Friday, April 08, 2011

Metzora (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at March 28 2006, and April 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.

Metzora—Motzi Shem Ra

This week’s parashah continues last week’s theme of tzara’at, of a certain kind of skin affliction: beginning with the procedure for ritual purification from tzara’at, continuing with the occurrence of a tzara’at–like infection within the walls of houses (mildew?), and concluding with various discharges—both normal and pathological—from the sexual organs.

I would like to elaborate on what may be the central point of both these parshiyot, one upon which I only touched last week, perhaps because I was working “down to the line”—sending it out literally on the cusp of sundown Friday. Namely: that the Sages interpreted tzara’at, not merely as a physiological syndrome, but as a sign of moral failing; specifically, as a punishment for tale-bearing, gossip, and slander of others. (Hence the above title, based on b. Arkhin 16b, in which the word Metzora is read as a notaricon for the phrase motzi shem ra‘—“one who spreads a bad name.” Why, of all the possible transgressions, did they choose this one in particular to be punished by total social isolation? Moreover, this is so even though it is not among the “cardinal sins” for which one is subject to karet, “being cut off from one’s people,” or even the death penalty. Indeed, perhaps this is so precisely because there is something intangible about such behavior. Unlike such acts as adultery, laboring on the Shabbat, or eating on Yom Kippur, three sins for which one is culpable of karet, which involve clear-cut and well-defined acts, it is difficult to state with clarity just when a person has committed lashon ha-ra. Indeed, the most damning forms of gossip and tale-bearing are often performed through innuendo or sarcasm, rather than by direct statement.

After writing last week’s page, I came across an important Talmudic aggadah related to this subject, also from b. Arkhin 16b:

R. Shmuel b. Nadav asked of R. Hanina, and some say R. Shmuel b. Nadav was the son-in-law of R. Hanina and he asked of R. Hanina, and some say he asked of R. Yehoshua b. Levi: What is different about the metzora, that the Torah said concerning him, “He shall sit alone, outside of the camp shall be his place of dwelling” (Lev 13:46)? He separated between husband and wife, between a man and his neighbor; therefore, the Torah said, “He shall sit alone.”

There is something uniquely anti-social about the behavior of the gossip, the tale-bearer. At times, it seems as if his activity is motivated by sheer cussedness, by the desire to stir up dissension, to create enmity and friction between people and to see others in the worst possible light—and to cause others to see them thus as well. Last week I read the thoughts on the parasha by Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, who discusses Shakespeare’s play Othello, as a dramatization of the harm done by sowing slander and suspicion among people. All of the principles either kill one another or commit suicide because of a vicious rumor started by Iago, motivated by jealousy.

I was reminded of an experience of my own: I was once told certain negative things about a certain person—or, more precisely, as is typical of such things, certain things that person had done, legitimate in themselves, were portrayed to me in a highly negative light. As I trusted the person who told me this, I decided not to contact the object of these stories, a casual friend, while visiting the United States, as I would have otherwise done. Some years later, I discussed these matters with another person who knew the situation equally well, and he give a totally different spin to the story. I resolved that, next time I would be in the US, I would phone the injured, or rather ignored party, to renew our acquaintance. But several years passed, and the opportunity did not arise so quickly. But human life is finite, and one winter’s day, I received a phone call that the man had died, and that his funeral would be that very evening. All that was left for me to do was, following Rambam’s counsel in Hilkhot Teshuvah 2.11, after b. Yoma 86a, to ask forgiveness in the presence of his dead body before the minyan gathered for the funeral—but that was of course woefully inadequate compared to the missed opportunity to restore relations with him while he was still alive.

“The Second Bird Set Free to Fly Over the Face of the Field”

The purification ceremony following recovery from tzara’at involves a rather strange ritual, in which the metzora takes two living birds: one of them is slaughtered, and its blood sprinkled upon him by a band of hyssop, cedar wood, crimson thread, and the living bird. The latter bird, after being used in this fashion, is set loose to fly free “over the face of the field” (14:4-7). This ritual is reminiscent of the Yom Kippur ritual, which likewise involves two animals, two goats—one of which is slaughtered as a sin-offering, the other being led into the wilderness. But there the similarity stops: the sa’ir ha-mishtaleah, which bears the sins of the entire house of Israel, after being led deep into the desert, is pushed over a cliff.

What des the ritual of these two birds signify? Rabbenu Bahye b. Asher indeed draws a parallel to the Yom Kippur, in which the open field is somehow seen as the realm of inchoate, demonic forces to which the sinner has somehow attached himself and which he somehow needs to appease. But my own intuitive sense is different. I would interpret it, by way of derush, as a ritual enactment of the process of teshuvah for the sin of gossip: the sprinkling with blood is a kind of expatiation for the blood shed, actually or symbolically, as a result of the talebearer’s meddling, whereas flying free over the field symbolizes a new beginning, a new, freer view on life. The talebearer had been preoccupied with the narrow limits of the small circle of people among whom he had gone about telling tales; to rebuild himself, he needs to turn to something broader, larger than himself, fresh and life–giving…

Menstruation and Isolation

Finally, a comment on the concluding portion of our sedrah, which among other things deals with the niddah, the menstruant woman. Is the menstruant subject to the same sort of restrictions and social isolation as the metzora, if to a lesser degree? In the past, there were those Jewish communities in which menstruant women were strongly isolated. Such was the case, for example, among Ethiopian Jews—who of course did not have the normative Rabbinic tradition. But in medieval Ashkenazic sources we likewise encounter some highly restrictive practices, such as the custom that a woman ought not to attend synagogue during her menstruation (the possibility of a special dispensation or the High Holy days is discussed in this context) or, according to some views, even to pray at home, or to touch a holy book, or to recite blessings! It was likewise said that a man should not follow in the steps of a niddah.

However, as been shown conclusively by Daniel Sperber (see Women aand Communal Prayer, pp.162-177) and other scholars, all these practices, are based upon a text called Beraita de-Maskhet Niddah, which was in fact a sectarian (perhaps Karaite) work, and in no sense normative halakhah, but which for many centuries was mistakenly accepted by some of the greatest poskim as authoritative. In today’s practice, the laws of niddah are limited to the realm between husband and wife, involving strict avoidance of any contact that might lead to intimacies between them—but is confined to the strictly private realm, and does not affect the woman’s participation in life in community. (In many Orthodox circles, great care is taken not to give any indication to others whether or not the woman is niddah, to avoid embarrassment. Hence, any display of public affection is avoided at all times, niddah separation becoming, so to speak, the public default option. Whether this is rooted in prudishness about sexuality, or queasiness about making the woman’s menstruation evident, is an open question.)

* * * * *

As Purim is already well–past and Pesah is almost upon us, I would like to “clear my table” of a variety of miscellaneous thoughts and insights written over the past month or two which I have been unable to share with readers thus far. Hence, I hope and plan to send out a number of supplements or “postscripts” in the next few days—the first one possibly even later this afternoon. Next week, I hope to present a somewhat longer halakhic–aggadic essay in honor of Shabbat Hagadol.


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