Every once in a while, things just come together. These moments are rare, however, and they can slip by us if we let them. This time, I’m determined not to let it slip by me.
As much as I enjoy the work of redeeming irredeemable texts, all week long I have been dreading the encounter with parashat Tazria. This whole concept of "tum’a," impurity or uncleanness, is difficult for us to wrap our modern sensibilities around. To be sure, there have been many attempts to do just that, through apologetics, referring to the text in its own context, and other means.
The venerable Baruch Levine, editor of the JPS Commentary on Leviticus argues that rather than seeing tum’a as a negative state, we can view it as showing veneration for the significant life events of birth, death, and illness. He asks us to look beyond the layers of superstition that have been added over the millennia.
And so we play these self-deceptive tricks, trying to understand tum’a as a sort of spiritual impurity. We wander through our orchard, our "pardes" of p’shat (plain meaning,) remez (hints of deeper meaning,) d’rash (looking for deeper meaning though comparison, and sod (secret) searching for meaning in our own time and context.
Sometimes, those wandering stray pretty far, as they did for me this week.
The congregation where I work has a sharing partnership, a covenant, with a Presbyterian church – we share the same sacred spaces in the same building. At least once every year (and in practice, far more often in informal settings) our spiritual leaders lead us in a joint interfaith dialog, trying to understand each others’ perspectives. This year’s topic was "covenant" and the first of two sessions was held this week. Though it was intended to lay a foundation for understanding the meaning of the term covenant in both Jewish and Christian views, the conversation often strayed into tangential pathways. One that seemed to strike a particular chord for the 50 or so folks present was the idea of "original sin."
The Jewish view, in essence (though keep in mind that the answer to "does Judaism believe…?" is always yes, no and maybe) is that t’shuva, repentance, is always possible. The Christian view, in its essence (though again, the yes, no, maybe applies) is that we are by nature so irredeemable that an ultimate sacrifice was required on G"d’s part. Of course, modern protestant Christian theology seeks to distance itself from this. Yet, even to the discomfort of his own congregants, the church’s pastor could not outright reject original sin as a core understanding. As the Reverend Jon Smoot put it so aptly, "we are all toast." (Now, there’s fodder for a Nadav and Avihu musing for next year. Just wait. I’ve kept my notes.)
As our congregation’s spiritual leader Hazzan Sunny Schnitzer pointed out, the Jewish view is that ultimately anyone can be a lamed vavnik, one of the 36 righteous persons thought to exist in every generation. He also reminded us that, historically, humanity, and the Jewish people in particular have continually failed to live up to the standard that G”d requires to keep up G"d’s end of the covenant (though, in the end, for Jews and Christians both, G"d is ultimately compassionate and loving and forgiving.) For Christianity (and note I say "Christianity" and not "christians") G"d, finally deciding that humanity, having acquired the knowledge of good and evil through Adam and Chava in Gan Eden, simply could not live up to the covenantal standards – no amount of ritual sacrifice as prescribed in the Torah would be enough. Thus G"d made the ultimate sacrifice, by sacrificing G"d’s own self through an incarnation.
I don’t accept that premise, and will stubbornly maintain that the Jewish position that we are all ultimately redeemable is correct. So, being consistent with my own position, I ought to accept that the troubling parts of parashat Tazria are also ultimately redeemable. But how?
Now, in thinking about the situation on this planet around 2000 years ago, while I don’t really accept the concept, I can see some sense in G"d making a choice to become incarnate so that G"d could better understand why G"d’s creations were having so much trouble trying to keep the covenant, in trying to act righteously. If we play out this little mind game, we wind up asking if this attempt to learn about humanity through becoming incarnate was a success or failure. The answer, of course, depends on your point of view on whether or not humanity is capable of rising to the righteousness desired by G"d. From my point of view, arguing that we cannot is taking the easy way out, the path of least resistance. If G"d did indeed decide, after this brief period of living through proxy as one of G"d’s own human creations, that we were hopeless, I’m not sure that’s a G"d in which I can or want to believe. Were I to accept the idea of this incarnation, I’d say it was successful if G"d took a look around, and decided to give humanity another few millennia to work it all out.
Now, I don’t believe for a second that G"d chose to become incarnate in one itinerate rabbi from Nazareth. I’m perfectly capable of believing however, the one Saul of Tarsus, renamed Paul, could come to the conclusion that humanity is ultimately irredeemable, and, perfect car salesman that he was, co-opt the death of the leader of a reform Jewish movement as an ultimate sacrifice by G"d, to relieve humanity from of the obligation to follow all those silly rules in the Torah. Thus, in this make-believe scenario, G"d’s attempt to understand humanity through proxy was a dismal failure. For me, for those who accept Paul’s invented religion, it would have to be viewed as a failure – that G"d so loved the world that G"d sacrificed G"d’s incarnate proxy as the ultimate sin offering of all time. “My creations just aren’t good enough, and never will be, so I will make a final atonement for them so that they may live." Gives me shivers just to think about that. Not a G"d of my understanding.
Having come to reject thoroughly the idea that our failures are insurmountable, I perhaps gain new insight into parashat Tazria. I haven’t quite worked it all out yet, but there’s a kernel of an idea there. This state of "ritual impurity" called tum’a is not permanent. I may not like or agree with how this state of tum’a has been defined in the Torah, and I know that it creates a particular problem for women, but just knowing that it is a state from which one can recover through action, deed, ritual, perhaps even thought, or just plain time (as in the case of ritual impurity from menses) makes it just that little but more palatable – especially compared to the notion that we are all stuck in a state of perpetual tum’a from which only G"d can release us. What kind of covenant is that? If a covenant is two-way, what’s the point? If only one party can do anything, is it a covenant?
So I leave you with this little crack in the veneer of parashat Tazria to explore for yourself, along with others. I know I will certainly be digging deeper into it.
Now, I’d like to leave you there, but I simply can’t resist another part of the strange convergence. It’s the haftarah for Tazria, which only is read in leap years and other times when the usually combined parashiot of Tazria and Metzora are not combined.
Now, this year, it is Shabbat HaHodesh, and so we read from Ezekiel, which talks about "temple dues," the high priest making expiation for all the people, the Passover sacrifice, a bunch of narishkeit on purifying the Temple and sacrificial rituals, and a nice little inheritance clause for priestly families, with a sneaky little trick using the sabbatical year to make sure that descendants of priests get back any gifts their ancestors made to any plain old common person. Yet for my convergence to work, I need to focus on the usual haftarah for Tazria, so I ask your indulgence.)
What is the haftarah about? Miracles. The miraculous multiplying of 20 loaves of bread to be able to feed hundreds and still have some left over. The miraculous healing of lepers. Stories certainly borrowed for later use by the disciples of that itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. What can I learn from their retelling and reinterpretation of these miracles? What does it mean that these same stories come from my own tradition? I know there is something there that can strengthen my own Judaism if I but open myself to it. (Just as my experience as one a few Jewish students at a nominally Christian divinity school strengthened my Judaism.) If I have learned anything in my time on this earth, it is that we need not fear the encounter with the other. Interfaith dialog that seeks to persuade, proselytize, or convert is not dialog. As Heschel wrote, "The purpose of religious communication among human beings of different communities is mutual enrichment and enhancement of respect and appreciation, rather than the hope that the person spoken to will prove to be wrong in what he regards as sacred." Rowan Williams, current Archbishop of Canterbury understands interfaith encounter as I do: "In the context of interfaith encounter, we need to bring to the surface how our actual beliefs shape what we do – not simply to agree that kindness is better than cruelty." In that spirit, I look forward to next week’s part II of the inter-congregational dialog on covenant. May I find fodder for more yet musings then. Ken y’hi ratson.