The portions are troubling not only for the graphic content, but also for the messages it gives about purity and impurity, and who is afforded full participatory membership in the people of Israel and who is literally outside of the camp. This message resonates extra deeply on today, shabbat itanu, when we focus on inclusion.
With the temple destroyed and tzaraat stricken from most diagnostic guides, many of these prohibitions have little obvious meaning in the present. The mitzvot of purity are ones that many Reform Jews have not taken on, and, indeed, may find on the surface offensive or irrelevant, with their implication that women are unclean or impure for a substantial portion of their lives.
These are parhsiot that focus on marginality and exclusion. In these parshiot, for reasons that we largely reject – accidents of birth, accidents of illness – some among us are separated out. Many of the responses to this aspect of the Torah are beautiful and thought provoking – d’vrei torah that compare the experience people with tzaraat, to those of people with HIV and AIDS and remind us to be compassionate and inclusive, because stigmatization is still with us. Other responses probe the meaning of impurity, and reinterpret the restrictions, arguing they acknowledge, for example, the awesome power of reproduction.
These, however, are not what occurred to me. What occurred to me is an excellent example of why you shouldn’t prepare your taxes and your d’var at the same time. I was struck by fact that, for the required sacrifices after birth, a woman could substitute a turtle dove for a lamb for her burnt offering, alongside the bird required for the sin offering. It looked like an income adjusted sacrifice. In parshiot that seems so exclusive, here was a practical suggestion about making important activities accessible to who all who want or need to take part.
I am not the only one who noticed the option. Rabbi Dalia Marx calls it a Plan B offering, noting that as a more inexpensive altnerative, it was considered an affordable and appropriate sacrifice for women, those with tzaraat and those who have touched a corpse – the marginal, the impure.
She goes on to recall that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel was also concerned about the affordability of these birds for sacrifice, swearing, when he saw the price increase of a pair of them increase in the first century, “By this Temple, I shall not go to sleep tonight until [a pair of birds is sold] for a dinar!” (K'ritot 1:7). He declared that women could offer sacrifices for multiple births and miscarriages at the same time. The price of the doves fell and women were able to attend to their families without making frequent inconvenient and costly trip to Jersusalem.
I disagree with calling the two dove option Plan B and emphasizing it as sacrifice based on marginality. Calling this option, which was so common markets sprung up to supply it, Plan B suggests that it is less desirable than a lamb, and the sacrifices of able bodied, healthy Israelite men. We need to recognize the flexibility inherent in the original portion, and in the response. When we define choices or differences as less then, we cheat ourselves. There is more than one way to be Jewish. Declaring one way normative or more authentic is at odds with the plurality of Judaisms in our own community and throughout history.
I think we can learn from Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel’s approach. Sometimes, we need to swear by the temple, to reject what came from Sinai, to make sure our community and our practices are inclusive and allow all those who want to to participate. We need to adapt not only our practices, but our assumptions and our expectations about what being an engaged Jew looks like. As Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and the alternative sacrifice itself show us, there is more than one way to get there, even in the midst of what seems like a system built on exclusivity. Different does not mean less and we need to guard against seeing adaptation as weakening.
I hope today, on Shabbat Itanu, and the rest of the year, we are able to think critically about when one pair or doves, instead of many doves or a lamb, will not just do, but do well. After all, if it’s good enough for G-d, it should be good enough for us.