Archive for April, 2007

Acharei-Mot/Kedoshim: Love & Imagination

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot/Kedoshim

We’re reading the double portion Acharei-Mot/Kedoshim this week, which covers a lot
of textual territory: from the Yom Kippur offerings to banning
adultery, from the most universal ethical aspirations to the rejection
of paganism, from loving one’s neighbor to rules about haircuts and
beard trims. (No, really, and they’re important ones, too.)

Among the ethical commandments taught in Kedoshim is the principle of
loving the “stranger,” or non-Israelite, who lives among the Israelite

“The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among
you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the
land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.” (Vayikra 19:34)

It’s a noble law, but I see two questions looming out there in our

1) How can we love the stranger as ourselves if the stranger- or
alien, or immigrant, or sojourner- is, by definition, different than
us, perhaps with different needs, perspectives, and values? What
somebody else might experience as love (a big slice of cheesecake
after a hard day, maybe) might be very different from what I would
appreciate (I hate cheesecake and would never think to offer it- it’s
a trivial example, but you get the point.)

To put it another way, “don’t do to others what is hateful to you” (as
Rabbi Hillel put it) actually requires thinking about not only what is
hateful or unpleasant for the do-er, but also about what is hateful or
unpleasant for the receiver- in other words, one needs not just
self-knowledge and generosity, but also empathy. Framed as a positive
principle, loving the stranger also requires thinking about who they
are and what they need, which may not be obvious if we only know our
own needs and preferences.

2) It’s easy to connect the need for empathy with the reminder that
the Israelites were once strangers in the land of Egypt; as we were
once without social status, support, or sufficient sustenance, we of
all people should act out of a deep understanding of what that feels
like. However, as in the first question, how can later generations of
Israelites, who never knew the experience of bondage in Egypt, have
the same empathy as those who did?

To me, the answer to both questions is the same: knowledge and
imagination. It takes knowledge- perhaps investigation is a better
word- to clarify how to help another person. When I was training as a
hospital chaplain, we heard fascinating lectures from teachers of
Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and various streams of
Christianity on the topic of offering spiritual care to hospital
patients from the various religious traditions. Something as simple
and seemingly universal a prayer for healing could be deeply
comforting- or deeply offensive- to different people, each with
different perspectives and customs.

Thus, part of learning to “love the stranger”- that is, caring for
those who are most in need- means learning would actually be good and
loving to the person or community receiving the care. It takes
humility to realize that we may not know how to love others
intuitively! Yet “loving the stranger as yourself” also means
activating our imaginations. I have never been a slave in Egypt, but
the Passover seder asks me to put myself in that position, through an
act of imagination, in order to fully appreciate the miracle of
liberation and freedom.

Similarly, I may not have suffered the precise problem that somebody
else has, but I can try to imagine what the other person is going
through, and act accordingly to relieve suffering, indignities, or
privation. Of course, “loving the stranger”- or anybody else- is not
only a matter of helping them or caring for them when there is a
problem. I only focus here on that base-line level of caring because
to me, that’s what the verse suggests in context.

One negative stereotype of religion is that it’s all about following
rules, as if piety were somehow a matter of programming behavioral
algorithms. In our verse, the Torah requires us to act out of empathy
for those who are not like us, which in turn requires imagination,
humility, and curiosity- three qualities which defy all notions of
simple rule-following. On the contrary, one can’t “love the stranger
as yourself” without creativity and openness to the unexpected. To
love the stranger means expanding the vision of our hearts, and in
doing so, finding our truest humanity.

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Tazria/Metzora: Temporary Unreadiness

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tazria/Metzora

Greetings! We have a double portion this Shabbat,
Tazria/Metzora, both of which are largely concerned with “tumah,” or
ritual impurity, which affects one’s ability to enter sacred areas or
even stay within the Israelite camp, until it is removed through
ritual, washing, and time. Tumah, or impurity, is not a moral or
medical condition, but a spiritual state which comes about through
contact with blood, bodily fluids, death, certain skin conditions, or
the appearance of a kind of “plague” or outbreak on cloth or the walls
of a house.

You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s worth clarifying again:
what is commonly translated as a “plague” or “leprosy” is, in its
Biblical context, not a disease, nor some biological phenomenon, nor a
manifestation of sin or moral failure, but rather some kind of
spiritual condition. Thus, the priest was called in to see the person,
and when the conditions were right, to perform rituals of healing and
re-integration for the one affected by ritual impurity.

As practices and concepts, “tumah” (the state of impurity or inability
to enter certain sacred or communal areas – some like the word
“incongruity” with the spiritual center) and “taharah” (the state of
ritual purity and readiness) are pretty far removed from our lives in
the year 5767. Thus, another way to read these texts is as metaphor
for the inevitable waxing and waning of spiritual “readiness” in a
person’s life. Sometimes I make choices, (not all of which are “sins”
as such), and sometimes I am affected by external events, which may
leave me feeling estranged from community, or from God, or even
estranged from my own core values and best self.

At other times I feel profoundly connected to my community, to myself,
to my loved ones, to God, and to the entire web of life on this
beautiful planet. That feeling of deep connection to God and others
is, in my experience, not something that happens “24/7,” which is why
it rings true to me that our Torah portion seems to think that the
state of tumah/impurity and taharah/readiness are part of life, with
rituals and principles for helping people experience renewal and

One Hassidic commentary draws attention to the last verse of
Vayikra/Leviticus 14: “and this instructs for the day of impurity
[b’yom hatameh] and the day of purity [b’yom hatahor]- This is the
Torah of afflictions!” [14:57, my translation.] The commentary points
out that “this is the Torah of afflictions” [tzara’at] applies on both
days of purity and impurity- that is, Torah study can be a source
of strength and renewal during both good times and bad, times when
we’re feeling connected and times when we’re not. Perhaps this is
because Torah study is inherently dialogical- even just studying a
text, one is participating in the historical community of those who
have struggled with the same texts and interpretations, and are thus
never bereft of spiritual community.

It’s no sin to go through various states of readiness in our
spiritual lives- in fact, it’s to be expected. Sometimes something
happens – perhaps for some the tragic events in Virginia- that may
sap a sense of meaning in our lives or a feeling of connection to
other and to God. The good news is that even in the Torah,
tumah/impurity was a temporary state- with attention from the priests,
ritual immersion, and the passage of time, the tameh (person with
tumah) found renewal and re-integration. Thus, to me, the overarching
message of Tazria/Metzora is affirmative: we may feel temporarily
distance from community, God, or even self, but reconnection always

Shabbat Shalom,


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Pesach: Dry Bones Reconnected

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pesach

We’re in the middle of the Pesach [Passover] holiday, and you know what that
means (all matzah jokes will be disregarded at this point) – that’s
right, it’s time for the “dry bones” to get reconnected in the vision
of the prophet Yechezkel, or Ezekiel, as we know him in these parts.
I’m referring to the haftarah, or prophetic reading, that the ancient
rabbis chose for the Shabbat which falls during Pesach, which comes
from the teachings of the aforementioned prophet, Yechezkel, who
preached to the Jewish community in exile in Babylonia sometime after
597 B.C.E. In this passage, from chapter 37, Yechezkel is taken,
perhaps in a vision, to a “valley of dry bones,” where God asks him if
the bones can live again.

It’s a rhetorical question, given Who is asking it! God tells
Yechezkel to make a prophesy that the bones will live again, and lo
and behold, the bones get reattached to each other and are resurrected
to life while the prophet looks on in amazement. Again, it’s not clear
whether we are supposed to understand this as a vision or dream, or
whether the Bible wants us to believe this literally, but in either
event, the text tells us what the event is supposed to mean. In verse
11, God tells Yechezkel that the revived bones represent the “House of
Israel,” which will be released from its grave to live again- that is,
released from exile and brought back into the land of Israel to live
again as a nation.

OK, so far, so good, and it’s not that hard to connect a prophesy of
national salvation with Pesach, since we tell the story of the Exodus
from Egypt in order to strengthen our faith in future miracles of
liberation and freedom. Yet the Bible is full of passages and
prophesies which speak of hope for the messianic age, so there had to
be some reason why this particular text, with its fantastic images of
skeletons coming to life, was chosen as part of the overall set of
Pesach texts and teachings.

One answer from classic rabbinic theology is the idea of “techiat
hametim,” or “revival of the dead,” which has been understood to be
part of the hoped-for messianic age. In our day, many interpret this
idea metaphorically: that no matter how “deadened” one’s senses or
spirit is, and thereby alienated from from God, nature, or the human
community, one can always “come alive” through prayer, study, and acts
of loving-kindness. This widens the metaphor of the “dry bones” from
the life of the nation to the life of a person. This, in turn, fits
well with a similar widening in the meaning of the Pesach symbols,
from a story of national enslavement to a more personal narrative of
being freed from whatever is our individual bondage or “narrow place.”

So coming back to the valley of dry bones, perhaps we
can understand this image as complementing the story
of the Exodus from Egypt and reinforcing our faith
that when one seeks a “revived” life, no spiritual “hibernation” (it’s
springtime, after all) is too great to overcome. Even when our low
places may be as low as a valley of dry bones in their
graves, the Divine Presence can bring true life,
through a life of connection and service.

You might notice that the image of the bones coming to
life is itself a visual metaphor of connecting, which
is itself part of the path to spiritual healing. In other
words, both the Exodus and Yechezkel’s vision teach us
different aspects of the same truth – that renewal,
healing, and restoration to the fullness of
life are miracles which are present and possible for each of us, not
only at this time of year, but anytime we reconnect with hope and
love, practiced with community and in the Divine Presence.

Shabbat Shalom, and Hag Sameach [Happy holiday],


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