Ohr Torah: Two Essays on the Diaspora and Israel Readings

Torah lights from Efrat, Gush Etzion, in the Judean hills.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin


For Tazria-Metzora:

Speak to the children of Israel saying, when a woman conceives (tazria) and gives birth to a male … on the eighth day the child’s foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Leviticus 12:2-3) 

The Hebrew word “halacha” is the term used for Jewish law which is the constitution and bedrock of our nation; indeed, we became a nation at Sinai when we accepted the Divine covenantal laws of ritual, ethics and morality which are to educate and shape us into a “special treasure… a kingdom of priest-teachers and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).

The verb of the root “hlch” means “walk”; progressing from one place to another, and not remaining static or stuck in one place, as in the biblical verses: “Walk before Me [hit’halech] and become whole-hearted” (Genesis 17: 1) and “You shall walk [ve’halachta] in [God’s] pathways” (Deuteronomy 5: 33).

This is important since scientific discoveries and social norms are constantly evolving, and it is incumbent upon scholars to consider these changing realities when determining halachicnorms, such as establishing time of death (no longer considered the cessation of the respiratory function, but rather now considered brain-stem death), which would allow for heart transplants.

For this reason, the Oral Law was never supposed to have been written down – for fear that it become ossified.

It was only because our lost sovereignty (70 CE), pursuant exile and almost incessant persecution might have caused us to forget our sacred traditions that the Sages reluctantly agreed to commit the Oral Law to writing in the form of the Talmud, declaring, “It is time to do for the Lord, they must nullify the Torah law” not to record the Oral Law (Tmura 14b).

However, thanks to responsa literature, where sages respond to questions of Jewish law from Jews in every country in the globe, halacha has kept “in sync” with new conditions and new realities.

I would like to bring to your attention a ground-breaking responsum published by the great Talmudic luminary Rav Moshe Feinstein in 1961, regarding the verse which opens our Torah portion. Reactionary forces opposed his ideas, burnt his books and harassed his household, but he refused to recant.

The Hebrew word tazria in the above quote literally means “inspermated,” zera being the Hebrew word for seed or sperm. The rabbi was asked whether a woman who had been artificially inseminated, after 10 years of a childless marriage because of her husband’s infertility, could still maintain sexual relations with her husband. In other words: did the “new invention” of artificial insemination by a man who is not her husband constitute an act of adultery, which would make the woman forbidden to her husband?

Rav Moshe responded forthrightly and unequivocally: “It is clear that in the absence of an act of sexual intimacy, a woman cannot be forbidden to her husband or considered to be an unfaithful wife …similarly, the child is kosher, because mamzerut (bastardy) can only occur by means of an act of sexual intimacy between a married woman and a man not her husband, not by means of sperm artificially inseminated.” The sage added how important it is for us to understand the deep existential need a woman has for a child and how our “holy matriarchs” all yearned to bear children “and all women in the world are like them in this respect.” If the mother does not know the identity of the sperm donor, it would not prevent the later marriage of the child (lest he/she marry a sibling), since we go in accordance with the majority of people, who would not be siblings to this child (Igrot Moshe, Even HaEzer, siman 10).

This responsum opened the door for many single women who refuse to be promiscuous, or to take a marriage partner solely for the sake of having a child with him, but who desperately wish to have a child of their own and continue the Jewish narrative into the next generation. Especially given the obiter dictum Rav Moshe included, in which he explained the importance of having a child especially to a woman and specifically states that he would have allowed the woman to be artificially inseminated ab initio (l’hat’hila — since the woman asked her question after she had already been inseminated), this responsum has mitigated to a great extent the problem of female infertility. If a given woman does not have a properly functional ovum, her husband’s sperm can artificially inseminate a healthy ovum, which can be implanted within the birth mother who will then carry the fetus until delivery; and if a woman is able to have her ovum fertilized by her husband’s sperm but is unable to carry the fetus in her womb, a surrogate can carry the fetus until delivery.

The question is to be asked: Who then is the true mother, the one who provides the fertilized ovum or the one who carries the fetus to its actual birth? Depending on the response, we will know whether or not we must convert the baby if the true mother was not Jewish.

Rav Shlomo Goren, a former chief rabbi of Israel (and p

reviously the IDF chief chaplain), provides the answer from our parsha’s introductory text: “When a woman is ‘inseminated (tazria) and gives birth…” The word “tazria” seems at first to be superfluous. Rav Goren explains that it took 4,000 years for us to understand that this word is informing us that the true biological mother is the one whose ovum was “inseminated.”

For Achrei-Mot Kedoshim

“You must surely instruct your colleague, so that you not bear the brunt of his sin” (Leviticus 19:18)

Judaism teaches us that “every Israelite is responsible for the other.” Except for the State of Israel – where the Jewish population continues to grow, Jews in the rest of the world suffer from internal “hemorrhaging.”

How do we “inspire” our Jewish siblings so that they remain within – or return to – our Jewish peoplehood? We have recently celebrated the festival of Passover, and we are “counting” each day towards the festival of Shavuot. The Hebrew term for the counting is sefira, a word pregnant with meaning. Its root noun is the Hebrew sappir, which is the dazzling blue – as the Bible records immediately following the Revelation at Sinai: “Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and the seventy elders of Israel then went up. And they saw the God of Israel, beneath whose ‘feet’ was something akin to the creation of a sapphire stone, like the essence of the heavens as to its purity” (Ex. 24: 9-10).

From this perspective, the days of our counting are a period of spiritual growth and development, of a connection between Passover and Shavuot. But when and how does this spiritual journey begin? It begins with Passover, God’s encounter with His nation Israel at its conception. And the Hebrew “sefira” (counting/ sapphire) is also based on the Hebrew noun sippur, a tale, a story, a re-counting – the very essence of the Passover Seder evening experience: “And you shall tell (haggadah, telling a story) your child on that day saying…” (Ex. 13:8) The Israelites came into Egypt as a family, the 70 descendants of Jacob. Hence the recounting of the story of our enslavement and eventual redemption is the recounting of family history. A nation is a family writ large: in a family, there are familial memories of origins; in a family there is a sense of commonality and community togetherness; in a family there are special foods and customs, special holidays and celebrations; in a family there are mandated values and ideals, that which is acceptable and that which is unacceptable “in our family”; and in a family there is a heightened sense of a shared fate and shared destiny.

Eda is the biblical word for community (literally witness), and every community attempts to recreate a familial collegiality. The relationship within the family is largely horizontal – towards each other – rather than vertical – connected to a transcendent God. And familial rites of togetherness are largely governed by family customs rather than by a Divinely ordained legal code.

Most importantly in families – as well as communities – every individual counts (once again, sefira).

Passover is our family-centered, communal festival, at the beginning of our calendar, at the very outset of our history, at the early steps towards our sefira march. On that first Passover we had not yet received our Torah from God, and we had not yet entered our Promised Land.

The Passover Sacrifice (Exodus 12) emphasizes our willingness to sacrifice for our freedom from slavery – our sacrifice of the lamb which was a defiant act of rebellion against the idolatrous Egyptian slave-society – and it attests to our uncompromising belief in human freedom and redemption even before we became a faith ordained at Mount Sinai. In order for every person/community to really count, large communities must be subdivided into smaller – and more manageable – familial and extra-familial units, “a lamb for each household” or several households together.

Special foods, special stories and special songs define and punctuate the close-knit nature of the event.

The ticket of admission is that you consider yourself a member of the family and wish to be counted in as such; this entitles you to an unconditional embrace of love and acceptance, to inclusion in the family of Israel.

The rasha (wicked child) of the Haggadah is the one who seems to exclude himself from the family – and even he/she is to be invited and included! How do we engage our unaffiliated Jews so that they do not defect and fall away from us? We must embrace them as part of our family, love them because we are part of them and they are part of us, regale them with the stories, songs and special foods which are expressed in our biblical and national literature that emerged from our challenging fate and our unique destiny, share with them our vision and dreams of human freedom and peace, and accept them wholeheartedly no matter what.

A personal family postscript: My paternal grandfather was an idealistic and intellectual communist. He ate on Yom Kippur and truly believed that religion “was the opiate of the masses.” Nevertheless, he conducted a Passover Seder each year – which I attended as a young child – with matza, maror, haroset, and the first part of the Haggadah. He would add passages from the Prophets, the Talmud and Shalom Aleichem which dealt with consideration for the poor and underprivileged, and checked that I could space my fingers properly for the Priestly Benediction, cautioning me to understand that the blessing was for world peace.

Despite my tender years, I noticed that there were still bread and rolls in the house which, if a grandchild wished, he received. I couldn’t understand the contradiction.

And then I was riding on a train with my grandfather, and there were two elderly ultra-Orthodox Jews sitting opposite us, speaking Yiddish. Two young toughs walked into our compartment and began taunting the Hassidim.

At the next stop my grandfather – who was fairly tall and strong – lunged forward, grabbed the toughs, and literally threw them out the open door. When he returned to his seat, I asked, “But grandpa, you’re not at all religious!” He looked at me in dismay. “What difference does that make? They are part of our family – and I am part of their family!” Then I understood…