The Children of Israel Get the Laws of Cleanliness
a.k.a. Parashat Tazria (Leviticus 12: 1 – 13:
God ordered Moses to instruct the people about the required rituals regarding the
birth of a male child. The mother is to be considered unclean for seven days. On the eighth day the boy’s
foreskin is to be circumcised. The mother is to be in state of purification for 33 days and must not come
into contact with any holy thing or holy place.
If a mother gives birth to a girl, she remains unclean for two weeks and is in a state
of purification for 66 days. At the end of this period she must bring a lamb or a young pigeon or turtledove
to the door of the Tent of Meeting so the priest can make an offering for her.
God then instructed Moses and Aaron about what should happen when a person develops a
rash or swelling of the skin, or if the skin becomes burnt or discolored. Such a physical impediment has to
be reported to Aaron or one of his sons. The priest summoned has to examine the skin to see if it is leprous
and then either pronounce the person clean or unclean.
If the person is unclean, he must be shut inside for seven days. If after seven days
the disease has not spread, then the person shall be confined for seven days more. If, after that, the
diseased spot has grown paler and the disease has not spread, then the priest can pronounce the person
However, if the eruption spreads and some skin is raw, then the priest will pronounce
him unclean with leprosy.
The person with leprosy has to identify himself in clearcut ways – his clothes have to
be torn, his hair must hang loose, his upper lip covered and he has to shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” as he
The leper is considered unclean as long as he has the disease. The leper has to live
outside the camp.
Clothes touched by leprosy have to be examined by the priest to see if they are clean
or unclean. Clothes that can be cleaned must be washed until they are fully clean. If they can’t be cleaned,
they must be burnt.
Commentary on the 27th parsha (portion of the Torah). The Torah consists of the
five books of Moses, the first part of the Old Testament.
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are.
He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: Well, I understand that
circumcision is a symbol of the covenant between Jews and God. I think it’s painful and unnecessary, but
since it is the essential part of Jewish identity, I know I cannot ask or argue about that. I think it’s
MS: You understand nothing
about circumcision. Apart from being our most solemn covenant with God, it is also a way of ensuring that men
are easily able to cleanse themselves and stave off diseases.
SAS: It’s all about this
obsession with cleanliness and holiness. Let’s assume that circumcision is actually healthier for men and for
the women with whom they have sex; it still doesn’t explain why God has decreed that women who have given
birth to boys are unclean for 33 days, and even worse, if they have given birth to girls that they are
unclean for double that time. How do you explain this? I thought giving birth was supposed to be wonderful.
Why is the poor mother decreed to be unclean for a month or more? And why does giving birth to girls make you
twice as unclean? There’s something deeply fearful about body fluids and body functions in your belief
system. It’s ritual rubbish if you ask me.
MS: Well, I didn’t ask you,
because I don’t think you understand any of it. Women need to be cleansed of the experience of childbirth. It
is traumatic, both emotionally and physically. The ritual to bring them back into the fold of the community
is a meaningful and beautiful one.
SAS: Go tell that to women
who are made to feel dirty, and who are excluded by law, on the basis of their biological natures. Producing
new members of the tribe, and then being sent into quarantine? How can you justify
MS: Sigmund, you fail to
understand the purpose of ritual, and its overall function in regulating the health and wellbeing of the
community. We must have rules that everyone accepts and abides by. It is in the interest of all parties to
define what is unclean, in order to avoid contamination, and to make clean again that which can be made
SAS: Now, how about leprosy,
eh? Not enough that one has this terrible disease, one has to identify oneself by shouting, “Unclean!
Unclean!” That must give you a good feeling about yourself. You’re exiled to outside the camp,
MS: Let’s talk about context,
shall we? What would you have advised the leaders to do about people with leprosy in their midst? Just
embrace them and all die?
SAS: I think that we Jews are
always obsessed with who’s in and who’s out. We should be called the “choosing” people, not the “chosen
MS: This is a matter of
containing the spread of disease, warning people to keep away from those who could infect them. It’s not
about choosing who’s in and who’s out.
SAS: The fact that this
document remains as evidence of how these leaders behaved should be of historical interest only. I shiver to
think that in modern times we would treat people with diseases in this fashion.
MS: Don’t you understand that
the idea is to stop infection from spreading? Cleanliness is the way to do this.
SAS: We are made of earth,
apparently, according to your scriptures. That’s our nature. We are not pure and clean. Why should we be
ashamed of who we are? Is this not simply a way of controlling the community?
MS: Sometimes communities
need to be controlled. Just like conversations. I’ve work to do.
SAS: Back to the control
tower, Methuselah? I’ll be seeing you, my
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know more about the real history of our
extended Jewish family, read on.
The Rise of Secularism
Around the 17th century the idea took hold that one could be a good Jew
even if one was not a religious Jew. This idea did not come in time to save Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) from
excommunication in the Netherlands. Once the Enlightenment had taken hold in late 18th century
Europe, however, religious belief and affiliation came to seem less important than before. European societies
took on more secular hues.
Spinoza extolled the virtues of free inquiry, rationality and a historicist approach
to the bible. He also challenged the claims of “revealed religion”, and rejected the idea of a transcendent
God. Spinoza was a pantheist and believed that divinity was everywhere. Although Spinoza’s thought paved the
way for secularism, it is not itself secularist.
Secularism is a philosophy based on the view that the sacred realm is either
non-existent, or too removed from the material world to have any relevance. It is concerned with human
projects and life here on earth. According to the secularist, religion does not, or should not, play a
decisive role in this world. Secularists may be deeply antithetical towards religion, or they may see
religion as a private matter that need not be encouraged or discouraged.
Jewish secularism is based on the conviction that the Jewish identity must be
preserved and revered, but within a this-worldly context. Secular Jews have no intention of ever being
assimilated into the culture of the nations in which they find themselves.
Going hand in hand with this view is the perception that Jewish people constitute an
identifiable ethnic and culture group. This view became entrenched among Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern
Europe who viewed themselves as “a people” irrespective of their religious traditions and
Since most Jews would continue to live in the Diaspora, the idea was that they were
united not by geographical proximity, religious faith or political unification, but by a shared
The Jewish Labor Bund in Russian and Poland pushed hard to unite Jews through the
promotion of Yiddish culture. This socialist organization was highly influential among working-class Jews in
the late 19th century and early 20th century. Chaim Zhitlovsky, Simon Dubnow and Ahad
Ha’am promoted a secular, culturally based Judaism. The ideal of Jewish self-reliance in the Diaspora became
known as Jewish Autonomism.
Zhitlovsky came to America in 1908 and argued vigorously against assimilation and he
lobbied for a unified identity around Yiddish as the symbol of Jewish identity. This agenda did not last,
partly because of the power and ubiquity of the English language, which overrode Yiddish while also
swallowing up some of its terminology.
Finally and decisively, the Holocaust destroyed the original Yiddish-speaking
communities, so it was Hitler who indirectly destroyed the viability of a Yiddish-based Judaism in the
Secular Judaism has been closely allied to Jewish Humanism, the doctrine that
Judaism’s history is human-centered, and that reason – not faith – should lead the way as Jews face their
ethical responsibilities within their communities and the world.
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment
by the Father, Chaya and Ben.
CHAYA: So, in fact, being a Jew, according to these ideas, has nothing to do with
believing in God, or the Bible or any of these sacred texts.
DAD: Well, there are many people, not only Jews, who think that our actions in the
world define us, not our allegiance to beloved precepts or traditional rituals.
BEN: Does that mean that if we choose to be secularist we should discard our
traditional rituals and the precepts by which we live?
DAD: Not necessarily. A lot of people enjoy traditional rituals – getting together on
a Friday night, for instance, is something we all enjoy.
CHAYA: So what’s the point of being Jewish then? If we abandon the rituals and the
beliefs, what’s left?
BEN: There’s a whole lot of Jewish history and culture that is very important to me –
with or without God and the Bible. I care about the history of my people, I feel part of this group and I
want it to survive and continue.
CHAYA: Yes, but what’s the group you feel part of? What distinguishes it from other
groups and other people?
DAD: For one thing, many secular Jews believe that reason, not faith, should aid us in
our ethical judgments as we build our Jewish communities. Part of the story also involves
BEN: What’s that?
DAD: Humanism is the belief that humans, not God, determine what happens on earth;
peace and justice, if they occur, will be brought about by human endeavor.
CHAYA: I understand all that, but I don’t understand why we can’t do all this and not
consider ourselves to be Jews.
DAD: Well, I think it’s a complicated issue and there’s more to it than what we’ve
discussed. We also need to think about nationalism and how that
all plays out with ideas of secularism and humanism. We’ll talk about that as soon as we
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment by Dad, Chaya and
Every Shabbat we read five short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and
humour, insightful reflections on this life of ours.
Here are tonight’s sayings:
· The Jew who can’t be a cobbler dreams of becoming a professor.
· No Jew, however learned and pious, may consider himself one whit better than a fellow
Jew, however ignorant or irreligious. (Simcha Bunim)
· If you live long enough, you’ll see everything
· If you come too close to fire, you get burnt; if you stray too far, you’ll be cold;
the art is to find the right distance (Mekilta on Jethro)
· One father manages to support ten children; but ten children don’t seem to be able to
support one father.
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing
to changing the world for the better and having an extraordinary impact on those around
Born in Paris, Citroen
was accepted for the Ecole Polytechnique after graduating from his Lycee
with the highest marks in France! The engineer noticed, while travelling in Poland, some wooden gearwheels lying
outside a workshop. He studied their double-helix form and, in 1904, opened a small workshop with two friends where
they produced double-helical gearwheels. Success with this business resulted in the Mors car company inviting
Citroen to assist them. During World War 1 he was responsible for the mass production of armaments. After the war,
in 1919, he founded the Citroen automobile company. By the early 1930s it had become the fourth-largest automobile
manufacturer in the world. The company’s success was based on technical originality and highly efficient mass
production methods. His company’s greatest success was the TS series of front-wheel drive cars with a body chassis
based on a sheet steel platform. This innovative design was initially a failure, but became highly popular. Citroen
is celebrated for his make of car, with the Citroen brand still in operation today. He is also remembered for
adapting double helical gears for use in motor cars.
Leonid Bernstein was born in the Ukraine and studied at a special
artillery-training academy. He became a legendary soldier and patriot. His allegiance to Judaism is less
evident and he has been accused of anti-Semitic sentiment, evidenced by statements like, “Jews don’t know how
to fight”. He did, however, say, “The fact that I am a Jew actually helped me to a certain extent; I knew I
had to prove myself better, to be better than the rest.” In May 1941, Lieutenant Bernstein was sent to the
border near the region of Przemysl where his group defended an outpost courageously while pinned down by the
enemy. When ordered to retreat they set out land mines and left. He formed the first nucleus of the local
underground organization, engaging mainly in sabotage. He blew
up two trainloads of Germans and equipment and subsequently became head of the partisan detachment’s sabotage
and espionage unit. Following an unsuccessful attempt to plant a land mine at the Shevchenko railway station,
he was captured but escaped and rejoined his comrades. In May 1944, Bernstein parachuted into a POW camp near
the town of Sanok. Many of the camp inmates joined Bernstein’s unit, increasing its ranks to nearly 400. In
September the unit participated in the Slovakian revolt against the Germans, after which Bernstein managed to
rejoin the Soviet army. After the war, Bernstein was awarded the Order of the Red Banner, and received the
Order of the Patriotic War four times, as well as military decorations from Poland and Czechoslovakia. He was
made an honorary citizen of four Polish cities and two cities in Czechoslovakia.
We will now sing a traditional song to conclude our Shabbat celebration. You have a
copy of the words, so please join in as we sing.
The song is sung
Farewell and an Invitation
Thank you for coming together to share our Shabbat. May you go out into the new week
with renewed strength, confidence and happiness.
We now cordially invite you to join us for some coffee and cake.