As some of you may know, I’ve just returned from the annual CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) convention, this year in the historical heartland of Reform Judaism, Cincinnati. Cincinnati was chosen in honor of the 200th anniversary of Isaac Meyer Wise’s birth, the leading luminary of American Reform Judaism as well as the 130th year anniversary of the CCAR itself. It seems fitting that I bring you my experiences from the conference at today’s Reform service.
I relished the opportunity to meet colleagues face-to-face whom I had only met through Facebook, to network, learn, study, upskill and bond. The learning and collegiality were inspiring. I attended sessions on diverse topics ranging from a workshop on implicit bias, women in the rabbinate, immanent Jewish spirituality, rabbinic ethics as well as a workshop for rabbis of small congregations. The CCAR is a well-oiled machine that truly supports its members and it does not fall short in pursuing its vision for a compelling, contemporary Judaism that is firmly committed to repairing the world. In fact, one of the most inspiring sessions was a keynote speech by Bryan Stevenson, an African American lawyer based in Montgomery, Alabama who founded the Equal Justice Initiative and works tirelessly on getting incarcerated people off death row. His message was nothing short of prophetic.
It is always balm to the soul, and even more in our current condition, to be surrounded by those who share your values and commitments. I am proud to be part of the liberal Jewish project that seeks to pursue justice, amplify the voices of the marginalized and bring us its own rich spirituality – inclusive, open minded, critical – to our People.
At the same time, there is virtue and value in being challenged in the views we often take for granted. Of course our community needs an inspiring Torah, and uplifting Torah. But we also need a dangerous Torah.
What is a dangerous Torah? It is Torah that confronts us, pushes us out of our comfort zone and that reaches into the heart of darkness of the human condition. I often reflect on our knee-jerk reaction to the book of Leviticus with its sacrifices and taboos and realize that I, ever the contrarian, relish its difficult teachings. We all intuit that the real ‘chomer’, stuff of life, is not the lofty and sublime but the gritty. In Parashat Tazria, we confront life and death at its most primordial. The genius of Torah lies not in its ability to obfuscate but in its obligation to illuminate.
It seems particularly fitting to study the words of Tazria in my current condition. Pregnancy is a state not unlike the book of Leviticus: it makes the very private inescapably public.
Now that the contours of my physique are betraying the life growing within me, I am very much aware of that uncomfortable, liminal state between public and private. Every woman who has borne a child has had to contend with this of course, and it is no different, though perhaps a little more complex, for female rabbis. This precious, private process that is so sacred and so fraught is not to be experienced only within the confinement of family and one’s inner universe. No, a woman’s body betrays her innermost being.
Tazria as a portion opens with a brutally honest account of childbirth. Not only does Vayikra legislate how the ritual cult should be honored in such a case, but it also doesn’t shy away from describing the awesome, beautiful, grim reality of childbirth. In fact, it would be tempting to accuse the authors of Leviticus of oversharing! Do we really need to read about all this stuff? Bodily emissions, skin lesions and contagion and mold and all the icky stuff that we would rather sanitize away?
The answer is yes because the Torah isn’t precious or prudish. The Torah knows life and its attendant risks, it reaches into the depths of our fears and does not shy away from the danger of the visceral and taboo. As I said during my Yom Kippur remarks, our Torah knows no taboo and is not held quarter to shame. Leviticus cautions us not to confuse the forbidden with the hidden. Death, disease and dysfunction all happen and are universal human experiences, as are procreation or the relational taboos described in the Holiness Code.
Our society still harbors many taboos. About 25 percent of conceptions end in pregnancy loss, and many remain silent in their grief. Is this our culture’s most adequate response? Where women (and men) hold their pain in isolation instead of being able to claim sacred and supportive community? Of course, this line of reasoning can be extended across the entire range of human experience: death, disease, mental illness, substance dependency, depression, abuse, toxic relationships, racism, economic hardship—the list goes on. We shy away from these things, from the metaphorical lesions on our skins, the mold on our houses, the brush of death when life enters the world. We neuter these powerful forces. To this day, we are hesitant to confront the deep danger of living.
But Tazria doesn’t. The childbearing woman is sanctified and welcomed back into community. The sufferer of debilitating skin conditions is gently tended to by the priest and reintegrated into society. The corruption upon houses is purged – the inside is turned outside and made accountable through the holy framework of the Israelite community. Rather than dismiss Leviticus, we can learn from it.
One of the most powerful moments at the CCAR convention was when a collection of female rabbis spoke about their gendered, and often difficult, experiences in the rabbinate. They shared open hearted, gut wrenching stories of pregnancy loss, of sexual harassment in the pulpit, of physical objectification and systemic gender discrimination.
Of #MeToo and the silent, creeping prejudice that afflicts so many female professionals. They brought these intensely personal stories to light and life, they turned the private into public and their dangerous Torah was utterly authentic and profoundly transformative.
This is the power of Leviticus. This is the power of Tazria.
It is sacred work to examine our taboos, to lift the curtain on the things that constrain us or which lock us in. It is hard, emotional labor to acknowledge the ways in which our society obfuscates our deep pain. But it is necessary. Vayikra is based on the premise of proximity – through the korban, the offering that draws us near. Vayikra is based on the premise of communication, integration and restitution.
As I reflect on liberal Judaism today, I know that we stand on the shoulders of giants. There is much to learn and much to discuss. May we, as the priests of our own selves, continue to open up the Torah of our lives and let the divine light shine in.