WHITE DEERSKIN/RED HEIFER: WE CAN ALL RELATE

I spent last weekend in Trinidad on the Humboldt County coast near Oregon. And I found out something very interesting—and instructive—from Don Verwayen, my cousin Bev’s husband. Don is an archaeologist helping area Indian tribes to protect their land, particularly sacred sites. Here’s what I learned.

The Karuk Indians maintain ancestral territory along the middle reaches of the Klamath River. Camp Creek, a 50‐acre plot, serves as one of three traditional dance grounds for performing the White Deerskin Dance. The dance, requiring a rare albino deerskin, seeks to purify the world after the breaking of taboos, which produces evil.

Another culture worlds apart from yours or mine? Let’s look deeper.

Karuk parallels to Israelite worship are striking. The White Deerskin dance must be performed by a priest/medicine man only at one of the three designated sites. In ancient Israel, offerings could only be brought to Jerusalem, site of the First and Second Temples. The Karuk dancer must wear a white deerskin. Israelite priests required purification from water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer or cow, an exceedingly rare animal. Ultra-religious Jews in Israel today are trying to breed one to enable a functioning priesthood for a third Temple, but that’s another story. The White Deerskin dance seeks world renewal. Kabbalah, the Jewish spiritual practice far beyond the simplifications that draw to it the likes of Madonna, seeks tikkun olam, healing of a fractured world.

I’m not suggesting that the Karuk descend from Israelites who fled Judea almost two thousand years ago following two disastrous rebellions against Rome or the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem five hundred years earlier. But it’s apparent that all human beings are bound together by universal questions: Who are we? Why are we here? How should we live? Where are we going?

As it happens, this week’s Torah portion, Noach, establishes such a universalism. The Sages deduce from the Flood and its aftermath the seven Noahide Laws applicable to all humanity as descendants of Noah. These prohibit idolatry, blasphemy, murder, incest/adultery, robbery and consuming the blood of a living animal. That’s six. The Sages add establishing courts to uphold these laws as the seventh.

Here’s the kicker: Any non-Jew who obeys the Noahide Laws merits the same reward in the World to Come—however it might be defined—as a Jew required to uphold all the 613 mitzvot or commandments (understanding that some mitzvot can only be performed by men, others by women, still others by the community as a whole, and many only in the Temple or in the Land of Israel).

Beyond adhering to monotheism—and you can define that in a number of ways, too—what counts is what we do, not what we think. Dogma means nothing, actions everything. Every human being can earn God’s approval and salvation. Karuk or Jew, Christian, or Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, or anyone else, when it comes down to it, we’re all different just the same.

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