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On love, Plato, and the gender of half shekel gold coins

On love, Plato, and the gender of half shekel gold coins

This was the Dvar Torah I delivered at the Toronto Partnership Minyan, March 5, 2016:

The “half shekel” is a fascinating story. In this community custom, which began in the desert and continued throughout the Temple periods, Jewish adult men would have a half shekel to the priest leadership during the month of Adar each year, in advance of the new fiscal year, which began on the first of Nisan.  According to the Mishna (Shekalim, chap. 4) the courts would post reminders regarding this tax a month earlier, on the 1st of Adar.

The practice can be viewed in one of three ways. It can be seen as a tax, as a charity, or as a spiritual practice.

Viewed as a tax, the half shekel was a collection that enabled the new leadership to provide services for the collective. According to the Mishna, the half shekel tax was used to purchase the animals which were used for the communal sacrifices. The leftover funds were used for a variety of communal purposes, including providing salaries for the judges and maintenance of the Temple and the city walls )Mishna Shekalim chapter 4).

The tax view gives it a bit of a cynical rendering. In political theory, what gives a governing entity authority is the ability to incarcerate and to tax. It is an expression of “Consent of the governed” – that is, if you can convince people to part with their money, you have authority. In that sense, if this is a tax, it is about giving authority to the priests by giving them the ability to tax, thereby creating a powerful financial component to the central religious authority.

Viewed as more of a charity, the practice is more utopian and less cynical. It is perhaps the original charity offering of the Jews. Put differently, it was the Jews’ first collective budgeting tool – like a precursor to the Federation system or to giving circles.  It is about coming together to embrace giving to create a collective enterprise. Perhaps it had echoes of the kibbutz – pooling what you have in order to create a communal life built on a shared ethos. It gave everyone an equal part in the collective.

The constancy of the donation, built on a vision of horizontal equality, may have been natural in the desert, where there was actual equality. Everyone had the same tent, the same lifestyle, the same expectations, the same amount of rain. Nobody was getting rich off of the manna or building gold-plated bathrooms. Among Israelite men, equality was the given. The half-shekel practice in later generations – even when conditions changed towards more stratifications –idealized the equality-among-brothers, maintaining an echo of desert life in the community’s consciousness. Thus, even in temple times, when socio-economic differences existed, the Torah insisted on equal half-shekel donations to remind people of fundamental human equality, at least among free Jewish men. “The rich [man] will not give more and the poor [man] will not give less than the half shekel”. (Exodus 30;15) To a certain extent, that vision remains a central part of Jewish life. Synagogue memberships, federation donations, and pooled charities could all be seen as iterations of the half shekel for the temple.  It is charity for communal sustenance and beyond based on a vision of brotherhood.

The half-shekel can also be seen as spiritual practice, as if giving is a basic spiritual need. Throughout the descriptions in Kings about giving the half-shekel, it is referred to as a “kapara”, as a penance, as if the act of giving creates a shift in the giver’s soul. For example, on the subject of charity and penance, many texts have connected the half-shekel practice with penance for the sin of the Golden Calf. (See Jerusalem Talmud 2;3) Interestingly, some texts also describe how people would give “according to their own hearts”, which seems like there were deviations from the proscription for all to give the same equal amount – but these deviations were for the sake of people opening their heart, which is about using the gold to create a personal, spiritual impact. (See Kings 2 chap 12) This concept of giving as a tool for spiritual growth is echoed throughout the High Holidays (the other New Year), when Jews repeatedly recite, “Repentance, prayer and charity will repeal the evil decree.”  The collection of the half-shekel on the first of Nisan has echoes of rebirth as well, with the spring, the first “month”, and the holiday of Passover celebrating the birth of the new nation.  

Amid the discussions about the half-shekel as a spiritual discussion, the midrashim about the significance of the half shekel – as opposed to a whole shekel – seem to capture the imagination. The idea that this symbolizes the interdependence of the Jewish people was repeated to me, I am fairly certain, every single year of my day school education, in school and at synagogue. I suppose it is one of those ubiquitous messages with which no rabbi or preacher or day school educator can go wrong. It is not 100% clear what the origin of this midrash is, although there is a popular 16th century text from R’ Moshe Alshich in the name of R’ Shlomo Alkabetz (commenting on the Talmudic text about the half shekel cited above): “I heard that it is to teach the children of Israel about their unity. Lest it occur to one of them that he is separate from his friend. Because it is as if each of us is half. When we connect with all of Israel, we become one whole, and therefore each would bring a half. Thus God hinted to us that every man in Israel – his soul is connected to his friend, for they  are from one source. And all the souls of the men of Israel should be considered as one. Therefore each would bring half. To teach us that each man and the other are one, and are therefore responsible for one another.”

This is a lovely little metaphor about Jewish unity (although personally I have difficulty with most Orthodox rabbinic proclamations of “unity” because they often refer to unity among men.... but I digress). So although I can understand why Jewish educators would jump on this little vort about the half-shekel, there is a problem with it: it really doesn’t work with the “pshat”, the simple reading of the text. If the halfness of the donation is to teach us that we are not whole, then it seems that we become whole not by joining 600,000 brethren but rather by joining exactly one other person. The message of the half shekel is much less about idealizing community and much more about idealizing couplehood.

Most commentators did not read the text as being about couplehood. The only one that I found who alluded to it is the Lubavicher rebbe who adopted the couple metaphor – but not in the way you might expect.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote: “G-d and the Jewish people are really one entity. We are incomplete without G-d. Alone, we are like the half shekel. …just a half of the whole. The other half is G-d, and together we are something complete.”

The Rebbe’s comment reminds me of another place where the text of “couplehood” is interpreted as being a love story between the Jews and God. That is, of course, Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs, the most erotic book in the Jewish canon which all the midrashim view as being this same metaphor of God-Jewish love.  Viewed through this lens of the half shekel as a metaphor for couplehood longing, the half-shekel becomes charged with a whole other intonation of sexuality and eroticism, of people longing to connect with our other halves. The half shekel becomes a metaphor for sex in a way – like those perfume bottles for “men” and “women” where the two shapes fit together like pieces of a puzzle. The subliminal message is in some ways really the pshat.

The idea that every human being is merely half a person searching for his or her other essential half has origins in both Jewish and non-Jewish ancient texts. Going back to the creation stories in Genesis, we know that the first creation of Humankind is as one being with two parts.  “And God created the Human in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them. (Genesis 1;27). In this rendering, which is known as the first creation story – the one that came before the second version which included Eve and ribs and lots of messiness – humanity originated from a hermaphrodite being that was separated into two equal parts, one male and one female. Rabbi Jeremiah ben Elazar, according to the Babylonian Talmud (Brachot 61;a), said, “With two faces did the Holy one Blessed be He create the first human”, to which Rashi adds, “Two faces they were created, and then split into two, one of which became Eve.” Later on, at the end of chapter 2, the Bible leaves us with this evocative statement: “Therefore Man will leave his father and his mother and cling to his Woman and they will become one flesh.” (Genesis 2;24) These texts create a mission out of sexual desire – the idea that by “becoming one flesh” we are actually reuniting with our other “half”, the one with which we were originally created. Just like the half-shekel.

This notion of erotic love as a connection to our original other half has also been expressed by Plato in his Symposium, in the famous speech of Aristophanes in which they discuss Love:

Aristophanes had a mind to praise Love in another way… Zeus said:  “I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers….He spoke and cut men in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling….. After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they began to die from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them,--being the sections of entire men or women--and clung to that…..So ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, seeking to make one of two, and to heal the state of man. Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the tally-half of a man, and he is always looking for his other half.

This sounds just like the Talmud’s interpretation of the Genesis story.

Plato’s version of the half-shekel creation of humanity has some interesting gender implications

  • It implies a flattening of gender difference

 Both halves here – as with the half-shekel – are exactly identical. For Plato, the names “male” and “female” were almost incidental. In fact all humans were referred to as “men”, “men cling to each other”, we are each “half a man”. Gender is fluid and irrelevant. (This is actually a rare instance where “man” works as gender neutral form. Normally you can’t say, “She is the first man to cross the Atlantic”. But here, all humans are called “men”.) In the original Genesis creation story, male and female were also equal and identical. Gender hierarchies only come at the end of Chapter 2.

  • It also maintains fluidity of sexual desire and orientation

Just as the gender identity of the two halves is irrelevant, so, too is their sexual orientation.  For Plato, at least in this text, gender and sexuality seem to be completely fluid.  Everyone was sort of just “men”, “what we call men and women.”

  • It also idealizes monogamy

There is one other half that is precisely for every one person. There is no polyamory or bigamy or singlehood. It is a story that seeks to justify pure monogamy as a spiritual mission.  

These implications may help explain why the rabbis did not jump on to this reading of the half-shekel as a metaphor for coupling. Since the half-shekel was a male-only event, such a reading would have perhaps invoked their homophobia. Similarly, the elimination of gender-difference may have challenged their entire gender hierarchy and exclusion of women. It may have challenged the whole concept that men and women are different beings. The rabbis generally took a very essentialist view of gender differences. But to make the claim that there is no real difference – that is to say, that on the basic spiritual plane, all our spirits are gender-neutral; there is no such thing as a “male” soul or a “female” soul – that might just be too confronting to the whole rabbinic-patriarchal way of life.

Similarly, the whole notion of idealized monogamy, despite its references from Genesis 1, may also have been too charged to take further. Yes, there is a lot of discussion of “bashert” in contemporary Jewish literature. But I would maintain that for most of our history, the rabbis had an ambivalent relationship to monogamy, a kind of push and pull when it comes to this kind of idealized monogamy between men and women. Even today, in the shidduch world, monogamy is often viewed as the norm among women but sort of “forced” or “conceded” for men. That women have to take many pains to maintain a man’s loyalty. Plus, Jewish marriage ceremonies are replete with gender hierarchies – who speaks, who acts, who leads, who enters and exits freely – so to describe a gender-neutral form of monogamy just seems way too far adrift for classical rabbinic thought. So some rabbis went to messages of community. It was easier to envision communal coupling among a large group of men than equal coupling between one man and one woman, or perhaps just between two individuals.

And yet, really, that is the pshat of the half-shekel. Seen as a spiritual gesture, it is an idealization of intense, essential, gender-neutral coupling.

The rabbinic tradition, it seems, has missed out on a key aspect of the message here.  That’s what happens when you don’t allow half the population to access text, to access authority. You miss out on key insights and perspectives.

Why we need to reconfigure the story of the half shekel from a different perspective, one that is inclusive of all those who are so often excluded in rabbinic literature.

The message of the half shekel has a very powerful idea about gender-neutral coupling.  The longing for companionship, the longing for connection and for feeling whole, that is at the core of this practice. It is also a vital aspect of the spiritual message of giving – this is not just about giving to community but giving to your partner. It is about making that couple relationship one about giving. Often, couplehood is where a  spiritual lesson of giving is learned in profound ways.  Learning about compassionate giving from couple-hood can be a vital community lesson.  That sameness can be carried over beyond the couple into the community. We learn about what the nation can be by considering what basic on-on-one relationships can be.

This is even moreso given the vision of gender-neutral equality  in the vision of the half-shekel.  The half-shekel is a gender-neutral vision of connection, vision, community, where each party is an equal partner, where you cannot tell the difference between one and another because our spirits do not have genders. We are all just pieces of gold that come together to form a whole.

A community is not a community unless all are included – women, LGBTQs, singles, people with disability, people of all races, classes and ethnicities. We need to acknowledge that the original practice of the half shekel was not at all about “communal unity”. It was about male-community unity, around money and gold, about men connecting with men over money. Male connectivity may be a noble goal that has a place in society – but it is not the same as actual whole community connecting. The community is not whole when only men are considered and counted.

We are all the same half shekel. We all count as part of the whole. We are all half shekels longing for connection. We all deserve to be heard and counted.

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