In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Jewish feminists claimed that the mikveh and other laws dealing with niddah, or menstruation, deemed women’s natural cycles unclean. (Under rabbinical law, married couples are forbidden to have sexual relations during the woman’s menstrual period and for seven days after menstruation has ceased. Some couples even sleep in separate beds during that time.) Objecting to what they saw as the patriarchal concept of ‘family purity,’ many feminists rejected the mikveh and the rituals that surround it. Mikveh continued, of course, but mostly among Conservative and Orthodox Jews.
‘Early feminists were very negative about the mikveh, seeing it as a denigration of women, a focus on ‘cleanliness’ and ‘impurity’ that seemed to be a way of keeping women from tainting men,’ says Shuly Rubin Schwartz, assistant professor of American Jewish history at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. ‘Now women are saying, ‘Wait a minute. This is a tradition that was an important part of Judaism for our foremothers. Let’s look at the deeper meaning.’’
Like any archaic tradition, getting non-Jews to help on the Sabbath has evolved over time. Talmudic scholars, Jewish academics and Israeli lawmakers all have wrestled with how to balance religious devotion and modern life.
In this Jerusalem neighborhood, once the sun sets on Fridays and the streets are cordoned off, the only driver on the roads is Abu Ali, in his white taxi, with a red police light that he puts on the roof and special laminated signs he sticks in the front window so his car isn’t mistakenly attacked.
Since observant Jews can’t ask for help, they use a special code with Abu Ali. If they need the air conditioner turned on, they tell him that it’s hot. If they need a light turned on or a fuse changed, they say that it’s dark.
Abu Ali charges about $10 per visit. If he has to rush a pregnant woman to the hospital — something he said he sometimes has to do three or for times each Sabbath — it costs about $30.
The families aren’t supposed to pay him for his services, so the community set up a box outside the neighborhood synagogue where people can put the money. If Abu Ali has to come collect directly, it costs an extra $5.
If the rest of the congregation were to learn from our experiment, they had to be able to observe it beyond just hearing about it in sermons. Therefore, each participant opened a Facebook account and joined a Facebook group we named “Living Leviticus.” Participants posted journal entries, photos, comments, and videos. Daily online activity reminded us that we each were part of a (virtual) community of obedience. Because Facebook is a social networking site, a couple hundred people also joined the group and many more from all over the world logged in to read and comment. A cluster of Messianic Jews even got ahold of our page and began offering their own advice on how to keep Torah.
Among the many lessons from the month, rising to the top was the realization of how much we take God’s grace for granted. Because holiness can be difficult, we default to simply admitting we’re miserable sinners, get our grace, and then get on with living our lives the way we were going to live them anyway. As one participant put it, “I never before realized just how good I am at detaching God from my day-to-day life.” But if reading Leviticus only succeeds in making you feel bad for being a lousy Christian, you’ve missed its point. Leviticus isn’t in the Bible merely to show you your need for grace. It’s in the Bible to show you what grace is for. The ancient Israelites were already chosen people before God gave them the Law. The Law’s purpose was never to save anybody. Rather, its purpose was to show saved people how to live a saved life.