Tzav - Commandments, Pogroms, Passover, & Giving
In 1144 in Norwich, England the first of the ancient blood libels took place: a horror against Jews that has been perpetuated for almost a thousand years: and one of the roots of anti-Semitic practices worldwide. And yet, the fallacy of the blood libel (which is still believed today throughout the world and in the U.S., including here in California) is proven as an anti-Semitic tool in this week’s Torah portion of Tzav.
“Blood libel” is a general term used to describe the hate filled belief that Jews consciously kill non-Jews for Jewish benefit. The first documented blood libel was in Norwich in 1144, when a boy named William was found stabbed to death in the woods. The local priest declared that the boy was killed by the local Jews so that his blood could be used in the making of matza. Thomas of Monmouth, a Benedictine monk who wrote the official biography of “St. William of Norwich” in 1173 expounded on this idea. Monmouth claimed that the blood of Christian children must be used by Jews in making matza to ensure that Jews will eventually return to the holy land of Israel. This book led to more similar claims throughout Europe, leading to repeated pogroms throughout England and Europe. In 2011, 17 skeletons found at the bottom of a well in Norwich were DNA tested and found to be from one Jewish family of the 12/13th century. This belief that Jews kill Christian boys for their blood to bake matza was then perpetuated throughout the continent, culminating in intensity with the Jewish killings after the death of “Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln” in 1255, which was forever memorialized as a “truth” by Chaucer in his “Canterbury Tales”. Thomas of Cantimpre wrote in 1260, “It is quite certain that the Jews of every province annually decide which congregation or city is to send Christian blood to the other congregations.” This vitriolic lie led to over 150 institutionalized pogroms killing tens of thousands of Jews ranging across the world and into even the 21st century in Russia (multiple times), Saudi Arabia, Syria (a Syrian film even perpetuated it in 2005 in “Ash Shatat”--“The Diaspora”), Poland, Palestine, Jordan, and Italy. As recently as March of 2020, this myth was used to kill Jews in retribution for their drinking the blood of non-Jewish children. The hatred was passed into the consciousness of America, with even cosmopolitan areas like New York perpetuating it in the 20th century.
Yet this week’s Torah portion demonstrates how antithetical the blood libel is to the core of Jewish beliefs. Forgetting about human blood, this week’s reading is clear about the prohibition of any type of blood consumption by a Jew. “You must not consume any blood, either of bird or of animal in any of your settlements. Anyone who consumes blood shall be cut off (ex-communicated) from his kin.” (Lev. 7:27, 28).
Jews are forbidden from eating anything even remotely near bloody. This is why kosher meat is often so salty: the salt is used to entirely draw out the blood from the meat. It is why there is no such thing as kosher steak tartare. It is of paramount importance that we stay away from blood, and need to be cleansed after we come in contact with it.
But that truth has never mattered to anti-Semites, who are more than willing to lie in order to justify their hate. And the hate of the blood libel still continues.
Today, the concept of drinking blood is so repugnant that modern anti-Semites rarely talk publicly about it in this country…but it continues in philosophy throughout our culture. Every time an anti-Semite suggests that Jews are consciously killing non-Jews it is a philosophical extension of this libel. Sadly, that idea is being perpetuated as recently as this past month.
In the past two months, multiple American politicians in Washington and around the country have promoted a 21st century blood libel against Israel, and a number of political leaders on the national stage (as well as anti-Semitic “comedians” on Saturday Night Live) have recently made the blood libel claim that the nation of Israel is purposefully killing Palestinians (https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-congress-members-say-israel-should-vaccinate-palestinians-in-occupied-west-bank-1.9477315 https://pjmedia.com/news-and-politics/tyler-o-neil/2021/02/05/rabbis-democrats-double-standard-on-anti-semitism-puts-jewish-community-at-greater-risk-n1423447). This is a blatant lie designed exclusively to promote anti-Semitism in the tradition of blood libels for a thousand years. With even the smallest amount of research it is easy to demonstrate the lack of honesty and integrity. Although the Oslo accords were explicitly clear that health care in Gaza and the West Bank are the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority and the P.A.’s leader Mahmoud Abbas has been clear that he does not want Israeli help with vaccinations, there are politicians and activists nationwide that are promoting the idea that Israel is killing non-Jews by refusing to distribute a covid vaccine. This blood libel lie is even more insidious than what was said in the 12th century, and potentially even more dangerous.
And make no mistake: it is a conscious libel. Although not asked nor required, the Israelis have already vaccinated thousands of Palestinians and have just cemented an agreement to vaccinate another 100,000 Palestinians who work in Israel (https://m.jpost.com/israel-news/israel-to-vaccinate-100000-palestinian-workers-report-659568) But the actual truth is inconvenient to those anti-Semites who seek to promote hate against our people…as it always has been.
Sadly, the tradition of the blood libel of the Middle Ages continues throughout the world today in various forms. For the anti-Semite, the text of this week’s Torah reading is inconsequential and inconvenient to the propagation of their hate. Whether it is the falsity that we drink blood or the lie that we withhold medicine there are people only interested in promoting hatred. Given the hate filled agenda of these people, what can we do? Again, we find an answer in the Torah.
The vast majority of this week’s reading deals with offerings to God. The explicit details of how animal, incense, meals, and more are offered to God are described in the text. And this is one of the answers to anti-Semitism; not as animal sacrifices but in terms of how we offer ourselves to the Divine.
Since God obviously doesn’t need an offering of food, why are the rituals of offerings so detailed in this week’s reading? Our Sages teach that it is so that we become conscious of what, how, and why we need to present “gifts” to God. The purpose is clear: we give in specific ways so that we become conscious of our relationship and dependence on God. This does not mean that we should sacrifice an animal. Our Sages determined centuries ago that the sacrifices at the altar of the Temple should be replaced by sacrifices of the heart. And this is at least part of the way to combat anti-Semitism in modern times.
In these troubling times of anti-Semitism, we all need to consciously deepen our relationship with God by consciously giving. Time, money, energy, conversation…there are a myriad of ways to give to God, and in so doing, deepen our awareness of our relationship with the Divine. This not only makes our personal lives more full, but demonstrates to all the world that the vicious lies of the anti-Semites are just that: hate filled propaganda.
As we are about to begin the Passover holiday, make some extra efforts to give offerings to God, and in so doing fight anti-Semitism while deepening your own spirituality. Invite someone to your Passover Seder (in person or via zoom); give some extra charity to a good cause; or donate some food to a food bank. Drop off some Easter baskets to a local church for their children or make it a point to start a Torah study group with friends. Give the gift of a spiritually inspiring cd or book to someone (if you need suggestions, Cantor Benny and Mat Gurman both have amazing music available, and you can always get Cantor Sam’s book “The Joy of Judaism” or my book “Sacred Relationships” on Amazon). Do an extra good deed as a way of honoring God and your Jewish faith, and in the process you will actively be combatting the libels of the anti-Semites.
We are prohibited from embracing darkness by doing things like baking with blood. We are also commanded to give offerings to infuse this physical world with Divinity. The best way to fight any darkness, including the darkness of the blood libels, is to shine a light of goodness and righteousness into the world through our actions.
May we all shine brightly through the performance of good deeds, and blot out the evil darkness of hate with that Divine light. And may this Passover bring us and all the world a renewed freedom of good health, prosperity, joy, love, and peace.
Chag Pesach Sameach-Happy Passover!
Rabbi Michael Barclay March 26, 2021 13th of Nisan, 5781