Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Emor
The Kedusha of Kohanim and Torah in the Bathroom

Parashat Emor opens with the prohibition against a Kohen coming into contact with a corpse, which would make him impure due to his special kedusha, his priestly sanctity. Such impurity would compromise his kedusha and keep him out of the Temple. Even a Kohen with a physical blemish is barred from serving in the Temple: "Any man from your offspring, for all future generations, who has a blemish, may not draw near to offer up the food of his God" (Vayikra, 21:16).

There is, however, a significant difference between the Kohen who is tamei, impure,and the one who has a blemish. The one who is tamei is completely removed from the Sanctuary and all that occurs there. He may not enter the Temple or eat the sacrifices. In fact, according to the Talmud, if he was tamei during the day when the sacrifice was offered, he cannot demand a portion to eat in the evening when he will be pure once again. In contrast, a Kohen who has a blemish is allowed in the Temple and has a right to his portion of the sacrifices: "The food of his God, from the holiest of sacrifices... he may eat" (Vayikra, 21:22). His blemish prevents him from serving, but it does not exclude him as a person.

According to the Gemara Zevachim (102b), there are actually three verses in the Torah which exclude the rights of a Kohen who is tamei to any portion of the sacrifices. Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon concludes that the Torah needed three separate verses to address three different types of sacrifices. What is unusual about his analysis is its narrative design: He imagines a Kohen who was a tevul yom, impure in the day and pure in the evening, and comes to demand a portion from a Kohen who worked that day. "You may be able to push me away in one type of sacrifice, but I should at least be entitled to a portion in this other type of sacrifice," he says. The other Kohen responds, "Just like I could push you away in the first case, I can push you away in the second case as well." The narrative ends with the tamei Kohen being denied any portion and walking away in utter defeat: "Thus the tevul yom departs, with his kal va'chomer[logical arguments] on his head, with the onen [one who has just suffered a death] on his right and the 
mechusar kippurim [one who lacks a korban to end his impurity] on his left.

R. Elazar ben R. Shimon's use of such a graphic narrative to make an analytic point underscores that we are dealing with more than intellectual mind games here. The human dimension is front and center: a person is being excluded. This is not just a question of ritual; it is one of rights and membership. In the end, this poor tevul yom and his fellow impure Kohanim are pushed out, and they walk away from the Temple with their heads down, despondent over their exclusion.

The Gemara, however, does not end the discussion of R. Elazar ben R. Shimon's analysis there. In what appears to be a total digression, the Gemara tells us that Rava reported that R. Elazar delivered his analysis while in the bathroom! The Gemara then questions how such a thing is possible.

Said Rava: "This law I learned from R. Elazar ben R. Shimon, which he said in the bathroom..."
But how might he [do this? Surely Rabbah bar bar Hanah said in Rabbi Yochanan's name: One may think [about Torah] in all places, except in a bathhouse and a bathroom? - It is different [when it is done] involuntarily."

This exchange is not a mere digression. The possibility of Torah in the bathroom is introduced here to show the stark contrast between the Mikdash as the center of kedusha and Torah as the center of kedusha, that is, the difference between a Temple-based Judaism and a Torah-based Judaism.

When Mikdash is the primary locus of kedusha, access to that kedusha, is very limited; the Mikdash is only in one physical space and, as we have seen, true access is restricted to a very select group. Only male Kohanim can enter the inner parts of the Mikdash; only a male Kohen without a blemish can do the Temple service; and only a Kohen who is not tamei can eat the meat of the sacrifices. More than that, as R. Elazar's narrative illustrates, it makes no difference if a Kohen is only tamei temporarily or if he is blameless for his state of tumah. Regardless of how hard he argues, he is denied a portion; he is rejected and leaves despondent.

Not so in the case of Torah: Kohen or Yisrael, man or women, rich or poor, all have access. "Israel was crowned with three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. The crown of priesthood was taken by Aharon... [But] the crown of Torah is sitting and waiting for all people; whoever wants to may come and take it" (Rambam, Laws of Torah Study, 3:1).

Even when attempts are made to push someone away - as Hillel was turned away because he did not have the fee to enter the beit midrash (Yoma 35b) - the Torah is still there waiting. If one is committed and perseveres one will get a portion in Torah and be allowed in. And impurity is no obstacle, for "the words of Torah are not susceptible to impurity" (Berachot 22a).

Torah is different from the Mikdash in another way as well. In addition to being accessible to all people, it can also be accessed in all places. The bathhouse and the bathroom are the only two places that Torah cannot be learned, and even these exclusions are not absolute. For as the Talmud tells us, if a person can't control his thinking he cannot be faulted for learning Torah in the bathroom! Unlike the tevul yom who is pushed away through no fault of his own, R. Elazar's statement is remembered, accepted, and passed down. Not only is he not to blame, but his Torah - even a Torah that emerged from the bathroom - remains pure and untainted.

Let us not forget that R. Elazar did more than just think Torah in the bathroom; he actually verbalized it and taught it to others. The Talmud's argument that "he could not control it" presumably means that he couldn't hold his thoughts in his head, and the only way he could stop thinking about it was to talk about it. For many of us, this would seem to be a serious affront to the words of Torah, and yet the teaching remains untainted. Truly, the words of Torah do not receive impurity! Such is the difference between the kedusha of the Torah and that of the Mikdash!

In thinking about our own communities and practices, we must consider whether we are guided by the Mikdash or the Torah model. There are undoubtedly certain instances in which the Mikdash paradigm would be appropriate, where we want to emphasize hierarchy and limited access to the holy. Even in such cases, we would be well-advised to remember the difference between the person who is tamei and the person who has a blemish. Tumah is a state inherently antithetical to the kedusha of the Mikdash. Some people may have certain character traits or behaviors that warrant a full exclusion, but external, nonessential issues - blemishes, disabilities, and other limitations - should never lead to a person's real or felt exclusion from the community. The Kohen with a blemish is not only able to eat the sacrifices, but he has full rights to them as well.

We, however, live in a post-Mikdash reality. We live in a religious world whose center is the Torah, not the Temple. This world, with its inclusivist and universalist ethos, is what should most define our practices and our community. This is a kedusha of universal access: All can get to it, and if they cannot, we must make it possible for them to do so. And it can get to all people, everywhere - in their synagogues, study halls, workplaces, and even in their bathrooms. And wherever it reaches, wherever it is learned, it will remain holy and connect us to the source of all that is holy.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim
Two Types of Kedusha

Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim represents the transition from the first half of Vayikra to the second. The first half is focused solely on the Temple, its holiness and the sacrifices conducted therein. Tazria-Metzorah, last week's double parasha, continued this theme, detailing the various ritual impurities, the tumot, that would require a person to be sent out of the camp and prevent his or her access to the Temple. This week, in Acharei Mot, the Torah limits access not to the Temple itself, but to the Holy of Holies.

"Speak to Aharon your brother, that he may not enter at all times into the Holy... Only with this may Aharon enter into the Holy" (Vayikra, 16:2-3). Aharon is singled out because he is the Kohen Gadol; normal kohanim are never allowed to enter. Even Aharon is only allowed to enter on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, and only after completing exacting sacrificial rites.

Clearly, gaining access to the Temple, the place of God's presence, is not a trivial matter. With the Temple so inaccessible - at times both geographically and ritually - it would stand to reason that a person may want to reach out to God by bringing a sacrifice without the Temple. This option is denied as well, as the bringing of such sacrifices is prohibited in the middle of Acharei Mot. That the first half of Vayikra ends with this prohibition underscores just how difficult it is to connect to God through the Temple.

Beginning the second half of Vayikra, Kedoshim presents a radically different approach to holiness and to connecting with God. "Speak to the entire congregation of Israel and say to them: Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" (Vayikra, 19:2). To access the holy is not to enter the Temple, it is to strive to become holy. To connect to God is not to enter into the Holy of Holies, but to strive to be like God. It is through such striving that we actualize the holiness, the divine, the tzelem elohim, that is in each and every one of us.

There are, then, two types of holiness, two types of kedusha. There is the kedusha of Acharei Mot and the kedusha of kedoshim ti'hiyu, "you shall be holy." In other words, there is a kedusha that conceives of God as residing in a place, and there is a kedusha that perceives of God as residing in each and every person.

The first represents the attempt to draw close to God, to enter into God's abode. It is thus a kedusha that is restrictive, one of limited access. For what human being can leave this world and enter into the place where God dwells? The second is holiness whose goal is not to leave this world to be close to God. Its goal is to actualize the divine within us, to bring God and Godliness into this world. It is a kedusha that is accessible by all.

Kedoshim opens not with "daber el Aharon achikha," "Speak to Aharon your brother," but "daber el kol adat benei Yisrael," "speak to the entire congregation of Israel." All of you - man, woman, child, ritually pure, and ritually impure - each one of you can become holy, can become like God. This is a holiness that includes rituals and rites to be sure, but it is also a holiness of morality, a holiness that touches on every act, religious or interpersonal. It touches every detail of how we live our lives.

How does one live such a life of holiness? One strives for Godliness in all actions. One does not only connect to God during ritual or "religious" activity; one also brings an awareness of God into his or her interpersonal exchanges. Kedoshim ti'hiyu is a holiness that demands ethical behavior in all spheres.

Thus we find that Kedoshim opens with two mitzvot: the mitzvah to have awe and respect for one's parents and the mitzvah to keep Shabbat, an ethical commandment and a religious one. The foundation of our interpersonal behavior in life is laid in the home; it starts with and is shaped by how children interact with their parents. And the foundation of holiness is not the Temple with its difficult and limited access; it is Shabbat, a staple of our week, a holiness that all can experience, a welcoming of the Divine Presence into our homes.

The rest of Kedoshim presents a dense and varied listing of mitzvot, with almost every other verse ending with the refrain, "ani Hashem eloheikhem," "I am the Lord your God." This echoes the opening verse, "Be holy, for holy am I the Lord your God." The Torah is telling us: This is what it means to be holy, to be like God. If we are to live a life of this type of holiness, then we must bring God into our harvesting of grain, our buying and selling, our hiring and paying of workers, our dealing with the disadvantaged, our speaking of others, and our feelings towards others. To have access to God everywhere means that we cannot compartmentalize our religious life away from our "normal" life. God can be found in every activity, thus we must strive to find God in all parts of our lives.

In his introduction to Vayikra, Ramban notes that the purpose of constructing the Mishkan was to recreate Har Sinai in the Israelite camp. Just as God's presence came down onto Har Sinai, God's presence filled the Mishkan. Just as boundaries were set around the mountain to prevent the people from "bursting through," impure people were kept outside the Temple. And, one might add, just as Moshe and Aharon alone were allowed to go to the top of the mountain, only Aharon is allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies.

So ends Ramban's parallel, but one thing is missing. For after God descends on Har Sinai, something important happens: the Torah is given. The purpose of the descent was not so that we might go up the mountain to draw close to God's presence; the purpose of the descent was so that God may command us in the mitzvot of the Torah.

The parallel to the Giving of the Torah is not the Mishkan; it is Parashat Kedoshim. Many commentators have already noted that the mitzvot at the beginning of Kedoshim parallel the Ten Commandments. More than that, parashat Kedoshim serves as the culmination and translation of all that came before. The purpose of the Mishkan was not for the sake of "with this Aharon may enter the sanctum". Its purpose was so that God may dwell in our midst, so that we can live a life of holiness. The kedushaof Acharei Mot serves to bring about the kedusha of Kedoshim.

Even in our religious strivings, as we try to come close to God, the ultimate kedusha is a life of mitzvot, a life of actualizing the divine within us; a life in which God is accessible to every person, a life in which God is present in all of our actions.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Tazria-Metzorah
A Tzara'at Survivor

The double parasha Tazria-Metzorah details the laws of tumah, any impurity that would require people to maintain their distance from the Mishkan. The primary focus is on the metzorah, a person afflicted with the skin disease tzara'at, and how he is to become pure. The parasha continues with cases of tzara'at that occur on garments and on a house before turning the focus back to people and their impurities: the zav, literally the "flow," a man with an unusual penile emission; a man who had a seminal emission; the niddah, the woman who has menstruated; and the zavah, the woman who has had an irregular flow of blood.

The common denominator of all of these tumaot is that they develop from within the person; they are not contracted from the outside. Whether the condition is a skin disease or some type of flow, the source is in the person. Although less intense than the tumah of touching a corpse, the tumah of this week's parasha is more severe in one important way: it directly defines personal status. Such a person may not enter into to the Levite camp, or, after the wilderness period, the Temple Mount. A person with corpse-impurity, by contrast, can go up onto the Temple Mount.

Tumah that comes from the outside, even if very intense, does not define the identity of the person to whom it transferred. We do not have a proper noun for a person who has touched a corpse; he is described only in terms of what he has done. In contrast, Tazria-Metzorah is filled with a cast of characters - the Metzorah, the Zav, the Niddah, the Zavah - defined by their status. Hence, they must keep their distance from the Temple, where the primary concern is to keep tamei things, and more specifically tamei people, out.

We often define a person's very self by more readily identifiable traits. This can help us organize our reality, but it can also lead to generalization and discrimination 
My children have special needs, but these don't define them. I do not want them to go through life as "he is Asperger's" or even "he is autistic." These are conditions they have not adjectives and certainly not proper nouns. I want no one to forget - especially them - that, first and foremost, they are special, unique, wonderful people who are so much more than any particular condition they may have. When people meet one of my sons, they have to see them for who they are; if all they see is a label, they are not really seeing them at all.

As we might expect, a closer reading of this week's parasha reveals that the Torah does not label people by their conditions. Take, for example, the man with an irregular flow. He is referred to as ha-zav.This could be translated as a proper noun: "the Flow-er," or "the Emitter." However, this approach is almost universally eschewed; most translators have understood that the word zav, as it is used here, is not meant as a name but a descriptor. The proper translation is, "the man who has a flow." This is his condition, not who he is.

This is true for everyone in our parasha. There is the man asher teizei mimenu shikhvat zera, "who has experienced a seminal emission"; the woman who is bi'nidattah, "experiencing her flow"; and the woman who is "in her [irregular] flow" (Vayikra, 15:16, 20, 26-28). These are people in certain states, not people defined by their state. Because the tumah occurs to them directly they own their tumah more, and they are more distanced from the Mikdash, but this does not and should not define their identity.

There is one exception to this rule. Although the person with the skin disease is mostly described just that simply, the Torah does, in one place, give him a proper name. At the beginning of Parashat Metzorah he is called the metzorah, a title used in very much the same sense as "the leper." This may be because, unlike the others, this condition is long-lasting, severe, potentially recurrent, and visible to all. It is thus more likely that a person may wind up being defined by it. This is often what happens with those who have cancer. Consider the following blog post:

I had migraines for 25 years. Bad ones, that left me quaking in agony in a darkened room, moving only to vomit. Those migraines changed my life more than cancer did... Yet, I don't consider them a part of my identity.

Not so with cancer. I have migraines, I am a cancer patient.

I suppose the [intensity of the] treatment can help explain it... We can't keep it a secret, like those with high blood pressure can. We don't get to face our disease in private: we lose our hair and are thus outed as cancer patients. If we leave the house, we tell the world.

It's also true that the fact that the disease can come back and strike at any time is part of the reason it never fully leaves your psyche.

Notice how many of the characteristics of living with cancer parallel those of tzara'at: intensive treatment, the public nature (hair growing wild in one case, baldness in the other), the potential for recurrence. These traits can conspire to turn the disease into identity.

I believe, however, that even here the Torah pushes back against this sort of labeling. It is ironic that the label metzorah does not appear when the person is diagnosed with the condition, when he is ostracized from the camp, or when he practices the public signs announcing his state. It is only assigned when he begins the process of purification: "This shall be the law of the metzorah on the day that he becomes pure..." (Vayikra, 14:2). It seems that the Torah is acknowledging that this state can become an identity and advising that it only be recognized as such in retrospect, once the condition can no longer outwardly identify who they are. In fact, one study has shown that people who self-identify as a "cancer survivor" are more likely to have "better psychological well-being and post-traumatic growth," this in spite of the same study's finding that "neither identifying as a 'patient' nor a 'person with cancer' was related to well-being."

It would seem that after having lived through such a traumatic condition, it is healthier to see one's current state as a significant break from one's past state. If one 'had cancer' and now simply 'does not have cancer,' if there is significant continuity of identity from the period of disease to after, it may be harder to fully own one's new, healthy state. Perhaps the Torah is telling the person with tzara'at, resist letting this terrible disease define you when you have it. But when you are putting it behind you, then you can say that before you were a metzorah, and now you are no longer.

Just as they may be helpful when the condition is a thing of the past, labels for people can serve a useful function in legal texts. Halakha and the rabbinic literature does in fact assign labels to people with these conditions: a woman with a flow, for example, is a niddah, a menstruant. Legal systems may need a convenient way of categorizing and grouping, but when dealing with real people with current conditions, labeling will always remain dangerous, reductionist, and dehumanizing.

While the Torah focuses on how certain people can become tahor, how they can change their current state, we must acknowledge that there are people with lifelong conditions. These people can only talk about managing their condition, not treating it and certainly not curing it. We cannot further trap them in their condition by labeling them and identifying them with it. It is our responsibility as a society to ensure that, whomever the person and whatever their condition, we will always see him or her as he or she fully is, that we see the inherent purity that is each person's essence.

Shabbat Shalom! 

Revised from 2013 


Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Pesach sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Shmini
The Danger of Unbridled Religious Passion

After many months of construction - and many parshiyot devoted to its narrative - the Mishkan is finally dedicated and made operational in Parashat Shmini. On the eighth and final day of the inauguration, Moshe introduces the final series of sacrifices to the Children of Israel with the declaration that, if they are properly brought, "the Glory of the Lord will appear " (Vayikra, 9:6). And when the ritual is completed, we are told that, in fact, "the Glory of God appeared to the People. And a fire went forth from before God and it consumed on the altar the olah, the burnt offering, and the fats, and the entire nation saw and they rejoiced and they fell on their faces" (Vayikra, 9:23-24).

Amidst this direct manifestation of God's presence and the rejoicing of the people, Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, brought their own sacrifice, an offering of incense which was "a foreign fire, one that God had not commanded them" (Vayikra, 10:1). This time, when a "fire went forth from before God," it did not consume the sacrifice but those who brought it: "and it consumed them, and they died before the Lord" (Vayikra, 10:2).

While the midrash suggests a number of reasons why Nadav and Avihu were punished, a simple explanation is stated in the text itself: they drew near with a sacrifice that they had not been commanded to bring. The issue is not the violation of God's command per se or its converse - performing a non-commanded religious act. Rather, it is the much more specific concern of how one draws close to God. This can be understood as a natural result of the metaphysical reality of God's presence. The Torah describes God as a "consuming fire." God is the life-force of the universe; God is infinite power. When approached correctly, fire is brought forth that will consume the sacrifices and bring good to the world. When approach incorrectly or in unregulated ways, the fire brought forth will destroy people and bring tragedy to the world. This can be compared to an electricity-generating power station, with signs warning, "Danger! High Voltage!" Channeled properly, the electricity can light up an entire city. Handled improperly, it can be fatal.

It is for this reason that wherever and whenever the aron, the ark that housed the tablets, is handled incorrectly, tragedy immediately ensues. Thus, we read in the haftorah that when Uzah makes an innocent mistake and grabs onto the aron to prevent it from falling, he is immediately stricken dead by God (Shmuel II, 6:7). Such is the power of God's presence and of the aron, the location of the presence, that, if handled incorrectly, it will cause death.

This approach, while true to the text, still does not provide a satisfying religious explanation. We might react as King David did and be "angered that God had broken forth against Uzah," and we might try to understand how the punishment makes sense on a religious or moral level (Shmuel II, 6:8).

I believe that the deeper significance of what happened to Nadav and Avihu is the need to strike the proper and delicate balance between religious fervor and passion, and between regulation and limits. Clearly Nadav and Avihu were so moved by the manifestation of God's presence that they felt a powerful religious need to draw close to it, to bring their own sacrifice of incense. They acted on their fervor without reflecting or pausing to assess if what they were doing was proper. Religious passion can be a powerful good, but it can also be extremely dangerous. When people act on their unregulated religious passions, they tend to feel that their religious actions are self-justifying. "If this is how my religious passion propels me to act, then it is a religious act; it is good. If this gets me closer to God - in my mind - then it is good." This "ends justify the means" and "if it feels right it is right" attitude is antithetical to a classical Jewish approach. And we only have to look at the world around us and the atrocities that are perpetrated in the name of religion to recognize that unbridled religious passion can be very bad indeed; it can even be evil.

What, then, is the proper balance between passion and rules and regulations? According to the Torah, it is to first follow the rules, to first ensure that one's actions are in accord to what "God has commanded." When the people did what God had commanded, the fire consumed the sacrifices. When Nadav and Avihu brought an offering that "God had not commanded," the fire consumed them. Once the rules are being followed one can bring all of his or her passions to the experience: "And the people saw and rejoiced and fell on their faces." The mistake is to focus on the passion first. When one does this, the rules are violated, and the act is no longer a religious act but a dangerous one, one that can bring destruction.

This is why immediately after the death of Nadav and Avihu the Torah commands against serving God while intoxicated. For many, becoming intoxicated is an important means to attaining a state of religious ecstasy. However, for the Torah, it puts passion and experience above rules and responsibility. Approaching God while intoxicated will bring death. Rather, the Kohanim's prime responsibility is to not blur the boundaries but to set them. They must be sober so they can "distinguish between the holy and the profane, and between the ritually pure and the impure" (Vayikra, 10:10). From Levi's actions in defense of God's honor at Har Sinai, to Pinchas' acting zealously for God, Eliyahu jealously defending God's honor, and Matityahu's revolt against the Seleucids and the Hellenizers, the Kohanim excelled at religious passion. The Torah had to rein this in and redirect it, making their first and primary responsibility to guard the Mishkan, to keep the impure out and to set the boundaries between what is and is not acceptable.

It is on this note that the parasha ends. First by differentiating between the pure (i.e., kosher) and impure (i.e., non-kosher) animals, and finally, by underscoring that this setting of boundaries is the responsibility not just of the Kohanim but of every one of us. "And to distinguish between the impure and the pure, and between the animal that may be eaten and the one which may not be eaten" (Vayikra, 11:47).

Our challenge today is that we have learned this lesson perhaps too well. We have so focused our religious experience on the rules and regulations, on halakha and all of its details, that we have almost completely lost touch with any sense of religious passion. If there is no religious passion, then our religious life becomes a simple life of observance, it becomes lifeless, antiseptic, and anemic. Part of the reason for this is that we have not prioritized passion as a religious value in the home, in the synagogue, or in the schools. But there is another reason. We do not experience God as directly as people had in the past. When one could experience God's presence, when a fire could come down from the heavens, it was easier not just to believe, but to experience God. This was a central part of the function of the Mishkan - to create a tangible sense of God's presence. Today, we rationally and philosophically shy away from thinking of or experiencing God's presence as something to be felt in this world, and so we are less equipped to have tangible religious experiences. Instead, we live a life of halakha.

If I had to pick between the two, I would pick the passionless religious experience that is guided by law, halakha, and regulation. This ultimately produces right actions and good in the world. In contrast, as we know too well, a religious experience which is driven by passion can lead to terrible atrocities. But we shouldn't have to pick. We have been so good at establishing the rule of law, the rule of halakha, that we can stand to reintroduce a little religious passion into our lives. In our relationship with God, we have truly been married a long time, but I still want there to be some spark in the relationship. I want to get excited, and I want us as a people to get excited, to get passionate, to have a drive to serve God and to bring God into the world. We need to ensure that the rules remain primary, and to work together to bring some passion into our religious lives, Let us learn how to "rejoice and fall on our faces."

Shabbat Shalom!

Revised from a piece that originally appeared in 2014.