Saturday, January 24, 2009

Living water for the present

Judaism has inherited some rules governing daily life that are directly connected with the Temple. Thus, Judaism is known for its strict attitude toward purity and cleanness. Well, some streets could be cleaner, more decent. People could avoid to spit anywhere, anyhow. True, they would scream at you if you take a flower or a bud from a plant. At this point, it is even worst than to remove the mother bird from her nest to take her offspring, which is both inhumane, not vegeterian nor vegan.

This commandment of Deuteronomy 22:6-7 that protects the mother bird, her eggs and fledglings and only allows taking the young bird is unique.It shows that the Mitzvot are substantially ethical. Maimonides wrote about the "great pain of the animals" in such circumstances (Guide to the Perplexed, III, 48). The Noahide law that prohibits removing a limb from a living animal, is of the same vein. Plants and animals have been created before human beings and should thus be respected, preserved as signs of the world's beauty. Then, plants are growing as a consequence of such a wonderful miracle in this country that every flower is wondrously marvelous.

There is seemingly a certain gap between this idealistic view and legal reality to protect some species and our moral attitude in the present. This is described, scanned, viewed, analyzed, revised, contemplated: Israel might have a series of ethical problems, all over the map.Frankly, are we all broken up or the bones of the same bones? " Chevrah chavritit\חברה חברתית = full solidarity"? How can we be non-judgmental and still responsible for our actions? And also feel that we are committed to any action done by any inhabitants because we all together face the challenge of good and evil. This is why the " tumah vetoharah\טומה וטהרה = impurity and purity" laws are so important. By the time of the Temple, they allowed to protect the sanctity of the Place and of the people. The Torah, in Number chapter 19, determines the three major "impurities": leper, sexual life control and contact with the dead or corpses. Various Talmudic tractates deal with these matters (Taharot/Purities, Niddah / Menstruals, Nega'im-נגעים / Leper, Ohalot-עהלות / Corpses).

Leper is alas a very extant disease; Niddah is supposedly as one of the Talmudic guidelines to enjoy a decent and respectful sexual life. In Israel, we are used to death of people, usually buried very quickly. In the West, there is rather a sort of fear of death which is hidden as a basic human experience. Now, the concerned problems have been extended over the centuries. Tumah vetoharah show that impurity can be turned into purity, not by magical washing machine powders or "nikayon – cleaning products", but by a moral conduct. The Apostle James depicted it in a way that is very close to the permanent Jewish tradition: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained in the world." (James 1:27). To keep unstained (pure, separate) in the world is what allows us, as believers and/or God-seekers to accept the the Commandments or Mitzvot.

The whole process of Judaism is to comply with certain rules that are sometimes not understandable: the mikveh or ritual bath is of that nature. Although it sounds evident that cleanness is better than dirt. Vessels are also to be washed and cleaned carefully as described in Talmud Kelim\כלים. The observance of the laws governing kosher items constitutes a vital question for a thoughtful and humble attitude toward our society and environment. KoSHeR\כשר is linked to "gashar\גשר" (to bridge) and is related to a correct and healthy use of food, tissues, textiles, products, utensils, tools, devices, gadgets. On the other hand, "tref" comes from "taraf\טרף" (unclear, non-kosher, Talmud Sanhedrin 43a). Many rules, as going to the mikveh/ritual bath are indeed "chokim\חוקים" or "beyond any reasonable explanation" and "obvious" commandments at the same time. Yes, morals can be full of contradictions. The accomplishment of the Commandments brings more of divine wisdom to a world that often looks "treyf\טריף – split". The 613 Mitzvot also allow human nature to articulate rational and irrational positions.

Yochanan Ben Zakkai was present on the Temple Mount after the Holy of Holies had been destroyed. He was watching at the site where so many corpses were lying. He answered once to his panicked disciples: "By your lives! A corpse cannot make anybody unclean, nor can the waters make clean; in both cases, God alone can change something because He is the Great King" (Pessikta de Rav Kahana 40a/b). Purity is at the heart of Jewish and Christian morals. Not at the lowest available price! There is a price of excellence in achieving the one or many Commandments. By a decision taken by the first Synod of Jerusalem (45/52), Bishop James wrote a letter in the name of the early Church. He released the Gentile part of the Church from the observance of the 613 Mitzvot, but imposed the major Noahide rules to the Gentiles. Interestingly, this verse points out a constant link: "(Jesus said) unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:20).

It shows how huge and difficult the challenge is, as the "Pharisees = perushim\פרושים" are those who are unstained in the world and, as the Christians, believe in the resurrection of the dead. Purity also means to care those who in contact with a death situation, such as orphans and widows. There is more than "charity-gemilut chassadim\גמילות חסדים". Eastern Orthodox Churches have also developed many rules to cope with similar issues as "impurity/purity" such as long periods of sexual abstinence during fasts, purity or protection of natural elements and food. These rules are lining with the kosher regulations in many aspects.

In various ways, most Christian "sacraments" or specific acts that show a holy and constant action of God in a person (e.g. Baptism) evolved from a Jewish practice in use in the first century. It seems, as regards the final introduction of the Birkat malshinim\ברכת מלשינים (Minim) or "Blessing against the heretics" (R. Shimon HaKatan), that the final "cherem\חרם – excommunication" happened ca. the 4th century for some matters. But rituals could appear to be common, in particular in the Middle-East and other regions. Christianity first spread through preachers who spoke in the synagogues.

The "mikveh\מקוה – pl. Mikvaot\מקואות" is connected with the Temple service. The High Priest had to bathe before the Day of Atonement, but in fact much more often. "Ma'yan\מעין" = "fountain, source, sprinkling waters (Tractate Mikvaot 5,1, "a bubbling well" Nedarim 41b), also: bowel, womb, inside (Talmud Niddah 28b)" and is linked to "ayin\עין" which is a "source" and the "eye". "Ma'ayanot chochmah\מעינות חכמה = the well-springs of wisdom"(Tractate Tosefta Sota 15,3b). Mikveh implies the construction or utilization of living (flowing) waters. They may either fall from clouds in the shape of rains or snow, provided that it melts... Strange how, each year, we expect snow in Jerusalem and nobody required them to get into a mikveh...

Struggle for purity is a fight against deterioration or wearing effect of time. In the morning prayers, the Jews say: "My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure. You created it, You fashioned it. You breathed it into me… Blessed are You, Lord, Who restores souls to dead bodies - neshamot lef'garim metim\נשמות מפגרים מתים". Thus, men and women are proposed to go through this cleansing bath that is more than a spa, a sauna or Turkish baths. A checking person may help the woman and eventually the man to be sure that every part of the body has been cleansed accordingly. The Jew rises from under the living water as a new-born. Let's say that insensitive and people can thus melt like frozen ice into a thoroughly nice drizzle of renewed minds and skins. Jewish tradition suggests bathing this way repeatedly. The Orthodox, Conservative and hassidic movements require it every week. On the other hand, when an individual becomes a Jew, s/he should go once to the mikveh (i.e. "aggregating action to the community"), which has been refused by the Ethiopians who came to Israel as Jewish newcomers.

Interestingly, the Judeo-Christian baptistery in Nazareth is definitely similar to any mikveh. Seven stairs lead down to the pool through all the steps of temptations. Getting out of the water (baptizein), the person has been purified for the rest of his life and climbs up through the various degrees that bring to holiness. The Christian Orthodox baptism is still very close to the Jewish mikveh/purifying bath. Some Churches usually pour some water over the head of the person.

Jews and Christians and Christians among themselves often came into harsh conflicting discussion about "living waters". This is due to a problem of the respect for souls and spiritual identities. January 27 is an international Shoah and World War II victim memorial day. The real "Living water" bath maybe only understood with the courageous statement of R. Leo Baeck who was in a prisoner in Theresienstadt. He declared: "Who has revealed to the world the sense for the purity of conduct, for the purity of family? Who has given to the world, to the attention of mankind, the Image of God? The spirit of the Prophets in Israel and the revelation of God to the Jewish people."(cited by J.Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics, p.25).

Even if somehow, we are prompted to get purified, we are overshadowed by a simple traditional statement outlined by Jesus of Nazareth: "You may be the children of your heavenly Father, for He makes the sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust" (Matthew 5:45).

av Aleksander [Winogradsky Frenkel]

January 25/12, 2009 – 29 deTevet 5767 - כ"ט דטבת תשס"ט

No comments: