October 2, 2023 -
Rabbi Scott Fox was recently ordained at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. During his final two years of Rabbinical School, he served his student pulpit with us at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, leading and teaching at Shabbat worship, our Shabbat morning minyan, adult education and retreats and worship experiences with our religious school students. In his final visit to our synagogue, he shared this D’var Torah at Shabbat Morning Minyan worship on Saturday, May 18, 2013. We encourage you to share, post responses, and to follow comments on this blog entry and others both here and at http://rabbiscottfox.com. Rabbi Fox will begin this July to serve as the Reform Rabbi at the Hillel for Cornell University in New York.
I have never been excommunicated from a community, but I imagine that it is a terrible experience. I picture the verdict coming in, and the utter disbelief. To have to leave everything that you know, your community, your friends, your family, I am sure that that is why the rabbis employed it as the worst punishment they could sentence. For sure, during biblical times excommunication, or cherem in Hebrew, actually meant death. Without the support of the community, the industry of agriculture and livestock to support its members, the protection of soldiers and guards, a person would likely starve or be subject to attack from people and animals in the wilderness. So being cast off from the community was both a horrendous emotional and terrible physical punishment.
That is why it seems so extreme that our Torah portion this week calls for the excommunication of members of the community simply for the transgression of somehow becoming impure. This becomes especially cruel when we note that many of the ways that a person becomes impure are completely beyond their control: for example accidentally coming in contact with a dead body, or suffering from specific physical ailments. Nevertheless, our Torah portion instructs us to take those members of the community who have somehow become impure and to “Remove male and female alike; put them outside the camp so that they do not defile the camp of those in whose midst I dwell.”
This is a prime example of how obsessed the Bible is with purity. It goes so far as to force the very worst punishment possible on anyone who is somehow impure. We know of many other areas where the text carries this same obsession: we are commanded not to mix wool and linen together in the same garment, milk and meat in the same meal, we have a special bath, a mikvah, to attempt to reach the very limits of keeping people as pure as they can possibly be.
Mary Douglas, an anthropologist and noted thinker, wrote a book grappling with this idea. In her book Purity and Danger, she explored the concept of purity and impurity. According to her, communities use the idea of purity to keep order in their society. Naturally, there is a disorder that is everywhere, I’m thinking of a particular family member’s bedroom, and with purity we set about putting things in order. Like sorting Halloween candy into chocolates and chewys. This order protects us from things that might harm us, for example toxic foods, and relieves the community of the anxiety of all this disorder.
This is all fine and good, ok, pure means we can do something or explains where something belongs, great, but Douglas points out that there are things that fall between categories like chocolate gummy worms. These things are really unsettling. We’re not sure whether it’s in or out, we don’t know what to do with it. It’s new and we haven’t encountered it before, we don’t know how to approach it, and so we deem it impure.
Douglas points out that that is possibly one reason why pigs became so despised in Jewish culture: Jews can eat things that have a split hoof and that chew their cud, pigs have a split hoof but don’t chew their cud. They are in-between, and that is confusing, so we deem them especially impure.
This is also why the gays and lesbians in our community suffer so much persecution: they are in-between, they fall between some people’s categories, they are a couple, but they are not a heterosexual couple. They don’t fall within these categories, and so they are set apart, called impure, excommunicated. They suffer persecution because people are uncomfortable with their in-betweenness, they want order, purity.
It makes sense that the early Israelites, whose lives provided the framework for the words of the Bible, would have had this obsession with purity. They were a large group, they had lots of land and power, and would want to maintain order in that land, and order among the community by emphasizing purity, emphasizing order. But eventually the Israelites were exiled from their land, a nationwide cherem, they were sent out to live among other nations.
In some senses, this obsession with purity helped the Israelites to continue to identify themselves while in exile. It helped our ancestors distinguish who they were from their neighbors, and keep their unique culture and customs alive. Some historians credit the kashrut laws for keeping Jews identified with their community, because they were forced every meal to sit apart, and to recognize differences between themselves and their neighbors
This same experience of exile however, caused us to live in a state of in-between. We didn’t fit into regular categories anymore. We weren’t a part of the people, in whose nations we lived, but we weren’t outside of the nation either. We not only then finally learned about that state of in-between, we exemplified that state, we were a nation pushed into the experience of the impure. We moved from place to place, not really belonging anywhere, no category or nation would accept us. With this came a new understanding of purity and in some ways a rejection of it.
Today we not only recognize that in-between, we celebrate it. We are a people no longer obsessed with the pure and impure because we recognize a world where the impure can also be holy, we see order and purpose, we see our very identity in that in-between, that impurity. Today we do not call for cherem, we do not send out the members of our community who fall in the in-between, we celebrate them, for we are all in-between, that is exactly what it means to be a Jew today, and so we welcome all those pure and impure into our whole hearts as one community that celebrates the world, and every one of its beautiful inhabitants.