Monday, April 14, 2008

Metzora (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this portion, see the archives to this blog at April 2006.

Family Purity

One of the problematic practices of traditional Judaism, that at times arouses puzzlement and even vociferous objections among those influenced by the modern sensibility, is taharat hamishpahah, “family purity”—i.e., those prohibitions relating to the woman’s menstrual cycle, the requirement of ritual immersion (mikveh) prior to resuming marital relations each month, etc. In Israel, where matters pertaining to marriage are controlled by the Rabbinate, young secular women are known to feel deeply offended at the prying into these intimate matters in preparation for their wedding, seeing this as an invasion of their privacy. As this topic is the only mitzvah appearing in this week’s parasha (at Lev 15:19-24; see further in 18:19 and 20:18) that is still in effect and practiced today, it is an obvious subject for this week’s discussion.

The difficulty with the laws of niddah might be phrased thus: the other kinds of prohibited sexual unions, such as incest, adultery, and so on, have a clear logic and social benefit. They might be classified as mishpatim—those laws at which human reason would have arrived even had the Torah not commanded them. But the laws of niddah reach into the intimacy of the marital bed, in which sex as such is not only permitted but even sanctified and a mitzvah, and an area which we are accustomed to think of as private. Why does the Torah see fit to enter into this realm?

Leaving aside the specifics of niddah and the explanations offered—for example, the idea noted by some that Judaism has a deep-seated aversion to blood, whether in the form of consuming the blood of animals, bloodshed, or menstrual sex—the obvious answer is that Judaism and halakhah sees sexual matters, as any another area of life, as one that calls out for discipline, structuring, and sanctification. This attitude encapsulates, perhaps more than any other, the difference between traditional Judaism and the modern sensibility. Indeed, I have recently found myself coming to the conclusion that the “Sexual Revolution” of recent generations, the type of discourse and thinking about sexuality that has become de rigeur in educated Western society, has wreaked havoc in ways totally unanticipated. The original motivation of these changes, in the 1960s or earlier (“free love” was already a slogan of progressive circles in my parent’s youth, Havelock Ellis and Wilhelm Reich and Margaret Sanger were latter-day prophets of sorts, and a certain reading of Freud mitigated strongly against unnecessary “inhibitions”) was to do away with hypocrisy, and to foster a rational approach to sexuality. The ‘60s slogan, “Make Love Not War,” was based on the assumption that freeing Eros from the repression of puritanical morality would somehow make for a healthier, more loving, more generous, “flowing” society; that a freed sensuality would outweigh the forces of Thanatos—of destruction, aggression, etc. The belief was that the increased acceptance of and availability of sexual pleasure would somehow improve the overall atmosphere of the culture and foster peace.

The new attitude towards sexuality goes hand in hand with individualism, and with a tendency in contemporary philosophy, social thinking, law and jurisprudence to emphasize the rights of the individual as against the claims of the polis, the public arena (a subject I will discuss another time). Hence, the only sexual acts of which liberal society disapproves are those which somehow injure another person (e.g., rape, sexual abuse of children, or unfaithfulness to a committed relationship); the formula used is that any act committed by “two consenting adults” is beyond the concern of society.

And yet, it is difficult to say that we have a healthier, more ethical, responsible, cohesive, or decent society today than we did a generation or two ago. I believe that the cultural experience of recent decades has proven the naïvete of the “free love” ethos. Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain (Covenant and Conversation, Tazria, 5768), notes the following: In 1940, teachers were asked to identify the seven most serious problems they faced in their school. The answers given were: “talking out of turn; chewing gum; making noise; running in corridors; cutting in line; not wearing school uniform; dropping litter.” In 1990 teachers were asked the same question. Their answers: “drug abuse; alcohol abuse; teenage pregnancy; suicide; rape; robbery; assault.” He attributes this general descent into chaos, ultimately, to the decline in the institution of marriage, and to the fact that there are far more children growing up without a stable home than half a century ago. He continues:

We have divorced sex from love; love from commitment; commitment from marriage; marriage from having children; and having children from bearing responsibility for nurturing them and bringing them up…….. We have lost—or are losing—that one institution that brought together sex and love and companionship and stability and fidelity, and bringing new life into the world and caring for it in its dependent years. The most majestic achievement of human civilization. The Beethoven’s Ninth of the moral world. That thing called marriage. Or what we call kiddushin—the sacred bond between husband and wife.

At this point, I hear a little voice within myself asking: Doesn’t the good rabbi overstate the case? Have I fallen into the trap of the self-righteous moralists? After all, there are people who live together in long-term, loving relationships “without benefit of clergy,” bearing and raising healthy, normal, intelligent children who ultimately become productive members of society (incidentally, as a long-term pattern this is far more common in the UK and on the continent than it is in the US or Israel). Perhaps there is no reason to be overly apocalyptic about the so-called “moral decline.” Indeed, I am wary of the tendency of certain people (among whom I do not include the Chief Rabbi) to become far more outraged over sexual transgressions than those in other areas, including those potentially far more harmful of the public weal—witness, for example, the outcry over the Spitzer affair in New York State.

Yet notwithstanding all that, I cannot help thinking that the whole cluster of problems and societal changes relating to family and sexuality—ranging from the acceptance of premarital sexual activity, through the high divorce rate, to the widespread acceptance in principle of homosexuality, to the approach to gender on the part of certain radical schools of feminism—tide no good for society. I do not know which of these are symptoms and which are causes, or whether the root cause of these changes may not stem from other areas entirely (e.g., economics, the nature of the workplace, the interpersonal alienation fostered by the new technology, etc.). But I know one thing: the family is the most basic unit upon which the entire edifice of community and society at large (and Jewish peoplehood) are constructed.

Notwithstanding the upbeat post-modern discourse about “new families”—single parent, same sex, communal child raising, etc.—one can’t help feeling that it’s so much whistling in the dark. Once one begins to tamper with social arrangements, it’s hard to know where it will end. I would draw an analogy to revolutionary socialism, which a mere eighty years ago enthralled the minds and hearts of the “best and brightest” of the youth. Lenin and Trotsky were certainly not evil men, but sought a genuine amelioration of the great injustices of the system; and yet the structures they created ended up in a far different place than they imagined. Kal vahomer, the present changes in the nature of the family, that most basic and most sensitive of all social institutions, are highly problematic, and potentially dangerous. I know that we cannot turn the clock back to the days of Father Knows Best, but we must be aware of the problems and try to create a better way.

I have ended up a long way from Tractate Niddah and seven clean days and examinations and ketamim and what not, but there is one central lesson that these laws clearly teach, whatever and why ever they take this specific form: that sex is a serious business, not to be seen primarily as a source of private pleasure to the parties involved alone. It is this lesson that our society seems to be forgetting at its peril.


The final two of the Thirteen Principles have to do with eschatology, representing, so to speak, the flip side or corollary of the idea of Divine Providence: namely, that God will, in the future, set right the perceived injustice of this life. Interestingly, though Rambam affirms these beliefs as an essential part of the Judaic faith system, both of them present particular problems for him, in one way or another, as we shall explain. One might add that these beliefs are particularly problematic for many modern Jews—but that is a whole other set of questions.

Interesting, too, is the fact that Rambam does not list belief in personal immortality, known as Olam ha-Ba, as one of the basic principles of faith, although he does discuss it in Hilkhot Teshuvah 8-9. There, he inter alia polemicizes with the Muslim theologians (”fools, immersed in lewdness”) who depict the Afterlife in graphically corporeal terms —i.e., the proverbial 72 virgins supposedly promised suicide bombers as their future reward—and insists upon the purely spiritual nature of the Afterlife. It is interesting to speculate as to why he does not include this among the basic fundaments. One possible answer might be that Olam ha-Ba is conceived by him as a temporary state, a kind of prelude, lasting between the death of the individual and the future redemption in the time of Messiah and Resurrection of the Dead—but I am by no means sure that this theory is correct.

XII. Messiah. “He will send our righteous Messiah at the End of Days; to redeem those who await the End with His salvation”

In two major respects, Rambam’s view of Messiah was quite different from that which many associate with this doctrine. First, he was opposed to those who devoted too much mental and spiritual energy to the when, how, what, and whom of Messiah, insisting that it suffices to believe the things ”in a general way.” This was no doubt the result of a keen awareness of the deleterious effects of mehashvei kitzim, of Messianic speculations at various points in Jewish history, and the grave disappointments that followed when a particular messianic date failed to be realized. (But Rambam’s criticism failed to deter Jews at subsequent points in history from engaging in messianic hysteria, from Shlomo Molcho and Shabbatei Zevi, down to the messianic movement of the Lubavitcher Rebbes in our own days.) In a famous passage (which Yeshayahu Leibowitz was fond of quoting) in Hilkhot Melakhim 12.2, he writes:

Regarding all these matters [i.e., of Messiah] and their like, no person knows how they shall be, until they shall be… Neither the order of occurrence of these things nor their details are fundaments of religion. And a person ought not to engage in words of the aggadot, nor devote much time to those midrashim that deal with these matters the like, nor should he make them the main thing, for they lead neither to fear nor to love [of God]. Nor should one calculate the End. For our Sages said, “Cursed is the spirit of those that calculate the End” [Sanhedrin 97b]. Rather he should wait with forbearance and believe in this matter in general terms, as we have explained.

Secondly, his approach to Messiah was essentially naturalistic. Messiah will not bring about a supernatural change in the order of nature (i.e., lions will still like lambchops), human nature will embody the same paradoxes and face the same moral and spiritual challenges as today, but somehow things will be easier: there will be material abundance (brought about in a natural way), and all will have the leisure and freedom from care to engage in the pursuit of wisdom. Most important, the Jewish people will no longer be subject to shibud malkhuyot, the domination of other nations. (For a fuller discussion of this chapter, see HY V: Vayehi and HY V: Simhat Torah = Vayehi, Simhat Torah [Rambam]).

For me, the most important implication of Messianism is a certain optimism to which it leads, a belief in the future of Jewry and of the human race. Faith in the ultimate redemption helped give Jews the strength to go on in situations of persecution and anti-Semitism; but equally so, in the current situation, where the human race at times seems to be committing collective hari kari, and one only wonders whether the coup de grace will be delivered by an atomic holocaust, global warming, exhaustion of resources, or the general unraveling of society through the collapse of the family, the faith in Messiah holds out hope and says—there is a better future down the road.

It is particularly fitting to talk about Messiah as Pesah approaches. The midrashim and liturgy related to this festival are filled with parallels between “the former Redemption” [i.e., from Egypt] and the “latter Redemption.” The Seder is not only a retelling and remembering and celebration of past miracles and redemptive events, but also—to greater or lesser degree, with different emphases at different times and places—an anticipation and a kind of prelude and prayer and expression of hope for the future. This motif runs like a kind of counterpoint throughout the Seder: from the blessing over the second cup of wine (“so, Lord our God, bring us to future holidays and festivals, rejoicing in the rebuilding of Your city … and may we eat there of the burnt offerings and paschal offerings…”); through the latter chapters of the Hallel, down to the piyyutim recited at the end of the Seder: Karev Yom (“A day is approaching, that is neither day nor night…. Light up, bright as day, the darkness of night”); Adir Hu (“He is mighty, He will build His temple quickly, quickly in our days…”); etc. This is also true of the liturgy for the last day, and even more so of the Eighth Day in Diaspora, that is devoted to this theme (e.g., the haftarah from Isaiah 11-12; Ma’arivit, liturgical poems that are today almost defunct but that traditionally set the tone for each holiday; the “Messiah’s Seudah” observed, with greater or lesser realized eschatology, by certain Hasidic groups). Or, as Hazal put it, “In Nissan they were redeemed; in Nissan they shall be redeemed in the future.”

XIII. Resurrection. “God will quicken the dead with His great mercy; blessed be for ever His glorious name”

Maimonides was accused of denying the doctrine of Resurrection—which, as we noted in our introduction to this series, was one of the key faith issues mentioned in the mishnah in Sanhedrin 11.1, which states that one must believe in “Tehiyat Hametim from the Torah.” Hence, in order to vindicate his name, he wrote an entire treatise on the subject, Maamar Tehiyat Hametim (The Treatise on Resurrection).

His defense of the doctrine of bodily resurrection is an interesting one: if one believes at all in the hypothetical possibility of miracles, one must believe that God has the power to raise the dead. If, on the other hand, one dos not, one has no real reason to believe in anything, as even the belief in the Creation is ultimately a miracle, a manifestation of God’s ability to act outside of the order of nature (albeit in this case, it is to set up the order of nature).

Once again, it must be reiterated that Maimonides, appealing as his overall rationalism and scepticism of exaggerated popular beliefs may be, was a far cry from modern type rationalist. He was deeply rooted in faith, including those items that are beyond proof. By contrast, today many people who consider themselves good, and even observant Jews, find it difficult to believe in things such as Resurrection, which are so far removed from our own experience, and seem so counter-logical. It seems to me that the faith of many is far more “stripped down” and minimalistic than even that of Rambam.

One might add that perhaps the central non-rational plank in his belief system—the Sinaitic revelation—is also ultimately presented by him as something that we human beings cannot begin to understand. Thus, in Guide II.33 he uses language similar to that in Melakhim: we don’t understand how it occurred and exactly what happened, and must suffice with believing in it in general.

I will conclude by mentioning an interesting application of faith in the Resurrection, and its precise meaning, to a current event, featured on the front pages of all the Israeli newspapers in recent weeks. I refer to a recent law passed by the Knesset with the backing of a number of major rabbis (from the Sephardic and national-religious camps, albeit not from that of the Ashkenazic Haredim), allowing organ transplant using brainstem death as the legal and halakhic criteria for death. The interesting point is that the traditional reluctance of religious people to allow organ transplants from the bodies of loved ones who died violently (thereby leaving healthy organs, unlike those who die from disease or old age) is twofold: one, the issue as question whether at the time of transplant the person was in fact halakhically dead—hence the great importance of this ruling, and its rabbinical backing. Second, there is a kind of superstitious fear that, if a person is buried without all his vital organs, come tehiyat hametim he/she will be revived with an incomplete body. On this point, the Rabbis have taken pains to point out that this is a corporeal, incorrect understanding of the concept of Resurrection, and that the whole idea of Resurrection is of a miraculous reconstitution of the deceased in bodily form. In any event, as the body decomposes in the grave, all tissue will be long gone, only bones. Thus, far from being as abstruse theological issue, this issue is as current as today’s headline.

We conclude our study with the final verse of Yigdal in the Sephardic Siddur:

“These are the thirteen principles; the basis of the law of Moses and of his prophecy”


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