When a Zoroastrian and a Jew Walked into a Mikvah

It is like clockwork. You can expect someone to raise the following argument every single time anything new is being discussed in the context of traditional Jewish life: But what about Jewish values? Isn’t this [insert new thing] really just a manifestation of [insert external value]? We need to be true to our eternal, timeless and unchanging Jewish values!

What is wrong with that sentiment? It is an articulation of sincere devotion and pride in the internal ethics and ways of the Jewish community. It rejects foreign invasions into this beautifully closed system, that has always been closed to outside influence. Why wouldn’t we want to embrace this critique? We can’t embrace it because it is simply not true.

This is the truth. The people introducing something new into the Jewish community are being influenced by newer societal values while the people who are resisting are influenced by older societal values. In fact, the ultimate proof of the success of that earlier innovation, that the opposition is now upholding as “tradition,” is the fact that they have forgotten that what is now traditional was once new! The idea that the “traditional” practice is seen as so inseparable from the very core of Jewish values is a victory for the ability of a people to integrate outside influences and even erase all vestiges of their earlier influences.

How do we know this is the case? There are numerous instances of this that are documented. We could talk about European 19th century nationalism and the birth of Zionism, which led to the uprooting of an old theology and the birth of Religious Zionism, thereby upending 2,000 years of traditional Jewish belief and practice. However, in this moment, I’d like to mention another area: niddah — menstrual purity laws. This subject can bring up a whole range of emotions for people and this limited blog post is not the forum to fully surface them. I bring up niddah only because it is another example of where an outside culture influenced Jewish values and practice.

Dr. Shai Secunda, who received his PhD from Yeshiva University in 2008, and was highlighted by Yeshiva University two years ago as a featured alumnus, has spent a good deal of his academic career focused on the intersection between Persian Zoroastrian menstrual laws and Jewish menstrual laws. He wrote the following as mentioned by Dr. Alan Brill on his website:

“For Sasanian rabbis and Zorasterian dadwars, menstruation was a physiological phenomenon accompanied by a set of prohibitions and purification practices…The picture that emerges is one of intersecting discourses, many of which betray interaction between the two communities, yet also differences in outlook that remained.”

Dr. Secunda goes on to further state, “…awareness of the Iranian context does help us appreciate the protracted development of certain, sometimes central Jewish institutions.” This awareness lends itself particularly to the conversation around menstrual laws where Dr. Secunda’s doctoral dissertation focused and some of his subsequent scholarly articles have been written on. This dissertation, supervised by Dr. Yaakov Elman, the Herbert S. and Naomi Denenberg Chair in Talmudic Studies at Yeshiva University and published by Yeshiva University, documents clearly the theological interactions between these two religious communities.

How could it be that one of the most important areas in traditional Jewish life had outside influences? Moreover, how could it be that those outside influences came not just from external societal conditions but from another religion? It is so because we are constantly impacted by the world around us. There is no real true dichotomy between external values vs. internal values. There are only newer external values vs. older external values that enter into conversation with Jewish texts and practice.

This is not to say that every new idea should be embraced. Of course not. However, one cannot argue against a new idea or practice simply because it is new. The virtue of it being new is not a disqualifier from it being considered for integration. The hard work must be done of evaluating every element of a new idea or practice and of considering all dimensions of the conversation. Often what will occur is that the new practice is good for one set of people, perhaps the more educated and culturally integrated, but would not be a good adoption for the more isolationist, and that is perfectly okay. A big tent traditional Jewish community would make room for different practices that fall under the rubric of Jewish law and would not seek to push them out solely because it was not done before. If we truly believed that all that was not done before must be rejected then all traditional Jews would be anti-Zionist, anti-women’s higher education and reject elements of niddah because of their Zoroastrian origins.

What is old and traditional was once new and radical. It is imperative that we not forget that. The pundits against the new always seek to cast any new idea as a foreign element invading a pure system. We know this to be false. It is incumbent upon those looking to make Jewish faith speak to and be relevant for the modern person to force the conversation away from cries and shouts of “tradition!” to an honest discussion about each and every element being discussed and an honest Jewish legal analysis that does not resort to histrionics.

Let us keep in mind the teaching of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook: “The old will become new, and the new will become holy.”

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