Metzorah: The Imperative of Inclusion

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Metzorah

Greetings from sunny- but not yet warm- Swampscott!

This week we continue our study of the laws of scaly skin blemishes; the parsha
begins with a discussion of how the metzorah [person afflicted with a skin
blemish] is ritually purified, and then goes on to describe what happens if a “plague”
[visible discolorations or growths] appears in a house. The portion concludes with the ritual impurity imparted to one – male or female- who has certain kinds of genital emissions.

Last week I proposed that underlying this complex set of rules about bodily
functions (or dysfunctions, as the case may be) is an ethic of caring for individuals and preserving their dignity. This week, I’d like to bolster my case by pointing out
that the rules for ritual purification of a metzorah make a distinction between the
requirements for wealthy and poor persons. A person of means brings a total of three animals for sacrifice at the end of his week of separation. (See verse 14:10, which you can find here: < >)

However, a poor person is only required to bring one animal, as we read a few
verses later:

But if he is of insufficient means and cannot afford [these sacrifices], he
shall take one [male] lamb as a guilt offering for a waving to effect atonement for him, and one tenth [of an ephah] of fine flour mixed with oil as a meal offering, and a log of oil. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 14:21)

The less wealthy person’s offering for ritual purification is about a third as
much as the regular offering – which may seem like a rather subtle point of ritual
practice, but has huge ethical implications in a wider context. The Torah is, after all,
understood to be Divine revelation (however we understand that process to be mediated), and thus we’re left with the rather non-negotiable conclusion that God cares about people of differing financial means being fully included in the religious life of the Jewish community.

This religious imperative to make the spiritual centers of Jewish life inclusive
and sensitive to financial issues speaks directly to a problem in our community,
which is the feeling among many Jews (with whom I speak almost every week) that they’re not welcome in our synagogues, schools and institutions unless they can pay high levels of dues or contributions. I understand that many synagogues and other
organizations try as best they can to grant abatements, but what strikes me
about our Torah portion is that the policies of inclusiveness are made known to all.
It is simply announced that “if he is of insufficient means, this is what he will
bring,” and left at that. This contrasts sharply with the various procedures (interviews, tax form reviews, etc.) we use in contemporary Jewish life to determine if somebody “needs” an abatement, which often produce great resentment, anger and shame (again, I hear about this almost every week).

The challenge of funding Jewish life, while at the same time making it
accessible to all who seek it, is not simple. Many congregations have instituted “fair share” dues, which can be a sliding scale according to income or a percentage of income which everyone pays. There are many other ways in which we could live out our spiritual ideals of inclusiveness and dignity, but the larger point is that our attempts to build spiritual community fail if they are not sensitive to diversity of means.

To put it another way, one of the reasons Judaism insists that spirituality
happens within community is precisely so that we we learn how to care for others, as God cares for us, and in so doing, become more fully aware of the Divine image
within ourselves and others. If the Torah goes out of its way to tell us that the
metzorah of insufficient means was to be welcomed into the most sacred spaces and rituals, then surely we can find a way to make sure that Jews all along the financial
spectrum feel truly welcome in every organization dedicated to Jewish life.


PS- The Reconstructionist movement, in particular, has done good work to help
connect finances and religious values in congregational life. You can find
teachings and discussions of how to make Jewish life more inclusive here:

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