Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33) 12.04.13
I have been dreading writing about this week’s parashat. The length is intimidating. The discussion of pus and menstrual blood, bodily emissions and scaly skin, boils and rashes, swellings and hair follicles, skin discoloration and bleaching, is far from aesthetic. My kids when they were young would say, "How gross!" After a year in Mount Sinai Hospital, I left medical school and cannot count the number of lives I saved by not practicing medicine. Why return to read what I was so inept at – differential diagnosis? Besides, I truly did faint a number of times at the sight of blood. My wife has also been nagging me to go see a doctor about the raised white small eruption on my temple half way between my eyelid and my hair line. Leviticus 13:4 reads: "if the spot is white in the skin of his body and appears no deeper than the skin, and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall shut up the diseased person for seven days." I do not want to be shut up for seven days.
The section deals with purity, such as purification after childbirth because of the evident impurity of the parturient woman. But today’s National Post has a story about taking the parturient after a mother gives birth, making it into pills and giving those pills back to the mother for her physical and mental health. It makes this Torah section seem entirely sane! The Torah section also deals with identifying and treating leprosy (or perhaps some other skin disease caused by God), cleaning or, in the last resort, tearing down houses with mould, isolating persons afflicted with certain types of bodily discharges, particularly from their sexual orifices.
Perhaps the passages on bodily purity and impurity are really metaphorical. The section may really be about spiritual impurity that expresses itself in a physical form. In the midrash, מְּצֹרָע, metzora(leprous) is read as a contraction for motzi shem ra, gossiping about and slandering another. And exiling someone from the community can be interpreted as a blessing, as forcing someone to get a rest and go on a retreat. After all, sometimes people suffering a spiritual breakdown need to get away.
Or perhaps the parasha is about being a social outcast and the role of re-integrating the alienated back into the community. In the current issue of The New Yorker, the feminist writer, Susan Faludi, wrote an essay in memoriam about the modern radical feminist Shulamith Firestone called "Death of a Revolutionary", a pioneer in the second wave of feminism who kept being kicked out of every radical feminist organization she initiated. She was the second child and oldest daughter of a brood of six in a mixed family of an Orthodox mother, from a long line of rabbis, who was a Holocaust survivor, and an assimilated Brooklyn father who eventually became orthodox and adopted the zealotry of the converted. Shulie’s father, Sol, eventually banished Shulie from the family home when she was seventeen. Then the theme becomes how to welcome an outcast back into a community, any community, but especially the community of feminists. It never worked. Somehow the radical feminists as well as the Orthodox reborn Jew never grasped the process of reintegration. Shulie ended up living as a recluse and died alone. Perhaps the spiritual disease discussed in Leviticus was a mental one like schizophrenia for which established rituals of inclusion are critical to forestalling the advance of the disease.
Or the passages could even provide a kind of structuralist moral ordering à la Claude Lévi-Strauss and offer a portal into the core of the moral code of the ancient Hebrews. What other rationale could there be for writing that a woman who gives birth to a male child is unclean for seven days, but a mother of a newborn female child is unclean for fourteen days; in the case of a male child, the mother must remain "in the blood of her purity" for thirty-three days, but sixty-six for a female child.
Jacob Neusner in The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism: The Haskell Lectures 1972-73 offers a reply to Mary Douglas’ (1968) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo using the same approach. For Douglas, every culture naturalises a certain view of the human body to make it carry social meanings. Neusner agreed that purification rites are really about separating one cult from another, only Neusner is much more sympathetic to the Pharisaic cult of purity than Douglas. He writes, "purity and impurity are cultic matters; second, they may serve as metaphors for moral and religious behaviour, primarily in regard to matters of sex, idolatry, and unethical action. Purity furthermore closely relates to holiness. The land is holy, therefore must be kept clean. It may be profaned by becoming unclean. The sources of uncleanliness are varied and hardly cultic: certain animals, the woman after childbirth, skin ailments, mildew in a house, bodily discharges, especially the menses and seminal flux, sexual misdeeds, and the corpse…things which evidently seemed loathsome." For Neusner, purity "serves as an important mode of differentiation and definition for the sects known to us in the first century B.C. and A.D., and, second, provides for Philo and the later rabbis an important set of laws for allegorical interpretation and a set of ethical homilies." (Ch. 4, 108)
However, when I read the text itself on tzarat, translated or mistranslated as leprosy depending on your interpretive bent, that can attack our bodies, infect our clothes or even get into the walls of our homes like a poisonous mould and we are told to burn those clothes and even tear down those walls, and when after our body is physically cleaned, we must be subjected to a ritual involving two birds, spring water in an earthen vessel, a piece of cedar wood, a scarlet thread and a bundle of hyssop, I am convinced the Koanim were witch doctors or shamans. If so, what is to be learned from reading rules about superstitious ancient medical practices? It would be no different than reading about putting leeches on someone’s body for treatment of a number of afflictions?
Certainly Jesus seemed to challenge these instructions about isolating the leper. Jesus bent down and kissed their feet. (I fully support the humane treatment of lepers and not making them outcasts, but you will not catch me kissing a leper’s feet. I am not humble enough to be a Christian.) Jesus purportedly made sinners holy and the sick whole and challenged the policies of exile. But I no more believe in faith healing than in using rituals to deal with physical infirmities.
But then treating the passages as being about physical diseases does not make sense since there were a myriad of varied physical infirmities that afflicted people in the ancient world. Why pick out this particular small sub-set? Surely the section must be metaphorical and really offer a lesson in ethics rather than good ancient medical practice. Further, why would someone who is totally covered with tzarat be pronounced clean unless the passage were really about mixing what should be unmixable. It is a lesson about mixing and impurity.
By why should mixing be an impurity? Yesterday I wrote about the 1937 Peel Commission Report. It adopted the Nansen belief that the alleged greatest source of violence was the mixing of populations. The world community in the first half of the twentieth century gave its blessing to internationally endorsed and enforced ethnic cleansing – the unmixing of populations – as in the forced exchange of Greek and Turkish minorities after WWI. Surely, at least in some cases, the obsession with purity is the real problem, not mixing.
Then again, when we read the passages about seminal discharges from the penis that are clearly neither urine nor semen from a wet dream, but a cloudy white discharge, one suspects the Torah is discussing gonorrhoea. The man infected is a zav. The zav is in a state of ritual impurity as long as the discharge continues plus seven days after it has stopped. Since we now know that it takes five days without a discharge to be sure that an individual is cured of gonorrhoea, surely this section is about a specific sexually transmitted disease. But then why are some other clear and obvious symptoms not mentioned – dysuria (a burning sensation when pissing), nocturia (excessive need to urinate at night), rashes in the groin or on the genitals, and swollen lymph glands in the area? And why is anything touched by a zav’s bodily fluids unclean or tameh? Is that simply because the ancient Hebrews were ignorant about how gonorrhoea is transmitted? And why is a menstruant woman, a niddah, or a zavah, a woman who has a discharge of blood other than her menstrual period,connected with gonorrhoea?
Or does this all have something to do with the mystical tradition whereby Adam and Eve when they were pure and innocent and naked were clothed only in light, ‘or‘ spelled with an aleph, while after they got to know one another in the biblical sense, they were clothed in bare skin, ‘or‘ spelled with an ayin and knew they were naked? Is purity just spiritual, a state of being clothed in light, ‘or‘ spelled with an aleph.
My own conviction is that this section was originally about physical conditions regarded as unclean or diseases – skin disease (צָּרַעַת, tzara’at). A person affected by skin disease is referred to as a metzora (ְמְּצֹרָעְ). The haftorah seems to be clearly about lepers. Miriam became "leprous" (מְצֹרַעַת, m’tzora’at) in Numbers 12:1 for being critical of Moses because he married a Cushite, though Philo said it was a result of depravity. Moses regarded tzara’at as a special disease, an affliction brought on by failure to obey God (Deuteronomy 24:8-9). As society evolved and many of these conditions were no longer perceived to be diseases or abnormal states, the medical explanations were put away to be replaced by metaphorical or mystical ones and the rituals raised up, transformed and saved at a higher plane as conditions connected with impurity. The rituals for its treatment were the same as making the priests sacred by putting blood of a ram on the lobe of the right ear, the right thumb and big toe (Exodus 29:20 and Leviticus 8:23-24) as in cleansing a person of this disease (Leviticus 14:14; 14:17; 14:25; 14:28).
If the passages are about physical diseases, why keep the rituals when the medicine develops and such designations are irrelevant? One argument is that the issue is not the disease, but the sin that brings it on. For example, in the case of Miriam, the issue was not her criticism let alone her depravity, but her engaging in gossip that amounted to slander. It was left to the Talmud, the Gemara and various Midrashim to clarify which types of sins brought these forms of physical retribution by God. The rabbis competed to establish a comprehensive list. For example, Rabbi Judah the Levite, son of Rabbi Shalom, using textual sources, argued that that the skin disease arose from the following sins: 1) cursing God; 2) immorality; 3) murder; 4) slander; 5) haughtiness (for others this is specified as assuming a false identity as in the movie Catch Me If You Can); 6) encroaching on another’s property (for others this was just stealing or misusing public property for your own purposes); 7) profanation; 8) idolatry; 9) slander and/or an evil eye; and added three other sins not included in many other lists – 10) habitually lying; 11) theft; and 12) swearing falsely. The issue of slander is a most interesting one for it suggests that the cleanliness that must come out of your mouth is as important as whether the food you ingest is kosher.
So I am left baffled. And I have nothing of interpretive value to add. Perhaps that is the real lesson – be humble when you try to interpret, especially if you know as little as I do.