Periods – Tazria

Linnet Kaymer

It’s no secret that the Bible is full of problematic passages for Jews who wish to define themselves as feminists. Nowhere is this more prominent than Vayikra, the book where the laws are laid down for the prosperity of the children of Israel. Whereas the overt prejudices and discrimination in Bereishit can be somewhat excused as stories of their time, understandably dated and patriarchal due to the era they (probably) took place in, it is harder to reconcile the commandments of Vayikra with our modern notions of egalitarianism.

TW: the next paragraph briefly discusses rape

Of course, many of the more extreme commandments have been abandoned by even the most halachically observant Jews – stoning adulterers and forcing your daughter to marry her rapist ‘because he has violated her [and thus] he can never have the right to divorce her’ being among them. Masorti’s commitment to continually re-interpreting halacha, meanwhile, allows us to understand old rules in new ways. Many practices, however, remain prominent in large sections of the Jewish community, and the often uncomfortable history of our attitude to gender is impossible to ignore. In fact, it is important that we do not dismiss the attitudes shown here as historic, outdated or irrelevant to our experience of Judaism; it is only by interrogating the past that we can shine a light on our own present.

While most of us in the Noam/Marom kehila would define ourselves as feminists, we almost all regularly engage in practices which further the polarisation of the genders. Though these might not be as explicit or conscious as overt discrimination, subtle differences in expectations and treatment of sensitive issues often exist. The discomfort shown by many during the ongoing saga of head coverings on camp is just one example of how even the most professedly liberal-thinking of us can be guilty of this.

Handy, then, that there are all sorts of bloody sexism in this week’s parasha – bloody being the operative word. The bulk of Tazria is taken up by the rules surrounding leprosy and assorted skin diseases: how to determine if one is affected, how the inflicted should be treated, quarantine measures and so forth. The overriding impression is that this disease is impure, and has the potential to make all who come into contact with it impure in the eyes of God (or for the purposes of ritual such as visiting the temple).

The juxtaposition of childbirth laws at the start of the parasha, then, is marked and seemingly obvious. Tazria is Hebrew for ‘she conceives’, and this sedra suggests that childbirth is a state of impurity. Similarly (and discussed in the following parsha, Metzora), menstruation causes women to become nidah (impure). Both childbirth and periods must be followed by at least seven days of this state: only after this may a woman visit a mikveh and cleanse herself. Men, meanwhile, in an unsurprisingly un-egalitarian tradition, must merely wash themselves – rather than visit a mikveh – after a ‘seminal discharge’ and are automatically then pure by the evening.

Revealingly, the birth of a female child necessitates a waiting period double that of a male child; this was explained rather entertainingly by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. When his disciples questioned why women were ordered to bring a sacrifice to the temple after giving birth, he replied that a woman might swear during the pain of labour that she would never again have sex with her husband (having watched Call the Midwife and One Born Every Minute, I think I can understand why). Knowing that she would probably break this oath in future (ha), the Torah was helping her to pre-empt and apologise in advance for doing so. The Rabbi went on to conclude that the mandated break in physical contact was doubled for a girl because while family and friends would be happy at the birth of a son, and thus the mother would regret her oath after a mere week, a daughter would not be celebrated, and so the woman would take at least two weeks to reconsider her promise. Leaving aside our modern notions of female desire, this seems an intelligent interpretation of attitudes of the time.

Though few of us in Noam observe taharat ha’mishpacha (laws of family purity) – and some, guided by Rabbi Joel, attempted to revisit and reclaim the tradition of immersion last Yom Kippur – a huge stigma surrounding menstruation remains in most of our lives. I can well remember the excruciating embarrassment of a tampon falling out of my pocket at school, and most girls will have experienced the whispered requests to borrow a pad, apparently far too embarrassing to be said out loud. The only time I have happily announced a period was on being able to smugly inform a PE teacher that I couldn’t possibly take part in swimming lessons. In commercial culture, meanwhile, euphemisms for period products abound; supermarkets aisles will be marked ‘feminine supplies’ or ‘sanitary products’ rather than pads and tampons.

Period shame and negativity has been a subtle tool of oppression for far too long. By teaching young girls that the natural processes of their bodies are inherently shameful or unclean, we do lasting damage to their self-belief and self-confidence in their own physicality.

Noam and Marom do incredible work to further the smashing of the patriarchy, both in the camp environment and year round. Recent veidah motions, such as gender neutral dorms on pre-camp, and the sterling hadracha performed by our madrichim, have the power to influence the next generation of progressive Jews for the better. Let’s keep it up, and look to lessons from our past as to what to tackle next; my vote is for period positivity.


Kashrut and Individuality – Shmini

Adam Hilsenrath

If you were to ask the average non-Jew what Jewish practice and observance is, the most popular responses would probably be Yom Kippur, wearing kippot, circumcision and Shabbat.

Kashrut would also probably be a popular answer, and this is often the hardest to explain. I still opt to forego the detailed reasons why I can’t let my friend borrow my crockery to cook their chilli con carne, and I’ve absolutely no idea how I’ll explain Pesach. I may just cover the entire kitchen with tin foil and see if they notice…

This week’s parsha, Shmini, goes into a lot of the main issue of kashrut. It introduces the principle of separating milk and meat but also brings up a lot of question. What exactly does chew the cud mean? Which locusts can or can’t we eat? These vital questions are tied up with this week’s portion.

Kashrut observance has taken up a significant aspect of Jewish identity as the non-Jewish world perceives it; perhaps it is the everyday nature of it, or perhaps it is because it stands in such contrast to almost everything else found in the majority of western society. Even within the Jewish people, it is a marker of Jewish religious observances. The militantly secular kibbutznikim on Kibbutz Lahav decided to raise pigs precisely because it flew in the face of kashrut and its mitzvot.

Kashrut often defines one’s Jewish practice and observance. It may quite accurately be described as a spectrum of observance; there are those who keep the laws in their entirety, those who eat vegetarian in strictly non-kosher places, those who do not keep kosher but avoid eating meat from non-kosher animals, those who keep kosher in the house but not out, those who eat treif all year round but then only eat kosher l’pesach food on Pesach and everything in between. Everyone has their own, slightly different way of keeping kosher.

Shemini offers another, albeit a tad more morbid, approach to the idea that everyone operates (and are judged) on their own level of observance, with Aharon coming out quite unfavourably. After his eldest two sons are consumed by fire for an unauthorised offering, Aharon and his remaining sons are told to refrain from observing the traditional mourning laws because they had to keep serving in the Mishkan.

While both Aharon and his sons are dealt with quite harshly, and the justification of such treatment is another discussion for another time, the story attempts to convey the message that if people are to be judged, it is not from some catch-all, guidelines that are to be applied to everyone no matter what, but rather an individualised understanding of the person in question.

This principle is clear. It remains today, as it does with kashrut, that Judaism is a religion as much for the individual to oblige by and engage with to the standards of their own comfort and ideals as it is for the community as a whole to celebrate together.

Mishpatim – Ethical Slavery

Isaac Treuherz

Parashat Mishpatim is a departure from previous weeks’ readings – following chapters of miracles, with commandments focused on awe and worship – Mishpatim, meaning “laws”” begins the essential Jewish tradition of nitpicking how we should go about our daily lives. The foundation is laid for the legal system, with basic crimes and punishments, and laws regarding conflict resolution, property and compensation. Nevertheless, this opens with laws regarding slavery. This immediately seems bizarre: is the first aspect of the legal system for a nation, only just liberated from generations of servitude, a justification to inflict on others what they had just suffered? To better understand this, it is helpful to look at other ancient rationalisations of slavery. Possibly the most influential justification for slavery in Western society, dating from 350 BCE, was that found in Aristotle’s work Politics. Aristotle claims that some people are simply better than others, that some are born to be slaves and others are born to be masters. In fact, slavery is a kindness: he compares these intrinsic-slaves, who he claims were born with incomplete souls, to domesticated animals, and asserts that without masters they would not know how to go about their lives. Would this have been problematic for the Bnei Yisrael? On the first reading, it seems so. By that same justification, the entire nation could be considered intrinsic-slaves since they were all born slaves in Egypt. However, what if we argue that Egypt simply enslaved the wrong people? That is the Egyptians’ crime: enslavement regardless of the status of the enslaved as born a slave or not, thereby including those not born as intrinsic-slaves. This resolves the double standard: we have a principle on which to condemn the enslavement of the Jewish people, but which our own slaves do not contravene.
How does the Tanach respond to the clear moral issues of keeping slaves in light of this justification? In possibly the most significant departure from the traditional view of a slave, Aristotle’s justification is overturned by the very first commandment in the Parashah
: כִּי תִקנֶה֙ עֶ֣בֶד עִבְר֔י שֵׁ֥ש שָׁנִ֖ים יַֽעֲבֹ֑ד ובַ֨שְּׁבִעִ֔ת יֵצֵ֥א לַֽחָפְשִׁ֖י חִנָּֽם:
“Should you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work six years, and in the seventh, he shall go out to freedom without charge.” (Shemot, 21:2)
Immediately, the concept of a Jewish slave for life is rendered null. No Jew is intrinsically born a slave and forced to always remain so – although they may choose to do so, also specified in Mishpatim. In this, the Tanach makes clear the equality of every Israelite, and the sanctity of every one of their lives. This is possibly one explanation of why this is chosen to open the following chapters of legislation. Much earlier laws on slavery even than Aristotle are found in the Code of Hammurabi, a code of law from the 18th Century BCE Babylon. A major part of the Code is devoted to the establishment of a class system, with nobles, commoners and slaves, who are clearly treated differently before the law. A free person who strikes another is fined; a slave committing the same crime has their ear cut off. A man who kills a free woman has his daughter executed, but a man who kills a slave woman is fined. A doctor is paid less for healing a slave than for a free person. This principle is in sharp contrast to that of the Tanach, that a Jew who is a slave is still a Jew, and retains most of the legal privileges afforded to him as a Jew. The Tanach contains extensive description of all of the rights of such a slave and the protection due to them, for example:
יַפִיל וְכִי יַכֶה אִיש אֶת עֵין עַבְדו או אֶת עֵין אֲמָתו וְשִׁחֲתָה לַחָפְשִׁי יְשַׁלְחֶנו תַּחַת עֵינו: וְאִם שֵׁן עַבְדו או שֵׁן אֲמָתו: לַחָפְשִׁי יְשַׁלְחֶנו תַּחַת שִׁנו:
“And if a man strikes the eye of his manservant or the eye of his maidservant and destroys it, he shall set him free in return for his eye, and if he knocks out the tooth of his manservant or the tooth of his maidservant, he shall set him free in return for his tooth.” (Shemot 21:26-7)
In contrast, the Code of Hammurabi specifies a steep punishment for the destruction of the eye or teeth of a free person, but simply a fine for that of a slave. Another noticeable aspect of the Code is that slaves are treated as property; cattle to be bought and sold with impunity as G.C. Lee writes in his 1922 work Historical Judisprudence: “The slave is not regarded or spoken of as a man, but as a thing, and is reckoned in the same way as cattle.” In contrast, a Jew becomes a slave when selling themselves into slavery, usually for monetary reasons. The Mishnah states that a Jewish slave can only be sold by themselves: “The person selling himself writes on a paper or a shard: “I am sold to you,” or “I have been acquired by you,” and gives him the deed.” (Avadim 1:2)
The fact that it is the slave themselves who writes the deed shows that their full consent is paramount in this process. Furthermore, this consent is so important that the Tanach is actually extremely sympathetic to a runaway slave:
לא תַסְגִיר עֶבֶד אֶל אֲדנָיו אֲשֶׁר יִנָּצֵל אֵלֶיָ מֵעִם אֲדנָיו: עִמְָ יֵשֵׁב בְקרבְָ בַמָקום אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר בְאַחַד שְׁעָריָ בַטוב לו לא תונֶנו:
“You shall not deliver a slave to his master if he seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall reside among you, wherever he chooses within any of your cities, where it is good for him. You shall not oppress him.” (Devarim, 23:16-7)
In contrast, the Code of Hammurabi’s response to the same situation: “If any one receives into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the main square, the master of the house shall be put to death.” (Code of Hammurabi, 16) The only exception to this central need for consent is the worrying permissibility for a father to sell his daughter into slavery, a difficult topic which deserves further discussion, but for another time.
The Tanach, therefore, was far ahead of any other legal system that we know of from the time regarding its treatment of slaves. There is extensive description of the importance of providing for slaves, with them considered absolutely a member of the master’s household. They rest on Shabbat, are fed, clothed and given accommodation. Limitations are placed on the amount of work that a slave can be burdened with, and the protection is such that the Talmud contains the extraordinary statement that: “One who buys a Jewish slave for himself has acquired for himself a master.” (Kiddushin 22a) Legislating slavery, therefore, seems far less harsh when considered within historical context, and it is important to note that at no point does the Tanach command anyone to sell themselves into slavery, continuing to demonstrate the important of consent discussed earlier. Therefore, this legislation could perhaps be considered to be, rather than an advocacy of slavery, a fierce restriction on slavery – indeed, if slavery were to be banned outright it could result in worse conditions for slaves, since slaves kept illegally would have nothing to protect them from abusive masters. The Tanach does not advocate slavery: rather, it takes a slavery-dependent society, and ensures that this is not abused. It takes what we may consider to be a fundamentally flawed institution, but reworks it to involve Jewish values of justice and equality. Considered in this light, the laws regarding slavery seem like a natural place for the Tanach to start. By immediately laying out protections for slaves, Mishpatim ensures that the Bnei Yisrael will never cause themselves to be an abused nation once more.

Beshallach – Yam Suf: a watershed moment

Yoni Stone

The arrival at and crossing of the Yam Suf (the Red Sea) is the climax of the Exodus from Egypt. Having finally persuaded Pharoah to permit the Jewish People to leave, Moshe leads them out of Mitzrayim and into the desert where they arrive at Yam Suf. At this point Moshe turns to the people and proclaims “Stand still and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today … The Lord will fight for you; you need only be silent” (Ex. 14: 13).

The message here is simple. God will do what is necessary for us to survive; all you must do is remain idle. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments on an interesting contrast between this moment and a later instruction from Moshe to the people. As the Amalekites approach, Moshe said to Yehoshua, “Choose men for us, and prepare for battle against Amalek” (Ex. 17:9). Yehoshua fulfils this command and the Israelites engage in a war. The contrast here is clear. Before the splitting of Yam Suf, Moshe does not involve Bnei Yisrael in the solution whereas afterwards they are invited to take up arms and provide the solution themselves.

On the one hand this can be seen as a change in Moshe’s style of leadership; he moves from taking full responsibility as the leader, to empowering those whom he leads to be an intrinsic part of their story and the shaping of their future. However, this can also be seen as a change in the mindset of the Israelites. What we experienced when faced with Yam Suf transformed our nation from bystanders to protagonists. Sotah 37a teaches us of Nachshon ben Aminadav making the first courageous steps into Yam Suf. The Vilna Gaon provides an insight into this episode. He observes that the water is compared to a wall – choma. It is written in the Ktav Male, full writing, for Nachshon and includes a vav – but when this comparison is made for the rest of the people, the vav is missing. Thus it can be read as ‘chaima’ meaning anger. Here, the Torah is reflecting the anger and disappointment of each for Jew for not having the courage of Nachshon to make those first few steps. Perhaps in this way, we can see that the transformation which occurred within the Israelites from Yam Suf was one of both communal and individual responsibility. It encouraged the Israelites to make individual efforts for the benefit of the wider community, as seen in waging war as a unit with the Amalekites. There is a transformation here from passivity to activity.

One individual in this week’s parsha who is far from afraid to take on responsibility is Miriam. She watched over baby Moshe and offered to Pharoah’s daughter to take on the responsibility of caring for him. In some ways, this episode inverts that of Nachshon ben Aminadav, one involving a grown man entering into a large body of water, the other a baby boy being retrieved from a river, and yet both are defining moments for our nation, where the courage of one individual to take on a responsibility for the greater good ultimately shapes the future of all of those around them. By learning from the actions of Nachshon and Miriam, we can be the ones to take the first steps to construct the future of the Jewish People and empower those around us to do the same.

Bo -Jewels of Gold

Ezra Margulies

We find, in this parashah, an oft-repeated motif present in the narrative of Exodus (11:2):

2) Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his neighbour, and every woman of her neighbour, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold.”

The phrase “every man of his neighbour, and every woman of her neighbour” could readily be taken to refer to Israelites. Yet the terminology here presents striking parallels to a number of other verses in the book of Exodus, particularly 3:22:

22) But every woman shall ask of her neighbour, and of her that sojourneth in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment; and ye shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians.’

Such textual similarities lead all commentators to read the “neighbour” in this context to refer to the Egyptians. The passages, read together, reveal that the Israelites left the land of Egypt with great wealth, acquired from the hands of their former oppressors. Such a state of affairs comes to fulfill the promise that God made to Abraham in Genesis 15:13-14:

13) And He said unto Abram: ‘Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; 14) And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great substance.

Indeed, Rashi notes, in his commentary to Exodus 11:2, that God explicitly requested that the Israelites take the Egyptians’ goods so that Abraham should not accuse him of only fulfilling the first half of this promise.

This recurring motif in the Exodus narrative quite understandably puzzled medieval commentators. The implication of the biblical text seems rather obvious: the Israelites effectively stole the vessels of silver and gold from the Egyptians. How could God possibly vindicate such immoral behaviour?

I often look for the comical aspects of biblical interpretation. A huge degree of flexibility is sometimes required in our efforts to re-interpret a given passage and cast a different light on the narrative, thereby yielding surprising results. The Hizkuni (13th century), for example, insists that the Egyptians offered these vessels to the Israelites as a selfless gift (matanah gemurah), and adds, “the Egyptians were neighbours unto the Israelites, yet after the plagues, they were loving companions”. The phrase “loving companions” (re’im ahuvim) alludes to the seven blessings recited by a couple under the chuppah during the wedding ceremony. After oppressing them for nearly three centuries, the Egyptians suddenly acted toward the Israelites with the same benevolence as a newly-wed couple![1] The Hizkuni stretches the plain meaning of the text, far beyond the simple meaning, in order to refute the implication that the Egyptian goods were in fact stolen.

Beyond the humourous character of these interpretive efforts, it might be worth highlighting two more uplifting and inspiring messages. Firstly, it is reassuring to note the acute moral consciousness of medieval Jewish commentators. The Hizkuni’s comment demonstrates in a very powerful way that the Sages could simply not fathom the possibility that the Torah was preaching immoral behaviour. They were ready to stretch the text in unlikely directions, so long as the message they conveyed proved up to the highest ethical standards. A late 19th-early 20th century Hungarian rabbi, Moses Samuel Glasner, similarly stressed (in a very different context) that “One’s Torah ethic cannot be seen as abominable by Enlightened people”, as that would make Torah appear as “foolish and disgusting”. This noble motive obviously moved our Sages in all periods.

The second message I would like to convey is inspired by the thoughts of two modern commentators, Nehama Leibowitz and Benno Jacob. The verse in Deut. 28:8 states that “Thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because thou wast a stranger in his land.” It is hard to imagine, however, that the Israelites could escape Egypt without bearing a grudge against their former oppressors. The text does not indicate, however, that they bespoiled their enemies of their wealth. The instruction actually came from God in Exodus 11:1-2:

1) And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Yet one plague more will I bring upon Pharaoh, and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go hence; when he shall let you go, he shall surely thrust you out hence altogether. 2) Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his neighbour, and every woman of her neighbour, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold.’

In light of this observation, perhaps we can read the Hizkuni’s comment in a different way. In spite of the bitter years of enslavement, the Egyptians’ benevolent behaviour during the Exodus should serve as a model for the Jews to emulate in subsequent generations, upon welcoming strangers within their midst.

Arsenal Star endorses Noam

Arsenal and Spain playmaker Santi Cazorla showed his support for the UK’s only Masorti youth movement on Saturday by posing for a photo with the infamous Noam Tour 1 jumper from 2012.


12417808_10207272198337780_7771274067519001022_n.jpgThe jumper, which was being worn by Noamnik Zach Case, is one of only a handful in existence.A storm of controversy swept through the movement four years ago as the design of the garment, which featured anatomical drawings of hands and the lyrics to a mediocre chant, drew intense criticism.


Noam alumnus and Fashion consultant Gok Wan was quick to point out the significance of Cazorla’s photo, calling it “a sweeping endorsement of Zionism, Masorti Judaism and the recent decision to focus on Gemilut Chasidim instead of Tikkun Olam”. The Leicester-born TV personality added that “if Santi is prepared to pose next to the worst Noam Jumper in history then he must really love Noam. Maybe he’ll do a full shoot wearing some of our better pieces”.


Mazkir and 2013 Tour Madrich Amos Schonfield disagreed, pointing out that “when it comes to that jumper, all publicity is bad publicity”.