By Rabbi Michael Davis, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Tazria (Leviticus 12:1−13:59)
This Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh Nissan. The days are longer and warmer. Pesach is around the corner. The sound of birdsong is back in Chicago. Spring is here!
This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, opens with the purest simcha: the birth of a child. Leviticus 12 is concerned with the ancient rules of impurity as they apply to the new mother. The rules differ depending on the gender of the baby. Boys and girls are so different that, even as newborns, they determine different rituals for their mother.
Hebrew is a gendered language; everything is either masculine or feminine. And yet, in the most basic of ways, the Torah blurs the line between male and female. Surprisingly, the personal pronouns “he” (hoo) and “she” (hee) are written exactly the same in biblical Hebrew. By just looking at a Torah scroll there is no way to know whether it is a hoo or a hee. This is particularly strange because Hebrew is such a phonetic language. Uniquely, “she” (hee) is the only common Hebrew word in the Torah where the spelling is not phonetic.
Tazria and its companion portion Metzora are particularly confusing since there is no narrative or oratory, just technical details of impurity.
So, the Torah, and particularly this week’s Torah portion, differentiates between the male and the female births while blurring the gender lines of the most basic pronouns.
What can we make of this? And why are we reading Tazria on Rosh Chodesh Nissan as we enter the month of Passover?
I think there is wisdom here in the discomfort and confusion amidst the certainty of gender categories. And Hebrew and the Torah can be our guide.
Like most people, I live in a world where gender is routinely self-evident. Indaily interactions, I can reliably tell right away whether I am talking to a man or a woman. I remember well the time I was at an activist conference and there were groups of transgender people. I found it quite confusing. Girl? No, boy. No, girl….it made my head hurt. I had two opposing gender categories but could not settle on either one.
I suppose that’s what the Torah scroll, particularly Tazria, might look like when reading it for the first time. Should I read heh vav aleph as hoo or hee, he or she? What am I looking at, female or male?
In fact, some of the most transcendent, liberating moments in life can happen when we step outside known categories into new uncertainty.
Here are three instances from my own life:
As an Israeli, it was the time that I joined a group of rabbis visiting a Bedouin encampment. We slipped through a gap in the perimeter fence around a Jewish village and walked a short distance to a cluster of Bedouin tents. I had been to Palestinian areas before, but this was my first coming to them unarmed. Previously, I had always carried a gun or been accompanied by an armed guard. This time, my safety came not from guns but from being a guest. With the question of safety settled, other realities came to the fore. Suddenly, the material poverty of our hosts was so obvious, their quiet dignity vibrantly present, and their need for our support palpable. Stripped of our guns we were vulnerable and so much more alive to the experience.
Last year, I participated in racial equity training in my children’s school district. Our cohort of parents and teachers quickly became a black space in which I and other White people were no longer dominant. It was as eye opening as it was discomforting to be a white man in black space.
I teach at a Christian seminary. My students are good people and I had to introduce them to the history of Christian blood libels (the bizarre and pernicious fabrication that Jews would slaughter Christian babies to make matzo), particularly around the time of Pesach and Easter. I presented the seminarians with examples of this old anti-Semitic liturgy in mainstream Christian denominations even today. I suggested that, as the majority in our society, Christians were necessarily blind to the ways their tradition has attacked minorities such as Jews. I asked them to imagine that I was sitting by their side at the upcoming Easter season services and to ask themselves if there was anything offensive in their religious services. What anti-Jewish sentiment might they newly notice in familiar liturgy?
Human beings are blind whenever we are the dominant group. Pharoah and the Egyptians could not see the suffering of the Hebrew slaves. And the truth is that, when faced with the same situation, we are no different. Whites and Blacks, Christians and Jews, men and women, grown-ups and children, abled and disabled people and on and on.
How do we open our eyes? How do we expand our lives beyond what we already know?
The only way is through encountering the other on an equal footing. Better still, to experience them when they are the majority. Moses was on a career path to being a royal prince, cosseted and cocooned from everyday reality. Only when he abandoned the palace was he able to see beyond that. Only when he encountered the Hebrew slaves did the spirit of justice emerge within him. Only when he was an outlaw living in exile working as a lowly shepherd did the former Egyptian prince hear the voice of G-d.
It can be a good thing to be confused. This Passover, I invite you to try to leave the safety of certainty and enter the wilderness of discomfort. Pick an area. Put yourself in a situation where you are not the dominant gender, religion, class, or other category and see what happens. I believe the discomfort is worth it. It is the only way to see what is now invisible. And who knows? In that wilderness you enter you may experience a revelation and hear a deeper truth.
Rabbi Michael Davis is rabbi of Congregation Makom Shalom in Chicago.