(Thoughts on Parashat Bechukotai - Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34)

[Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday 5/24/19]

Earlier this month the renowned teacher and writer Avivah Zornberg visited us here at Temple Israel to deliver this year’s Silver Interfaith Memorial Lecture.  The subject of her lecture was the Book of Ruth, the Tanakh’s great story of a one-time stranger joining a new community.  Indeed, subsequent Jewish tradition sees Ruth the Moabite as the paradigmatic example of the ger tzedek or giyoret tzedek – the righteous proselyte who, while not being born Jewish, chooses to join our people. 

We read in Ruth 1:14 that Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi tried to convince Ruth to go back to her native land --- וְר֖וּת דָּ֥בְקָה בָּֽהּ׃  “BUT RUTH CLUNG TO HER” – and two verses later Ruth further declares to Naomi: 

“Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Eternal do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” [1]

The Book of Ruth is traditionally read on the festival of Shavuot, which arrives just over a week from now.  One obvious reason for this is to remind us that, even for those of us who were born into Jewish families, we all in our own ways choose how we will inhabit our Jewishness.  Just as Ruth chose to join the Jewish people, so in our sacred story did our people as a whole choose to accept God’s Torah on Mount Sinai – an event we commemorate on Shavuot. 

But still, there is something special and auspicious about a person deciding for themselves to convert to Judaism.  As my colleague Rabbi Goldie Milgram beautifully expresses it:   

“It is not easy to become a Jew; we don’t have instant conversions.  There is a process of admission involving extensive study and serious ritual.  Not everyone is meant to be Jewish in this life.  If your soul needs it, however, it is my experience that nothing will stop you from finding your way in.” [2]

One of the key rituals involved in conversion to Judaism, representing the end of the long process of preparation, is immersion in a mikveh – a ritual pool that contains so-called 'Mayim Chayim,' ---  living waters --- which are connected to a gathering of natural rainwater.  Emerging from the mikvah is compared to emerging from the waters of the womb, in effect a new birth.  Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Christian traditions of baptism also often involve similar metaphors of being born again.

We at Temple Israel are particularly appreciative of how our congregation has been enriched by the presence of many gerey hatzedek – many Jews by choice.  Indeed, tomorrow morning one such individual, who completed her process of conversion earlier this week, will be called to the Torah for the first time, and our Shabbat kiddush lunch tomorrow is being sponsored in her honor. 

In the course of my career as a Rabbi I have worked with quite a few conversion candidates.   And it used to be the case for me that  ---  whenever I would be in the situation of having worked with a conversion student for many months  ---  and when I would finally hear the sound of their head coming back up to break the surface of the water after their first immersion   --- on such occasions I would think to myself – wow --- I guess the way I feel is somewhat akin to what it must feel like to give birth – to deliver a new soul into the world.

Well, in recent years I have stopped invoking that metaphor.

Why?  Because women friends of mine who have ACTUALLY given birth to new human beings --- Jewish or otherwise – have politely but firmly assured me that I  -- as a person who has not physically given birth to a human being --- HAVE NO IDEA – AND CAN’T POSSIBLY HAVE ANY IDEA --- OF HOW IT FEELS TO GIVE BIRTH OR OF WHAT CARRYING A CHILD TO TERM WITHIN ONE’S OWN BODY FEELS LIKE.

Yes, I am duly humbled by this.

I guess new Dad Prince Harry said it well a few weeks ago when he humbly admitted –

“How any woman does what they do is beyond comprehension”[3]

Yes, humility is definitely in order for anyone who would purport to impose controls on a pregnant woman’s control of her own body as she deals with a process that is indeed “beyond comprehension” for someone who has not experienced it themselves.

And yet, we see an increasing trend of state legislatures in this country seeking to limit a woman’s right to make her own choices regarding whether to carry a pregnancy to term.  It is true that some of the proponents of stricter limitations on abortion are themselves women, and, indeed, it was a woman -- Alabama Governor Kay Ivey -- who last week signed that state's controversial near-total abortion ban.[4]

However, many of us will agree that the bigger picture is one of men subjugating women by attempting to take away from them choices that should ultimately be for pregnant women themselves to make.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a broadly-based organization whose affiliate members include both the Union for Reform Judaism and Reconstructing Judaism, issued a statement on this matter last week which reads in part as follows:

“Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) condemns Alabama’s new law banning abortion even in cases of rape and incest, as well as other extreme anti-abortion bills in various states. These measures undermine women’s reproductive freedom, endanger women’s health, and criminalize women who get abortions and doctors who perform them.

“Though Alabama’s new law is the most extreme so far, other states, such as Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Mississippi, have adopted or are close to adopting bills that effectively ban abortion, including “heartbeat” and other similarly restrictive laws. Many of these new bills criminalize women obtaining abortions and abortion providers, who could serve life in prison.

“We are deeply concerned about the growing effort to overturn Roe v. Wade and limit women’s reproductive health care access. Courts should immediately enjoin these bills, as they clearly violate settled Supreme Court precedent.


“JCPA is committed to safeguarding and strengthening the spirit and impact of Roe v. Wade. For decades, we have advocated at the state and federal levels, joined amicus briefs, and adopted policy resolutions in support of women’s reproductive freedom. The decision to end a pregnancy is a difficult and personal one that should only be made by a woman in consultation with her doctor and others she chooses to involve.”[5]

How did we get here?  That’s a far bigger question than can be answered in a brief dvar Torah.

But I have no doubt that this mindset of trying to control women’s autonomy is an age-old problem.  We need look no further than this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34) .

In Leviticus 27 – the last chapter of Leviticus --- in a sort of appendix to what is in many respects is the most problematic of the five books of the Torah --- the Torah sets out a framework for determining the value of a person. 

Basically, this was a practice by which a person desiring to make a special donation for the upkeep of the Tabernacle (or later, the Temple), could do so by making their donation in an amount that was determined to be equivalent to the economic value of a specific individual.  However, the valuation of a woman of any particular age was always set at significantly less than that of a man of the same age. 

As it says in the opening verses of Leviticus 27:

“The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: 2 Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When anyone explicitly vows to the Eternal the equivalent for a human being, 3 the following scale shall apply: If it is a male from twenty to sixty years of age, the equivalent is fifty shekels of silver by the sanctuary weight; 4 if it is a female, the equivalent is thirty shekels. 5 If the age is from five years to twenty years, the equivalent is twenty shekels for a male and ten shekels for a female. 6 If the age is from one month to five years, the equivalent for a male is five shekels of silver, and the equivalent for a female is three shekels of silver. 7 If the age is sixty years or over, the equivalent is fifteen shekels in the case of a male and ten shekels for a female.”[6] 

One can argue that the Torah was only reflecting the lived social realities of its time in saying that women were worth less than men as an economic measurement.

But, is it really too much to argue that, if we truly valued women as much as men, then we wouldn’t consider restricting a woman’s autonomy over her own body?   

There are moral gray areas in all of this.  People may differ concerning the personhood of a fetus at various stages of its development.  And people may differ concerning society’s interest in protecting not only existing life but potential life.

However, women I know have in recent days been expressing visceral fear and anxiety about these latest legislative efforts to take away from them their right to make their own choices about their own bodies.

And, as Jews who believe in the value of treating each person as btzelem Elohim/ in the image of God --- and who believe in particular that – as it says in Genesis 1:27 that this characterization of btzelem Elohim goes for both women and men  -- we cannot let this threat to women go unchallenged.

The inequities in the valuation scale in Leviticus 27 remind us that inequities exist to the present day in the way we treat one another.  Sexist attempts to take away from women the fundamental right of bodily autonomy should concern us all, even – and perhaps especially – when they stem in part from aspects of our own religious heritage and of that our fellow citizens.

Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi David Steinberg (Iyar 5779/ May 2019)


[1] Ruth 1: 16-17

[2] Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Reclaiming Judaism as a Spiritual Practice: Holy Days and Shabbat, 2004, p. 133.




[6] Lev. 27: 1- 7


Posted on May 28, 2019 .