Bob Schwartz

Tag: Torah

Old scripture, new world: The homosexual ban in Torah portion Acharei Mot

This week’s Torah portion is Acharei Mot, the second part of which is Leviticus 18. It contains very specific laws for sexual conduct, prohibiting practices that Jews must avoid on penalty of death.

Some of the prohibitions are still commonly accepted by most (though not all) in modern times and societies, including bans on incest within extended families and on bestiality. But among them is one that increasingly requires explanation in the face of changing norms–a ban on male homosexual relations. (Lesbian relations are not covered, as Robert Alter notes: “Lesbianism, which surely must have been known in the ancient Near East, is nowhere mentioned, perhaps because no wasting of seed is involved, although the reason for the omission remains unclear.”)

This demands some attention from people of faith who nevertheless believe that homosexual relations are as godly and natural as relations between men and women. The squaring of this circle is actually not that complex, though for some it remains difficult.

It is entirely possible to regard scripture as special, elevated and inspired without treating it as immutable and eternal law. That of course creates its own set of challenges, that is, which of the laws are we to embrace and which do we set aside? The ten commandments contain some valuable guidance we would like generally followed. Not lying, for example, comes immediately to mind.

Here’s the good news. We can do this, we can study and discern what is good and healthy for us individually and as communities. Here’s the inconvenient news. Study and discernment are hard, though rewarding. In my experience, discarding the Bible, or religion for that matter, because of its most pernicious elements and outcomes, is self-defeating and self-denying.

There are people who don’t eat vegetables because, to be honest, some vegetables are pretty terrible or are abysmally prepared. But vegetables are truly wondrous, as taste treats and as part of a healthful diet. You just have to be open to it and work at it a little. And not be put off by the stuff you don’t like and can’t accept.

Advertisements

Day of the Purge: The Random Goats of Yom Kippur

No matter how many layers and centuries of rabbinic interpretation and tradition overlay Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holy days, we are educated by going back to basics and to the foundations. In the case of Yom Kippur, that means back to the Torah.

“And it shall be a perpetual statute for you: in the seventh month on the tenth of the month you shall afflict yourselves and no task shall you do, the native and the sojourner who sojourns in your midst. For on this day it will be atoned for you, to cleanse you of all your offenses, before the LORD you shall be cleansed. It is a sabbath of sabbaths for you, and you shall afflict yourselves, an everlasting statute. And the priest shall atone, who will be anointed and who will be installed to serve as priest in his father’s stead, and he shall put on the linen garments, the sacral garments. And he shall atone for the holy sanctuary and for the Tent of Meeting, and he shall atone for the altar, and for the priests and for all the assembled people he shall atone. And this shall be an everlasting statute for you to atone for the Israelites for all their offenses once in the year.” (Leviticus 16:29-33, Robert Alter translation)

We refer to Yom Kippur (short for the Hebrew yom hakippurim) as the Day of Atonement. But some offer the English translation “the Day of Purgation.” It is the day, according to Leviticus, on which the high priest was allowed to enter the holy of holies of the Tent of Meeting to purge it of the transgressions that had accumulated over the course of year—a dirty accretion that can be thought of as a sort of a dense smog.

Leviticus prescribes a detailed purgative procedure for Aaron to perform. It involves, among other things, a bull, a ram and two goats. Only one of the goats will be sacrificed. But which one?

And from the community of Israelites he shall take two he-goats for an offense offering and one ram for a burnt offering. And Aaron shall bring forward the offense-offering bull which is his and atone for himself and for his household. And he shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. And he shall put lots on the two goats, one for the LORD and one for Azazel. And Aaron shall bring forward the goat for which the lot for the LORD comes up, and he shall make it an offense offering. And the goat for which the lot for Azazel comes up shall be set live before the LORD to atone upon it, to send it off to Azazel in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:6-10)

Who is Azazel? Why is he being sent a wandering goat in the wilderness? And why is the goat being chosen at random by lottery?

Robert Alter:

one [goat] for the LORD and one for Azazel: As countless seals and other ancient inscriptions unearthed by archeologists attest, the use of a proper name or title, prefixed by the letter lamed (“for”) as a lamed of possession, was a standard form for indicating that the object in question belonged to So-and-so (as in lamelekh, “the king’s”). These words, then (in the Hebrew, each is a single word, leYHWH and la‘azaz’el), are the actual texts written on the two lots. Much ink since Late Antiquity has been spilled over the identity of Azazel, but the most plausible understanding—it is a very old one—is that it is the name of a goatish demon or deity associated with the remote wilderness. The name appears to reflect ‘ez, goat.

for which the lot for the LORD comes up: This translation renders the Hebrew verb literally. The use of that verb may be dictated by the fact that the lots were in all likelihood pulled up out of a box or urn.

to send it off to Azazel in the wilderness: Approximate analogues to the so-called scapegoat ritual, using different animals, appear in several different Mesopotamian texts. The origins of the practice are surely in an archaic idea—that the polluting substance generated by the transgressions of the people is physically carried away by the goat. Azazel is not represented as a competing deity (or demon) rivaling YHWH, but the ritual depends upon a polarity between YHWH/the pale of human civilization and Azazel/the remote wilderness, the realm of disorder and raw formlessness. An unapologetic reading might make out the trace of a mythological plot, even if it is no more than vestigial in this monotheistic context. It is as though the goat piled with impurities were being sent back to the primordial realm of “welter and waste” before the delineated world came into being, but that realm here is given an animal-or-demon tag. The early rabbis, extending the momentum of the ritual, imagined the goat as being pushed off a high cliff, but in our text it is merely sent out, or set free, in the wild wilderness that is the realm of Azazel.

Jewish Study Bible:

The use of the two goats is similar to that of the two birds in Leviticus 14.4–7, 49–53. The lottery determines at random how each goat is to be used.

Azazel: The Rabbis cleverly divided this name into two words “ʿez ʾazel,” “the goat that goes away,” from which the traditional “scapegoat” is derived. It literally means “fierce god” and as intimated by the medieval exegete Abraham Ibn Ezra is evidently the name of a demon or deity believed to inhabit the wilderness. Thus the sins of the people are symbolically cast into the realm beyond civilization, to become the property of a being who is the antithesis of the God of Israel. Though Azazel accepts the goat bearing Israel’s sins as a sacrifice to him, this is no disloyalty to God since He Himself commands it, as Naḥmanides (Ramban) says: It is as though a king ordered “Give a portion [of this feast] to my servant so-and-so.”

Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism by Howard Schwartz:

The custom of sending a scapegoat out into the desert as an offering to Azazel is clearly a remnant of a pagan ritual.

In Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 51, God identifies the scapegoat as an atonement for Himself: “This he-goat shall be an atonement for Me, because I have diminished the size of the moon.” See “The Quarrel of the Sun and the Moon,” p. 112, which concludes with God diminishing the moon. We should not overlook the strangeness of God feeling the need to atone. This is reminiscent of Jung’s portrayal of God in Answer to Job. This is one more example of the kind of personification of God so commonly found in rabbinic sources, where God also studies Torah, suffers, mourns, puts on tallit and tefillin and prays.

Who was Azazel, to whom the scapegoat was sent? This appears to be a remnant of a pagan myth in which Azazel was some kind of desert god. Thus the scapegoat represents a sacrifice to the forces of evil. In modern Israel, the phrase “Lekh le Azazel” means “Go to hell!”

A description of the sacrifice of the scapegoat is found in B. Yoma 67a: “On Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) a goat was thrown off a high cliff in the desert, to atone for the sins of the Jews. A red ribbon was hung up in the Temple on that day. When the goat was thrown off the cliff, the ribbon turned white.” This description links the Temple and the sacrifice of the scapegoat, viewing it as a kind of remote Temple offering. The transformation of the ribbon from red to white confirms this.

What to make of all this, in the year 5779/2018? There is no Temple, no Tent of Meeting, no holy of holies. For most of us, there are no goats being chosen by lottery and sent to Azazel, and no Azazel.

Today we live and worship in the interpretation and symbolizing of these Torah stories and ancient roots. But at Yom Kippur, one thing to pay attention to in this is the role of randomness on this solemn occasion. It is not the only instance where randomness plays a part in the Torah.

In the Torah, of course, the seemingly random is no such thing. The lot pulled out of the box is supposedly pre-arranged by God (to quote from Leonard Cohen, as I did in my previous post, “everybody knows the dice are loaded.”)

Yom Kippur is arranged as a soul-searching transaction. Consider what you do, because when you do this that happens. Adding the element of randomness doesn’t change that; it just adds another dimension of reality. Things happen by cause and effect. Things also happen at random. The two are inextricably integrated. You can’t pick the “wrong” goat to send to Azazel, not because God fixed the lottery, but because it is always up to you, wandering like that goat in the wilderness. Just much more aware and thoughtful.

 

Today’s Torah: Slavery Might Be Right Around the Corner

A section of this week’s Torah portion (Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27) is described even by sympathetic commentators as “unusual”, “troubling”, and “brutal”, though one commentator admits it is “ironic or poetic justice.”

Joseph is the sharp CEO of Egypt. (Sharp dealing runs in the family; recall that his father Jacob cheated his uncle Esau out of the family birthright.) He has now brought not only his family but all the Jews down to Egypt.

The new arrivals enjoy a relatively good life, while the native Egyptians are suffering through a disastrous famine, the famine foretold by Joseph himself. To solve the dire situation, Joseph has the desperate Egyptians turn over all money and land to Egypt and the Pharaoh, and then gives them seed and assigns them land to farm so they don’t starve. The Egyptians, we are told, were grateful. This is most kindly characterized as serfdom, but is most commonly described as slavery. The poetic justice is that the Jews themselves were later trapped in the slavery plan that Joseph devised.

Are there any interesting lessons here?

If you are a regular reader of the Torah, you recognize that some of the most iconic figures are not depicted as paragons. Incidents of cheating and lying are found among the patriarchs. Then there’s Joseph’s enslavement of the Egyptians. Some commentators face this head on, while others are apologists, contextualizing the miscreant behavior as all part of a bigger, better plan. But cheating, lying and cruelty are still just that, no matter the actor.

Another lesson? In hard times for the common people, it’s good to be the Pharaoh, or the Pharaoh’s right hand man, or the family and friends of the Pharaoh or the Pharaoh’s right hand man. Otherwise, slavery might be right around the corner.

Random Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 34

the_death_of_moses

Studying a random Torah chapter each Shabbat contravenes the traditional, conventional and sacred process of following the Torah through a fixed annual cycle of portions. I only recently learned from reading the revered and brilliant rabbi and scholar Aryeh Kaplan that meditation on random Torah passages is actually a historical Jewish phenomenon. Who knew?

While working on an extended explanation of my taking this iconoclastic Torah study path, today I offer a poem about breaking cycles:

Discontinuous

We see better in discontinuity
The way we see better in the dark.
We strain for every glimmer of light
However small
To make out shapes.
Cycles and patterns are comfortable
The more they repeat
The easier it seems.
But nothing is easy.
We are lulled into false confidence
That we know what is there
And what is going on.
The broken line
Is as powerful as the solid.

Deuteronomy 34 is the last chapter of the Torah. It is the death of Moses.

The Torah begins on a cosmic scale with the creation of everything. It ends with a single man, a very old and special man, sitting on a mountaintop, surveying the future. He will never see or experience that future, partly because he is old and dying, partly because he has been forbidden to enter the land he has led his people to.

Scholars will tell you that as a literary matter, this final chapter may not technically be the end of the text, that the five books (Pentateuch) are actually six (Hexateuch), and this compendium work originally continued with the story of Joshua, which now appears in the non-Torah book of Joshua.

That is an important scholarly debate in some ways, and a silly one in another. The Big Story always begins with an ineffable cosmic moment. It always ends with an old person surveying the past, present and future, with promises fulfilled and unfulfilled, barred by the nature of creation from going any further. This final chapter gets it right.

Beresheet: The Beginning

bereshit

Today the annual Torah reading cycle begins again with the portion Beresheet (also transliterated as Bereshit, Genesis 1:1-6:8).

It is a big Torah, a bigger Jewish Bible (Tanakh), and an even bigger Christian Bible. In all that expanse, nothing compares to the way it begins.

Bereshit: “When God Created …” This first word of the first book of the Bible serves both as the Hebrew name for the book Genesis and as an idiom for “Creation.” Because of its pride of position at the “start” of creation, as well as its uniqueness (the word never appears again in Scriptures), the word is subjected to intensive and varied exegetical analysis. Many, many meanings are derived from this one six-letter word….Jewish tradition has also held the six letters contain secrets that the wise will understand. (The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism, Geoffrey W. Dennis)

In English, it goes like this:

When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God. (New Jewish Publication Society translation)

Or this:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. (New Revised Standard Version translation)

Or this:

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. (Robert Alter translation)

Unformed. Void. Darkness. Wind. Welter. Waste. Light. When God began to create.

Maybe you once read or studied the Bible, in any of its versions. Maybe you still do. Maybe you don’t anymore or maybe you never did. Maybe you had deep discussions about God, about creation, and about whether there was something out of which creation was made or whether there was nothing and then there was something (ex nihilo). Then again, maybe not.

No matter your beliefs, consider this first portion, the first words, and the very first of the first words consisting of six Hebrew letters. Are there “secrets the wise will understand”? Are you that wise one?

 

 

New Beginnings: The Torah and the I Ching

Bet

In Jewish congregations, the annual Torah reading cycle begins again this week with the first chapters of the Bible. In Hebrew it begins with the word b’reishit, and in its best-known translation, the first verse goes like this:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

And with that comes a puzzle.

If B’reishit is the beginning of a very big and consequential story, and if the creators of the Torah were sensitive to the mystical meanings of the Hebrew alphabet and language, why does the Torah begin with the second letter bet (B) rather than the first letter alef (A)?

Looking at a bigger picture, this connects to a related puzzle and an unlikely source: the I Ching.

The I Ching is a classic of Chinese literature and philosophy, a text as ancient as the Torah and just as influential.

Richard J. Smith writes in The I Ching: A Biography:

The Changes first took shape about three thousand years ago as a divination manual, consisting of sixty-four six-line symbols known as hexagrams. Each hexagram was uniquely constructed, distinguished from all the others by its combination of solid (——) and/or broken (— —) lines. The first two hexagrams in the conventional order are Qian and Kun; the remaining sixty-two hexagrams represent permutations of these two paradigmatic symbols….

The operating assumption of the Changes, as it developed over time, was that these hexagrams represented the basic circumstances of change in the universe, and that by selecting a particular hexagram or hexagrams and correctly interpreting the various symbolic elements of each, a person could gain insight into the patterns of cosmic change and devise a strategy for dealing with problems or uncertainties concerning the present and the future.

The first intriguing note is that the I Ching (pronounced Yi Jing) begins with those hexagrams Qian and Kun—known generally in English as Heaven and Earth. The cosmos of change and the I Ching begin then with Heaven and Earth.

It is at the close of the 64 hexagrams that the conundrum appears. Hexagram 63, the penultimate one, is Ji Ji—After Completion. This should be the end of the story. But it isn’t. The final hexagram, Hexagram 64, is Wei Jei—Before Completion. In the end, it doesn’t stop. It begins again. The Book of Changes emphasizes that the changes never end.

This is an explanation of why the Torah does not begin with the beginning of the alphabet. If it starts with A, that presumes a Z, A to Z, or in Hebrew, alef to tav. Creation would thus be represented as a finite element of a finite cosmos. In the text it starts instead, as the Latin phrase goes, in media res—in the middle of things. Just as the Torah will end in the middle of things, after completion of a journey, but with Moses never allowed to experience what is yet to happen, before the next completion. On and on, always beginning, never done. Just like the I Ching. Just like the Torah itself.

In the Beginning, Again

Genesis Illustrated Cover

This Sabbath, the annual cycle of Torah readings starts all over again. Again. Back to the beginning. Genesis (Breisheit), Chapter 1.

In the beginning….Well, you probably know how it goes. But don’t be jaded by familiarity. And don’t avoid it or be put off by belief that this and all the Genesis stories that follow are neither history nor science. So what? These are big stories and we need big stories. Not to be used as clubs to beat us up (though there is that), but as invitations and portals to bigger things. If not, then why are so many watching Hunger Games or Downtown Abbey?

Instead of learned discourse, here is something much more fun. R. Crumb, one of the great comic artists (beginning with his classic underground comics in the 1960s—Mr. Natural, etc.), published his Book of Genesis Illustrated in 2010.

Genesis Illustrated Back Cover

(If you don’t like pictures or Crumb’s illustrations, you might just try the excellent translation of Genesis that Crumb used, by Robert Alter)

Take a moment, whatever your inclinations, and allow yourself to be awed. Whatever you think is awesome, the sudden appearance of everything is more awesome than that, however you explain it. And for those who are waiting to see the Big Guy with the long beard–you know you’ve just gotta have it–here it is.

Genesis Illustrated Page 1

Haftarah for War and Peace: Isaiah

Isaiah

The Jewish scriptural calendar has two parts: a weekly reading from the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and a weekly reading from the prophets, known as a haftarah.

Today’s reading—Isaiah 1:1-27—is possibly the most special of these haftarot. Isaiah is the most famous and read of all biblical prophets, among Jews and Christians. And today’s reading is the very first chapter of Isaiah. It was written in, about, and for the Jewish kingdoms of the 8th century BCE, which were under threat from without and within.

Whole libraries have been written explaining and interpreting Isaiah. (For those who want a very brief, very readable introduction to these readings, there is no better start than W. Gunther Plaut’s The Haftarah Commentary.) One message is that the form of faith, no matter how punctilious and properly executed, is not enough, never enough. God says:

Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. (Isaiah 1:13-16)

The passage that follows this is one of the best known in the Bible:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

 

Isaiah 1:1-27

1The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

2Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. 3The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. 4Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged! 5Why do you seek further beatings? Why do you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. 6From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds; they have not been drained, or bound up, or softened with oil. 7Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. 8And daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a shelter in a cucumber field, like a besieged city. 9If the Lord of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we would have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah.

10Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 12When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; 13bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. 14Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 15When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. 18Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. 19If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; 20but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

21How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her— but now murderers! 22Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. 23Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them. 24Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes! 25I will turn my hand against you; I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. 26And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. 27Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.

The Torah and the Supreme Court: Tazria and Scalia

Women of the Supreme Court

This week the portion of the Torah read in Jewish communities is Tazria (Leviticus 12:1–13:59). This week the Supreme Court heard arguments in the widely reported Hobby Lobby case. There is a significant but not obvious connection between the two.

Leviticus is the one of the Five Books of Moses that has the least action and the most rules. Lots of rules about the behavior of the Jewish people. In the thousands of years since those rules flowed into the processes of cultural and social oral tradition, and in the thousands of years since those traditions were set down in writing, different Jewish people and communities have determined which to honor and which to ignore. Those decisions are based on what exactly one thinks these rules are: God-given and inviolable, or ancient and subject to temporizing to suit modern philosophy and life. We should not wear clothing made from two different fabrics, Leviticus says. Non-literal interpretations of this have been conceived for centuries, but it says what it says, or rather, God says what God says. But what’s so wrong about a wrinkle-free, 60/40 cotton-poly blend shirt?

The Tazria portion begins:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual infirmity. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed. If she bears a female, she shall be unclean two weeks as during her menstruation, and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days.

On the completion of her period of purification, for either son or daughter, she shall bring to the priest, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. He shall offer it before the Lord and make expiation on her behalf; she shall then be clean from her flow of blood. Such are the rituals concerning her who bears a child, male or female. If, however, her means do not suffice for a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. The priest shall make expiation on her behalf, and she shall be clean.

 The attitude toward and treatment of this passage in a modern context ranges widely, depending on belief sets. Some express wholesale acceptance and obedience (except for the sheep and bird sacrifice). Some faithfully regard it as God’s word, but pass it through interpretive filters suitable for the times. Some see it as a reflection of ancient people making sense of the mysteries of God and life.

One of those mysteries, of course, is women. Especially for men. Especially for the strange and foreign ways that women “work”. No matter your ideology, no matter how much the passage is accepted or spun, it is not hard to read meaning. Women are different. Some of that difference renders them unclean, even if that part is functionally essential (e.g., sex, birth). That uncleanness can be fixed, but it will cost you (e.g., lambs, pigeons).

The Hobby Lobby cases (Kathleen Sibelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services v. Hobby Lobby; Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius) concern the interaction of two federal laws: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), which aims to protect Americans from intrusion on their religious lives, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) which, among other things, requires employers to offer health insurance that includes coverage for contraception. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the religious right of companies such as Hobby Lobby, which has Christian objections to providing that coverage, overcomes the particular requirement of the ACA.

The big legal issues are complex and significant. One arises every time religion is in the mix: we protect religion in this country, both in its expression and establishment, but in a nominally secular country, that is bound to clash with civil rights that may contravene religious belief. This isn’t easy to resolve, but resolve it we do. If, for example, your religion happens to believe that people of color are lesser human beings, and you are “commanded” to treat them accordingly, you still cannot follow that faith in the public square or the marketplace.

The other big legal issue is whether a company such as Hobby Lobby is a “person” able to enjoy religious liberties in the first place. We’ve seen this come up before and will again. Citizens United is the most recent and famous case deciding that enterprises may enjoy free speech, First Amendment rights, just as you do. Then there is Mitt Romney, former presidential candidate, who will forever be identified with his own legal interpretation of the issue: “Corporations are people, my friend.”

Besides these, the Hobby Lobby case is widely viewed as being about women, because practically it is. The ACA requirement that health insurance include contraceptives for women is a practically and realistically sound policy. A large majority of women use contraceptives, either for health reasons or, more frequently, to prevent conceiving as a result of sex. Preventing conception has a number of advantages, including avoiding unwanted or unplanned pregnancies. An advantage of this is that women do have sex, and do want to avoid pregnancy. It’s that basic. And then there’s this: many of those women who want to prevent conception are having sex with men.

The transcript of oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby case shows, as usual, a deeply divided court. Beyond the interesting central arguments concerning religious freedom and the personhood of corporations, there is a subtle subtext (some might say not so subtle). To a certain extent, the law, and arguments about it, are clinical. To the greatest extent possible, questions about impact are subservient to questions about the law itself: what it says, what was intended, how it works with other laws and with the Constitution. The rule of law prevails over the rule of people, and if the impact is unfair or disproportionate but still constitutional and legal, well, change the law.

But that has never been, will never be, and can never be how it works. Everyone—judges, lawyers, litigants, citizens—comes to the table with histories, psyches, lives, all the riches and trash we can carry. That’s how a case that seems about one thing can be, at least in small part, about another. That’s how the Hobby Lobby case is about women, something the three women on the Supreme Court without question get, something the six men may or may not.

Do read the transcript of the argument and maybe a few of the almost one hundred appellate briefs filed in the cases. In the arguments, you won’t find any express misunderstanding of the lives and impact of the case on women, though you may if you read between the lines. The briefs, which come from just about every corner of American society and politics, are a little clearer on how this is about women in ways that are not just incidental.

This brings us back to Tazria. It is easy to dismiss the passage as archaic, particularly for those who have found ways to work through or around it. Similarly, you may consider the Hobby Lobby case one about important and respectable religious and legal doctrines, and it is.

It can’t be said often enough: Men don’t get it and they can’t. They don’t know what it’s like to menstruate or be capable of bearing children or of having children. They don’t know what’s it like to be treated as unclean because of all of that, and then to be hypocritically treated as enjoyable and useful for those very same reasons. They don’t know how it feels to have some very simple means of adjusting all that, and then to have those means treated as something both profound and trivial, but not important.

Men don’t know, even if they are at the pinnacle, writing scripture or dispensing justice. So pleading ignorance, a little humility, a little learning, and a little compassion might be in order.