The Leviticus:8 Project
Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is the nakedness of your father. Leviticus 18:8
I know that I write frequently about my late father. Maybe it is because he was cheated out of the best years of harvest and fallowness by the cancer that consumed him. Plus, the Bible talks about fathers a lot, and he was mine.
It may very well be that the euphemisms used to describe sexual prohibitions are meant to imply a genteel approach to discussing such intimate matters. “Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife” may or may not refer to an attempt at sexual assault, but it is undoubtedly prurient. “Your father’s wife” is not your mother; you are prohibited her nakedness in the preceding verse. The woman in question here is a different marriage for your father, and her most intimate physical self is an extension of your father’s intimacy.
(There is no set of similar prohibitions addressed to daughters. Let us simply acknowledge this presumed lack of agency for women in the Bible for the moment.)
I never uncovered any extension of my father’s intimacy during his life (and he was always married to my mother when I knew him). But I do have three distinct memories of uncovering his nakedness at three distinct points in time.
To be honest, this first one is not a clear memory, but I was told about it (by my mother) when I was driving, and I almost had to pull off the road. I still laugh whenever I think about it. My dad shaved each morning when he stepped out of the shower in the one bathroom of our family’s first apartment. As first-born, I was given pretty much the run of the place. My mom tried to persuade him to wrap a towel around his waist as he shaved, but he saw no cause to do so. That changed the day that I toddled in at age two, reached up, gave a yank and said, “ding ding.” (I am laughing now.)
I cannot remember seeing my father’s nakedness again until he invited me to play handball with him when I was in my twenties. He creamed me in match after match at the YMCA where he belonged, after which we retired to the locker room to clean up. It dawned on me as we showered that it was probably the first time I had seen him au natural since, well, “ding ding.” (Laughing again.)
The last time came close to the end of his life. He was bedridden, subjected to daily doses of chemicals combating the haywire cells in his brain, and physically comforted by painkillers that interfered with his ability to relieve himself. Weakened as he was, he could not exert the necessary effort to complete the process that most of us take for granted. I was alone with him on a visit when he asked me to put on a pair of latex gloves and assist him. It was a kindness many caregivers and close family had performed; this time was my first.
This verse in Leviticus does not imagine any of those scenarios. Abraham never shaved, Isaac never played handball and Jacob, though attended to his last breath, died of old age, not debilitating disease. It may resonate with those who remember Noah, sprawled in his tent after overindulging in wine and mocked by one his three sons, but only the innocent toddler saw anything to enjoy in my father’s nakedness.
Instead, the Bible considers what it means for a son to attempt to usurp his father’s rightful place in the family social order. I imagine that there is still such a concern among many people, but it has never been a worry of mine. He cleaned me up when I was little, I returned the favor when he needed it. He invited me to bond with him on the handball court and then, having trounced me, was completely at ease. That’s how things should be, I think.
These columns were interrupted for a number of weeks by my recovery from some minor surgery that nonetheless made thinking and typing difficult for a little while. My wife pointed out to me that it was the first time in more than forty years that I did mostly nothing for as long as I was convalescing. Nobody had to help me on the commode, but tending to my wound was her job because, for most of that time, I could not complete the effort myself. (I am okay now, thanks.)
I never doubt her love, but there was something especially sweet about being vulnerable as she took care of me. I am certain that’s not the nakedness the Bible is concerned about. It’s too bad that the inference of this verse and others like it scare us off from the tender comforts we might sometimes share.
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.
The Leviticus:8 Project
And if the priest sees that the rash has spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is leprosy. Leviticus 13:8
I’m not looking for sympathy.
My shoulder started bothering me more than a year ago, the latest part of my body to betray me. Shortly thereafter, all five of the fingers on my right hand began to tingle, sometimes at the same time, sometimes in a sort of symphonic variation. Like the man I am, I tried to ignore it and treat it with stretching and ibuprofen. Eventually, I gave up and went to see some of the members of my growing medical team.
I endured a roster of tests designed to figure out what was causing the pain. It’s amazing how many diagnostic protocols involve sticking the patient with an electrified needle or squeezing the patient into a claustrophobia-inducing tube and playing the soundtrack from a jackhammer for forty-five minutes. In the end, however, we seemed to figure out that I had at least two different co-located problems. Fixing one means aggravating the other, unless going under the knife (in which case there will be an additional world of pain to endure). Every doctor, including the surgeons, has tried to avoid surgery.
My father’s medical history alone allows me to check off almost every box on those family history forms and I bear the tell-tale scar of a pleuroplasty, the result of the same lung collapsing three times in my early twenties. Various other living family members, whose privacy I will protect, have endured many of the medical conditions that are advertised on television, fortunately without most of the scary side-effects.
During my years as a congregational rabbi, I was often the listening ear to the person with an unwelcome diagnosis. Though no one would ever mistake me for a physician, I am almost as fluent in medical terms as a TV doc. I know which cancers are worse than others, how long a regimen of steroids or antibiotics lasts, and the names of a dozen neurological disorders.
I understand why the Bible puts the delivery of the news of an unwelcome diagnosis in the hands of the priest. It’s not only that there were no doctors back then. It’s that there is a pastoral presence that is necessary when the news is alarming. Back in the day, illness and pain were seen as divinely visited. (Some backward-thinking traditions still attribute illness to sin.) But even in these allegedly enlightened times, we have a tendency to ask ourselves what we did to deserve this diagnosis. The modern-day religious functionary – in my case, me – has a responsibility to remind people that “deserve” is an irrelevant word when it comes to health.
That’s not to say that some of us don’t bear a responsibility for the behaviors that make us sick. Not washing your hands will expose you to viruses; smoking will cause a host of respiratory and cardio-vascular problems; a sedentary lifestyle will put on the el-bees. But a hard diagnosis – the Bible’s example being leprosy – demands someone to demonstrate that neither God nor community has judged the patient suddenly to be “less-than.” And, conversely, the kind of bargaining in which some people engage after a health scare needs to be defused. God will not cure you if you start going to services every day. You have to take the medicine, too. Or agree to the surgery.
It helps to have someone speak with compassion and hope in these circumstances. It does not reverse the unwelcome diagnosis, but it allows the healing to begin alongside the presumptive cure.
What is true of the body is true of the body politic. We are suffering from betrayals, some borne of age, some of neglect and some of simple circumstance. What we need is compassion and hope, likely to come more from the spiritually-oriented members of our society than from elected and appointed officials whose behavior has caused our problems. You don’t have to be a descendant of the priests to be such a person, or even trained as a rabbi. You just need to be familiar with the people around you and the challenges your yourself face.
As I said, I’m not looking for sympathy. Instead, after the electric needles and jackhammers, I think I will just do what the doctors order.
The Leviticus:8 Project
If, however, her means do not suffice for a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. The priest shall make expiation on her behalf, and she shall be clean. Leviticus 12:8
Almost every organization in Washington, DC has an evening event during the year. Sometimes it is meant to raise money; sometimes it is meant to raise a profile. But the best of all of them is meant to raise up good people. It is the annual Peace Awards of the El-Hibri Foundation, a family foundation that pays tribute to the memory of the extraordinary Ibrahim El-Hibri, philanthropist and lover of humankind. The family members are committed Muslims, some born into the tradition, others who have embraced it. Each year they have awarded scholarships to Muslims students pursuing careers that will benefit society, but also named three recipients of honors reflecting their mission.
This year, the Peace Educator Award went to Prof. Marshall Ganz of Harvard for his extraordinary work in training community organizers. (He does a training each year at El-Hibri. I had the privilege of participating a couple of years back.) The Fearless Ally Award went to Amardeep Singh, founder of the Sikh Coalition, whose response to the tragedy of September 11, 2001 was to organize his community as a constant voice against bigotry. The Community Leader Award went to Nadia Mohajir, co-founder and Executive Direct of HEART Women and Girls, a women’s health and wellness project in the Muslim community. A Jew, a Sikh, a Muslim. They were celebrated by an interfaith crowd treated to music, entertainment and inspiration from the American Muslim community. I never feel as good as when I attend this extraordinary evening.
This brief endorsement comes only to set the stage for what I learned from Nadia Mohajir in her acceptance speech. As you might imagine, the Muslim community is no different than any other faith community when it comes to addressing matters of sexual abuse. Women are the usual victims, and the male-dominated hierarchy makes it exceptionally difficult for abuse to be dealt with. Ms. Mohajir spoke forthrightly about the need for a new context to respond to such crimes, and she offered a sacred story from the Qur’an to illustrate the underpinning of HEART’s mission. I, in turn, offer it to you in my own words, conscious that the retelling will capture neither her eloquence nor the exact language of the text.
Before he was chosen to be the Prophet, Muhammad was an illiterate shepherd. Called into a dark cave, he was held in a crushing embrace by someone unseen and commanded to read. Despite his protests, the voice did not relent, and to his surprise, Muhammad was able to read the revelation. The Qur’an recounts that the experience left him both uplifted and deeply shaken.
Muhammad had married an older woman named Khadija, and when her husband returned home after this experience she could see he was deeply shaken. She wrapped him in a blanket, offered him comfort and listened to his story. She believed him.
Nadia Mohajir told this crowd that while Muslims rightly focus on the choosing of the Prophet, they often overlook the lesson of Khadija. He was shaken to his core by this unexpected encounter. She embraced him. She comforted him. She listened to his story. She believed him. That, Nadia insisted, was the mission of HEART. That is the wisdom of a woman of some years.
Just to be clear, neither she nor I suggest an equivalency between the revelatory experience of the Prophet and a sexual assault. In the generic sense, however, each is a trauma, each unexpected. But she did suggest an equivalency in the appropriate response. Embrace. Comfort. Listen. Believe.
The chapter of Leviticus that gives us this verse is the shortest of all the chapters. It deals with childbirth and a time of “impurity” a woman endures as a result. It is no surprise that the powerful liminal experience of childbirth provoked both fear and awe in Biblical times. It still does.
Some days after the birth, the mother is expected to bring an atonement offering to the priest. Acting as her agent, the priest sacrifices the offering and then, as the verse says, “she shall be clean.” Ritually, the new mother is restored to the natural state of innocence every person enjoys.
It is hard for me, and maybe for you, to comprehend the response that the Bible codifies to childbirth. It is especially difficult in this generation to understand why a woman is not her own agent in responding to the revelatory miracle of new life squeezed into existence. In this process, a woman’s body is not hers alone, and when she and her child are separated there is a sense of both miracle and loss. She is shaken to her core.
In this case, the loss of the sacrificial ritual may not be such a terrible thing, nor something whose restoration would make us great again. Instead, we may wish to aspire to example of Khadija, midwife of the Qur’an, if I may so suggest. I do not suggest an equivalency between childbirth and sexual assault. In the generic sense, however, each is a trauma. Neither calls for the ministrations of a man to the woman so that she shall be clean. Instead: Embrace. Comfort. Listen. Believe.
The Leviticus:8 Project
You shall not eat of their flesh or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you. Leviticus 11:8
It was third or fourth grade and it just was not cool to like members of the opposite sex. There were a few long-time friends with whom we could interact somewhat privately, but otherwise no contact was permissible. They had cooties.
You probably know variations. Sometimes it was the sloppy kids. Sometimes it was the clumsy kids. Sometimes it was the socially awkward kids. I know that among some kids that cooties were attributed on the basis of race, native language, social or economic status or presumed ethnicity.
Cooties were highly contagious; a single touch could infect you, a fact that the designated carriers who were brave enough used to terrorize the clique that tried to ostracize them. Getting rid of them required a cootie shot, generally administered by a friend with a slightly sadistic streak.
There are real cooties – a fact I didn’t know when I was little, but that probably are the origin of the imaginary kind – and a game that involves building a plastic bug piece by piece. However, for kids, cooties were an exercise in exclusion. They were the pop culture version of the Bible’s uncleanliness.
There has been a lot of ink spilled trying to explain the rules of ritual cleanliness in the Bible. Modern scholars no less than medieval ones have analyzed the types of situations that were considered to produce some type of pollutant. Like playground cooties, these ritual pollutants were not physical entities. Like playground cooties, they were highly contagious. Like playground cooties, there was a way to get rid of them, though it was much less sadistic than a “shot;” instead, it involved some combination of the passage of time and submersion in a pool of water collected in a specified way.
Unlike playground cooties, however, there was a divine imprimatur on these pollutants. The person who touched a corpse or a carcass, or who had a flow of blood or other bodily effluence, or who displayed certain skin conditions, or engaged in certain other forbidden contacts was unclean and ostracized from the general population until the condition could be reversed. Ingrained in the consciousness of our tradition is the notion that it is forbidden to have contact with some people when they have these ritual cooties.
To be sure, there are fellow Jews who take these restrictions very seriously. Most usual among the observances are men and women who will not touch a member of the opposite sex who is not an immediate relative. From the simple prohibition of shaking hands to the extreme practice of not sitting next to a stranger on an airplane, individuals who take literally these concerns will avoid the accidental contagion that might spread throughout the unsuspecting members of the pious community. There are many of us – including me – who find this obsession absurd, but there is no denying that it is consistent with a world view of a certain kind.
Here, however, is the one thing that I believe is undeniable. Like cooties, and despite the Bible’s insistence on a divine source for ritual pollution, this contagion is made up. That is to say, without an acceptance of the spiritual biases that seem to necessitate ritual pollution, the “disease” is an illusion.
(Allow me a quick disclaimer, please. If you believe literally in the Biblical and rabbinical categories of tum’ah (pollution) and taharah (cleansing), then the categories are very real to you, which I do not challenge. I accept a metaphorical assessment of those categories and of the rituals associated with them. That is to say, I will shake the hand of any willing person and sit in my assigned seat.)
That illusion begins with a bias that translates into real human consequences. A dead bird or moldy wall, both carriers of uncleanliness, does not care one iota if it is sequestered. But a human being who does not share the necessary bias most certainly does. Playground cooties are cruel devices of exclusion, and almost every child grows out of them. But some children do not, and they carry that prejudice from playgrounds to borders and schools and gated communities and commercial businesses.
The presumption that all people in specific categories carry disqualifying blemishes seems to be animating much behavior in our country – contrary to both our founding documents and what (ought to be) established law. Families fleeing oppression and danger to our southern borders are infested with criminal motive and cultural imperialism. Drivers, pedestrians and children on their way to school with darker skin are possessed of darker motives than simply getting from here to there. Anyone who prays five times a day in Arabic is infected with a bloodlust for Americans who spend Sunday morning in worship. And a man who loves a man or a woman who loves a woman can cause cakes to fall, flowers to wilt and calligraphers to lose their skill.
Playground cooties should not be taken seriously by anyone who has completed fourth grade, absent a long tradition of recess with aging classmates. The roots of discrimination and exclusion begin with that game. Every teacher in middle school knows it. Those boys and girls who hope for friendships outside the few figure it out, and the rest deserve patient weaning. As for those who just can’t give it up, let’s keep them away from making and enforcing public policy.
The Leviticus:8 Project
And the LORD spoke to Aaron, saying: Leviticus 10:8
It was bound to happen.
After almost 100 of these columns, each focusing on the same verse in consecutive chapters of each of the first three Books of Moses, I finally land on the most usual formulation in the entire Torah:
“The Lord spoke to [insert name], saying:”
Almost always, some sort of instruction follows. And almost never, some kind of reply is recorded. Yes, there are remarkable exceptions, but overwhelmingly, God speaks with some sort of instruction and whoever is thus commanded acts accordingly.
I know that there are a lot of people who aspire to that kind of authority. Perhaps because of this literary formulation (and the intimation in the original text that God is male), societies that are influenced by the Jewish Bible, the Christian Bible and the Qur’an put a lot of emphasis on male dominance in almost every social structure. There is, of course, nothing inherently better about a man being in a position of authority than a woman. Yet there are people who insist that every meaningful organization in society ought rightly to be led by men.
Mostly, the people who believe that way are known as “men.”
Despite the strides forward of the past few generations, it is still much more difficult to find businesses, universities, governments at any level or thought leadership led by women than those led by men. Some sectors of society are yet dominated by women – doing what has been praised/dismissed as “woman’s work” – including elementary education, social work, “hospitality,” and retail sales. But they are mostly supervised by men.
I am certain you can name some other examples, or might even know a bank president, university chancellor, sports team owner or auto repair foreperson who is female. Maybe you even know a man who cleans hotel rooms, demonstrates make-up or cares for other people’s small children. Those exceptions prove the rules.
And, in my opinion, those exceptions are terrifying to people who believe there is a natural order that places men in positions of unquestioned authority. Those exceptions are tolerated only to the point that they can be controlled. Whether at home or in the marketplace or in the halls of government, for people who believe that every meaningful organization in society ought rightly to be led by men, the justification is this: “The Lord spoke to [insert name] saying:”
Ironically, it doesn’t seem to matter much what comes next. I plead guilty to being a believer in God, but not because of what is presumed to be God’s power. Rather, what inspires and sustains my faith is what comes next, that is, the truth and wisdom that is framed by what “The Lord” is reported to have been “saying.” I know it sounds judgmental (and I don’t care), but I believe that a faith nurtured by an appreciation of authority reflects an aspiration of ego, not of spirit. Those who speak as if they held God’s authority, as if they were the ones who could speak to [insert names] and say whatever they choose are reading the wrong words of Scripture.
Golda Meir is reported to have said to one of her ministers (perhaps Moshe Dayan), “Don’t be so humble – you’re not that great.” Indeed, I am likely no better than most men who believe they are supportive of full human equality as long as it does not mean giving up their own privilege. So I do not hold myself up as a paragon of enlightenment. Yet, having witnessed some of the worst examples of presumed male dominance take the public stage over the last couple of years, I will indeed allow myself one smug smile of woke-itude before I get back to work on my own self-examination.
It is the kind of work I recommend to every clergy person who believes he speaks in the same voice as God. It is the work I recommend to every senator who believes that the outrage expressed by an accused man is more credible than that of an abused woman. It is the work I recommend to every man who is currently President of the United States.
The Leviticus:8 Project
Aaron came forward to the altar and slaughtered his calf of sin offering. Leviticus 9:8
As many of you know, I had a long career as a pulpit rabbi – just about 35 years. That’s a long time in the adult life span, and when I look back on it from this perspective, I am surprised at something that should not surprise me – especially since I said it with some frequency. Incremental changes over a long period always create a major shift. It is true of my physical existence, it is true of my belief system and it is certainly true of my conduct as a rabbi (but not only as a rabbi).
When I retired from the congregation, I felt a sense of relief that I did not anticipate. The tightly defined schedule of duties that spoke for my days, and most especially my weekends, suddenly dissipated. It’s not that other expectations did not take their place, but the Jewish life I had cultivated as a younger man that led me to the rabbinate had incrementally slipped away from my control, and as my continuing evolution as a believer proceeded in one direction, my continuing evolution as a practitioner steadfastly remained defined for me by the schedule of services, the calendar of programs, the prescribed responses to others’ life cycle events and the demands of the institution for human and financial support.
As the tension between the two increased, I became more and more stretched between the two influences which can most simply be described as why I believed and how I believed. And I have no doubt that I might have found ways to experiment and change my public practices – the congregation was very accommodating – but my expectations of my own public role were the biggest obstacles to that change. It was not an indication of a lack of confidence as much as a sense of responsibility to my role as a conserver (after all, I am a Conservative rabbi) of the tradition.
I wonder if this is a modern problem that results from a world of choices that did not exist in ancient times. What sustained leaders like Aaron who, for years at a stretch, performed prescribed rituals with precision and without variation? Even if he had the thought that things might be more effective or efficient or engaging with a little variety or modification, he was obligated as High Priest to come forward to the altar and slaughter his calf, just as he was instructed.
There might have been a time earlier in my life when I believed that if Aaron had nicked the neck of the offering a little, or had sprinkled blood to the other side before the prescribed side, or had taken one too many or one too few steps that the ritual would have been ruined. I am not such a literalist – I merely appreciate the art of meaningful and tested choreography. Now, I am not so strict – so machmir, as the word is in Hebrew. There are some practices I still believe have veto power. (Though I made exceptions for married or engaged couples, two necessary halves of a whole, I still hold to the notion that only one person should be called to the Torah at a time rather than the “gang honors” that put the honorees above the singular voice of the reader of the sacred text.) But mostly I have come to understand that there are often different paths to the same destination, and that integrity can be measured more ways than by behavioral metrics.
The luxury of relinquishing my previous responsibilities allows me to say and do what current leaders must weigh more exquisitely. Leaders who embody deep respect and credibility (usually qualities bestowed by others and not presumed by self) can risk change without as much suspicion and resentment as those who are perceived as wrecking balls. The late former King of Jordan came to Israel to pay a condolence call when a disturbed Jordanian soldier killed Israeli Jewish schoolgirls at a peace monument, kneeling before the bereaved mothers in a very unkinglike gesture; the criticism was minor. The current Prince of Wales abandoned hopes of ascending to his mother’s throne when he married a divorcee for love.
Currently, the President of the United States is a man who is a disruptor. Setting aside agreement or disagreement with the value of the changes in policy and practice he has instituted, increasing numbers of Americans feel unmoored from the otherwise dependable conduct of the officeholder. Republican or Democrat, combat veteran or civilian, southerner or northerner, former Presidents seemed to adhere to certain conventions – call them rituals or unspoken expectations – that allowed transitions from Commander-in-Chief to Commander-in-Chief to proceed with confidence. Aaron would not be High Priest forever, but for as long as someone occupied the office, when the time came he would come forward to the altar and slaughter his calf of sin offering. Changes in the conventions of conduct were only as acceptable as the person making them and the case that could be made.
I don’t know whether I admire or object to the self-regard that enables some leaders to make changes that suit them without much concern for the people who feel the impact, practically or emotionally. But now that I am on the receiving end, I know I was right to exercise restraint when I was a leader, and right to step away when my enthusiasm for the status quo began to wane.