Sunday, April 10, 2016

Colby College Hillel Winter 2016 Newsletter!


The Winter 2016 Hillel Newsletter is out!  Click here to download a copy!

Friday, April 8, 2016

When Judaism Makes You Furious and then It Doesn't: Childbirth and Parashat Tazria


I love her, and she exhausts me.
Thank goodness for maternity leave.
             If you come to the Torah with a feminist lens, then at least sometimes, probably, it will make you furious.  In Genesis, Eve is condemned for her curiosity and Adam is treated as a victim, Dinah's rape is turned into a tale of the injured honor of her fathers and brothers, Tamar needs to dress up a like a prostitute in order to receive the care she is due, and so on and so forth.  Even with the most ornate and developed apologetics, there are times when the the Torah, or Judaism more generally can make you furious.  
              In this week's portion, Tazria, there were always elements that angered me.  The parasha opens with the laws of ritual purity related to a woman who has just given birth.  We learn in the opening verses that 1) a woman becomes ritually impure after child birth and 2) the period of impurity is twice as long for a girl child than it is for a male child: (Leviticus 12:2-5)

2Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days; as [in] the days of her menstrual flow, she shall be unclean.בדַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר אִשָּׁה֙ כִּ֣י תַזְרִ֔יעַ וְיָֽלְדָ֖ה זָכָ֑ר וְטָֽמְאָה֙ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים כִּימֵ֛י נִדַּ֥ת דְּו‍ֹתָ֖הּ תִּטְמָֽא:
3And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.גוּבַיּ֖וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֑י יִמּ֖וֹל בְּשַׂ֥ר עָרְלָתֽוֹ:
4And for thirty three days, she shall remain in the blood of purity; she shall not touch anything holy, nor may she enter the Sanctuary, until the days of her purification have been completed.דוּשְׁלשִׁ֥ים יוֹם֙ וּשְׁל֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים תֵּשֵׁ֖ב בִּדְמֵ֣י טָֽהֳרָ֑ה בְּכָל־קֹ֣דֶשׁ לֹֽא־תִגָּ֗ע וְאֶל־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ֙ לֹ֣א תָבֹ֔א עַד־מְלֹ֖את יְמֵ֥י טָֽהֳרָֽהּ:
5And if she gives birth to a female, she shall be unclean for two weeks, like her menstruation [period]. And for sixty six days, she shall remain in the blood of purity.הוְאִם־נְקֵבָ֣ה תֵלֵ֔ד וְטָֽמְאָ֥ה שְׁבֻעַ֖יִם כְּנִדָּתָ֑הּ וְשִׁשִּׁ֥ים יוֹם֙ וְשֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים תֵּשֵׁ֖ב עַל־דְּמֵ֥י טָֽהֳרָֽה:

Why should a woman be impure after giving birth, and why should that status last twice as long for a female child?  Isn't this the ultimate expression of a deep seeded misogyny in the Bible that extends through the Jewish tradition?  Like any question in Judaism, it depends who you ask and when you ask the question.  It also depends when in your life you read this portion.
        The Kli Yakar gives an interpretation that I would expect from a male reader in early modernity. Pulling upon traditional sources, he claims that both menstrual blood and the blood of childbirth are punishments for the chet hakadum, the first sin of Eve described in the opening chapters of Genesis. According to him, the double days of impurity for a girl child are required because a girl will eventually carry this sin as well when her period begins.  In the Babylonian Talmud (Niddah 31b), the rabbis posit that a woman needs to be in a state of impurity and provide a sin offering because she will undoubtedly curse her husband for having had sex with her during delivery.  The period for a girl child will be twice as long because she will forgive her husband more quickly for cursing him if she gives birth to a male, the more cherished kind of child. The Kli Yakar and the Talmud clearly articulate interpretations of the text that perpetuate the worst attitudes towards women in the Jewish tradition, and affirms for me my initial anger at this text.
       However, there are always different ways to read classical texts, especially when the Torah itself doesn't provide reasoning for the laws it lays out.  In The Torah: A Women's Commentary, a wonderful resource from the URJ press, we are provided with other possible reasons for these laws.  Beth Alpert Nakhai points out that though the period of impurity differs for boys and girls, the purification rituals are identical.  The Torah conveys a discomfort with all oozing fluids of life and death, and the experience of childbirth is the same in this respect. Blood, according to the Torah, is a life force that needs to be treated with reverence.  (It is for this reason that we cannot eat blood if we keep kosher.)  She writes, "The priestly authors of Leviticus believe that blood, whether menstrual or post-partum, is so powerful as a source of life that only purification rituals allow those who come into contact with it to rejoin their community."  (pg. 650)
       The authors of the Conservative commentary, Etz Hayim, write in a similar vein, "We might postulate that there are two types of holiness in life, two ways of encountering the divine.  There is a natural holiness found in the miracles of pregnancy, birth, and recovery from illness. And there is a stipulated holiness - the arbitrary designation of certain times, places, and activities, as sacred.  One meets God in the experiences of birth and death, sickness and health.  But they are not everyday occurrences.  The person who years for contact with God on a regular basis must rely on sanctuaries, worship services, and prescribed rituals, all of which are holy only because we have chosen to designate them as holy.  Israelite society may have seen the two types of holiness as being mutually exclusive, so that it would not be appropriate for the woman or man who encountered the vital holiness of childbirth, menstruation, or contact with a dead body to seek the designated holiness of the sanctuary. A woman who had just given birth might feel the presence of God so strongly in that experience that she would feel no need to go to the sanctuary to find God..." (pg. 649)
      Additionally, we can read these laws as a form of protection for mother and child, and especially female babies.  During a period of ritual impurity (whether it is from menstruation or childbirth), a husband cannot touch his wife.  After giving birth to a child, a woman doesn't want to be approached sexually or bothered to take care of anyone other than her child and herself.  By separating a woman from her communal responsibilities and her family, she can heal and take care of her child.  Why should this period of time be longer for a baby girl?  According to Nakhai, the rabbis possibly wanted to make doubly sure that the mother would take care of her baby girl despite the fact that female life was valued so much less, and therefore, was all the more precarious.  She writes, "...girls were sometimes thought of as expendable.  In times of need, famine, and war, baby girls might suffer hunger and neglect, or even be abandoned and left to die.  The priestly authors seem to be concerned about this situation and try to avert such tragedies by ensure that baby girls stay in the mothers' protect care for an extended period of time.  This not only allows mother and daughter to bond tightly, but also ensures that the child is nursed and cared for." (650)
    I do not know the original intent of the priestly authors of Leviticus.  None of us can.  The way in which we read and relate to the text says just as much about our values and context as it does about the text itself.  I know that after giving birth to a baby girl, this portion feels extremely different.  I had no idea how physically weak I would feel, how much I would bleed and for how long, and how much I would desire to simply be left alone to sleep and feed my baby.  The idea of forced isolation and distance from communal life feels more like a necessary protection than a punishment. Moreover, I had no idea that baby girls can have something resembling a period in their first couple of weeks of life.  It could be that the priestly authors knew that mother and baby girl could be menstruating at the same time, and hence, developed the idea of double impurity.  These laws feel far more wise and fair to me now than they ever did as an adolescent, and I could have never seen their value before giving birth myself.
      As we grow, the Torah grows with us.  It could be that in 10 to 20 years this portion will go back to infuriating me, or I will come to peace with laws that provide real benefit to new mothers, intentionally or unintentionally.  There is some wisdom that can only come from experience, and the Torah waits for us as we gain this knowledge and eventually come to understand its laws and stories better.  In reading Tazria, I am reminded not to abandon Torah when it is difficult or hurtful. While sometimes I can never reconcile myself to its viewpoint, other times it is valuable to let it sit until I am the person I need to be to learn from it and find its wisdom.  This is what it means to live a life of Torah -- and what an incredible gift that is.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, April 1, 2016

A New Heart, a New Spirit: Haftarat Shemini

       When we think of hard heart, who does this image most likely evoke?  If we are in a Biblical state of mind, we are most likely to think about Pharaoh.  Even when Pharaoh is inclined to let the Israelites go from slavery, God hardens his heart and he keeps them in captivity.  As we approach Passover, we often focus on the stubbornness of Pharaoh, the merit of the Israelites, and the saving power of God.  However, this weeks' haftarah from the Book of Ezekiel reminds us that the Egyptian monarch is not the only one to suffer from the spiritual affliction of a hard heart.  In Ezekiel 36:26, we learn about what God will do for us during the time of our ultimate redemption:

26And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit will I put within you, and I will take away the heart of stone out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.כווְנָתַתִּ֚י לָכֶם֙ לֵ֣ב חָדָ֔שׁ וְר֥וּחַ חֲדָשָׁ֖ה אֶתֵּ֣ן בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם וַֽהֲסִ֨רֹתִ֜י אֶת־לֵ֚ב הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ מִבְּשַׂרְכֶ֔ם וְנָֽתַתִּ֥י לָכֶ֖ם לֵ֥ב בָּשָֽׂר:
This haftarah follows the structure and themes of most prophetic texts. The Jewish people have sinned and have been punished through exile.  In the time of our ultimate redemption, God decides to bring us back to Israel from the four corners of the earth, not because we have sufficiently repented, but because God is good and cannot stand to hear His people mocked by the nations of the world. When we return, God will purify us with clean water, give us a new heart, and imbue us with a new spirit. Our collective heart of stone will be replaced with a supple and open heart of flesh.
      What does it mean to have a heart of flesh?  According to Rashi, it means "An inclination that has been renewed for the better."  A heart of flesh is not a perfect heart, but one that inclines us to make better decisions.  The Messianic era is not one where everything is perfect and we don't need to do any spiritual work -- rather we are inclined to make better, more holy, more kind decisions. According to the Radak, we are renewed thusly: החידוש יהיה בכך שהקב"ה יעשה בתוכנו שינוי שנהיה מוכנים יותר להקשיב לקב"ה ולשוב בתשובה ולתקן את עצמינו" -- our hearts will be better prepared to listen to God, repent, and repair ourselves."  A heart of flesh is a heart that is open, listening, compassionate, and ready to fix what is broken within the self.  Even in the time of ultimate redemption, we are not without work. Rather, we are more open, willing, and prepared to repair what is ruptured within us.  We are open enough to follow God's will and act in a way consummate with our title of am segulah, an exalted people.
     As Jews, we often refer to ourselves as am nivchar, or the "chosen people."  It is one of the most misunderstood concepts in how we perceive ourselves and others see us as well. To be a chosen people does not make Jews inherently better than anyone else.  In Ezekiel we learn that our hearts can be as hard as Pharaoh's (and unlike in the case of Pharaoh, our hearts weren't hardened against our will by God-- we have hardened our own hearts through sin!)  We learn elsewhere that we are not even the only people redeemed by God through a great exodus.  We have been chosen only for a specific task: to embody and enact Torah law and values.  When we forget or neglect our unique mission, our heart turns to stone, unable and unwilling to heed the guiding voice of the Divine.
     When we pray for the ultimate redemption, we not only orient our hearts toward resettlement in the Land of Israel, but also toward a new heart that is soft, open, purified, and ready for service.  It is a heart that hears the commanding voice of Torah and the cry of the orphan, stranger, and widow.  It is not a heart at rest in a world perfected by Another, but a heart ready for the hard and holy work of healing ourselves and the world around us.  It is a heart that is animated by a fresh spirit that is not weighed down by cynicism, greed, or solipsism, but rather is imbued with the hope of a brighter and more cooperative future.
    As we approach the holy time of Passover, let us pray not only for freedom from outside oppression, but also for the gift of a new heart.  Let us be redeemed not only from external pressure, but from the stubbornness within us that keeps us from being agents of God's will on earth.  In order to truly be a free people within our land, we must not only possess the physical force to protect our bodies, but also an openness and compassion to God's message and to the needs of those around us. May we all know what it is to be truly free in the time to come.

Shabbat Shalom.