Friday, June 06, 2008

Naso: Problems of Gender and Number

I'm going to be leining at my shul this weekend, - third Aliyah of Naso. And of course, when I'm preparing a reading, I am face to face with it for weeks, and end up paying really close attention to grammar. Sometimes I get divrei Torah that way, other times I get stuff like this - stuff that bugs me but probably would not interest a general audience.

Numbers 5:5-7
ה וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. ו דַּבֵּר, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אִישׁ אוֹ-אִשָּׁה כִּי יַעֲשׂוּ מִכָּל-חַטֹּאת הָאָדָם, לִמְעֹל מַעַל בַּיהוָה; וְאָשְׁמָה, הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא. ז וְהִתְוַדּוּ, אֶת-חַטָּאתָם אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ, וְהֵשִׁיב אֶת-אֲשָׁמוֹ בְּרֹאשׁוֹ, וַחֲמִישִׁתוֹ יֹסֵף עָלָיו; וְנָתַן, לַאֲשֶׁר אָשַׁם לוֹ

Adonai spoke to Moses saying: "Speak to the Children of Israel - a man or a woman, if they commit any human sins breaking faith with Adonai, and that person does damage; they shall confess their sin that they did and the damage he shall return in full with a fifth added on top of it, he shall give [it] to the one whom he damaged.

There is interesting stuff going on with gender and number here. The commandment here, regarding restitution, is regarded at "a man or a woman." This results in a subject that is singular but of ambiguous gender, being either male or female. Since the Torah so rarely specifies gender at this level, the linguistic difficulties this creates are rarely dealt with in the biblical text. It is interesting to see the kind of struggle this ambiguous antecedent imposes on the text that follows.

The approach taken here is similar to approaches taken recently in English to cope with gender which have made grammarians like E.B. White and William Safire cringe. Sentences like "if somebody wants to walk their dog in the city, they have to take a pooper-scooper" became the norm as English speakers became more inclined to use gender inclusive language. The same sentence penned in the 1950's would have read "if somebody wants to walk his dog in the city, he has to take a pooper scooper." Our scribe here does indeed resort to using plural cojugations and declensions (יעשו, והתבדו, חטאתם, עשו) before return to the more common biblical usage after the segol clause of Num 5:7a.

So what does this all mean? I think it would be retrojection to imagine that our scribe was troubled by matters of gender equity in the way that we might be, but there does seem to be a genuine struggle here to sort out what best to do with an ambiguous singular referent. I don't really know what to make of it, but it may be interesting to return to.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

A Haiku for the Sabbath

יום שישי נגמר
נדלקו נרות שבת
מה יפה היום