Queen Athaliah and the Half-Shekel (Shabbat Shekalim, Int'l Women's Day)

Shabbat shalom - and happy International Women’s Day. 

On a usual year, International Women's Day falls in an excellent week in the Jewish calendar. It usually sits just on top of Purim, or between Purim and Pesach. Purim, with its hero as a beautiful young woman, rags-to-riches-to-courageous-hero Queen Esther. And Pesach, where the beginning of the narrative - the story of saving the children, which eventually leads to the redemption of the Israelites from slavery - is all about women. Mothers, sisters, midwives, princesses, all conspiring to resist Pharaoh’s most terrible of decrees, and in doing so, securing salvation.

This year, the Gregorian calendar and the Hebrew calendar are aligned slightly differently. We have a few weeks to go before we reach Purim. We are instead at Shabbat Shekalim, the Shabbat before we enter Purim’s month of Adar - this year, Adar Sheini. 

We don’t really have much in the way of female characters in our readings tomorrow, but there is a woman who looms behind the special Haftarah. Our Haftarah is about the young King Yehoash and his relationship with the Temple. 

The line directly before our Haftarah is this:

… And he ascended the royal throne. All the people of the land rejoiced, and the city was quiet. As for Ataliah, she was put to the sword in the House of the King. 

Ataliah is the singular reigning queen of Ancient Israel (actually, Judah). It is not a good story. She usurps the throne by murdering everyone else who is in line for it. Yehoash survives by being hidden in the Temple, while Ataliah rules from the palace. Eventually, we get a revolution, and Ataliah is killed and King Yehoash begins his reign. 

I’m not interested in a sympathetic read of Ataliah as a character. But she is the woman who looms in the background of the Shabbat of International Women’s Day this year, with its unusual distance from the women heroes of Purim and Pesach. And her story ends in this way that is both tragic and, in the text, full of delight. The people are cheering. Ataliah is tearing at her garments and screaming about treason. She’s paraded from the Temple to the palace and put to death there. 

Ataliah is an archetype. She fits into a category with other wicked women of our history, especially biblical history, such as her relative Jezebel, such as the idolatrous wives of King Solomon, and so on. She’s a symbol of a type of womanhood, of seductive danger. 

Hold onto that thought. Because now I want to talk about the other special ritual element of this Shabbat: tomorrow’s maftir, where the Israelites are commanded to contribute a half-shekel each for the maintenance of holy space.

The half-shekel plays two parts. It’s a census - admittedly, specifically of the adult men. It allows them to be counted. And it’s also a universal measure. As the text says: the rich will give no more and the poor will give no less. The commentary of the Hizkuni presses that the equality of amount is not only about the census. It’s about us all having an equal stake in redemption. Nobody owns the holy space. Or, actually, we all own holy space. 

The Torah does not take this to the place of gender. Nonetheless, I think it’s a simple lesson to extrapolate: it is important that women participate in public Jewish life because the Jewish tradition belongs to us, too. It is important, in a literal sense, to be counted. 

It is, I think, a kind of undermining teaching to a history of feminine archetypes. As Marie Shear famously said, "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people." 

Here, I hear that teaching in two ways: that archetypes and stereotypes, while fun in literature, ultimately undermine the notion of the importance of the human being that is at the heart of Jewish teaching… 

And that holy space and salvation are owned by us all, and are only made better by virtue of inclusion. 


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