By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
With speech comes the power to raise up and to bring down, to pray to God and to demean others. Speech is also easy and, too often, used thoughtlessly or, worse, maliciously. Because it is so easy and can cut so deeply, of all possible human transgressions, the transgression punishable with tz’aras is the sin of lashon ha’rah – evil speech.
Referring to the law of metzora, Resh Lakish says, “This shall be the law of he who spreads evil talk” (mozi shem ra). One who is guilty of lashon ha’ra forfeits the mantle of spirituality from his being. What is he left with? Just his afflicted and “diseased” physical existence.
A medical doctor can treat a diseased body but only a kohen can realign and rebalance the physical and spiritual aspects of man. The Mishna in Negaim teaches that the ultimate cure for the metzora comes about through the verbal pronouncement of tahor (Pure) uttered by the kohen.
But what constitutes the impurity that requires such a pronouncement?
Those who are quick to judgment and who weigh only what is most apparent cannot appreciate the enormous responsibility placed upon the kohen to examine and ultimately determine whether the nega is indeed impure. Even when the tzaraas seems “obvious” there is context, details and nuance which must be taken into account before one can be declared tamei (impure).
“The Kohen shall look at the affliction on the skin of the flesh; if hair in the affliction has changed to white… it is a tzaraas affliction; the Kohen shall look at it…” (Tazria 13:3) Two times the kohen is told to “look”. Why? Certainly the priest does not suffer from an astigmatism or near-sightedness! The directive cannot be because of a limited ability to see what is right there before him; it is so the kohen can be absolutely certain that the man is metzora.
The Meshech Chochma teaches that the repetition tells us that physical imperfection is not enough to judge; there may be other factors to be considered. Yes, there are times when, despite signs of actual impurity, judgment must be withheld! For example, if the metzora is a groom during the seven days of celebration or if he is in the midst of a regel (Festival).
What’s more, it is possible that the kohen is not expert enough in a particular matter to allow him to render judgment. In such a case, it is not only appropriate but expected that he depend on other experts to help him in rendering his decision.
In all these matters, it is important to remember that the Torah leans against being quick to judge a fellow Jew tamei. It is better for the kohen to “look twice” and be absolutely sure before rendering such a terrible and profound judgment. And even then, even after showing that the symptoms of the impurity are real, the Torah counsels against haste in judgment.
Not every impurity must be declared; not every Jew must be bitterly judged.
Sadly, in our day too many have become quick to judge their fellow, making it almost reflexive to judge another Jew as tamei. In our zeal, we have too often lost sight of the truth that the Torah’s ways are, “ways of pleasantness and its paths are peace.”
The Rav of Kutna taught that a true leader, a genuine kohen, never sees only the negative. He looks a second time, searching for some positive, some extenuating circumstance, some reason to suspend or delay judgment.
* * *
Our tradition is clear; judgment, so easy to pronounce, should be carefully and thoughtfully considered. Certainly what is true in the case of the individual Jew should be even more true for the larger Jewish community!
On the one hand, it might seem understandable to “rush to judgment” when an injury has been brought to the community. Just as a physical infection, a spiritual malady can run a damaging course through the community, causing an epidemic if it is not quickly and effectively quarantined. But on the other hand…
It would seem that present day, self-determined “kohanim” have been quick to judge entire segments of the Jewish community tamei. Such judgment is saddening. In particular, when the catalyst is the behavior of many Jews at the Kotel, a most sacred place in the Jewish world, it is prudent to return to the wisdom of Parashat Tazria.
Make no mistake, the “Women of the Wall” have invited the approbation of the Jewish community by their determination and behavior to diminish this sacred space. However, as disturbing as the behavior of this handful of women, the response demands the same scrutiny as the trespass!
This is, after all, the Kotel! A physical space where the Shechina is ever present, where all Jews – male and female, of every age, color denomination, political stripe – have been able to pray since that glorious June day in 1967 when our courageous IDF soldiers declared, “Hakotel b’yadeinu!” (“The Kotel is in our hands”)
The Kotel has been the one place where we have all been, truly, one.
I can remember, years and years ago, coming to Israel, looking forward to spending the entire summer. A day after my arrival, I was at the Kotel. I found myself surrounded by hundreds of fellow Jews. Some were clearly pious, others less obviously so. But, after davening there, I turned to my companion and said with genuine feeling, “Now, we can go home.” Everything I could ever have wanted or needed to do had been fulfilled.
I had prayed at the Kotel.
So it has been for millions of Jews, day after day, year after year. Peace among Jews reigned at the Kotel. That is, until recently when twenty or thirty women, “Women of the Wall” decided that the sacredness of that place was not enough. Into that sacredness, they brought modern, political grievances. To the place we had, for nearly two thousand years called “the Wailing Wall” because our tears were shed there for our lost Jerusalem and Temple, they brought the shrill demand for “equality.”
Unaffiliated, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or otherwise, the handful of women who disrupted the Rosh Chodesh davening (prayer services) month after month created a lot of noise and drew media attention. Oh, how their demonstrations drew media attention. And why not? The demonstrations were not designed for prayer but for the media!
This clamoring for “equality”, this suggestion that in Israel – the Middle East’s only democracy – women cannot worship as they desired to runs counter to the whole of Jewish tradition. No doubt it runs counter to the feelings and sensibilities of the vast majority of women in these various denominations of Judaism. But no matter! It had captured the media’s attention. And while wiser, calmer voices said, “Ignore them. This will pass” these voices were ignored.
Our modern day kohanim could not bring themselves to look a second time. They could not ignore something that ran counter – indeed, insulted – Jewish life, tradition and normative behavior. They could not ignore behavior that chased away the Shechina from the one place where she always resided. They looked once and declared the entire enterprise tamei.
In doing so, they played right into the on-going media circus. Until, like a wild fire, the story becomes unstoppable. Now, it is no longer two or three dozen tefillin wearing women schlepping a sefer Torah to read on Rosh Chodesh. Now it is a cause taken up by the so-called Progressive Movements in Judaism. Now, there is an organizational movement demanding space for an egalitarian minyan at the Wall!
Now, these movements that struggle to maintain their foothold throughout the Diaspora demand their very own piece of the Kotel!
Has there ever been another time when one movement or another demanded that the Kotel be partitioned off as if that sacred space was another piece of real estate? No.
It may very well be that most Jews are not observant in their own daily lives. That does not mean that they do not understand what Judaism is, or that they define it by some watered down version of Jewish life and law. Quite the opposite. Ask most Israelis and they will tell you in the straightforward dugri manner for which they are known that they have no interest in the Reform or Conservative Judaism.
Though they might be non-observant, Israelis recognize that it is observant Judaism that sets the standard for what Judaism is.
When I recently asked a non-observant Israeli if he would pray at the Reform section of the Kotel he looked at me quizzically. “Tell me,” he said by way of an answer, “if it’s your wife’s birthday, would you send her a dozen artificial roses?” He didn’t wait for me to answer. He concluded with another question. Atah meivin? Understand?
Do you get it?
The Progressive Movements might not bring many people to their synagogues but they generate a lot of money for Israel. And so, with politics in Israel being what they are, where money plays an important role, a number of weeks ago, an “understanding” was reached on this Reform, egalitarian section of the Kotel. But then, curiously, those same politicians who reached the understanding claimed they didn’t fully understand the understanding that was reached.
* * *
The Progressive Movements are hobbled in Israel and the Diaspora. The Orthodox Movement in ascendant. And yet, this is no time for triumphalism on the part of the orthodoxy. Nothing about the dynamic in the Jewish world is healthy or good. It is sad. The failure of the Progressive Movements is also our loss. A huge part of our community has atrophied and lost direct contact with the larger Jewish community. There is little or no Torah learning. Little or no home ritual. Little or no observance. As a result, mixed marriages are on the rise. The community is further diluted.
There is no way for an observant Jew to take any pleasure in this. For starters, it is impossible to know to what extent we share responsibility for what has happened. Yes, yes. It took generations for day schools and yeshivas to be established on these shores. Yes, it took a long, long while to introduce kiruv in this country.
Now we find ourselves wondering if “Reform” remains relevant, as a Movement or as a term in our contemporary vocabulary. Are there really Reform Jews today or only a few Reform leaders? And, in the absence of a real congregation, what can these leaders do other than work feverishly to set an “agenda”.
We can acknowledge the agenda without demeaning ourselves by feigning ignorance about this truth. The vast majority of Reform and Conservative Jews are not clamoring for a Kotel site. In fact, they don’t give it any more thought than they do kashrut or Sabbath observance. What happened was simple. A handful of “leaders” in need of a “cause” to justify their roles demanded that the Kotel not be “dominated” by chareidim.
I would only note that the chareidim do not need to be urged to show their support for the Kotel by organizational votes. Their enthusiasm does not need to be “drummed up.” They show their love for Judaism the old fashioned way – they come to the Kotel in astonishing numbers and they pray.
* * *
You will not hear any defense of the Women of the Wall or their agenda here. Their actions run counter to everything Jewish law and tradition teaches. Their agenda is tamei. At least, it would be easy to pass that judgment.
But passing that judgment might mean we are only “looking once.” And, as we learn from Tazria, looking only once before rendering judgment is misguided.
Certainly, the volume of the anti-Reform rhetoric blaring from certain podiums in the Knesset and elsewhere in Israel needs to be lowered. Why all the vicious talk about “Reform Jews”? Who are these “Reform Jews” that our modern day Kohanim are falling over themselves to declare impure? Just like the Kohanim of old, if our modern day kohanim are not expert in the situation, if they do not have the requisite sociological and historical context to understand what is happening, they must consult with those who do.
Yes, an appropriate response to the Women of the Wall is in order. But the cynicism, the mockery, the name calling must stop. It is beneath the dignity of any observant Jew and certainly of any Jewish leader. Referring to Reform Jews as “monkeys” or “sons of Haman” or suggesting that they “be sent to the dogs” transcends the bounds of decency. Such rhetoric brings no dignity to the arguments against the Reform agenda. It only arouses further hatred and sinat achim.
The same media that covered the Women of the Wall shine a harsh light on this ugly response. Headlines screaming, “MK Compares Reform Jewry to Haman” or “Next, they will put on Tefillin on dogs” diminish the entire community.
A Kohen, a Jewish teacher and leader, is required to look twice. The first, cursory look will only give you the obvious view. Sure, it allows for a quick, brutal judgment but it is only with the second look, when you look deeper that you discover much more than the nega you are seeing.
What once seemed obvious might seem less so.
But of course, politicians are not kohanim. They have agendas that are more difficult to understand than the Progressive Movement’s. We would all do well to close our ears to those whose contributions are self-serving. If our larger community is to continue to grow, we need more understanding, more creativity and more determined effort in healing, not condemning. We need more hasbarah, more meeting of the minds.
We need less judgment and more programs that make the meaning and beauty of Judaism clear.
Talk is cheap. It is easy to speak. It is easy to judge and declare a fellow Jew tamei, or an entire segment of the Jewish community tamei – but a real Kohen must dig deeper.