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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
Ritual purity is the major focus of one of the six Orders of the Mishnah, (the Rabbinic interpretation of the Torah laws relating to life in Temple days and post its destruction, written in 200CE).
For The High Holydays, we adorn our scrolls and the ark with special white coverings to symbolise the search for purity during this period – a custom that, in some communities, even extends to the Rabbi and some members of the congregation, who may wear a white robe known as a kittel. White is also a symbol of death in Judaism, reminding visitors to the synagogue of the challenge posed in Deuteronomy 30:19, to ‘choose life.’
Ritual purity as defined in biblical times became a factor in the desire to keep men and women apart. The fear of ‘impurity,’ in relation to women especially during menstruation, enshrined in the laws of the Torah and dressed up as a desire to uphold those laws, meant that although women were not actually prohibited from carrying out the mitzvot in relation to prayer, the custom was for them to be excluded. If women did want to participate in prayer, it was deemed necessary to keep them separate (a practice that had it roots in the Second Temple, which included the Court of Women).
This was one aspect of the development of Judaism that witnessed the concern for ritual precision and purity quickly transformed in ritual from being a means to encourage and inspire righteous action to becoming an end in itself. Apologists talk about the vital, holy role that women could play insuring their own purity and that of the household, her domain being the kitchen and the bedroom.
“Rabbinic efforts to justify immersion indicate that the rationale was secondary to the practice. Midrash Sifra connects the ritual immersion of a vessel to another requirement for purification, namely, waiting for the sun to set. The midrash states that just as purification is linked to the simultaneous setting of the entire sun, so purification should be understood to refer to simultaneous immersion of the whole vessel.” (Carol Selkin Wise in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 631)
There are simply no grounds for this subjugation of women. It was - and for those who still practice it, is – purely discriminatory.
Liberal Judaism has never had need to justify from traditional sources the permission to include women in all aspects of synagogue life. Purity is a means to holiness and only has validity when it led to acts of lovingkindness. The Prophet, Amos extolled a God that would decline to accept the people’s offerings as long as injustice remained:
“I loathe, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies. If you offer Me burnt offerings, or your meal offerings, I will not accept them; I will not pay heed to your gifts of fatlings. Spare Me the sound of your hymns, and let Me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice roll down like water, righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24).
Practices of purification can have a positive impact in our lives, personally defined and ordained rather than imposed. They can help us to feel personally revived, relate better to others around us, spiritually in our relationship with God or as a motivation to be as good a person as we can. All are practices that lead to a positive impact, on an earthly, practical level, and perhaps if we believe that God metaphorically smiles when we feel self-efficacious, then on a cosmic level too.
We might feel purified in a hot bath, with candle lit and bath bomb exploded, having walked in an area of natural beauty, experienced an inspirational concert or witnessed a feat of humanity at the pinnacle of skill, ability or thought, a Friday night Shabbat dinner that unifies family or friends, or being giving love and feeling loved. For the religious it might be through silent meditation or communal worship, through study of our Torah in all is guises. Any such stimulus that captures our senses can purify.
Yet the purification through performing a mitzvah, defined not as a commandment but as a good deed, exceeds them all. As it is written: “Who may ascend the mountain of the Eternal One? Who may stand in God’s holy place? – the one who has clean hands and a pure heart.” (Psalm 24:3-4a)
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