Tazria: On Behalf of Seeding Life

We are smack dab in the middle of the Torah. Tazria, “she seeded,” marks the exact halfway point of our fifty-four parshiot.

And it is the kind of parsha that makes readers wish it had no place in Torah at all.

It’s easy to see why. This is the parsha which reads like a medical textbook. We learn in nearly sickening detail how inflammations of the bodies may present: scaly, yellow, white, and otherwise. We read about the various ways skin may appear after a burn. The presence and color of any hair growing out of inflammations or burns are considered and described.

Those whom the priest declares “impure” must remain outside the camp and call out “impure, impure.”

We can do all sorts of things to make Tazria easier for us to read. We can note that words like “impurity” and “purity,” “cleanliness” or “uncleanliness” may appear to encourage judgment and rejection but weren’t actually used that way by Ancient Israelites.

Ancient Israelites didn’t use these terms to describe individuals as inherently evil or sinful. They are using them to describe conditions, not moral states. Being pregnant or giving birth is a state of being. Being intimate with someone else is, too. A skin inflammation alters one’s condition, as does menstruation. Yes, people are being quarantined or kept from the Temple precincts if they aren’t in the appropriate state. But no one is being judged for presumed ethical failings or violations of law.

We can note, as academics long have, that each of the conditions described in this section of Leviticus deals directly with two alternate states of being: life and death. If you have a wound and bleed, you are not considered “impure.” If you are a menstruating woman, you are. A menstruating woman’s blood loss is the loss of potential life.

As for all those eruptions and inflammations? Skin diseases that look like wasting diseases naturally reminded ancient peoples of something most of us have never seen: the way a decomposing corpse appears.

Still, we cringe reading this parsha, and not only because the descriptions of some of these states elicits a visceral reaction. “This is gross,” one student once told me. And I could understand that reaction; I’ve felt it myself.

I don’t want to pretend that I am not disturbed by the idea that any person has to call out to warn others that he or she is in some altered state. This year, as I read the parsha, I wanted to imagine, with the rabbis, that the whole purpose of calling out is to ask for sympathy and compassion from others.

But it wasn’t good enough. I wanted another way to see the text and I couldn’t find it – not even by relying on my own stock in trade: the historian’s lens. It’s a convenient method of course, since a historian can insist on judging texts solely as products of their own time.

And then I found something that did work for me. I imagined the scene: afflicted person and priest, together.

What does the priest do in this parsha?

He diagnoses the effect of altered states. He must examine and explore and analyze and understand. He will have to get very close to whoever has the skin eruption or burn or inflammation. He does not treat the condition. He observes and figures out what is needed – either by noting that nothing warrants any action at all or that the individual should spend time outside the camp.

The priest doesn’t do this once, but regularly. After seven days, he is once again with the person in question. If the situation has changed, the burn or inflammation subsided, changed color, he can change the situation. The person can come into the camp again.

It’s a position and a responsibility that is rife with possible misuses of power, of course. It is also potentially a place of tenderness and care. This priest is up close and personal; he has to observe, examine, touch the person whose condition he is assessing.

Tazria is a creation word. To bear seed, to create seed – this is a way to offer life to the world. I wonder and I hope: Perhaps priests of old understood every examination of every burn or inflammation to be holy service in returning people to life.

So I will imagine them: Looking closely and carefully for signs of healing. Hoping, always, for the latter. Announcing it with joy. In their own way, seeding life.


Ritual Embeds Values – It’s Levitical

“Leviticus is one of my favorite books,” I say, and the room goes still. Someone gulps quietly. Leviticus, they are thinking, that book of rules and regulations, that book about skin disease and diverse bodily emissions. Ugh.

Admittedly, our priestly manual contains whole chapters that seem simultaneously repetitive and obscure. But there’s a big idea here worth taking seriously: in Leviticus, in Vayikra, we learn that ritual embeds values.

Right away, we are told that there are many ways to offer ourselves to God. The gratitude expressed in the olah, the burnt offering, demonstrated our ancestors’ willingness to give without expecting reward. Making a zevach sh’lamim, a well-being offering, gave the individual Israelite a chance to offer thanks and share the wealth with others in the form of a communal meal. There are levitical rituals for reconciliation, for reparation, for teshuva.

Revelations can emerge from texts that seem, in a word, bizarre. Some years back, my community’s Torah study group read about a purification ritual involving a recipe which included mixing up red cedar, crimson yarn, natural water and the blood of a bird. Our discussion of the passage – which centered around how to bring someone who had been exiled from camp back into the community – led the group to consider how congregations could make a home for the isolated and mentally ill.

Rituals embed our values.

Last December I took part in a ritual called pyebaek (pronounced paybeck), one of a number of Korean marriage rituals. During the ritual, the bridal couple must make a series of full prostrations to parents and parents-in-law – no mean feat, as the couple are dressed in ornate and colorful dress. Both sets of parents offer the couple advice and gifts. Thereafter, the couple spreads out the apron held high by the bride throughout the ceremony. The parents engage in a classic fertility ritual, throwing chestnuts and dates in the direction of the apron. Those the couple catch will foretell the number of sons and daughters they will have.

I learned about pyebaek from my son, Erik, and his then fiancée, Serafina Ha. Since I knew both Erik and Serafina wanted children, I made the most predictable of jokes, and vowed to toss a bowlful of chestnuts and dates at them.

What happened, however, was not at all the lighthearted scene I’d imagined. Ralf and I kneeled on a straw mat before a low table. We were served a sweet liquor which we sipped from the same half of a gourd.

Then Erik and Serafina walked in. I was immediately aware that they were taking the ceremony very seriously. Each prostration was unified — performed almost like a dance. They knelt, bowed and rose with a solemnity I had not foreseen. Ralf and I spoke a few words each, and then I took two dates and two chestnuts from the bowl before me. Erik and Serafina spread out the apron.

Before the chestnuts and dates left my hands, all things stopped and were still. I was kneeling at a threshold, aware that my life as a parent was, if not ending, certainly transforming. In that moment, I felt that I was holding everything Ralf and I had tried to do as parents, how we had tried – for twenty-five years – to earn our son’s trust rather than assume it. Openness, loyalty, integrity, devotion – I imagined everything we’d done well arcing through the air towards them.

I tossed the dates and chestnuts. They caught them all.

It was a sacred moment, unexpected and wholly real. And it reminded me: the embedding of values in ritual is both ethereal and actual. It is, in fact, Levitical.


Leviticus (and Voting on the Right )

Voting stickerLast Tuesday, I decided to do my civic duty right after lunch. I stepped into a church I attend regularly – at least, for a Jew. I’ve attended this church for friends’ weddings and for funerals; I also typically give several presentations there each year.

I know the people working the booths, since they happen to be neighbors of mine. It’s a pretty casual affair. There is never a line, which is sad, and always chit-chat about family life and suchlike, which is nice.

I was given my number, which was quite high, considering. I was Voter Number 272. I happily acquired my ballot, went to the cubby, set down my bag, and prepared to be a good citizen.

My choices for president included Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich.I stared at the ballot. I hadn’t had much sleep the night before, so it took me a moment. Then another. By the time the third moment arrived to tap me on the wrist, I had figured it out. Despite asking me my party affiliation (I confess: lifelong Democrat), my neighbors had handed me the opposition’s ballot.

In fact, I had been offered the opportunity to commit voter fraud – perhaps the very first actual case of voter fraud we would have seen in these United States this century. I could make history, right then and there at All Saints Episcopal, just yards away from the sanctuary I had taught in three weekends running the month before. “Voter Fraud Rife in the Tarheel State: Rabbi Arrested.”

Leviticus came to mind. Just a couple of days earlier I had spent an hour making the case for the beauty of the Torat Kohanim with congregants in my Torah study. Each year, as we leave Exodus behind and head into the spring, I wax eloquent over the sheer loveliness of biblical law. “Here we go,” someone is thinking, “she’s going to tell us about the ethical mandates behind whole chapters on corpses, skin diseases, and genital discharges. Again.”

But none of these things were on my mind. Ritual was.

Voting is a ritual with all sorts of important constituent parts. Here, in North Carolina, we’ve recently (and unnecessarily) added a few. Before I voted this March, a woman at the door formally informed me to please take out my photo ID before stepping forward to the table where I would have to recite my name, my address, and my party affiliation. Then I was reminded that phones must be turned off, ballots must be brought to the altar, and there, one must make sure to mark small ovals properly. The closing ritual includes feeding the completed ballot into a machine which consumes the results with a pleasing, whirring noise offered to the gods of democracy, after which one receives a sticker.

Ritual, I am fond of telling my congregants, is how Leviticus embeds values. The well-being offering of Leviticus was to demonstrate joy and gratitude and marked the fulfillment of vows. Priests might bring purification offerings to expiate any of the errors they might have committed, errors that could harm the people they served. Reparation offerings provided a way to get right with community, humanity, and God, Godself. Expressing thankfulness, making sure to be attentive to potential error, figuring out a way to repair the hurt or damage one’s actions can cause – these are values worth embedding in ritual.

As I stood at the voting booth, I thought of Nadav and Avihu. Obviously, I told myself, casting the Republican ballot would have been offering up some pretty strange fire. Sure, I could run Philo through my mind – Philo, who asserted in the first century C.E. that Aaron’s sons had acted out of piety, out of a heartfelt wish to be closer to God. In not voting for certain people and voting for others, I could be acting for the good of the Republican Party. I could be acting for the good of North Carolina. I could be acting for the good of America – of all the world, in fact. I could have voted against the Golden Bull, which is everywhere this year.  Golden calf

Instead, I went back to the table and explained that I had been given the wrong ballot. Utter consternation ensued, apologies were given thrice over, and I went back to my voting altar. I fed in my ballot, got my sticker, and went home.

“Leviticus,” according to one of my commentaries, “is a difficult book for a modern person to read with reverence and appreciation… The modern temper tends to discount prescribed ritual in favor of spontaneous religious expression.” But, the writer maintained, this book teaches us that at critical times we need to know that we are “doing it right.”



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.


My Law is Better Than Your Law

Esther kippah
Esther’s High Holy Day Kippah in raw silk

Recently, I received an email from someone who looked over my website, www.notmybrotherskippah.com. I had made the point that I do not use leather when making my kippot.

Goyisherebbe (that was the author’s email address) wrote, “There is no problem wearing leather kippot on YK anymore (sic) than there is wearing a leather belt. The only prohibition of leather is in wearing shoes. Mishna, 8th perek of Tractate Yoma.”

There was neither salutation nor signature. A non-Jewish rabbi? Someone who thinks their rabbinate is a little “goyish”?

Whatever the appellation, the email deserved a response. I wrote:

Dear goyisherebbe,
Thanks so much for your comment! …[T]here are rabbinic authorities who have suggested a prohibition against wearing any garment that is made from a living creature on Yom Kippur, and it is minhag in some communities to think and act in that way. For those whose custom it is to abstain from all such garments, my kippot can support their practice. For example, Rabbi Moses Isserles (quoted in Agnon’s Days of Awe, p. 201): “…how can a man put on a garment for which it is necessary to kill a living thing, on Yom Kippur, which is a day of grace and compassion, when it is written, “And His tender mercies are over all His works”? [Siddur ha-Minhagim].

But I got the point goyisherebbe was making. I promised to go back to the website to clarify the leather matter as one of minhag rather than halakhah and thanked my correspondent. Goyisherebbe was right to make me rethink my language.

I did not get a response, but I didn’t expect one, either. Goyisherebbe had found an opportunity to correct and did so in summary fashion, without any special kindness, conviviality, or grace.

Halakhic one-upmanship can be a brutal sport in Jewish circles. During the time I was in rabbinical school, I twice observed students justifying reproofs by appealing to Leviticus 19:17, “you shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.” In both cases, the apparent offender had not violated any halakhah I know of. There were, as there often are, egos in play.

In fact, one student invoked levitical law while openly humiliating a colleague, violating a cardinal halakhic rule against embarrassing someone according to the Sixth Commandment. Our sages interpreted the prohibition against murder to include causing the blood to drain from someone’s face, thus “shedding blood.”

As a rule, Jews don’t tell other people whether they are going to end up in hell or not. Most of us don’t think there is such a thing.

But we are perfectly capable of judging each other’s knowledge, practice, and observance of Jewish law, despite the fact that most of us are not exactly experts on the subject.

In fact, sometimes I am astonished by the Jews who grant themselves permission to use halakhah as a spiritual cudgel – even when those self-same Jews don’t (for example) possess any Shabbat practice to speak of.

Jews, Jews. We must stop using one of the sweetest contributions of our tradition to intimidate each other. Halakhah is a thing of beauty (at least it’s meant to be so), not a means of belittling. Halakhah is meant to uplift and enoble us, not to limit and confine us.

It’s the first day of the secular new year, about a quarter of the way into 5775. So very much is wrong with this world. In the name of halakhah, we are to name things we find troubling. We must call for redress of injustice. We should pursue justice and love peace.

We can use our exploration of the ethical to act.  But humility is a prerequisite. Kindness is essential.

Halakhah tells us that.


Loving Leviticus, Sanctifying Everything (or Anything)

It’s a small, mostly clear drinking glass – except for the irregular, oval spots of teal and turquoise. We have a good many of them.

They match our everyday dishes, themselves a rich and soothing teal. And everything together rests quite nicely on the copper tile on the kitchen table, rimmed with turquoise all around.

My husband, Ralf, found the glasses at Ikea. He has an eye for that sort of thing. I tell anyone who works on our home that they need to drop their usual assumptions about asking the “lady of the house” for design answers. Go to the professorial-looking dude instead, I say. He’ll know exactly what to do.

Our Ikea glasses are flirty, happy little vessels. They accompany cereal (or bialys!) in the morning and my typical yogurt and fruit lunch. They fit well in my hand, contain the right amount of water, and slide easily into a row designed for glassware in my dishwasher.

Last week, one of these everyday glasses suddenly became a holy object. Then, it became a holy topic.

I frequently tell my university students that Leviticus is one of my favorite books in Torah. Typically, this elicits variant groans of incredulity. If I say such a thing at a church I am visiting, I usually receive polite looks of utter disbelief. Many in my audience are likely thanking their lucky stars that Christianity apparently did away with the need to study priestly niggling about identifying skin diseases and suchlike.

I could rely on the Holiness Code (see chapter 19) to defend myself. After all, it is Leviticus that demands that we give a pawned cloak back to its owner at night to make sure he will not freeze to death. It is Leviticus which insists that we use fair weights and measures, that we leave gleanings for the poor, that we pay laborers promptly, that we judge righteously. And so on.

Instead, I address the apparent niggling. Levitical rules, I insist, are often about making the world sacred. There are important messages in mandates around sacrifices of gratitude and wholeness, around priests securing opportunities for themselves and their people to acknowledge responsibility for wrongdoing, around making certain that God’s sanctuary is cleansed and open to God’s Presence.Leviticus teaches us the importance of doing the daily, difficult work of keeping the eternal fire going (6:2).

We need to know that each day offers us an opportunity to recognize and be thankful for life. We must make the effort to understand where we have gone wrong and to rededicate ourselves to the task of remaining upright and honest in our dealings with others. We have to recognize the chance we are given, in each hour, to keep an eternal fire going.

What is that eternal fire if not our commitment to create and nourish light in darkness? What is that light if not love?

In the last days of March, our son, Erik, came to visit us with his girlfriend, Weiwei. Weiwei comes from China. She, like Erik, is a doctoral student in theoretical chemistry at the University of Chicago.

We met Weiwei last December. I had emailed with her quite a good deal. During our week together, Ralf and I learned more about this beautiful, brilliant woman. We four walked a bit in the North Carolina mountains. We made meals together. We went to an opera and listened to Jewgrass musician Andy Statman. Live.

We shared a home.

Every morning, Ralf, Erik, and I had a cup of Assam tea. For these we used the teal mugs that go with our dishes. Every morning, Weiwei took a polka-dotted glass from the shelf and poured herself a glass of water.

Last Friday morning, I took Erik and Weiwei to the airport and came home to many pre-Shabbat tasks. I walked in the door and saw the remnants of our breakfast on the table. I took away the dishes and the napkins. I folded the newspaper and removed the magazines. I wiped the table.

But I could not move Weiwei’s glass.

I washed sheets and blankets and swept the house. I wiped down counters and scrubbed the bathtubs. I sorted all the elements of life lived together back into their appropriate drawers and closets.

I left the glass where it stood.

The glass stood for the week we had shared together, for the introduction of a wholly new element in our family life. It represented that something sacred and holy had happened; we had become a different family that week.

For all of Shabbat, the glass stood on the kitchen table like an offering of thanks. Only when Shabbat was over did I pour the water away. It was a kind of libation.

During Torah study I told congregants about that glass.

“Leviticus,” I said, “helps us invest and transform the world. It teaches us that there are categories of sacredness and that we can hallow everyday things. Rituals of cleansing, honoring, and sanctifying connect us with the holiness of life itself.”

So, I suggest again that we learn from Leviticus.

We can make the world holy by whatever means are at hand – including an ordinary, polka dotted glass of water.


Loathing, Longing, and Leviticus

One must be at least a little meshugah to study history.

Historians suppose themselves to be in search of data, evidence they can use to (re)create something of the past.  Instead, they find themselves mere interpreters, functioning with limited vocabulary and with incomplete understanding.

If a historian doesn’t sense why his or her work is inadequate, never fear.  A rival historian will be sure to explain.  Pointing out others’ failings is called scholarship.

I don’t want to be scholarly just now, even though my summer reading (call it “Classic Volumes in Biblical Research”) is pushing such triggers big time.  The stack of books currently on my kitchen table feature gold lettering and many thick pages.  Such books have authority, magisterial language, and stains on their book covers.  I used to balance books such as these on my head when I studied ballet.  They were excellent tools for demonstrating poor posture.

I spent a part of July reading one of the great books of biblical studies, Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, published in 1878.  Wellhausen is mostly known as the father of the Documentary Hypothesis, which quite correctly posits that Moses did not author the whole Megillah, that a number of hands and agendas can be discerned in the Torah, and that these various authors can be ascribed identities as southern or northern or priestly or pre-or post exilic.  (The exile referred to here is the one that followed the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, not one of the other multitudinous exiles in Jewish history.)

Here is what Wellhausen is not so remembered for: The actual thesis of his master work.

Wellhausen argues that ancient Israelites reveled in a personal relationship with God.  Along came the big bad priests of the post-exilic period and replaced spontaneity and individualism with fanatical devotion to law and the practice of the same, sucking the very life out of that old time religion.  Ezra, Nehemiah, and their ilk were followed by the equally small-minded and legalistic Sadducees, Pharisees, and rabbis of later eras.  The priests were, according to Wellhausen, unimaginative, dogmatic, opinionated, mechanical, cancerous, and parasitic.  Read Leviticus.

Wellhausen’s tome makes for exhausting reading, and not just because there are hundreds of pages of contempt for the priests and the Priestly Code.  It is exhausting because it smells of the nasty polemics of centuries.  Judaism was and is a dying religion of a narrow-minded, legalistically inclined people who are preoccupied with form, not feeling, with trivial details of ritual rather than grand connection with the divine.

Well.  Slander and cliché are hardly unknown in academic circles.

I must also admit it: Julius Wellhausen’s work is brilliant, imposing, overarching.  There is plenty to be learned from it, even now.

I know, too, that he was born into a culture that most often dismissed Judaism and Jews as petty, grasping, small-minded, and parasitical.  Teaching contempt of Jews is a typical practice in Europe from early church fathers on.

To what extent can I blame men and women who were the products of centuries of intolerance toward my people?  I too am a product, and I carry assumptions and prejudices of my own time.  Where does my right to judge, to evaluate, begin and end?

There’s this, too: In significant regard, historians are actually explaining themselves.  Wellhausen hated all ecclesiastic authority and praised any hint of spontaneous and individual religious expression he could find in Hebrew Bible.  He valued myths and tales that revealed a deity who talked and walked with humanity.

In this regard, what Wellhausen loved, I also love.  What he sought, I seek.

I like to revel in texts that express the all-so human longing for what is sweet and loving, transcendent and ineffable.  If you look in Torah, you can see the reflection of that longing slipping through the verses, framed even by the words of slaves.  “Have I not gone on seeing after God saw me?” Hagar asks, wonderingly (Gen: 16:13).

The Torah’s authors marveled at existence.  Each of their authors attempted to make sense of a mysterious and magical world that deserved reverence and awe.

Even the priestly writers.  Even in Leviticus.

I wish I could convince Wellhausen of that.



Bad Behavior has blocked 62 access attempts in the last 7 days.