Monthly Archives: April 2012

Aren’t we all a little leprous?


I remember very little about my actual bar mitzvah. I don’t remember the name of the Rabbi, or either of the two other kids I was becoming bar mitzvah with. I remember who I invited, and I also remember the two girls that were tormenting me from the front row as I sat on the bima, nervous and unsure of what I was about to do. Also, I remember my Torah portion was TazriaMetsorah (Leviticus 12:1-15:33), the worst Torah portion. It is three sections, all about impurity around childbirth, genital excretions, and an extended section  on how to do deal with a metsorah, someone with the skin disease tsera’at, which resembles leprosy, but involves more strange hair growth and pigment change. This disease is cured by all kinds of crazy magical rituals, including being separated from society for eight days, and eventually being anointed with oil.

In retrospect, this could have been a great talking point for me. When I was 11 my family moved to Coral Springs, Florida from Tacoma, Washington, and I more often than not felt like I was some kind of outcast with a skin disease. What it was about me that kids didn’t like is still unclear to me, but it often led me to be ostracized and beaten up. I recovered to the point that I had a healthy swath of the middle school social scene present at my bar mitzvah party (a swimming pool party at my parents’ house), though, including a group of downtrodden proto-goths. One of these was a girl I had an on again off again relationship with, but I believe it was entirely off at this point.  These kids had not brought their bathing suits to the swimming party, and instead decided they would spend their time slowly making their way through the helium of the balloons that had been set up. After having my request for them to stop rebuffed I summarily cast them out of the party. Upon reflection I’m not exactly sure how I did it, or if I made a big scene of it. I very well may have done this as a deft 13-year-old move for social cache. No matter my method they were out of there. And that’s pretty much all I remember.

On Friday I was asked by a colleague at work to give the drash at our staff kiddish in place of someone who decided not to show up for their turn at the helm.  I had about an hour to prepare but I decided I’d do it, especially since it was coincidentally Tazria-Metsorah once again. I also just so happened to have read the whole parshat on the way to work out of curiosity, so I was already a little prepared. I proceeded to read the haftarah portion, and found that those mysterious fellas that created the haftarah series had done an awesome job this time.

The haftarah portion (2Kings 7:3-20) is all about five guys that have tsera’at, called metsoraim. These metsoraim were outside the city gates of Samaria, as they had to be separated from the main population to prevent the spreading of their disease. It just so happened that the Arameans had laid siege to Samaria, and everyone was starving, so these metsoraim decided that they’d head to the Aramean camp and surrender in hopes of being fed. As the men walked towards the Aramean camp God made the Arameans hear the noise of chariots, huge armies, and horns. The Arameans panicked and fled, leaving an empty camp for the metsoraim to just wander into and pillage. They ate their fill, took a whole bunch of silver and gold and hid it for later, and then returned to Samaria to tell everyone that there was a huge amount of food just waiting in the now-abandoned Aramean camp.

In my drash I used this story of the diseased outcasts playing a role in society as important as this as an argument for the importance of the multitude of facets of society.  The previous night, Bill Clinton had spoken at the synagogue I work at, and the main theme of his talk was the need for a greater communitarianism in the global society. Through the lens of tsera’at and the haftarah portion, I pointed out the inherent tension between Clinton’s idea of global communitarianism and the reality of individualized identities and roles throughout the multitude of cultures. 

Who knows why God would wait until these five outcasts were walking towards the Aramean camp to scare the Arameans off, but that’s how the story recounts it. It seems relatively clear that the guys that created the haftarah system were attempting to make some kind of statement about how even the metsoraim had an important role in God’s plan here. These individuals who needed to be separated from society for eight days due to their uncleanness were still used by God as a tool to help the entirety of the biggest city in the Northern Kingdom.

Unfortunately there’s no such resolution for my 13-year-old politicking. I don’t think the proto-goths ever spoke to me again after this. On the same note I didn’t become a more popular social powerhouse at my middle school. In fact, I pretty much didn’t associate with anyone from middle school, and made friends with a bunch of high schoolers. I think my bar mitzvah party speaks volumes about human nature when it comes to insiders, outsiders, and bridging that gap between the leprous and the anointed. If we look at the Torah portion as a ritualistic ideal for society when it comes to the metsoraim, and the haftarah portion as a narrative-style commentary on the actual role of metsoraim in Israelite society, we see a definite progression. These metsoraim are put in a position of liminality due to their unclean state, and due to this state of liminality they are available to be used by God as a mode for driving off the Arameans. Rather than simply being a group of pathetic turncoats, God turns these metsoraim into a wild threat confused by the Arameans as being the great militaries of the Hittite and Egyptian kingdoms of the time. They used their turn of luck to enrich both themselves and the city. I, on the other hand, in my tyrannous tweens, used my briefly gained social cache to turn on the pariahs of the group myself.  On this day, I was the one that could cast people out and flex my muscle.

I wonder which is more likely in the global community that President Clinton was referring to. Are the powerful within humanity more likely to act in the prophetic tradition found in the book of Second Kings, that of turning power structures on their head for the good of everyone? Or are they more likely to behave like a newly-adulted tyrant, ready to abuse their power as soon as they are able? I hope that humanity as a collective race is capable of maturing beyond the basic impulses of the overzealous tween, but I fear, based on simple observation of global politics, that we are still trapped in our selfish drive towards greater and greater individual empowerment.

As President Clinton pointed out in his speech, we are at a turning point. We’re rocking 7 billion on this planet right now, running out of the resources we’ve counted on to keep ourselves fed and comfortable, and our population growth isn’t looking like it’s going to slow down. If we continue to echelon ourselves into insiders and outsiders, the clean and the unclean, we’ve got the capacity to create untold human misery. On the other side of the coin if governments create a top-down enacted homogenization of societies by enforcing some kind of general equality or “us-ness” throughout the world what would we do when situations that require the liminal, the metsoraim, to be present outside of the general population to act in a way that no one locked inside could possibly conceive of? The Jews have been one of these populations throughout history, and in some ways continue to play that role today. As we become more accepted in societies and cultures around the world, though, we have begun to lose this outsider stance. Especially for the majority of Reform Jews in America the differentiating lens of outsider worldview has been more or less lost.  This is one of the greatest challenges for the leaders of Reform Judaism today – how do we maintain our distinct and separate identity while being welcomed with open arms into the center culture of America? Should we even? I think that our ability as Jews to maintain our identity throughout the ages speaks to its remarkable quality. As the world globalizes, and our 8 days on the outside of society ends, we ourselves need to decide whether we wish to keep our one foot in, one foot out stance with the general population. In fact, it may be incumbent upon us to be the ones to keep an eye on the powers that be, to admonishing them to both allow for the metsoraim of the world to exist, rather than to take their newfound mastery to the greatest extreme.

We want moshiach…right?

Yesterday as I was heading off from work to go for a Shabbat swim with my wife a couple of Lubavitchers asked me to stop and wrap t’fillin. These kids, who couldn’t have been older than 16, in their black suits and hats, dangling payot and tsitsit, were really into the mitzvah as all of the Lubavitchers are. The one that was wrapping my arm talked me through the blessings and the shema, and then I went ahead and did the v’ahavta by myself. But then, at the end, one of them got super zealous. “Now say, ‘We want moshiach now!’” he shouted. This one had been silent the whole time, just watching. At first I felt like I was being tricked. What? We want moshiach now isn’t part of the prayer.

So, anyone that knows me knows that I don’t just let things like this slide. Not in an “I’ve got to stand my ground” way, but more in an “I really enjoy arguing with people” way.  So I simply said, “I’m not going that far.”

The boy asked, “Why not? What do you mean?” I calmly informed him that I don’t really believe a single human messiah is going to come and save us all, but that the perfect golden age is simply a possibility in the future.

“But the prophets say that one from David’s line will come and save us,” he responded.

“Well, I think it was metaphorical,” I said. And I clearly could have left it at that, but I didn’t. Instead, I decided to tell them that I don’t think we should have a temple again. In fact, I told them that I think that the destruction of the Second Temple was a God’s way of telling us that we no longer need that kind of religion. We are now capable of independently worshipping and praising God, as God doesn’t need sacrifices, and we don’t need to give them.

I can’t tell if I’m projecting or not, but it was as if they’d never heard anything like it before. That didn’t stop them from arguing against it, but they didn’t quite seem to know how to deal with it.

I tried to explain to them a basic tenet of my theology – that although God doesn’t speak to us “face to face” as he did to Moses, we are spoken to through history. Through studying history we can look back and try to figure out what our lesson should be, and how we should act in relation to this lesson. This is why Jews reflect on Torah, Tanach, and all the rest of our history: To try to figure out what we should be focused on and doing today. If we can learn anything from the history of the destruction of the Second Temple, and the messianic war waged in the land of Israel afterwards, it is that nothing but strife has ever come from Jews going all messianic about rebuilding a Temple.

They wouldn’t budge, though. For them the belief in an individual messiah laid out in Maimonides’ 13 principles is central to being Jewish. In fact, they apparently couldn’t accept the idea that I could possibly do away with a portion of our tradition.

After thinking about the conversation for a while, I figured I’d take a look at this week’s Torah portion (Shemini) to see if there was anything relevant to what I was saying. Luckily it’s one of the most interesting portions of Leviticus. The scene where Aaron and his sons are giving their first shot at sacrifices to God comes right at the beginning. The legislation as to the specifics of how the sacrifice is to be prepared is laid out, along with a description of Aaron preparing it and God consuming it by shooting forth some kind of fire. This quickly leads into Nadab and Abihu, apparently two of the more zealous sons of Aaron, deciding to give a go at it themselves. I like to think of them having just got caught up in the moment of such a novel and amazing thing happening, and instead of falling on their faces like the rest of the Israelites, they decide to try to make it happen again. Unfortunately for them, God hadn’t asked them to do it, so instead of enjoying the incense and “strange fire” they brought before him, he simply consumed them with another tongue of flame.

Now, I think that a pretty clear parallel presents itself here. The Jews have had two failed attempts at Temples in the Land of Israel, and many more failed attempts at messiah-ship. Nadab and Abihu can be seen as paragons of overzealousness. Instead of simply allowing the sacrifice that God asked of their father to suffice, they had to go ahead and try it themselves.

Now, there are clear arguments for the Temple being a worldly symbol of overzealousness. God never wanted one. In Second Samuel chapter 7, God states very clearly that he dwells in the Tabernacle and follows his people around in there. He has no need for the Temple that David wants to build him, and even when he does allow Solomon to build it, only his name will dwell within it. In the period of the Tanach, a god’s “name” was a minor manifestation of the god on earth, a sacred piece of the deity that can be present in a physical location. This, then, is actually a downgrade from the relationship the Israelites have with God in the Tabernacle. On a similar note, if you continue reading the story of the Tanach in this way it is clear that the Temple is more often than not a locus of problems for the Israelites.

Now, outside of the theological argument, I think that there’s another parallel to the Nadab and Abihu story. The two Lubavitcher boys that helped me to wrap t’fillin were clearly quite zealous for moshiach. They enjoy helping other Jews to do mitzvot because their theology teaches them that each time a Jew (specifically, a male individual that falls within the Lubavitch legal strictures of Jewishness, of which I very well may not) does a mitzvah, moshiach, and therefore the Temple, draws closer. In my opinion this is a great practice driven by a wrongheaded thought process. I believe that it is wonderful to help other Jews connect to their Judaism in traditional ways, and that it does, in fact, help bring us closer to God and maybe even God closer to us (this is just my first post, so you’ll have to bear with me on this, and give me the benefit of the doubt about my personal conception of God). But to do these mitzvot in hopes that it will once again bring about a time that has already passed, and that this time around the configuration of Judaism that has shown to be deeply flawed will be perfect, is not the right kavanah, or intention.

Instead let us look to our history. Be it written in books, heard through prayer, or practiced through ritual, its metaphorically rich symbols guide us to how we should approach the new, ever novel, ever changing future. If God is speaking to us today, and I believe he is, what better way for him to communicate than through these vestiges of our ancient past that have miraculously survived the perilous course of past? If we have been gifted these wonderful traditions by the grace of whatever has allowed them to endure through the constantly churning and destroying wheel-work of history, should we then desire to offer the strange fire of a new Temple?