Friday, April 19, 2013

Happenings at the Yeshiva

I was away this week at a conference, but the learning continued unabated at the yeshiva!  Monday we had special programming and a memorial for Yom HaZikaron.  This was followed by a special day of learning and celebrating on Tuesday, Yom Ha'atzmaut.  The day was planned and run by students.  Kol HaKavod to Raif Melhado and Koby Geller for their efforts in making this such a powerful day.

We began the day with a tefillah chagigeet replete with Hallel, singing and musical instruments.  From there we moved on to an exciting morning seder on the theme of "The Significance of our Relationships with Israel."  Each of the three sessions examined visions of Israel from different angles, covering a variety of viewpoints and historical moments.

9:30 - 11:00 am: "A Provocative What-If" - During the British Mandatory period, Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Herzog and Benzion Uziel dreamed of a Jewish state that used halakhah as the basis for its legal system.  Yet in order to make it happen justly in a modern society, Jewish law would have to make some courageous adaptations to the expectation of democracy and universal civil rights in the new state.  In the first half of this session, students learned a responsum from Mishpetei Uziel that laid out a creative halakhic argument for accepting the testimony of non-Jews in Bet Din.  This formed the basis of a rich discussion in the second half of the session:  students exchanged views on what it means for Orthodoxy that Israel runs on a secular legal system, and how this affects religious life and politics in the country today.

11:00 - 11:45 am: "Memories from South Africa" - Annette Cavanagh, mother-in-law of second-year student Raif Melhado, is a South African native with a lifelong bond to the State of Israel.  She Skyped into the Bet Midrash and shared her memories of how this relationship formed and developed over many decades in a part of the Diaspora that we don't often think about in the US.   While she described aspects of her Jewish life that were different from the American experience, many of us were impressed by how much of her Jewish education and connection to Israel was familiar and accessible.  It was so beautiful to hear her narrative move from its beginnings in childhood art projects about Israel to a lifetime of teaching Jewish children "from the other side of the desk."

11:45 am - 12:30 pm:  "Fasting after the Creation of the State of Israel" - Fourth-year student Noah Leavitt led a text-based conversation about the relevance of Tisha Be'av and the minor fast days now that Eretz Yisrael is under Jewish control.  While our first session focused on politics and law, this session explored the spiritual and religious aspects of our relationship with the Jewish state, both on a personal level and when we pray and observe rituals.

The rest of the afternoon transitioned from intellectual to physical celebrations of the holiday.  Students enjoyed an Israeli-style luncheon, and participated and danced at the brit milah of the son of Becca Linder and Rabbi Ari Hart (YCT 2012), Hodiyah.  Mazal Tov to Ari and Becca, shetizku li'gadlo li'Torah li'chuppah u'li'ma'asim tovim!

This was followed by a rousing game of touch football in honor of the athletic ideals of the early Zionist movement.  After a close game, students cooled off with ice cream and dispersed to participate in more celebrations around the city.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Thought on the Parsha

Feel free to download and print this week's Parsha Sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here:  Parshat Acharei-Mot - Kedoshim

Acharei-Mot - Kedoshim: God Who dwells in the Midst of our Impurities.
Acharei Mot details the special avodah, sacrificial rites, that the High Priest would perform on Yom Kippur to effect atonement for the Jewish People.  However, as the Vilna Gaon in Kol Eliyahu already noted, the Torah only introduces the connection to Yom Kippur at the very end of the lengthy description of this special avodah.  The framing of the avodah is not what must be done to achieve atonement on Yom Kippur but rather what must be done when Aaron wants to enter the inner sanctum:
Speak to Aaron your brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place inside the veil before the covering, which is upon the ark; that he die not; for I will appear in the cloud upon the covering. (Vayikra 16:2)
Thus, says the Vilna Gaon, this is a rite that the High Priest - or, according to the Gaon, specifically Aharon, could do at any time that he would want to enter the Holy of Holies, and not die as his sons had, provided a precise ritual is followed.  Understood this way, the parsha is underscoring the dangers of unbridled religious passion, of approaching God without due care and caution, and is giving a very structured way that one - the High Priest - can channel his desire for intense, intimate connection.
This approach, however, makes the avodah a tool for the High Priest's realization of his religious yearnings, but does not address larger communal issues.  This is certainly not the simple sense of the Torah, which mandates communal sacrifices for this avodah and which declares that this avodah will cleanse the Mikdash and atone for the People.    It seems, rather, that while the emphasis of the avodah is not on Yom Kippur, it is also not on the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies.  Yes, he must enter it, but that is a means, not an ends.  What is the end goal?  The Torah tells us in the climactic verses declared after the High Priest exits the inner sanctum:
 And he shall make atonement, vi'kiper, for the holy place, from the uncleanness of the people of Israel, and from their transgressions in all their sins; and so shall he do for the Tent of Meeting, that remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness.  And there shall be no man in the Tent of Meeting when he goes in to make atonement, li'khaper, in the holy place, until he comes out, having made atonement, vi’khiper,  for himself, and for his household, and for all the congregation of Israel.
(Vayikra 16:16-17).
The goal is not the entering itself, not the religious experience for its own right.  Neither is the goal primarily for bringing atonement and forgiveness for the Children of Israel.  The goal is atoning for the Sanctuary.  Well, not atoning exactly, for what atonement does the Sanctuary need?  The term used here is kaper, a term which more precisely means cleansing, not atoning.  The  Sanctuary must be cleansed from the defilement that it has endured as a result of the sins of Israel. 
Sins, according to the Torah, create a type of tumah.  Sin defiles, both the person who performs it, and the person's surroundings.  And how much more so does it defile the Sanctuary, the place of the Presence of God.
Thus, to cleanse the Sanctuary, and to cleanse the people, this avodah must be performed.  The central sacrifices of this avodah are chataot, generally translated as "sin-offerings," but more accurately translated as "cleansing sacrifices."  [This is why certain tamei people, such as a woman who has given childbirth, must bring a chatat.  Not because she has sinned, but because the chatat achieves a cleansing of tumah.  See Sotah 15a.]
The focus is not on the sin itself, but on its impact, on its defilement, and the sin-offerings, or rather, the cleansing-offerings, restore the world to as it was before, restore the person to how she was before this sin had affected her, and to restore God's Sanctuary to how it was before, so that God's Presence could continue to dwell among the People.
Now, it is worth asking how this cleansing is achieved, or can be effective.  Isn't tumah the antithesis of the Sanctuary?   Why, then, does the tumah not drive God's Presence out of the Sanctuary?  The question is sharpened further when we realize that of all the invalidities that can occur to sacrifices, tumah is the one problem that can most be tolerated.  The Talmud (Menachot 25a) teaches that the tzitz that the High Priest wore on his forehead allowed sacrifices that were tamei to be acceptable after the fact.  And, a fixed-time sacrifice may be brought despite tumah: tumah hutra bi'tzibbur.  Why is it that of all problems, tumah is the very thing which must be driven from the Temple, also the very thing which can be tolerated?
The answer relates to the very nature of the Temple, of God choosing to make God’s Presence dwell among the People of Israel.   One the one hand, tumah is the antithesis of kedusha, and having a Mikdash in our midst creates a heavy demand that we do everything in our ability to keep tumah at bay.  But because we are not God, because we are human, tumah is an inevitable part of our lives.  This is certainly true terms of the ritual tumah that has been the focus of Vayikra  – animals die, people die, women give birth to children, women menstruate, men have seminal emissions – such tumah is encountered every day.   But perhaps more significantly, it is also true about the tumah that is a result of sin.  To be human is to sin.  No matter how valiant our attempts otherwise, to be human is to produce tumah.
So if tumah and sin are an inevitable consequence of our human existence, how can God continue to dwell among us?  The answer to this is that God wishes it to be so.  When, after the sin of the Golden Calf, God accedes to Moshe's request that God continue to dwell among them, God agreed to accept the reality of human sin and to dwell among us regardless.  We, on our part, must do all we can to keep tumah away, but even when we do not, God continues to dwell among us.   This is what is both acknowledged and addressed by the Yom Kippur avodah.  God has given us this day not only to allow us to be forgiven and to start fresh.  And hence, this verse of cleansing the Temple ends with an acknowledgement of the inevitability of tumah:
And so he shall do to the Tent of Meeting that dwells in their midst, in the midst of their impurity.
Of all the verses that speak about God dwelling (shakhen) among the Children of Israel, this is the only verse that emphasizes not that tumah must be kept at a distance, but rather that despite our best efforts, tumah will always be present to some degree.  And this acknowledgement comes exactly in the section of the Torah that speaks to how it can be tolerated – because God has agreed to tolerate it, God has accepted our humanity, and, to make the tumah manageable, God has given us a rite to cleanse the Temple and start over each year.
Of course, we cannot allow this Divine tolerance to undermine our awareness of God’s presence.  If tumah becomes too much of the norm, then the place will no longer be one of kedusha.  This is why it is the tzitz that allows the tumah to be tolerated.  The tzitz, with the words kodesh la’Hashem, Holy to God, worn on the forehead of the Kohen Gadol, tamid, continually, is a symbol of the continual consciousness of the Divine Presence.  If in the presence of tumah the consciousness of the Divine Presence remains firm, then the tumah will be tolerated.
This is why it is only the Kohen Gadol who can effect the necessary cleansing.  The Kohen Gadol, who symbolizes the constant awareness of God's Presence, does the rites of the Yom Kippur avodah without wearing the tzitz, because such a reminder is not necessary.  The Kohen Gadol enters into the Holy of Holies, is not only reminded of God, but directly in contact with the Divine Presence.   It is this connection to God, achieved through constant mindfulness and awareness, which reaches its apex on Yom Kippur.  It is this connection to God that allows tumah not to undermine God's presence, but to be tolerated and cleansed.  "With this Aharon may enter the holy place," he may concretize the connection to God, so that the Temple and the People may be cleansed.
Tumah in its essence it is the very thing that distances us from God, but if we work to keep God in the forefront of our consciousness, to have kodesh la’Hashem inscribed on our forehead, then this tumah will be tolerated, and God will be close to us despite our tumah. God, Who dwells among with them, despite their impurity.
A postscript in the aftermath of the Boston bombings: Our hearts go out to all those, and the families of those, who have been killed, injured, or traumatized by this horrific event.  When such events happen, there is much talk, which is soon forgotten, around controlling access to deadly weapons and explosives.  This degree of tumah, which constantly defiles the society in which we live, cannot continue to be tolerated.  As a society we must work together to keep our responsibilities, religious and moral, at the forefront of our consciousness, so that we may act to cleanse this tumah from our midst.
Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Thought on the Parsha

Feel free to download and print this week's Parsha Sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here:  Parshat Tazria-Metzorah
Labels and Identity

The double parasha Tazria-Metzorah details the laws of tumah, impurity, that can occur to people and that would require them to maintain their distance from the Mishkan.   The primary focus is on the metzorah, the person afflicted with the skin disease of tzara'at, and how he is to become pure.   The parasha continues with cases of tzara’at that occur on garments and houses, and then turns to back to its focus on 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 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 touching a corpse.  Kohanim are prohibited from contracting corpse-impurity and the purification from this impurity requires not just a mikveh, but the ashes of the Red Heifer.  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, the Temple Mount.  A person with corpse-impurity, by contrast, can go up onto the Temple Mount.

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.  These people are defined by their status, since their status reflects their physical state of being - their flows, their skin, and so on.   They themselves are the source of tumah, and this becomes 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. 

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.  The action 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 principle 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 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, people who are so much more than any particular condition they may have.  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."  When people meet one of my sons, they need to see Kasriel or Netanel; if all they can see is "special needs" then 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" (Vayikra 15:16).   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). 

All of these people are described, not named.  They are not disabled people, they are people with disabilities.  This makes all the difference.

Because the tumah occurs to them directly, the own their tumah more, and they are more distanced from the Mikdash.  And yet, the fullness of their identity does not have to be and should not be reduced to this status.   This status may not even be a bad one: it is a natural occurrence, and in the case of the menstrual flow and the seminal emission, it is part of the human capacity to create new life.    But who wants to be reduced to any status, even a neutral one?  

As humans it is easier for us to assign labels and categorize.  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 might be somewhat necessary in legal texts, but it is dangerous at the human level.  When dealing with people, labeling is reductionist and it dehumanizing.  The Torah's careful use of descriptors rather than labels reminds us that we should think of these individuals as people, people with special conditions, people with disabilities, but not disabled people.  These are states of being; they are not who the person is. 

When we recognize the humanity and the irreducible nature of the person, we allow them to transcend any state or limitation.  All these people 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 in which we experience the Godliness of each individual.

Shabbat Shalom!