Defy expectations: Thatcher and Tazria Metsora

The following was my sermon from last shabbat, Tazria Metsora, reflecting in part on our responses to Thatchers passing. As I write below, if you aren't mourning today perhaps take time to reflect on how you might defy the expectations society has of you, and how you might do so for good! Knowing feelings have run strong I was quite nervous about delivering this, but was touched by people's positive responses and willingness to reflect. I understand people's responses, but wonder if there is a more productive way to deal with them.

My rabbinic thesis tended to be a bit of a dinner party conversation stopper. ‘What are you writing on’ some poor innocent would naively inquire  “Menstrual purity laws and what women have done with them” was the answer. At the Menstrual part I think I had pretty much lost my audience. I now find myself wondering if the same is true at the start of a sermon.
Tazria Metsora is the kind of parashah lots of Rabbis worry about. We certainly hope no unsuspecting Bar or Bat Mitzvah pupil is lumbered with it. But having delved into the depths of Biblical, Rabbinic and modern approaches to concepts of tamei and tahor – poorly translated as purity and impurity (the Hebrew doesn't have the implication of dirt or negativity that the English does), it fills me with glee, and in fact Rabbi Julia and I almost had to fight over the sermon this morning as her thesis was in a similar area.
Because of how the laws on categories of impurity developed, we've often thought of them as inherently sexist, fearful of women’s bodies, and preserving men’s status of societal privilege. The Biblical texts on how and why one is classed as impure are, however, surprisingly even handed on issues of impurity. Without going into too much detail, both men and women could become impure through  natural emissions and unnatural emissions (I’ll let your imaginations run around with that one for now) and I would argue that men were probably impure and having to immerse in living water far more often than women, who were either pregnant, breast feeding, or under-nourished. These were, of course, Temple concerns, and their continuation beyond the destruction of the second temple in 70CE rested on entirely different motivations, divorced from worries about pure or impure, although being human, we've found the language difficult to shake off.
The section we began with today delightfully deals with a subject that filled me with fascination last year; female impurity following childbirth. The passage has attracted debate and interest because it suggests that after the birth of a son a woman enters two stages of impurity, the first being 7 days, the second 33 days. However for a baby girl, it is 14 days, followed by 66. Now it is entirely possible that in an ancient culture having a girl was seen as a consolation prize for not being blessed with a boy, and hence there is a sense of punishment to the woman for not securing a male child.  But there have also been plenty of attempts to understand it in more positive lights. Professor Jonathan Magonet, for example, suggests that a baby girl would be destined to spend her time with the women of the encampment, and so needed longer to bond quietly without male interference with her mother. He also suggests it might be anthropologically connected to her containing the potential for the same impurity as her mother, especially as baby girls do sometimes bleed after birth.
Whether we take the more or less positive view of this passages motivation, it is fascinating how quick we can be to judge. We easily find gender bias with which to reject and criticise the biblical text, but perhaps fail to see where it embeds itself in our own lives. Is there a difference today in how baby boys and girls are perceived? There are hospitals in London that still won’t tell women the gender of a fetus for fear they might try to endanger unborn girls. And before we assume such concerns only abide in minority communities, I have been amazed that more than one or two people have implied Gary and I will of course try for number two because we don’t yet have a son, or even that we might have been disappointed we had a girl!
Gender bias has been a big discussion point in the worlds of twitter, blogging and facebook this week. On Monday, the first woman to become Prime Minister of the UK, and the only Prime Minister I knew until I was 10, died. To say I disagreed with many of Margaret Thatchers policies would be fair, though it is also true enough to say that the one I have always cared about most was the scrapping of my break time bottle of milk aged 5. So not a deep level of political engagement one might say. But I have been rather shocked by the parties, glee and celebration at the death of Thatcher. My 10th birthday present was wrapped in a police photo of my elder brother at the poll tax riots, I can’t pretend I was unaware of what was happening in the 1980’s, from the destruction of mining communities to bombing Argentinian ships. But I just can’t see how such overt jubilation is appropriate when a human being has died. I understand why many wouldn't care much, or want to mourn her passing. I appreciate passions run strong, but surely we, if we feel the need, quietly ignore, or express our sadness at what damage was done, rather than dance on someone’s grave? And while I know some of you may want to tell me (and indeed have told me) the terrible things she did, there will be others wanting to celebrate her achievements and the positives she could be remembered for.
In an excellent article published on a media blog , a journalist who goes by the moniker ‘fleet street fox’ compared the wars, campaigns and enactments of Thatcher to those of her male counterparts, and convincingly demonstrates that she certainly deserves no more ire than anyone else, and absolutely deserves more respect than she is being shown, if for no other reason than that she was such a pioneer as a woman. She, and many others online, are arguing that Maggie just wouldn't have had this amount of vitriol directed at her if she had been a man. Others I’m sure would say she would have spared herself the hatred had her policies been different, or implemented differently.
Perhaps a little bit of both is true. But while our ancient ancestors are easy to criticise for their obsessions with ritual purity, and their attempts to lay controls and boundaries around women and men, we might at least argue that they understood that the cycles of life and death were both common and awe inspiring, normal and miraculous. Birth I’m sure took some recovery from in a desert encampment, and perhaps having twice as long in isolation after a daughter was born was a reward rather than a negative statement on the female form. Margaret Thatcher’s womanhood has also perhaps been used against her, and I suspect she used it and covered it up as it suited her too. But in her passing I think we have seen the ease with which women are still limited by their gender, and the importance of women like her, and our own Rabbi Neuberger, in continuing to stoically ignore such limitations and get on with doing that which they believe to be right. While we might criticise, or we might praise politician’s behaviour and policies, this week, let us remember she was a frail elderly mother and grandmother who raised the passions of a nation one way or another, and was a woman democratically re-elected to the highest office in the land three times. Celebrating a death as we would a birth is deeply distasteful, and I hope next Wednesday, when she is laid to rest, you will each take a moment to reflect on how you might confound expectations, just as our biblical text sometimes does, and as I would argue Lady Thatcher also did.
May we all be an unending surprise to ourselves and the world! And may we use what power we have to pursue only that which is just and right.
Cain Yehi Ratzon, May this be God’s will, venomar, amen


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