Divrei Torah

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May 17, 2018 - Bemidbar 5778

Seeing Those We Overlook
A D’var Torah for Bemidbar
by Rabbi Heidi Hoover (’11)

When we study our Torah portions, we often notice what’s missing, what’s not said. What happens during the three days between the time God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and the time Abraham and Isaac arrive at the mountain where the sacrifice is to take place? What happens to Jonah while he is in the belly of the fish?

This week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar, the first parashah of the book of Numbers, is all about counting people. That’s where the name of the book in English, Numbers, comes from. (In Hebrew, Bemidbar means “in the wilderness.”) All the men from every tribe except Levi are counted, and in a separate count, the men from Levi are counted. A glaring absence in this Torah portion, something that we notice is missing, is any mention of women. Women are not in our Torah portion at all.

This is not the only time in the Torah that women go unmentioned, or unnoticed. At Mt. Sinai, Moses’s instruction to the Israelites as they prepare to hear the Law includes the phrase, “do not go near a woman.” This has troubled many people because it seems to imply that women were not standing at Sinai with the men when the law was given. Jewish feminist Judith Plaskow’s book, Standing Again at Sinai, takes on this problem. Others have also done a great deal of work to find the women when they are missing from our text and place them in our stories.

There are some ways in which the invisibility of women persists even to this day. The issues that we choose to discuss and recognize as important and needing to be addressed—and the issues we choose not to discuss—can sometimes perpetuate this invisibility. One issue that often doesn’t come up when we think about who needs help in our communities is intimate partner violence. Some believe intimate partner violence is something that doesn’t happen in Jewish families, or that it is a private family matter that should not be openly discussed. There is a passage in Margaret Atwood’s book The Blind Assassin in which factory owner talks about the safety of the women who work in his factory. He says they are as safe at work as they are in their own parlors. The text continues, “He assumed they had parlors, and that those parlors were safe.” This is an assumption we make frequently—that the women we know have parlors, and that those parlors are safe.

The fact is that intimate partner violence happens in all religious and ethnic groups, and all income levels, and statistics show that one in four women is or has at one time been in an abusive relationship. That means that all of us here at least know someone who has been in that situation, whether we are aware of it or not, if we haven’t been in that situation ourselves. While there are relationships in which men are abused by women, it is overwhelmingly women who are the victims. We are now in what is frequently being called a #metoo moment, and we are hearing many stories about women and men being sexually harassed and abused, sometimes in the workplace, sometimes in intimate relationships. Intimate partner violence is perhaps a little more visible at this time, but there are still so many women afraid to come forward, or trapped in violent relationships, who are not readily visible.

If we are unsure of what domestic violence looks like, well, unfortunately, all we have to do to see an example is look to this week’s haftarah portion, from the book of Hosea, chapter 2:

Complain against your mother, complain, for she is no longer My wife, and I am not her husband! Let her remove her whorings from her face, her adulteries from between her breasts, or I will strip her naked and expose her as on the day she was born, and make her like the wilderness, turn her into a dry land and kill her with thirst. And I will show her children no love, for they are children of whoring. Their mother played the whore; she who bore them acted shamefully, saying: I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink. So I am blocking her path with thorns, walling her in: she shall not find her way….

Therefore I am taking back My grain in its time, My wine in its season; I take away My wool and linen that she uses to cover her nakedness. I will uncover her shame in the sight of her lovers, and none will save her from My hand. I will make an end to her rejoicing: her pilgrim-feasts, her New Moons and Sabbaths, all her festivals. And I will destroy her vines and her fig-trees—of which she said, “They are my hire, given me by my lovers”—I will turn them into a forest, and wild animals shall consume them. So I will punish her for all the [feast] days when she offered incense to the [various] Baals, and, putting on her rings and her jewels, she ran after her lovers, forgetting Me, says the Eternal One.

(Hosea 2:4-8, 11:15, as translated in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, Gunther Plaut, gen. ed.).

There it is. Power. Control. Humiliation. That’s what domestic violence is about. Of course, our haftarah portion isn’t talking about this happening to an actual wife. Rather, it’s God talking to Israel, specifically the men of Israel, and metaphorically speaking of them as the wife who will be treated in this way if they misbehave.

What are we to do with this haftarah portion? Well, first of all, it was probably pretty shocking to the men of Israel to be metaphorically transformed into women for the purposes of this prophecy, a status with little power in their society. And it was probably intended to be shocking, to illustrate to men what their level of power is when compared to God.

We could also say that this haftarah portion is illustrating a treatment of women that may have been common in the time of Hosea, but is socially unacceptable now. After all, look at what women can do these days. Women run companies, they have run countries (not this one, but some others, including Israel), they can be Secretary of State, they can be rabbis and cantors. On the other hand, one in four women have been or are in abusive relationships. And look at all of the #metoo stories emerging, and notice the backlash against them. It’s still socially risky to talk about it, and it seems like it hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to think since Hosea’s time.

We can and should say that this haftarah portion is not presenting a model for the behavior of human husbands with their wives. We can and should say that while we frequently use metaphors of God as parent and God as spouse, we should not make the mistake of thinking that the power relationships are or should be the same. We must remember that those metaphors are limited, just as our understanding of God is limited by our humanness. It bears repeating: This haftarah portion is not a behavioral model that human beings should follow.

Here is my midrash on our Torah and haftarah portion this week: Our haftarah portion brings domestic violence into the open, out of the shadows, out of the private sphere. By doing this, our haftarah portion is counteracting the invisibility of women in our Torah portion. It’s shining a light on women who are in terrible situations that they feel trapped in, women who fear for their lives, women who don’t know what they can do. It’s giving us a chance to say, “I know you’re there. I believe you. There is nothing you did to deserve this.”

Perhaps that is a way to redeem our haftarah. To reject its message about the treatment of women, but recognize that it is a way many women are treated, and to say out loud that this is a societal problem we must address. May our community be a safe one for all people, and may no one be invisible to us. Amen.

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Rabbi Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11) teaches Conversion at AJR. She is the rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek and Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom in Brooklyn, NY.