I want to speak to you for a bit about something that bothers me, and it relates (in part) to this week's Torah portion. Our parasha is one of the most difficult to make relevant, because it deals entirely with ritual purity and impurity, skin diseases and inflammations, and "impurities" that affect clothing. But the challenge of finding meaning in our Torah portion is not what bothers me.
The concept of impurity, tumah, in and of itself is complicated. We find it jarring and (let's face it) creepy,
and we can't make sense of why God created it. The Etz Hayim Torah commentary tries to re-
frame it for us, stating, "We can see the notion of tum-ah, then, as growing out of a sense of reverence for the miraculous nature of birth, the awesome power of death, and the mysteries of illness and recuperation." Though I appreciate their attempt to redeem tumah, I remain unconvinced. I cannot help but feel that it is an ancient, outdated, and kind of gross facet of religion; one which I am happy to leave behind. Yet this also is NOT what bothers me this week.
Our first introduction to impurity in the parasha deals with childbirth. When a woman gives birth to a son, she remains impure for seven days, and then continues to be in a state of "blood purification" for an additional 33 days, during which she may not enter the sanctuary. When she gives birth to a daughter, however, she becomes impure for 14 days, and then remains impure for an ADDITIONAL 66 days before she can enter the sanctuary. And no, we are not given a reason why
the period of impurity is TWICE as long for a girl than for a boy. It seems terribly unfair, but we also have to keep in mind that theirs was not an egalitarian society. We no longer subscribe to these values, but we cannot deny that it was simply the reality of life in Biblical times that a son was more important than a daughter. I don't like this concept, but I recognize that priorities were different then. We are getting closer, much closer in fact, but this too is not what bothers me.
So let me tell you what IS bothering me. Today we are striving to create an equal society. Our
values differ greatly from those in the Torah, and we have reshaped our ritual life to reflect this reality. Women receive aliyot, they read Torah, they lead services, and our prayers have even been amended to mirror our evolved sensitivities. Yet many women in our synagogue, and throughout the Conservative movement, choose not to participate equally. Some women come to synagogue and do not put on a head covering, many do not wear a tallit, and at our synagogue's daily morning minyan not a single woman puts on tefillin. Though to be fair, many of the men aren't putting on tefillin either; which perhaps makes it more equal, but also equally troubling...
I look at this week's Torah portion, and I actually feel great pride that our religious community no longer treats women or newborn infant girls as second class citizens. But ritual life comes with BOTH rights and responsibilities. We say this to every one of our B'nai Mitzvah students: If you want the rights, you must also take on the responsibilities. You cannot pick and choose. And it's not just a generational issue; many of the young women who most recently celebrated a Bat Mitzvah come to synagogue without a tallit or head covering. I truly feel that it belittles egalitarianism when we do not all take on the same rights and responsibilities to observe Judaism as one people, with one standard, for all members of our community.
Next week we are celebrating Rosh Chodesh, the start of a new month. In Jerusalem the Women of the Wall will be struggling valiantly for the very same rights AND
responsibilities which we take for granted, and in a society
that sometimes seems no less advanced that the Ancient Israelites who observed the laws of tumah. We cannot be there to fight alongside them. But we can support their efforts by pushing for REAL equality in our own communities. We can lead by example, shed all traces of gender separation, and instead pray, celebrate, and live side by side with one another as Jews. Not male Jews and female Jews, not "true" Jews and "half" Jews; just Jews. Now that's getting rid of the tumah in our community!
Photos in this blog post:
4. Image courtesy of Deborah Gerber. Women of the Wall, Jerusalem, 1988.
6. Image courtesy of Deborah Gerber. Women of the Wall, Jerusalem, 1988.