Parashat Sh’mini

Friday, March 29, 2019 /22 Adar II, 5779
Parashat Sh’mini Leviticus 9:1-11:47

Dear Friends,

In the world of #MeToo, a rarely-known truth – our biblical priest, Aaron, had daughters, too. Yet, the Torah records that only his sons were given hereditary roles in the priesthood. Is the daughter of the High Priest, “priestly?”

Our Parashah, Shmini, details the priestly work of Aaron and his sons, each of whom are named, and who receive much attention as the priesthood is established in this week’s portion. The implication to the casual reader is that Aaron was blessed only to have had his four sons, who represent the more valued male gender in the ancient world.

But, Aaron did have daughters. One little overlooked phrase in an easy-to-overlook verse, attests to this, “But… the thigh of gift offering you, and your sons and daughters with you, may eat in any pure place…” [Lev. 10:14] Our Commentary further suggests that another reference to women working in the Tabernacle also may allude to Aaron’s daughters, thus suggesting a sacred, priestly role for the unidentified women. [Exodus 38:8, Women’s Torah Commentary, p. 617]

Hence, I read at least an echo of the ongoing struggle over the role of women in ancient, and modern, sacred realms. The Torah seems to be hiding the daughters of the High Priest, suggesting that they had no role in sacred work, a position still maintained in the Orthodox streams of Judaism. In that women only began to be ordained as Jewish clergy in the 1970’s, and still not yet outside the progressive Jewish movements, the question truly persists.

Here are my thoughts. That we only published a Women’s Torah Commentary but a decade ago, and that this issue arises in the Commentary, and is hinted at elsewhere on its pages, I believe that the question is still under debate, especially with the shifting political and social landscapes of our day. I feel that, despite 40 years of women in the rabbinate, there is still insecurity among and about women in the rabbinate, even here at Temple Beth El. I sense that, by producing more and more scholarship attesting to the role of women in the ancient priesthood, today’s female practitioners buttress and reinforce their own roles and perceptions.

What will it take to finally equalize the gender-privilege of the religious functionary? Can it be done?

I hope so. It certainly would help if Aaron’s daughters were named…

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Doug Kohn