Friday, April 8, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

Parashat Metzorah continues to detail the laws of tumah, impurity, that can occur to people and that would require them to maintain their distance from the Mishkan.   The parasha opens with the case of the metzorah, the person afflicted with the skin disease of tzara'at, and how he is to become pure:  "This shall the law of the metzorah, the skin-diseased person, on the day of his becoming pure..." (Vayikra 14:2).   The Torah wraps up the discussion of tzara'at, and then turns its attention to other people who are impure - 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 are the result of a state occurring to a person; they are not contracted from the outside.  Whether the state is a skin disease, or some type of flow, it is something that is sourced in the  person him or herself.  The Gemara refers to these people as those who have tumah yotzei mei'gufo, the tumah emerges from their bodies.  The tumah here is of less severity than the tumah of a corpse, whose tumah is forbidden to the Kohen, whose tumah requires the ashes of the Red Heifer to purify it, and whose tumah can make even objects that touch it to be considered primary source of tumah.  Nevertheless, although less severe in terms of its intensity, the tumah of this week's parasha is more severe in one important area: it directly defines the status of the person, and demands that such a person not enter into to the Levite camp (or, after the Wilderness period, unto the Temple mount).  In contrast, not only can someone who has touched a dead body be in the Levite camp, but even a corpse itself may be brought into the camp, as the Rabbis tell us was done when Moshe carried the bones of Yosef out of Egypt.

What is the reason behind this greater severity?  When tumah comes from the outside, even if it is very intense, it does not define the identity of the person to whom it transferred.  A person who touched a corpse is just that -  a person who touched a corpse.  We do not have a proper noun for such a person - he is only described in terms of what he has done.  In contrast, this week's parasha is filled with a cast of characters: the Metzorah, the Zav, the Niddah, the Zavah.  It's like the start of a joke:  "OK, a Zav and a Metzorah walk into a bar..."   These people are defined by their status, since their status reflects their physical state of being - their flows, their skin, and so on.   They are a source of tumah, and this is their identity.  Hence, they must keep even more distant from the Temple, where the primary concern is not just to keep tamei things out of its environs, but more specifically tamei people.  And what person is more tamei than a person whose very identity is defined by his or her tumah?

The difference between identity and essential character on the one hand, and traits, behaviors, and what the Greek philosophers would call "accidental characteristics" on the other hand is one of great importance.  We know that a key educational and parenting principle is to focus on the behavior, not the person.  "I know you are a good person, but what you did was wrong, was bad" is a healthy parenting technique.  "Bad, bad, bad!" yelled with a finger pointing to the child, is not.  One reinforces the person's sense of herself as a good person, and calls on her to live up to that true, inner self.  The other leads the child to see herself as bad, and to live up to, or rather down to, that identity.

While we know this prinicple when it comes to parenting, we often forget it when it comes to how we relate to those who are different than we.  I still remember that until my children were about 10 years old and learned about the Civil Rights Movement in school and how our country had discriminated against Blacks, they were blissfully unaware that people were categorized as Black people and White people.  If asked how our South African babysitter was different than we, they would have - and did! - respond that while we had light brown skin, she had dark brown skin.  What a wonderful age of innocence!  But it makes us wonder, why do we use skin color to categorize people, to define identity?  We don't use eye color to do so.  

We so often take a trait and decide to identify it with a person's very identity, very self.  This can help us organize our reality, but it can also lead to blatant and subtle forms of generalization and discrimination.   My children have special needs, but that doesn't define them.  I do not want them to go through life as "He is Apserger's" or "He is high-functioning Autism" or even "He is autistic."  I want no one - and most of all not them - to forget that first a foremost they are special, unique, wonderful people.  As my wife, Devorah Zlochower, and I wrote in an article on this topic, "Most importantly, speak to our children and recognize them for the beautiful souls they are. Our children are poets, artists, philosophers and psychologists; their emotional and spiritual lives are deep and intense ones."  My sons are wonderful boys, boys who happen to have some special needs and special struggles.  One has Apserger's; the other has Autism.   People with challenges, yes, but first and foremost each one is a person in his own right.  When people meet one of my sons, they need to see Kasriel or Netanel;  if all they can see is "Special Need," they are not seeing them at all.  

When we realize how easy it is for us to take a trait and turn it into an identity, and we then turn back to this week's parasha, we will discover that we have done the same to the people described therein.  It is true that the Torah gives a proper name to the one with tzara'at - he is a metzorah, but that case is the exception, and the name is ironically only given when he is in the process of leaving that state.  However such labeling is clearly not the case when it comes to the other people mentioned in the parsha.  The man with an irregular flow is ha-zav, which could be translated as "the Flow-er," or "the Emitter."  However, almost all translations do not take this approach, and understand that the word zav is not meant here as a name, but as a descriptor, and translate it as "the man who has a flow." 

This insistence to describe, rather than label, is even clearer in the other cases. The man with the seminal emission is not, as he is in Rabbinic literature, a ba'al keri, an ejaculant, he is rather one asher teizei mimenu shikhvat zera, who has experienced a seminal emission (verse 16).   The woman who menstruates is not a niddah, a flow-er or a menstruant.  She is only called this in Rabbinic literature.  In the Torah, however, she is a woman who is bi'nidattah, "experiencing her flow." (15:20).  The woman with an irregular flow is not a zavah, as she is in Rabbinic literature, she is rather a woman who is "in her flow" (15:26, 28). 

Just consider the closing verses of the parasha:

"This is the law of the one with the flow, and the one from whom a seminal discharge emerged, to become impure thereby.  And the woman who flows during her menstruation, and the one who experiences a [abnormal] flow, whether male or female, and for the one who sleeps with a woman who is temayah.
(Vayikra 15:32-33).

Even the woman who had a child is described in the Torah not as a yoledet, a parturient, as she is by the Rabbis, but as someone who has experienced childbirth, isha ki tazriya vi'yaldah zakhar - if she conceives and gives birth to a child (Vayikra 12:2).   She might happily own the title of "mother" as part of her identity, but she does not need her identity to be reduced to that of a yoledet.

All of these people are described, not named.  It is true that because the tumah occurs to them directly, the own their tumah more, and it becomes more of their identity.  This is why they are more distanced from the Mikdash.  And yet, their identity does not have to be reduced to this status.   Even if this status is not bad - it is a natural occurrence, and - in the case of the menstrual flow and the seminal emission, part of the human capacity to create new life.    But who wants to be reduced to any status, even a neutral one?  

These people may be currently experiencing a certain a state, but it is a passing state - it does not need to define them!    As humans it is easier to do so, and it helps us organize our reality more easily.  This is why the Rabbis have given names to all of them, have given us this colorful cast of characters.   They had halakha to discuss, and it would have been unwieldy to constantly be referring to "the man who has a flow," or "the woman who is in the midst of her menstruation," rather than just simply as "the zav, " or "the niddah."  And it is easier to conceptualize halakhic categories and rules in reference to people who are named, categorized, and assigned a particular identity. 

This, then, might be somewhat necessary in legal texts, but it is not so at the human level.  At the human level, labeling reduces people.  The Torah reminds us that they are people with special conditions, people who are more identified with their state than those who just contracted a similar state from the outside.  But these conditions are normal and natural, and they are temporary.  And at the end of the day, these are just states, they are not who the person is.  Like the child who is told that she is good, although she may have acted badly, for all these people they can become tahor because we refuse to box them in and define them by these states.  We recognize their humanity, their essence, their innate purity, and this allows them to undergo the process of taharah, of purification, that will allow them to regain this state of being.  By never losing sight of the unique and irreducible tzelem E-lohim of the other, by refusing to reduce a person to certain states, characteristics, conditions or generalizations, we help protect that tzelem E-lohim and bring all of us one step closer to entering the Mikdash, and to living in a world of true Godliness.

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

This week I attended the annual meeting of AviChai Fellows.  We began the meeting with a dvar Torah, given by R. Elie Kaunfer.  R. Kaunfer presented a wonderful text from the Sfat Emet on the topic of Pesach.  I would like to share that text and my reflections on it, as they relate to Pesach, and in particular as they relate to my Thought on the Parsha for this week.  Here is the text:

כי זכירה היא נקודה פנימית שאין בה שכחה. ולפי שבשבת מתגלה נקודה זו בנפשות בנ״י לכן צריכה שמירה. שלא להתפשט נקודה פנימיות למקום שיש בו שכחה . ולכן זכור ושמור בדיבור אחד נאמרו.

והוא עצמו הענין בגאולת מצרים שבכל חג המצות נעשה איש ישראל כברי׳ חדשה כמו שהי׳ ביציאת מצרים כקטן שנולד . ומתחדש בו אותו הנקודה שנטע הקב״ה בנפשות בנ"י...

ובאמת צריך האדם להרחיב זאת הנקודה ולהמשיך כל המעשים אחריה.  וזה התיקון כל ימי השנה לפי מה שזוכה האדם לטוב ולמוטב. אבל כשבא חג המצות מתחדש הנקודה ונטהרת מכל הלכלוכים. ולכן צריכין לשמרה מחימוץ ומכל השתנות בזה התג. ושמרתם את המצות כי בעצם היום הזה הוצאתי וכו׳. פי׳ פנימיות הנקודה כמו שהיא בעצם ואינה מקבלת שינויי לכן צריכה שמירה והי׳ היום כו׳ לכם לזכרון. שמתחדש בו הנקודה שנק׳ זכרון כנ"ל. גם יתפרש יהי׳ לכם לזכרון ממש שיזכור האדם עיקר בריאתו בעולם לעשות רצונו ית׳׳ש ויום הזה נותן זכירה.


Because memory is the inner point that has no forgetting.   And because on Shabbat this point is revealed in the souls of the Jewish People, therefore it must be guarded so that this inner point does not spread out into a place of forgetfulness.  Thus it is said that "Remember" and "Guard" were said in the same utterance.

The same is true for the redemption from Egypt.  On every Pesach a Jew becomes like a new person, like the newborn child each of us was as we came forth from Egypt.  The point implanted by God within the hearts of the Jewish People renewed...

In truth, a person must spread that point and to draw all actions after it.  This is the "fixing" [the job] of all the other days of the year, according to what a person merits, for better or worse. But  when the Holiday of Matzot arrives, this point is renewed and purified from all of its filth.    And therefore it must be guarded from any fermentation, and from any change during this holiday. "Guard the matzot for on this very day I brought the children of Israel from the land of Egypt." (Ex. 12:17).  The meaning [of b'etzem] is the inner point , just like it is in itself [b'atzmo] and does not allow for any change.  Therefore it requires guarding. "And this day will be for you as a remembrance," for on this day this point which is called memory, will be renewed.  One could also explain "It shall be for you as a remembrance," literally, that a person should remember the real reason that he was created in this world, which is to do God's will, and this day is given by God to remember this.

At one level, what R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Altar is stating is the classic Chassidic belief in the pintela Yid, the tiny Jew inside of every Jew.  This "tiny Jew" inside of each Jew does not allow for forgetfulness, and persists always.  Thus, a Jewish person never - at a metaphysical level - forgets his or her Jewish identity, and no matter how far he or she has drifted, and how oblivious he or she may be to the fact that s/he is Jewish, this inner essence is always present, and can always be resurfaced, and it is the work of Pesach (and Shabbat) to protect and nurture our Jewish identity, no matter how much it may have been soiled through our engagement with the outside world.  It is our duty to engage the larger reality, to "spread out," but this can also make us lose our Jewishness, and thus we need Shabbat and Pesach to disengage, so we can restore our pure Jewish essence.

This argument, however, can be applied at the level of the individual and his or her true, distinctive essence.  He is saying that each of us has an irreducible point, a core identity, a soul.  This core identity does not allow for forgetfulness -no matter what we do, and how far we stray, it remains the core sense of who we are, even if we sometimes lose sight of it.  It is who we are free from all the "impurities," all of our engagements in the outside world, all of our activities, pastimes, busy-ness and the like. 

During the week, we get involved in the larger world.  Like chametz, we "spread out," and this is our obligation - to engage the larger world.  But we need Shabbat to disengage.  And we need Pesach to return to our roots.  Through Pesach and Shabbat we don't mistake our activities, our busy-ness, all of our larger engagements to be definitive of our identity.  We realize that our identity is a core inner part of ourselves, which cannot be reduced to, or mistaken for, our activities. 

When we lose sight of our "inner point," we lose sight of our tzelem E-lohim.   We define ourselves in purely material, this-worldly ways.  We have no sense of larger purpose, of meaning, of direction.  We forget, as the Sfat Emet says, the "real reason we were created in the world, which is to do God's will."     The dangers that can come of this, of reducing ourselves to our worldly-engagement or professional identities, was nicely presented in a recent article, "The Color of Money,"  by Malcolm Gladwell, in the New Yorker, from March 28, 2011.  Gladwell compares two German industrialists at the time of World War II, Schueller and Schindler.  While arguing that Schueller was not anti-Semitic per se, the question Gladwell raises is whether he had any identity other than that of a business.  Did he, in other words, have the "inner point that does not allow for forgetfulness"?  Here is what Gladwell says:

Schueller's behavior stemmed from pragmatism. He was a businessman, and collaborating with the Germans was to him the correct business decision. "The war years were very profitable for those who could keep manufacturing-anything that could be made could be sold, the occupiers would pay any price for luxuries, and there was a flourishing black market in scarce necessities," Brandon writes. "But only collaboration ensured access to raw materials." 

... As they would say on Wall Street, he hedged the war to perfection. When the market turned in 1942, he shorted Germany and went long on France, and the awkward fact about Schueller's behavior is that this ability to deal with unexpected obstacles is what we normally celebrate in entrepreneurs. The entrepreneur is someone obsessed with his creation, who applies the full force of his intellect to protect and sustain it. 

...  [All of this is in contrast to Schindler.] In the first five years of the war, he made a huge amount of money. But when the Germans decided to shut down Schindler's operation in Krakow-and ship his workers to the gas chambers-Schindler did an about-face. He persuaded the Germans to let him move his employees and machinery to Brünnlitz, in Czechoslovakia. Here is the business professor Ray Jones, in his article "The Economic Puzzle of Oskar Schindler":

Schindler used the money he had made [in Krakow] . . . to pay bribes to acquire permission for the factory, to convert the factory into an armaments factory and subcamp, to transport his workers to the factory, to pay the SS for the prisoners' labor, to purchase food for them on the black market, to acquire additional laborers, and to pay the necessary bribes to keep the Brunnlitz factory open. By the end of the war he had literally spent all of the money that he had made at Emalia, his entire personal fortune. 

Schindler is the rare businessman who resolves the ethical conflicts of wartime capitalism in a way that we today find satisfactory. But he does so by violating every precept of good entrepreneurship-by jeopardizing his company and his investment and all his personal wealth for the welfare of his employees. Schindler's moment of moral greatness was his recognition that the Nazi threat demanded more of him than that he be a good businessman...

In my Thought on the Parasha, I discuss what it means when we reduce others to labels and categories.   The Sfat Emet's words regarding our "inner point," makes us consider what happens when we reduce ourselves to our activities and our labels, and when we forget the tzelem E-lohim inside of ourselves.   We need Shabbat and Pesach to allow us to disengage and to return to our foundational experiences, to make us focus on who we are at our core, why we were put on this earth, and how we can continue to "spread out," into the larger world, transforming the world around us, without losing ourselves in the process.

Happenings at the Yeshiva


This week was a quite eventful one.  On Sunday, Rabbi Love and I were in Atlanta, GA, where we presented Rabbi Zev Farber (YCT 2006) with his Yadin Yadin klaf.  While Rabbi Farber had already received this higher ordination at last year's semikha ceremony, the klaf had not been ready at that time.  This last Sunday, then, was an opportunity to present Rabbi Farber with his klaf and to celebrate this profound milestone together with his family and in his home community.   The ceremony took place at the Young Israel of Toco Hills, where Rabbi Adam Starr serves as Rabbi.  I had been the Scholar-in-Residence over Shabbat, and the entire community had been engaged in seriously learning leading up to this ceremony.   Rabbi Love and Rabbi Farber spoke at the event, and afterwards the three of us held a panel on the topic of "Women and Converts in Positions of Communal Authority."  We wish Rabbi Zev, his wife Chani, his beautiful children and his entire family and community a tremendous Mazel Tov for receiving this semikha, a testament not only to his prodigious learning, but to his commitment to truly shape the future of Orthodoxy through the rabbinate and role of a posek.

We also had many prospective students visiting us this week, and next year's incoming class promises to be of significant size and quality. 

Merle Feld taught this Wednesday and Thursday her regular sessions on Writing as a Spiritual Practice, both to individuals and a student group.  We have been blessed to have her come in once a month to hold these sessions, which are so treasured by the students who take them.  This week was her last one with us for this year, and she shared with all the students after mincha on Thursday a poignant poem that she wrote on the "Third, Simple Son."  She also shared with the students a packet of poems that she had published which relate to themes of Pesach - a true Pesach gift to us all.

On Thursday, as part of our Visiting Scholars Series, Dr. Wendy Zierler, associate professor of Feminist Studies and Modern Jewish Literature at HUC-JIR in New York and author of And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Hebrew Women's Writing (2004), spoke to students about Hava Shapiro, a significant Jewish woman author of the early 20th century.   Students were rapt with attention as Dr. Zierler discussed this figure and her writings, and how she straddled the worlds of traditional Judaism and the haskalah, and the particular challenges that faced her as a serious, educated Jewish woman.  Dr. Zierler ended with a powerful excerpt of Shapiro's on the experience of preparing for Pesach in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century.