Friday, April 23, 2010

Acahrei Mot Kedoshim 5770: What is Abhorrent?

This weeks double portion covers a lot of ground, starting with the procedures for sacrifice on what will become to be known as Yom Kippur, then going through many ethical and social laws. Many are sexual in nature, such as those against Adultery and incest. Some are ethical principles like:

17. You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall reason with your neighbor, and not allow sin on his account.18. You shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.[Leviticus 19]

Others, are ones which make little sense, or requiring a bit of puzzling:

19. You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with mixed seed; nor shall a garment mixed of linen and woollen come upon you.[Leviticus 19]

or these:

26. You shall not eat any thing with the blood; nor shall you use enchantment, nor observe times. 27. You shall not round the corners of your heads, nor shall you mar the corners of your beard. 28. You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you; I am the Lord.
Yet one in this double portion has caused a lot of puzzlement as to its meaning. Most will take a plain meaning, but some have problems with that, and I have lots of questions about it.

22. You shall not lie with a male, as with a woman; it is abomination[Leviticus 18]

13. If a man also lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.[Leviticus 20]

The two places in Torah which many believe ban same sex relationships has been a puzzle to me. The puzzle is in the Hebrew, both in style and vocabulary. Hebrew tend to make things into a poetic parallel structure: for example:

27. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female He created them.[Genesis 1]
The repetition of phrases is very apparent, but in this verse there is another pairing of interest as well: "male and female." We see this repeated often in talking about different species and their males and females of the species. Often we hear of "Man and woman." Both of these have a symmetry that is stylistically consistent in Hebrew. But these two verse in Leviticus change that to "man and male" or "male and woman" depending how you pair it. Either way this is an inconsistency. And I wondered why.

My belief is that ish,איש man denotes an adult. on the other hand zacar זכר male, is not so clear on age. Looking in context most cases where zacar is not paired with female discuss the case of something male and young, either of animals or of humans. As many have had problems with, the phrase "as with a woman" provides a second problem. since males do not have the same physical organs as woman it is impossible to mate with a male as with a female. Yet, there is nowhere in Torah which explicitly or even suggestively ban anal sex with a male of female. So how could a male be like a woman?

The word for "lies with" שכב may suggest a possibility. Cases of rape and incest always use this verb to describe sex. This is not the intimate "knowing" ofiten used, but something less mutual. Shacav as a verb is often used in Leviticus 18 to describe the types of incest, written as a case of a man acting on a female. It bans men from acting on their urges against women within their family. This is a text that believes men is dominant to women sexually. Thus it may be that to be "like a woman" is to be forced into sex.

What I have come up with is that 18:22 and 20:13 is not about two male adults in an consensual intimate relationship, but a adult having sex onto a minor, who is not able to either understand or resist what is happening. For many years I have used such a interpretation to understand and deal with these verses which have caused so much hate against people's choice of who to love. Yet I still have a problem, and that is the death penalty for both participants in such a relationship. It's not the only death penalty like this of course, both parties in adultery are to be executed. But more significant is the case of bestiality:

15. And if a man lies with a beast, he shall surely be put to death; and you shall slay the beast. 16. And if a woman approaches any beast, and lies down to it, you shall kill the woman, and the beast; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.[Leviticus 20]
The problem I have is in the case of the beast and the case of a young male is the powerless party is found guilty along with he aggressor. They are treated as though they were willing participants, yet the way I understand the verses, that is not the case. The case of the woman, as we will found out in Deuteronomy 22, may not end in death for her, but could end in death for the rapist depending on her known resistance. Why in child abuse and bestiality does the victim have to pay the price? The biblical death penalties have been rendered harmless by the legal acrobatics of the Rabbis of the Talmud, but there is this idea of killing the victims that still bothers me. In contrast we read:

2. Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.[Leviticus 19]
I'm not feeling very holy right now. I actually feel a lot of doubt. the idea of one atrocity being solved with another bothers me greatly. I struggle with it, as I struggle with a lot of things lately. What really is abhorrent practices? Many around the world today think my way of living as a liberal straight male Jew is abhorrent. I think about how many things I think are abhorrent that people get away with. We read of institutionalized child sacrifice"Passing seed through fire to Molech", and of people turning their heads to ignore such practices. Both parent and silent witnesses are guilty according to the text. Thinking about the abuse scandals that rock some large religious institutions, and how many simply turned their heads away makes me wonder what is abhorrent. While I gave an interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 as one of child abuse, this same institution continues to enforce it in its more common meaning. Looking at the news at any one time, and noting that adulterers are also given a death penalty, how can one think same-sex unions of any kind are any more abhorrent?

My view of Torah is to struggle with it. Yet I find it hard to struggle sometimes, and lately I've had a hard time even struggling, as things get too confusing. There are things in the text that I just don't get. Some people find this parasha, notably Leviticus 19, as a code to be holy. Sandwiched between Leviticus 18 and 20 I don't know how holy it can be. All I know is being holy does not mean being fair.

What is abhorrent? To be honest I don't know.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Tzaria -Metzora 5770: Cleaning House

This week we have a double Torah portion and one of the longest of such readings. The chapters in Leviticus include many different clinical diseases including tzarat, often and wrongly called leprosy; and tzav, which most authorities believe was gonorrhea. The text presents their symptoms and cures rather clinically. In Chapter 14 there is procedures for sick building syndrome - when a house has tzarat. I find the concept of the sick building, the building with tzarat, a fascinating issue.

For the diagnostic procedures, we read in Leviticus 14:34-38

34. When you come to the land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession, and I put the disease of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession; 35. He who owns the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, "It seems to me there is a disease in the house;" 36. Then the priest shall command that they empty the house, before the priest goes into it to see the disease, that all that is in the house be not made unclean; and afterwards the priest shall go in to see the house;37. And he shall look on the disease, and, behold, if the disease is in the walls of the house with depressions, greenish or reddish, which in look lower than the wall; 38. Then the priest shall go out of the house to the door of the house, and shut up the house seven days;
The diagnosis of a reddish or greenish depression in the walls is consistent with mold growth, a very common cause of sick building syndrome. Sick building syndrome is an indoor air quality issue where contaminants from the building itself released into the air are casing illness. Sometimes it’s chemical, as in the cases of certain types of insulation or paint leaving noxious odors in the room. Often it’s associated with mold. Common construction materials, particularly dry wall and plaster appear to be great growth materials for mold once they become wet. A leak in a pipe, a leaky roof, or a bad spill allows water to absorb into the wall, providing the right conditions to grow. Once it starts to grow, it isn’t the priest we call but according to federal regulations, we hire specially licensed bio-hazard teams completely outfitted in contamination suits. In their mold remediation procedures they have to remove the mold with full environmental isolation then disinfection of the area, particularly if it is in a workplace.

Plaster and similar compounds has been around since biblical times. The same situation could happen with clay mortar as well. I learned about this in college when one of the requirements of my senior project in sculpture (the artist version of a thesis) was to maintain the studio, and that meant scooping out the moldy clay in the trap used to prevent clay from clogging sewer lines. Sometimes I thought there was more mold than clay. With dried, unfired clay it’s possible that the mortar would begin to disintegrate as well under the influence of the mold. Therefore it is possible the mortar would be pitted as Leviticus tells us. The tzarat of buildings is probably a mold problem in the walls.

The first step in biblical mold remediation is to remove all items from the area to prevent them from becoming contaminated, or in biblical terms becoming unclean. From my recent experience, I think that is a large part of the spiritual story. Last July, I moved from my studio apartment to a one bedroom apartment in anticipation of Sweetie moving in with me. It meant totally stripping rooms of everything like Leviticus 14:36. Even though I have a studio, it was a lot of work for one person.

But something happened along the way. As I moved things around I found things that had been in my apartment way too long and really needed to be thrown out. When trying to fit an entire living room into a galley kitchen, reducing it by bringing it to “the unclean place outside the city;” also known as the trash chute, is ideal. Some things were paperwork from eight years ago I had been saving for some reason, a large collection of old magazines, and a lot of old knickknacks. So along with moving everything I also threw out a lot of stuff including clothing that hasn't fit in years. Many had old memories attached to them, but out they went anyway. What I moved into was very different than what I left. Yet, I still had too much stuff, as Sweetie noted when she moved in with me. She was right, and more right than I think she knew. I thought about that this week, as I cleaned out my closet once again of my Hawaiian shirts. Most didn't fit, so they ended up in the donation pile.

This new apartment is very different than my last apartment. But it is not in what is there alone. It is how I do things. I didn't own a recycle bin in my last apartment, but now I put things in the correct bin when it is recycling or trash. Much of who I was as a single guy is gone and thrown in the trash too. Clothes do not belong on the floor anymore, but in the hamper for example. In the last year I cleaned out the mold in my head too, and I'm better for it.

I think a big part of the tzarat of the house is the metaphorical stuff we keep around for too long. It eventually gets “moldy.” In my case it was old papers and magazines. When tzarat of the house happens the infectious agent needs to go or we need to go. There are three outcomes of this inspection by the priest: one is the tzarat goes away and everything is moved back in after a sacrifice, another is the tzarat doesn’t change and the place where it is found is removed and taken to the trash dump. And the third is that if grows back, then the house is condemned and destroyed. Removing Tzarat in this way is like many of the modern explanations of cleaning for hametz before Passover. The pre-Passover cleaning is an annual spiritual cleaning along with finding breadcrumbs around the house and changing dishes. The difference between hametz and tzara'at however is visibility: with hametz we know what we are looking for, with tzarat it may be sitting invisible until it “gets wet” and shows up suddenly. Hametz, which is a scheduled thing for the time between Purim and Passover, but God decides on an individual basis when tzarat will show itself in our house. It’s still the junk we need to get rid of, but it hides better. If we don’t get rid of it, we eventually lose the house.

I'm glad I did that cleaning. I have a lot more to do I think, though not in the apartment, more in my head.

From a sick building point of view, moving out all your furniture is not always a good idea: you might end up contaminating the whole neighborhood. Deciding what in our lives we want to throw away, no matter how painful, and what we want to keep however is a significant exercise. Tzarat of the house is not just a sanitary cleaning; it is a spiritual cleaning as well.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Shimini 5770: Are Chocolate Covered Crickets Kosher?

It s an odd and silly question,but it once bothered me. Not that I'd ever eat such a thing but as a exercise in rabbinic thinking it was one that came up once during my advanced Hebrew class.

At the time we were translating this weeks portion Shimini. The question arose while translating the following verses:

20. All birds that creep, going upon all four, shall be an abomination to you. 21. (K) Yet these may you eat of every flying creeping thing that goes upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap with upon the earth; 22. These you may eat: the locust after its kind, and the bad locust after its kind, and the cricket after his kind, and the grasshopper after its kind.23. But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination to you.[Leviticus 11]

If crickets, locusts and grasshoppers are permitted, the question arose could you have a glass of milk with them? Could you cover them in milk chocolate and eat them? What are they - meat like beef and chicken? Are they pareve, like fish? The Talmud is explicit in saying yes:

Every kind of flesh is forbidden to be cooked in milk, excepting the flesh of fish and of locusts; and it is also forbidden to place upon the table [flesh] with cheese, excepting the flesh of fish and of locusts.[Hullin 103b]

But why is this so? There are two passages of Talmud and one biblical text that will help here. One is the way chicken is designated as meat. The second is how to eat venison. Finally, how fish gets its status as pareve. There is an argument in the Talmud about the status of chicken as meat, and if it was permissible to eat chicken with dairy products. The sage Yose the Galillean made a simple argument

R. Yose the Galilean says, it is written, “you shall not eat of anything that dies of itself.”[Deuteronomy 14:21] and in the same verse it is written, “you shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk”; therefore whatsoever is prohibited. Under the law of nebelah it is forbidden to cook in milk. Now it might be inferred that a fowl, since it is prohibited under the law of nebelah, is also forbidden to be cooked in milk; the verse therefore says. “In its mother's milk”; thus a fowl is excluded since it has no mother's milk.[Hullin 113a]

Since mommy chickens have no milk the biblical rule is not addressing poultry, only mammals. But after several folios the rabbis make a rather elegant argument: Permitted birds and beasts are both animals that could be used for sacrifices. In order to be used for sacrifices they had to be prepared and treated on a specific way. Not treating or preparing them for sacrifice in this way renders the animal invalid or nebelah. Outside of the temple sacrifices the secular eating of the same animals requires the same preparation. It was not the species or whether it did or did not produce milk, but the method of preparation of the meat to be considered acceptable for sacrifice or eating that classified things as meat.

The extension applies to animals that are non sacrificial but fit to eat as well. In Deuteronomy the list of permitted animals for consumption grows to include other split hoove animals that are not sacrificial such as venison, but with the stipulation that these animals are handled the same way the sacrificial animals are such as beef or lamb[Deuteronomy 12:22, 14:5]. Thus all permitted animals must follow the rules of care, slaughter and preparation.

On the other hand we have the permitted seafood which has fins and scales. Both of these are considered pareve, although they are either potential kosher poultry or a living swimming creature. In discussing the permissibility of parasitic worms in seafood versus cattle, the Talmud mentions something interesting.

Cattle are [in a forbidden state until] rendered permitted by slaughtering, and since these maggots had not been rendered fit by slaughtering, they always remain in the forbidden state. Fish, on the other hand, are [always in a permitted state, for they are] permitted by the mere taking up; the maggots therefore generated in a permitted state.[Hulllin 67b]

In short, because fish have no sacrificial preparation step, they are kosher from the time they are caught. By not having those sacrificial steps, they are not considered meat but something that is not meat, and thus they can be mixed with milk. The winged things on fours which are permitted are like fish in this respect. There is no sacrificial procedure that needs to be followed, so they are not meat, but pareve like fish, and thus one could eat them with a milk chocolate coating.

Of course there is a problem to this permission for chocolate covered grasshoppers and crickets. We are not sure of the species permitted, so most modern Ashkenaz authorities, to prevent the consumption of a creeping thing, ban all insects including grasshoppers and locusts, even though the Talmud is explicit on identifying such creatures:

Of locusts: all that have four legs, four wings, leaping legs, and wings covering the greater part of the body, [are clean]. R. Jose says, it must also bear the name locust’. [Hullin 59a]
So for those who are getting sick thinking about chocolate covered locusts, you will have a hard time finding them in your local kosher grocery store.