Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33)

Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33) 12.04.13


Howard Adelman

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.


Terumah On Charity – Parashat Terumah Exodus 25:1 – 27:19 16.02.13

The blog is attached as well.

Terumah On Charity – Parashat Terumah Exodus 25:1 – 27:19 16.02.13

Haftorah I Kings 5:26 – 6:13

Commentary on Exodus 25:1-8


Howard Adelman

Yesterday I wrote about humiliation in which a person is not only exposed as unworthy of the status he or she holds, but experiences that he or she is unworthy of even aspiring for such a status. In this Shabat’s parashah, the name of the portion is Terumah. The word derives from the verb rum (root: resh.vav.mem) meaning to raise up and present. The noun form, terumah, is a gift offering. How can a gift or an offering raise someone or something up? By giving someone a boost in morale? The question becomes more difficult when the paradox is brought out more clearly.

Terumah literally means something that is uplifted or raised up to a higher level. The term also suggests giving something away and saving something. To take the latter first, the literal meaning of terumah also means ‘setting aside a portion’. Finally, it also means a ‘donation’ in the sense of a portion removed from one’s possession. So we can depict the three meanings of terumah as follows:

1. giving something away, that is, a portion is removed from one’s possession;

2. saving something in the sense of setting aside a portion;

3. lifting or raising something to a higher level.

How can you both give something away and save it at the same time while also raising it up? How is that possible?

In German, the verb aufheben also means three seemingly contradictory things: to eliminate or abolish; to save or put away; and to raise up through sublation. Aufhaben is central to understanding how Hegel’s dialectic of self-consciousness takes place. T’rumah also has three meanings:

1. giving something away;

2. saving something;

3. raising something up.

How are these three activities related and how does that connection fit in with God’s request that the mishkan, God’s portable tabernacle, be constructed? At the beginning of the Parashah, the Israelites are asked to contribute fourteen different materials for its construction: three metals (gold, silver and copper); dyed material made from three different colours of flax (sky-blue dye from one species of purpura snail), purple from the crimson worm that is a strong, bright, deep reddish purple, and crimson red (from another species of purpura snail); then one item that stands alone – fine natural or beige coloured linen; then three materials derived from other living species (goat’s hair, tanned ram skins and dolphin skins); three other materials brought forth from this earth, acacia wood, oil from olives and spices for the aromatic incense; and finally the other stand alone item, gemstones, including lapis lazuli, to decorate the official dress of the high priest, the ephod and the breast piece. (Exodus 25:3-7)

The gifts shall be accepted by Moses can be organized as follows:

The Mishkan The Contents

Structure Décor Priestly


Altar Altar Artefacts Decorations
Gold Blue Flax Goat’s Hair Acacia wood
Silver Purple Flax Linen Ram Skins Olive Oil Gems
Copper Red Flax Acacia Wood Spiced Incense

Note the following: while God commands that the portable arc of the covenant be built, He does not command the Israelites to donate the material and labour. He requests the donations. In contrast with the Haftorah portion (IKings 5:26-6:13) describing in detail the building of the first temple, the portable temple is built by the people on a voluntary basis. The permanent temple is built by King Solomon. Second, the material must be given freely from a full heart of one who is smitten with God. Third, whereas the structure of the permanent temple is built of hewn stones and cedar wood, the mishkan is built of metal, of very precious metal with respect to the first two items, gold and silver. At today’s prices, copper isn’t so cheap either.

In Hasidic lore, gold, silver and copper, the items requested to build the structure, are symbolic of the three pillars upon which the world stands, Torah, prayer and good deeds or tzedakah. (Aaron L. Raskin "Gold, Silver, Copper: Parsha Terumah) They are also connected with the three core meanings of Terumah as follows:

Pillar of the World Material Meaning

Torah Gold Allowing a portion to be removed from one’s possession

Prayer Silver Saving and preserving

Tzedakah (charity) Copper Raising someone up

Let me expand on each of the above.

When I study Torah, I begin by accepting God as mighty and powerful. God is Lord and our strength. I study by reading and interpreting a portion of the Torah. I then share that interpretation and the interpretation becomes the possession of anyone who reads it. It is no longer mine. Part of me, of my intellect, has first allowed myself to be inspired and informed by my learning and my muse. I am possessed. Then through sharing, I have been allowed to be possessed by others.

Prayer, tefilah, means to beg and beseech; it means to implore. Jews pray to God but for themselves — to preserve their lives, their health and their comfort and to allow their hearts to be open to the divine spirit, to make ourselves sacred and prepare ourselves for service and sacrifice. We pray for empowerment. We pray for courage. If Torah is other directed, prayer is self-directed. Through prayer, we gain a sense of humility and cannot be humiliated because, through prayer, we recognize that we have a very lowly status. If Torah is our gold standard, prayer is the silver foundation of our lives. If for Torah, God is the Lord and Master, in prayer, God is Mercy, though He never seemed to inhabit the road that led to Mercy Hospital, No Mercy Road, more formally known as Mains Avenue in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. That road was blocked and Blacks traditionally were not afforded the comfort of a room in Mercy or No Mercy Hospital. Through prayer, God cannot help you boost yourself by your own bootstraps with God’s help. For the point of prayer is not to obtain God’s help but to facilitate our own self-reliance. Prayer is not a bargaining session in which we trade off a promise of servitude in return for a loan. We pray even though God is broke and the bank is closed. Prayer is associated with our sacrifices, not rewards from God.

The Hebrew verb for prayer—tefilah is hitpalel (root: peh.lamed.lamed) in the reflexive mode. It means ‘to judge’. "The use of this shoresh in its simpler forms is generally associated with ‘judgement’. For instance, in Shemot 21:22 – the case is to be ruled *…v’natan biPh’LiLim* – ‘…paying as much as the judges determine.’ (BDB 813), however, suggest an earlier usage of the shoresh – which evolves into "judgement". They render *P*L*L as ‘intervene, interpose’. Since the arbitrators/judges intervene (on behalf of the wronged party), they are fulfilling an act of *P’LiLah*; thus, judges (or the court) are rendered *P’LiLim*." (Rambam, Hilkhot T’fillah 1:01, torah.org)

In this case, the one who prays (usually in silence) and the one prayed for are the same. To pray means judging oneself thereby allowing us to transform ourselves. Through the activity of prayer, and not because of the One prayed to, God makes possible self-transformation and renewal. Prayer allows us to acquire an attitude of self-reliance and is not intended as a path to influence God. The target is the one offering the prayer.

The third of the tryptich of Torah and Tefilah is Tzedakah.

Tzedakah is usually translated as charity but actuallymeans “doing justice, or what is right”, not “charity”, as in the Christian caritas. Tzedakah includes giving alms to the poor and donating funds for the old aged home and for refugees. Tzedakah is more than charity. Tzedakah is not just doing good deeds but making sure that charitable donations and one’s deeds actually serve to raise up the other. The other must not only feel raised up but must actually be on a higher level. Even though tzedakah is purportedly of the same value as all the other mitzvoth in the Torah put together, tzedakah is still only symbolized by copper. (See Miamonides’ “Eight Levels of Tzedakah”


So Terumah provides a structure of Torah, Tefilah and Tzedakah which we can decorate, wear pure but unadorned linen, cover the arc and dress our holy priests. When we build something physical, whether it is a home for God or for ourselves, we are building a home for a family and building a structure that will enlarge our spiritual lives. The portion began with God’s request that we donate to permit the building of the portable arc of the covenant and the building of the structure to carry the arc, so that we could sacrifice and give away that which can raise another up.

This virtue is not an abstraction. The demand greets us everyday, outside the subway station and outside the bank. On Wednesday I received the following email from one of my blog readers:

Hi Howard, I have a story to share and a request to make. Purim is just days away, and traditionally we celebrate the triumph over evil, share food treats and find ways to help the needy. I have spent most of my life doing just that. I was born in the Kensington Market to very poor immigrant parents who left Europe in time. My father was from Russia, my mother from Poland, One sister also came to Canada before the war but everyone else was murdered. I grew up knowing we had to help each other. When I was six years old, there was unusual jubilation in the Market, unlike the sadness and mourning and struggles that were my daily life. The State of Israel had been declared! I have been an ardent and active Zionist ever since. In 1963, having worked my way through University College, I had a BA, the first university graduate in my family. I was approached by the director of Jewish family and Child Services to work for them as an untrained social worker because I am fluent in Yiddish and French and they needed that to better serve the immigrants from post war Europe and the new wave from Morocco and Tangiers and other parts of North Africa. I went on to earn an MSW from U of T , graduating in 1969. and worked in many of the major hospitals as a psychiatric social worker. In the early 1990’s I was divorced, three great kids, elderly parents who needed help, a full time job and strong ties to Israel. A couple of hard to diagnose illnesses caused me to lose my job, and after a couple of months, lose my home and everything I had worked so hard for.. To say it was a difficult time is an understatement. I never thought this would have happened to me, however I am very strong and resilient. It took some years but I survived and moved on. I started thinking about people who were not as strong… who was helping them? From that time I reached out to vulnerable people and offered them my best. There have been many dramatic success stories. I have newspaper clippings and thank you letters and videos. Rabbis call me, and occasionally clergy from other communities as well. The shelters know who I am and what I do. Occasionally a wealthy family needs my help and they do pay generously. More often the person has no way to pay me but if I know things can be made better for that person I don’t refuse. At this time in my life, I need support. If you or anyone you know would be willing to make a donation it would help me a great deal at this point in my life. I have done a lot of work in the Russian Jewish community here in Toronto and one of their congregations will accept donations towards my work and can provide a legitimate receipt for 2013 tax purposes. I look forward to hearing from you, best regards, Lillian Please feel free to forward this email to anyone who might be interested. I am also available to speak to any groups, large or small about how we can more effectively help the most vulnerable here and in Israel.

Lillian Freedman lillianfreedman18

Sunday or Monday:

Obama13: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending

[Tags Torah, prayer, charity,