Cleanliness is Next to Godliness

A Healthy Learning Opportunity
Reprinted from the Detroit Jewish News

When I was a camper, I do not remember my counselors ever reminding me to wash my hands before a meal. Nor can I remember bottles of hand sanitizer being readily available in the dining hall. I also do not recall learning the proper etiquette for sneezing and coughing at camp.

Much has changed.

The H1N1 flu has affected many camps this summer. At Tamarack Camps, protocols and preventative measures were discussed months prior to the summer. In consultation with the ACA (American Camp Association) and the CDC (Center for Disease Control), our health director, along with our doctors, nurses and medical committee, devised proactive implementation plans and executed them effectively.

Pump It Up Tamarack - Campers and Staff with Hand SanitizersDealing with extra health precautions this summer has certainly been a challenge. However, as every educator knows well, any situation can become an opportunity to learn.

Concern for our own personal health is a core Jewish value. Many of the Torah’s commandments promote good hygiene, though their stated intention was ritual purity rather than physical cleanliness. In the Book of Leviticus, one learns how those afflicted with a severe skin disease were treated. In order to contain the skin disease (a form of leprosy), the afflicted were quarantined. They were kept outside of the community to prevent the contamination of the camp through the spread of their disease. The quarantine ensured the holiness of the camp and the health of the inhabitants.

The Talmud records numerous references concerning the importance of personal hygiene and preventative medicine. In tractate Ta’anit, the rabbis consider the human body as a sanctuary. In honor of God, the rabbis ordained that one must wash one’s face, hands and feet – daily. In tractate Yoma, for example, the rabbis recommend oil as a hygienic agent, especially in the case of wounds and eruptions, as well as a gargle.

The Shulchan Aruch, the premier code of Jewish law, explores the importance of personal hygiene in great detail. Washing one’s hands, our tradition teaches, is important not merely for the spiritual reasons of maintaining holiness when eating and praying, but also for hygienic reasons.

Maimonides, a scholar and physician, encouraged the Jewish community to observe rules of personal hygiene, such as hand-washing before eating.

This unfortunate strain of Influenza, which has put all overnight camps on high alert this summer, has created some teachable moments. Offering the Hebrew word “labriyoot” (to your health) when someone sneezes has a newfound seriousness this summer. A particularly meaningful part of the week at camp is watching campers pray for the speedy recovery of their fellow campers through the words of the misheberach blessing during Shabbat morning services, using the tune popularized by Jewish songwriter Debbie Friedman. And while campers may be discouraged from performing the mitzvah of visiting the sick when the patient is contagious, it is a valuable lesson which has developed into creating get well cards.

The level of preparation displayed by Jewish camps has been exemplary. It is a testament to the emphasis we all place on good health and preventative medicine. Camp in 2009 is a place where it is common for campers to have their temperatures taken twice daily as a precautionary measure for early detection of the flu. It is a place where counselors constantly remind campers to wash their hands and brush their teeth, and where hand sanitizers are found on every table in the dining hall.

It might feel like a time of challenging health issues, but it has also proven to be an incredible opportunity for teaching about the value of good personal hygiene. Hopefully, at the end of this summer, each camper will have a new found appreciation for cleanliness, good health, and the important Jewish value of hygiene.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Ruth Messinger

Sometimes newspaper editors have to admit they got it wrong — or that their words were not clear enough and led to misunderstanding. Such was the case when Andrew Silow Carroll (editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News) wrote about Ruth Messinger’s speech to graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary this past May.

Messinger (right) is the president of the American Jewish World Service and delivered an amazing commencement address at JTS, which is available as an audio file on the JTSA.org website. I first met Ruth Messinger during my final year of rabbinical studies at JTS when I invited her to speak to my fellow rabbinical students as part of a program I created called “Visions of the Jewish Future.” As president of the rabbinical school’s student organization I thought it would be beneficial to hear from some visionaries in the American Jewish community from outside of the Seminary’s gates.

Silow-Carroll wrote about Messinger’s speech in his paper, but Messinger wasn’t thrilled with the way he characterized it. His column was mostly complimentary, but he suggested that she had gone too far in favoring non-Jewish causes over challenges closer to home.

Upon reading the column, Messinger was hurt and requested a face-to-face meeting with Silow-Carroll in which she explained the many Jewish projects at AJWS and touted the new Web resource On1Foot.org, an on-line compendium of rabbinic and contemporary texts on social justice. In my opinion, she really didn’t need to defend the work of her organization in this way. She should have merely mentioned the humanitarian work AJWS provides to the developing world and explained to Silow-Carroll that this is a very Jewish act.

In a follow-up column Silow-Carroll (left) acknowledged that he “hadn’t been aware of the Jewish learning that infused AJWS and should have asked. I also remembered that the Jewish world is big enough and rich enough to work on many levels, in many circles, in service of the local and the global. Those who would narrow the Jewish mission risk losing non-Jewish allies, young Jews interested in this kind of work, and the opportunity to live Jewish responsibility to its fullest.”

At the end of his column, Silow-Carroll explains that his meeting with Ruth Messinger prompted him to deliver a d’var Torah at his newspaper’s board meeting (something that hadn’t been done in a long time). He found a good d’var Torah at On1Foot.org.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Michael Jackson

I confess to feeling very nostalgic recently. It wasn’t more than a few minutes from the time that Michael Jackson’s death was announced until his songs began playing all around us. The 24-hour cable news networks played “Billy Jean” in their lead-ins, satellite radio stations began broadcasting all-Michael Jackson songs, and Jackson 5 music was loudly played from cars passing by. Facebook status updates, blog posts, and Twitter tweets were made up of reminiscences about the King of Pop and the latest breaking news about Jackson’s death. I was immediately taken back to the mid-1980s when my Sony Walkman was attached to my ears and the cassette tape playing was either “Thriller” or “Off the Wall” or “The Best of the Jackson 5.”

The majority of posts on the Web were positive about Michael Jackson and of his contributions to society through his entertainment. However, there were negative sentiments as well about the odd life he led, his financial woes, and the accusations of pedophilia that plagued his life but never his popularity. Some weighed in that they were shocked he was so quickly being remembered as a hero when there were so many questions about his lifestyle left unanswered.

I read one comment by someone who expressed disbelief at “the media’s obsession with Michael Jackson, a child molester. A genocide is occurring in Darfur, Tibet is occupied, the Iranian people are fighting for freedom, and our nation’s economy is struggling. Is his death really newsworthy? Is this man really a national hero? Does he represent our values? I think his life, despite his musical accomplishments, was a tragedy. Am I alone?”

The answer is that yes, the death of Michael Jackson is certainly newsworthy but shouldn’t diminish the importance of other world events that are ongoing. While Michael Jackson was never convicted of child molestation, there were certainly enough indications that this might have been a problem he struggled with in his life. The conclusion is that his life was certainly a tragedy, but he should be remembered as someone who entertained generations, revolutionized music and dance, became a pop culture phenomenon, and made society think differently about race. While this might not make him a national hero in the way in which heroes should be considered, his death forces us to be nostalgic about his music and to recognize him as a creative genius.

Perhaps the biggest issue is whether it is fair to bring up the negative questions about Jackson’s life or to only remember his as the larger-than-life entertainer. I recall the time I was asked to officiate at a funeral for a man who was not well-liked by his family and had a history of illegal activities. He lived a lonely life and was regarded as a mean, old man by his neighbors. Meeting with his family members, they shared several negative stories about his life but then asked me to not mention those anecdotes in the eulogy and to “please, just make him look good.” And that is precisely what I did. In remembering him, it wasn’t appropriate to focus on his unfortunate life. After all, he wasn’t able to defend himself.

And so it is with Michael Jackson. There are some individuals who will only be known for their horrific acts, like Hitler and Pol Pot, or Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson. Michael Jackson was known for his tremendous contributions to pop culture.

My colleague, Rabbi David Kay, delivered a d’var Torah earlier this week in which he explained that there exists an “interpretation that the sin for which Moses is punished by being denied entry into the Promised Land was actually omitted from the Torah out of respect for him.” Rabbi Kay suggested that perhaps we can learn from this to resist the temptation to dredge up dirt on those in the public eye, particularly after they have passed on and are unable to defend themselves.

Let us not focus on his alleged transgressions. Michael Jackson, in death, should be remembered for his musical talent and for entertaining the world as the “King of Pop.” He should be memorialized as a cultural icon who gave so much. If there is a lesson to learn from his life, it is that even the world’s biggest celebrities remain human.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller