Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
The Leviticus:8 Project
Say to them further: If anyone of the house of Israel or of the strangers who reside among them offers a burnt offering or a sacrifice, Leviticus 17:8
I was reading an article about how turkeys became the traditional main dish for Thanksgiving. It turns out that food historians (it’s actually a thing) believe that some kind of water fowl or pigeons were part of the original Thanksgiving meal. Turkeys were introduced as “official” when Thanksgiving was first proclaimed as a national holiday by President Lincoln, a couple of centuries later. The bird proved so popular that demand created “turkey drives” (think cattle drives for gobblers) to get fresh birds to market before modern refrigeration. In turn, at least one town in Texas created an annual festival and parade, presided over by a locally-chosen sultan and sultana, based on the idea that there was some connection between the birds and the Ottoman Empire of the same (English) name. (By the way, it persisted well into the 20th century before someone figured out it was both ignorant AND racist.)
We have a lot of customs at our Thanksgiving table. Some of them are obvious rituals – until last year, my father-in-law, who presided, insisted that each person declaim what he or she was thankful for. (His family grew from five to an eventual sixteen, not including guests, provoking the eventual rebellion – especially since everyone was grateful for family, country and health.) But there are also less obvious rituals, ranging from who brings the wine to which pies get baked to a post-prandial walk by those still awake to a cousins’ excursion after the lethargy wears off. The rituals, which began as convenience or habit, eventually acquire and bestow authority and legitimacy.
Some years ago, I discovered a seder for Thanksgiving, complete with a Haggadah. I never tried to introduce it at our table (after all, I didn’t preside), but it did find its way to an interfaith service shared with local churches. (You can find its latest iterations here.) Ritual begat ritual begat ritual.
The fact is, rituals are invented and imbued with meaning by the people who perform them. There is no such thing as a ritual performed for the first time; only meaning and continuity through repetition makes for ritual. But the longer a ritual is performed, the less flexible it becomes. It acquires an existential momentum that is mostly reassuring for its performers, and any variation or compromise is threatening. After all, we’ve always done it that way!
So it is no surprise at all that the verse that provokes this column posits the innovation of a non-priest or non-Israelite of a ritual sacrifice. People try to change ritual all the time. (It took years of protest before the half-hour of “I am thankful for my family…” eventually gave way.) These days, except in circles that value continuity over creativity, lots of ritual is under challenge. In fact, in Jewish life, the hundred year war over re-forming or conserving religious life (dismissed entirely by the orthodox), more recently engaged by those looking to reconstruct or renew, insists on using language or continuity to give authority to change. Biblical literalists dismiss most of it, while scholars of Jewish law admit ironically that custom (which emerges from the people) has more staying power than law (which emerges from a book).
My favorite story about the invention of ritual comes from a story told to me by a Buddhist. A master owned a cat that would distract students during their meditation. To avoid the problem, he would put out a pillow and a particular shallow bowl of milk before meditation. When the cat heard the bell chime, it came to know that a meal and soft place to doze awaited. Eventually, the master died. Shortly thereafter, the bowl broke. An exact replica was commissioned. The pillow frayed. An exact copy was stitched and stuffed. And then the cat died. So the disciples got a new cat.
Were the students foolish? I am guessing a wealth of stories emerged about the original master and his original cat, all of them true but none of them accurate. But the students felt connected to something larger than the prescribed practice because of the cat and the pillow and the bowl. If it led them to a more meaningful and compassionate life, who is to say it is any less authentic than the original insights of the Buddha?
This recent Thanksgiving was the first without my father-in-law. It fell to those of us who survive him to innovate a practice that will become, with time, a new family ritual. Yesterday’s children are now parents and grandparents. Yesterday’s babies are now parents, aunts and uncles. Today’s babies will complain in not so many years about the predictability of the Thanksgiving table. And maybe someone who has never been at the table before – some stranger, like I was forty-plus years ago – will be the source of our new ritual, made up for our collective benefit.
No more turkey drive, no more going around the table, never a cat. But meaningful? Every time.
PLEASE NOTE: Travel and some planned brief incapacity may delay this column during the next six weeks. Apologies! Enjoy the break!
The Leviticus:8 Project
and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the LORD and the other marked for Azazel.
The term “scapegoat” is famously misunderstood in its colloquial usage. It is employed to describe a person or people falsely accused of responsibility for something that is not at all the fault of the accused. In fact, as any reader of the Bible knows, the scapegoat is the animal chosen by lot from a matched pair upon whom the acknowledged sins of the people are symbolically placed. Adorned with a crimson thread, the goat is pushed into the wilderness of Azazel to escape into a sort of netherworld and carry away the sins. Once the (e)scape(d)goat wanders beyond its ability to return, the sins of the people are considered to be carried away.
The other goat – the one fortunate enough not to carry everyone’s sins – is actually unluckier. That goat is offered as a sin offering on the altar of the Temple. Before the scapegoat is released to Azazel, the sin offering has been slaughtered, its blood poured away and its fat burned as a sort of smoky incense.
I was listening to an interview with Bari Weiss, one of the opinion editors for The New York Times, as she discussed the murder of innocent Jews in her hometown synagogue in Pittsburgh. The interviewer, who is famously anti-religion, asked her the question everyone asks when confronting anti-semitism: Why do some people hate the Jews so much?
Ms. Weiss skipped the answer I prefer to start with – don’t ask me, ask the people who hate Jews – but she went right for the less sarcastic one: How much time do we have? While it is true that the term “anti-semitism” dates back only to the late 19th century, Jew-hatred (and before that Israelite-hatred) goes back at least to ancient Egypt. It may be possible to start the clock with Pharaoh or with Antiochus or with Pontius Pilate or with John Chrysostom, but even if the reasons and rhetoric changed lanes, they travel the same highway.
Ms. Weiss made the most salient point that must be at the center of every conversation about anti-semitism. The Jews are simultaneously considered pathetically weak and dangerously strong, dissolute and moralizing, victims and puppetmasters. There is no remedy for someone who is simultaneously flawed in eternal existential paradox. It is the essence of the Jew that is hated – not a set of behaviors or beliefs.
At some points in history, the Jewish stain on the soul could be cleansed, according to the haters. At one point in history – Hitler’s Germany – bigotry laid claim to science and insisted that corruption was inherent. Only extermination of the body could purify the irredeemable soul.
And that, as Bari Weiss pointed out, was what animated the angry and deluded gunman who stormed into the synagogue that had, a week before, celebrated the role of the United States in welcoming refugees. Jews would not replace him with some inferior version of themselves – a brown-skinned man who was at once lazy and bent on taking his job.
Of course, there is no answer to “why.” Some scholars, interested in defending the Jewish endeavor, promote the notion that others are jealous of our relationship with God, or our civilization, or our stubborn instinct for survival. Some scholars, interested in excusing the legacy of hatred, promote the notion that the ills of society are projected on the perpetual outsiders, invaders to be plundered for their sullied gifts lest their shortcomings infect the host majorities.
It is a little ironic that we look to the Bible and see this model of the goat that is at once the passive sacrifice for our sins and the active carrier of our transgressions. I doubt that anyone in Biblical times or when the Temple stood ever had pity on either goat. After all, it was God’s will and it returned us all to that state of ritual purity that allowed each of us a fresh start.
But having the long view of a Judaism without sacrifices and a skeptic’s view of whether there is any animal that can acquire the consequences of my own faults, I look at those two long-ago goats with pity. The pure one dies by the sword. The guilty one dies by neglect. Same outcome for the benefit of people who are looking to assign their sins somewhere other than themselves.
Either way, you’re the goat.
The Leviticus:8 Project
If one with a discharge spits on one who is clean, the latter shall wash his clothes, bathe in water, and remain unclean until evening. Leviticus 15:8
Social scientists will tell you that every culture has its standards of personal space, that comfort zone around the body into which uninvited intrusions are unwelcome. You can search online for what any given society holds as its standard, but you yourself know how close someone should not come.
Of course, it also depends on who the someone is and what the circumstances are. The person with whom you are vehemently disagreeing has a wider zone than the one you hope to kiss. If you are late for a meeting on the 25th floor, you’ll accept closer proximity rather than waiting for the next elevator. And standing in line to get into a restaurant on a pleasant day is a more expansive activity than it is on a cold and rainy day.
My tenth-grade French teacher – a woman of sometimes peculiar qualities – would often read the auras in the classroom and use them to convey information. One day she asked us to translate an obscure phrase, cocked an eye at my friend Wendy and called her by name. Wendy, whose French skills were no different than the rest of the blank-staring students in the room, gave the correct answer. Mme. Morris said, “I sent you that answer.” (Cue out-tro music from “The Twilight Zone.”) After that, none of us got too close to her.
But whether the proximity you prefer is intimate or vast, no one wants to be the recipient of a spray of saliva from another party. Call it gross or call it awkward, a drop of spittle is akin to an assault in the feelings it provokes in the recipient. Though likely harmless (unless it lands in some portal to your insides and the offender is sick), we nevertheless recoil at the very notion of foreign spit – even from someone we have kissed, perhaps moments earlier!
Perhaps it has to do with the unusual nature of bodily fluids. (Don’t worry – nothing too disgusting is ahead.) When they are contained within, we appreciate them. Not just saliva, but blood and other liquids and semi-liquids are considered natural and even sustaining. But the moment that they escape from the confines of the containers we call our bodies, they are considered polluted in some way.
A professor of mine in grad school explained the phenomenon as a function of our inherent desire to categorize everything. When something is neither here or there, in or out, it makes us feel uneasy. He did an experiment with us to illustrate – he handed us each a brand-new disposable plastic cup, shot-glass size. He then invited us to spit into the cup and drink it back down. Among those who were willing to spit, few were willing to drink. Even after making the point that it was our own saliva which we would have swallowed without a thought had we not spit into the cup, most students still would not drink.
There was no question that had the spittle come into contact with anything of questionable cleanliness we would have categorically considered it polluted. (The five-second rule does not apply to things that are wet.) But even crossing the boundary between inside and outside seemed to create an irreconcilable problem.
I imagine just reading this column – assuming you got this far – is making you a little uncomfortable. But in the words of the incomparable Elle Woods, I have a point, I promise.
Anything that finds itself in that strange realm that we imagine as our personal space makes us a little hinky. Sometimes we learn to deal well with it; sometimes we get upset; much of the time we get confused until we can decide what is comfortable and what is not. Religion famously sets those boundaries, but not just religion. Race, ethnicity, sexuality, presenting gender, class, appearance, and maybe dozens of other characteristics can produce as sense of too-closeness, depending on how comfortable we have allowed ourselves to become with proximity to the other. Even traits held deeply inside can upset us when they emerge and are held up to examination.
Those differences are mostly in our heads, which is to say they have no objective objectionable qualities. I am still not interested in getting shpritzed by a partner in conversation, but all these other differences – and all these pieces of myself unexamined – are opportunities to overcome the things that divide us from each other and from ourselves.
AFTER SEVEN DAYS
The Leviticus:8 Project
The one to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be clean. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days. Leviticus 14:8
Part of the undisputed wisdom of Jewish tradition is the designation of a time to mourn our dead. The Hebrew word for the number 7, shivah, has become synonymous with that week-long period after a funeral to separate from the everyday world and allow for comfort and regrouping. In fact, even people who truncate the number of days refer to that time as shivah, and it has the power in and of itself to convey comfort.
But after the shivah of whatever length is over, it is time to engage with the rest of life again. Yes, the mourning rituals retain daily reminders of loss for a period of time, but the purpose is to normalize the gap caused by loss, allowing life to fill in around it. Slowly and eventually, it is time to allow memory to replace ritual, which is to say it is time to internalize that which has been external.
Individually, I know that each of us remembers the circumstances of a loss. I remember vividly the news of my grandmother’s death when I was a boy well over fifty years ago. I recall my first kiss, the loss of the veneer of innocence. I recall the first time (and the only time) I was punched in the nose and called an anti-semitic name. I remember the moment it dawned on me that who someone marries is of no consequence to me, the loss of a certain arrogance.
Collectively, I know that we all remember the circumstances of a loss. Depending on our ages, we remember hearing about Pearl Harbor, about JFK’s assassination (and MLK’s and RFK’s), about September 11 with clear detail and an ability to feel the hints of emotion that attended that news. We remember Alan Shepherd and Neil Armstrong and the Cubs finally winning the World Series. Loss, be it for ill or for good, leaves an impression that requires some time to process and longer time to internalize.
(The two psalms that introduce the Jewish grace after meals reflect both negative and positive loss. “By the waters of Babylon…we wept when we remembered Zion.” “When God returned us to Zion we were like dreamers.” Neither one was to be fully believed…yet.)
We often reserve “shivah” for death, but the fact of the matter is that losses large and small, sad and happy, profound and personally significant need time for processing. The person sent to prison grieves until he or she adjusts. The person who leaves prison needs time to adjust to being freed. The person who receives a bad diagnosis needs time to absorb the implications. The person who is cured nevertheless spends worry on recurrence. Even the person delivered from death celebrates each morning as rebirth and each sunset as spiritually profound…until the return to life becomes normal again.
And it is that normalization that is the goal, whatever the “new normal” turns out to be. Despite our curiosity about new experiences and the thrill of engaging them, the great blessing of overcoming loss is the return to normal – to boredom, to routine, to predictability, to reasonable expectations. That is to say, to life. We may have a little more wisdom and we certainly have a little more experience. But what we have back is life on these new terms, and we do well to welcome it with open arms.
At this writing, it is the end of a very hard two weeks in America. Two people were murdered in a Kroger for being black. A host of prominent Americans received pipe bombs for the crime of being announced opponents of the President. Eleven holy Jewish souls were massacred in synagogue during Shabbat worship. The President announced that he was sending a gun and a half for every tired, poor migrant head to our southern border yearning to breathe free. We learned that a journalist was indeed assassinated, his remains obliterated, something we Jews know about millions of times over.
That’s a lot of loss in a short period of time. We need us some of that shivah. I encourage you to take it – plan for a wonderful Thanksgiving ahead, or a few days off with friends or family, or, in good Jewish fashion, a dose of carbohydrates. Slowly, come back into the camp. Wait awhile and come back into the tent. Attend to the hole in your heart.
Loss will come again. But we will survive it.