Make distinctions! That, in a mere two words, is the central command of Leviticus 11, the Torah’s first collection of rules regarding eating. Separate this from that! Same concept, now in four words. The point of the ‘Torah’ of eating is ‘to divide between the unclean and the clean’ – לְהַבְדִּ֕יל בֵּ֥ין הַטָּמֵ֖א וּבֵ֣ין הַטָּהֹ֑ר (l’havdil beyn ha’tamei u’veyn ha’tahor). (Leviticus 11:47) Robert Alter reminds us that in Genesis 1, the great priestly rendition of Creation, “the world comes into coherent being when God divides the chaotically interfused primal elements – light and darkness, the waters above and the waters below, the sea and dry land – from each other.” Paradoxically (perhaps), to create coherence one has to divide chaotic forces from one another. Wholeness (hopefully) emerges from distinguishing and separating.
The rabbinic tradition in all of its guises – halakhic, ethical, philosophical, kabbalistic, pietistic – loves the making of distinctions every bit as much as does Leviticus. The Sifra, the early midrash on Vayikra, reads the Torah’s imperative ‘to distinguish’ (l’havdil) to mean “that we should not merely observe the distinction between the ass which is unclean and the cow which is clean, but also that we should be careful of the distinction between that which we can render unclean and that which we can render clean.” (beyn t’me’ah l’kha la’t’horah l’kha) The Torah of the priests calls on us not only to notice the distinctions between that which is clean and that which is unclean, but also to notice the ways in which we make further and finer distinctions.
R Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal), author of Mesillat Yesharim, the great 18th century musar classic, brilliantly draws out the ethical point. “Forbidden food,” he writes, actually introduces impurity into the heart and soul of a person, so that the holiness of blessed God departs far from her/him.” How? “By depriving her/him of the powers of understanding and reason which the blessed Holy One bestows upon the saints.” The result? “A person becomes coarse and beastlike, steeped in the grossness of this world. And this is more true of one who partakes of forbidden food than of one who commits any other transgression, because food enters the body and becomes part of its very substance.” (Mesillat Yesharim, chapter 11) Refined humanity, characterized by purity of heart and soul, requires understanding and reason, the hallmark of which is the making of proper and appropriate distinctions.
[Ezekiel panel, Dura-Europos Synagogue, 2nd century]
On this Shabbat just after the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, I’m thinking a lot about how we make distinctions. I spent the day at AIPAC on Monday, hearing the big event speeches and participating in smaller, blessedly more nuanced, conversations about Israel and the US-Israel relationship. (Video of most of the main stage presentations can be accessed here.) I learned a lot, stewed more than a little, and came home thinking about the painful divides that mark American political life and the current state of the Jewish people. None of it was new; all of it was on display at Policy Conference. The good news is that both sides of the American political continuum were well represented, and American Jews of many stripes gathered together under one roof. The much more difficult news is that we continue to mistrust and talk past one another, sometimes civilly, sometimes with contempt.
And the questions we face are hard ones. What does it mean to be pro-Israel? Can one love and support Israel and simultaneously object to Israel’s government and its policy? Can Israel be a truly democratic and Jewish state at the same time? How should those two commitments be balanced? Can they be balanced? Can the Jewish people hold itself together in the face of sharp disagreement on fundamental questions? Can support for Israel truly be bi-partisan? Can we accurately diagnose the anti-Semitism that has reemerged in our moment and place? And can we join together to combat it without tearing ourselves apart? Great challenges face all who love and care about Israel and the Jewish People, regardless of political or religious affiliation. Great challenges face all who love and care about America as well. We have a lot of work to do.
A century ago, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook struggled with some of the same questions about the health and well being of the Jewish people and its then new national movement. In an essay called Nishmat ha-Leumiut v’Gufah – The Soul of Nationhood and its Body, Rav Kook draws a distinction between “the abstract, ideal content of the universal objective and its expression in reality.” His moving words feel remarkably contemporary to me. “The love for the nation, or, more broadly, for humanity, is adorned at its source with the purest ideals, which reflect humanity and nationhood in their noblest light. In the conceptual world these are entities full of majesty and beauty, delight and life, mercy and truth, justice and humility, valor and joy, intelligence and feeling…But when they enter the world of action, and are set within boundaries, at once some elements of the higher light disappear. The large aleph becomes a small aleph.”
For Rav Kook, and hopefully for us as well, the story doesn’t end with that small aleph. To the contrary, Kook envisions “an awakening to the true revival” which will feature “the cleansing potency of the original soul of our people, with hidden divine influences and with the light of mercy and a higher pleasure hidden within it” a time in which those hidden sparks will “come and also cleanse all the outer garments in which the soul and spirit of the nation robed itself.”
The haftarah for this Shabbat Parah serves as Rav Kook’s prooftext and punchline. “I will give you a new heart, and I will place in you a new spirit; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. I will put My spirit within you…you will be My people and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36: 27-32)
New heart, new spirit. Ezekiel’s evocative and uplifting words need to be our prooftext and punchline as well. The future of the Jewish People’s soul and body depend on it.