Monday, May 29, 2017

Naso: Miriam's Daughter Speaks Out Against the Horrid Trial of a Wife Accused of Adultery


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

“If a man’s wife has gone astray [and committed adultery]…and a fit of jealousy comes over the husband, and he becomes angry at the wife…the man shall bring his wife to the Priest. …The priest shall take holy water…and some of the dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle. He shall uncover and loosen her coiled hair [in public] and make her drink the ‘bitter water.’
“And it shall be, that if the woman has had carnal relations with another, the Priest shall curse her, and say, ‘May the LORD cause your thigh to sag and your belly to distend; may the spell enter your body, causing your belly to sag and your thigh to sag.’
“And the woman shall say, ‘Amen, Amen!’
“The priest shall write these curses down and rub them off into the water of bitterness….
“The husband shall be clear of guilt; but the wife shall suffer for her guilt” (Num. 5:11-29; translation mine).


Date: 5th Day of 9th Month, 7th Year since Exodus from Egypt

High Priest Itamar ben Aaron v’Elisheva, Av Bet Din, Presiding Judge
Priest K’shay-Ruach ben Dode-El, Secondary Judge
Priest Rachmiel ben Nechushtan, Tertiary Judge

Court Scribe: Kotev ben Chibur oo’Machberet

Accused Wife: Mor bat Miriam oo’Malach
Accusing Husband: Shelumiel ben Shel-Mazel

NOTE: There were no witnesses to give testimony, but Wife Mor did appear with two friends for personal support; the Three Judges did allow it

I, Scribe Kotev ben Chibur, do set down these proceedings of our Holy Family Court, exactly as I witnessed it on the Day of the Ordeal of Suspected Wife-Adultery. [I have not, I admit, been to many of these. Nor did I know the wife well; how could I, a priest devoted to service of G-d, spend time among strange women? I did, however, know the husband—an idle, drinking sot. He claimed to be a cobbler, but I admit that neither I nor any of my Levite friends ever saw him holding a sandal in his hand, unless it was his own.]

We met in the anteroom directly behind the Tabernacle—it was part of the Tent of Meeting, used for meetings of the Council of Elders, and for legal hearings.

The Ordeal-Meeting was scheduled for High Noon At precisely twelve of the clock, the curtains of the Tent-Opening parted, and the Wife swept in—not in plain, woolen homespun shortcloth, no. Indeed, I was surprised at her appearance; even the High Priest Itamar was impressed, and sat back in his throne, blinking.

For Mistress Mor bat Miriam, daughter of Miriam the Prophet, Dancer, and Singer, Leader of the Women at the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds; niece of Rabbi Moshe, was dressed in gold, brocade, and pearl trim, with a tall, crownlike mitre, similar, almost, to that of the High Priest himself. Her hands were henna’d, and she wore golden slippers that could barely be seen beneath her long gown. Two of her friends?—retainers?—held her train behind, and they seated her on one of the extra thrones that a goggle-eyed Levite scrambled to fetch and drag forward.

In no time, however, Priest K’Shay-Ruach, the Prosecutor [and a harsh fellow he was, too], found his voice, and began to inveigh against the woman in gold: “Never before seen, dressed like this—unheard of liberties taken with common custom—harrumph!—order her to change her dress, and reschedule the hearing—cough!—if it please the Court, of course.”

In the meantime, I looked, and saw the Husband Complainant, that lazy Shelumiel, sneaking in—unshaven, robes all filthy and smelly, and beard all unbrushed. Priest K’Shay-Ruach looked at the man he was supposed to accuse the wife of, and rolled his eyes. “I must say, Holiness—“

While K’shay was taking a breath, the Wife’s defender, the gentler, compassionate Priest Rachmiel, broke in: “What say you, Mistress? Why are you dressed in this—this—flamboyant fashion?”

And Mistress Mor spoke up—a most unusual event in our male-dominated court system: “I wore my finest clothing, to prove my innocence, Milord Priest, as a true Daughter of Israel.”

And here came the sloppy Husband: “She lies! She is as unfaithful as the day is long. She lies about the house, and does nothing for me, when I come home after a hard day’s work at the shop. Why, she—“

“Silence!” rumbled the High Priest Itamar, “Let us hear more from Mistress Mor, daughter of Miriam. She speaks well. And then to prove whether she is adulterous or no, she will drink the Bitter Water with Curses.”

“All Respect to you, Judges,” said Mor softly but firmly, “but I will do no such thing! If you favor this—this—goat of a husband over me, his hardworking wife—and with four little ones at home—then, I will not accept your authority over me, nor over my sisters of Israel, who work equally hard, as wives, mothers, homemakers, and workers.”

“Now, why so, you nervy minx?” asked harsh K’shay, defender of men and husbands in particular, “for we are the judges. You are but a woman.”

“Yes,” said Mor, “but without us Israelite women, there would be no more Israelite men.”

The judge-priests murmured in assent.

“I have not committed any crime this day, nor prior to it,” said Mor, “and I declare your foolish, prejudiced, absurd Ordeal to be null and void. I and my sisters—(her friend-attendants nodded) declare this court to be invalid in matters of suspected adultery. From this day on, let there be required at least two witnesses to prove any suspicion of sexual crime.”

High Judge Itamar declared: “The suggestion has merit, coming as it does from a woman who is most strongly affected. Give us a week to deliberate, and we will return our decision.”

[And, in the end of the judges’ deliberation, I, Scribe Kotev ben Chibur oo’Machberet, set down the invalidation of the Ordeal by Bitter Water. It remained in the Books of Canon Law, but was never again suggested or practiced.]

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Bamidbar: Young Love amid the Desert Census


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Scene: Open Wilderness—nothing but sand, rocks, and thornbushes, a harsh, burning desert expanse. Vultures circle overhead. We behold a long, undulating line of people—men, women, children—old, young, middle-aged—gathered around a tall rock, from which a bony, aged, bearded elder, obviously the leader, barks orders. He is Moshe ben Amram, Leader and Rabbi of Israel. Because of his age, and the possible strain on his voice, his words are repeated on all four sides by Tribal Chieftains, who use arm-signals and ram’s-horns to try to organize the multitude into a semblance of marching order.

Towards the front rank, we see two teenagers—Nachron ben Gafiel, of the Tribe of Benjamin, and Zamrielah bat Shulamit, of the Tribe of Dan. They are trying to move out of the crowd, to listen to Moses, their only entertainment in a dull day,  and also to stand next to one another, without seeming too obvious about it.

Moses (faintly): And I tell you all, that the Lord, God of Hosts, has told me this day, there is to be a Census, a Counting of Countings, of all the families, relations, relatives, and tribes of the entire Children of Israel on this day….

Nachron: Psst! Zami—Zamrielah! (Zamrielah pretends to ignore him; she adjusts her headscarf to cover her ears better; Nachron reaches for her sleeve, yanks it gently but firmly) I say there—Zamrielah! Don’t you hear me?

Zamrielah (pretending to be angry, but secretly pleased): Nachron! Don’t be touching me! What if my father Ezriach saw a strange boy, from a different tribe, daring to touch his youngest daughter? What chutzpah—what nerve!

Nachron (abashed): Sorry. But you heard me very well, and you were ignoring me.

Moses (voice quavering): …I call upon the Tribal Chieftains to appoint Sub-Chieftains, and Sub-Sub-Chieftains, to supervise the counting of countings, as the Lord God has directed me, and His servant, Aaron, and my disciple, your general, Joshua—I say! Can you heralds not quiet those Reubenites, over there? What is stirring them up, so?

Joshua (shading his eyes, and squinting into the morning sun): I believe, Milord Moses, that Dathan ben Eliab has nearly been stung by a scorpion. That’s him, dancing about, the fat fool. Hm—it’s too bad; the scoundrel is still alive. Where’s a good scorpion when you need one? (Shouting) You there—you rabble! Quiet down now, before the Lord God and His servant, Moses!

(The Crowd murmurs:

When will those ridiculous Census-takers get started?...Mama, I’m thirsty!...We should get well underway, afore that burning-hot desert sun gets up overhead: shouldn’t we be in Baal-Sheetim afore noontime?...They say there’s a big oasis there, big enough to water all of my sheep and goats!...That would be wonderful—when was the last time the wives and little kids  had a proper bath? Etc.)

Moses: Well, let me go on…. So, Heralds (Heralds gesticulate to the crowd)—No, I mean, start your appointing. (Moses reaches out, and Joshua helps him off the Rock) Is there any water left in that goatskin? Just a trickle, a small drop, is all I need (Moses is breathing with difficulty; Joshua sits him down gently, and holds the goatskin carefully to his lips) Ah! That’s good. Blessed are You, Lord our God—who gives us sustenance….(drinks)

Joshua: Amen!

Nachron (whispering): Zamrielah, your skin is getting red from the sun—shouldn’t we go sit beneath that carob tree, over there?

Zamrielah: Do we dare, Nachron? Is it allowed?

Nachron: If anyone stops us, we can say that we were feeling faint from the hot sun, and we went there for the shade. Besides—

Zamrielah (eagerly): Besides what?

Nachron: Well, I’m not twenty years old yet—just fifteen—so they’re not really interested in counting me for the census. And you—

Zamrielah (hoping he’ll compliment her): What about me? Do you--?

Nachron: Well, you’re just a girl, so the Sub-Chieftains won’t be counting you, not at all. You’re not really important.

Zamrielah (angry): Not important? Is that what you tell a girl?

Nachron (realizing, too late, what he has just said): Wait, that’s not what I meant—

Zamrielah (turning her back on him): Leave me alone!

Nachron: Wait! Zami, wait! Please! (Running after her, he slams full-bore into Gen. Joshua, who is moving through the crowd, selecting his Sub-Chieftains) Oh, pardon, pardon me, General!

Joshua: Oof! Careful, youngster! (Seeing Zamrielah, he smiles) And you better move faster, to snare that lovely gazelle of yours. She is well-worth the chase, I see.

Zamrielah (embarrassed): Oh! Leave me alone! (Darting between a heavily-laden donkey and a wagonload of clay jugs, she disappears)

Nachron: Zami? Zami, where are you? Oh, Zami….(He shakes his fists in frustration)

Moses (from a distance, fading away): “Of the descendants of… the registration of the clans of their ancestral house, as listed by name, aged twenty years and over, all who are able to bear weapons of war—those enrolled from that tribe, numbering….”

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Behar-Bechukotai: A Poem of Disagreement with Various Torah Laws


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Dear God,

It is true that Your wisdom is infinite, and that our mortal wisdom is lacking and incomplete,
But I have studied Your Laws to the best of my ability
Limited though it may be
And I have some disagreements, if You will forgive me.

The laws that You give us in these Torah portions
May have sufficed in their time—such as, lending money, but only to Jews, at no interest;
Selling people who owed money into slavery so that they could work to pay off their debts;
Showing a prejudice against the gentiles in your midst
In favor of the Israelites; and other, similar laws—

These may have been considered true and just and right and proper
For establishing a good and fair society
In which both Jews and gentiles could dwell in equality and safety
Thousands of years, ago,
But they don’t ring as true, today.

I well understand Your intentions at the time of their writing,
Since Israel feared its neighbors round about (so do we learn from the Five Books of Moses),
And skirmished with them from time to time,
But we see from the Book of Ruth and hints in the Books of Samuel and Kings
That the Israelites usually co-habited well and peaceably with their pagan neighbors—

And so, with respect, I question the need
For exclusionary laws favoring the Jews over the gentiles;
In particular, those which encouraged the practice of enslaving our pagan neighbors led to racism,
And race-hatred persists in scourging humanity today—

And how could this have been Your intention?

Moving on to the second of the Torah portions,
I note that old canard stating that if the people are not faithful to Torah,
You will stop the land from bearing its fruit or flocks,
And I heartily and respectfully disagree with this practice—
Though I accept that You wrote (or inspired its writing) in a pre-scientific age
When our people were more likely to accept it,
And that rainfall in Israel was scarce and unreliable.

Today, however, theodicy causes fear among humanity:
If someone gets sick, they first ask themselves:
“What did I do wrong? Was I unfaithful to God?
“Why is God angry with me?”

And so I ask that it be removed, along with the curses for disobeying You,
Such as, “I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper,”
Meaning that the ground will not yield its fruit
If people do not perform Your mitzvote properly.

Should we not see our God as more merciful than short-tempered?

I offer my thoughts in a spirit of love for You,
And with the concept of Progress and evolving Theology,
For we humans—Jews, here—are a stubborn bunch,
And thrive more on encouragement than the rod.

Bless You, our God.