One could be forgiven, if an outsider, for being at time somewhat bemused or confused by us Jews. We seem at times to be a strange people with odd customs, and practices that have gone way beyond merely separating us from the nations around to what must appear surely as a somewhat esoteric existence. To be sure, we’re not all like this, yet a situation reported on last month (Oct 2014) and commented on frequently in the Jewish press (Jewish Chronicle 3.10.14) highlights what for many must seem obscurantist and ‘extreme’. An El Al flight was prevented from taking off from New York to Tel Aviv because a number of Charedi men refused to sit next to women. As expected, this caused a division along the traditional lines of those arguing for halacha in favour of gender segregation due to ritual purity issues, and those arguing against due to their perception of this as sexism and yet more proof if they needed it that the feminist battle must continue. Yet each side, it seems to me, is making basic errors in the perception and evaluation of what was happening that day (let alone the other non-Jewish passengers’ evaluation of this, who sat delayed on the runway…).
Miriam Shaviv, writing in the Jewish Chronicle (3.10.14), joins her voice to the growing number highlighting the emerging ‘talibanisation’ of some forms of Orthodox, rabbinic Judaism. As a critique there is some merit in it, and we should all be concerned when Life, and our testimony as a nation called of G-d to demonstrate that Life, becomes obscured due to our own practices and traditions. Jewish renewal is needed precisely because of such things. Jewish renewal begins with the radical call of Moshe as he stood in the gates of the camp and declared to the people ‘whoever is for the Lord, come to me!’. Renewal, rededication, as Moshe knew so well, begins with a return to the Lord, and that means too, a return to HIS Word, the Torah. This return will not suffice if we ‘merely’ re-read the Torah, nor ‘only’ attempt to bring it up to date with modern society. This renewal, as espoused by Messianic Judaism, demands a return to both text AND the Lord. Only as these two are combined will we see the true intent, the ‘heartbeat’ of Torah emerge.
So how do we respond to what happened that day, and what has happened often in such similar cases in buses etc in Israel? What does true Jewish renewal say to this? Firstly we uphold the rights of women to not be treated with such disdain. Whatever else may be true in this, to denigrate the image of G-d in women by such demeaning behaviour is to diminish G-d. The ritual side of the equation is more challenging still.
The ritual categories of clean and unclean exists to demonstrate the basic division of that which is holy, dedicated to the service of the Lord, and that which is unholy, or dedicated to use outside the Temple precincts. This fundamental divide is not about sin, or sinfulness (although sin causes ritual impurity too). It is about to whom you are dedicated and for whose service you are set apart for. If we can renew this category of understanding a resolution is possible. The answer, and renewal of our thinking on this, comes from practical examples given to us by Yeshua Mashichaynu. As a rabbi and pious man, who by all accounts both of His friends and enemies, lived a fully righteous and Torah compliant life, He taught and lived by example. His was the reputation that He was a friend of ‘tax collectors and sinners’, a man known to be unafraid of social controversy and halachic innovation. He understood the focus, the intent of Torah, its transformational power to touch the excluded and marginalised and bring restoration to their lives. He was not afraid of those who for religious reasons sought to portray Him as unclean by association, nor did He use the concept of uncleanness to enforce gender marginalisation. In fact, the concept reaches yet further out. As Yeshua was walking one day a woman who had suffered haemorrhaging for some twelve years reached out to touch the tzitziot of His garment. Reasoning to herself that if she could only touch the tzitziot of a righteous man then healing would be hers, she dared to TOUCH this righteous man. Yeshua’s response is telling in the extreme. Instead of chastising her for touching Him, a righteous, pious man, He asks who touched Him because ‘power went out from Him.’ It was this righteous power that healed this faith filled woman, a woman who in fact understood far more about Torah than, dare we say, some do in our rabbinic communities today. Yeshua was not filled with self-righteous indignation that He had been touched, come into contact with a woman, and an unclean one at that. He recognised what transaction had taken place, a transfer of ‘cleanness’ to someone unclean.
The reality of this casual encounter shatters our perceptions and establishes a clear line of Torah’s thinking. That power flows OUT from righteousness, and not the other way round (righteousness being harmed by uncleanness) demonstrates that the fundamental principle of Judaism is to redeem, reach out and bring transformation to things yet unholy but waiting to be made holy. That although the Temple and the Lord’s presence may be Jerusalem bound, at some point in the future it will fill the whole earth and His reign will be complete. Judaism’s mission is to take what is unclean and make it clean, make it dedicated for HIS service. The power of righteousness overcomes uncleanness.
Seen this way, every woman on any El Al flight would be REQUESTING to sit next to a pious Jewish man, after all, who knows that some of that goodness might rub off?