What is the connection between purity laws and the Israeli elections? – Parashat Tazria
By Yuval Linden
How many days of impurity are applied to a woman who gives birth to a male child and how many for a female child? What diagnosis does the priest give – psoriasis, vitiligo or leprosy? How many days of impurity are allocated for each disease and how do you purify yourself? Is it possible to purify the clothes that were infected with the disease on the way or must they be burned?
The answer to these questions and many more are found in Parshat Tazria which we read this week. A sequence of descriptions that appear more like the diagnoses of the doctor in the clinic near your home than like the weekly Parsha.
Generally you could say that for the modern Jew, and certainly for the secular Jew, it is quite difficult to connect to the whole subject of purity and impurity. Indeed, the list of non-kosher animals from the previous Parsha feels more like a review of a new restaurant, and immersing oneself in the waters of the Mikva seems more connected to swimming at the beach, than purifying oneself.
But hidden within the idea of purity and impurity we find an important message about the nature of people and the meaning of their actions. Unlike the list of appetizing animals from the previous Parsha, humans are not wholly impure or wholly pure – they are both. What makes them move from one state to the other are their actions and behavior in this world. The verses in this week’s Parsha and in many others in the book of Leviticus are full of instructions that aim to help people keep themselves in a state of purity and to avoid, or at least to lessen, situations of impurity.
Rabbi Israel Salanter, a thinker belonging to the Musar movement in Lithuania in the 19th century, writes about the tendency to focus on rules of purity and impurity connected to religious rites rather than those laws connected to the relationship between people. In “Igerret HaMusar” he demonstrates this using this example:
“A large portion of our brothers the Children of Israel, almost all of them, will not eat without washing their hands (netilat yedaim), even if they are starving and will regret it. But they will easily speak badly of others, even when they are not strongly passionate. Here we see that the principle of keeping from sin is only doing the habit of human nature…”
The example of Rabbi Salanter reminds me of a religiously observant friend who told me about his attempts to look after the food he brought from home for lunch at work: at the beginning he tried his luck by writing on a label on the sandwich – Personal food from home – do not steal. After this threat didn’t hinder people from taking his sandwich he changed the label to – danger of non-kosher milk. From here on, said my friend, he no longer found an empty shelf when he came to eat his lunch.
So how can we protect ourselves from impurity that is related to the relationships between us and our fellow humans? According to Rabbi Salanter, we are obligated to create natural habits and clear laws which will ensure the morality of our deeds.
The solution that Rabbi Salanter offers can help us today as the Israeli election campaigns reach the heights of negativity, defamation, libel and bad taste. From the shameless videos of Likud TV, to the potentially criminal clip of MK Oren Hazan and the overuse of the word “traitor” by all sides of the political map – it is clear that the norms and the safeguards designed to protect the purity of the electoral process have lost their power. As a result, we have developed bad habits and, unfortunately, indifference with regards to the negative behavior of the majority of the political campaigns.
An examination of the regulations outlined by Israel’s central elections committee demonstrates that there is a double problem here – first, we are talking about a document which sets out outdated laws which do not take into account the power of social media in today’s world. There is a strict adherence to laws regarding disqualification or approval of archaic propaganda when social media is overflowing with video clips which are negative, or even criminal, with no intervention. Second, the problem is intensified when we are too forgiving of the unacceptable norms that are driven by those very politicians who are asking for a mandate to lead the people.
British political culture created the expression “It’s not done,” to describe something that is legal to do but nonetheless you should not do it. We are obligated to act together in order to re-establish the implementation of this expression in our political and public culture here in Israel. The upcoming elections are a key opportunity where we can decide where to turn our awareness, not only regarding the composition of the Knesset parties but also regarding our ability to purify ourselves from negative, unacceptable and impure behavior.
Yuval Linden, Director of Mechina and Gap year programs, BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change