Image: Rahav Concealing the Spies (Joshua 2). Photo by Patrick Grey, some rights reserved.
I have to confess that Parashat Emor is one that I find personally troubling. Among other things, it describes the strictures put on the kohanim, the priestly class, in order to maintain their ritual purity for the sacrificial cult. Those strictures include some mysterious and troubling words about women.
The Torah is remarkably concerned with the status of women associated with the wives and daughters of the kohanim. Those rules are described in detail in Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild’s d’var Torah this week, Parashat Emor: the priest and the prostitute or how a women’s sexual history is mysteriously powerful in the ritual system. Her examination of this portion of the parashah is both scholarly and accessible, and I recommend it.
I am troubled by the same things that bother Rabbi Rothschild, with an addition. Later in the development of the halakhah (commonly translated “Jewish Law”) another stricture was added, that a female convert may not marry a kohen. This is the case in Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, despite the words of Maimonides:
There is no difference whatever between you and us. (Responsum to Ovadiah the Proselyte)
Reform Judaism does not concern itself with boundaries around the kohanim, as Rabbi Rothschild teaches in a different d’var Torah:
…the Reform response takes into account both the reality that whatever you may believe about your family the hereditary priesthood cannot be a status you can be certain about; and also has moved away from laws specifically to enable Temple ritual, so given that there are substantial disabilities in Jewish law for people identified as Cohanim, we have decided that this category is no longer of importance to us and have effectively removed this particular boundary… – Parashat Emor: the importance of knowing our boundaries
Where do we get this rule about converts and the kohanim? There are two schools of thought. The first was expressed by Rabbi Abraham ben David, known as the Ra’avad in the 12th century, citing a verse from the prophet Ezekiel:
Neither shall they [the priests] take for their wives a widow, nor her that is divorced; but they shall take virgins of the seed of the house of Israel, or a widow that is the widow of a priest. – Ezekiel 44:22
The second school of thought, which is dominant, actually comes from Maimonides, the same teacher who made the extraordinarily generous statement I cited above. He cites Tractate Yevamot of the Talmud as an elucidation of Leviticus 21:7, a verse from our Torah portion:
They shall not take a woman that is a zonah, or profaned; neither shall they take a woman put away from her husband; for he is holy unto his God. – Leviticus 21:7
And the Rabbis say: The term zonah applies only to a female convert, a freed maidservant, and one who engaged in licentious sexual intercourse. – Yevamot 61b
Imagine how annoyed a female convert might be to find out that halachically she is designated zonah, a word that is more commonly translated “prostitute!” My codes professor in rabbinical school told me to “get over it” but I remain stubbornly annoyed.
I take some comfort in the fact that there are honored women in our tradition with the zonah designation, including Tamar (Genesis 38) and Rahav of Jericho (Joshua 2.)
For more scholarly (and less annoyed) examinations of this week’s Torah portion, I recommend:
Tearing A Hole in Being by Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler
The Imperfection of Perfection by Rabbi Amy Schienerman
A Crack in Everything by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Is Time Ours or Is It God’s? Rabbi Elyse Goldstein