Friday, March 21, 2008

Tzav/Purim 5768: Treif and Galut

This week covers more procedures for the sacrifice in the Mishkan, and then the record of those first sacrifices. Like many of these chapters about the sacrificial procedure, it is seemingly irrelevant to things today: indeed it was seemingly irrelevant to the world of even the Rabbis who didn’t have a temple either. Where we find things irrelevant, like sacrifices, it is time to look closer at the text for deeper meaning, for some things standing the test of time. This week we read:

19. And the flesh that touches any unclean thing shall not be eaten; it shall be burned with fire; and as for the flesh, all who are clean shall eat of it. 20. But the soul who eats of the meat of the sacrifice of peace offerings, that belongs to the Lord, having his uncleanness upon him, that soul shall be cut off from his people. 21. Moreover the soul who shall touch any unclean thing, as the uncleanness of man, or any unclean beast, or any abominable unclean thing, and eat of the meat of the sacrifice of peace offerings, which belongs to the Lord, that soul shall be cut off from his people. 22. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 23. Speak to the people of Israel, saying, You shall eat no kind of fat, of ox, or of sheep, or of goat. 24. And the fat of the beast that dies of itself, and the fat of that which is torn by beasts, may be used in any other use; but you shall in no wise eat of it. [Leviticus 7:19-24]

The book of Leviticus centers on the issue of tamei and tahor , often translated unclean and clean. Yet, another translation could be Contaminated and pure. Thinking about contamination has been my profession for quite a while. When I’m not writing this commentary, I’ve been an environmental health professional, what many commonly call a health inspector. I’ve been looking for contamination in restaurants and restaurant food. But for the last five, as part of my graduate studies I’ve thought about contamination differently too. As I’ve explored Torah along with my environmental health background, I’ve begun to see some interesting patterns between my public health career and the Levitical code. Over the next few weeks I’ll be discussing some of them. Until we get to Parshat Acharei Mot, tamei situations are thematic for much of this text.

One of these issues of tamei, we refer to as treif. While the context of the passage above applies to the temple service, it was not hard to extend it to all eating, as other passages elsewhere give details of this prohibition. If meat comes into contact with impure things it is not to be eaten. If a person handling food is clean, that they didn’t touch impure things, such as an infection on a human, or a pig, they may eat it. The fat of the animal was not to be eaten. Other forms of unclean included where an animal dies on its own or is torn by another animal the food animal is not clean enough to eat. But one can use that fat for other purposes, say axle grease.

While tamei often parallels contamination from biological, chemical and physical sources, it really is another type of contamination: spiritual contamination. In some way which is not completely explained, certain acts render a people and things contaminated. Like bacteria or chemical residue, such contamination can transfer between a contaminated object and a person or a person and the food they consume. I actually use the translation of tamei as spiritual contamination when talking to public health officials about faith based eating practices and how they conduct food inspections of faith based facilities. While what the actual contaminant is, and why we shouldn’t eat it change by faith, whether I’m dealing with the Islamic Hallal/Haram food codes, Kashrut, Hindu vegetarianism, or certain prohibitions among Christian sects, all can understand someone’s reluctance in terms of a contaminating agent.

But through an evolution of things, and based on our passage, when Jews talk about spiritually impure foods that is not the word we use. Instead we use the term treifa. Treifa actually means torn, and really applies to one case of tamei, that of one animal tearing up another animal. But we can see in that case it means the meat is unclean and prohibited from being eaten. While our passage in Leviticus 7:24 refers to the fat of a treifa animal, Exodus 22:30 mentions the flesh and Leviticus 22:8 prohibits eating any part of the animal. By rabbinic times it referred not only to kosher animals that were torn by beasts, but animals that were torn by anything. As treifa became one of the common standards to determine the suitability of an animal, it began to be used for any animal which was unfit for kosher slaughter, thus prohibiting from slaughter “downer” animals that were too ill to be slaughtered or could not walk. From there, instead of referring to just the status of meat, it began to be used for any other food that was not considered kosher, essentially replacing tamei. In the Yiddish vernacular glatt, which really meant certain organs in a kosher animal had no tumors, eventually meant strictly kosher and its opposite was treif, not kosher.

But the term treif did not end with just food, but often is now used to talk about anything not kosher. I find it interesting that the term has become a derogatory term used by some observant Jews to talk about other Jews not following the same observances as themselves. Having to bear it often at the Orthodox Hebrew school during my preparation for my bar mitzvah, it has bothered me that a term meant to describe a specific status of a food product is used for lashon hara. In one poetic sense however, I can see their point. Something holy is rendered unholy by the attack of a belligerent third party. The holy Jew, is torn by the secular world, and thus becomes non observant. But the imagery falls apart when we realize that any such attack is non voluntary. The cow does not go out to meet the wolf to be torn. In this understanding, Treif is not derogatory, but tragic -- the treifa animal is a victim, not a volunteer. I doubt anyone would have the chutzpa to call a holocaust survivor treif, but in many ways, they are victims of wild aggression, bearing the tears and scars.

I’ve been having a lot of problems writing this column lately. I’ve been feeling kid of treif my self, but in a variation of treif. I seem unable to get these columns out for both issues of time to prepare and a spiritual drive to write. In the last few weeks, I feel like I’ve been torn. Thinking of two other people in this circumstance came to mind last night.

5. There was a Jewish man in Shushan the capital, and his name was Mordecai, son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjamite; 6. Who had been exiled from Jerusalem among the captives exiled with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had exiled. 7. And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter; for she had neither father nor mother, and the maid was beautiful and of good presence; and, when her father and her mother died, Mordecai adopted her as a daughter.[Esther 2:5-7]

We have in Mordecai and Esther two people completely torn from the world as they knew it. Not only that, they are told by Jeremiah that God decrees they are to stay put for seventy years [Jeremiah 29]. According to the biblical text, these are the first people to go into exile. After centuries of living in the land of Israel, the first set of people are forced to leave the land. Among those are Mordecai and his extended family. Whether Esther was born in exile or in the land is never made clear, but she is the first generation to grow up in a land not her own. She and Mordecai define another type of treif: People torn from their land, or put another way torn from their reality and placed into another’s.

We are all in galut, in exile in some way. Being so, we are also all treif, torn in some way from the connection that makes us live and our lives special. Lately I’ve been brooding about where I wanted my life to go. I’m an incredible public speaker, and it is lecturing and teaching, both to a handful and a room of 500 that gives my life meaning. Whether it is D’vrei Torah or a lecture on a technical issue concerning contamination I’m most alive in front of an audience. I spent five years of my life getting myself into a position to do that for a living through grad school. Then, just as I got ready to graduate, the economy tore my plans to shreds. Deep in my soul, I am very torn right now. What makes me alive in my soul and what is to be my living are not going to be the same things. There will sparse opportunities to do what I truly want, and each are going to be very precious to me.

Yet unlike the treif animal, there is a difference in this spiritual type of treif. Jeremiah in his letter telling the people in exile to stay put tells them also that this is temporary, though it will be a rather long time.

10. For thus says the Lord, That after seventy years are fulfilled at Babylon I will take heed of you, and perform my good word toward you, making you return to this place. 11. For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. [Jeremiah 29:10-11]

Unlike animals, we are allowed to heal from our own disconnection, and not be treif forever, to do so involve prayer:

12. Then shall you call upon me, and you shall go and pray to me, and I will listen to you.13. And you shall seek me, and find me, when you shall search for me with all your heart. 14. (K) And I will allow myself to be found by you, says the Lord; and I will restore you from your captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places into which I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I caused you to be driven away. [Jer. 29 12-14]

Through our wanting and praying for divine connection, we can become whole again in time. I’m not giving up on public speaking, or on my desire to teach about Jewish thought. I realize a lot of what I wanted won’t happen as fast as I would have liked. I’m in galut myself for a while. Yet I can be like Mordecai and Esther, and live in galut, live as a torn person from my dreams and hopes, yet live the best I can under alien conditions. That is the real story of Esther: even when things are bad, live the strongest and best you can. The power of that can be immense. According to one Midrash to the book of Esther [Esther Rabbah VIII: 3], Esther will literally give birth to the return from exile: King Darius II who will order the Jews back to Israel. It might take time but I’ll be whole again too.

In the hangover from all the groggers (or in my case drum) and Purim spiels it’s nice to reflect on some powerful ideas found in this rather odd book of the Tanach. It’s nice to realize not just for me, but for everyone, there is a way to deal with the times when things don’t seem to go your way.

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