Men, Women, and Religious Worship

THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH

Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom

evanhoffman@gmail.com

Parshat Bo – פרשת בא

January 8, 2022 – ו שבט תשפב

This essay is sponsored by Honey & Sol Neier and Gail Levine in loving memory of Claire Krumper and Roslyn Levine.

Men, Women, and Religious Worship

After Moses and Aaron threatened Pharaoh and the Egyptians with a plague of locusts, Pharaoh’s courtiers implored him to accede to the Israelites’ request for a religious holiday. Pharaoh grudgingly heeded their advice and permitted the Hebrew sacrificial festival, but demanded clarification from Moses about who would participate in the worship service to be conducted at a distance of three-days’ journey into the wilderness. Moses replied “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds, for we must observe the Lord’s festival (Exodus 10:9).”   Pharaoh reacted harshly to Moses’ demand that all the Israelites and their possessions be permitted to leave Egypt temporarily for cultic purposes. He accused Moses of being bent on mischief and of deceptively plotting to have the Israelites permanently leave Egypt. As for who would be allowed to go worship, Pharaoh drastically narrowed the scope of his permission. “No! You menfolk go and worship the Lord, since that is what you want (10:11).” Moses and Aaron were then expelled from Pharaoh’s presence.   The Midrash and medieval commentators addressed Pharaoh’s seemingly inaccurate words “since this is what you want.” How could Pharaoh claim that Moses only wanted the menfolk to go worship, since in fact Moses had made a far more expansive request? Rashi explained that Pharaoh based his words on Moses’ prior petitions for permission to conduct sacrificial worship. Since children do not participate in such sacrifices, only the adult men were granted leave (see Pesikta Zutreta Exodus 10). Ibn Ezra (based on Exodus Rabbah 13:5) understood Pharaoh as questioning Moses’ true motivation: “If what you really want is to worship the Lord, then it should be enough for only the males to go.” Similarly, Rashbam has Pharaoh questioning the need for women and minors to go, since he presumed their presence would not be needed. The common features of these interpretations are suspiciousness on Pharaoh’s part and assumptions by him about what Hebrew religious services would entail.   Toldot Yitzhak rejected Rashi’s interpretation, noting that it would have been consistent with the text had Pharaoh said “since this is what you wanted,” using the past tense. But since the text has Pharaoh speaking in the present tense, Toldot Yitzhak understood the dialogue between Moses and Pharaoh to be in the style of marketplace negotiations. The seller asks for $100. The buyer says “I will give you $80, which is what you really expected to receive for the item. You asked for $100 only because had you asked for $80 you knew that I would have tried to negotiate you down to $60.” According to this interpretation, Pharaoh did not regard Moses’ broad request as a realistic attempt to secure permanent Hebrew liberation; it was merely a negotiating tactic and a bluff to be called.   Pharaoh was not alone in questioning the presence of woman and children at Judaism’s public gatherings. The commandment of Hak-hel is observed once every seven years on the first intermediate day of Sukkot. The nation is gathered at the central shrine where the political leader reads from the Torah. “Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 31:12).” The rabbis themselves were at a loss to explain why various groups other than adult males needed to be present. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah resolved the difficulty with this homily: The men come to learn, the women come to listen, and the children are brought merely so that their parents can accrue merit for having brought them (Tosefta Sotah 7:9).   Was Pharaoh correct in his assertion that Hebrew sacrificial worship is the exclusive domain of adult men? The Torah thrice states that only men are obligated to appear before the Lord on the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot (Exodus 23:17, 34:23, Deuteronomy 16:16). The Mishnah presents a long list of categories of those exempted from the pilgrimage obligation: deaf-mutes, deranged people, minors, people of ambiguous gender, women, Canaanite slaves, the lame, the blind, the sick, the elderly, and those who are unable to ascend by foot to the Temple Mount (Mishnah Hagigah 1:1).   Yet it is also clear from Scripture that women did go on pilgrimage. Elkanah brought his wives, Hannah and Peninah, with him annually to the tabernacle at Shiloh. While the wives might not have participated in the slaughter and blood service of the sacrifices, they were invited to partake of the sacred feasts (I Samuel 1:4). The husband of the Shunamite woman questioned his wife’s trip to the prophet only because it was neither the New Moon nor the Sabbath (II Kings 4:23). One can infer that, at regularly scheduled intervals, it was socially acceptable for women to go to religious gatherings for instruction and spiritual rejuvenation. Certain categories of women were obligated to bring sacrifices, notably parturients undergoing purification (Leviticus 12:6) and those who had experienced irregular menstrual flows (15:29).   Some women were eager to feel personally invested in the sacrificial service. According to the sages, semikhah -- the ceremonial laying of the hands on the head of the sacrificial animal shortly before its slaughter -- is permitted only for men. Rabbi Jose and Rabbi Simeon ruled that semikhah is obligatory for men and permitted on a discretionary basis for women. Rabbi Jose recounted an incident in which women were permitted to perform semikhah in order to afford them spiritual satisfaction (Hagigah 16b).   As the sacrificial cult gave way to prayer as the dominant method of religious worship, women (and children) were afforded expanded opportunities. While women (and children) were exempted from the twice-daily recitation of the Shema because it is a positive time-bound commandment, they were obligated in prayer and the recitation of Grace after Meals (Mishnah Berakhot 3:3). The Talmud explains that women were obligated to pray because all humans, regardless of gender, need to beseech God for His mercies (Berakhot 20b).   Increased liturgical competence by women and children, while a positive development in its own right, made possible the unwelcome prospect of family dependents’ displaying greater religious prowess than that possessed by the male head of household. The Talmud rules that while a minor son may recite Grace after Meals for his father and a wife may do so for her husband, a curse should come upon a man who allows his wife or children to satisfy his personal liturgical obligations (Sukkah 38a). The Talmud’s invective reflects a desire by the sages for men to study Torah and not to wallow in their own ignorance. But it is also an expression of their fears about the fate of Judaism if its survival was left to women and children.   In the early- and mid-20th century, Americanized synagogues experienced this very phenomenon. Attendance at prayer services remained somewhat popular among women, while men disappeared from the pews except for token appearances on the High Holidays. Children’s programming became a staple of synagogue life, but did not translate into continued religious involvement after those children aged out of the synagogues’ youth departments. In remarks riddled with male chauvinist sentiment, several prominent heterodox rabbis complained that they were preaching almost exclusively to women and children.   The Jewish community must take seriously Moses’ words to Pharaoh that all our people are expected to participate in Divine worship. Levels and degrees of obligation will be influenced by considerations such as age, gender, and Hebrew proficiency. But with respect to synagogue attendance and basic involvement in communal religious life, it is vital that no individual or constituent group be left out or made to feel unneeded.       If you would like to sponsor an upcoming essay, please contact me at evanhoffman@gmail.comDonations to Congregation Anshe Sholom can be made at https://anshesholomnewrochelle.org/donate/.   Parashah Themes in Historical Perspective can be purchased at https://www.gefenpublishing.com/product.asp?productid=2925.