Sunday, April 29, 2007

Acharei Mot - Kedoshim

My experience as a bar/bat mitzvah tutor is that Tazria and Metzora are the most popular b’nai mitzvah Torah portions, but it isn’t because of anything that they contain. It’s only because of the dates on which they are read.

If a young person is lucky, the best date for the ceremony will turn out to be a week or two later when Kedoshim is the reading. This parashah, from which the Reform movement draws its reading for the afternoon of Yom Kippur, comprises what is known as the Holiness Code, one of the most attractive readings in all the Torah.

One often-quoted precept from it is the injunction not to place a stumbling block before the blind. If we read this literally, it describes a nasty practical joke in which the blind person could trip and be injured. But it also commands us not to insult the deaf. Students reasonably ask, why should it matter? The person can’t hear the insult and won’t suffer from hurt feelings.

To understand this, it helps to know that some older translations read “curse the deaf.” If a curse were to be effective, it could do real harm and the victim wouldn’t even know what was happening. Jewish tradition, however, has generally held that human curses don’t have any real effect on the intended victim.

That doesn’t mean that a curse, or anything derogatory that might be said about a person, doesn’t have any effect. While the victim might be willing to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” the Jewish way of looking at this is that bad things harm the person who says them. In Hebrew this is called lashon hara, “evil speech”--something that we’re supposed to avoid even if we happen to believe that it’s true.

Another way of looking at it, one that appeals to children, is simply that it’s unfair. A deaf person, being unable to hear the insult, has no opportunity to defend himself or herself. This isn’t limited to cases of deafness. It would apply equally to a hearing person who, for any reason, might not find out what was said. That’s why verse 19:14 ends with, “You shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” Jewish tradition understands that the harm occurs whether the victim is aware of it or not.

Just as we understand the rule against insulting the deaf to apply to all cases where the person might not find out what we said, Jewish tradition interprets “placing a stumbling block before the blind” much more broadly. On the surface, it’s a stupid joke that no one should play. But we also understand it to mean that we can’t do anything that takes advantage of a person’s ignorance or inexperience.

For example, if someone asks how to get to a certain place, we’re not allowed to give bad directions. We have to give the best directions we can. Of course there is a chance that we’ll be mistaken; maybe we don’t know the route very well ourselves. But, except when the person asking for help intends to do harm to someone else, we can’t deliberately give false information. Even young children can understand that God will know whether we meant to do well or meant to mislead the person.

But does the rule against insulting the deaf, in its broadest application, mean that we should be silent when another person does something that we know is seriously wrong? Verse 18, “Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt because of him,” is the relevant proof text for the argument that we shouldn’t be silent. But it says that when we must speak about something that is wrong, we should speak to the person, not behind his or her back.

Religious-school students are often eager--too eager--to share derogatory information about other students with the teacher. Sermons about lashon hara have little or no effect, but we can choose whether or how to respond to it. It’s a “teachable moment” (for everyone involved).

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Earth Day

Perfect weather for Earth Day in southern New England: sunny and moderately warm, ideal for outdoor environmental activities.

But do we observe Earth Day in Jewish schools? For some schools, the answer must be no: very traditional communities take no notice of holidays that are not Jewish holidays. In most schools, however, the community at least tolerates Earth Day and may actively embrace it.

On the other hand, most of us have already promoted Tu Bishvat, the New Year of Trees, as a Jewish environmental holiday. Although this is a modern interpretation, to anyone who was around for the first Earth Day, it makes perfect sense.

Unfortunately, the opportunities that it suggests for active learning are not necessarily appropriate for Tu Bishvat. Here in New England, planting trees is usually not feasible in January or February; we are more likely to contribute money to the Jewish National Fund. Many of the activities that students suggest - cleaning up a park or beach, promoting recycling, or distributing compact fluorescent fluorescent bulbs - have nothing specific to do with trees. In fact, they're more appropriate for Earth Day.

In the northern U.S., Earth Day is also a better day for planting trees. In fact, the traditional date for Arbor Day, the fourth Friday in April, is at the end of this week.

So, if we choose to introduce an environmental theme at Tu Bishvat, there are at several ways to do it that make sense.

First, we might choose an environmental theme for a Tu Bishvat seder. For most children and many adults, this is more readily apprehensible than a mystical, Four Worlds theme that is another appealing option.

Second, let's remember that Tu Bishvat is the New Year of Trees. If we want to do environmental mitzvot at Tu Bishvat, perhaps we should focus on a single issue: deforestation. Classroom activities might include writing letters to government officials, possibly supporting the protection of national parks and forests.

For a show-and-tell session or a family education program, we might invite a forester to visit the school. You don't have to be in a national park to do this: even cities have foresters (Cleveland, for example, has a Department of Urban Forestry).

For the most impact, we could link Tu Bishvat and Earth Day: launch a project on Tu Bishvat that we'll complete on Earth Day. We'd start with learning on Tu Bishvat, then move through dreaming and planning (interrupted by the Passover break or spring vacation) to our Earth Day activities.


These two parashot, yesterday's Torah reading, are probably among our least favorites, not only because they deal with an apparently loathsome skin disease, but also because its theme, the exclusion of those who suffer from the disease, also offends our sensibilities.

It should be clear, however, that, despite the conventional translation of tzara’at as “leprosy,” the condition of tzara’at has little, if anything, to do with Hansen’s disease. As Rabbi Bernard Bamberger notes, commentators have suggested a wide variety of diseases, some of them minor, to which it might refer, and it is possible that any or all of them might fall into this classification.

More to the point, it should be apparent that the procedure described here has nothing to do with medical diagnosis or treatment. As Bamberger also notes, no similar procedure involving diagnosis by a priest and quarantine is required for other, possibly more serious or more contagious, diseases. That tzara’at may also afflict fabrics or (in Metzora) houses also suggests that it is something other than an ordinary disease process.

Furthermore, the priest’s role, in Tazria, is limited to the examination of the sufferer; the priest has no further role until the sufferer recovers.

Rather, tzara’at is understood as the physical representation of God’s disfavor--that is, as the outward sign of an inward, spiritual malaise. In modern terms, we might also understand it as the external manifestation of a psychological condition; Dr. A. J. Twerski goes so far as to liken it to a condition of which the sufferer is in denial, and refers to the community’s obligation to overcome the denial in order to help him or her.

Jewish tradition particularly associates tzara’at with the sin of lashon hara--evil speech, slander, or gossip. Although this association can be drawn from a word play on the name of the second parashah, Metzora (they are joined in most years), a stronger case for the association can be drawn from Numbers 12, where Miriam is stricken with tzara’at after she and Aaron speak ill of Moses. But nothing in this parashah supports a strong association between tzara’at and lashon hara or any other specific sin.

This focus on outward disfigurement as the expression of an inner spiritual defect, and the exclusion of the sufferer from the community because of it, strike many of us today as objectionable. These objections, however, reflect a double misreading of the text.

The first misreading derives from focusing on the sufferer’s presumed spiritual defect. It appealed to the rabbis to associate tzara’at with a specific sin, lashon hara, not merely because the idea of divine punishment for sinful acts is part of Jewish tradition, but also because the cause-and-effect relationship between the action and the punishment suggests a possibility of atonement. In Judaism, unlike, for example, Calvinism, misfortune is not seen as a sign of being permanently out of God’s favor; the inherent personal worth of every Jew is taken for granted.

Thus, it makes sense to interpret these parashot in light of those immediately preceding it, in which the discussion first of the sacrifices and then of kashrut has the holiness of the people Israel as an underlying theme. Perhaps we should give more attention to holiness or purity than to impurity.

The second misreading stems from focusing on the exclusion of the sufferer. The text here strongly suggests that many people could be expected to recover from tzara’at within seven days, or fourteen, and the second parashah, Metzora, provides a ritual of purification that allows one who has recovered from tzara’at to return to the community. Thus, this parashah could also be seen as part of a logical unit that concludes two parashot hence, in Achare Mot, with the instructions regarding Yom Kippur.

A moral like “Don’t judge a book by its cover” cannot be readily drawn from this parashah; it is a basic assumption here that the affliction, whatever its direct cause, reflects genuine impurity. There are, however, several other lessons that we can draw.

The first is that we need not regard every affliction as a sign of God’s disfavor. In this parashah, those who might be suffering from tzara’at do not diagnose it themselves; examination by the priest is required, and many similar conditions are carefully excluded from the diagnosis. Although it is still tempting for many with severe or chronic illness to view themselves as “cursed by God,” nothing in this parashah supports such an attitude.

The second is that the state of alienation from God and the community is a temporary condition, one that derives from specific acts rather than from a generalized state of unworthiness. Despite the degree of horror that attaches to tzara’at, it is a condition from which a sufferer can hope to recover and return to the community.

The third is a challenge: in the modern age, when tzara’at itself concerns most of us hardly at all, this parashah asks us what conditions today cause us to exclude others needlessly from our communities, or cause others to exclude themselves. And it asks us what means we might find to reincorporate them as effectively as the purification ritual reincorporated the tzara’at sufferer into the people of Israel. In the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy we explicitly authorize ourselves to pray with sinners; otherwise how could we pray at all?

Ye and We

I was probably in high school before I learned that “Go Down, Moses” wasn’t originally a Jewish song. I had learned it in model seders in re...