Sermon: Metzora: Real Judaism Includes

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 6 April 2014

After Shabbat dinner at our home a favourite activity is to stay round the table and play a board game, phones away, TV off, just great family time.  One of the top choices for all of us from our cupboard full of board games is one called Balderdash where the idea is to make up improbable answers to questions and try to fool each other into believing them.  This always includes a round or two which is based on odd laws and local regulations, mostly from North American towns. The task of the players is to make up more plausible laws than the ones which really exist.  So for example on the statute books of Newfoundland it is apparently illegal to roll a wheelbarrow on a public pavement.  In Omaha Nebraska it is illegal to sneeze while in church.  Ashland, Kansas, still has a law preventing politicians from handing out cigars around election time.


These are all rather charming and make for a fun game.  But there have been statutes in American towns and states which revealed a much darker side to local concerns.  These have all been repealed but they existed for up to 75 years.


From the State of Tenessee in 1891: “All railroads carrying passengers in the state shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and coloured races, by providing two or more passenger cars for each passenger train, or by dividing the cars by a partition, so as to secure separate accommodations.”


From the state of Missouri in 1929: “Separate free schools shall be established for the education of children of African descent; and it shall be unlawful for any coloured child to attend any white school, or any white child to attend a coloured school.”


From Alabama 1930:  “It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards or dice, dominoes or checkers.”


These were examples of the Jim Crow laws, so named after a popular racist caricature of a black man in the nineteenth century.  This was legislation to create and enforce inclusion, all repealed in the mid 1960’s.  Britain had it too, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly.  Lionel De Rothschild was elected to be one of the Members of Parliament for the City of London in 1847, the first Jew so elected.  He was required, as all MPs were before taking up their seats in the House of Commons,  to swear an oath of loyalty on the Christian bible including the words “by the true faith of a Christian.”  Clearly impossible for him.  The Prime Minister of the time sponsored a bill called the “Jewish Disabilities Bill” to remove the problem and enable him to swear the oath as a Jew – however this legislation did not pass both Houses of Parliament. The bill was presented again and again from 1847 until 1858 failing to be passed every time even though Lionel De Rothschild was re-elected in the two general elections which took place during that time, despite his not having been able to sit in the Houses of Parliament.   Once the bill passed he swore “so help me Jehovah” with covered head and took up his seat, being re-elected twice more.


Institutionalised exclusion seems ridiculous now – but it does threaten to appear often, in the disguise of culturally sensitive segregation.  Thank goodness this is being made illegal in Israel where some ultra-orthodox groups have been demanding gender segregation on buses.  The Israeli justice ministry is in the course of publishing legislation to ban this ever being public policy.  In the past week in Britain it has become a live issue as a few schools have been challenged where they have allowed gender segregation to take hold for the apparent benefit of religious groups which want it.  It must not happen.


Our Torah portion today seems at first reading to be requiring the exclusion of the sick from the society of the Israelites.  It begins by requiring the leper to be segregated from society and we are rightly deeply disturbed by this – though the public health benefit of separating people with what was assumed to be a highly contagious disease makes sense at the time when they do have the disease.  But the portion is primarily concerned here with the public re-integration of the person whose disease has now passed.  As Daniel explained to us in his D’var Torah the ritual of the bird sacrifice and the close contact of the High Priest with the now recovered sufferer is all about ensuring that he or she is clearly brought back into the settlement as a fully included person.


At work here is a central Jewish value which tells us that we must seek to find ways to fully include everyone who we possibly can into the whole community.  Dr Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College, the US centre of Reform Jewish learning notes that the ritual where the blood of the sacrifice is touched to the right ear, thumb and toe of the cleansed leper only appears in two other places in the Bible.  Both of these are concerned with the ordination of the High Priest of the Israelites.  We are told here to care so deeply about the reinstatement of the person who might otherwise be excluded that we place their re-entry into the community on par with the installation of the person who is purported to have the closest most intimate relationship with the Divine.

In the Mishnah (Negaim 14:9), our Code of Jewish law from the second century, Rabbis Judah, Eliezer and Shimon dispute what should happen if during the course of the disease the person has lost their right ear, thumb or toe. Though Rabbi Meir takes the hard line approach that the ritual should not now take place, Rabbis Eliezer and Shimon state that the ritual should still take place – by placing the blood either on the place where these appendages once were or on the left side instead.  Their majority attitude must remain the Jewish attitude – always find a way to include.


I am very proud that that is the way that our youth movement RSY-Netzer works.  We have recently had the experience of the RSY staff working very hard with us to ensure that our younger daughter, who has been suffering from a debilitating condition, was able to go enjoy their winter camp, thoroughly supported by their welfare officer, making new friends and feeling as fully part of the experience as she was capable.  This was in marked contrast to her former school who quoted vague and, to our mind, specious health and safety concerns to prove why they were not willing or able to include her in a very similar camp experience for her class.  I am very proud that Galim, our Sunday morning education here at the Synagogue has ensured that a multiply disabled young person is able to enjoy being part of her year group here week after week lighting us all with her smile.  I am proud that at a Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremony at a local Reform Synagogue for triplets, one of whom was also deeply and multiply disabled that young man was able to witness his two  sisters reading Torah and then to celebrate his own Bar Mitzvah by responding in the only way he could to hearing his Hebrew name called.


We must follow the example of Rabbis Eliezer and Shimon and do the hard work of finding ways to include everyone as fully as we possibly can in the people of Israel.  The Rabbi Meir hard line of exclusion because you can’t be included easily feels divorced from the intent of our Torah portion.  It can take hard work and it will demand resources to include all.  In the Torah it meant that the Cohen had to dedicate his time to the needs of the leper – he had to work with the individual.  But that is surely as it should be.


If you know of anyone who is directly or indirectly excluded from Jewish life, whether young or old, male or female, whatever their disabilities or disadvantage or individual needs, please know that it is among the missions of this Synagogue to include and to do the work to do so.  We need to do it together, staff and members of the Synagogue alike but the result is a more complete Jewish community and very often the delight of people who would otherwise be excluded – in doing so we are participating in the work of Tikkun olam – the repair of God’s world and being true to our Jewish tradition.