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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Where Were the Women?

I stretched the truth in my last blog post.  "Rashi reminds us that the Holy One counted the people one at a time, treasuring each and every number," I wrote.  In truth, only adult men were treasured.  Women and children were omitted from the census.

Levites were also omitted from the census of Numbers, and 40 years later both women and Levites were excluded from the Israelite count in a far more tangible way – they received no land rights.   כל העובר על הפקודים –– only citizens count, and land ownership has long been the mark of citizenship.  Think about more recent times -- with the founding of the United States who was initially given the right to vote?

In an agrarian society, land is the only material good of lasting value.  Israelite men, as landowners and heads of family, were the bedrock of biblical society.  Women, Levites and foreigners flowed like water around them; essential but transient.  Women passed from one family or tribe to another when they married.  Levites wandered the lands, in search of tithes to feed themselves and their families.  Deuteronomy refers to הלוי אשר בשעריך:  the Levite who is amongst you but not of you, and is in a class with widows, orphans, children, slaves and foreigners.  (See Deuteronomy 12:12-19,  14:27-29,  16:11-14,  18:6, and 26:11-13.)  

But wait, you might say, Levites were a privileged class.  They were chosen -- for their merits!  They were set aside for a life of singing and shlepping in God's own house.  

And you would be right to say so; the Levites were considered holier than the rest, and they were surely admired for their special role.  Of course, women were also admired by men, and all that admiration set both Levites and women as groups-apart.  As we Jews well know, “a group apart” from one perspective is a group of “outsiders” from another perspective.  Outsiders are always vulnerable.

In medieval Europe, the Jews as a whole became a ממלכת כהנים, a nation of priests.  In many ways European medieval Jews were a privileged class, like the Levites of old.  Literacy, for example, was exceptionally high among Jewish men and quite high among Jewish women, while Christian peasants were mostly illiterate.  Jews were simultaneously admired and hated by the Christian peasantry.  The royalty depended on Jews as bankers and tax-collectors, but through relentless expulsions they made their Jews transient and extremely vulnerable.  (For more on Jews as outsiders, I recommend the first chapter of Yuri Slezkine's book, The Jewish Century.)

Human nature does not change.  Like a dance, history simply shifts who stands in which position.  I try not to get angry at historical realities anymore.  Might as well be angry at a black widow for killing her mate -- you won't change the spider and you won't change history.   I do get angry at instances of sexism or antisemitism in our world today, but mostly I am thankful to live in a time and place where Jews and women are no longer outsiders to society.

Who are the outsiders in America today: essential to our functioning, but made to be transient?  Admired, perhaps -- for their rich culture, their music and dance and cuisine -- but also hated and certainly vulnerable?  I am haunted by the words of Woody Guthrie that seem as true today as they were 60 years ago when he wrote them:

My father's own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

(Click here to hear Woody’s song.)

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