That Which Heals, Hurts

Here is a long esoteric quote from the weekly Torah portion:

God spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: This is the ritual law that God has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. The cow shall be burned in his sight—its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included—and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow. The priest shall wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest may reenter the camp, but he shall be unclean until evening. He who performed the burning shall also wash his garments in water, bathe his body in water, and be unclean until evening. A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for cleansing. He who gathers up the ashes of the cow shall also wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. (Numbers 19:1-10)

Ok, put aside any notions or hesitations or complaints you may have about animal sacrifice, ancient texts, weird rituals or even spiritual purity (remember, in the text above “cleanliness” does not have to do with a physical condition, but a spiritual condition.) What is important to point out that this ritual of purification, which is meant to reinstitute a state of spiritual “cleanliness,” makes the priest who performs it unclean. In other words, that which heals, as it were, also hurts.

I’ve been thinking about this recently as we are again confronted with evidence that our society is suffering from the “uncleanliness” of racial injustice, institutionalized privilege, ever present violence, proliferation of guns, police brutality, and xenophobia. The killings in Baton Rouge and Minnesota, and the subsequent violence in Dallas, are only the most recent examples.

And as Jews we have been reminded recently that anti-Semitism, a millennia-old hatred, is still ever present as evidenced by imagery developed by a white supremacist group and promoted by the Trump campaign, and an inflammatory statement in our own Thurston County, sent out by the  Auditor’s Office in advance of the August primary.

Once could ask why does this seem to be happening more than ever. Certainly we can look to a lower level of civic discourse and engagement and a higher tolerance for inflammatory rhetoric as contributing to an overall devaluing of others. Or, we can also suggest that what is happening is not an increase at all, but that acts such as these have been always happening, but it is only with our increase accessibility to media–both as broadcasters and consumers–we are seeing old problems in a new light.

In any event, these are our ills to confront, and confront them we must. In our age of media choice, our tendency is to shut out the voices that we do not like to hear, that are unlike ours, that offend us. But that is too easy, and not getting at the root of the problem.

I read a great piece recently called Do Not Unfriend the Racists. (It was from last year, though I only now came across it, but still relevant.) It warned against the tendency of those who experience privilege in matters of race (i.e., white people) to challenge racism by “unfriending” the racists: disengaging with them and separating oneself from the vitriol.

But, shutting out voices that we do not agree with, that offend us, is not real action. Real action is in the confrontation, in the challenging, in the educating, in the taking ownership. Real action as allies to people of color is to understand privilege and work to dismantle systems of oppression. We, as Jews, confronted with anti-Semitism, would expect nothing less from our allies.

But this is not easy, because it is not comfortable. We want to be comfortable, to avoid confrontation, to block out the painful parts of our existence. But to move forward as a society, to fix the brokenness, to dismantle oppression–we need to make ourselves uncomfortable. Just as we must “comfort the afflicted,” as the saying goes, we must “afflict the comfortable.” It is only by living in that discomfort, truly feeling it, experiencing it, that we can know that there can be a better way, a different path, a more just future.

The first step is discomfort. The way to spiritual cleanliness is to make ourselves unclean. That which heals also hurts.

The Torah’s story of the red heifer might be remote and esoteric. But we do know that here in the northwest the blackberries are starting to ripen on the bramble. And as anyone who has gone out to collect blackberries knows, we can not get to the sweet fruit without encountering thorns. That which heals also hurts. And that is the only way forward.

Why Today’s Supreme Court Ruling is a Victory for Judaism (For Reasons Not Having to do With Health Care.)

Today the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as “Obamacare,” will not be gutted of one of its key provisions: that federal subsidies to pay for health insurance would be available to qualified applicants who sign up through a health care exchange. The question hinged on whether or not those who purchased health insurance through the federal exchange rather than a state exchange would continue to be eligible.

I admit I was nervous leading up to this ruling. Back when I was on my high school debate team, a topic one year was health care, and we had to argue—both pro and con—universal health care. It was then that I really started to learn more about the health care system in our country, an issue that has stuck with me ever since. And since I have had to utilize health care and health insurance several times for fairly serious issues, it has made me even more aware of the need for access and insurance.

And while it may not be perfect, as a means for a large number of people to gain access to health care and health insurance I was a supporter of the ACA. (And I am currently a customer.) I was nervous about the fact that we may backtrack, and that people would lose their newly won benefits.

Here in Washington, of course, those who receive subsidies would have been safe. Our state is one of the minority (!) of states that set up its own exchange, and the ruling would not have impacted citizens of Washington in the same way it would have those in other states.

That discrepancy in the states is what the argument hinged on, and why, as a rabbi, I am very pleased with the outcome. Not because of the merits of the law—I only have a layperson’s opinions about that—but because of the merit of the decision. The opinion of the court, written by Chief Justice Roberts, is a victory for Obamacare, yes, but it is also a victory for the Jewish textual interpretive tradition.

The case hinged on 4 words: that subsidies apply to those who purchase health insurance through an exchange “established by the State.” The question before the court is, does this apply to only those who bought their health insurance through a state exchange, or does it apply to both those who bought their health insurance through a state exchange and those who bought their health insurance through the federal exchange.

When the law was written and passed, the assumption would be that all 50 states would establish health care exchanges to serve as the statewide marketplace for health insurance. Many states—ostensibly for political reasons—refused to set up exchanges. It then fell to the federal government to establish an exchange to serve those who live in states without exchanges.

But the language of “the state” remained, and the plaintiffs of the suit argued that we need to take the law at its plain meaning: since it mentions “the state” it must refer to ONLY an exchange set up by a state, and not the federal government. The government argued that we need to take the law at its intended meaning: that “the state” is not a technical term to refer only to one of the 50 states, but it refers to the government in general.

Now all of this could have been avoided with better editing and tracking as the bill went through its various permutations. But it was passed as it was written, and that is over which the Justices were arguing.

And so this is a victory for the Jewish textual interpretive tradition because the Justices chose an interpretive reading,

The former Temple Beth Hatfiloh building (now K Records) with the Washington health care exchange in the background.
The former Temple Beth Hatfiloh building (now K Records) with the Washington health care exchange in the background.

looking at intent and spirit, rather than a strict literal reading, looking at paper and letter. For this is I believe how we are meant to approach our sacred texts—not strictly to the letter, but with an eye towards meaning-making and spirit.

Law—whether civil in this case or spiritual in Judaism—is meant to uplift the individual and community to a higher level. This sometimes requires a look at context and intent. This is especially true as we seek to interpret our Jewish sacred texts. Some of the laws and practices of the Torah are foreign to us in their literalness or practice (in this week’s portion Hukkat, for example, ritual impurity from a dead body). But the spirit of the laws and the intentions behind them (coping with and confronting death) are very present and important. The letter pushes us away but the spirit draws us close. We seek to understand the spirit of the text in order to make it meaningful.

Additionally, interpreting Scripture through the narrow lens of literalness oftentimes leads to destructive ends. We see this in the rise of fundamentalism around the world in which a strict reading of text leads to fear and hatred of the other, the desire to control and an inability to be open and pluralistic. In the oft-quoted words of Chief Justice Roberts from today’s opinion: “A fair reading of legislation demands a fair understanding of the legislative plan. Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.” While admittedly far from religious fundamentalism, Roberts hints that a strict reading of text would not only be against the intent of the law, but have harmful ends.

In the end, Roberts and the Majority chose people over text. The Minority, in arguing for a strict reading, chose text over people. And that is a lesson for us as well. Scripture is important. Text is important. For Judaism, Torah and text is the root of our tradition. But we must approach it as a living text, meant to help not to harm, meant to expand not to limit. Torah’s words are meant to inhabit our souls, not simply be parsed on the scroll.