Adina Ballaban (12th grade) from Wise Temple in Cincinnati, OH served as NFTY-OV Religious and Cultural Vice President
When talking about Parshat Metzora, people often choose to talk about gossip, which is said to have been what caused a person to get tzaraat [skin disease]. Every year I hear some variation on why we have to be careful about what we say, and although this message is important, it has become tired. I knew there had to be some other meaning in this parshah, so I set out to find it. I found the latter part of the parshah interesting because I struggled with the way women were treated in it. With the help of Rabbi Michael Shulman from The Temple in Nashville, TN, I realized that this parshah raised issues about gender in general, a topic which feels more relevant right now than gossip. We hear about issues surrounding gender identity regularly in the media, and even address them in NFTY.
This week’s Torah portion, Metzora, is one in which I have struggled to find meaning. Metzora discusses a skin disease called tzaraat, often translated as leprosy, which makes an infected individual impure. Along with tzaraat, Parshat Metzora discusses the issue of men’s and women’s impurities and the process they must go through to become re-purified. What makes a man or a woman impure is specific to their gender, for example a woman is considered impure while menstruating and must purify herself every month, a woman is also considered impure after giving birth. The obligations placed on men and women to purify themselves are issues which I also struggle with.
One of the reasons I struggle with this is that the obligations are based solely on biology, which does not take into account a person’s identity. In biblical times these were not issues because the concept of gender identity had not arisen. Our Torah did not plan for today’s society, and I wonder how it would deal with issues surrounding gender that we deal with today. How would these rules apply to a transgender individual? Would they be forced to follow the guidelines associated with the sex they were assigned at birth, or the gender which they identify with?
It is not only our Torah that was not prepared for these kinds of questions, our society was not ready for the conversations about gender that we are having either, but they are conversations which are necessary to have. We may not have to worry about what rituals would be appropriate for a transgender individual, but people regularly question what restroom, among other things, people should be allowed to use. The answer to this question is one that seems rather simple to me – people should be able to use whatever bathroom they feel comfortable in and it is no one’s business but theirs.
Our tradition teaches us to be welcoming and accepting of everyone and by restricting and questioning people’s rights to be who they are, we are not doing our job of creating welcoming communities. Although it often feels like we don’t, as teenagers we have a lot of power to change the world we live in and we can make sure that it is one where every person is allowed to express their identity freely. We have to ensure that no one is treated with less respect because of the who they are. By speaking up we can create a world where everyone has rights, a world we can all be proud to live in. I struggled with this Torah portion because of problems I had with it, but I think that what I was really struggling with were the issues in our society that are still unresolved. I believe that we have the power and opportunity to work hard to change our world for the better, so that all people, regardless of their gender identity, can feel like they have a place in our communities.