Tonight’s Torah portion is Parsha Metzora. It’s in Leviticus, and it is notable in that it almost exclusively deals with lesions and discharge.
For a few days, I really did work through possible themes from the parsha. I know that many midrash link this portion to lessons about Lashon Hara. I thought I might make something out of the fact that the word “lesbian” is autocorrected to ‘lesion’ on my android phone. (Seriously – try it.) But, eventually, and perhaps to your relief, I exhausted my search for inspiration in this portion.
When we gathered together last, our scholar in residence Rabbi Benay Lappe shared her insights about “master story” crashes, about meaning making and how some Jews have made and remade what we know to be the essence of Judaism and how we make Jewish.
Each crash requires innovators, “players” who are vested with the authority to say what Judaism will be, who have the power to reboot the system after a crash. When is the last time you brought two turtledoves to the Temple so the Priests could ritually purify you through a guilt offering? Not since a couple crashes ago. The genius of the re-boot is that nearly 2,000 years after it was possible to follow the detailed regulations in Metzora, we have embraced new reasons to gather together in this room and read them out loud to each other.
Rabbi Lappe believes that we are in the midst of a crash as great as the destruction of the Second Temple. Just as the Rabbis of the Talmud re-invented Judaism for a post-Temple world, she believes today’s Judaism needs a bold re-boot to survive into the future.
Rabbi Lappe offered us a radical invitation and profound challenge: Become the one you are waiting for. She believes all that is needed for any one of us to be fully enfranchised to define the Jewish future—to be a player—are two qualifications: 1) to be learned-learning, steeped in Jewish texts and Talmudic tradition, and 2) a deep ethical intuition. She believes that, with study, any Jew (and especially Jewish women, queers and radicals) can become such a Learned One, taking our place beside the Rabbis as makers of the Jewish tradition.
Anyone would think that I would be riding strong for this vision, that I would be the first to sign up for the Yeshiva run by a queer Rabbi that elevates the voices of women and intends to democratize who gets to define Jew. But…CRASH!
I can see that Rabbi Lappe has an innovation that Torah needs. Her insight brings us language to name something we’ve been trying to build intuitively. But amidst my admiration for her passion and insight, I felt a familiar frustration. I tried to breathe through it, to just go with the flow, but the frustration is one I have experienced too many times to ignore well. It is the recurring theme in a kind of Jewish journey, a journey that is more like bumping into a wall, more like a crash, more like a thousand little crashes.
You’ve probably witnessed me in the midst of one of these crashes. Watched me lose my cool in Torah study when we read that the earth swallowed up what’s-his-name with his wives and his children and all his household when his wives and his children and all his household were never given the dignity of acting on their own behalf to earn their own death sentence. Crash.
The erasure and objectification and silencing of all these people smash against me. I feel it. I hear it. The thud. The crunch and clatter. All these crashes piling up.
Now, hold on there, Connie, wait just one minute. Women are equal to men now. Queers can be rabbis! That’s the whole point of 1922, 1972, 1990. Now women take their rightful place on the bima, right alongside the men. In front of the men! We have redeemed the story. Now any woman can do what the men have always done. You can be fully enfranchised to do what the “players” who did things that mattered did. The people who made Judaism. Now you can be Moses, not some unnamed women. Look! I am included now! I am included in chanting, in study, in arbitration. Counted as a person in the minyan. Satisfied? Ahhhh. CRASH!
For me, Rabbi Lappe’s vision of radical Talmud Torah smashes head-on into the unmoveable, unbendable internal sense that I am a person. And the radical, fanatical notion that all my mothers and their mothers and their mothers were each and every one a person. And, that as a person, I am the central protagonist of my own Jewish story. And that they were the protagonist in theirs. That I am the subject. My Jewish story is about me. My life is not a plot point, or prop, or backdrop or object in someone else’s lesson.
So, the Priests and the Rabbis built something important, something powerful. And they had the privilege to create and record and review their work in the bright light. But what I know from being queer is that important, powerful things can be grown in the shade, can even survive in near darkness. I know that all kinds of crap can be composted into vital nutrients. And, perhaps most importantly, I know that a spotlight, no matter how bright it shines, is not the sun. The Priests and Rabbis may have dominated the spotlight, and, sure they could mistake that light for THE LIGHT but they never controlled the sun or what could grow in it.
The galling thing to me about a “Yeshiva as Reboot” idea is that to repair that flaw of exclusion, of the stunted humanity in the master story they told, Talmud Torah is once again gobbling up all the time and attention, still trying to say a spotlight is the sun. Right, we left you out. We didn’t utilize your strengths and wisdom, ladies and various gay gentlemen. That was a terrible oversight. Please come and clean up this mess. Crash.
Okay. If I am the subject of my own life how can the most important thing for me to study, for me to master, be a text stewarded by a sector of Judaism that wouldn’t even let me join them until 1990? I get it, they have said that what they have IS Judaism, and of late, Jews of all genders seem to fully believe them. But how can their great achievements: The Talmud, the Torah, The Temple be my only feasible path to a being a player? My path to a Jewish future?
And this is where misunderstanding can creep in, especially about the solution to the problem I am trying to name. My frustration is not primarily about the inclusions and exclusions. It’s not about correcting a history or impulse of supremacy and dominance, or about rejecting paternalism and patriarchy. Those things are present, but only in relief.
I don’t know what the primary impulse was of the men who worked so hard to keep me from their halls of power. Why they shredded themselves into denominational ribbons to keep their achievements to themselves. Maybe to control me, maybe to protect me, maybe to protect themselves from the distraction of my startling beauty or the awesome power of my moontime flow, whatever, I don’t care.
They may have defined themselves by those exclusions, but I have never marked my life by them, and I suspect other people were not marking their lives by them either. Those exclusions diminished the inherent humanity of the Temple, the Torah, the Talmud—they never diminished the inherent humanity in me.
This isn’t about decrying those exclusions, it’s about affirming something else.
It’s about laying claim to a real Judaism that was built nowhere near the bima, by people who didn’t touch a Torah, or study Talmud. Their shadow didn’t darken the Temple door. But they were still players and makers and doers of essential Judaism.
Their Judaism was relegated to the fine print in the master story. I can live with that. But what my frustration seeks is a way forward that lets you and I take our rightful place alongside them. What if all of us were enfranchised to create Judaism in the way these people had always done?
A Person of Valor, who can find?
She is more precious than rubies.
Her husband places his trust in her and profits only thereby.
She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.
She seeks out wool and flax and cheerfully does the work of her hands.
She is like the trading ships, bringing food from afar.
She gets up while it is still night to provide food for her household, and a fair share for her staff.
She considers a field and purchases it, and plants a vineyard with the fruit of her labors.
She invests herself with strength and makes her arms powerful.
She senses that her trade is profitable; her light does not go out at night.
She stretches out her hands to the distaff and her palms hold the spindle.
She opens her hands to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.
She has no fear of the snow for her household, for all her household is dressed in fine clothing.
She makes her own bedspreads; her clothing is of fine linen and luxurious cloth.
Her husband is known at the gates, where he sits with the elders of the land.
She makes and sells linens; she supplies the merchants with sashes.
She is robed in strength and dignity, and she smiles at the future.
She opens her mouth with wisdom and a lesson of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks after the conduct of her household and never tastes the bread of laziness.
Her children rise up and make her happy; her husband praises her:
“Many people have excelled, but you excel them all!”
Grace is elusive and beauty is vain, but a person who fears God — she shall be praised.
Give her credit for the fruit of her labors, and let her achievements praise her at the gates.
This is a Player.
And what she is praised for, what gives her authority, what makes her a player is not learnedness. It is Competence.
How can I put this gently? For the time being, this is the realm of Judaism that will get my first fruits. For now, the other realm will have to make do with the gleanings. Sure I will bring the turtledoves, a meek offering. But the spotless lamb? The ox? I am keeping them for my own purposes, to serve the Judaism that the Eshet Chayils built in the shadows and in the full sun.
Tonight, I would like to offer a radical invitation and challenge: all we need in order to be enfranchised to create the Jewish future are these two qualifications: 1) deep moral intuition, and 2) serious Jewish competence.
Competence is a path toward shaping the Jewish future that we can’t afford to neglect. And there is no reason to neglect it. We don’t have to choose between aspiring to the learnedness of the Rabbis of the Talmud or the competence of the Eshet Chayil. We can honor the people on this path as the makers, as the players that they are. We can lay the Eshet Chayil into our consciousness and the consciousness of our children.
We are so close. As an example, let’s consider a KHN Eshet Chayil, the last person to ever let you down, Stephanie S. There are so many impressive and incredible aspects to communal life here at KHN, and Stephanie has had a hand in most of them, but perhaps the most profound is her role in helping to found our Burial Society.
Every time I think of it, I am blown away. When I die (ptu, ptu) members of my community, led by Stephanie and the Rabbi, will come and comfort Jake and my grandkids. They will collect my body. They will wash me and wrap me and place me in a box. They will watch over me and mourn with my family as they return me to the earth. They will preserve my dignity and the dignity of the cycle of life and death and the dignity of creation. And through their mastery, their competence, my family will be able to “do Jewish” in a way that few Reform Jews have the opportunity to do.
In our congregational cemetery, the experiment of KHN, of Diasporic Judaism as the center of a vibrant, thriving mixed multitude, is continued. It is a place where our grand experiment of radical hospitality is embodied. Its rules reflect us. Those of us with tattoos can be buried there. Our congregants’ lovers can be buried next to one another, married or not, Jewish or not, straight or not. No secular or non-Jewish iconography is allowed on the flat plaques that will mark our graves. The basic framework of the rules are set, but likely more will come as experience teaches us more about what rules are needed.
These rules are a product of study. Of the KHN version of the Beit Midrash Rabbi Lappe posits. Rabbi Zari led a group of our congregants who committed to study and pilpul and talk and struggle and proposed the first set of rules for this important aspect of KHN life.
But the KHN Burial Society’s initial practice was in place before the adapted rules were. The Competent came to the Learned (many of them were the same people) and said, “hey, folks, this is what we are up to, but we are building while flying here. We need new frameworks that relate to the lives of our community.” They asked for the rules to be established. The Learned learners convened and studied and made meaning and decisions. They sorted through the rules and the premise of those rules and the goals of those rules and the outcomes of those rules once applied and came up with the framework for our Burial Society.
Of course, Life and Death didn’t wait for our process. Our community had already buried someone in the cemetery before those rules were finalized. And I submit it was ever thus. The Competent enact a world that cries for the framework of the Learned, which begs for the application of the Competent, which requires the learning of the Learned. They make each other necessary.
I propose that without this commitment to Jewish competence, our re-invented Judaism is in peril of being all head and no body. All gate and no household. If we lose Eshet Chayil, if we forsake her in the reboot, we lose an entire realm of players. And in losing them, lose the creative force that animates a living Jewish civilization.
We need all of our strength and that requires all the paths to strength.
We’ve fully embraced the vision that everybody should be enfranchised to the realm that was once reserved for men. Through Bnai Mitzvah, we have made it possible that everyone, our girls and our boys, are able to begin to master this real, important, authentic Judaism of the bima.
Now I believe we must embrace a vision where everybody is enfranchised to the realm that was once reserved for women. We should make it possible that everyone, our boys and our girls, are able to master this real, important, authentic Judaism. What if we believed that Eshet Chayil was real Judaism? What if we acted on that belief?
Some folks might balk: It’s not a written tradition. It’s work that is undervalued. It’s “secular” in Diaspora. It’s just the busywork that women got stuck doing and we’re lucky that we don’t have to do it anymore. And anyway, who has time for it? We are already so busy doing the other stuff, the Torah, the Temple, the Talmud. You know, the Jewish stuff.
What if we had to do it? What if it was so essential, so precious, that we had to do it like we have to chant? Like we have to pray? What if we couldn’t imagine Judaism without it?
What if we dedicated ourselves to making Anderson Hall into a beautiful place to celebrate Shabbat together each time we gathered for services? If we laid out glasses and plates, if we baked challah and cleaned up together? What if we learned to do it well? What if we did it with our parents and our children? What if we treated Jewish competence as a serious pursuit that takes time to master? What if we shuddered at the thought of “drive by potlucks”?
What if we spent four years of Hebrew school making sure our kids knew how to host a Seder? Or to set up the sanctuary? To deliver Purim Baskets? Sit Shiva? What if we insisted that our children see their parents practice laying out a beautiful Sabbath table just as we insist they see us studying Torah?
Rabbi Lappe couldn’t stop talking about how special this community is. And, though I am typically reluctant to see things as exceptional, when I think of our burial society, or Roberta’s exquisite Torah mantels, or Rabbi Zari dancing with the Torah, or Pat setting up the sanctuary, or a standing room only Shabbat morning Torah study, or Kathleen learning the alef-bet in order to explore Talmud, or one of a hundred other aspects of KHN life, I have to agree with her.
I think we are right on the cusp of innovating Judaism yet another way. We just have to claim it. We just have to be the subject in our own story.
When our children, as part of their routine bnai mitzvah studies, learn to master home observance of Holy Days as well as their d’var, learn to beautify the mitzvah as well as chant, learn to set up the sanctuary and prepare Anderson Hall for potluck as well as lead the prayers. When we shout Yashur Koach! to celebrate their mastery of these essential competencies as we welcome their entrance into Jewish adulthood—as both Competent and Learned—surely they will be robed in strength and dignity and will smile at the future.