Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

Saturday Morning Fever: When the Rabbi is Contagious

I am not a prostitute.

That Nixonian disclaimer was necessary to start, because I now must point out that I am – and to be a competent clergy person I must be – something almost as notorious.  Yes, I am a proud member of the world’s second oldest profession, a vocation that requires nearly as much on-the-job intimacy as that older one.  Both professions stretch back to cultic origins and draw upon our innate craving to consummate bliss through human attachment, one though eros and the other through faith.  When people in the hospital hold hands with their clergy, they feel the love of God, and that very touch can heal them.  We have the power to wipe away loneliness with one simple stroke or pat – and we get paid to do it.

Never was this clearer to me than at a Sabbath service in 1997, and this incident can help guide us through the challenges of the coronavirus. My two young children had come down with the flu the previous weekend, so I was not shocked when, a couple of days later, I was shivering in bed with a personal-best fever of 103.7.  On Tuesday the rabbi got sick.  Four days later, with my temperature still soaring and a big Bat Mitzvah looming, I was sweating over one question alone: When the big moment arrives, how close should I get to the student?

This was not merely a question of propriety.  For I am the healer, the hired conduit, and my illness was threatening to sever that divine connection. What’s worse, the healer would be exposed as being merely human – and worse still, contagious.

Gone are the days of guilt-free sickness. Now the world fears illness and chastises the ailing. Dr. Mom has become Inspector Mom. Because I was too sick to return most calls, I had programmed my voice-mail with a phlegmy greeting informing people of my affliction. Big mistake. During the week, I had listened to seven consecutive messages beginning with, “You mean you didn’t take the flu shot?” As the days passed, the remarks kept coming, boring harder and deeper with each beep, like a dentist’s punitive drill slamming down to bedrock for traces of forbidden salt-water taffy. How could you? How dare you? To be sure, many also expressed get-well wishes, but while I was longing for the maternal caress, they were the ones acting as if the primordial Parent had let them down.

I understood their sense of betrayal and began to blame myself. Everything that a rabbi represents to people was being challenged by my illness: defiance of mortality; stability in life’s wild ride; the illusion of control.  Since the days of Job, humanity’s greatest defense against the inexplicable, utterly terrifying ways of God, has been to concoct a human cause, inflict blame and thereby manage the chaos. And when your spiritual leader is being punished for his sins, can anyone else possibly be safe?

As one who both preaches and practices greater intimacy in prayer, I spend more waking hours kissing (especially Torahs, holy books, phylacteries and tallit fringes), and embracing people than do those of that more ancient profession.  At the previous weekend’s Bar Mitzvah, I had probably infected two or three hundred unsuspecting worshipers, who undoubtedly had gone on to spread the virus to thousands of others. But was I now supposed to recollect all my recent social encounters and inform each partner individually of my transgression? When every handshake becomes the moral equivalent of unprotected sex, are we heading quickly toward the elimination of all casual contact?

When the Israeli novelist David Grossman first visited America, he commented, “Americans are very polite, but trying to relate to them is like kissing through glass.”

It’s impossible to be a caring pastor without occasionally holding or shaking a hand, but more and more we are being asked to do our jobs with sterile gloves and masks. We’ve become so microbially beset that we’ve lost touch with touching.

I can see where this is heading. The Torah procession of the not-so-distant-future will feature the Bar Mitzvah student carrying the sacred scroll, followed by the glad-handing rabbi, cantor, and proud parents, then maybe a sexton, a synagogue officer or two, and finally, bringing up the rear, a member of the ritual committee dispensing gobs of Purell to the crowd.

Our society has become so obsessed with the violation of personal space that we’ve actually found an area where the doctors and lawyers agree. The medical profession is fixated on hygiene and the lawyers are loco about liability. Everyone is saying, “Hands off.” And because, sadly, a pastor’s caring touch has all-too-often evolved into something more illicit, now even when that contact is totally well intentioned (as is the case 99.9 percent of the time), in this climate of pastoral paranoia, it is often perceived otherwise.

At one time, the laws of ritual purity were more important than just about any other aspect of Jewish practice. An entire section of the Mishna is dedicated to them, focusing on impure vessels and food and the spiritual contamination caused by bodily discharges, corpses and disease. One of the order’s twelve tractates is called “Yadayim,” or hands. But of these tractates, only one was considered relevant enough to warrant discussion in the Babylonian Talmud, the tractate “Niddah,” which discusses a woman’s menstrual cycle. Most Mishnaic purity laws were rendered obsolete by the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE; we recall them now with such acts as the ritual washing of hands before a meal.

The Psalmist equated clean hands and a pure heart (Psalm 24:4), and Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair was the first to liken cleanliness with Godliness (Sotah, chapter 9, Mishna 15). Did you know that God’s ineffable name begins with the same letter – Yod – whose very name means “hand?” If you look at the most ancient proto-Semitic alphabet, the Yod looks just like a bent arm, complete with fingers. There is something very Godly about our hands – and there is no more sacred gesture than the human touch.

It is never easy to explain the laws of purity to modern Jews. Using the analogy of “cooties” makes it all seem so childish and shallow; these laws put us in touch with the deepest mysteries of life by constantly returning us to primal moments of passage, of birthing and dying. The ritual bath is enjoying a renaissance among even non-traditional Jews who are being awakened to that powerful experience of spiritual renewal. With each seepage of potential life (aptly called by Rabbi Susan Grossman a “life-leak”), woman and men are encouraged to replenish their pursuit of a life-affirming sexuality through the act of immersion. Even the most secular person – basically, anyone who has ever taken a hot shower after stumbling out of bed – can sense the restorative powers of flowing waters.

And even the most assimilated family knows to place water on the doorstep when returning from the cemetery. Pouring water over our hands helps us to forge a passage, a birth canal, back from the abode of death to the realm of the living. Then, once we enter the house of mourning, we immediately perform another life-affirming act: we eat.

We can appreciate our ancestors’ obsession with purity because it mirrors our own. This generation might be the most germophobic in history. Before Purell, there was Listerine, which in the 1920s practically invented the American aversion to bad breath. In fact, the pseudo-medical term “halitosis” was created in 1921 as part of a marketing campaign. Pfizer, the company that brings us Listerine and acquired Purell in 2004 clearly understands the trend. Listerine sales have increased by double digits over the past couple of years. Lots of new anti-germ products are flooding the market, including a portable subway strap to avoid contact with the metal one, an around-the-neck-air purifier and “antiviral” Kleenex, designed to kill cold and flu virus on contact.

In fearful times like ours, when the most dreaded enemies are unseen, we naturally tend to shy away from contact with the unknown — or, for that matter, the known, since even our most intimate friends are inundated with millions of invisible enemies. Everyone — and everything — is tainted. I’ve even seen Hebrew-school kids scouring the yarmulke bin for head lice. The purity laws are Judaism’s way of acknowledging that fear of the invisible and channeling it into life-affirming action.

So now, what do we do in a Torah procession when people are afraid to shake? Maybe a Purell dispenser on the pulpit is the answer. But at the same time, I will hope to remind people that each extended hand is guaranteed to be at least 99.9 percent pure: because embedded within it is the first letter of the name of God.

When I returned to services the following weekend, word of my fever had spread like, well, a virus. Circling the sanctuary with the Torah scroll, I felt increasingly isolated, as if quarantined like the lepers of Leviticus, or that boy in the bubble. From the start, kissing and shaking hands were out of the question; then vocal communication – no one wanted to be less than twenty feet downwind – then even eye contact became difficult. With people turning away in fear, how could I reach out and draw them in? If I could not be a conduit for connection, how could I serve them and help them serve God?

Then came the moment of truth. I normally embrace B’nai Mitzvah kids when I present them with their Bible. With my coughing a noticeable distraction, I imagined the hundreds present asking themselves, “Will he, or won’t he? Could this monster have the chutzpah to endanger this sweet-chanting flower, this tiny, beaming innocent just entering the prime of possibility – and just hours away from an awesome party?”

As I prayed for strength, I began to understand that in my preoccupation over the cure, I had failed to seize the opportunity to heal. Immunity might be a necessary for politicians and prostitutes, but for clergy it is our most dangerous pitfall. For us to succeed we must above all be flawed and vulnerable, reaching out from a defiled, squalid place that only real people can understand.  That is how good leaders, from Mother Theresa to Moses, have become hallowed healers.  Moses reached out to save his sister Miriam, afflicted with leprosy, that most isolating of diseases, even though Miriam had been spreading malicious gossip against him.  Others can take flu shots. Only such champions of the spirit can inoculate our communities from the loneliness and cyber-sterility that threaten us all.

Somehow, prostitutes notwithstanding, the rest of us need to be able to touch.

So, I took my prayer book and kissed it; and at my soft instruction she, looking far wiser than her years, took her new Bible and kissed it, and we stretched our arms so that my sacred words could touch hers and, through that textual caress, thereby purify that unholy space hovering between us, that exists within all of us.

This essay excerpted from Joshua Hammerman’s recent book, Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times (HCI Books)

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and the upcoming book, "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as About.com's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: rabbi@tbe.org (203) 322-6901 x 307
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