Tuesday, March 9, 2010

How Do You (if your body's sexed female and colored black) Read Leviticus 25?

Publication of any sort is an intrinsically social act, "I" having no reason to speak aloud unless I posit "you" there listening; but your presence is especially vital if I am seeking not to disclose the economic benefits of fish farming in Zäire, or to recount the imaginary tribulations of an adulterous doctor's wife in nineteenth-century France, but to reconnect myself—now so utterly transformed by events unlike any I've experienced before as to seem a stranger even to myself—to the human community....lending materiality to my readerly ideal, transform monologue into intercourse.
--Nancy Mairs

John Hobbins has written a series of posts to suggest that Leviticus 25 is a text that seeks to abolish slavery.  His penultimate post is the best, because he also talks there about slavery in India particularly, links to the wikipedia entry on slavery generally, and acknowledges that Torah says one abolitionist thing but is practiced differently.  Too bad he didn't say more of that or talk some, during this women's history month, about the on-going problems of trafficking and enslavement of females around the world.  Too bad there's not less of a monologue on the text, the text of Leviticus 25 as if it were a monologue.

Torah with its Leviticus says other things too, but that's not Hobbins's purpose.  For some time, he's been trying to unlink slavery and so-called "complementary" marriage in the Bible.  And so, to begin one of his posts in the series, he says,
A bunch of what is available online on the topic of slavery is written by people who don't know the first thing about slavery or class or economics or racism and who bring up the subject of slavery in order to denigrate the Bible insofar as the Bible regulates slavery instead of abolishing it. Still others transform the Bible into an egalitarian tract written thousands of years before egalitarianism existed.  Neither of these anachronistic approaches has anything to commend it if the goal is to understand the Bible on its own terms.
This is a straw-man attack of no one in particular.  Hobbins is being kind here by not naming anyone.  But, however, and nevertheless, he does talk about "the Bible on its own terms" as if he's not interpreting it for us his readers (especially his readers who, he believes, use the Bible as "an egalitarian tract").  This is what sounds to me like a monologue.  John is monologing, and he wants the Bible "on its own terms" to monologue.

(I intended to dialogue with him through comments to his post, but for some reason his blog isn't letting me.  So hopefully no one will mind much if they have to read my responsive thoughts over here.  And you are welcome to dialogue here if you like.)

Torah unread or unpracticed or unread in all its problematic glory is a very troublesome thing.  There's a very real sense in which it can never be so abstracted.  It can't be abstracted away from practice.  And it can't be abstracted away as the pure original textual ideal, the intention of a single author, Moses, and really God, perhaps.  And it can't be abstracted away from all the other things it says.  As Nancy Mairs puts it, "Publication of any sort is an intrinsically social act."

The fact is that readers do not use Torah so much as an abolitionist text.  Nor do they appeal to Moses, or God, in the abstract.  Just as soon as the five books were boxed and carried across the desert into the brutally-invaded lands, there was slavery.  Worse, much of all that was published in the box justified slavery and the subjugation of females by the men who read it. 

Then, later, in another land of goyim called the USA, the struggle for abolition didn't much refer to Torah in general or Leviticus in particular.  Men such as Frederick Douglass, for example, combed through the Bible to find ways to dialogue with others about slavery and abolition; but he didn't refer to Leviticus 25.  (Douglass, of course, did not say "God loves slavery" as the atheists writing about him on this rather monologic site infer that he should have said if he were logical.  My point here is not to suggest that the Bible says that God is pro-slavery or that God is abolitionist.  Rather, I'm wanting to stress that the Bible can't be read in human isolation.  Atheists can't read it that way; and neither do believers.  So Douglass reads it but just doesn't read Leviticus 25 as his abolitionist text).

Likewise, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lillie Devereux Blake -- fighting alongside Douglass for women's rights and for abolition of slaves in America  --  found the slavery issue in Leviticus inextricably bound to the treatment of women.  The former suffragette, looking at Lev. 14:20-22, saw "the cruel injustice of the comparative severity of the punishment for man and [a slave] woman for the same offence"; and the latter saw how in Leviticus the class of male-only priests subjugated females (not only mothers and daughters of the lesser classes but also even the ewes of the flocks of sheep).  These white women, like the black man who fought for his own freedom, dialogued with the text and with others about the text but never to uncouple the issues of slavery and the problems of female subjugation intermeshed there.

In the post-abolition USA, there is still reluctance to read Torah as an abolitionist text.  Our contemporaries whose families suffered slavery in this country and throughout the African diaspora don't tend to see Torah in the same way as those of us whose families justified slavery by the scriptures. 

Steed Vernyl Davidson, Justin Ukpone, and Gosnell Yorke, for example, say "texts used to justify slavery and to encourage pious acceptance of suffering and oppression do not appear with the same level of authority in the discourse of Africans in North America...  The Bible in the hands of Africans differs from that held by Euro-Americans."

And Rev. Dr. Madeline McLenney-Sadler says something more.  She's in dialogue with other African American women and their sisters in the Africana Diaspora who are in dialogue with the published text of Leviticus.  McLenney-Sadler says:
In the United States, African American women’s spirituality is often shaped in the crucible of heartache, assault, and neglect by those who use the name of love in vain….  We could go shouting to Zion about the instructions in Leviticus and its divinely inspired moral apex were it not for the face that the very same book that forbids abuses of power within the family…, requires fairness…, and demands atonement for both unintentional and intentional wrongdoing… also gives Israelites permission to enslave non-Israelites and use them as breeding machines (Lev. 25:44).  As Roberta Flack and the Black Eyed Peas would ask, “Where is the love?”   As Hebrew Professor [Dr. Randall C.] Bailey ... cogently argues [in his essay, “They're Nothing But Incestuous Bastards: The Polemical Use of Sex and Sexuality in the Hebrew Canon Narratives, 1995], Christians must be careful with the use and application of passages that appear to condone oppressive ideologies.” 
There is no twenty-first-century feel-good response that can make Lev. 25:44 spiritually comprehensible for a spiritual people seeking deliverance in the Africana Diaspora. 
[the above here is an excerpt from McLenney-Sadler's chapter, “Leviticus,” on page 91, in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel's Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora.  (HT David Ker)]
Notice how McLenney-Sadler with other African American and African Diaspora women -- like other men and women, white and black, such as Vernyl Davidson, Ukpone, Yorke, Cady Stanton, Devereux Blake, and Douglass  -- cannot easily separate the subjugation of women from the subjugation of slaves in Leviticus.  Moreover, they don't easily abstract abolitionism from the text as if it speaks alone, in monologue, without respect to them.  They're not making pronouncements about whether God loves slavery or whether the Bible speaks for itself to abolish it.  They must dialogue; they must view any publication as an intrinsically social act.  And, as we all know, they're hardly “people who don't know the first thing about slavery or class or economics or racism and who bring up the subject of slavery in order to denigrate the Bible insofar as the Bible regulates slavery instead of abolishing it.”

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