Thursday, 19 December 2013

Yoma 42 a, b

Moving from specifics to generalities, the rabbis question several possible reasons to disqualify a service or an offering.  In part, they consider:

  • who performs the service/offering: High Priest vs. any common priest; man vs. man or woman, etc.
  • the timing of the service/offering
  • the type of service/offering, ex. red heifer vs. bull, etc.
To further their opinions, they share proof texts.  Some of those proof texts are based the hermeneutic rule regarding repetition of words.  In today's daf, the rabbis suggest that the placement of an individual word such as "it" or "statute" teaches us the particular practice of given rituals.

Although today's daf was relatively dry, we are introduced to an interesting discourse on women's potential ritual leadership. The rabbis question whether or not a woman can take on the ritual of sprinkling water (red heifer).  No, we are told, a man must perform this ritual - and the ritual must take place during the day.  The proof text is found in Numbers 19:19, where "the pure one shall sprinkle..." is in the singular masculine form, which excludes women.  Further, "... on the third day" is understood to mean day and not night.  

Why is it that the rabbis sometimes understand the singular masculine as inclusive of all people (ie. when it says 'man', it means 'one') and yet they arbitrarily (according to my reading) suggest that the singular masculine excludes women?

This analysis continues: that one man performs all of the stages of the ritual during the day: slaughter, collection of blood, sprinkling of blood, burning, and casting the cedar word and the hyssop and the strip of crimson (the lot, discussed yesterday) into the fire.  This is determined through an interpretation of the word "statute" in Numbers 19:2.  However, other stages are excluded from the daytime, male requirement: collecting the ashes, filling the water, and sanctification (of hands and feet).  So are women allowed to lead those final rites?  The Gemara furthers this challenge - what is permitted to be done by a non-priest compared with what is permitted to be done by a woman?

Abaye reminds us that the verse states that "Elazar" performs these rituals.  A High Priest and not a common priest or a non-priest - or, of course, a woman.  A note (Steinsaltz) tells us the halacha: regarding collection of the ashes and filling of waters, a non-priest or woman (but not a deaf-mute, imbicile [sic] or minor) are permitted to collect the ashes and to fill the waters.   However, regarding sprinkling the purification waters of the red heifer, only men can serve.  This includes non-priests and minors.  We learn that women are not the only marginalized community members.  Hermaphrodites [sic], people whose genitalia are concealed (?), deaf-mutes, imbeciles, or minors who are still unaware of their actions cannot perform this rite.

It would seem that there are two broad categories of "fitness" regarding religious ritual leadership:
1) an 'ordinary looking' penis
2) full capacity to consent and understand the meaning of the rituals performed

Why is the sexual organ important in the practice of ritual?  Certainly the rituals themselves do not require a functioning, usual penis.  Thus it must be a metaphor.  Does the penis somehow represent the capacity for procreation, or for action, or for authority?  Does it stand for occupation, or for invasion, or for conquering?  Certainly our Sages did not create these social realities; learning Talmud continually reminds me that patriarchy was woven into their interpretations as it was already a well-established ideology in antiquity.  

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