More Healing — Of the Levitical Sort

Leviticus 2Leviticus offers pages and pages of ritual. Sacrifice of all kinds. Blood daubed here and there. It’s generally not the sort of reading you’d find on the best seller list. And yet: Levitical example can teach us how to heal our psychic wounds, our spiritual sorrows.

Don’t believe me? Try Parshat Metzorah.

An Israelite suffers from a skin disease – one whose name we don’t know and whose condition is like nothing we can name. The symptoms described in Torah do not correspond to any known skin disease. Chronic skin diseases doesn’t disappear by counting off seven days; Leviticus’ quarantine period would be utterly ineffective against psoriasis or vitiligo.

The text, congregants frequently assume, is about hygiene, about the treatment of contagious diseases. There is, in fact, plentiful literature from the Ancient Near East on diseases of the time – which included, by the by, bubonic plague and Lyme disease. The diagnosis and treatment of disease was a serious concern of ancient societies. But it’s not the issue in Leviticus, which offers no list of medical ailments needing to be “treated.”

In fact, Leviticus describes rituals the priest and the Israelite must fulfill – after physical healing. In Parshat Metzora, the priest orders up two live pure birds, cedar wood, some red stuff, and hyssop. One of the birds is sacrificed over fresh water; its blood drips into the water below. He dips the living bird, the cedar wood, the crimson stuff and the hyssop into the water. Seven times the priest sprinkles some of mixture on the healed Israelite. The live bird flies free overhead, the Israelite bathes, washes, and reenters the camp. In seven days he may return to his tent and on the eighth day he makes his own offering before God. He is no longer tumah.

We can be lousy translators. Terms like “impurity” and “purity,” “cleanliness” or “uncleanliness” are, obviously, laden with negative connotations. But we are retrojecting when we use those terms. What we are seeing in tumah is not Israelites contaminated, but affected. They are simply in a particular state of being – one that has nothing to do, in the ancient world, with actions or mistakes. One is pregnant or has given birth. One is menstruating. One has just enjoyed the joys of intimacy with one’s beloved. No one is bad or sinful as a result.

But they do become different, altered in a way that requires a holy ritual to bring them into a state that will be appropriate for Temple worship. Holiness in that precinct is of a different nature. It requires a kind of psychic and spiritual healing after pain and loss.

The parshiot we read this past week tell us about how a priest diagnoses the effect of altered states, on people, on cloth, even on houses. What do all the conditions described have in common?

Each is about the most elemental of conditions: Life and death. Someone bleeding from a wound does not qualify as “impure” but a menstruating woman does. Blood is life, our Torah says; when bleeding represents a clear loss of life it signifies death. One must be returned to life to enter the sanctuary.

Someone who has touched a corpse is and must be deeply affected by contact with death. Skin diseases that look like wasting diseases to our ancient forbears seemed to signal an oncoming death. All these required rituals for acknowledging reintegration into the community.

Death affects us. It changes us. How can we be returned to life? Sacrificing birds and sprinkling ourselves with bloodied water is not an option. But learning from this text is: It tells us that ritualizing our transitions from any death-like world is critical to the maintenance of life.

Last Friday evening, I asked my congregants to call to mind someone they had lost and missed. I asked them to think of a relationship that had died – one they would mourn for a long time. Whatever grief they carried, I said, also contained the source of their return to life. For whatever they head learned from beloved friends and family, whatever they had reveled in, whatever happiness they had been afforded – this could not die as long as they remembered and honored it.

I asked them to go to the table where our Shabbat candles still burned. I had laid marbles and assorted glass beads across the table.

“Take the one that calls to you, shines for you,” I said. “Take the one that reveals the light of the soul that shaped and transformed yours. Remember someone you have lost, someone who changed your life, who you loved deeply, and who will never be forgotten as long as you live. Come forward to gather the light of that beloved to you.”

Each came forward. Each took a bead, a marble. We chanted Mourner’s Kaddish. We acknowledged loss and we returned to life.

Ritual brings healing. Leviticus teaches us that.

This is Healing: From Yom Hashoah to Hope (Via a Renewal Beit Din)

pier to lakeThis is healing: When a rabbi asks gently, “How was that? To know you were Jewish for so many years?”

And the young man describes years of that feeling, of “almost Jew,” or “not Jewish enough.” Those in the room hear the pain and the confusion.

This is healing: When a rabbi acknowledges how hard your travels were and says, simply, “Thank you. Thank you for coming home.”

And the young woman smiles, her heart so open that the joy spills into every corner of the room.

Even this is healing: A cold, cold night at the lake, with the rain alternating between a steady downpour and a soft drizzle, crazy and confusing moments with a small crowd of friends walking you down to the water, occasional shushing so neighbors are not alarmed. A ritual that involves each person present speaking kavanot as you stand, and dunk, chatter your blessings and the Shema and finally, Shechechiyanu: Thank you, Holy One, for bringing us to this sacred moment in time.

After years of knowing who you are, you are, “Jewish enough” because your community has finally recognized that you were a Jew all along.

Conversion to Judaism: What is that, really? Some years ago I realized that all the study and experience that preceded the actual beit din was not about building a new identity. The identity was already there.

The time spent reading, living congregationally, journaling about Judaism and Jewish life helped fill in some corners, of course. But there is no “almost Jew” who could study – and master – all the aspects of a multi-cultured culture thousands of years old. No one born Jewishly could do that either. Study the Talmud all your life and you will still have no idea of how Jews lived in Alexandria in the first century of the Common Era (understanding the works of Philo, a prominent Jewish philosopher who lived and wrote in the city back then, would be a lifelong commitment on its own…).

None of us is, by any measure, ever “Jewish enough.” Such a measure is both arbitrary and useless.

In the end, as Renewal rabbis know full well, it is not about whether you have memorized the minor festivals or can recite the Thirteen Principles or even, simply, name the number of branches on a hanukiah. It is about the heart and soul. It is about knowledge and understanding. It is about a word Jews seldom use freely.It is about faith.

Our history makes it hard for us to advocate for faith. Our texts do not command belief, but action. We often birth our Jewishness – however we come by it – by asking questions. But there is also a faith in one’s Jewishness, a certainty, a knowing.

This is healing: Still feeling the shiver, after warm showers and the application of many thick towels, they come into the room. The young couple before us will be married in almost exactly six months. He knew he was Jewish when he was  just twelve, he told the rabbis. But when she told him she wanted to convert, he felt he had been granted permission. He finally knew how to go home.

She is – heart and soul – connected to her people. She speaks of her pain at a Yom Hashoah gathering, and one of the rabbis says, “When a Jew cries, and you cry, you know you are Jewish. When another Jew laughs, and you feel that joy, you know you are Jewish.”

They arrive in the room, hair still wet, the memory of the cold still clinging to them. Those waiting begin singing and clapping: “Siman tov u’mazeltov umazeltov v’siman tov!” And afterwards, there are many warm and heartfelt blessings for long life, growth, a family and a Jewish home that is nourished, each and every day, by their commitment and their love.

“Be mensches,” my husband, Ralf, says. “Be good. That’s not a blessing, it’s a commandment.”

We all laugh. Then we go out into that good, dark night, a night that saw the transition from Yom Hashoah, from a day honoring grief and anguish and sorrow to a day of joy and hope.

This is healing.

Yom Hashoah – So I Believe

Boy in the striped pajamasRitualizing remembrance was a straightforward matter when I first began to organize, create, and lead Yom Hashoah programs thirty years ago. Holocaust survivors played an important role; hearing their stories and contextualizing them with honor and respect was my task.

Three decades later, the Holocaust has become a cliché for horror and terror. Now it is frequently a subject for thinly developed stories of heroism, personal tragedy, or revenge. Popular films and children’s literature have proven that the Shoah is marketable to a wide and varied audience.

But the marketing of the Holocaust has transgressed — even violated — the memory of the victims. An example: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a children’s novel that features a lonely German boy whose father is a camp commandant. Though the boy sees the inmates from his bedroom window and plays yards away from the electric fence that separates him from a city of death, he hears no screams and smells no burning bodies. By asking the reader to accept this absurd premise, the author renders the real victims’ experience invisible and inaudible.

The little fable manipulates its audience. The German boy meets a Jewish one imprisoned in the camp while he takes a walk on his side of the electric fence. In the end, the German boy ends up dying in the camp because sneaks in to visit his friend. We are more conscious of his tragic death than those of the camp inmates, who face death in the gas chambers each and every day.

In identifying with the German child we have exchanged history for a fantasy. We have traded grief that can honor the actual dead for a cathartic experience that tells us nothing about the Holocaust – not how genocide is constructed, and not how it succeeds.

Frequently, I teach a text describing the way Hungarian Jewish children were burned alive during the Shoah. I do not do this as an act of grisly insistence on shocking my students. Shock value is of no educational value.

But historical reality presented inside a context is important. My students spend weeks contending with Europe’s long acceptance of anti-Judaism and antisemitism. Then they read that terrible, brief text. In class, I ask: How are these two histories related? Can mass murder occur without an embedded history of disdain or contempt for a given people? If so, how would that alter our understanding of the Holocaust? Does it?

I want to inspire critical thought and understanding. I hope that my students can become better human beings. Isn’t that the only education that matters?

What do I long for? I wish we could look our history in the face. It tells us: We must understand and protect the sacredness of human life.

Last Sunday morning, I taught a preschooler about the Torah using a paper model about sixteen inches high. I taught him how to dress and hold our “Little Torah” and how to raise it high for hagbah. We discussed the pretty silvery crowns, the breastplate, and the Hebrew letters on the mantel, and the funny hand at the end of the pointer.

“Yosef,” I said, “we are asked to hold the Torah near our hearts. Where is your heart?”

Joseph touched his chest. I laid our Little Torah against his heart and rested it against his shoulder. Instinctively, he wrapped his arms around the Torah and held it tight.

“Why do you think,” I asked, “that we hold the Torah close to our hearts?”

“So we believe,” he said.

I hold the Torah of the Holocaust close to mine. So that I believe. I can and must honor those we lost. I can and must try to give renewed life to Judaism. I can and must understand and protect the sacredness of human life.

May we, this Yom Hashoah and all those to come, remember our dead and sanctify life.

The “Holy Land”? In What Context and in Whose Language?

Holy LandA critique does not consist in saying that things aren’t good the way they are. It consists in seeing on just what type of assumptions, of familiar notions, of established and unexamined ways of thinking the accepted practices are based… To do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy.
Michel Foucault

A friend of mine recently sent me an email asking for my reaction to her distress over an article that recently appeared in The Charlotte Observer. The email included a screen shot of the story.

The headline read: “Greetings from the Holy Land!” A picture of members of the Eastern North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church holding a copy of The Charlotte Observer accompanied the blurb: “These Observer readers from Kannapolis and Charlotte visited Israel in February…”

The Observer thus neatly equated the term “Holy Land” with the current state of Israel. But a goodly number of locations that are critical to the story of the “Holy Land” are currently in locales that are not within that state – like Hebron/Al Khalil, Jericho, and the Old City of Jerusalem.

My friend wrote to the newspaper in protest:

[T]hat one, innocent photo and blurb just erased 3 million Palestinians living under a military occupation for almost half a century; erased a persistent and lethal conflict and the context surrounding reporting on that conflict, made an incredibly inaccurate political statement and just misled your readers to believe that that entire area belongs to the State of Israel and [that] the Palestinians (or those pesky Arabs throwing stones) are hostile interlopers – not human beings who live there and have lived there for centuries.

Most Jews don’t use the term “Holy Land” much – and there is a good reason for that. The only time the expression is arguably used in Tanakh is in Zechariah 2:16: “YHVH will take Judah to Godself as YHVH’s portion in the Holy Land (adama ha’kodesh) and will choose Jerusalem once more.”

The term is, in fact, medieval. It has a Latin origin (terra sancta) which is first attested in the 11th century C.E. The first English reference we know of dates from 1297, and that reference is related to the Crusades. Crusaders thought of the “Holy Land” as the area where Jesus lived and died, and as the location of the Holy Sepulcher.

The expression “Holy Land” is almost entirely sourced in Christian theology and Christian conceptual frameworks. Like the terms “Old Testament,” A.D. (anno domini, “in the year of the/our Lord”), and C.E. (“Christian era”), “Holy Land” was brought into regular use by Christian writers and theologians.

All of these expressions represent a Christian take on the Way the World Works. None  have any place in a secular venue.

We perpetuate the discourses of dominant cultures with incredible – and destructive – ease. But when we name things from the perspective of the powerful, we are capable of erasing the lives of real people, of doing away with cultures and peoples, of committing irreparable, indelible harm.

Michael Foucault writes, “The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.”

It is nearly the end of Passover, the festival that calls us to resist oppressive power of any kind, to free ourselves and humanity, too. To free ourselves, we must give names to oppression we face. May the names we use and the language we employ be accurate, truthful, and enduring.

Longing for Liberation: Passover Reflections on an Open Hillel

open hillel“You know,” he told my son, Erik, “thirty years ago we stood in a New York street saying goodbye. And your mother cried the tears of a sister.”

“Mohammad,” I said, “you are going to make me cry again.”

It is more than three decades since I saw Mohammad. In the interim he has married. He is now the father of five children. He has lived and worked mostly in the United Arab Emirates; he only returns to his parents’ home in Ramallah for visits. His family is scattered — his brothers and sisters have lived in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere in the world. Mohammad commutes these days to workplaces and countries far from his own family.

We were (and are) the best of friends. Mohammad, my husband, Ralf, and I used to joke about the worlds we represented: European, Middle Eastern, and American. We compared cultures and religions, family life and personal aspirations. Mohammad and I called each other “cousin.”

Palestinian and Jewish, we know that we are related.

In those long-ago days, we both belonged to an international graduate student group that created educational programming around conflict-ridden areas. Themes of those programs? Peoples silenced, peoples longing for liberation. In those days, I also taught adult education courses on the Holocaust and  the complicated history behind the birth of Israel. Same themes, obviously.

I offered those courses at our college Hillel.

Then, I spoke about the invasion of Lebanon, and the massacre of Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Iranians, Pakistanis, and Algerians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. I spoke publicly about the way the IDF had aided and abetted in wholesale slaughter of innocents. There were those who disagreed with me and my conclusions. But no one ever shushed me.

Today, college students who openly critique Israel are not only being shushed. They are being bullied.

Last month, Hillel International sent Swarthmore College a letter threatening legal action if the college’s Hillel chapter went through with a planned program bringing Jewish Civil Rights veterans who are sharply critical of Israel to campus. Hillel International also pressured the Hillel chapter at Muhlenberg College to cancel the same program.

There, however, the program went forward. It was financed by Open Hillel, a student-run campaign that aims to encourage open discourse at campus Hillels, in part by changing the “standards for partnership” in Hillel International’s guidelines that exclude certain groups from Hillel based on their political views on Israel.
The program, as one might have predicted, was quite successful. Over 100 students and faculty showed up. But the pressure from Hillel International was too much for Muhlenberg’s Hillel president, Caroline Dorn, who resigned. She wrote:

I feel Jewishly at home in Open Hillel’s leadership for the first time in a while. I don’t have to choose between being Jewish and being Pro-Palestine–those two important parts of my personal identity can complement each other. It’s a wonderful feeling to be accepted, supported, and to feel like I have a community of open-minded and progressive Jewish friends and allies. I am deeply disappointed that Hillel International’s exclusionary Standards of Partnership keep Muhlenberg Hillel from serving this function in my life.

Open Hillel also released a statement:

Hillel is facing a choice – it can continue to spend valuable resources devoted to fighting its own students in an attempt to dictate what students can and cannot say about Israel/Palestine, or it can return to its mission of engaging Jewish students.

Is it genuinely impossible for Hillel to welcome all Jewish students, regardless of political persuasion or perspective? If so, we need to ask specific and trenchant questions in order to understand why (and how) that has happened. Who donates, who funds, and who, we might ask, determines Hillel International’s policies?

Mohammad and I will be talking again this weekend. I expect we will do as we have always done: Express our anguish for our (related) peoples. But at least, in that conversation, no one will shush or bully us or demand that we be other than we are.

Cousins.

P.S. May Jews sit down tonight to tell a story of national liberation with all the world’s people’s in mind.