Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Elizabeth Ehrlich was once a comfortable “cultural Jew.” The practice of Jewish religion held little attraction for her. Miriam’s Kitchen: A Memoir (1997) is Ehrlich’s report on a year spent learning from her mother-in-law, Miriam, a Polish Holocaust survivor, the details of domestic religion-the laws and the lore. As the year passed, Ehrlich grew increasingly interested in becoming a ritual specialist in her home. She wanted to “infuse the minutiae of everyday life with something more.” She recognized that someone would have to make this a “priority mission,” and that that someone would be her.
We can draw an arc from Elizabeth Ehrlich’s kitchen back to the Torah portion before us. Many contemporary Jews find this portion among those that make their eyes glaze over. Reform theologian Rachel Adler reports that when she was growing up she never heard the word “ritual” without it being prefaced by the word “meaningless.” Likewise, Arnold Eisen, a scholar of contemporary Judaism, for many years kept his sights on so-called higher things (like faith and covenant) in lieu of studying the sacrificial system (Taking Hold of Torah, 1997, p. 71). If the rituals of sacrifice in the sanctuary (6:1-7:48) seem to be of little interest, the elaborate rites for ordaining priests (8:136) appear to be both archaic and problematic in their exclusion of women from spiritual leadership.
Over the years Adler, Eisen, and many others have come to appreciate the power of the rituals described in this parashah. As we learn about ritual as a human phenomenon, we come to understand it as a language of its own, uniquely meaningful. To do justice to the sacrificial system, we need to contextualize Israelite sacrifice with the help of anthropology, sociology, comparative religion, and even neurobiology. We can ask also how this ritual of sacrifice was transformed in Christianity and in Judaism. When we consider the Jewish transformation of the sacrificial system, the question of gender, power, spirituality, and leadership can emerge in a more nuanced light.