Thursday, 22 Jun 2017

Written by Daniela Touati

»[1]Once upon a time, women began to resent that men seemed to own the world. Men got to read from the Torah and had all the interesting mitzvoth and privileges. The women decided to present their grievance directly to God. They appointed Skotsl, a clever woman and a good speaker, as their representative. But how was the messenger to be dispatched? They decided to make a human tower. Skotsl was to scale the tower and then pull herself into heaven.

They scrambled up on one another’s shoulders, and Skotsl began to climb. But somebody shrugged or shifted, and women tumbled every which way. When the commotion died down, Skotsl had disappeared. Men went on ruling the world, and nothing changed. But still, the women are hopeful, and that is why, when a woman walks into a house, the other women say, ‘look here comes Skotsl.’ And some day, it might really be she. »

This Hasidic story appears at the beginning of the book “Engendering Judaism” by Rachel Adler, Rabbi and Professor at HUC. I felt deeply moved by this story, why ? Perhaps because it addresses a topic I feel concerned about: women’s rights, especially in the religious realm. Perhaps because of the awkwardness and innocence of these women.

The Yiddish story describes with humour feminism at its inception. Who is the author of this story, a man or a woman? We will never know… what we do know is that this out of time tale speaks volumes about the reality of women’s lives.

Jewish feminism is not only a movement that started, similarly to other revolutions, in the early 1970s, it is much older. It can be traced back to Hasidism, to the Talmud and the Torah.

Skotsl’s and her band’s rebellion falls apart like a House of cards. What went wrong? did these women lack self-confidence? Did they chose the wrong timing? Or did they appoint the wrong woman – Skotsl? Did they lack solidarity? Or maybe it was a motivation issue?

Rachel Adler analyses this story as follows[2]: “Traditionally, heaven promises earth a messiah, because from the divine point of view, the world has a problem, but in this story the messiah is dispatched from earth to heaven because the divine point of view is the problem.”

In the meantime, women have understood that they had to use the same tools as men, or rather, the same weapons. We have to struggle with texts, studying hard in order to be able to bring our own interpretations. We can build a successful women’s tower of Babel, if our courage is firmly rooted in knowledge.

Things have gone well in the last forty years. Unfortunately, as we have seen recently in other areas, no freedom, no right is achieved once and for all. We must be vigilant and continue to condemn all abuses and people who set back Jewish women’s rights.

But what link can we establish between Skotsl’s Hasidic tale about a failed feminist rebellion and Korach and his band’s attempted putsch? Apparently none. Several men, among the leaders of the community, led by Korach, stand up to defend what they consider their legitimate rights. They want to share the power with God’s appointees: Moses and Aaron. Their call for equal rights has probably its origin in the contiguous paragraph of parashat Shelakh lekha, the verses about the tzitzit from the second paragraph of the Shema (Numbers 15: 37-41). More specifically, they seemed concerned by these words: Vehiitem kedoshim leeloekheim : to be holy to your God.

Holiness is an unclear concept, it was initially limited to the Kohanim but insofar as the people keeps the commandments, everyone has access to it. Behind their generous request, the Levites rebels want more religious’ power: the priesthood and the associated honours.

Moses asks : “Is this not enough that you have been dedicated to His service”? (Numbers 16:9) using the question word ham’at. A few verses further, Datan and Aviram are echoing their question with the same ham’at: “Isn’t it enough that you’ve brought us up from a land [Egypt here] which flows with milk and honey?”

Do they really wish to overthrow those in power?  The wrath of the rebels might originate in two contradictory emotions. On the one hand, they raise their voices against injustice: why should the others receive honours and not them?

On the other hand, they express in their hearts a great anxiety. The same continuous fear expressed by their fellows since they entered the desert. What will their future look like? They are angry and are harking back to the past. What they left behind seems to be much more desirable than Moses’ promises which are slow in coming into being. They have lost their grounding and roots. They feel out of place, how can they believe in a better future in the middle of nowhere?

Since the Hebrews entered this desert, they have experienced numerous struggles for power. It demonstrates their difficulty in living together, in envisaging a common future, in becoming a people. They do not trust each other and their faith in God is shaky. They are far from being an am kadosh – a holy people. Korach’s claim about kedusha is a mistake. It is not an innate character trait inherited by the Jewish people.

Here the stories of Skotsl and Korach come together and share a common ground. Apparently, any fight for emancipation, or for equality, or for a minority’s human rights, has moral goals. However, if the underlying motivation is to overthrow power and ask for more privileges and honours, it becomes immoral. Then, it is just another form of idolatry. Kedusha, which is potentially available to each of us, requires us to find our rightful place, not against the other, but in harmony with the other. This can be a lifetime task.

3rd year student rabbi Daniela Touati

[1] Rachel Adler, « Engendering Judaism » JPS, 1999, p.22

[2] Rachel Adler, Op.cited, p. 23

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.