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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Tazria – metzora

PARSHAT TAZRIA
(5776)
SPIRITUAL HEALING
“When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests.” (Leviticus 13:2)
For six years I served on the Board of Trustees of University Hospital, our local community hospital. For a good part of that time I was the vice-chairman of the board. It was a fascinating experience, learning the inner workings of a hospital. We actually had to vote doctors in, and occasionally sadly to vote them out, which was a strange experience. Of course we usually followed the recommendations of the medical committee. We also dealt with the financial issues of a hospital with a multi-million dollar budget.
After six years, I had to leave due to term limits. I sometimes ask myself what my greatest accomplishment was in the six years I served on the hospital board. The answer is clear to me. The hospital now has two parking spots near the front entrance set aside for clergy. When I visit patients in the hospital (sometimes I run from hospital to hospital across the area), I can at least park up close. (While I was on the board I had a parking pass to the doctor’s parking lot. I miss that. But at least there are the clergy spots.)
As a clergy, parking is a major issue at hospitals. Those two parking spots send a clear message. We want clergy to visit our patients. There is a spiritual dimension to healing. I vividly remember an experience long ago when I was a rabbi in Pittsburgh. I went to visit a patient at the local Catholic hospital. I remember walking past the crosses and the nuns at the information desk, looking for my patient’s room. Afterwards, I want to the cafeteria to find something to eat. When I went to pay, the cashier said, “You are a rabbi. We are glad you are here. No charge.” That never happened to me at the Jewish hospital.
Most experts today recognize that there is a spiritual dimension to healing. As I have taught in the past, there is a difference between bringing a car to a mechanic and bringing a person to the hospital. A car is a machine that can be fixed with proper tools. A car does not have spiritual needs. (Please, no jokes about the old Jerry Van Dyke show My Mother the Car.) Humans are not machines. We have a body but we also have a spirit. Often healing the spirit is a vital part of healing the body. That is why, when I pray for the sick on Shabbat morning, I include the words the God should grant “health of body, health of mind, health of spirit.” All are necessary.
This idea is most strongly portrayed in the difficult Torah portions we are reading this week and next. The portion speaks about a skin disease metzora, often mistranslated as “leprosy.” It actually seems to be some kind of fungus that can break out on one’s skin, one’s clothing, or even the walls of one’s house. The key idea behind this is that if a person suspects that he has this disease, he or she goes to the spiritual leader of the community, the kohen or priest. The priest is not permitted to jump to conclusions. There are various seven day periods to see if the disease has spread, and the hope that it has shrunk during that time. Only after a period of time is the person declared to be tamei – ritually impure.
The rabbis actually saw a spiritual meaning to this illness. It was not simply caused by a fungus. It was caused by gossip and hurtful speech. The proof was Moses’ sister Miriam who broke into this disease after speaking evil about Moses regarding his wife (see Numbers 12:1 – 15). The underlying idea is that disease is more than physical. Sometimes it has a spiritual cause. And often it has a spiritual cure.
When I visit patients in the hospital, I try to emphasize the idea that we humans are more than bodies. We have a spiritual dimension that the disease cannot touch. I pray with the patient. In my many years of being a rabbi, no patient has ever turned down a prayer, even if they claim to be atheists. It is vital that we see the spiritual dimension of being human. Healing of the spirit is an essential part of the healing of the body. I am glad our local hospital recognized this.

PARSHAT METZORA
(5776)
FAMILY PURITY
“And if a woman has a discharge, and the discharge of her flesh is blood, she shall be put apart seven days; and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening.” (Leviticus 15:19)
The laws of ritual purity and impurity taught in this section of Leviticus are some of the most difficult in Judaism. But there is one area of Jewish law based on these chapters that is still practiced today by many Jews. The laws euphemistically known as family purity and mikvah are strictly practiced by Orthodox Jews, and many non-Orthodox Jews have rediscovered these laws. Today many communities have a mikvah set up so that even a non-married woman would be comfortable going. (Unfortunately, no such mikvah exists in south Florida.)
The essence of these laws is that a married couple separates for part of each month, based on the onset of menses. Orthodox Jews who keep the laws strictly will actually sleep in separate beds and avoid any physical contact. Then, after a period of separation, the woman carefully bathes herself in preparation for a full immersion in the mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath. Afterwards she is able to reunite with her husband. Orthodox Jews who keep these laws with full strictness will count seven days after the menses. This brings a couple back together at the woman’s most fertile time, a law that has led to traditional Jews being fruitful and multiplying. (The Conservative Movement has allowed a more lenient period of separation for those who choose to keep these laws.)
I actually wrote an essay about the meaning of family purity that appeared in Moment Magazine many years ago. That essay then became a chapter in my book Does God Belong in the Bedroom? which was published in 1992. I shared four insights or reasons why Jews might want to observe these laws. I am aware that looking for reasons behind Jewish law is beside the point; traditionally Jews observe laws because God said so. Yet there is a long, wonderful tradition of taamei hamitzvot – “reasons for the commandments.” Let me briefly share the four reasons.
Philosophical – How does Judaism understand sexuality in human life? It disagrees with the ascetic view, prominent in some strands of Christianity, that sex is tainted with sin and chastity is the ideal. But it also disagrees with the secular view that sex is mere recreation, with no higher purpose. Judaism tries to find a middle ground, which I call the holiness view. In fact, my book was built on the concept of climbing a ladder of holiness. Holiness is found by setting things apart, making them special, designating certain times as proper for marital relations and other times as improper.
Symbolic – One of the strongest teachings in Judaism is the strict separation of life and death. The monthly menses is a symbol of death, a month when no child is born. This is a particularly emotional time for infertile couples. The living waters of the mikvah is a symbol of life. If the mikvah attendant knows that a couple is suffering from infertility she can say, I do not want to see you for nine months.
Feminist – Certainly some feminists have scoffed at the mikvah. But others have embraced it. After all, it is traditionally considered one of the three women’s mitzvoth. (The other two are lighting Shabbat candles and separating the dough when baking challah.) The mikvah laws say that a man must relate to a woman not simply as a physical object for part of the month. Couples must learn to see each other not as sex objects but as complete human beings.
Traditional – For couples who do not accept any of the three reasons given above, the laws of mikvah are part of a tradition. It was Tevye who said, “Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” Sometimes we keep traditions not because we understand all the reasons, but simply because they are the Jewish way of serving God. Even in the very private sphere of marital relations, Judaism says that we can serve God. Perhaps that is the only reason we need.

PARSHAT TAZRIA-METZORA
(5775)
BEYOND NATURE
“When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be ritually impure seven days … On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Leviticus 12:2 – 3)
Numbers in Judaism have a powerful symbolic meaning. For example, the number seven symbolizes completeness. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day. Seven shows the wholeness of nature. According to this week’s portion, when a woman gives birth to a male child she separates herself from entering any holy place for seven days. This seven days gives her time to recover. For a female child it is two times seven days, or fourteen days. Perhaps that symbolizes a child who will someday give birth to another child.
Eight also has symbolic value. On the eighth day the baby boy must be circumcised. Circumcision symbolizes moving beyond nature. Some would call it repairing nature or continuing the work of creation. God created a world and rested on the seventh day, declaring that the world is tov meod – “very good.” The world of nature is very good but not perfect. Seven days we leave the world alone. And on the eighth day we begin the task of perfecting God’s world. On the eighth day we move beyond nature.
Seven symbolizes leaving nature alone, and eight symbolizes moving beyond nature. There is a huge back to nature movement today. It is greatly influenced by the ecology movement and the interest in ancient pagan and Wiccan theologies. Nature is holy, humans are part of nature, and they must to the best of their ability live within nature. This tendency is manifested by such ideas as the anti-circumcision and the anti-vaccination movements. We see this back to nature approach in the natural or holistic healing movement.
There is an interesting insight based on this natural healing movement in this section of Torah. After a woman gives birth and waits the required number of days for her ritual impurity to end, she is required to bring a sin offering. Why bring a sin offering for something as natural as giving birth? Rabbinic tradition has an answer. In her pain she cried out, or perhaps even made a vow, that she would never go through the pain of pregnancy again. The sin offering is because of this vow. Today we can give the woman an epidural to prevent pain so women will not make such a vow. But there is also a return to more natural childbirth. Women are foregoing the epidural even if it causes pain. Some are making that vow.
There is much that is good in this return to nature movement. I live in south Florida where there is a move to restore the Everglades to a more natural state. Through agriculture and flood control our modern technology has caused major harm to a beautiful, natural habitat. Today Florida has begun the expensive job of restoration. In a similar way, Israeli pioneers worked hard to rid and land of the swamps, and in doing so they drained Lake Hula in northern Israel. Today, recognizing the environmental damage and the harm to migrating birds caused by these actions, Israel is trying to recreate the lake.
There is a much good about returning to nature. But nature is not holy. God said nature is very good, but not perfect. Our job as human beings is move beyond nature. Our job is to create a better world than the one made by nature. That is the reason why we embrace modern medicine, including even medication and surgery to improve human lives. That is the reason we build dams to control water and create hydroelectric power. That is the reason we use even genetic engineering to increase the food supply, or even to cure human diseases. Life is about moving beyond nature.
In this week’s portion we find the numbers seven and eight, both with powerful symbolic value. Seven symbolizes the completion of creation, nature in all its beauty, very good but still far from perfect. Eight represents the next step, moving beyond nature, or if we dare say, trying to improve on nature. Seven represents the imperfect world. Eight represents the attempt to perfect the world. We need to move beyond seven to eight. We need to move beyond nature.

PARSHAT TAZRIA
(5774)
THE MICROWAVE SYNDROME
“But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying sixty six days.” (Leviticus 12:5)
Greetings from New York City. I am running around the city with a group of High School students, some of whom have never been to New York. And it is frigid. We have been forced to change some of our plans because it is simply too cold.
This week’s portion speaks about a woman who gives birth. If she has a baby boy she must wait seven days, purify herself, and then can participate in the bris on the eighth day. After that she is ritually unclean for 32 more days. Forty days must go by before she can reenter the world. If she gives birth to a baby girl all the numbers are doubled. She must wait fourteen days before purifying herself but cannot enter the camp for another 66 days. Eighty days must go by before she can reenter the world.
On the surface this seems like a misogynist law. Why so many days, and why double for a girl? But I read one commentary I really liked. The period of separation is a chance to bond with her baby, and not rush to reenter the world. Maybe women need double the bonding with a baby daughter. When I meet women who give birth and go back to work a few days later, I wonder if we need to reintroduce this law. We are in such a hurry to accomplish everything in life, we often forget the fundamental fact – everything worth doing takes time.
We live life in such a hurry. We want instant gratification. I often call this the microwave syndrome. Microwaves make everything instantaneous. My mother, may her memory be for a blessing, and I share the same weakness. We both love popcorn. She made it almost every night. I remember her putting oil in a pot, putting in the popcorn, and standing at the stove, sometimes for five minutes or more, shaking the pot. If she put the pot down the popcorn would burn. Meanwhile, she would melt a separate little pot of butter. On the other hand, when I want popcorn, I put a bag in the microwave, push two and a half minutes, walk away, and it is ready moments later.
It is not just popcorn; we want our food instantaneously. We eat at fast food restaurants, and for those kosher like me, there are kosher versions of these fast food restaurants in many large cities. In parts of Israel you can get a kosher Big Mac. But our tradition speaks about leisurely meals, particularly on the Sabbath and major festivals. Good china is used, courses are served in a leisurely manner, guests are invited, and words of Torah are exchanged. Somehow, such leisurely, time consuming meals have fallen by the wayside.
It is not just food. Love and marriage used to involve a time consuming process called courtship. Young people took the time to really get to know one another; the idea of becoming sexually active early in a relationship was unseemly. Not so today. Young people do not date, they hook up. Often this means an instant sexually commitment before they know anything about the person they have just known intimately. But part of the dissolution of family life in our country is related to these hook-ups.
People want instant religion. I have often told the story of a woman who came to me wanting something spiritual. I invited her to come as my guest to Yom Kippur services. She did come, but left after twenty minutes. I called her after Yom Kippur and asked her why she left. She answered me, “I sat in services waiting for something spiritual to happen. When nothing happened I decided to leave. Next time I will try the Kabbalah Center.” Religion does not touch our souls instantaneously; any worthy religion takes time and commitment.
I can think of numerous other examples from all life’s experience. Last week I spoke about drinking, substance abuse, and the problems these create for our young people. Both drinking and drugs involved putting a chemical in our body for an instant high. If a chemical can make us feel good, why do anything else? But I come from a tradition that teaches that anything that makes us feel good about life takes time and effort. Often it takes a bit of pain. Ben Ha Ha taught in Pirke Avot, “According to the suffering is the reward.” (Avot 5:23) Or to put it in a more modern idiom, “no pain no gain.”
PARSHAT METZORA
(5774)
THE SPIRITUAL SIDE OF HEALING
“If the priest sees that the leper has been healed of his scaly affection, the priest shall order two live pure birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be purified.” (Leviticus 14:3-4)
The Torah does not speak much about illness. Certainly some of the major characters had various disabilities – Isaac was blind, Jacob walked with a limp, Moses had a speech impediment, and later King Saul suffered from severe depression. Now and again a plague breaks out as a punishment. But the Torah never mentions the diseases that are so prevalent in our culture – cancer and heart disease, diabetes and kidney disease. Most characters seem to be relatively healthy until they die of old age and go “to sleep with their fathers.”
There is one exception which is the main theme of last week and this week’s portion. There is a serious illness called tz’raat; a person afflicted becomes a metzora. The disease is usually translated as “leprosy”, but it is not the modern disease we know as leprosy. It is closer to a skin fungus of some kind. It can break out on someone’s body, but it can also break out on their clothing and even the walls of their house. The disease was considered very serious, and the person afflicted was removed from the camp. The community would call out “unclean, unclean” to such a person. Later the rabbis would say that this disease was caused by a moral transgression. For example, Moses’ sister Miriam gossiped about Moses’ wife, and was afflicted with this disease. Therefore gossip became the moral cause. Miriam was turned out of the camp for seven days.
This week’s portion centers on the cure for tz’raat. The central actor in declaring a person clean and allowing them back into the camp was a priest. The disease had a spiritual cause and curing was a spiritual act. It is unknown whether medical doctors existed in Biblical times. But even if they did, the priests took on a major role in any healing. They declared the person ritually pure, and then performed a series of healing rituals. The Torah appears to be saying that disease may have a physical cause but there is also a spiritual dimension. Healing also must have a spiritual dimension.
How different is the medicine we practice today! Many people see the human body as a kind of machine. Sometimes it breaks down like all machines break down. We go to a doctor who may recommend some medication to get it working correctly once again. The doctor may even recommend some kind of surgery. Medication and surgery treat the physical aspects of disease. But they ignore an equally important aspect of healing – the spiritual dimension.
Judaism has an entire area of religious practice called bikur holim – visiting the sick. The Talmud teaches that someone who visits a sick person will take away 1/60 of the illness. (Nedarim 39b) (Note – that does not mean that 60 visits will take away all the pain. But it will certainly help.) In our synagogue, every Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat morning, we say a mesheberach prayer for those who are ill. On Shabbat we also sing the haunting mesheberach prayer composed by Debbie Friedman z’l. And if I accidently leave someone’s name off the list and the family finds out, I will be subjected to great anger. All of these spiritual practices point to the spiritual aspects of healing.
Sometimes I imagine dropping off my car at the mechanic to be fixed. Would I stop by and visit with my car while it is on the lift? Would I say a special prayer for my car? Of course not! (I will admit that I almost said kaddish for one of my cars as we prepared to junk it. But my mechanic was a miracle worker; that car is still driving.) Cars are machines. Humans are far more than machines. We have a spiritual dimension, and healing involves touching that spiritual dimensions. More and more doctors have recognized the role that the mind plays in healing.
Perhaps the Torah, by emphasizing the role of the priest in healing, is teaching us the importance of the spirit, not just the body in a cure. Perhaps more hospitals could provide chaplains, or at least allow clergy to park in the doctor’s lot. When it comes to healing, the mental or spiritual is as important as the physical. Medicine is starting to recognize this fact.

PARSHAT TAZRIA-METZORA
(5773)
FOR THE SIN OF CHILDBIRTH
“On the completion of her period of purification, for either son or daughter, she shall bring to the priest, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or turtledove for a purification offering.” (Leviticus 12:6)
With this week’s double portion we enter a difficult section of the Torah for moderns to comprehend. The portion deals with the laws of tumah and taharah – ritual impurity and ritual purity. Many of these laws have fallen out of practice today. And even those still in practice, like the laws forbidding a kohen to go to a cemetery, are difficult to explain. Many natural functions cause impurity, including contact with a dead body, various skin diseases, various bodily functions, and strangest of all – childbirth.
After giving birth to a boy, the mother must wait seven days, begin the rituals of purification, and then have the boy circumcised on the eighth day. After giving birth to a girl, the waiting time is doubled to fourteen days. (No reason is given for this difference between baby boys and girls; there is much speculation by the rabbis.) Then when the entire ritual of purification is over, the mother must bring a sin offering. Why a sin offering? What is the sin in giving birth, which is considered so central to Judaism?
The Talmud gives one fascinating answer. Going through the pain of childbirth, the mother will cry out a vow that she will never do this again. She swears that she will no longer have relations with her husband. Therefore she must bring an offering to release her from this vow made under duress. (Niddah 31b) This ruling recalls another passage of the Talmud. Judith goes through a painful childbirth. She disguises herself and appears before her husband Rabbi Hiyya. “Is a woman commanded to be fruitful and multiply or not?” Her husband answers no. So Judith goes home and takes a cup of roots to prevent future pregnancies. When her husband finds out, he cries out, “If only she had given me one more son.” (Yebamot 65b)
Last week I was teaching a conversion class, speaking about the commandment in Judaism to be fruitful and multiply. A young lady asked me a question. “Don’t you think it is wrong, in this time of overpopulation, when the earth’s resources are being depleted, to say it is a commandment to have more children?” In truth, I would expect that question from a college student, not from a potential convert. I answered that there are over 7 billion people on this earth, and around 15 million Jews. When Jews have babies we hardly present a threat of overpopulation. In truth, outside of the very Orthodox community, we Jews are not even replacing ourselves. After we lost so many in the Holocaust, we need to emphasize the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. As a rabbi, I feel comfortable saying that we need more Jewish babies.
There is a deeper question here. Is it a sin to bring children into the world? Sociologists point out that as societies become more affluent and more educated, the tendency is to have less and less children. In many European countries the population is not replacing itself. This is a serious problem as people age; there are more and more older people supported by fewer and fewer younger people. This is the underlying problem of our social security system in the United States. More and more people draw money out of the system than pay money into the system. I do not know how to fix it. But certainly one of the answers is to have more children.
Many of our young people are learning that bringing more children into an overpopulated world is somehow sinful. I have met with couples planning to get married but who have chosen not to have children for this reason. The thrust of our tradition is the opposite. The very first commandment is “to be fruitful and multiply.” The woman who makes a vow at a moment of pain to avoid future children must bring a sin offering. As I tell young people, “I hope you will be blessed with children because, God knows, we need more children.”

PARSHAT TAZRIA
(5771)
PERCEPTION CREATES REALITY

“And the priest shall look on the disease in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague has turned white, and the disease looks deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a disease of leprosy; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.” (Leviticus 13:3)
Greetings from Las Vegas. Do not ask me what four hundred rabbis did in what is euphemistically called “sin city.” What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But the issue that challenges me is: how can I possibly tie this Torah portion, which deals with ritual purity and impurity of various skin diseases, to our Rabbinic meetings. Then as I listened to various rabbis’ perception of the future of Conservative Judaism, a thought came to me.
Let me begin with one of my favorite stories, originally told by a physicist to explain quantum mechanics. Three baseball umpires were arguing about their jobs. The first umpire said, “Ball, strike, I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em.” The second umpire insists, “Ball, strike, I calls ‘em as they are.” Then the third umpire says emphatically, “Ball, strike, but they ain’t nothing til I calls ‘em.” This wonderful story fits into the world of quantum mechanics, where particles have only a cloudy existence until someone with consciousness observes them. Observation literally creates reality.
What is true for the world of physics is also true in this week’s portion. A person may have this skin disease called tzaraat, often mistranslated leprosy. He must wait for the kohen (priest) to look at him and declare whether he is ritually pure or impure. Reality does not matter. All that matters is the consciousness of the priest who must observe the disease. And if the priest is delayed in his viewing, then the disease does not exist. The reality is declared only by the observation.
This idea has become central to our thinking since the days of Immanuel Kant. Before Kant philosophers asked the question, what is reality? Kant performed what he himself called a Coperican revolution in philosophy. He said we can never know reality. We can only know how our mind organizes reality. The world begins with our mind and our consciousness. Consciousness creates reality. And different consciousnesses can look out at the same world and create alternative realities.
So how does this apply to our rabbinical convention? One person can look at the future of Conservative Judaism and see an aging and fading movement, no longer relevant. For that person, this becomes the reality. But most of the rabbis at our conference had a different vision of the future. They spoke of exciting, dynamic programs happening in synagogues all over the country. They spoke of a new way of supervising foods that would not only follow ritual kosher laws but ethical kosher laws. A new symbol will soon be appearing on foods branding them as ethical. They spoke of new ways of opening up the Jewish people to spiritual seekers, not just non-Jews married to Jews but non-Jews drawn to the spirituality of Judaism. And they spoke about ways of making the internet, the social networks, and the latest technology as a source of Torah. It was a vision, but visions create reality.
These ideas can be brought home to our own synagogues. When my members say, “Our synagogue has become my second family. They are there for me during good and bad times. My synagogue is a place where I go to learn Torah and apply it to real issues I face in my life. My synagogue is a place to connect to God and grow spiritually.” This vision becomes the reality of the synagogue.
It we have learned anything from quantum mechanics, from modern philosophy, and from the Torah, it is that there is no objective reality out there. We create reality by our own consciousness. Let us make a reality we can embrace.
PARSHAT METZORA
(5771)
UNCONTROLLED APPETITES
“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, This shall be the ritual of the leper at the time that he is purified, when it has been reported to the priest.” (Leviticus 14:1 – 2)
I heard a troubling report on National Public Radio. The segment spoke of a non-profit organization that ran a small gift shop to raise funds. The gift shop was manned by volunteers. The head of the organization discovered that the gift shop was earning far less than expected. Both gift items and cash were disappearing. The organization thought there was a thief involved. But when they put some controls on the cash and merchandise, they discovered that many of the volunteers were helping themselves to items. A gift here, a little bus fare there – people justified it because they believed they were volunteering. With accounting controls, the stealing stopped.
The N.P.R. report went on to say that people, given the opportunity, often cannot resist the temptation to take something that does not belong to them. We all have an appetite to take things. Security cameras and laws prevent us from following our appetites. Without such deterrents, many of us follow our appetites. In Jewish tradition, we have a name for our appetites out of control. We call it the yetzer hara, usually translated the “evil inclination.” We all have such an inclination.
Last week when I was in Las Vegas, I realized why it is called “sin city” and why it is so popular. The whole city is built around people losing control of their appetites. The rabbis at the convention could not walk to their daily prayer services and Torah study sessions without passing through the casinos. Why not put a little into the slot machines before putting on a tallit? The casinos are one of the last indoor places in the United States where smoking is not only permitted, but is the norm. We all know about the free drinks offered to big spenders. Then there are the all-you-can-eat buffets of food and the sexy shows. Vegas is the perfect place to let your appetites take control.
Do not misunderstand me. I enjoyed my stay there. It is a fun city. But it is vital that anyone who goes there has a strong sense of self-control and knows his or her limitations. We call that the yetzer hatov or “good inclination.” But as anyone who has ever struggled with addictions can testify, self-control is a hard virtue to develop. Temptation may be prevalent in Vegas, but it exists everywhere.
There is one area of life where virtually everybody loses control of their appetite every day. We all love to gossip. That is the reason why gossip magazines and television shows have such a huge following. That is the reason why so many young people get caught up speaking ill about fellow students. And that is the reason why facebook and other social networking sites often become places of bullying and nasty talk about one’s “friends.”
This week’s portion once again speaks about a skin disease called metzora, usually mistranslated “leprosy.” We do not know exactly what the disease is. But the Rabbis noted the similarity between the name of this disease and the phrase motzi shem ra, “speaking evil about others.” They claim that this disease is a punishment for evil gossip. They brought proof from the Biblical story of Miriam, who spoke evil about her brother Moses’ wife and broke out with this disease. According to the rabbis, what starts out on our tongue eventually breaks out on our skin.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a well-known author and lecturer, tried to get Congress to pass a resolution calling for one gossip free day a year. I doubt many of us, whether in Congress or not, could live up to that ideal. I often ask the teens in my synagogue, “Could you make it through a whole day without speaking evil about anybody?” Most admit, “Only if I spent the whole day in bed by myself.”
We all have appetites. One of our most powerful is the appetite to gossip. Perhaps the solution is, whenever we hear something negative about someone else, say something positive. In a small way, this would make the world a better place.

PARSHAT TAZRIA-METZORA
(5770)

FAMILY PURITY

“When she becomes purified of her discharge, she shall count off seven days, and after that she shall be pure.” (Leviticus 15:28)

With this chapter we enter a difficult and arcane part of the Torah. The laws of ritual purity and impurity have mostly fallen out of practice. But there is one area of these laws that is still observed by Jews today. Orthodox Jews are strict about these laws and more and more non-Orthodox Jews are rediscovering them. I am speaking about the laws at the end of this portion euphemistically called “family purity.”
When a woman has her monthly menstrual cycle she becomes ritually impure regarding sexual relations. By traditional Jewish law a husband and wife must separate part of each month. The truly Orthodox avoid all physical contact, and even sleep in separate beds. That is why twin beds rather than king or queen size beds were the norm in Orthodox Jewish households. (You can see this today in Israel, where hotel rooms have two twin beds, even at fancy hotels.)
According to this week’s portion a couple remains separated for seven days. However, the Talmud teaches that Jewish women have kept a stricter standard. According to current Orthodox practice, a woman waits until any blood stops and only then counts seven days. This makes the period of separation twelve days or more. Some Orthodox Jews have told me that this is the most difficult law in Judaism. Some non-Orthodox Jews who have begun practicing these laws have returned to the Biblical standard of seven days of separation.
When the period of counting is over, the woman goes to the mikvah or Jewish ritual bath. It is not for cleansing purposes; she must be totally clean before setting foot in the mikvah. Rather it is a spiritual cleansing, preparing her to reunite with her husband. There is a total immersion, making sure that the water touches every part of her body. According to the Talmud, when a husband and wife reunite on mikvah night it is like a groom and bride reuniting all over again. “Rabbi Meir said, [The Torah taught these laws] so that she will be beloved by her husband as on the day she entered the huppah [marriage canopy]” (Niddah 31b)
As I mentioned earlier, these laws are being rediscovered by many non-Orthodox Jews. There are community mikvahs being built throughout the country to serve the non-Orthodox Jewish community, something that we desperately need here in south Florida. Part of the reason for the rediscovery of these laws has been Jewish feminism. According to Jewish tradition, the laws of mikvah are one of three sets of laws given to women (the other two are lighting Shabbat candles and separating dough from the challah.) Women have been searching for female voices within Judaism, and these laws form such a voice.
I believe a big part of the interest in the laws of family purity is an attempt to make sex holy. We live in a country with a very casual approach to sexuality. Recreational sex is common (“hop into bed first, get to know each other later.”) Adultery is rampant. The notion that one can discipline and uplift one’s sexual life is foreign to the Playboy philosophy. And yet it is through such self-discipline that we rise above the animal within us and connect to the holy.
Last week I wrote about holiness in eating. This week I am writing about holiness in sex. Our tradition does not say to suppress our appetites. Rather it says to serve God with all of our appetites. Whether we choose to practice these particular laws or not, we ought to think about how to serve God with our sexual drive. That is at the heart of the holiness code in the book of Leviticus.

PARSHAT TAZRIA-METZORA
(5769)

THREE VIEWS OF DISEASE

“And the priest shall look on the disease in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague has turned white, and the disease looks deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a disease of leprosy; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.” (Leviticus 13:3)
Most of this double portion speaks of an ancient disease called metzora, usually mistranslated leprosy. It was a serious skin condition that could break out on someone’s body, but also on their clothing or even the walls of their home. The victim was separated from the community. The key issue was that the Torah puts a moral interpretation on this disease; the victim must have brought this on themselves through their behavior. Later Judaism would identify the disease with evil gossip.
The Torah was trying to put a religious perspective on this disease. Even today, when I visit my members in the hospital, they ask me, “Rabbi, why is this happening to me? Why did God afflict me with this disease?” I want to share three different religious perspectives on disease – let me call them moralistic, materialistic, and holistic.
Moralistic – Classical religions including Judaism had a moralistic understanding of any disease. A person is afflicted because that person deserves the affliction. Disease is a punishment from God. When Job was afflicted with terrible suffering, his friends came to comfort him. But instead of words of comfort, they told Job to search his own soul for the sin that brought on his suffering. His friend Eliphaz told him, “Remember, I beg you, who ever perished, being blameless? Or where were the righteous cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same.” (Job 4:7-8)
This idea of disease as a punishment persists in modern times. It is not simply the religious right, those who see AIDS as God’s punishment for promiscuity. Even mainstream members of my synagogue really believe that their cancer or their heart disease came from God. Modern science has not removed such deep seated human feelings.
Materialistic – Most moderns accept the materialistic, or some would say the scientific understanding of disease. We live in a material world of forces and events beyond our control. Nature works according to its own scientific laws. And disease hits regardless of behavior. Some people will develop cancer, some will be born with bad hearts or kidneys, some will develop diabetes or multiple sclerosis, and to some extent it is the luck of the draw. Disease is mere happenstance, and the universe is indifferent to our pain and suffering.
Perhaps it is comforting to know that the cancer is not our fault and the stroke is not a punishment from God. People who suffer from disease should not have to deal with guilt on top of their medical problems. And yet there is something deeply unsatisfying about this point of view. Is God totally indifferent to our physical pain? Or perhaps worse, to we live in a world with no God at all? Are our bodies mere machines that break down, or are we something more? Is there a spiritual dimension to disease?
Holistic – As I grow older, I am becoming more and more attracted to a holistic view of disease. We humans are both bodies and spirits. Our bodies may be afflicted, and sometimes that is a purely random event. But sometimes it is our spirit that causes our body to break down. How often has someone overworked themselves until they became sick? Finally they will take some time off and admit, “Maybe my body is trying to tell me something.” Often the body reacts to the needs of the spirit.
There is a passage of Talmud that teaches what to do when disease strikes. “Rava, and some say Rav Hisda said, if a person sees afflictions befalling him, he should first investigate his deeds. (Is the body reacting to his or her own behavior?) … Then he should attribute his afflictions to a lack of Torah study. … (Perhaps he or she needs to take more time thinking about what is truly important in life.) … Then perhaps the disease is an `affliction of love’ (perhaps the disease serves some greater spiritual purpose.)” (Berachot 5a)
I believe what the passage is trying to teach us is that disease is neither a punishment from God nor a random event. Rather it is an opportunity to refocus on why God put us on this earth to begin with? Perhaps disease can give us a serious opportunity to grow spiritually?

PARSHAT TAZRIA
(5768)

HEALING
“When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests.” (Leviticus 13:2)
Last week the newspaper carried a tragic story. A deeply religious couple in Wisconsin withheld treatment for their eleven year old daughter’s diabetes. They turned to prayer instead of a physician, even as their daughter’s physical condition worsened. Sadly, the young girl died. The parents not only face the tragic loss of a daughter but the possibility of prosecution for involuntary manslaughter. It is a shame the courts did not intervene on the poor child’s behalf. The story is a sad misunderstanding of religion.
We moderns understand that we turn to medical experts for healing. Diseases have physical causes which must be treated by those who are expert on the physical aspects of medicine. (Often when the medical treatment is successful, we thank God for the cure. But when the medical treatment is unsuccessful, we blame the doctor.) Doctors are there for healing, not prayer. But in seeing healing as purely physical, have we lost something?
I have met doctors who see their role with the patient as similar to that of a mechanic working on a car. Our bodies are machines that need to keep running properly. A little surgery here, a pill there, and we can get everything working properly again. If our bodies are machines and doctors are mechanics, what is the role of spirit? What about prayer? There are studies which seem to point out that prayer has a role in healing – disease is not just physical but spiritual.
This week we read of a difficult skin disease called tzaraat, often mistranslated as leprosy. It could break out on the skin, on clothing, even on the walls of the house. And the one who began the process of diagnosis and cure was the religious leader of the community – the priest. Healing is not simply physical; there is a spiritual part of healing.
So what is healing – physical or spiritual? Who do we turn to – doctors or God? Do rabbis, priests, ministers, or imams have a role in healing? Does prayer work? Why is it that one of the key moments in our Saturday morning service is the singing of the song misheberach by Debbie Friedman and the recital of a prayer for the sick? Why does our Yom Kippur healing service grow each year? What is the role of religion in healing?
The reply is that we humans are both physical and spiritual creatures. Some would say we are embodied spiritual beings. Others would say we are physical beings who possess a soul. The Torah teaches that we are made of the dust of the earth (matter) which is animated by the breath of God (spirit). We are matter and spirit. And they are so intermingled within our very being as to be inseparable. Healing the body affects the spirit, and healing the spirit affects the body. They are both part of healing.
God gave us humans the power and the responsibility to heal. There is a Midrash of Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva who were strolling the streets of Jerusalem when they met a sick man. They gave him advice on how to feel better. He became angry. “God makes me sick and you presume to heal me.” The Rabbis asked the man, “What is your occupation?” The man answered that he was a tiller of the soil. The Rabbis said, “God made the soil and you dare to plant and harvest it. Leave it in God’s hands.” The Rabbis end with the words, “Just as a tree does not grow if it is not fertilized, plowed, and weeded, so the body is like the tree, the medicine is the fertilizer, and the doctor is the farmer.” (Midrash Samuel 4:1)
We heal, but God has a role in healing. There is a spiritual dimension to life and so there is a spiritual dimension to healing. Doctors and hospitals have a role in healing, but so does prayer and so do clergy. The mistake of this poor Wisconsin couple was to search only in the spiritual dimension. The mistake of too many moderns is to search only in the physical dimension. The insight of this week’s portion is that healing is both physical and spiritual.

PARSHAT METZORA
(5768)

MAKING SEX HOLY
“And if a woman has a discharge, and the discharge of her flesh is blood, she shall be put apart seven days; and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening.” (Leviticus 15:19)
Some of the teen age girls in my synagogue have approached me about wearing purity rings. “Is it proper for Jewish girls to wear them?” I understand that they were made popular by Miley Cyrus of the popular Disney television show Hannah Montana. Cyrus is being raised a religious Christian and certainly these rings have strong roots in the Christian community. I first heard about them through such Christian organizations as True Love Waits. Are they Jewish?
The wearer of the ring is making a public commitment to her family, her community, and to God to remain sexually pure until marriage. Of course sexual chastity before marriage is as much a Jewish as a Christian value. Skeptics find the entire idea rather silly. How can a fifteen year old commit to a pattern of sexual behavior until marriage, when most young people do not marry until their late twenties or early thirties, if not later? Skeptics might also question what sexual chastity means. Young people have grown up in a world which permits all sorts of behaviors as permissible, because they are “not really sex.”
How do I as a rabbi relate to these purity rings? As long as there are no Christian symbols or literature tied to the rings, I have no problem with Jews wearing them. In fact, I am somewhat sorry that the Jewish community did not think of this first. And I am sorry that we tend to be so much more skeptical about the possibility of abstinence and sexual chastity among young people. After all, we Jews gave the idea of sexual holiness to the world. We are the people whose Bible teaches, “a man should leave his mother and father and cleave unto his wife.” Notice it does not say “cleave unto a series of casual hook-ups, pickups, mistresses, and casual relationships.”
We live in the age of casual, recreational sex. If it feels good, do it. After all, to quote Cole Porter, “birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it.” But we humans are not birds and bees, we are not animals. We are not like lions in the forest, where the male leaves his seed and moves on to other conquests. We are humans, created in the image of God. We are called to a standard of holiness. Holiness means rising above the animal to the angel within each of us.
This week’s portion deals with issues of ritual purity and impurity. Most of these laws have fallen out of practice. However, there is one area still practiced by traditional Jews around the world – the laws known euphemistically as “family purity.” Within a traditional Jewish marriage, a husband and wife discipline their sexual life through periods of separation, followed by the wife going to the mikvah (ritual bath) and the couple coming back together. (For a full discussion of these laws and their relevance for modern Jews, see my book Does God Belong in the Bedroom?) Behind all these laws is the idea of making sex holy, even within the institution of marriage.
How do I convince young people that sex is a precious gift from God which requires holiness? First I must teach them what holiness is. The world is filled with unholy behavior. Our young people are growing up in an age of unbridled consumerism, the casual use of alcohol and drugs, the prevalence of foul language, as well as the acceptance of recreational sex. They see celebrities clubbing and partying all night, going for drug and alcohol rehab, hopping into bed with each other, and having babies without the benefit of wedlock. They live in a world which has lost any sense of the holy. And my job as a rabbi is to teach holiness in all areas of life including sexuality.
In my book I build a ladder of holiness. I ask a question I first heard from the late Rabbi Robert Gordis. Two men are on a ladder, one on the second rung and the other on the thirteenth rung. Who is higher? The answer is that it depends on whether they are going up or down the ladder. I want young people to climb up the ladder of holiness. If purity rings help them make that climb towards greater holiness, then such rings can only be positive.

PARSHAT TAZRIA-METZORA
(5767)

THE EVIL WE DO

“As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes should be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and call out Unclean, Unclean.”
(Leviticus 13:45)

At our annual Yom HaShoah (holocaust memorial day) service on Sunday, I spoke briefly about Noah and the ark. When Noah walked out of the ark, God realized that the heart of humanity is directed towards evil. We humans are capable of unspeakable evils towards one another. And our job, as human beings and as Jews, is to find a way to make people good. If only we humans had learned our lesson after the holocaust. But evil continues.
As I spoke these words, I could not imagine that an unspeakable outbreak of evil would take place on a peaceful college campus. At Virginia Tech a gunman opened fire, killing thirty-two students, employees, and professors before turning the gun on himself. There is a sad irony that one of those killed was a holocaust survivor, Liviu Librescu, a professor of engineering, who shielded his students with his own body. Our entire nation is in a state of mourning and sadness this week. But the evil continues.
What are we to do? Most of what I hear is the need for better security, more police and more guards. This is certainly important, but it will not solve the problem of human evil. We can give every human being their own personal security guard and those who want to commit terror, who want to maim and destroy will find a way to do it. Humans have an unbelievable capacity to find ways to destroy other humans. That is why God said regarding Noah, “ … the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.” (Genesis 9:21).
What are we to do about human evil? The rest of the Torah is an answer to that question. The ultimate goal is to teach every human being to recognize the humanity of every other human being on earth. The goal is “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” If only we could truly live by that maxim, teaching every person to see the humanity of everybody else, then maybe some day we can live in a world without security guards or police or armies. It is a dream, some would say the Jewish dream. But we need to try.
Seeing the humanity of others does not come naturally. Put a group of three year olds in a room with a lot of toys and some of them will fight each other, hurt or bite one another. On the other hand, some will be kind and generous with others, sharing their toys or comforting one another. The Rabbis taught that we humans are born with both an evil and a good inclination. Both inclinations struggle within us. Our job is to teach people to develop the good inclination and control the evil inclination. Goodness must be taught.
The most natural thing in the world is to distrust and dislike those who are different. We put our guard up when we see people of a different race or age or nationality, those who practice a different faith, those who are physically challenged or disabled in some way, those who have a different sexual orientation, those who look different in some way. When the Nazis began their campaign to kill every Jew on earth, they did not immediately create death camps. First they marked Jews as different, made them wear yellow stars and live in ghettos. They became like animals, stripped of their humanity. It then became much easier to take away their lives.
In certain ways, this week’s portion reminds us of what human beings can do to one another. A person with a particular skin disease, often mistranslated as “leprosy,” was turned out of the camp. The words were pronounced on this person “unclean, unclean.” While they had this disease they were stripped of their humanity. It is intriguing that later Rabbinic law put severe limitations on these laws, making it much harder to pronounce somebody unclean. These laws have long ago fallen into desuetude.
There is no way to totally prevent a disturbed individual from taking a weapon and killing other individuals. But every time a human being recognizes the humanity of another human being, particularly one who is different, it is a big step in the direction of overcoming evil. There is no more important task for humanity.

PARSHAT TAZRIA – METZORA
(5766)

PUBLIC VERSUS PRIVATE

“You shall put the Israelites on guard against their impurity, lest they die through their impurity by defiling My tabernacle.” (Leviticus 15:31)

What was the biggest news of the past week? It was neither, as one might expect the war in Iraq nor the terrorist attacks in Egypt, neither the Iranian nuclear threat nor the violence within the Palestinian territories. It was not even the out of control gas prices. The biggest news of the past week was the birth of baby Suri to Tomkat – Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. A mega-movie star and a television actress who many saw as America’s sweetheart had a baby (out of wedlock, but that is another issue for another time.) At least they picked a name with Hebrew roots – Suri comes from the Hebrew phrase “my princess.”
I wish the baby well; it is not easy growing up in a celebrity household. The deep question is – why have realms that were once private – sexuality, childbirth, family – become part of the public discourse? Why is there a multimillion-dollar industry of celebrity photos and gossip, with paparazzi photographers able to make hundreds of thousands of dollars by snapping the right photograph? Where is the line between the public and the private?
It is not simply celebrities. Reality shows have given real people their fifteen minutes of fame, to quote Andy Warhol’s overused phrase. They have often allowed people to show their worst sides to a public that craves more. Then there are the various self-help shows – Oprah and Dr. Phil, where people expose to the public personal, family issues that in the past one would not share with one’s closest friends. It is as if discretion and privacy have totally disappeared from our public life. Or as Rabbi Manis Friedman so aptly put it in the title of his book, Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore?
This week’s Torah reading is a difficult one for modern Jews. It deals with various types of ritual purity and impurity. Sometimes very natural physical events can make someone ritually impure such as childbirth and natural bodily flows of men and women. And sometimes unnatural events can make someone ritually impure such as various diseases, in particular a skin condition often mistranslated as leprosy. It was possibly some kind of fungus that could grow on the skin, on one’s clothing, or even on the walls of one’s house. One a person became ritually impure, he or she was excluded from the holy Temple. Only after a detailed procedure of repurification could someone reenter the Temple area.
Most of these laws have fallen out of use in the Jewish community. Nonetheless, they contain a valuable insight which is relevant today. There has to be a holy place, which is not accessible to everybody and all times. There was a realm of privacy. One had to satisfy special conditions of purity to enter this holy space. There were times when people had to stay outside the Temple. Privacy creates a deep sense of holiness.
Later Jewish tradition tried to create the same sense of privacy and discretion in the home. The dining room table became the holy altar; that is why it is customary to put a little salt on bread when blessing it before a meal. Salt was used in the ancient sacrifices. The bedroom in particular, became a place of privacy and discretion. It is one of the few areas where some of these laws of ritual purity are still observed today. In Judaism, the bedroom becomes a place of holiness. That is why I entitled one of my books Does God Belong in the Bedroom?
Today, feminists have taught, “the personal is political.” What was once the realm of privacy and discretion, a holy space, is now part of public discourse. Issues of family, sexuality, love, marriage, pregnancy, and childbirth are discussed publicly and openly. Certainly this has had some positive results, with greater attention to the needs of women and children. But there is also a negative result – the birth of a celebrity baby becomes international news. And once again, the realm of the holy has been lost.

PARSHAT TAZRIA-METZORA
(5764)

RELATIONSHIPS NEED MYSTERY

“When a woman has a discharge, her discharge being blood from her body, she shall remain in her menstrual impurity seven days.” (Leviticus 15:19)

Among the laws in this week’s portion is the tradition euphemistically referred to as “family purity.” A husband and wife must avoid sexual relations for part of each month. Very Orthodox Jews will go so far as to sleep in separate beds and avoid all physical contact. At the end of the period of separation, the woman goes to a mikvah (ritual bath), immerses herself, and rejoins her husband once again. Often (but not always), this rejoining occurs during the most fertile part of a woman’s cycle, contributing to the large birth rates among many Jews who observe these laws.
Many non-Orthodox Jews, who in the past ignored this area of Jewish religious practice, are slowly rediscovering its meaning. Many women are going to the mikvah who would not have dreamed of going a generation ago. Some feminists are finding power in the laws of mikvah as a symbol of their feminism and a celebration of the cycle of their body. (See my book Does God Belong in the Bedroom? for a further exploration of this.) Many others simply love digging into the wells of tradition and finding a sense of purpose in an ancient law.
Most couples who observe these laws have testified that they help strengthen their marriage by adding a rhythm and a sense of spirituality to their sexual lives. The Talmud actually speaks about this. “Rabbi Meir said, Why did the Torah teach that a woman was in a period of niddah (ritual impurity) for seven days. . . . So that she will be beloved by her husband as on the day she entered the marriage canopy.” (Niddah 31b) A period of separation adds to the mystery, the romance, and the magic of the marital relationship.
Perhaps there are lessons to be learned that would apply to all couples, even those who do not observe these laws, even those who are not of the Jewish faith. Why do couples who are madly in love, deeply attracted to one another, highly romantic, find themselves complacent and even bored with their relationship after just a few years? Why does the one we chose to cherish forever become somebody we take for granted by the fifth anniversary? Could it be that familiarity breeds contempt? Could it be that we have lost the sense of mystery and romance, and come to take the one closest to us for granted? Could periods of covering up, of being unavailable, of symbolic separation add to the holiness of our relationships?
We live in an age of too much familiarity. On television people share the most intimate details of their personal lives before the camera, symbolically unrobing before millions of strangers. In day to day life, people uncover themselves to one another long before they are married. They live together in casual sexual relationships, and often sleep together after a few dates. Married couples have often lived together for years, sometimes having their children before ever formalizing the relationship. After marriage, there is a casualness about the relationship, taking each other for granted. For many couples the marital bedroom has become a TV room, a family room, a snack room, something far from the romantic ideal. Why are we surprised when couples tell me they are bored with one another after five years of marriage?
Perhaps it is time to find a way to add mystery and romance to our marriages. It may be through periods of separation and coming together like the laws of family purity. Or it could be through surprises, dates, unexpected weekends away, trading children with other couples for romantic time alone, moving the TV, the food, and the children out of the bedroom, new, sexy clothing and lingerie, flowers, gifts, and love notes. Our marriages need some more mystery.
In counseling situations, people tell me they are bored and depressed with their lives. I always ask, do you have something in your life that you are looking forward to, a special vacation, time away, perhaps a treat of some kind. Our lives and our marriages suffer from the boredom of too much familiarity. Could this be what the Torah had in mind when it promulgated a law that a husband and wife should separate part of each month, then come back together almost like a new bride and groom. May we all find ways to reinvigorate our marriages with more romance.

PARSHAT TAZRIA
(5763)

HEALING

“The priest shall examine the affection of the skin of his body; if the hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection.” (Leviticus 13:3)

I went to visit a patient in a very large Catholic hospital. Afterwards, I stopped by the employee cafeteria to see if they had a salad or something I could eat for lunch. I was stopped at the entrance by an overzealous clerk. “Can I see your employee identification. This cafeteria is for employees only.”
“I am rabbi here to visit Jewish patients.”
The clerk became very apologetic. “Rabbi, I am so sorry. Clergy are welcome here; we believe they have a vital role in healing. Rabbi, please have lunch – on us.” I was not looking for a free lunch. I was looking for respect for the spiritual role in healing.
I often judge hospitals by how open they are to clergy visits. Some make it easy to park, with reserved clergy spots. At two local hospitals I am even allowed to park in the doctors’ lots. (Although I get funny looks from doctors when I pull in.) Other hospitals make it difficult, with strict security and visiting rules. I have been told by the nurses station to please leave, that visitors for this patient are not welcome. But the best hospitals realize that clergy have a key role in healing.
In this week’s portion we read about a disease called tzaraat, often mistranslated “leprosy.” It was a skin disease that seems to have been highly infectious. It could break out on the skin, but also on the clothing or even the walls of the home. The victim went to the community spiritual leader, the kohen or priest, who looked at the outbreak and oversaw the treatment.
The Torah commands the priest to look carefully at the outbreak on the skin. Commentators have said that the priest looked not only at the particular sore spot, but at the whole person, before declaring whether it was tzaraat. The priest’s job was to see the whole person, not just the disease. Only then could the priest decide how to proceed.
Too often today doctors look at the disease, not at the person. Too often they take a materialistic view of the body, a machine to be fixed. It is similar to a driver bringing a car to the mechanic to be repaired or tuned up. The only object is to get the machine working properly again. That is why so many of the patients I visit tell me, “The doctor came and saw my symptoms, my disease, my problems. But the doctor never saw me.”
In truth, we are not cars and our bodies are not machines. We are spiritual beings, with both bodies and souls. And one of the most basic teachings is that the state of our soul affects the state of our body. That is why so many people believe that prayer for healing works. That is why Jewish tradition teaches that a face to face visit can take away one sixtieth of the disease.
People often speak of medical miracles. A miracle is something from the spiritual world affecting something in the physical world. A miracle says there is a dimension of being beyond the physical, a dimension that the disease cannot touch. Cancer can damage a body, but it cannot touch the soul. And from the world of the soul, the body can be healed. Or even if the body is not healed, the spirit can be healed.
There is a spiritual side of healing. The ancient Torah understood this. Our modern doctors and hospitals need to learn this.

PARSHAT METZORA
(5763)
FAMILY PURITY
“When a woman has a discharge, her discharge being blood from her body, she shall remain in her menstrual impurity seven days.” (Leviticus 15:19)
Perhaps I am unusual, but I am one of the few rabbis who enjoys studying and teaching chapter 15 of Leviticus. This chapter deals with the laws of tamei and tahor, usually translated ritual impurity and ritual purity. Various bodily flows, a seminal emission for a man and a menstrual flow for a woman, causes one to become ritually impure. When the Temple was standing, this person could not enter the Temple without going through a rite of purification.
Most of these laws have fallen by the wayside with the destruction of the Temple. However, Jews throughout the world still observe one area, the laws known as family purity. A husband and wife separate for a period of time when the woman has her menstrual flow. Then, after counting seven days, the woman goes to the mikvah, a natural gathering of water, and immerses herself. The couple can resume marital relations. Often there is a sense of newness and excitement to mikvah night, almost like a second honeymoon. “Rabbi Meir said, [The Torah taught these laws] so that she will be beloved by her husband as on the day she entered the huppah[marriage canopy].” (Niddah 31b)
Many non-Orthodox Jews are rediscovering the beauty and meaning of the laws of family purity. I wrote an article for Moment magazine many years ago that is still being passed out to women who use the mikvah at the University of Judaism, the Conservative mikvah in Los Angeles. In that article I mentioned four reasons why a modern, non-Orthodox Jew might observe these laws:
Philosophical – The laws of family purity make a necessary statement about sexual relations. Our society vacillates between an ascetic and a hedonistic view of sex. The ascetic view associates sex with sin, speaks of the weakness of the flesh, and is embarrassed by sex. The hedonistic view, in reaction, promotes pleasure as the ideal, endorses the Playboy philosophy, and condones any activity between consenting adults. Judaism, which rejects both these extremes, teaches that sex is God’s gift to humans and is therefore holy.
We learn from this that holiness is achieved by separation and self-discipline. The concept of family purity teaches that sexual relations are neither a weakness to be tolerated nor a pleasure to be indulged, but a holy activity, a way of serving God.
Symbolic – A woman’s monthly period is a nexus point between life and death. The flow of blood marks a brush with death; a potential child will not be born. The mikvah, in contrast, is a sign of life; its waters are called living waters. Immersion in the mikvah signals that the potential begins anew for a baby to be born.
Early in our marriage, my wife and I felt this symbolism most strongly when we struggled with infertility. Each monthly period became a time of mourning and sadness. On the other hand, mikvah night became a time of hope; perhaps a child would be born this month.
Feminist – For many women, rediscovering the laws of mikvah has become part of the Jewish feminist agenda. First, the law is considered one of three classical women’s mitzvoth. The laws of mikvah are a classical mitzvah for women directly tied to the cycle of their bodies.
The law also makes an important statement about the relationship between men and women. As a consequence of observing this law, a husband and wife are constrained from treating each other as sexual objects. During part of the month, sex becomes off limits; husband and wife must relate to one another in other ways.
Traditional – The laws of mikvah are part of Jewish tradition. Jewish women have kept them alive for four thousand years, and it is spiritually comforting to be part of a long chain of observance. Even if we do not quite understand the reason, we observe these laws because we are Jews who want to maintain the traditions of our people. Many of these traditions are a struggle for us, but I have found that precisely those traditions that cause the greatest struggle can become the most precious to us.

PARSHAT TAZRIA – METZORA
(5762)

THERE IS ALWAYS HOPE

“He shall break down the house, its stones and its wood and all the mortar of the house, and he shall carry them forth out of the city to an unclean place.” (Leviticus 14:45)

One of my favorite Talmudic passages speaks of three of the most difficult laws in the Torah. (Sanhedrin 71a) The passage then interprets the three laws out of existence.
The first law is the stubborn and rebellious son who refuses to obey his father and his mother. Such a son is taken out to the elders of the city who hold a special hearing, and then proceed to stone him to death. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
The Talmud teaches that before the son can be stoned to death, his parents must speak in precisely the same voice. In fact, they must appear alike in voice, appearance, and stature. Obviously, this is impossible. So the Talmud concludes, “There never was a stubborn and rebellious son, and there never will be. Why then was the law written? That you might study and receive a reward?”
What can we learn from this strange law? No child, no matter how rebellious, difficult, unyielding, disobedient, is ever lost. There is no child beyond redemption. I have met too many parents who had teens who were out of control. I have talked to these same parents ten years later and discovered that their children have turned around. We can learn from this Talmudic passage that no child is beyond hope.
The second law speaks of a city filled with idolaters. Such a city was condemned to utter destruction, the inhabitants were slain and all the property were burned. (Deuteronomy 13:13-19)
The Talmud teaches that even if a single mezuzah is found in the community, these laws do not apply. A mezuzah, which contains the name of God and is put on the door of a Jewish home, can never be destroyed. Obviously, any Jewish city will have at least one such mezuzah. So the Talmud concludes, “There never was a condemned city, and there never will be.”
What can we learn from this strange law? There is no city beyond redemption. Abraham was willing to save Sodom and Gemorrah for the sake of ten righteous people. Here the city is saved for the sake of one home with a mezuzah. That one mezuzah could be the religious symbol that leads the entire city away from idolatry and back to God. We can learn from this Talmudic passage that no community is beyond hope.
The third law, part of this week’s portion, speaks of a disease (usually mistranslated as leprosy) that breaks out on the walls of a house. The priest looks at the house, let’s it sit for seven days, checks it out again. If the disease is still on the walls, the house is utterly destroyed and the stones taken to an unclean place.
The Talmud comments that sometimes the Torah says “wall” in the singular, and sometimes “walls” in the plural. Therefore, this law only applies where a wall is like walls; it must be perfectly symmetrical across the angle. The Talmud concludes that “there never was a leprous house and there never will be. Then why is the law written? So we can study it and receive an award.”
From this strange law, we learn that there is no home beyond redemption. No matter how much anger, dissent, disagreement shatter a home, there is always hope that relationships can be rebuilt.
Whether a child, a family, or an entire community, nothing is beyond redemption. However difficult the situation seems, there is nothing that is beyond hope. Perhaps that is a valuable lesson for all of us during these difficult times.

PARSHAT TAZRIA-METZORA
(5761)

WHY CIRCUMCISION?

“On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”
(Leviticus 12:3)

Something deeply disturbing is creeping into Jewish life and Jewish thought. For most of this past century, as much as Jews of various ideologies disagreed, all shared a belief that a baby boy should be circumcised on the eighth day. The Orthodox traditionalist, the Conservative egalitarian, the Reform social activist, the Jewish Renewal spiritual seeker, the Israeli secularist, all agreed that a baby boy should have a bris. Whatever one’s beliefs, circumcision touched on the essence of Jewishness.
No longer. Serious Jewish voices are calling for an end to this fundamental rite of passage for baby boys. Such prominent Jewish magazines as Moment and Tikkun have published anti-circumcision articles. Although each tried strike a balance with a pro-circ article, suddenly circumcision is open for debate. I have been approached more than once by parents who want to name their baby boy without circumcision. I always refuse.
The recent article in Tikkun had the mohel approach the baby boy on the eighth day. However, he left the penis intact, substituting a ritual of washing the baby’s feet. The parents gave all the usual arguments against circumcision; how there are no health benefits and how an uncovered penis diminishes sexual drive. The essence of their argument was that they would not teach their son to grow up non-violent by perpetrating an act of violence on him when he was eight days old.
Is circumcision an act of violence? I often act as the anesthesiologist at a bris, giving the baby wine to drink. There is some mild discomfort that passes quickly. But it is hardly an act of violence. With a quality mohel, the baby is back in his mother’s arms drinking lunch within minutes.
There is a deeper issue here. The couple that chose not to have a bris for their son wanted to raise him without violence. I wonder how they will react as he grows up like so many little boys. Will they take toys away from him if he pretends they are guns and starts shooting? Will they prevent him from participating in rough sports like football and hockey? Will they shrink in horror if he wants to go to a World Wrestling Federation match? Is their refusal to have a bris the first step in emasculating him?
The Torah chose circumcision as the symbol of the covenant for a reason. Boys love to rough house, and can be competitive and sometimes even violent. The object is to tame that inner drive and use it to serve God. Rashi comments that we ought to serve God with both our good and our evil inclinations. Take the evil inclination, the part of little boys that wants to be rough, to wrestle, to compete, to overcome, and direct that drive to a higher purpose.
In a similar way, Judaism teaches that a man’s sexual drive needs to be directed towards a higher purpose, towards one woman, marriage, and family. In the pagan world of the ancient Near East, sexual promiscuity was rampant. The covenant did not teach that this powerful sexual drive should be suppressed or made to disappear. Rather, it should be controlled and directed towards a higher end. Perhaps that is the reason why God chose the male sexual organ to mark His covenant.
Last week I spoke of those who would see humans as mere animals, still living amongst other animals in the Garden of Eden. They would prefer humans return to what is natural. These are the same voices that have begun teaching an anti-circumcision vision of Judaism. But Judaism is not about returning to nature, but moving above our nature to connect with God. Circumcision is part of that process.

PARSHAT TAZRIA
(5760)

SEX AND PLEASURE

“A woman who brings forth seed and gives birth to a boy.”
(Leviticus 12:2)

Warning! Sometimes the Torah deals with adult material. The interpretation of this verse that follows is definitely R rated. Yet it contains a message that is vital for married couples who care about their relationship.
What do the words “a woman who brings forth seed” mean? According to a Talmudic interpretation, they mean “a woman who has pleasure in the marital act.” (Niddah 31a) If a woman has pleasure in the marital act, she will give birth to male children. In the non-egalitarian age when the Talmud was written, having male children was particularly desirable.
The Talmud is really giving advice to men. “Gentlemen, if you want male children, make sure your wife has pleasure in the sexual act.” It is doubtful whether this is medically true, although I once read an article by an Orthodox doctor trying to prove that a woman’s orgasm increases the chance of a y (male) sperm fertilizing the egg. Personally, I think his article was nonsense. Having said that, I still believe there is a profound truth in this passage.
The Torah places the obligation upon men to be sure their wives are satisfied in the sexual act. This law is explicit in the Torah. “Her food, clothing, and sexual rights he shall not diminish.” (Exodus 21:10) This law, known as onah in Hebrew, makes sexual pleasure a woman’s right and a man’s obligation. (In our Western culture, we often think of sex as a man’s right and a woman’s obligation. In truth, it should be the opposite.)
When I meet with a bride and groom before their wedding, among the many issues we discuss is the Jewish view towards marital relations. I tell them that the man is given the obligation to assure his wife pleasure in the marital act. We discuss the reason.
As a general rule, it is far easier to satisfy a man than a woman. Men can be stimulated visually. (Notice who buys most pornographic magazines.) Most women on the other hand, need more than visual stimulation. They need intimacy, caring, romance, a sense of being valued and precious in the eyes of their lover. (Notice who buys most romance novels.) The Torah is telling men, if you want satisfaction in this relationship, you have to give her satisfaction.
Love is about meeting the needs of another human being. We use the euphemism “making love” to refer to the sexual act. For a man to “make love” to a woman, he must first be concerned with her needs for romance and intimacy. If she has the pleasure she desires, he will then have what he desires.
At one point in history, men wanted male children. Today men want a loving, long term relationship with a woman. Our ancient books give very modern hints on how to achieve such a relationship. They speak of a woman’s pleasure thousands of years before Cosmopolitan Magazine was ever published.

PARSHAT METZORAH
(5760)

DISEASE OF THE HOME

“When you enter the land of Canaan … and I inflict a plague of `leprosy’ on a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest.” (Leviticus 14:34-35)

This portion contains one of the stranger laws of the Torah. The plague known as metzorah, usually mistranslated leprosy, can break out on the walls of a home. The owner would go to the priest and say that he saw what appears to be such a plague. The priest had the owner clear out all his possessions, and only then would he declare the house ritually unclean.
The plague was probably some kind of fungus. In truth, the Talmud teaches that this plague on a home never happened in the past and never will happen in the future. The law is in the Torah so that we can learn a lesson.
What kind of lesson can we moderns learn from such a bizarre law? The rabbis saw metzorah as a spiritual malady, one affecting the character of the person who owns the house. Perhaps the owner of the house was a person who always refused to share his or her possessions with those in need. A person in need would come to the house asking for help, and the owner would say “Sorry but I do not have anything. I cannot help you.” Therefore, the Torah would make the owner carry all the possessions outside for everyone to see.
One of the goals of the Torah is to build a home where people are treated with kindness and respect. This certainly includes strangers who come by our home. That is why the Passover seder begins with the words, “All who are hungry, come and eat.” Abraham and Sarah, the first Hebrew couple, had a home open on all sides so that they could easily see any wayfarer and invite them in to eat.
A home acquires a spiritual disease not just by how people treat outsiders. Within a home, as people constanly interact, it is easy to mistreat one another. As a rabbi, I see so many homes torn apart by anger and abuse. I see people who are kind to their neighbors, their business associates, and even strangers. Yet within their four walls, these same people are miserable to their spouse, their children, their parents. I see people who are frightened to walk into their own home.
Home ought to be a place where one can truly feel rested and at peace. To quote the poet Robert Frost’s words from his poem Death of a Hired Man, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Home is a place where we ought to feel safe, protected, and loved.
As human beings, we go out into the world to work, to accomplish things, to do. We are evaluated by our performance, and our ego and even our ability to earn a living is based on these accomplishments. Then we come home, a place where we are not being judged nor forced to perform. Home is a place where we can simply be.
Too many homes are struck by disease, not a physical disease but a spiritual malaise. In too many homes family members mistreat each other. Too many homes have forget the value of shalom bayit (peace in the home). May our homes live up to the ancient Biblical prophecy of the Balaam, “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwelling places O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)