Monday, April 30, 2012

Purity and Maturity -- Coming of Age on Our Own Terms and in Our Own Time

This past Saturday, I went to the adult Bat Mitzvah of a dear friend, Liz Free, who had struggled in her youth with faith, community, identity, and belonging, and therefore had foregone the traditional Jewish rite of passage at the time her body first was changing.

A few years ago, as her body once again began to transform, and feeling a wholeness of experience that might better guide her choices, she looked once again to the religion of her birth. But this time, it was through a lens informed by a fuller understanding of her sexuality and the divine feminine -- and in the company of a group that could see through to the more essential levels of her being, which was vital as she does not conform to many of the traditional values held by those who practice her faith.

At the service, she gave a moving presentation, which referenced the "purification" procedures in Leviticus 13, meant to exclude and (hopefully) reintegrate those whom society has seen fit to cast out. Here is the full text of her speech:
What is this Parsha talking about? 
As most of what Leviticus talks about, it describes the Priest’s responsibility to discern pure from impure for the health and safety of the community, and of the sacred places and of the sacred rituals associated with them.   Cleanliness was very important back then considering the climate of that region and how it dictated how to live in a self-contained community that did not have air conditioning. It was the Priest’s responsibility along with the “afflicted person” to discern if they were healthy enough to remain in the community or if the “afflicted person” needed to be quarantined for an amount of time in order for the “affliction” to heal. 
How was this determined? Who gave the Priests this kind of authority and where and how did they obtain the knowledge to judge this? Right back to Leviticus we go, and what do we find? A whole slew of do’s and don’ts--mostly don’ts. For what purpose? As it is stated in the essay by Jay Michaelson, “It’s the Purity Stupid”: Back in the Biblical times it seems there was lengthy "team" meeting that took place between Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s remaining sons, in which rules were set forth for regulating priestly behavior in order to maintain the purity of the Israelite nation, and to guard against assimilation to the "pagan" influence.

Leviticus 13 verse six states: “He shall be impure as long as the disease is on him. Being impure, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” In the commentary, from Etz Haym, Torah and Commentary, it states, from verse 45: He shall call out “Impure” --"Impure” according to the Talmud. One does this not only to warn others of the contagion but also to elicit compassion and prayers on one’s behalf. It is the responsibility of an afflicted person to recognize the illness and ask for help; and it is the responsibility of the community to offer support and prayer rather than shun or ignore the afflicted.

So how long does this self-appointed quarantined last? According to Leviticus 14, about 7 to 14 days give or take, then the priest travels outside the camp and examines the afflicted person. If the afflicted person is found to be healed then a ritual of purification takes place before the person can rejoin the community. These rituals included animal sacrifice along with a mikvah bath.

I can’t help but compare this to what took place in the 80's when Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome made its dent in the community. How devastating was that, the way society at large shunned those “afflicted”, the isolation that took place for the “good of the society at large” -- and not just AIDS, but cancer, mental illness, addictions. Society at large shuns those who are deemed to be “impure” either physically or mentally. It seems that anybody that is labeled “different than the standard set” is then set apart.

I have felt apart and isolated at times. Not due to any physical affliction but just because there was something different. When I attended Jewish summer camp it was the first time I experienced Shabbos services, but not being able to read or comprehend Hebrew while all the other campers did, made me feel left out and alienated. I recall one of my fellow campers asking me if I was really Jewish because I didn’t know how to read Hebrew.

Identifying as Bisexual has at times been a challenge, as people question my identity, asking me to choose, or they make assumptions because I wear nail polish, or berate me for my choices.

So, how then can those persons who have been labeled as “outcast” rejoin society? How do we welcome back in a person who has gone through chemo or radiation, or a twelve-step program?

With today’s modern medications and treatments available, the first step is to acknowledge something is wrong and then, because we don’t have the “priestly caste” anymore the next step is to go to what would substitute as that priest -- a doctor, therapist, Rabbi -- and obtain treatment for the “affliction”. OK fine, but that is only a part of the healing. What about society’s role in the healing? Where are the compassion and the support? Where is the ritual that helps make the impure pure again? Since we no longer have a high priest to assure us that this shall pass with sacrifices and prayer, we have our so called experts who ease our troubled minds and assure us that you can’t get “that” from a toilet seat or by shaking hands. Do we have a ritual of purification? Since we don’t practice animal sacrifice anymore what do we “do”? Is mikvah immersion enough? Ok that’s a start, but what else?

Trying to find a warm and welcoming environment with no judgment where we can be ourselves -- all of ourselves -- with no fear of recrimination, only unconditional support. Is it that hard? Look around you -- here we are, as if we didn’t know; open door policy is a fine sentiment, what happens when we step out the door? Is it still there, in our hearts and in our minds? What is the text of Leviticus telling us? That the priestly role which is now taken over by seeking out “professional” assistance is good but just a part of the process; the community has a role as well, to reach out and support each other, and if not here then where? If not now then when? If not us then who?