March 2011

Parshat Tazria is about science. Ancient science, yes, but science nonetheless. Most of Tazria deals with the question of what happens when someone demonstrates symptoms of the skin disease tzara’at. Specifically, the question at the heart of the parsha is, how does the priest identify tzara’at? The diagnosis is outlined, as is the treatment. The main action thus falls on the kohen, the priest, who resembles a medical doctor or scientist as he categorizes the natural phenomenon before him: Is this disease tzara’at or not?

Observation and categorization are the essential moves of the scientist. What makes modern science so powerful is its ability to place the things of nature into conceptual categories. Categorization allows us to understand, to discuss, and to theorize. If we can’t name it, we can’t talk about it. Yet the move of categorizing involves not only understanding, but also control: when we place a label on a phenomenon, we feel as though we control it. And thus naming, categorization, carries with it enormous power and responsibility.

Perhaps this is why the Rabbis connected tzara’at to lashon hara, gossip. The Torah, of course, tells the story of Miriam, who spoke ill of her brother Moses and was stricken with tzara’at. It even instructs to remember what happened to Miriam. The sense of power over others we experience when we gossip about them is answered with the powerlessness of becoming the object of someone else’s observation, the gaze of the scientist. Just as we sought to name and dominate another, we are reminded that such power is not ours, and that we are just as frail and powerless as the ones over whom we projected our power.

Yet observing, naming, categorizing, generalizing—these moves are essential to human life. They are the basis of language, the roots of how we interact with the world. We can’t help but talk about things and people. If we tried to stop, we would cease thinking. So where is the medium?

One answer comes in the special Torah reading we add on this Shabbat Hachodesh—the Shabbat preceding the month of Nisan, in which Passover takes place. “This shall be for you the first of the months,” God instructs Moses and Aaron. From this passage, the Rabbis inferred that time, the calendar, is a human activity: we must be the ones to proclaim the new moon. In fact, the Talmud relates that so great is the human power and responsibility to name time that God defers to human beings when it comes time to sit in judgment on Rosh Hashanah. If the rabbinic court has not proclaimed the new moon, then the heavenly court packs up its things and returns the next day, for it is the human calculation that is primary.

At the same time, of course, the human power over time is far from absolute. We do not have the power to change the day of Shabbat (despite the attempts of some early Reform Jews to move Shabbat to Sunday). We cannot add a day to the week. Shabbat, which recalls God’s creation of the world, reminds us of the world that we inherit, the world we are born into, the world whose categories and names we must accept. The festivals, by contrast, remind us of the world we create, the world whose categories and names we generate. The festivals evoke our human power and responsibility, Shabbat reminds us of its limits.

Shabbat shalom.

I have been traveling in Cuba with a Northwestern Hillel alternative student break trip for the past week (you can read a post on the journey at As we approach the parasha this week, the question of borders is very much on my mind.

Cuba, of course, is a mysterious and exotic place for Americans, because of the unusually high border we have created around it through the embargo of the past 52 years. “Ooh, you’re going to Cuba. I’d love to go there some day,” was the usual reaction I received before the trip. And of course this is a result of Cuba’s otherness, its foreignness. Though not unholy, it partakes of the sensation of zar–strange, other, foreign, which is such a central word in Parshat Shemini: “And the offered a strange fire which the Lord had not commanded” (Lev. 10:1).

One of the ironies of foreignness is the way it is constructed and simultaneously confounded by language. The fire is strange precisely because God has not commanded it. Without a speech act from God, without words to label it as kadosh, holy, it becomes zar, strange. A student asked our guide yesterday what he thought would happen when the embargo is ultimately lifted one day. Cuba and America will stop being strange to one another–Americans may learn something from Cuba, and Cubans will stop blaming America for everything wrong in their own society. A speech act, a change in the law, changes status and changes our perspective, and thereby changes our reality. What was zar can suddently become open and potentially welcome.

The question of speech and foreignness takes us to another short word at the center of Parshat Shemini: vayidom, “and Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:3). Aaron’s silence is remarkable for a man as verbal as he. He has encountered a reality that defies his ability to categorize, to make sense. It does not, however, mean that he fails to respond. Indeed, Aaron’s silence is pregnant with possibility: what is going through his mind and heart at the moment of such tragedy? What goes unspoken because it defies speech? That which was other, compartmentalized and sealed off, now enters the mainstream: death was not meant to be part of the mishkan, and the death of one’s children is not meant to be part of life. Tragically, both happen. And the reaction defies words.

On Wednesday our group divided into smaller groups to visit families with special needs. One group played ball with a young cancer survivor; another visited an autistic child. My group visited a frail elderly woman and her daughter, homebound in a highly impoverished apartment with little more than a refrigerator, a hot plate, and an old, dusty television in the living room. It was hard to communicate, even for our student who spoke Spanish. The old woman clearly had not had visitors in a while, and she was anxious to talk.

For some of the students, the foreignness of the experience proved highly uncomfortable and challenging. Not only could they not understand the woman; not only could they not express themselves; not only was the experience of poverty beyond their own; but most of all, they felt powerless and directionless. Their sense of place and purpose was entirely upended.

I have been in such situations before, and after about an hour of our visit, I asked (through one of our Spanish-speaking students) whether the old woman remembered any songs we could sing together. She said there was a song that she remembered the tune for, but not words, and she began to hum Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem. And so we joined together, standing in the middle of her bare-walled living room in a poor neighborhood in east Havana–an 86-year old, blind and deaf woman, and us, singing a song of hope, a song to which she couldn’t remember the words, but could still remember the tune.

At such moments, speech does not matter. In fact, speech can only get in the way. Silence, song, the simple yet profound act of being with, of recognition, dissolves borders.

Shabbat shalom.

Note for new readers: While my blog has gotten some attention for our recent discussion of women and Orthdoxy (okay, more hits yesterday than any single day in the history of the blog), as you will tell by perusing it, the bulk of the writing here is divrei Torah, commentaries on the weekly Torah portion and the holidays. If the recent controversy has attracted you to the blog, I hope you’ll consider remaining a regular reader of the material I consider to be its essence. – JF

The Book of Esther is pervaded by an elaborate and efficient machine of law-promulgation. The king has only to issue a decree, and immediately scribes are called, the law is recorded, and it is sent off to all 127 provinces of the empire, “each nation according to its language.” In its own way, this technological marvel is something like an ancient internet. The feeling is one of immediacy and certainty: what the king says is made law, inviolable and sacrosanct.

Yet the security of this communications apparatus is attenuated by the realities of uncertainty. Scratch below the surface, and we find that all that technology creates only the illusion of order. Tohu va’vohu, the primordial disorder tamed in the first moments of Genesis, lies beneath. The Book of Esther is a story of chances and happenstance: nothing can be taken for granted, nothing can truly be controlled. Everything can turn upside down in a moment (v’nahafoch hu).

Esther famously does not mention God’s name in the entire book, suggesting that the book reflects a time and mentality when God is nistar, hidden—as related to the name of heroine herself. The tenuous relationship of surface order and disorder lying beneath is thus often linked to the hiddenness of God—God Who is order. At Passover, which will occur one month from Purim, the central ritual is literally Order (seder). Passover marks the time when God is most visible: “‘I will go out through the land of Egypt;’ I and not an angel, I and not a seraph,” as we read in the Haggadah. And the linking of order and God’s visibility tells us that God’s absence comes in an absence of order.

But turn the question again and we find something more. Purim and Pesach are both about visibility and concealment (masks and costumes in one; hidden hametz and afikomen in the other). Both are playful, inviting human participation in their unpacking—through the process of drash at the seder, and through the mitzvot of mishloach manot (sending gifts) and matanot l’evyonim (giving gifts to the poor) on Purim. In fact, Maimonides writes, so great is human capacity that one who lifts the hearts of the poor on Purim “is like the Divine presence.” God becomes visible through our actions.

Esther is the quintessential book of Jewish exile, of the end of the age of prophecy. But its message is not that God is invisible, nor that God is only manifest through miracles. It is a bit of—though not precisely—the opposite. As Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner expounds, Purim emphasizes our ability to hear when we cannot see, to develop a new capacity for experiencing the world and our relationship with God. Or as Aviva Zornberg has more recently written, “After [Esther], the world of prophecy and miracles yields place to the world of chokhmah, of wisdom, of hints and interpretations. Instead of the overwhelming revelations of Sinai—with its visual, perhaps blinding manifestations of God’s presence—there is the world in which God and the human are separated and linked by a third force—by the text, the messenger, the transmission.”

The capacity for language, for communication, is a potential source of both beauty and terror. The hiddenness of overt meaning, of the obvious messages of miracles, creates the space for God’s covenantal partners to look and inquire, to posit and guess. It also creates the possibility of abuse. The absence of the blinding light of Sinai or Jerusalem yields shadows and flickers, moments when perspective can change the interpretation of experience. v’nahafoch hu—things can be turned upside down in a moment, and we can tell the story again and find the same words yield new meaning.

Shabbat shalom and Purim sameach.

It seems Natalie and I have generated quite a bit of conversation with the article we posted yesterday on the Jewish Week’s website. As of this writing, the article has been posted 376 times on Facebook (only 16 tweets, though–come on Twitter people!). And Natalie and I have reached the point where we need to stop paying attention to every comment, because it’s too easy to be sucked into them, especially the ones that are nasty in tone. We respect and appreciate people who substantively engage our arguments with civility. But such is the state of our modern media world that those people are drowned out by the people who missed the halakha classes on derekh eretz (good manners).

The main thing we take away from the experience at this point is that you have to be very strategic in crafting your message. We knew this going in of course, and thought we did a good job. But as one of our friends pointed out, the Maccabeats as subject distracted people from the main point we were trying to make, which wasn’t the Maccabeats per se, the but the issue of women’s portrayal in Orthodoxy. The essence of the article is this line: “The Orthodox community remains challenged to find a way for women, in their bodies, to participate in the public life of the community.” Unfortunately a lot of people got caught on us being let down by the Maccabeats, even though the first line of the piece is “We love the Maccabeats,” which we still do. (One of our kids wants to dress as a Maccabeat for Purim.)

Virtually all of the heat the article has generated is about how it’s unfair to pick on the Maccabeats, with some accusations that we had this article all ready to go and were just waiting for the right moment. That isn’t true. We wanted to focus on the larger issue of women’s public portrayal in Orthodoxy, and we saw this issue clearly in the Maccabeats video. Many of the folks who have read the article wouldn’t have done so if it were only about the klal, the big idea, and not the prat, the example, of the Maccabeats. Any discussion of generalities needs specifics to discuss. It seems to us that’s basic argumentation, not crass opportunism.

For all those out there who have been dwelling on the question, “Why did they pick on the Maccabeats?” we would ask you to consider our main point: “Women are welcomed in the public life of Orthodoxy when that public takes place in the form of words, when their bodies—including their voices—can be separated from their minds.” What do you think of that observation? Do you agree? Do you think we as an Orthodox community can do a better job in the way we think about and present men, women, and the relations between them? We do, and that’s what we’d like others to consider.

Tzom kal – an easy fast today.

One of the great moral innovations of the Torah comes in the korban hatat, the sin offering. According to the Book of Leviticus that we begin reading this week, the hatat is brought by an individual when he has unwittingly committed an act which would be punishable by death had he actually intended to do it. If one inadvertently caused a fire to be lit on Shabbat, for instance (say by accidentally tipping over an oil lamp), one would not be fully responsible for that action, as one hadn’t intended to do it. But the person still transgressed the law against lighting a fire on Shabbat, and thus bears some culpability, and so he is required to bring a hatat sacrifice. This is the moral space within which the hatat operates.

This is a remarkable idea. In our rational-self-actor-infused economic thought of today, we tend to argue that people are only responsible for that which they intended to do. If I was able to make a free choice about my action, then I am responsible for it. If I wasn’t free, I’m not. But this assumes a faith in our reason and clarity about our choices that, upon further reflection, we often find we don’t really have. The philosopher William James, father of the school of thought known as pragmatism, argued that we can never really know all the impulses, rational and otherwise, that motivate us to make a choice. Often we choose and construct a rationale to support our choice later. What we think is free will may not in fact be so.

This is because we are social creatures, born into networks of mutual acknowledgment and responsibility. We do not exist in isolation. And so others have an influence on, and a degree of responsibility for, our actions, and we for theirs. Kol yisrael arevin zeh bazeh, All Israel are guarantors for one another, as the Talmud says. Or as Abraham Joshua Heschel more powerfully put it, Some are guilty, but all are responsible.

Thus while there are clearly times when we will something to be, and when we are fully responsible for our actions (and would thus be subject to more severe punishment than the hatat), most of the time we are less clear about our wants and wills, and about the forces that bring our actions into being. More often than not, we operate in a moral gray zone. And yet the message of the hatat is that, even when we are in that fuzzy space, we are still responsible. Not to the point of ultimate responsibility, but still to a significant degree.

For me, this forms the backdrop to reflecting on the much-discussed recent incident in a Northwestern human sexuality course. Over 1,000 students have signed a petition in support of the professor, basing their reasoning on the notion that consenting adults—including college students—should be free to engage in pedagogical exercises that promote healthy living, provided they are free to make the choice to do so. What seems missing from the conversation thus far, however, is reflection on not only the rights of human life (the right to sexual pleasure may be one of them—it certainly is one the Torah specifies as a right of marriage), but equally if not more importantly the responsibilities of being human.

What does it mean to watch someone making a live demonstration of sexually pleasuring themselves? Do the audience members, and more so the professor, bear any responsibility for the effects of what went on? Are we absolutely clear that this was a good and just thing to do?

The Torah is not prudish. Holiness is not prudish. As we will read in a few weeks, “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy,” is interpreted not only to mean separate from that which is unholy, but also sanctify yourself within that which is permitted. The Torah, and the tradition that flows from it, sees holiness not in denying that which is good, but discerning what is good and fully enjoying it.

That discernment takes place in the context of a world in which we are mutually dependent and mutually responsible for one another. Living in God’s image is not simply about self-fulfillment, but about recognizing the image of God in all of creation. That recognition should lead to a wider sense of responsibility, a sense that means that, even when I’m not guilty, I’m still responsible.

Shabbat shalom.

Parshat Pikudei (Ex. 38:21-40:38) brings us to the end of the construction of the Mishkan, and the conclusion of the Book of Exodus. Many commentators, myself included, seem to have difficulty finding new things to talk about at this point. Look in a traditional printing of the Torah with commentary and you’ll find longer-than-usual sections of the actual Torah text, because the comments are so abbreviated. And for good reason: We’re recapitulating what we’ve been talking about more or less for the last five weeks.

We can point out the beauty of repetition (I usually invoke a quotation from Vladimir Jankelevitch at this point; see this post, for instance). Or we can talk about the serene calm of the end of Exodus, as the cloud of God’s glory descends on the Mishkan.

Reading Parshat Pikudei again this year, I find myself drawn to the linguistic parallels between the erection of the Mishkan and the account of Creation in Genesis 1-2:3. Consider:

“And Moses saw all the work, and behold they had done it just as God had commanded—they did it. And Moses blessed them.” (Ex. 39:43)

Compare Gen. 1:31: “And God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good,” followed, of course, by Gen. 2:3: “And God blessed the seventh day.”


“And Moses erected the courtyard around the Mishkan and the altar, and he placed the curtain over the gate to the courtyard. And Moses completed (veychal Moshe) the work.” (Ex. 40:33)

Compare Gen. 2:1-2: “The heavens and the earth were finished (vayechulu), and all their host. And on the seventh day God completed God’s work (vayechal Elohim).”

As these verses suggest, Moses and the Israelites reciprocate the actions of God. In their creation of the Mishkan, a home for God on earth, they evoke God’s creation of the earth itself, a home for them. As Shabbat frames the work of Creation, it likewise frames the work of building the Mishkan (cf. Ex. 35:1-3). Building the Mishkan, creating a home for God on earth, is the paradigmatic response to our creation in God’s image.

One of the keys to this motion is the idea of pause and recognition. As Clevon Little memorably says in the Mel Brooks movie Blazing Saddles, “We have done it. Now let us see what we have done.” (Perhaps the most dramatic moment in an otherwise farcical movie.) as Rashi suggests in his comment on Genesis 2:2, our work isn’t completed until we rest from it, until we step back and appreciate the things we have created. Until we do so, we are still inside it, still claimed by it, still dependent on it. When we break from our work and behold it, we stand outside, we contextualize it within a larger story, and we appreciate it.

But we also lose something in the process. Anyone who has ever been involved in creating something great knows the sad feeling that comes when the creating is about to end, when a new phase is about to begin. It’s akin to the reluctance we have to finish a good novel: there is a letting go, a break that occurs. So too with building the Mishkan: there is something here that compels us to want the building to continue, to extend the inspiring moment of everyone coming together to do something great. We feel a loss as we end this part of the story.

I would suggest that this dialectic, of accomplishment and loss, the fullness and emptiness that informs our lives, is very much what the Torah aims to evoke in us as it concludes the Book of Exodus. As we observed last week, the Torah’s narrative of freedom and nation-building is far from a one-dimensional story, but is rather full of complexity and nuance. This week we can say that, likewise, its narrative of human work and identity, of fulfillment and longing, is amazingly rich and sophisticated. It is as fresh today as it was three thousand years ago.

Shabbat shalom.