Shabbat Shemini: Not Why. How.

Our parashat hashavua this week brings us back to our regularly scheduled Torah text after two weeks devoted to special Pesakh Torah. We are back to the Book VaYikra, or Leviticus, and expect nothing more or less than the initiation of the mishkan (the sacred space the Israelites created in the wilderness) with the first sacrifices brought by the first priests. They have just spent seven days in preparation for their sacred work to begin, and on the eighth day they are to bring the first sacrifice to kick off the regular davening which will take place in this particular shul, if you will.
 
So it is; on the eighth – shemini – day they begin. 
 
Moshe said to Aaron: “Draw near the altar, and offer your sin-offering and your burnt-offering, and make atonement for yourself and for the people; present the offering of the people, and make atonement for them as HaShem commands.” (Lev. 9.7)
 
This all goes well enough, with the Torah recording the details carefully and specifically. In her book Leviticus As Literature the anthropologist Mary Douglas offers a fascinating interpretation of the animal sacrifices using ideas of symbolic anthropology (read an interesting explanation of that topic here: The Leviticus Monster and the Secret Decoder Ring).
 
But our story in the second year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah reading begins in a more problematic place: the moment when something goes wrong, and someone gets hurt.
 
Aaron, brother of Moshe, is the first High Priest. Older, mature and soberly approaching these new duties, he carefully carries out each technicality and succeeds in offering the first sacrifices, which are accepted. Then his sons, Nadav and Avihu, eagerly take their turn. Having watched their father, they already have ideas regarding how to improve on what Dad did.
 
And so the two men, younger, less mature and perhaps exhilarated with their new status and power, draw near to the altar in their turn:
 
Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer, and laid fire and incense on it, and offered this strange fire before HaShem, which  had not been commanded. And there came forth fire from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before HaShem. (Lev. 10.1-2)
 
Rookie mistake, and a fatal one. 
 
Generations of Jews have tried to make sense of this. The question are all of two kinds, but they both are fundamentally asking why: (1) what kind of G*d punishes the new person on the job for the first mistake? and (2) what did Nadav and Avihu do that was so terribly wrong? Why did this happen? whose fault is it?
 
Yet it is also quite possible that this tragedy occurred for no reason other than that two young people were caught up in a danger they did not understand and could not foresee.
 
We always want to look for reasons, for people and circumstances to blame, for some logical understanding of tragedy and suffering. If we knew why, perhaps it would be less painful. But would it? If we knew where the cancer came from and how it started, would it be less scary? If we knew how the human being had become sociopathic enough to kill another human being, would it be less terrifying? 
 
Years ago a very popular book was published with a title that everyone misread. It was called When Bad Things Happen to Good People, but everyone referred to it as Why, not When. The truth is that there is no answer to the question why that will ever truly satisfy the grieving heart. We will never know why misfortune occurs, why accidents happen, why illnesses strike down our loved ones. In the Book of Job the author actually puts words to that effect in the mouth of G*d, who explains to Job that even if he knew why he suffered, it wouldn’t help, because he still wouldn’t understand.
 
We cannot know why life comes at us as it does. The only question we can usefully ask, and hope to answer, with the help of a lot of study, prayer and support from and of each other, is this: how will I respond?
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Shabbat Shemini: What’s Kosher and What’s Treyf

This week in parashat Shemini the Torah sets out the law of kashrut, the ancient Israelite guide to good eating. At first glance, you may assume that you will be given a list of what’s kosher and what’s treyf. What’s fascinating is that in all of chapter 11 of the book of Leviticus the word kasher, “fit”, does not occur.  Here’s a glance at a few interesting and misunderstood words that do.
1. “Kosher,” (in Hebrew it’s pronounced kah-SHEYR) is a word we use as a general term for what Jews eat – but the actual description of what we eat and why is expressed in different terms altogether.
  אַל-תְּשַׁקְּצוּ, אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ, הַשֹּׁרֵץ; וְלֹא תִטַּמְּאוּ בָּהֶם, וְנִטְמֵתֶם בָּם. Do not not make yourselves sheketz [“detestable”] with any swarming thing that swarms. Do not make yourselves tamey with them, for they will make you tamey.
 כִּי אֲנִי י-ה, אֱלֹה-כֶם, וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי; וְלֹא תְטַמְּאוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ. For I am HaShem your G*d; make yourselves kadosh [“holy”], and be kadosh, for I am kadosh. Do not make yourselves tamey with any of the swarming things that move upon the earth.
We are to eat certain things and avoid certain other things as part of what it means to be kadosh, itself a word often misunderstood. It is translated as “holy,”, but is better understood as “set apart for a specific purpose.” In this way we might understand the eating discipline of kashrut to be similar to the eating regimen of a vegetarian, a locavore, or even a weightlifter: each focusing on that which is eaten in a very precise way for a clear purpose which is holy to that person.
2. We are to avoid that which is sheketz, “detestable,” to us, in order to be unique as HaShem is unique. It’s an identity statement, not too different from wearing one’s team colors on game day. One interesting theory comes from the insights of cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, who points out that the swarming creatures are not seen as “detestable” to themselves, or to G*d their Creator, or to the rest of the world – only to the Jews.
What is it with these swarming things, and why are we to avoid them? Notice the other place where we have seen this word recently in the Torah, in Exodus 1.7:
וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ–בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם. The people of Israel were fruitful, and swarmed abundantly and multiplied greatly; and the land was filled with them.
Mary Douglas posits that there is some kind of historical linkage for us, perhaps a retention in our cultural memory of a time when we were called “swarming” using this very same word. From this insight we might further wonder if this is, on some level, an expression of empathy. We ourselves were once called swarming things, and, therefore, forever after our religious tradition holds that those creatures which swarm upon the earth have our protection.
The Jewish food laws are about so much more than food.
3. What’s treyf, then? It literally means “torn [by a beast or bird of prey]”, which is to say, the ancient version of roadkill. But the term has come to signify anything that isn’t Jewishly good or right or true. And that fits the way we use the word kosher as well.
For halakhah as it has evolved in Jewish tradition, what’s kosher, “fit” to eat, has been understood as that which is healthy and, in the case of living creatures, was killed in a way judged to be as painless as possible. (There are Jews who argue that vegetarianism is the holiest way to eat, basing themselves on the Noah story. After the Flood, Noah’s family was given permission to eat meat under certain conditions.) Left Coast kashrut has added to this understanding with what is called Eco-Kashrut, extending the provisions already explicit in halakha to cover areas unheard of in earlier times: the destructive practices of large-scale raising and killing of animals, the transgression of child (and other) labor laws, and the fraud perpetrated by some who are untrustworthy kashrut inspectors.
So for example, those of us who follow what we consider the higher standard of Eco-Kashrut refrain from eating veal even though it is considered kosher by halakhic standards, and some have held that organic, anti-biotic free, and free range chickens who are demonstratively cared for in a humane way are more kosher than chicken or their eggs that are marked kosher but not kept in such conditions. And so it literally becomes a question of what is holy to us.
But we can go further, as the Prophets do, to the highest level of kashrut, which is this: no matter how carefully one eats, if you do not fulfill the mitzvot of caring about others, yourself, and the world, you’re not kosher. Hypocrisy makes everything it touches treyf.
Here’s wishing you food choices that are fit, empathetic, thoughtful, and true, and expressive of your unique sense of what matters most in this world.
Hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

Shabbat Tazria-Metzora: Time Out

This week’s double parashah reflects a fundamental understanding of ancient Israelite religion – and we are not sure that we know what it is. Between parashat Tazria and parashat Metzora, we are presented for four solid chapters of VaYikra (Leviticus) with rules of what anthropologist Mary Douglas called “purity and danger” in her book of the same name.

The guidance presented by Torah in these verses (12.1-15.33) separates the tamey from the tahor, two categories that are unhelpfully translated as “pure” and “impure” when in truth the situation is more complicated than that. In her examination of the religious laws which include this as well that other famous duality of Jewish law (kosher or not), Douglas insists that we regard these ideas not with the dismissive superiority of moderns but with what I like to think of as a post-modern curiosity about that which is not yet understood. These ideas should be approached as “a shorthand summary of the categories of Israelite culture….taken as a whole and related to the totality of symbolic structures organizing the universe.” (Douglas, Natural Symbols, 60). 

At a glance, even the most casual, it is not difficult to detect the ancient Israelites’ desire to keep the world ordered and coherent. One is always in either a state of being which is tamey or tahor. The activities and situations which cause one to be tamey are neither bad nor to be avoided, and they are not associated with sin. They include birth, death, sex, and food, among other basics of human life.

Most interesting is the requirement for “time out” in between the two states of being. For example: if one is in a state of being tamey because one has been ill with a contagious disease, one is required, for the good of the community, to be isolated for a specific time. When one is no longer showing signs, one is expected to return to one’s former place. In other parts of VaYikra the same rule applies to one who has been in the presence of death: one takes time away from the community, and then returns to one’s “normal” social existence. 

One of the great gifts of Jewish tradition is its insistence that we take time to recover from our experiences, and that certain situations carry certain ordered and religiously-mandated responses. Since the effect of illness or grief is often to cause us to feel isolated, there is a simple logic to the ancient Israelites’ understanding that the sense of isolation might be acted out and respected. One is given a specific pattern of behaviors to follow to help one move through the experience, and its aftermath. 

Since at the end of the “time out”, the Israelite is once again able to enter the sacred grounds and stand before G-d, we might understand one possible interpretation of the terms tamey and tahor to be “spiritually unready” and “spiritually ready”. Certainly we all feel the need sometimes to “take a break” from the community’s expectations of us – that might be our time of spiritual unreadiness. If so, what might be a relevant way for we moderns to move through the experience so that we can return to “normal”, and our beloved companions on our journey? Our ancestors went off alone into the wilderness (or at least a short walk away from camp); how can you in your own life make space for yourself so that your spiritual unreadiness is respected, moved through, and made ready?

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

Shabbat Tazria 5774: Watch For Rot

Our parashat hashavua (“reading of the week”) is one of the more misunderstood of the entire Torah. It seems to be entirely too consumed with concern regarding the appearance of discolorations on a person’s skin or hair. The first verse of our reading this year, the third of the Triennial Cycle, begins:

When a man or a woman has a נגע upon the head or the beard….(Lev. 13.29) This is actually part of a much larger section on what is usually translated “leprosy” (no relation to Hansen’s disease) and is called in Hebrew tzara’at. The verses between Lev. 13.1 and Lev. 14.53 can be seen as a unit which follows a simple a-b-a-b pattern:

Tzara’at of a person, diagnosis

Tzara’at of a garment, diagnosis

Tzara’at of a person, declaring clean and atonement

Tzara’at of a house, diagnosis, cleansing, and atonement

In her book Leviticus as Literature, the anthropologist Mary Douglas proposes that this unit of Torah describes a “body-Temple microcosm”. The body and the Temple are seen as exact reflections of each other. Your body is a Temple, and the Temple is a body. Anything and everything which upsets the healthy stasis of one or the other is a very serious matter, because your individual body cannot be separated from the community’s body, nor from the Temple. We are all one – animate and inanimate.

Leviticus is not easy to read, but it contains hints way back to the most ancient Israelite religious beliefs and practices. Among them is this idea, no less true for us: no part of us can be allowed to decay or become infectious without damage to the rest of us. Mold, rot, fungus – whether physical or moral – must be watched for constantly, because when it spreads it damages all of us. It is interesting to note the physical-moral connection. Is it true that if we act immorally, our houses will also be affected? Is that not exactly the case when, for example, insufficient oversight of building contracts allows substandard buildings to be built that may then collapse?

The medieval Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides believed that moral rot would sooner or later show on the body. The underlying truth of that assertion shows up in myth and fairy tale (just think about how many bad guys physically corrode in death). This indicates some deeper truth that our rational intellects don’t want to, or can’t, handle; instead we take refuge in insisting that there are those who suffer who are innocent. That is true, but it is only a simple truth. There is a complex truth here. Our intellects can see the connection between moral and physical rot in the fabric of our communities, when we allow part of town to deteriorate, or when we underfund our schools and public services, or when innocent individuals suffer physical ailments such as tzara’at, whatever it was – and is. People downstream from chemicals may suffer physical ailments; that is not so difficult a moral connection to make. Someone dumped those chemicals.

We do not know every moral and physical connection in our world; we cannot understand every suffering. But the ancient truth cannot be so easily swept aside, especially when atonement is prescribed – that is to say, possible. The innocent suffer; what is our complicity? Where is the rot in our surroundings? How might we  atone for the civic, environmental, and political sins we have committed as a community, and clean up our act? We are, after all, all in this together.