Tazria »
« Tzav


Shemini describes the consecration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its altar, during which Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, die as a result of offering ‘strange fire’. The Torah then describes the laws of kashrut (dietary laws) and the laws of purity.

Another voice

Shemini by Tanya Zion-Waldoks :: 5774

Tanya Zion-Waldoks is a social activist, educator, Orthodox feminist, researcher, mother, author, who also dabbles in art, dance, and Jewish rituals. She lives with her family in Beer-Sheva, Israel.

Between Happiness and Holiness: The seasons of rule-making and rule-breaking

Yesterday, when I picked up my kids from school and kindergarten I hardly recognized them. They had been transformed into colorful, shimmering, smiling butterflies, clowns and assorted unidentified creatures. I too soon found myself altered, having surrendered to eager children armed with face paints. During the Purim season, our holy sanctuaries, usually a place of dignified decorum and solemn prayers, fill with joyous celebration, costumes, rowdiness and noise – or as they say in Israeli slang: Balagan! (meaning messiness, which, in accordance with the Purim theme, is originally a Persian word!). For some, this marks the highlight of their year – finally we can let our Jewish hair down and P-A-R-T-Y!! While others are thankful Purim lasts only one day (even in the Diaspora)…

The paradoxical obligation to collectively lose control raises deep questions: what do we think, as a culture, about the proper balance between instituting social order, upholding hierarchies and maintaining the status-quo and the creativity, uncertainty and general chaos that comes with jovial merrymaking and social change?

Three tales in this week’s Parasha (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) and Haftara (2 Samuel 6:1-7:17) raise these very issues. Set in the book of Leviticus which is brimming with elaborate, almost excessively detailed, rules and regulations, parshat Shemini includes a tale of a sacrifice gone awry. Commentators debate what exactly went wrong and why: perhaps it was that the sacrifice was unsanctioned or that Aaron’s sons were drunk (remember Purim?), that they transgressed boundaries and got too close, or that they didn’t follow the particulars and were, if you will, trigger-happy. The story seems to teach that deviation and aberration (lighting a “strange fire”, Leviticus 10:1) leads to tragedy. Are we to understand that worthy service and holiness are tied to severe rule of law, to knowing one’s place and acting only in ordained ways, and generally taking life seriously? Apparently not, since just one verse prior to Aaron’s sons’ death by way of God’s fiery fury, we hear how when the people of Israel saw the same divine fire licking up the priestly sacrifices they responded with happiness (“vayaronu” 9:24).

The Haftara suggests an interesting parallel: King David, fiery and passionate lover, warrior and artist, takes to the streets with the people, dancing and “playing before God” (2 Samuel 6:5) in joyous celebration of the holy ark. Uzza, worried about the ark literally falling off the wagon, tries to do the right thing but when he reaches out to grab the ark, God kills him on the spot. King David wrathfully criticizes God’s “outburst” (6:8), leaving us wondering is the problem that God lost control or aspired to too much control and discipline? This story suggests that a zealous preservation of rules, boundaries and social hierarchies can be just as destructive as anarchy. Both approaches are a source of ruin rather than creation, and being around people like that, a kill-joy.

The Haftara ends with yet another parallel story – the highborn Queen Michal haughtily criticizes King David’s improper and disdainful public boogying in the streets alongside lowly maids. This again raises the question of what is holy and worthy: being joyful, dynamic, lightheaded, spontaneous and egalitarian or weighty, grave, structured, rule-bound, and dignified? (Note and compare the use of the verb “kavod/kaved” in 2 Samuel 6:20,22 and Leviticus 10:3).

So how do we strike a happy balance between playfulness and rigorousness? Returning to the calendar we find Jewish culture cherishing both values: Our weekly celebration of Shabbat focuses on differentiation and rules. This is reflected in the laws of Shabbat and in the words of both Kiddush and Havdala that hark back to God’s creation of the world by way of ordering and categorizing. Yet our annual celebration of Purim whose theme and practice is that of “ve-nahafokh hu” (lit. turning something upside down and inside out), forces us to experience life differently – to laugh in the face of strict rules and power structures; to be curious, silly and daring rather than being stuck in who we are and what we do for fear of social shaming. We are urged to experiment with costumes and masks, since assuming another’s point-of-view may gain us new insights on life, highlighting knowledge that cannot be accessed from the perspective of those in power (what feminists call “standpoint epistemology”). This suggests that both rules and irregularities, both drawing and transgressing boundaries, both ordering and categorizing, as well as querying and queering them are of social and cultural value, since “to every thing there is a season and a time under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).


More by Tanya Zion-Waldoks

Another voice by Taste of Chavruta

Chavruta learning (learning in pairs) is one of the oldest and most powerful Jewish learning techniques. The Limmud Chavruta Project, now an international collaboration, is also one of Limmud's oldest and best-loved traditions, at Limmud Conference in the UK and at Limmudim around the world. Teams from around the world put together a Chavruta source book, filled to the brim with traditional and modern Jewish and secular readings for study which hundreds of Limmudniks use for studying in pairs. It is a wonderful, formative experience, opening people's eyes to new concepts and ideas, and helping people to forge life-long friendships.

Now, you can continue the Limmud chavruta experience in your daily life!

This sentence is a link to the latest installment of Taste of Chavruta—which will build up by monthly installments on a particular theme, which you can download as a pdf. This is the second time this online chavruta project has been run.

In this issue, we explore the consequences of the release of debts during the Shmita year.

Try studying it at home, with your family, with colleagues at work during a break, with friends, during your commute, or by Skype or internet.

This year (2013-2014/5774), spread over 10 months (October-July), Taste of Chavruta, with support from Hazon, will be investigating the theme of Shmita – the sabbatical year. Click on the link above, or click here to find out more!


More by Taste of Chavruta

Other Divrei Torah on Shemini

  • 5766 (Norman Lamm)
  • 5766 (Bradley Shavit Artson)
  • 5767 (EJ Cohen)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5768 (Alastair Falk)
  • 5768 (Gideon Rabinowitz)
  • 5769 (Adina Judy Bernstein)
  • 5769 (Tuvit Shlomi)
  • 5770 (Alastair Falk)
  • 5770 (Hannah Kaye)
  • 5771 (Yuval Keren)
  • 5771 (Taste of Chavruta Team)
  • 5773 (Deborah Blausten)
  • 5773 (Sarah Snyder)
  • 5775 (Denise Handlarski)
  • 5775 (Peter Sevitt)