Monday, March 31, 2014

Tazria 5774: A Lesson in Gender, Shabbat HaChodesh, March 29, 2014

Arvind Sharma, co-editor of Her Voice, Her Faith, a collection of essays by women speaking about their own faith and religions, writes, 
“To appeal to one’s common humanity is to appeal to something profoundly moving.  However profoundly moving though, it is not unambiguous, for although our common humanity inspires us, it also obscures one fundamental fact about humanity – it’s even split into men and women.  When asked to respond simply as a human being, what if someone asked – as what, as a man or a woman? Of course one can speak with a common voice but is not the same voice.”  
As troubling as we may find its details, the opening eight verses of Parashat Tazria recognize this reality, and perhaps inherent challenge, of human experience.   The reality of gender differences.  These verses an ancient predecessor to Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.
Parashat Tazria opens with a perplexing passage regarding a new mother’s status of spiritual impurity after childbirth.  The ancient and confounding constructs of impurity, of the states of niddah and t’mei-ah, aside (those are difficult enough on their own), what makes the passage particularly striking is that the length of the period of spiritual impurity following childbirth is dependent upon the gender of the child born.   There is here, in our Shabbat Torah reading, an explicit acknowledgement of gender differences expressed in ritual law. 
         We struggle with the text because it limits its recognition of individual differences solely to gender and then goes on to create rigid expectations based on solely gender.  We struggle with the text because the rituals imposed by Jewish law on women in order for them to rectify these states of impurity are written and imposed entirely by men.  As I reviewed and studied passages of the Talmud’s tractate Niddah, the tractate that deals with women’s states of impurity and the laws regarding how to remedy these states, I was struck by the same feelings of discomfort, violation, anger even, as I feel today when I hear men, or more recently corporations, striving to control women’s bodies and women’s health through legislation.   
         At the same time as the text poses great difficulty, Tazria can, however, serve to remind us – as Arvind Sharma so well articulates -  that while we share the commonality of our humanity, there are also differences between us as individuals, between us as male and female; and, these differences impact how we respond to and interact with the world.   Tazria should challenge us to consider how many of these differences turn into limitations because of the ritual expectations we impose on each other.   Gender still, too often, is a, if not the, primary determinate in too many situations.  Who is deemed the family caregiver? Who the primary wage-earner? What should an employee earn?  Who is given a voice in our society; and, who is actually heard?  To whom do we pay attention?  Whom do we take seriously?
          This week, Gloria Steinem, a prominent figure in the feminist movement, who helped raise awareness to all of these questions at a time when no one asked them,  turned 80.    A frequent speaker on college campuses across the country, Steinem has had the opportunity to observe and interact with many young adults.  She notes, still today, “I've yet to be on a campus where most women weren't worrying about some aspect of combining marriage, children, and a career. I've yet to find one where many men were worrying about the same thing.”    We may have come a long way, baby, as an old advertisement suggests; but, clearly, we still make limited assumptions based on the categories of gender, assumptions that frequently lead to disparities in power, wealth, and influence.
Leviticus, as a whole, is a difficult read.  Let us be reminded that all of the ritual detail expressed in Leviticus was intended to solidify and strengthen a nascent community as it traveled from a state of enslavement towards a place of promise, to that land imagined to be full of milk and honey.   Even the rituals that were imposed upon women after childbirth were intended to contribute to that structure by offering boundaries between personal space and communal life.   Tazria’s rules remind us to honor and mark the difference between male and female.  Unlike our biblical ancestors, however, we must work to honor these differences not by creating and imposing rigid categories of expectation, not by empowering one by imposing limitations on the other.  Rather, we should work to honor our differences by paying attention to each other, by being flexible and compassionate to the other, and by sharing wealth and power equitably.


Shabbat Zachor, 5774: Saturday morning, March 15, 2014

          On Monday, March 10th, I had the privilege of accompanying eleven of our Temple Emanuel students to Capitol Hill to visit their Senator’s and House of Representative’s offices.   These students joined close to 300 teens from across the country to participate in the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center L’Takein Seminar.  This seminar begins on Erev Shabbat and includes three-and-a-half days of learning and engagement that culminates in the opportunity to lobby congressional staff.
          Our students made new friends while bonding with their own classmates while having lots of fun, but also working hard.  They attended a presentation by the National Coalition for the Homeless where they were addressed by individuals who have personally experienced homelessness and by others who work on legislation aimed at reducing homelessness and providing services to those living on the streets.  Our students engaged in a lobbying simulation on mining that helped them experience the power of the dollar and the media in the legislative process.  They learned that making our world a better place isn’t just about having good and valuable ideas, or even the best of intentions.  It is as much about promoting those ideas in a convincing and compelling manner.  And, yes, they learned, that costs money.
          Our students participated in an Israeli Knesset simulation that helped all involved understand the challenges of Israel’s multi-party political system.  Each student is assigned to a political party.  Then, working with their own party members and within the parameters of their party’s platform, they are tasked with negotiating and forming coalitions with the other parties in order to pass a conflict resolution document.   Even with only seven parties represented in the simulation, the students quickly learned why the issues that plague the peace process are so difficult to resolve. 
          Our students also studied a number of legislative issues that The Religious Action Center is currently working on including: campaign finance reform, climate change, international standards for disability support and access, gun violence prevention, LGBT rights, reproductive rights, among others.  Our students then each got to choose a topic and then, working in small groups, worked directly with a legislative aide in crafting a speech to present on Capitol Hill.  The students don’t begin actually writing their speeches until Sunday evening at about 7:30 PM.  They learn to put an argument together quickly using facts and statistics to support their argument, while remaining: polite, engaging, passionate, and personal.
           Our Temple Emanuel students chose three topics to address this year.  They spoke confidently and passionately about the need for an international standard with regard to disability rights, for the passage of the Employment Non-Discriminatory Act (better known as ENDA) which protects LGBT individuals in the workplace, and for legislation that would work to prevent, or at least decrease, gun violence in our country.  The staffers that listened to them lobby all commented on their preparedness and their presence.  I was so proud of the impression that our Temple Emanuel students made on our legislators.  I am confident their voices were heard and made a difference.
          As I was sitting specifically in Senator Mikulski’s and Senator Cardin’s office where I get to watch the entire class deliver their speeches (before they split off in order to visit their respective Representative’s offices), I was reminded of Esther.  We have no historical or archeological evidence that Esther is any more than a fictional character, but she is a worthy model of advocacy.  She approached the leadership of her country – in her case, without a previously scheduled appointment by a respected advocacy organization - and advocated on behalf of the Jewish people.  She was, herself, arguably in a protected position.  She was royalty, married to the king.  She didn’t have to speak up, but she did; and in doing so, she made a difference in her world and in ours. 
            As we celebrate Purim, as we listen to the megillah, may we be inspired to model not only our biblical heroes, Esther and Mordecai who made sure we survived Haman’s wrath, may we also be inspired by our students who learned the tools needed for and the power of advocacy.  Isn’t this what we demand as Reform Jews in our emphasis on the pursuit of social justice? Every year that I return from this empowering program offered by the RAC, I wonder, how many of us take the time and opportunity to speak up, to make our voices heard - as did Esther, as did our students -  in a manner that is constructive, productive, and that works to make our world a better place?