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Sunday, January 29, 2012


A Dvar Torah for Parshat Bo 5772

The very first seder, about which we read this morning in the Torah, must have been a somewhat uncomfortable affair in more ways than one. Certainly, it was filled with anxiety, as the Israelites consumed the Passover offering in a rush to prepare for the Exodus from Egypt that would happen the next morning, then awoke to the sounds of anguished suffering of their Egyptian neighbors immersed in the plague of the firstborn at midnight. However, the latter part of Exodus, chapter 12, points to what may have been a different source of discomfort, by mentioning different categories of people, men more specifically, who could not consume the Passover offering. These included any non-Israelite, specifically any non-circumcised male such as one’s slave, a resident alien, two categories of employed laborers, and any Israelite who was not circumcised. The Torah makes clear that circumcision is the distinction that determines eligibility for consuming the Passover offering. We might imagine the absurdity of the scene at that first seder in Egypt: households preparing for this major feast before the Lord in anticipation of real freedom, suddenly in an uproar as male celebrants are forced to show their credentials at the door, or to submit to circumcision before they can be part of the celebration. A passage like this likely offends liberal Western sensibilities because it emphasizes exclusivity of membership in the Israelite clan as well as the primitive blood ritual of circumcision, what we call brit milah, as the price to be paid for acquiring membership. Isn’t the seder experience supposed to celebrate the universality of freedom and the struggle against oppression in which all good people are included? Further, why would the Torah demand that a man undergo a ritual such as circumcision in order to be part of what should be a beautiful reenactment of the quest for freedom?

Our contemporary seder is a ritualized re-telling of the Exodus story that has been generously reinterpreted over millennia through the prisms of many different individuals and groups seeking to find their own stories of slavery and freedom in it. Today’s seders, even among plenty of Orthodox Jews, include non-Jewish colleagues, friends, and family for whom this re-telling is often their first encounter with Judaism and the power of the Jewish experience. However, the actual consumption of the ancient Passover offering was an exclusive affair of the Jewish community; its ticket of admission was circumcision. This reflects one major value of Judaism that many people do not like but about which the Torah is unabashed: Jewish identity and community are at times highly particularistic. Further, unlike Christianity whose major criterion of membership is what or how you believe, a major criterion of Jewish membership is how you behave and what you do, including what you do with your body to show that you are part of the Jewish people.

Asserting the distinctiveness of Jewish identity and community has never been an easy thing for the Jews. It has been the major source of anti-Semitism and persecution of our people for many thousands of years, beginning with pagan and early Christian refusals to accept that the Jews have a right to be different. From the time of the Spanish Inquisition all the way through to the development of modern anti-Semitism and Nazism, this same hatred of Jewish distinctiveness took on virulent racial and blood-line overtones: being Jewish wasn’t simply a curse that could be overcome through the abandonment of Judaism, it was an inherent state of imperfection, even pathology, that could never be eradicated without physically destroying the Jewish people.

One of the most telling examples of these enormous challenges to Jewish distinctiveness has been circumcision. When they occupied the land of Israel many centuries ago, the Greeks derided this Jewish practice as a barbaric mutilation of the body that stood in stark contrast to the Hellenistic emphasis on the body’s perfection as living sculpture. Eager to fit in at the Greek gymnasium, many Jewish men of that time sought to hide this mark on their bodies, while others practiced it even under the threat of persecution and death at the hands of some Greek authorities. Later rabbis living in the land of Israel under the Romans’ occupation energetically taught their fellow Jews that circumcision is what makes the body beautiful, rather than what the dominant culture asserts is beautiful, because this is what God asks of us.

In our time, this age-old debate over circumcision has taken on a very destructive tone. Anti-circumcision activists, under the cover of child advocacy, have turned their guns on the freedom of Jews and Muslims to practice our religions by attempting to put anti-circumcision laws on city and statewide ballots across the country. They argue mostly that circumcision is mutilation no different from mutilation forced upon young girls in developing nations. Further, since there is no evidence that circumcision has any medical benefits, all it does it cruelly rob a person of full sexual fulfillment in his adult life; a person is perfect as he is from birth and not in need of such barbaric procedures. These arguments are both old and new, but they are all, in my opinion, disingenuous, and some are motivated by pure bigotry. Brit milah is a profoundly embodied sign of a new Jewish boy’s relationship with God, Jewish history and our people, as the Torah shows us in numerous passages. It bears no real resemblance to female genital mutilation which is used in some cultures to utterly, brutally control women’s sexuality and lives. Further, the argument that circumcision robs men of their sexual capacities wrongly assumes that this can somehow be measured and tested. It obsessively focuses on the anatomy and physiology of a body part as the exclusive determinant of sexuality, an offensively reductionistic way of thinking about relationships, love and desire, and it sends a crude, insidious message that Jewish men are somehow weak and disabled by virtue of their Jewishness. Finally, though circumcision’s benefits are not medically undisputed, there is a body of research indicating that it may be beneficial. However, even if this were not the case, it would be religiously irrelevant: Jews and Muslims don’t circumcise their kids for medical reasons, we do this because this is how we connect to God, history, peoplehood, our values, and our identities.

Obviously, not everyone who opposes circumcision is an anti-Semite, and I respect any Jewish family’s right not to perform brit milah on their own children, as long as they don’t try to tell me or my community what to do as religious people. However, I would ask them the following questions before they make such a decision. Is your decision motivated by a well-thought out opposition to brit milah based upon careful study of its history and meaning? Are you opposed to brit milah on the basis of misinformation that often terrorizes parents of newborns into believing that they are hurting their kids? Do you really want one of the most basic rites of passage into the Jewish family, whose power is precisely its primitiveness, to be a mere matter of choice? Can you stay open to the fact that, within the bounds of safety and parental responsibility, not every act and ceremony needs to be rational or fit the dominant culture’s demands? That religion is sometimes about leaps of faith of a whole community into a different way of living in the world, one that lends a depth of meaning to its adherents’ lives? Do you recognize that as a Jewish family the most potent way for you to be a part of the world is at times to live apart from the world, to embrace the universal by living proudly within what makes us particular?

Like the Passover offering, brit milah is an uncomfortable yet powerful reminder that to be Jewish is to choose to be more than just an individual, it is about choosing to be part of a sacred people called forth by God with a huge mission to heal the world, throughout the dimensions of time and space. It is one permanent symbol that helps us to literally embody that mission in our lives as individuals and as a community.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


Dvar Torah For Parshat Shmot 5772.

You know the old sexist saw that behind every great man is a great woman? One way to think about Moses whom we met once again in the Torah this morning, is that behind him and his success stand a number of even greater women; some of them are never given names by the Torah, and almost all of them can only carry out their missions through subterfuge, since they lack the power of men in their society. The first two chapters of Exodus offer us a bonanza of these incredibly courageous women who toil quietly and subversively to resist Pharoah’s genocidal decree and to save Moses, the savior of Israel. Whether or not they are Hebrew midwives or non-Jewish midwives to the Hebrews, Shifrah and Puah exploit their expertise and their proximity to women in labor to save innocent children from being murdered; Pharaoh’s daughter exploits her position of power to violate her father’s laws, as she knowingly brings this Hebrew baby into the royal palace and raises him right under her father’s nose, even to the point of giving him a name; Moses’ as-yet unnamed sister intervenes with Pharaoh’s daughter by offering her their mother as a wet nurse to feed and care for baby Moses. All of these women enter a conspiracy of compassion against Pharaoh and the Egyptian state, using their intelligence and love for this one child and for all the children at risk, to disrupt the apparatus of a terrorist regime. The rabbis of the Talmud are so impressed by the role of women in these Torah narratives that they tell all sorts of tales about how all the Hebrew women encouraged their despondent husbands to not lose hope or the desire to bear more children. The Talmud even declares that women should not be exempted from the obligation of being part of the Pesach seder - a time –bound, positive commandment from which Jewish women would normally be exempted according to Jewish law. They reason historically that women were also active participants in the redemption from Egypt, and they too must be part of the seder experience.

Because of all the courageous, quick-thinking behavior of these heroines, Tzipporah’s arrival on the scene in this Torah portion stands out as an enigma. She and her sisters are portrayed initially as shepherdesses- in-distress whom Moses the Egyptian stranger must save from the male thugs hassling them at the local well. When Reuel, her father, questions her about why she did not offer Moses hospitality after his brave act of kindness, we get the feeling that she is a somewhat passive, perhaps not-too-bright eldest daughter, or that she is perhaps a rather young girl. We read that Moses marries Tzipporah, in accordance with ancient near eastern marriage laws requiring the eldest daughter to be married first. After that, all we are told is that Moses takes leave of his father-in-law to return to Egypt on a mission from God to redeem his people, and that he takes Tzipporah and their son, Gershom with him into the heart of the danger. We never hear about Tzipporah’s reaction to her husband’s decision, and later rabbinic writers have to supply an imaginative dialogue in which her father tells his son-in-law that putting his wife and child in the way of harm is a really bad idea. Later rabbinic interpretations of the Torah suggest that Moses becomes celibate as he gets closer to God during the forty years’ wandering in the desert, thus presumably leaving Tzipporah in a miserable married state with an emotionally and sexually unavailable spouse. A very late midrashic source even imagines Tzipporah lamenting to Miriam, her sister-in-law, about the terrible situation of the wives of communal leaders.

It seems that only one biblical story, an extremely strange and elliptical one, offers us a much more forceful, complex view of who Tzipporah really is. Turn back with me to this morning’s Torah portion in Humash Etz Hayyim, pages 336-337, verses 24-26:

At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Tzipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!” And when He (God) let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.”

Everything about this bizarre, chilling story hints at even more ancient tales of the angry God or gods being warded off by blood, which serves as an apotropaic, a magical ritual or device that protects people from evil. For a parallel example, think about the blood of the first Pesach offering being splashed on the doors of the Israelites to ward off the impending plague of the firstborn. In our scene, at least as it is understood by many commentators, Moses has failed to perform brit milah, circumcision, on his son, who is now presumably the one imperiled by God’s desire to kill him. Circumcision is the sign of the covenant, and without it a person cannot be part of the covenanted community.

A lot is unclear in these verses: is Moses in danger or is their son in danger? Does Tzipporah take the foreskin and touch it to Moses’ leg or to their son’s leg? What is a bridegroom of blood, and who does it actually refer to, Moses or the child? What is very clear is that Tzipporah not only acts in this crisis situation, she acts quickly and decisively to stop God from hurting her family. How astounding it is that only Tzipporah is named here, along with God, with no men intervening. She and God are alone in a life-and-death battle that requires the actual drawing of blood, not for death but for life. Even more astounding is that Tzipporah takes the radical initiative of performing a brit milah, a religious circumcision, one of the most sacred, mysterious Jewish rituals that focuses exclusively and publicly on the religious identities and power of Jewish men. The Rabbis take this mysterious biblical tale and expand it into an even wilder tale in which Tzipporah sees God’s angel swallow Moses, from his head to his genitalia, and she then realizes that her family is in mortal danger because of Moses’ dereliction in carrying out the mitzvah of circumcision on their son, a mitzvah she values highly.

This portrayal of Tzipporah is refreshingly paradoxical: she is deeply faithful to her adopted religion, including its male-centered rituals and leadership, yet within that framework she is an aggressive advocate for her family, she takes bold religious initiatives, and she fights openly with God! Though they make many patriarchal assumptions and rules about women’s status, the Torah and its rabbinic interpreters recognize Tzipporah’s public activism as a normative role model for traditional Jewish women. Sadly, this model is being seriously threatened in parts of the Jewish world today, as Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy (in Hebrew, Haredi) grows increasingly belligerent and misogynistic. Using Jewish laws of modesty as an excuse, some rabbinic authorities and lay leaders here and especially in Israel have intensified their campaign to utterly segregate men and women in ways frightfully reminiscent of Jim Crow laws in the south. These have included sex-segregated private bus lines that are publicly franchised by New York City in Brooklyn and public bus lines in Israel that are illegally segregated in religious neighborhoods. In both circumstances, women are literally relegated to the back of the buses. Another recent example of brutal sex segregation was the sickening harassment of 8 year old Naamah Margolis of the Israeli city of Bet Shemesh, who was spat upon and verbally abused as she walked to the new Orthodox girl's yeshivah that she attends in that city. Her harassers, members of a violent Haredi faction, claim that she and other girls were not dressing modestly enough to be allowed to walk in public. The outcry from all segments of the Israeli street, including some in the Haredi community, as well as community leaders and politicians, has so far been significant, and peaceful protests against the encroachment upon women's rights -and upon democratic protections- within Israeli society have been growing. Still, such brazen public attempts at repressing women are chilling.

The Haredi community has never supported the religious equality of men and women; it is not egalitarian, and it is not our right to tell Haredi Jews that they must practice Judaism as we do. However, what I am describing is not traditional religious practice, but the perversion of Jewish law in an effort to forcefully silence the public voices and presence of women, even if American and Israeli law and culture forbid someone from doing so. Particularly in Israel, where aggressive Haredi political parties often have their fragile government coalitions by the throat, the growing repression of women is encroaching upon public space and the rest of Israel’s citizenry. This adds to an already contentious relationship between religious and secular Jews around a wide variety of issues that engender deep resentment and divide Israeli society. We are not Israeli citizens, yet as Jews, Zionists, and supporters of democracy, we have a genuine vested interest in helping all women in the State of Israel to live freely and without fear. The increased public repression of women is one canary in the coal mine of Israeli democracy that is facing increasing challenges from political and religious ultra-rightists in the Israeli government and religious community. Under the guises of security and religiosity they are slowly eroding basic protections for women, minorities, and those with differing political view points. This is not good for Israel as a democracy. Yet it is also not good for Israel as a young, vibrant society. Israel needs Shifrah and Puah, the daughter of Pharaoh, Miriam and Yocheved: women who have the strength and the courage to work with men and challenge men to continue to build a state and a Jewish people founded upon justice. Most of all, Israel, the Jewish people and the world need Tzipporah: women for whom Judaism matters vitally, and who are also not afraid to speak their minds and act forcefully in behalf of others in the midst of crisis, when the gravity of the hour calls for it.