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Parashat Naso 5780

June 4, 2020

When It Really Is About The Patriarchy
A D’var Torah for Parshat Naso
By Rabbi David Markus

Dedicated to the family of George Floyd, and peaceful change makers everywhere.

I open this week’s Torah portion (Naso), and I cringe. I read of ancient ways to serve in the Mishkan – all tribal men of a certain age. I read of Sotah trials, humiliating women to placate jealous husbands. Even the Threefold Blessing, phrased free of gender, was harnessed to aim first at Kohanim – only men (B.T. Hullin 49a, Rashi Num. 6:27).

Thankfully we’ve become adept at redeeming Torah from patriarchy. Some see Torah as socially developmental, meeting our ancestors only just a bit ahead of their Bronze Age context so that Torah would be practical. We might note that Torah itself responded to the Sotah trial by restoring an innocent Sotah woman’s power: a false-accuser husband never could divorce her (Deut. 22:19). We can applaud Yohanan ben Zakkai for abolishing the Sotah trial outright (M. Sotah 9:9). We can celebrate that Zohar redeemed a patriarchal Threefold Blessing by teaching that one can bless only if one truly loves: an unloving priest’s bones are as dust (Zohar 3:147b).

These approaches might offer comfort in proportion to how fully they rectify unfair power imbalances. I’m grateful to live in a time and place in which we proudly and publicly can heed Judaism’s call to do just that.

But self-congratulatory pride has a short shelf life. This year especially, Naso booms with the intersectionality of structural prejudice, tribalism and misogyny. Whatever our eagerness and creativity to wrestle inconvenient parts of our history, our need to do so still hurts. We must say so clearly and without worry about disloyalty or heresy, much as a patriot who loves one’s country can work tirelessly for a “more perfect union.”

History’s unhealed scars open as gaping wounds. I read Naso and I see George Floyd and Eric Garner. I read Naso and I see Ferguson. I read Naso and I see thousands in my coastal New York synagogue’s congressional district, with the nation’s highest per capita infection and death rates from covid-19 – and, not by coincidence, also the nation’s poorest district and predominantly a district of color.

Unhealed wounds of race and class shape the covid crisis. The soil of structural prejudice is fertile ground for antisemitism, what Dr. Deborah Lipstadt calls humanity’s most irrational and enduring hate that flourishes in other hatreds based on race and class. Toxic leaders tend to reek of misogyny. All of this intersectionality – how the almost unbearable barrage of breaking news about race, class, health, power and gender is all connected – becomes ever more glaring.

Naso commands this big-picture vision. Naso commands that we not look away or rush too fast to redeem difficult texts before we see how they fit together. Naso insists that we call tribalism and misogyny what they are – existentially linked to each other, a Biblical example of intersectionality that today is painfully real, frightening and lethal.

Naso reminds that Judaism’s truest measure is not how enthusiastically or creatively we can re-read these difficult texts. Rather, the truest measure of our Judaism is how totally we commit ourselves to rectifying the structural barriers to human dignity, justice and fairness they encode.

Let Naso galvanize us not because of the Jewish self-interest that antisemitism thrives in any society that tolerates hate or structural prejudice – undeniably true as it may be. Rather, let Naso galvanize us because, for a people carrying the legacy of slavery, pogroms and Holocaust in our bones, there can be no other way.
Rabbi David Evan Markus (AJR Adjunct Faculty – Rabbinics) is senior rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY) and Founding Builder of Bayit: Building Jewish, a spiritual innovation start-up for all ages and stages. Rabbi Markus also serves as Faculty in Spiritual Direction and past Board Co-Chair for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. By day, Rabbi Markus presides as Judicial Referee in New York Supreme Court, 9th Judicial District, as part of a parallel career in government service.