Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Who's In Your Community?

After more than a year of not learning Jewish Texts daily, which was actually painful, I have returned to my daily learning. I chose to go through Masechet Hagiga, because I remember well learning the very beginning of this tractate years ago in relation to who is included in our community and why.

So the Tractate begins with the following Mishneh, so very loosely translated for purposes of this discussion:

All are obligated to to perform the Mitzvah of appearing in the Temple Courtyard on the festivals except a deaf-mute, a mentally compromised person, and a minor. Also exempted from the Mitzvah to appear are a person of undetermined sex and a hermaphrodite, women and slaves who have not been freed, the lame, the blind, the infirmed, the aged and the one who is unable to ascend by foot.

So I remember thinking when learning this Mishneh years ago, so who is included in this all - inclusive group of “all [who] are obligated?” What is important to note is that I often find that too often well meaning learners read the dictum and stop there. BUT, it is critical to continue in the Gemara to understand what is going on.

First of all, the critical element of who is to go and perform this mitvah of appearance at the Temple (and bring offerings, a completely other discussion) is NOT about who I like or do not like or who I accept or do not accept. IT IS ALL ABOUT who has the OBLIGATION to do what is required to do. This is a very clear and pragmatic issue and I think that often these matters of exclusion and exemption should and MUST be learned and studied from this first intentional perspective and NOT through the lenses of so many contemporary prejudices, additional personal perspectives and so on. Let’s just, for a moment stay with the text of Masechet Hagiga because I think it comes to teach us something so critically important about how we think about community and who we include and accept in our communities.

The Gemara goes on to question EACH of the categories of excluded people, citing verses from Torah that talk to the OBLIGATION that people do or do not have. Among some of the discussions are the following points that are made:

a. There is a discussion and debate about what it means to be a “slave that is not freed.” The concern expressed is that some people were basically half status slaves and half status free people. So, if a person as a free person is obligated to do X and is not obligated to do X as a slave, how do we address this category of “slaves who have not been freed” to allow the half-free person to fulfill their obligation of appearing in the Temple Courtyard.

b. The blind and deaf persons are discussed in terms of whether they are blind or deaf in both eyes or ears or only one. One of the texts cited is that G-d has compassion on all beings and just as G-d surveys the community with BOTH EYES, would we be embarrassing the one who only sees out of one eye or one ear?

c. Women are discussed precisely in terms of what they are obligated to do and what they are not obligated to do. IT IS NOT A BLANKET EXCLUSION, but rather the various options are explored and it is suggested and discussed that women do, according to some of the teachers of the Mishneh and Gemara, have the obligation of appearing for the purposes of rejoicing at times of community celebrations.

And so the discussion goes on quite extensively. I feel compelled to think about how some categories of exclusion and inclusion have in fact changed through the years for good and some for not so much good.

For example, let us consider the mentally impaired person (the deranged person according to the Mishneh). The degree of this impairment is also discussed at great length so that we do not impose any unnecessary or excessive exclusion. While not the case in all corners of our Jewish community, it is safe today to say that through various organizations, we work with our mentally impaired Jewish children and adults and include them where and as much as possible, not unlike the point of some of the proposed teachings of Hagiga. The inclusion of children is also debated, and clearly again, in most communities of our Jewish world, we now err on the side of including our children so that they will learn what it means to be a practicing Jew and member of a community. YAY us!

Then medical advances have totally challenged us to rethink the inclusion of our deaf, mute, lame and blind community members, making them viable and capable of full inclusion in more and more cases. As just one example, some years ago, there was a question posed regarding a blind woman who wanted to light Shabbat candles. An Orthodox Posak decided that based on various texts and precedents, she could and should light candles (with assistance for obvious reasons) AND someone else who could see the candles should light them for the rest of the family. This Posek indicated that he was using G-d’s stance as RACHMANA, The Compassionate One, to inform this decision. How lovely, truly lovely!

But, in some of these groupings, unfortunately, too many segments of our Jewish community have become much more exclusive and non-inclusive than Hagiga and so many other texts teach and suggest. Think of what is going on with our women in some of our communities, our hesitancy to include GLBTQ Jews in our gatherings, and other senseless exclusions that sometimes seem informed by other factors, NOT Jewish teachings and texts.

As we enter Mar Cheshvan (poor Cheshvan without any holidays or celebrations, except for, of course Rosh Hodesh and Shabbat, which HAVE to count for something, don’t you think?!?) let us make Cheshvan happier and our community fuller by rethinking WHO'S IN OUR COMMUNITY? May we all follow the example of G-d as The Compassionate One and not just dictate who is in and who is not, but think this thing through as carefully and completely as the voices of Hagiga!

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