Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Tazria-Metzora (Midrash)

More on the Devil Drink

Reader Gary Sigal pointed out that my discussion last week about drunkenness—specifically, the midrash in Lev. Rab. 12.1 about the drunken father who was dumped by his sons in the graveyard and found three days later happily drinking some wine fortuitously left behind by merchants—was inconclusive, and that I did not really define the point, the “moral” of the midrash.

His point is well taken: that issue of Hitzei was written at the last minute, rather hurriedly and with less thorough thought than it deserved. What indeed was the point of the story? Is it written ironically? If so, against the father or the sons, who were hardly models of filial respect? Or is it a “just so” story about “stuff that happens”? Perhaps the “Divine” gift of wine left in the graveyard, seen as a sign that “his Creator had not forgotten him,” is an ironic comment on the fact that, beyond a certain point, an alcoholic simply cannot live without drink, and that God, and the family, had to come to terms with this state of affairs. The state in which the drunk so loses his human dignity that he cares about nothing but sucking on the mouth of wineskin, lying in the middle of a graveyard, is also a vivid comment on the results of this addiction. Or perhaps, as Gary suggests, since drunkenness as such is not actually prohibited by the Torah, the Rabbis did not paint it in such negative colors as other things (i.e, such possible consequences as sleeping with ones wife while niddah, or failing to bench after a Purim seudah). Or again: the verses quoted from Proverbs seem to paint drinking in a grave and somber light. Might this represent a more puritanical, if not actually prohibitionist, strain in Judaism? The midrash by contrast has a rather ribald tone, relating the whole story as if it were a kind of adult prank.

“When a woman emits seed”

The opening section of this week’s parsha deals with the laws of childbirth, the sacrifices brought by the parturient mother, etc. This is taken by the midrash as an occasion for reflection on the nature of the human being in general (Lev. Rab. 14.1 = Gen. Rab. 8.1; see HY III: Bereshit) and the nature of sexuality. Thus Leviticus Rabbah 14.5;

Another thing. “When a woman conceives…” [Lev 12:2]. It is written there, “Behold, in iniquity was I brought forth” [Ps 51:7]. R. Aha said: [the word] avvon [is written] in plene [i.e., with the letter vav repeated]. Even if he was the most pious of the pious, it is impossible that there not be in this thing a certain point of iniquity. David said before the Holy One blessed be He: Master of the Universe, my father Jesse did not at all intend to bring me into existence, but he only thought of his own pleasure!

To begin with, the verse from Psalm 51 is difficult. This psalm is a very somber, penitential psalm, perhaps the most poignant expression of contrition in the entire Psalter: its heading identifies it with David’s remorse following his affair with Bath-sheba. The problem in this verse is that, if the “iniquity” and “sin” mentioned pertain to the individual speaking, this implies that he was already imbued with sinfulness intra utero, or even from the moment of conception. Such a view divorces sin from any element of free moral choice on the part of an intelligent, responsible, mature individual, and turns it into something automatic, innate, metaphysical. But this brings us to a view very much like the Christian doctrine of original sin (which, if I am not mistaken, uses this very verse to support that doctrine, as well as to link original sin specifically with sex, thereby necessitating such bizarre doctrines as the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception). Indeed, there are a number of Jewish commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, who do in fact take such a tack, with the significant difference that, unlike the classical Christian view, sin is not seen as inevitable from infancy; what is inborn is the Yetzer Hara, the Evil Inclination, against which one may launch a successful struggle. In any event, our midrash take another approach: that the sin spoken of refers, not to that of the author (i.e., David), but rather to his parents, and to the primal scene.

One of the basic problems that emanates from our very nature as sexual beings is this: every human being born of woman, in reflecting upon the parental sexual act which led to his/her own conception, must confront the disturbing fact that this act was performed for the parents’ own pleasure, and not (or not primarily) with the deliberate intention of procreation. This fact makes our own existence even more contingent and random than we already know it to be. (That is the reason why people tend to suppress the fact of their own parent’s sexuality, and one hears the saying, “I can’t imagine them doing THAT!”) It is this pain that is expressed by David in our midrash.

Beyond that, this midrash reflects the deep ambivalence about sexuality found in Hazal. It is such a powerful urge, coupled with such intense, if brief, pleasure, that it can easily become a person’s whole world, a matter of overwhelming interest. It has ever been thus, in different guises: in one way or another, sexual love is the subject of most great (and almost all mediocre) literature, drama, opera, movies, etc., being that which most attracts the attention and interest of the average person; moreover, since the mid-to-late twentieth century, the explicitly sexual element has come more and more to the fore from the romantic haze in which it was hitherto enshrouded. As a result of this power, it is that element in life which, from a religious viewpoint, most needs to be controlled and in some way subdued and channeled.

Two solutions have been put forward for this. One way, that of Christianity, was celibacy: total avoidance of sex seen as the ideal (practicable of course only by a small minority; and even that, as history shows, easily subject to corruption and hypocrisy, from the medieval ecclesiastical mistresses to the recent scandals involving Catholic priests in the United States). Even marital sex is seen by them as bedi’avad, something permitted only post facto, as the lesser of two evils. Judaism, by contrast, accepts sexuality, channeling and sanctifying it within marriage. Even so, there are Jewish moralists concerned with its anarchic power who say: have sex relations, but do so, not for the pleasure involved, but preferably for the sake of the mitzvah (thus, for example, Rabad of Posquière in Ba’alei ha-Nefesh). In b. Nedarim 20a-b one even reads about Rabbi Eliezer, for whom the act was so distasteful, presumably because of its powerfully sensual aspects, that he performed it “as if driven by a demon.” Our midrash seems to be written in this spirit. On the other hand, there is also a more down-to-earth, tolerant attitude, such as that expressed in the saying of R. Yohanan that “a man may behave as he wishes with his wife” (i.e., within the limits of interpersonal ethics and mutual respect, and laws of Niddah; Nedarim, ibid.).

A side comment: I recently noted a puzzling repetition in the Tur and Shulhan Arukh, specifically concerning this area. The laws of proper marital behavior in the bedroom are repeated more or less verbatim in two separate, lengthy chapters, albeit in slightly different order: in Orah Hayyim §240, in the context of the daily round (in the “order of the nighttime”), and in Even ha-Ezer §26, as part of the laws of marriage. Could this repetition have been a result of the Rabbis’ deep anxiety and concern about this subject?

Incidentally, it is not my intention here to speak from a modernist position of smirking superiority; it may well be that the “healthy-minded,” matter-of-fact acceptance of sexuality of our own culture comes at the price of denial of its great power and mystery. In any event, our midrash continues by bringing what it sees as symptomatic of this sinful and selfish aspect of sex:

Know that such is the case, for after they have done what they need to do, this one turns his face this way, and that one turns her face that way, and You take care that each drop that is there goes in. Concerning this David said: “For my father and mother have abandoned me, and the Lord has gathered me” [Ps 27:10]

“And in sin did my mother conceive me” [Ps 51:7]. Said R. Hiyya son of Abba: The woman does not absorb except after her menstrual impurity and close to it; and all the more so if it is [to be] a male. As is said there, “When a woman gives seed.”

Conception takes place, ultimately, because God, more than the parents, sees to the sperm going where it needs to go. The word het, here translated as “sin,” is interpreted by the midrash as if it were hituy, “purification”—i.e., that conception is most likely to occur close to the time of purification and the end of menstrual separation of husband and wife (in our practice, seven days after the cessation of menstrual discharge—i.e., close to ovulation).

On Baby Boys and Girls

Another central concern related to the subject of childbirth is that of the sex of the baby to be born. Determination of the sex of a fetus is a perennial concern in virtually all human societies, and there are innumerable folk remedies to assure the birth of the (usually) much-wanted male heir. The Talmud, too, has something to say on this topic, as we shall see shortly. Lev. Rab. 14.8:

The essence of the matter (gufa). The male-child is always from the woman, and the female from the man. From whence do we know that the male is from the woman? “And his Judahite wife bore Jered the father of Gedor, and Hever the father of Socho, and Yekutiel the father of Zanoah” (1 Chr 4:18). “And his concubine was named Reumah, and she bore Tevah and Gaham and Tahash and Maacah” [Gen 22:24]. And from whence do we know that the female is from the man? From: “And Bethuel gave birth to Rivkah” [ibid., 23); “and Dinah his daughter” [Gen 46:15]; “and the name of Asher’s daughter was Serah” [Num 26:46].

Certain biblical genealogies in which the sons are listed after their mothers, and the daughters after their fathers, are brought as proof that the opposite-sexed parent is decisive in determining the sex of the child. In the background of this assertion is the famous statement brought in b. Niddah 31a:

R. Yitzhak said in the name of Rav Ami: If the woman emits seed first, she gives birth to a male; if the man emits seed first, she bears a female, as is said, “When a woman conceives [tazri’a; literally: emits seed] seeds and bears a male” [Lev 12:2]. Our Rabbis taught: At first they said, “If the woman emits seed first, she gives birth to a male; if the man emits seed first, she bears a female,” and the Rabbis did not know how to explain this thing, until Rabbi Zaddok came and interpreted it: “These are the sons of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob in Padan Aram, and Dinah his daughter…” [Gen 46:15]. It made the males dependent upon the females, and the females depend upon the males.

“And the sons of Ulam were mighty men of war, bowsmen, with numerous sons and grandsons, one hundred fifty…” [1 Chr 8:40] Is it within a man’s power to assure that he will have many sons and grandsons? Rather, because they delay themselves within the womb [i.e., prolong intercourse], so that their wives may emit seed first, so that their offspring may be males, Scripture credits them as if they multiply sons and grandsons. And this is what is meant by Rav Qatina’s saying: I can make all my children males. Rabba said: He who wishes his children to be males should couple and repeat it [i.e., have relations twice in succession].

This passage is very difficult to us, being based upon what are, from the standpoint of modern science, two rather bizarre assumptions: a) that the woman “emits” seed; and b) that the timing of this “emission,” as against that of the man’s ejaculation of sperm, determine the sex of the baby. The first of these assumptions was dictated, at least in part, by the need to interpret an unusual usage in our biblical verse: the verb zr’a (to sow, to inseminate) is nowhere else used in connection with a woman; it appears here in the hiph’il (active causative) construction to refer to childbirth (tazri’a), rather than the more usual teled.

The science, as mentioned, is questionable. Already the Ramban was perturbed by this, as the woman does not discharge any seed-like fluid in intercourse that goes to making up the baby. Various explanations have been suggested: that this refers to the ruddy, blood-like elements that the woman contributes to the infant’s makeup (flesh, sin, hair, the dark in his eye), mentioned in Niddah 31a. Or it refers to the “heat in her womb” which contributes to fertilization. Hizkuni sees this as referring to matter and form, a la classical Greek thinkers. Or this counsel may be a device for getting men to take the woman’s pleasure into consideration to assure that she also “emits seed” (i.e., achieves orgasm; but that is assuming that this is what is meant by the phrase—which is also far from certain). But let us continue:

This may be compared to two artists: this one paints the image of that one, and that one paints the image of this one. R. Abin said: A barber cannot cut his own hair.

(Re the artists: I once saw a portrait of Manet by Monet, and of Monet by Manet, hanging alongside one another; I don’t remember whether this was in the Boston or Minneapolis Fine Arts Museum, or in NYC’s Metropolitan. The two were very different, of course.) More to the point: both these sentences suggest a certain mode of reciprocity or mirroring in the sexual act. A person cannot reproduce (at least until modern state-of-the-art medical technique) without the partnership of another person; here, the reproductive act appears to be seen in a certain sense as an imaging of the self through the body of the other.

In an intriguing book entitled, The Mind and Body Problem, erstwhile philosophy professor and Orthodox Jew Rebecca Goldstein writes of some of the psychological implications of this kind of mirroring:

Sartre says the object of sexual desire is a “double reciprocal incarnation,” most typically expressed by the caress… But it seems to me that even deeper than Sartre’s object lies another: a double reciprocal mattering, the most typical expression of which is the gaze. In gazing with desire on the Other I reveal how he, in my desire, takes me over, penetrates my sense of self… [and] how I similarly matter to him… It’s this double reciprocal process that accounts, I think, for the psychological intensity of sexual experience. [He] missed the point in thinking the object of sexuality is no more, and no more interesting, than a sensation. His is the solipsistic view of sex, and it leaves out the complexity, the depth, and the reason this part of life matter so much to us. Without the Other and his gaze, the act is little more than clumsy masturbation… like the man in the da Vinci sketch [who was always turned away]….

If I may indulge in my own interpretive reading of the above two lines of our midrash: through this process of mirroring, that partner whose vital energy is predominant (“emits seed first”) somehow brings about the conception of a child in the Other’s gender/image. Never mind that the science is totally medieval and disproven; on the symbolic level, there is something very powerful in this picture of things. But there’s still one more sentence left, that takes us in yet another direction:

This may be compared to two who entered a bathhouse. The one that sweats first, leaves first.

Returning to the rubric of our saying from Niddah 31a, and possibly (thus Mirkin) to “defend” the male ego: a male is born when the woman “emits seed” first, not because of some principle of a reversal or “mirroring,” but because the man, by emitting seed last, thereby leaves his imprint on top of, so to speak, that of the female -- and, of course, vice versa.

“Who Desires Life?”

I will conclude with a short midrash from the second part of this week’s double portion, Metzora, concerned with tzara’at, a skin affliction popularly translated as “leprosy,” but really something else, far more transient. The operating assumption of virtually all midrashim on this subject is that this disease appears as a punishment for evil speech. Lev. Rab. 16.2:

Another thing. “This shall be the law of the leper…” [Lev 14.:2]. It is written there: “Who is the man who desires life?” [Ps 34:13]. The story is told of a street hawker who used to go around the towns near Zippori and would cry out: Who wants to buy the elixir of life! They all came to look at him. R. Yannai was sitting and interpreting Scripture in his parlor, and heard him calling out: Who wants the elixir of life! He said to him: Come up here and I will buy from you. He replied to him [evidently recognizing him as a renowned pious sage]: Neither you nor your kind need it. He [Yannai] insisted, so he went up to him, and took out a book of Psalms, and showed him the verse: “Who is the man who desires life, loving length of days to enjoy good?” What is written thereafter: “Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it” [ibid., 14-15].

Said R. Yannai; Solomon also declared: “He who guards his mouth and tongue, protects himself from troubles” [Prv 21:23]. R. Yannai said: All my life I have read this verse and did not know what how to interpret it, until this hawker came along and made me know it: “Who is the man who desires life.” Hence Moses cautioned Israel and said: “this shall be the law of the leper”—the law of one who speaks evil [motzi shem ra; a word-play on metzora).


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