpretation with regard to Torah. Hermeneutics, especially of the Bible and rabbinic texts, is the lens by which we understand Torah. And there are as many ways to understand Torah as there are to understand God. There are levels to the text, and there are reasons we approach it with reverence and also with a bit of skepticism.
At Congregation Micah, like at many synagogues in the world, we have a hermeneutic. We teach it to everyone and anyone who studies Torah with us: children, adults, Christians, rabbis, scholars, guests, regulars and so on. Our method of study is this: Anything that demeans another human being cannot be from God! Like Jews of the past, present and future, like Jews in Israel and throughout the Diaspora, we wrestle with our ancestors and the texts of the Jewish people. We are just steadfast in our understanding that we can wrestle all we want with our heads, but our hearts determine our character and the spirit of the Torah’s teachings.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro, who often teaches Torah at Congregation Micah writes, “Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of Israel, saying, ‘This is the thing that God has commanded: If a man makes a vow or takes an oath … .’ The Torah never says that God says this: Torah says that Moses says that God says this. Moses is using God to excuse his own misogynist bias.”
God can be co-opted, and here, like a politician, Moses co-opts God. Shapiro further teaches that Moses spoke to the “heads” of the tribes: their heads, not their hearts. Because in our hearts we know that demeaning women, young and old, is wrong. Because in our hearts we know that placing women below men on the hierarchy of Judaism is wrong. In shifting the authorship of the text from God to Moses, Shapiro reinforces our hermeneutic: Anything that degrades other human beings does not come from God.
With Shabbat Chazon, “the Sabbath of Vision,” coming up in two weeks, consider the lens by which you come to study Torah. What biases do you bring as you distinguish the prejudices and agendas of the different voices in the text: the voice of God; the voices of the biblical characters; the voices of the redactors of the text and the generations of rabbis and scholars who offer their insights; the voice inside of you? Read the text with an open mind, and be ready to learn with an open heart. Why? Divisions of the head reflect less the natural order of things than the political nature of things. It is our hearts that know that such divisions are chosen and not chosen, pure and impure, of a hierarchy of priests and nations are somewhat arbitrary. Our hearts know that the separations and distinctions in our lives arise from our actions: good and bad, loving or fearful, compassionate or cruel, justified or underserved. Our hearts help our heads best navigate the sometimes foreign landscape we encounter in the wilderness of Torah.
Rabbi Philip “Flip” Rice is co-senior rabbi at Congregation Micah in Nashville, Tenn., where he shares the pulpit with his wife, Rabbi Laurie Rice. This column first appeared on reformjudaism.org.