Parshat Tazria: Exclusion – Leviticus 12:1-13:59
What does the ritual of cleanliness and purification after childbirth have to do with the practice of exclusion and what does the practice of exclusion have to do with the circumcision of male children on the eighth day? Verse 2 and 3 of Leviticus ch. 12, Tazria, read: “If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. 3 And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” And why is a woman unclean for two weeks and not one when she has a female child? And why is her banishment from the sanctuary also doubled from 33 to 66 days when the child is a female rather than a male? Why should a woman be regarded as unclean at all after bearing a child?
What connection is there between the birth of a child and a disease like leprosy or even metaphoric leprosy, setting aside how accurate medically the symptoms of the physical condition leprosy as depicted in the text are? Why is raw flesh, of a placenta or chronic leprosy, regarded as unclean? In the case of leprosy, verse 46 of ch. 13 commands that, “He (she) shall remain unclean as long as (s)he has the disease. He (she) is unclean. He (she) shall live alone. His (her) dwelling shall be outside the camp.” What is the condition of tzaraat that commands social exclusion? On the other hand, what does it mean in modern society for a wife to stick by her husband and go into exile with him along with their children?
Yesterday, I wrote a review of the film, The Family, about a mafia family in which a minor mafia boss played by Robert De Niro is sent into exile with his wife and two teenage children in Normandy, France, under the American witness protection program because he ratted on his mafia family, not speaking ill of others without warrant, but with warrant, serving to ensure not simply his expulsion from his mafia family, but making himself a target for elimination. For the mafia Majordomo is determined on revenge. The dominant theme of the movie is exclusion, the loss of the family’s sense of belonging in their Italian community in Brooklyn, how alien De Niro is as a non-French speaker in a small town in Normandy, how the two children have to adapt to a new school and win friends, and how, to overcome the sense of strangeness of this family settling in Normandy when the FBI decides to attempt integration rather than preserving privacy and exclusion which in itself raises suspicions.
Last night we watched the first three episodes of the first season of the Emmy award-winning TV series, The Good Wife, which will end its seventh season run next month. The series also deals with exclusion as a dominant theme. This time the family is not relocated to Normandy, but is exiled from the rich suburban city of Highland Park, 26 miles north of downtown Chicago as Peter (Chris Noth) and Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) are forced to sell their opulent home to pay Peter’s legal bills after he is charged and convicted in a sex and bribery scandal when he was serving as the State’s Attorney for Cook County, which includes the City of Chicago. Alicia relocates with her two children, Zach and Grace, to an apartment, and Alicia resumes her career as a litigation attorney at the bottom rung while her husband, Peter, is sent to jail. Dislocation, alienation, the challenges of reintegration in work and society drive the drama. But the series begins with the focus of the camera on the hand-holding of Peter and Alicia as Peter marches up to deal with the shame and disgrace in the court of public opinion in response to the scandal.
Women are door mats and have been
The years those mats applaud
They keep their men from going in
With muddy feet to God.
The children have lost their friends as a result of both the scandal and the move. Alicia too is no longer “received” by her former neighbours. Even in her new job, she lives in the shadow of the scandal that is both political and personal because the sexual dalliances of her husband with prostitutes are so devastating to her. The show deliberately resonates on the Bill and Hillary Clinton scandals when Bill was President, but more specifically with the Eliot Spitzer prostitute scandal when he occupied the same position in New York State as Peter Florrick did in Illinois in the TV series. Hillary was and is a lawyer. So was Elizabeth Edwards in the John Edwards sex scandal. Sex and shame. Oh how far the mighty can fall, bringing down with them in shame and ignominy their wives and children.
The series falls into the genre of courtroom drama with a case per week in the first three episodes – a wife wrongly accused of killing her husband in the first episode, an escort who justly accuses her rich patron of rape in the second episode, and a teenager from Alicia’s old neighbourhood of Highland Park unjustly accused of manslaughter. An essential plot device in these crime and courtroom dramas is uncovering the missing clues that will lead to exoneration of the victim and just punishment for the perpetrator.
But these are just the technical devices to introduce suspense and keep the plot moving. The main interest is psychological and social. As in The Family, though Marge may not be smart in terms of education and personal career achievement, she is intelligent, independent, feisty as well as a loving mother. So is Alicia, but though Alicia is professionally trained, she runs up against her own insecurity which the street-smart Marge, who has every reason to be insecure, never does, though she is understandably in terror, mostly for her children, when the mafia hitmen come after her and her family. Alicia, though brave and determined, still wears her fall from grace on her sleeve. Marge remains a good wife. Alicia was one and we wonder whether she, like Hillary, will return to her husband’s side. Both women are cool, though Alicia is radically different from Marge in speaking clearly and with purpose where words follow thought processes rather than expressing an emotional state.
But isn’t this a real stretch from leprosy and circumcision? The link with leprosy is easier to establish. The sex offender, whether the betraying husband or the rapist or the sex offender or the pedophile, is the contemporary version of an individual deemed to have leprosy and requiring quarantine, at least until the disease is clearly in remission. Both are “diseases” of the flesh. The conditions are both seen as resulting from moral turpitude. Ostracism is the accompanying punishment. But ratting on one’s social family and allowing your sexual peccadilloes to become matters of public discussion are worse because each also brings the punishment to bear on the good wife and the good children, even if the wife and children in the comedy are not as innocent as they initially appear.
But over the long term, though I am unwilling to invest my time in the whole series to find out, I suspect subsequent episodes of The Good Wife will reveal Alicia to have as much passion as the compassion she displays, for Zach to reveal he is as clever as De Niro’s son, but in a more diagnostic and analytic way as adumbrated when he discovers the sexual scandal pictures that destroyed his father’s career were computer generated, and that the friendless younger sister, Grace, who so missed her old life will reveal as much gumption and independence as the seventeen-year-old daughter of Robert De Niro in forging a new life for herself.
But a key character in the film and the TV series is a misanthrope, the part of the FBI agent played by Tommy Lee Jones and the role of the in-house investigator in Alicia’s legal firm, Kalinda Sharma, played by Archie Punjab. We know virtually nothing personal about either character, certainly in the first three episodes of The Good Wife, even though Kalinda has a great deal of screen time. If Alicia is cool and collected, Kalinda is cold and calculating and never upset by all the shenanigans. Both are protective – Kalinda of Alicia and the FBI agent of De Niro’s character – even though both evince the view that no one is to be trusted. The most distrusting characters become the ones exhibiting the most trust. They do so in a context in which, underneath the exclusion and ostracism, underneath the diseases of the flesh of sexual dalliances and leprosy, in contexts in which both dramas are replete with dead corpses (off the screen in The Good Wife and displayed with abandon in The Family), at the root of both dramas is the question, “Who can you trust?”
Which brings us to circumcision, brit milah, and the connection with social ostracism! For the Jewish ritual of circumcision entails cutting into the flesh of a baby, cutting off a symbolic piece of the flesh of a male child’s foreskin, in practice by an experienced mohel, who may or may not be a physician, but in reality is just a proxy for the father. If a father who so loves his long longed-for son, no one more so than Abraham, is capable of cutting his eight-day-old son, and cutting him in his sexual organ, inflicting pain, however minimal, where the son will carry the badge of a Jew, in his flesh and in his psyche, for his entire life, then the message tattooed in the flesh is that no one can be completely trusted – including God in Judaism in contrast to Christianity.
Trust and distrust are two poles. The misanthrope ostensibly trusts no one. The naïve trusts anyone. But to get by in life we must learn whom to trust and whom to distrust and to what degree. When trust is betrayed, the betrayer is ostracized to some degree. At the extreme, the individual is cast entirely out of the community. A Jewish lad from his second week in existence is taught that he must never completely trust, not just anyone, but especially himself and his own penis. Look at Eliot Spitzer. Look at Bill Clinton.
But what has all of this, even granting a connection between circumcision and ostracism, have to do with a woman being unclean after delivering a child, and being doubly unclean after delivering a female rather than a male child? What is the significance of being טָמֵא, tummah, unclean which is such an obsession in the book of Leviticus? When the word is made flesh, when is the flesh made “unclean”? Contact with a corpse makes one temporarily unclean. Food, clothes, animals and things, but especially people, can be unclean.
When Leviticus 10:10 reads, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean,” the general interpretation is to set up the analogy as holy:common = clean:unclean. Cleanliness is associated with holiness, with purity. The parallel is made between “holy” and “clean” and the “common” with the “unclean.” But according to the structure of the proposition, the analogy should be: holy:common = unclean:clean. It is the common, it is the ordinary, it is the behaviour according to the norms of everyday life, that is clean. It is pride, it is the viewing oneself as a god, as seeing oneself as purer than the ordinary, that is unclean. When a prosecutor sets out on the path to expunge his world of corruption, to drive the scalawags out of office, beware. Raise your antenna of distrust. For both religious and secular holy rollers are particularly suspect.
If you regard yourself as occupying an exclusive sphere immune to the temptations of desire, then pride will surely go before the fall. No one, especially one’s own father, is holy. Uncleanliness is an integral part of life. But we must guard against contamination, not the contamination of dirt, not the contamination of the ordinary, but the contamination of the obsession with one’s own purity and exclusive status. The higher we view ourselves, the greater the fall and the more appropriate the punishment and the degree of exclusion. And when we kill at will, whether as a mafia hit man, a murderer or a terrorist, when we see as our mission and vocation as taking another’s life as simply an everyday occupation, then absolute exclusion is appropriate. When we have incurable metaphoric leprosy, total isolation from society is appropriate.
If this perverse interpretation has any play, why are women in childbirth regarded as unclean, and why are they regarded as doubly unclean when the child born is a female? Simply put, lest the mother feel holier than ever because she gave birth to a child and lest she feel doubly holy because the child born is a female, the key guarantor of reproduction. Females have twice the value of the male child (and usually have to work twice as hard to prove they are male’s equal), so the risk of conceiving oneself as holier than thou requires ritual preventive detention and social exclusion to ward off any contamination of the disease, from the germ that gives rise to the danger.
A Jewish circumcised male is given a permanent reminder that he cannot trust his penis for it has a mind of its own, especially when wedded to the holy spirit, when the male sees himself as an exemplification of the holy spirit. Females do not need to learn to distrust themselves, but they still need to learn to ward off any betrothal to the holy spirit of purity. The ritual of symbolic exclusion, of a woman regarding herself as unclean when she does give birth, and doubly so when she gives birth to a female child, exemplifies a need to be ritually and very temporarily ostracized to prevent the potential malady from becoming runaway contamination.
The upshot of the diagnosis of tzaraat, especially of an acute condition that has become chronic and incurable, is banishment, and, in the extreme, permanent banishment. A Judean king afflicted with acute tzaraat remained under house arrest for the rest of all his life in a beit hachoshit, a house of quarantine. For the rest of us, quarantine is a temporary state from which we should emerge stronger and better than ever. Thank God we are not kings – or queens!
With the help of Alex Zisman