Sunday, April 18, 2010

Metzora: A Lesson in Public Health? Delivered Shabbat morning, 4/17/2010

Tazria/Metzora. These just may be the most dreaded Torah portions among young students studying to become Bat or Bar Mitzvah, not only because of their detailed descriptions of infections, discharges, and various other eruptions that make us uncomfortable, but also because of the procedures that were applied in response to such tza-ra-at.

According to the text, the Priest is tasked with the role of diagnostician. It is up to the Priest to identify and evaluate if and when such infections qualify as tza-ra-at, as ritually impure. It is also, of course, up to the Priest to implement and enforce the required treatment, to evaluate the progress of healing and when appropriate to facilitate the ritual by which a person returns to their status of tehara, a full participating member of the community.

As Nehama Leibowitz points out in her detailed study of the parashah, some view these portions as biblical recommendations for the prevention of the spread of disease in the community, a medical handbook of sorts used to ensure public health. Other commentators focus on the obscure and seemingly supernatural elements in the text highlighting these diseases as a form of direct retribution from God in response to ill behavior. The rationalist in me certainly leads me to prefer the former understanding; I simply cannot accept a theology of divinely gifted affliction. Regardless, what remains clear, however, is that this text resists clear understanding in a modern context – our questions may have to be left unanswered. We may simply have to live with our discomfort in not fully comprehending the biblical procedures. As Meshekh Hokhma, a late 19th century commentary by Rabbi Meir Simha ha-Kohen of Dvinsk, reminds us ‘The preoccupation with these plagues, entrusted to the judgment of Aaron and his sons, is one of the mysteries of Torah…” (see N. Leibowitz, Studies in Vayikra, p. 185)

Lessons in the text abound, however, despite our inability to comprehend the details with certainty. This year, in light of the national debate regarding health care reform, one verse stands out. If, however, one is poor and without sufficient means… (Lev 14:21). After outlining the offerings one is expected to bring to the priest before being deemed fully recovered from affliction, the text provides an alternative for those who cannot afford. Verses 21-32 of chapter 14 detail the manner in which the one with insufficient means can still make appropriate offerings in line with that person’s means. Consideration is made for all; no one in the community is left ostracized by illness due to financial constraint. Everyone is given a path back into the community. The system doesn’t turn away those of lesser means; it accommodates to them. And more importantly, at a time when healing is most in need, the opportunity to return to a state of ritual purity – a state we may not fully understand today but which was clearly a significant status in the biblical period – is not withheld from those with insufficient resources.

Regardless of where we each stand on the current status of health care reform legislation, one thing I hope we can all agree on is that no one who is suffering from affliction, particularly treatable illness, should be left on the outskirts of society simply due to insufficient means. Access to quality health care is a public health issue, and we cannot allow our health insurance companies to serve as our priests, as the sole decisors of who is granted access back into the community and who is left alone without communal support. No question one of the greatest challenges of our current administration, but our health care system must find a way to recognize the humanity and entitlement to good care of each and every individual in our society.

Tazria, Childbirth, & The Reality of Gender Differences, delivered Erev Shabbat 4/16/2010

This week, the Facebook Group, “If you were a little girl in the 70’s” has been making its way around my “Friends’” pages. Other than making one feel a touch nostalgic with its list of all things popular in the 70’s from Mrs. Beasley dolls, The Love Boat TV series, banana bicycle seats and even Dorothy Hamill haircuts, this list -coupled with an upcoming birthday- reminds me that though it was a lovely era in which to be a child, I wouldn’t want to return to it. And, I’m glad I am not raising my own children in it. The 70’s contained within it some exciting times of ‘coming out’ for women. This was the decade of among other achievements, Title IX, Roe vs. Wade, the opening of US Military Academies to women, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and the Women’s Educational Equity Act. And, as I’ve expressed from this bema before on more than one occasion, I am so grateful for the efforts of the women and men of that generation that worked to make such important changes from which my and later generations benefit. But that being said, it was also a time when those little girls who were raised then were given extremely conflicting messages. It was okay to play with the GI Joe at my neighbor’s house (he was a boy, by the way), but no one would dare buy a girl any male doll besides Barbie’s slick and equally perfect sidekick, Ken. We were taught to think beyond traditionally female careers – the work place was opening to us - ‘you don’t have to be a teacher like your mother and grandmother before you,’ we were told. Marlo Thomas, Mel Brooks, and Alan Alda in their Free to Be You and Me collection taught us that we didn’t need to follow convention – girls can like fire engines, and boys can like dolls, yet in the next breath most of our parents warned us girls not to forget to wear the little white gloves, cross your ankles, act lady-like and demure in public, and most importantly do as you are told. ‘Boys are made of snips & snails and puppy dog tails, while girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice” still rang true as a mantra. Perhaps it still does today; equity among the sexes is extremely difficult to establish even with the best of intentions.
Parashat Tazria opens with a difficult passage regarding childbirth against which the feminist in me wants to rail against. That is used to want to rail against. That was the feminist who was raised in this hot bed of conflicting messages that characterized the 70’s, that was the feminist who had yet to experience first-hand the full reality of childbirth and early parenting. That was the feminist who saw a hierarchy of inequality in all aspects of unequal expectations and roles. To be fair to myself and to others who like myself may seem reactive, those differing expectations have historically been used to limit women often unfairly; and thus, many of us do remain a bit defensive when faced with such a text that on its surface smacks of disrespect. Fortunately, our relationship with Torah changes as we age; and, if we allow ourselves to be open to study year after year, we can experience the blessing of our own notions being challenged again and again. The beauty of our Torah cycle.

This passage is messy. Childbirth is messy; and fair or unfair it is not in any way a gender equitable endeavor -- despite the popular tendency a few years back for couples to announce, ‘we’re pregnant!’ Absurdity. ‘We’ may be expecting a child, but no man has, to my knowledge outside of the imagination of Hollywood, experienced pregnancy and childbirth. The opening passage of Tazria gets to the heart of this reality – that childbirth, the primary, particularly in the biblical period, method of becoming a parent, is not at all an Equal Rights Experience. Perhaps this is why still in the 21st century many if not most couples still have a tough time creating an equitable division of labor when it comes to home and family despite the fact that so many households are supported by two-careers outside the home.

Tazria demands a period of separation for either 33 or 66 days after childbirth depending on the gender of the child, a separation that is often read as punishment due to the priestly hand’s language of t’meiah and t’hara - words that stretch the English capacity for adequate translation - and the requirement of a ritual offering at the end of these days of separation. Ritually impure and pure are the best we can do, perhaps, but sadly these phrases are loaded with such subjective qualitative connotations in english that to translate them may skew the intent of the text. In short, t’meiah and t’hara are ritual categories. In this case, the state of t’meiah ensured a period of healing for the mother and initial bonding between mother and infant. Yes, in the biblical period the after-birth blood flow was most surely feared and thus deemed contaminating; yet, the ritual category of t’meiah can be understood as a means of protecting this time of healing, shielding the mom from other responsibilities. During this period the new mother was released from all sacred and marital obligations – this state of t’meiah set a boundary around her allowing her much needed emotional and physical space.

Today too, it is standard ‘ritual’ procedure to have a period of separation after childbirth (we call it maternity leave) and to then subsequently visit our medical priests, if you will, during the early weeks after childbirth to make sure that mom’s bleeding has ceased, healing has progressed appropriately, and that child is thriving. We have privatized much of the affair, but for many, if not most, women, these early medical visits are the first significant ventures out into the world after childbirth. Unfortunately we’ve privatized the affair so significantly that many women today feel isolated as opposed to feeling supported by the rituals of our community. This labeling of the period following childbirth as t’meiah recognizes an important reality of our modern society namely that in our attempt to make all things equal between men and women, we often forget that childbirth is an awesome physical and emotional feat for the mom, one that requires a very different period of recovery and healing than is required of the dad.

Understanding the text in this manner compels us to ask an important question: why the period of t’meiah was reduced, cut in half, for the birth of a boy? Certainly gender doesn’t impact the amount of time a woman needs to heal and adjust to the new addition. Rabbi Helaine Ettinger, in her thoughts on this portion published in The Women’s Torah Commentary published in 2000 (the Jewish Lights volume not our newest WRJ work), notices that there are two ritual processes that take place after childbirth. The first was gender specific and focused on the need to differentiate between the sexes. On the 8th day, the boy was circumcised which ended the initial period of the mom’s t’meiah. The second ritual was solely about the mom’s relationship to God. Regardless of gender, she shall bring two offerings: an olah and a chatah to the priest at the Tent of Meeting these offerings formal marked the conclusion of her maternity leave and could participate fully in society.

Gender matters. We know this truth – the unfinished work of the 1960’s and 70’s has taught us this well. Rabbi Ettinger notes that the ceremony of circumcision required on the 8th day for boys may have been as much about acknowledging this truth – publically marking the child’s maleness and formally allowing the important processes of father-son bonding that would have been critical in the ancient world where gender roles were so definitive. The period of t’meiah for the mom in the case of the birth of a boy is shortened in order to allow the father to enter. Notably, according to Jewish law, it is incumbent upon the father to circumcise his own son and bring him into the covenant, a task that still today is formally and ritually delegated to the mohel as part of the ceremony. According to such an understanding, there is no need for such a separation ritual between mother and daughter. There the bond had already begun and it was thus allowed to continue on its own; there was no need for the interruption of ceremony.

Today there is (and should continue to be) opportunity for both mothers and fathers to be intimately involved in the rearing of both sons and daughters. While gender matters, we have learned that we need not fall victim to assumptions about gender roles based on the past. One of the ways liberal Jews challenge gender role assumptions is to encourage welcoming ceremonies for all Jewish children, male and female. Male and female are different – but both are worthy of celebration, both are worthy of the full involvement of both parents in their rearing, and both are worthy of a public affirmation of their presence in the community and their relationship with God. Just as both young women and men are called to Torah to mark their coming of age in Jewish tradition as will Morgan tomorrow morning.
Ken y’hi ratzon.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Counting of the Omer: A Lesson in Patience, Erev Shabbat Shemini

Here we are, this Shabbat Shemini, marking the 11th day of the Omer. 38 more days of counting, checking off the days until reaching the final summit at Sinai. 38 more days until the next festive celebration, Shavuot. It takes patience to count our days of wandering. It takes patience to sit back and wait for the harvest to grow. It takes patience to prepare for a moment as significant as revelation is understood to be.

I admit, I am probably the worst person to give this sermon. I need to hear it, to heed it – and take it to heart, for one of my greatest faults is my impatience. I am impatient to the point of being labeled ‘impulsive’ at times; though, to my credit, impulsivity implies not thinking through an action, and believe me, I think through my actions (perhaps over think – just ask those closest to me) despite my impatience at getting those deeds done once I’ve set myself on a course of action.

But I, as all of us, can learn from this biblically mandated period of counting. Counting the Omer reminds us not only of the value of patience and thoughtful attention as opposed to active doing and celebration but of the challenge and indeed stamina required for such attentive patience.

Parashat Shimini contains one of the more disturbing stories of our Tanach, the story of Nadav and Abihu. Perhaps they too could have learned something significant from this idea of biding time through steady counting.

The story is familiar. Aaron and his sons are at the end of their week long ordination period. Bayom ha-sh’mini, on the eighth day, from where the name of our portion comes, they are commanded to bring up offerings to the altar in a ritual which will conclude the ordination procedure. Aaron, assisted by his sons, brings up the various offerings, blesses the people with what we assume is the priestly blessing, after which: ותצא אש מלפני יהוה ותאכל על המזבח את העולה, “fire came forth from Adonai and consumed the burnt offering upon the altar.” Powerful stuff and the text is clear to remind us that this fire-ry scene of Divine presence was not for Aaron, nor his sons, alone, rather it was a moment – וירא כל העם to be seen by all of the people.

Apparently two of the sons who witnessed this dramatic and very public episode - didn’t appreciate such attention paid to Moses and Aaron (or at least their offerings) during this heady ritual and attempted to offer up their own gifts – not of calf, lamb, he-goat, ram, ox, or even meal such as was required of Aaron, but of אש זרה – commonly translated as ‘strange’ or ‘alien’ fire. No sooner had Nadav and Abihu lifted up their pans of incense and fire, and again, ותצא אש מלפני יהוה, fire come forth from Adonai. But, instead of consuming the offering itself, the אש זרה offered up by Nadav and Abihu, ותאכל אותם, God’s fire consumed them.

The nature of Nadav and Abihu’s crime has been a source of Rabbinic discussion and commentary since the earliest days of Rabbinic scholarship. What did they do that was so wrong, that warranted such violent punishment? Was it their evil intentions that laid at the heart of their crime – a desire to undermine Moses’ and Aaron’s authority and assume the mantle of leadership for themselves? As Samson Raphael Hirsch, for example, summarizes, perhaps it was Nadav and Abihu’s desire to have their offering used as a tool to fulfill their own self-centered needs and wishes as opposed to using the offering to serve God and by extension the greater community (see citation in Leibowitz, p. 125).

Many traditional commentators argue that the root of Nadav and Abihu’s crime lay, however, not in their intentions, but rather in their choice of offering – this אש זרה, an offering that was ‘strange’ in that it was never asked for, never commanded by God. Their fault lay not in the fact that they were moved to make offerings to God, but how and what they offered – these triggered God’s rage.

אש זרה, alien fire. A grammatical analysis allows us another avenue for understanding this אש זרה. זרה in this context is commonly assumed to be derived from the root ז-ו-ר, meaning ‘strange’ ‘alien’, or even ‘illegitimate’; but what if we read, זרה as rising out of the root, ז-ר-ה, a root which connotes the idea of ‘scattered’, ‘spread out’, maybe even ‘haphazard’. The offerings for Aaron’s ordination ritual involved painstakingly detailed procedural functions. There was nothing disorganized or scattered about the procedure: bring the offering, make expiation upon it, slaughter it, deal with its blood in a specific ritualistic fashion, burn certain parts into smoke on the altar, burn other parts outside the camp; and ‘rinse & repeat’ for each successive offering. The tasks of the offering required physical effort, olfactory stimulation, and a messy face off with the death of a living and breathing creature all experienced within a clearly organized structure and pattern, one that we can assume for all of its detail ensured a level of safety for all involved.

Compare these cumbersome (and perhaps tedious) procedures with Nadav and Abihu’s fire offerings. They each took a pan, lit a fire on it, placed some incense on top of the fire and poof, they were consumed. There is no evidence of any patient procedure of precautions taken to ensure the fire remained contained. Perhaps the word zara was chosen to teach us that what made the fire zar, illegitimate, was its capacity to zarah spread (and consume) due to the impulsivity by which it was offered with no regard for public safety. Moreover, their choice of fire is interestingly in and of itself. Fire is never presented in our biblical text as an appropriate offering in and of itself. Offerings are burned routinely, but it is not the fire that God finds pleasing; it is the smoke and odor. So soon on the heels of witnessing God’s fire consume Aaron’s offerings, it appears that Nadav and Abihu’s choice of presenting fire was less about challenging Moses’ and Aaron’s authority but God’s through mimicking God’s miraculous fire show.

There is no question which offering is presented as most pleasing to God. Hands down the offering created out of intense focus and intimate effort; the one that required attention to detail and ultimately more patience. Nadav and Abihu’s passion may appear to be good intentioned on the surface, but the kevanna, the intention God demands of us requires far more than eager passion. Reading this story during our period of patient waiting and counting underscores the tragedy of Nadav and Abihu’s succumbing to their own impulsive behavior.

Our offerings, too, require thoughtful, even disciplined, patience. Without thoughtful attention to content, even the most energized and flashy worship productions can easily remain vapid. We must learn to pour our spontaneous passion into well-intended kevanna. Parashat Shemini reminds us that even the most well intended spontaneity becomes not only meaningless but ultimately harmful, deadly even without proper patience and attention to substance.
It is no easy task for those of us so accustomed to the value of immediate gratification so commonly forwarded in our culture to calm our ‘do it now’ impulse. Moreover, we need the passion and glow of spontaneity in our worship offerings, but true kevanna, meaningful intention, requires patience and attention as well as spontaneity.

Kevanna, proper intention, is vital to worship; it has always been viewed as a necessary counter to the keva, to what is fixed in tradition. Indeed, Jewish midrash and folklore remind us repeatedly that God responds to intention as readily if not more so than content. Yet, charismatic spontaneity without regard for tradition or for others in the community is not typical of mainstream Judaism and is not a model promoted by the biblical authors – certainly not the Priestly writer of Leviticus. Here we are reminded that proper intention is a learned skill that can and must be nurtured.

Does spontaneous charismatic prayer ever have its place in Jewish life? Perhaps. Our mystics of course would say so. And the biblical voice might say so as well. The editorial references to the story of Nadav and Abihu found in the book of Numbers indicate that Nadav and Abihu’s error lay in the timing of their offerings, בהקרבם אש זרה לפני יהוה in ‘when they brought this aish zarah.” Accordingly, there can be a time and place for such expressions, but certainly not in a public moment tied so closely to the ordination ritual, a ritual whose intent was to confer leadership on an individual as means of centralizing and solidifying the community.

In our modern world, most of us are offered too few moments to simply sit back and count the days that pass allowing ourselves the necessary breathing space required for true kevanna and ultimately spiritual growth. Nadav and Abihu in their haste to act missed out on the opportunity to step back and reflect, a mistake that cost them dearly. This period during which we count, when we mark time between two festive occasions, gives us an amazing gift. It gives us the opportunity to step back, observe, and reflect on the planting and learning season that has passed as we continue to step forward with impassioned intention as we seek to bring our gifts into the world.