Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The egg & the orange

A class asked about the meaning of the roasted egg on the seder plate. It's a good question, because the egg just sits there. We don't eat it; except for stating that it's required on the seder plate, the haggadah never refers to it.

In contrast, we eat the karpas, the charoset, and the maror, and the haggadah text refers explicitly to the zeroa, the shankbone. So what's the purpose of the egg?

A student in the class suggested that the egg symbolizes new life. This is the explanation that I learned as a child, and it makes some sense, because the exodus from Egypt marks the beginning of the life of the Jewish people as a nation that will eventually settle in the Land of Israel.

On the other hand, it's not obvious that "new life" needs to be symbolized on the seder plate at all, and the absence of any reference to it in the haggadah text still requires explanation. It's a bit like saying that the karpas symbolizes spring: since Pesach always falls in the spring, a specific symbol of spring is not really as important as it might otherwise be.

Also, it fails to explain why the egg is roasted. Logically, an egg symbolizing new life might have to be raw and fertile.

Another explanation sometimes given is that the egg represents the sacrifices that are no longer carried out. This has the virtue of explaining why the egg is roasted, but since the zeroa represents the Pesach sacrifice, which is stated explicitly in the haggadah, it's still not clear why the egg is required.

Furthermore, at one point in the seder--korekh, the "Hillel sandwich,"--the charoset seems to represent the Pesach sacrifice! The text states, "With matzah and maror shall you eat it," and it originally referred to the sacrifice, but it's actually the charoset that we eat with the matzah and maror.

I usually answer that the haggadah was written by a committee. Like many collective works, it includes the ideas of multiple authors, even when these ideas are inconsistent or redundant.

Thus, the requirement to have a roasted egg on the seder plate may represent the opinion of one rabbi or group of rabbis, while the shankbone represents the opinion of others. Perhaps those favoring the egg also suggested an addition to the haggadah text that would have referred to it, but their suggestion wasn't adopted. Who knows?

It may also represent an established custom that the rabbis of old didn't endorse, but felt unable to abolish. Leaving the egg on the seder plate without any reference in the haggadah text would have been a compromise.

I see the first washing of hands in the seder in this way. No brachah is said then, which also requires some explanation. Conventionally, people say that there is no brachah so that people will ask why there is no brachah, which just sounds silly (unless you think that it is desirable to ask as many different questions during the seder as possible, in which case anything that is odd or inexplicable has merit).

My take on washing hands without a brachah is that the rabbis weren't certain that washing hands at that point in the seder was actually required. The idea of a brachah shel mitzvah is that one says it before performing a specific mitzvah, so if the action isn't known to be a mitzvah, or is there is doubt, usually no brachah is said. We wash with a brachah before eating the matzah, just as before eating ordinary bread, but the first washing of hands precedes eating only a very small amount of a vegetable.

But some of us have another case of a food item that we place on the seder plate, but to which the haggadah never refers: the orange. Ordinarily this is described as representing women who were excluded from full participation in Jewish ritual.

There are several midrashim about the orange currently in circulation. All attribute the origin to Susannah Heschel. Her own account of it dates to a presentation she gave a number of years ago at Oberlin College. As she describes it, someone asked her opinion of the then-new practice among Jewish lesbians of placing a piece of bread on the seder plate as a protest against their exclusion from the mainstream of Jewish life and thought.

Heschel was uncomfortable with placing something treif on the seder plate, especially if the goal was for Jewish lesbians to gain acceptance, in other words, to become kosher in Jewish society. She suggested instead placing something totally new, such as an orange, on the seder plate--something that would not, in and of itself, transgress, but which could add new meaning.

Most households that place an orange on the seder plate don't make a formal addition to the haggadah text for it. Similarly, some add a kos Miryam, a Miriam's cup (of water) to the seder table even though most haggadot make no mention of it.

To some extent, the kos Miryam seems to have displaced the orange as a feminist addition to the seder table. For those of us who worship in settings where women participate fully, and where women serve on the boards and hold office in our congregations, the need to symbolize the exclusion of women from Jewish life, the purpose of the orange, no longer seems compelling. The kos Miryam may turn out to be a more enduring addition, because it symbolizes the omission of women's roles from our texts and history.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Metzora & Economic Segregation

I wrote last week that "just as our ancestors were inclined to reject individuals based on unjustified fears, we are prone to excluding others for reasons that are equally unwarranted, and these two parashot (especially Metzora) teach us to do better."

Anyone who teaches children and adolescents is familiar with this problem, but the tendency to exclude others for flimsy reasons isn't confined to young people. Growing up, I knew that no one in my family was welcome in the region's most prestigious country club - that was why there was also a Jewish country club.

My family didn't belong to the Jewish country club, either. We didn't play golf; it was a distance away; and it was expensive. But that's not the point.

The point I want to make is that many of our Jewish institutions, unfortunately including some congregations, tend to act like a country club. I don't mean that they have golf courses (although I did work for one congregation that had tennis courts and a swimming pool and was building a basketball court). Too often, however, they act as if they're composed of homogeneous groups of affluent Jews, to the point that less affluent Jews feel unwelcome or uncomfortable.

For example, a decade or so ago I had a student in the school who was planning not to celebrate as a bat mitzvah because her family could not afford the kind of lavish kiddush lunch and elaborate evening party that had become the norm in the congregation. To my mind, being called to the Torah at the age of religious majority ought to have nothing to do with the kind of party a young person's parents might throw.

It's by no means a new problem. Centuries ago, some Jewish communities had "sumptuary laws" intended to limit the expenditure connected with a simcha.

It's not, however, just a matter of the cost of celebrations. While it is a reality of nonprofit life in the U.S. that institutions need to cultivate donors of large amounts of money - which, to be clear, helps to keep membership affordable for the rest of us - social mores that make anyone feel less welcome because of income level or occupation have no place in our congregations.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Havdalah

It was a lovely occasion: potluck dinner and havdalah at the synagogue in a smaller community about 20 miles away. The synagogue, as far as I know, no longer holds regular services; it serves primarily as a social center for the local Jewish community, many members of which also belong to one of the congregations where I live.

A question came up about the meaning of the spices - I guess that the significance of the wine and the candle is more obvious. The explanation that is most often given has to do with a neshamah yetairah, an "additional soul." The idea is that on Shabbat, each Jew acquires an extra soul that departs at sunset on Saturday evening, and the purpose of the spices is to console (or revive) you.

I have never liked this explanation. Students who hear it just get glassy-eyed, and for adults who may have doubts about the existence of even one soul, the idea of having a second one, even temporarily, is hard to take.

Some rabbis teach, instead, that it commemorates an ancient practice of bringing in a fire pan with spices, sort of like incense, to dispel bad odors (from cooking, spoiled food, unwashed Jews?) in the house. Since fire could not be used on the Sabbath, sunset was the first time in about 25 hours that this could be done.

I don't like this explanation, either, even if it has historical merit. Since we no longer deal with odors in this way, and many of us would have no reservation about lighting fire on Shabbat, I think that it removes meaning from the ceremony, making that aspect of havdalah just one more thing that we do for no reason that makes any sense.

So instead I teach this: psychologists say that, of all the senses, the sense of smell has the greatest power to evoke memory. Sometimes when you suddenly think of something out of the blue, it's because a fragrance - perhaps one of which you weren't consciously aware - has brought the memory to mind.

The Torah contains two version of the Ten Commandments, aseret ha-dibrot, one on Exodus and one in Deuteronomy. In one, the commandment about Shabbat reads Shamor et yom ha-Shabbat, "keep [observe, or literally, guard] the Sabbath day." In the other set, it reads Zachor et yom ha-Shabbat, "remember the Sabbath day."

Now, we can only observe Shabbat when it is Shabbat. Lighting candles and refraining from work on Wednesday will not make Wednesday into Shabbat. But the commandment to remember Shabbat is not limited to one day of the week. For example, we remember Shabbat on Thursday evening and Friday morning when we begin make preparations, and we can be mindful of Shabbat at any time. Smelling the spices at havdalah helps to implant the memory.

In addition, we can strive to remember the peace of Shabbat during stressful times throughout the week. So here's a suggestion: make havdalah on Saturday evening. Then, if you start to feel harried during the week, go back to the spice box and sniff the spices again. Let them remind you of Shabbat peace whenever you need to remember it.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Tazria 2008

My first post on this site was about Tazria and Metzora, which are often read together (but not this year). You'll find it here.

When I was giving b'nai mitzvah lessons, I probably taught these two parashot to more students than any others, not because their themes are popular, but simply because they come up for reading at a time families like for their celebrations. In this climate, parents are reluctant to schedule a simcha for January or February, and often schedule the mitzvah event for Tazria or Metzora just because those are the first weeks when they think the weather might be good.

For congregations that read Torah on the triennial cycle, the effect is heightened this year, because before we get to the part about skin diseases, we must read two short aliyot about the segregation of women after childbirth. Many people today object to the subject in general, and even more to the fact that the mother's segregation is doubled if she gives birth to a female child. Congregations that read "full kriah" must read this part, too, but it's a smaller proportion of the total.

It happens that I'm doing more interfaith work now than I have in several years, and this is one of the sections where it's hard not to ask "What would the goyim think?"

It is not unusual for Christians to assume that our religious practice follows the Hebrew Bible literally. When I worked in Oklahoma, the temple had a construction project in progress, and one of the construction workers came to the office to tell us that, if we needed sheep or goats for the sacrifices, he was also a rancher and could supply them.

I'm not sure which idea most of us would find more disturbing: that our religion used to include practices that we now find objectionable, or that some of our neighbors might believe we still follow them.

In spite of that, I like to teach Tazria and Metzora: I find a lot of relevant meaning in these and other parts of Leviticus. As last year's drash describes, I prefer to focus on inclusion, more specifically reintegration, rather than on exclusion.

This is a message that is important for young people to encounter, because so much of teenage society seems to revolve around cliques, who's "in" or "out," and exclusion. Without information that we can't deduce from the Torah text, we can't really read Tazria as medical advice. We can read it in the general context of holiness that pervades Leviticus, but the idea of corporate (i.e., national) holiness doesn't resonate with most of us.

The most relevant reading places it more in the context of superstition: just as our ancestors were inclined to reject individuals based on unjustified fears, we are prone to excluding others for reasons that are equally unwarranted, and these two parashot (especially Metzora) teach us to do better.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Rabbit hunt!

The Passover bunny does not bring us the roasted egg for the seder plate, and we don’t celebrate Passover with a roasted-egg hunt. (If we hunt anything, it’s the afikoman.)

Nevertheless, some traditional haggadot are decorated with a drawing of a rabbit, a non-kosher animal.

The rabbit is a reminder of the special procedure to be followed when Passover begins on Saturday night, when Shabbat is ending, as it does this year. It is tricky to remember the sequence of actions at the beginning of the seder, and so our predecessors devised the [Hebrew] acronym YaKNeHaZ, for yayin, kiddush, ner, havdalah, zman:

  • Yayin—the standard blessing for wine, borei p’ri hagafen
  • Kiddush—the kiddush (“sanctification”) for erev Pesach, with text and melody different from the Shabbat evening kiddush
  • Ner—the blessing for lighting fire after Shabbat, borei m’orei ha-eish
  • Havdalah—the prayer separating Shabbat from the day that follows
  • Zman—the blessing celebrating the season (shehecheyanu).

The havdalah text is also different from the regular one, because it marks the separation between the holiness of Shabbat and the holiness of the festival rather than between Shabbat and weekdays.

But what does any of this have to do with a rabbit? To a speaker of Yiddish or German, the Hebrew acronym Yaknehaz sounds like jag den Hase, “hunt the hare.” The commentary in The Feast of Freedom, the Rabbinical Assembly haggadah, notes that this is “a double anomaly since hunting animals in unJewish and the hare is ‘unclean’ to boot.”