I spent last evening with a remarkable group of people. I was asked to speak to a conversion class – adults who have chosen to learn and study so that they might formally become identified as Jews. This is no small task, certainly not one to be taken lightly.
I was asked to come to this class to talk about an experience I had a few months ago. As some of you know, my dear mother-in-law passed away in late January, and I had the extreme honor of taking part in her “tahara”, the ritual washing of the body before burial, along with the “chevre kadisha (holy society), a trained group of people who regularly engage in this ultimate mitzvah, (commandment), for such a mitzvah cannot be repaid by the person benefitting. I had never done anything like this before. I had never touched, or even seen a dead body. However, I wanted to be there for this final care-taking of a woman I loved very much, someone I certainly been care-taking for many years. It was a profound honor to witness such tenderness and respect.
As I talked, I kept coming back to this week’s parasha, Tazria Metzora. (Lev 12:1 – 15:32) These parashiot (plural of parasha, and they’re usually addressed as a pair) is the one people point to as either the yuckiest one and/or the one that’s hardest to find relevance for in our lives. No surprise. It’s all about skin swellings, rashes, discolorations, etc. These two parashiot add up to over 150 verses on the topic! The priest acts like a doctor, and is supposed to diagnose the condition. The usual pronouncement is for the afflicted person to leave the camp for a period of time (between a day and a week), and when the “impurity” has passed, the person washes his/her clothes, takes a bath, and comes back into the community. It’s important to know that the ritual washing has nothing to do with being dirty. Water is a transformative agent, allowing the body to pass from a state of God-far-away to one of being God-close. Judaism is certainly not the only faith that has recognized the transformative power of water; Christian baptism brings a person into a deep relationship with God through water.
The rabbinic commentary discusses how these skin afflictions make the person seem like dead, which is the reason for the social separation. I know now how death affects the skin. Blurring the lines between life and death is what much of Leviticus boils down to, and Judaism prefers those lines to be distinct. So, water is used to affect the passage between life-like and death-like; indeed, as in the tahara, literally between life and death. At times in our lives, we all skip over those lines, in some way. Maybe it’s a near-death experience. Maybe it’s a little “death”, with illness, either physical, mental, or emotional. We hear about people who describe going through a difficult time and finally come back “into the land of the living” During those times, we need to separate ourselves for a while, and then we can return to the community. A long, hot bath and clean clothes do wonders.
There’s one other point that brings me back to the conversion class. The phrase, “Jews by choice” is often preferred over “convert”. And, as I noted earlier, other faiths, indeed, have water-rituals that bring a person into a state of God-nearness, like baptism. Judaism has the rituals of tahara and mikveh (the ritual bath), and the cycle of laundry/bathing for occasional “out-of-camp” times in our lives. As I understand it, baptism a one-time thing. Judaism, however, recognizes that our status of being close to God changes throughout our lives, and each time we feel far away from that spiritual center, we need to choose to come back. Jewish tradition shows us ways to do that. In this, and so many other ways, we are all Jews by choice.