Tazria-Metzora: The cost of being Jewish

can you afford itTazria-Metzora – one of those parshiot (weekly Torah portions) that we either skip over or read with some sort of “yuk” factor interest. It’s all about skin diseases, impurities of the body and building (read the part about a home getting diseased), and isn’t very pleasing to read.

But something did catch my eye this time.

“If however, her means do not suffice for a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering.” (Lev 13:8) and later on we read, ”If however he is poor, and his means are insufficient…” (Lev 14:21), and then again,  “He shall then offer one of the turtledoves or pigeons, depending on his means, whichever he can afford, …” (Lev 14:31)

The instances for which these particular offerings are quite different – the first is for a woman who has just given birth, and the second and third for a skin condition, needing to be deemed “cleansed” by the priest. But both have a caveat of affordability. A lamb was more expensive to the individual than a pigeon, and in other cases we read that if even the pigeon is beyond one’s means, a simple flour/meal offering will suffice.

It’s expensive to be Jewish.

Well, that is, if you choose to “do” Jewish in a traditional way – separate dishes, bigger kitchens for storage of those dishes, buying only kosher products,  kosher meat, restricting errands to certain days (“but the sale ends on Saturday!”), membership, donations, and more and more.  Don’t get me started about day school. It shouldn’t be like this. Living an actively identified Jewish life shouldn’t make you feel like bankruptcy is around the corner, or that this is a club that’s only for the wealthy.

The Torah is telling us it shouldn’t be like this, either. The text is quite aware of taking one’s means into consideration when fulfilling a mitzvah, that it shouldn’t break the bank to be deemed “holy” or “acceptable” or even just part of the community.

Last month, as I stood in line at the kosher butcher to buy some food for Passover, the woman in front of me rang up a $1,000 bill for kosher meat. A thousand dollars. For a week’s worth of meat. I’ve heard this before from others, and it leaves me speechless. Far from judging what she serves her family, I’m more astounded at the expectations the community seems to have developed for what constitutes a proper observance of the holiday. I hope she’s got the money to spare; if so, good for her, but if not, I’m more concerned that she feels she has to over-extend to celebrate “the right way.”

I can’t control day school tuition, but I do know people are responding to the cost with their feet – lower enrollment. Our community, on a macro and micro level, needs to take long hard looks at the “cost” of being Jewish, and find the awareness that the Torah already has found. Inclusion in our community can’t be based on what you can afford.


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3 Responses to Tazria-Metzora: The cost of being Jewish

  1. Agreed – a very timely message.

  2. awareci says:

    Well said. Being religious should not cost more than one can afford. How people spend money is up to them BUT the necessities of Jewish life should be affordable to all – whether in terms of education, food, synagogue membership or whatever from cradle to grave. (So Brit Milah to Cheva Kadisha and burial).

    Having said that – we do spend more over Pesach than other times of the year. Perhaps your lady spending $1000 on meat does the same. By Pesach we’ve almost emptied our freezer – having made sure to buy as little frozen food as we can for a few weeks before. We then purchase meat just before the festival starts – not just for Pesach but for several weeks beyond. There are usually special deals available then which won’t be available at other times and we take advantage. (This year we got meat at at least a third off and now have a full freezer!). Same for wine – it’s the best time of the year to buy Kosher wine. (Actually the second best. If you are quick you can sometimes get clearance reductions immediately after Pesach. We just bought 6 good bottles at half-price!)

    The Rabbis look at this week’s sedra as a lesson in not committing the sin of Lashon Hara. I see that as also always looking for the best in people – especially not knowing the full circumstances. The process for Tzaarat is interesting. So much time in the Torah is given to this – compared to pretty much every other sin. An implication is that it is considered more serious in some ways than theft, murder, eating tried….. And the traditional view is that Tzaarat is not Leprosy but some sort of spiritual ailment. Interestingly it is also something that involves sight, sound and touch. Assuming that the disease is a response and punishment to speaking ill of somebody (i.e. sound), the first impact is a physical ailment that manifests itself as some sort of physical blemish (i.e, touch). The next step is the diagnosis – is it or isn’t it tzaarat. For this a Cohen is needed. Almost any Cohen is OK – the Cohen can be a child, an invalid, or mentally incapable. All that’s needed is for the Cohen to say the victim is pure or impure (i.e. infected or not infected with Tzaarat). The Cohen must take advice from somebody competent – and then acts as a messenger. However the Cohen must also be able to see the blemish themselves so the only sort of Cohen that cannot pronounce the verdict is one who is blind. Hence sight is also needed – and finally the Cohen’s words bring the cycle back to the start. I.e. sound – touch – sight – sound.

    It’s an odd disease – which appears not to exist today. But the damage done by false words does still impact us all.

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