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.