Friday, April 16, 2010

Tazria-Metzora (Aggadah)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at March 30 2006 and April 2008. Teaching on Pirkei Avot will follow separately meanwhile, I have posted my past teachings on Chapter 2 on my blog-site.

Man: Crown of Creation or Lowest of All Creatures?

The subject matter of this week’s parasha—ritual impurity ensuing from various bodily discharges—is arguably the most difficult and arcane in the entire Torah; certainly, it is one which many modern people find extremely difficult to connect with. Fortuitously, the opening midrash on this week’s parasha, taking its lead from the laws of human childbirth with which the parasha opens, deals in a general way with the larger questions of human life and the paradoxes and contradictions of human existence. The midrash as a whole revolves around a verse in Psalm 139:4, אחור וקדם צרתני (“behind and before You have created me [or: besieged me]”). Leviticus Rabbah 14.1:

R Yohanan said: If man merits, he inherits two worlds: this world and the World to Come. As is written, “Behind and before you have created me.” If not, he must return an accounting, as is said “You placed Your palm over me” (ibid.). And as it is written, “Distance your palm from me” (Job 13:21).

Our midrash begins with the most obvious antinomy in human life: the moral one. Unlike the beasts, who are moved by instinct, man is ceaselessly confronted with choices between good and evil, and must render an accounting of himself before his Maker: if he is good, he inherits a goodly reward; if not, he is held responsible.

I shall skip the section dealing with the mysteries of sexuality, which I’ve treated elsewhere, and turn to the next section:

R. Berachiah and R. Helbo in the name of R. Shmeul ba Nahman said: When the Holy One blessed be He created Adam, He created him extending from one end of the world to the other, and he filled the entire world. From whence do we know [that he extended] from east to west? As is said, “Behind and before you created me.” [“behind” and “before” allude, in my opinion, to the place of setting and rising of the sun, which are “behind” or “before”—i.e., west and east]. From whence north and south? As is said, “from one end of the heavens to the other” (Deut 4:32). And from whence that he filled the entire space of the world? As is said, “and you placed upon me Your palm” [The “palm” of God’s hand corresponds to the vault of heaven, which is seen as dome-shaped; thus, Adam filled the entire space beneath the sky. Note the similarity between the Hebrew word for dome, kipah (also used fir the dome-shaped head-covering traditionally worn by men), and that for palm, kaf].

Leaving aside the interesting and ingenious proof-texts, which I have attempted to elucidate within my notes, what is the basic idea of this saying? The first Adam was physically enormous, filling the entire world. It seems to me that this is intended to suggest two things. First, Adam’s size alludes to humankind’s physical dominance of the world: our collective ability to subdue nature, to tame vegetation through agriculture and clearing forests, to tame or confine wild animals, to construct cities that dominate the landscape, etc. Second: man’s putative physical size suggests the centrality of human beings in the world, in the teleological sense—the idea that the universe was in some sense created on behalf of man—and even, if you will, his spiritual greatness, which was somehow diminished over time.

But wait! There is still much ambiguity as to the centrality of man:

If man merited, one says to him: you preceded all the works of Creation; but if not, one says to him: A flea preceded you, a slug preceded you. R Ishmael b. R. Tanhum said: “last” to all deeds, “first” to all punishments.

Again, man’s standing in the universe is contingent on his moral, ethical and spiritual behavior. If he behaves well, he precedes all Creation—that is, even though created last, he was first in the Divine mind, in the preexisting plan of Creation. If not, he is reminded that he was created even after the smallest and most insignificant insect. This ambiguity is expressed in the phrase סוף מעשה במחשבה תחלה (“last in act, first in thought”), familiar to us from the rather different context of the Shabbat prayers. The creation of humankind may have been the ultimate goal of creation, but the fact that it was created at the end, or is listed at the end of the Psalmist’s “catalogue” of the praises of God by all His creatures, or even that laws relating to his birth follow those laws relating to animals, all point to a potentially inferior status:

R Yohanan said: Even his praise comes at the end, as is said, “wild beasts and all animals, creeping things and winged birds” (Ps 148:10), and only thereafter “kings of the earth and all nations” (ibid., 11).

R Simlai said: Just as man’s creation came about after that of animal, beast and bird, so does the teaching related to him come after that relating to animal, beast and bird. This it is written there [at the end of the laws of kashrut in Lev 11] ”This is the teaching of the animal” (Lev 11:46), and only thereafter “when a woman bears seed” (Lev 12:1).

At this point, I wish to turn to some more general issues that have been of concern to me. Our midrash speaks of the ambiguities of human life: of man’s greatness, and his position at the very end of Creation. If you will, the tension between what is known , in two divergent schools of the Mussar movement, as gadlut ha-adam—human greatness, the enormous potential of the human being for creativity and masterliness, in the ethical, intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic realms (represented by the Slobodka school), and katnut ha-adam—man’s smallness and insignificance, his great distance from God, his mortality and “creatureliness,” his propensity for evil, for greediness and selfishness, for spite and cruelty (i.e., the Navardahok school). Man is capable of using his great power and potentialities for destructive ends, whether willingly or not—i.e., acts of both individual and collective cruelty and destruction.

In this connection, I would like to raise a more general issue: are humanism and religion contradictory, or ought they and can they complement one another, given that their ultimate aims are not contradictory? Conventional wisdom of course sees a basic antagonism between the two: humanism sees “man as the measure of all things” while religion, certainly Judaism, is theocentric, seeing the service of God, obedience to the Divine will, attachment to the Divine root (to use Ger-Hasidic terminology) as the ultimate good.

Yet if one examines the challenges confronting humankind today—whether the still real threat of nuclear war and widespread destruction, which has not passed with the end of the Cold War but grown far worse as rogue states and terrorist groups gain access to weapons of mass destruction; the threats to our natural environment and the growing ecological imbalance of Mother Earth; or the social anomie and disintegration with the gradual decline of the family and other forms of social cohesion—humanism and religion are on the same side of the watershed. The greatest cultural threat today is the decline in the very notion of human dignity—again, be it understood in humanistic terms or as having its roots in “Man created in the Divine image.” This is expressed in such tendencies as biologism which, philosophically, reduces all human thought, creativity, feeling, etc., to automatic, mechanical reflexes of the nervous system; through the enormous cheapening of human culture being brought about by modern technology, which is rapidly leading to a dumbing down of public discourse, with the need to simplify and present short, quickly absorbed messages, leaving but little room for complexity and subtlety of thought; and ending with the cheapening of sexuality and the assaults on the dignity of the human being that go with it. Hence, the call of the hour is for a new alliance of serious humanists, who follow the millennia-old heritage of human culture, and men of faith.


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