The Affliction and the Cure
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The Affliction And The Cure
There’s a beautiful passage in the Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Kiddushin 30b to be exact.
“The Holy One, of Blessing said to Israel: My children, I created an evil inclination, which is the wound, and I created Torah as its antidote.”
There are many praiseworthy things we call our holy Torah. A tree of life, an elixir of life, a love letter of God to the Jewish people, a ketubah (wedding contract). Verses 7 to 10, from Psalm 19, which is recited during the traditional Shabbat morning service expand on this idea:
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Eternal are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Eternal are right,
giving joy to the hear
The commands of the Eternal are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Eternal is pure,
The decrees of the Eternal are firm,
and all of them are righteous.
They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb.”
And it is true: the Torah is singular in its spiritual depth, moral clarity and literary value. The Hebrew Bible as a whole has been topping the Best Seller’s List for quite a few millennia now. As a rabbi, I am always impressed, though never surprised, that I can find meaning, consolation, purpose and inspiration in her words, irrespective on what page I open the book. When I receive church and educational groups at the synagogue, one of my favorite ways to teach about Judaism is to get a Sefer Torah from the Ark, open it and demonstrate a reading from the scroll. Making the Torah real, tangible, concrete provides us Jews with a pedagogical opportunity to teach those around us what the Torah means to us, how it has been our portable source of wisdom and the thrust of our people’s narrative for centuries. The physical act of holding, lifting, dressing and kissing the Torah allows us to emotionally express what is often intellectually hard to describe: that we are in a relational covenant with this text, that it can prompt us to search the inner chambers of our heart and that it encourages us to look out at the world and its yearnings for justice. The daring claim of Judaism, regardless of its denomination, is that Torah is the healing ointment for a wounded world.
How can Shabbat allow us to rest and model a healthier work-life balance? How can the dietary laws invite us into intentional and ecological food choices? How can leaving the corners of one’s field uncut encourage us to think about as well as implement tzedakah: restorative justice?
So yes, we can side with the Talmudic quote: for all our human folly, perhaps we too can believe – or at least temporarily suspend disbelief – that the Torah brings the antidote of Divine wisdom.
This is of course, the best case scenario.
What if, however, it is the Torah itself that causes the affliction? What if it is Torah itself that is hurtful, exclusivist, alienating? What if the Torah itself brings us deep and abiding pain? Can we critique the Torah by using her own moral metrics?
Parashat Emor is not an easy Torah portion. Like Kedoshim, it oscillates between what is we would see as healing and what could be seen as hateful. Emor is central to the idea of a ‘Torat Kohanim’, a Priestly Law, and is concerned with the purity and exclusivity of the Priesthood and the Priestly cult. The rigors of the Priesthood demand perfection: physical perfection of both the officiants and the sacrificial animals, a distancing from death and compliance with exacting standards of ritual purity, even and especially within the bonds of marriage.
The price of perfection is exclusion, of course, and this is where our text becomes difficult, unpalatable and even cruel. The Priest shall not defile himself for the dead, or by marrying a divorced woman, or shall be disqualified from priestly service if in some way ‘defective’. Hence, one who has any type of disability is excluded: the paralyzed, the visually impaired, one who has dwarfism or suffered any number of other types of ‘blemishes’. These stark regulations come to a head with the verse ‘mikol eleh ki mashchatam bahem mum bam lo yirtzu lachem’ – ‘…for they are mutilated, they have a defect; they shall not be accepted in your favor.’ (Lev. 22:26). This line applies to sacrificial offerings but how can we not take it to heart? Is it not inevitable that the sting of the metaphor wounds the real heart? ‘They shall not be accepted in your favor’ is a harsh text. How many of us have felt rejected? Not good enough? Like we don’t measure up somehow, whether it is in general society or in the Jewish community? How many of us feel like we’re ‘out’? The Parashah rubs even more salt in the wounds further on, when recounting an incident of a person who has an Israelite mother but an Egyptian father who is charged with blasphemy and put to death. Whether or not we agree with the system of crime and punishment, there seems to be an extra layer of cruelty by identifying that person’s ethno-religious status, as if the deficiency of his lineage somehow translates into moral failure.
What is our response when our beloved Torah is the very thing than causes the wound?
And yet, we are here today, celebrating the entering of a thoughtful young person into their Brit Mitzvah, their Covenant of the Commandments – a gender non-binary term for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah – a first at our congregation. Judaism today bears testimony to being able to heal the wounds that the Judaisms of the past have inflicted. Whether it is last week’s portion, Kedoshim, with its infamous line excluding many in the LGBTQ community, or this week’s portion, Emor, with its dicta of unattainable perfection, we as the interpretative community have to rise up and challenge the Torah. We have to hold the Torah accountable to her own standards of compassion, mercy and justice. We have to be brave, bold, subversive in how we read and live out these texts so that true sanctification occurs through the hallowing of all human beings and human identities. The Torah can be bitter, but it is up to us to render her words sweet, sweeter than honey. That is the tikkun, the existential repairing, that we must do.
On this eve of your Brit Mitzvah, I hope that your bravery and authenticity and your love for Judaism will be part of that great task. I am proud that you and this community have started this work; may we be blessed to continue that work of expanding the Torah, of building inclusive community and of celebrating all of us created in the Divine image for many years to come.