Tuesday, January 27, 2009


This week’s Torah portion is a double one - Thazria and Metzora (Leviticus XII - XIII and XIV – XV). After last week’s recounting of what animals are clean and unclean, we move into the rules for people – what constitutes being clean and unclean, and if one is unclean for whatever reason, how to become clean again.
In addition, this is Shabbat Hachodesh, the Shabbat at the beginning of the month of Nisan, when Passover occurs, and we also read the passage from Exodus XII: 1-20 that establishes the basis for Passover and Nisan as the first month of the calendar (though the spiritual year begins with Rosh Hashana).
My reading on the Torah portion suggested that there are two ways to look at the whole business of clean and unclean – hygienically and spiritually. Commandment Judaism takes these verses quite literally – every Orthodox community includes a Mikvah – a ritual bath – to be used for ritual cleansing, and the rules regarding childbirth, sexual contact, etc. are scrupulously adhered to. But most progressive Jewish scholars see the rules as more metaphorical. Remember, the context for the whole book of Leviticus is the injunction “You shall be holy; for I, the Lord your God am holy,” and the Shema, proclaiming that God is one – that there is no “other,” nothing that is outside God.
In this reading the rules of cleanliness and uncleanliness reflect the struggle of human beings between good and evil, between life and death. If there is nothing outside God, then, really, evil is an illusion – the choice people have is between moving toward God, being like God (‘holy for I am holy”) or moving away from God – not physically, that’s impossible, but in their minds and hearts. When we read about which animals are permitted to eat, the progressive interpretation was that what was in question was not the inherent worth or even the cleanliness of the animals, but the qualities of the animals that would bring us closer to God or, in the case, for example, of ferocious predators, take us farther from God.
In this regard, two things stand out for me from the Torah portions. First, the question that has troubled women and particularly feminists for a long time – it is the one that opens the chapter. When a woman has given birth, she is then unclean and must be cleansed and offer sacrifices both in thanksgiving and in atonement for sin before she can rejoin the community. Whatever they may have thought 5000 years ago, we know today that there is nothing sinful or unclean about childbirth. And could they really have thought so then? Not likely, given one of God’s first commandments to Adam and Eve was to “be fruitful and multiply.” So what then? One possibility that has been advanced is that the real issue is not cleanliness but life – creating life is a holy act – it brings us closer to God – and when a woman is carrying a baby, she has a double portion of life – hers and the baby’s. When the baby is born, while that life continues in the new person, the woman has lost a portion of the life she contained, and the cleansing, prayer, and sacrifices are a way for her to deal with the loss – kind of an early treatment for post-partum depression. Incidentally, a woman who gives birth to a girl has twice the atonement to do than one who gives birth to a boy. Because girls are more unclean? No – because in giving birth to a girl, a bearer of life, she gives up twice as much life that was in her than in giving birth to a boy.
The second area the portion deals with is more obscure. The Torah speaks of a disease called tzara’a. No one really knows what this disease is. It is traditionally translated as leprosy, but everyone agrees that this does not refer to the physical disease called Hansen’s Disease. Rather, the Torah refers to spots appearing first on the wall of a person’s house, then on the person’s clothes, and finally on the person’s skin. The Rabbis (and here commandment and progressive Judaism seem in agreement) interpret the Torah to be saying that the disease, whatever it was, was a consequence of spreading gossip or slander. In Hebrew this is called lashon hara – a bad tongue, and the prohibition against lashon hara is one of the oldest and strongest in Judaism. The Talmud says that we as Jews are forbidden to say anything bad or negative about a person even if it is true – an early version of “if you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all.” Imagine – what a discipline. In fact, I suggest you try it for a couple of days or a week and see how hard it is – the only exception is if the purpose of saying it is to improve the condition you are referring to, and that means saying it to the person directly or not at all. The Torah recognizes in this the enormous destructive power of gossip and slander (slander is gossip that is not true). One of the things I’ve learned in my years as a psychologist and a consultant is how strongly we human beings are given to negativity. I have yet to tell me what possible benefit there could be in your coming to me to tell me what a jerk Joe is. What people usually say, if pressed, is either that “it’s true,” as if that somehow made it beneficial or valuable, or that they were “just talking” as if words had no power. But just imagine for a second. You come to me and tell me that Joe is a jerk. I then go and tell someone else, who tells someone else, and pretty soon Joe lives in a community consisting of people who, without knowing why, consider him a jerk, and are sure it must be true because, after all, “everyone says so!”
I worked with a consultant once who had a standing bet that he could bring down any organization of any size in six months to a year through gossip alone. People pooh-poohed the idea, but never, to my knowledge, did anyone take him up on the bet.
I don’t know if it’s possible to root out gossip – the lashon hara seems to be the most visible and one of the nastiest manifestations of the yetzer hara – the evil inclination in human beings. I do know, and can tell you from experience, that the more I try to live in the discipline of not speaking negatively about other people (and I probably fail as much as I succeed at this), the better my life seems to go.
The other Torah portion this week is the story of the first Passover. It is meant to remind us that Pesach is coming and we need to prepare. Again here, we have cleanliness as a connection to moving toward God – for Passover, instead of slaughtering and eating a lamb, we are to cleanse our house of chametz – anything that could contain leaven, particularly the five grains – barley, rye, oats, wheat, and spelt. Over the years, particularly among Eastern European Jews (Ashkenazim) this rule has been expanded to include rice, peas, peanuts, millet, beans, sesame seeds, and a variety of other things including some that make so sense at all – wild rice is forbidden to Ashkenazim because the Rabbis thought it was rice, when it is really a grass, and corn, which was unknown in Europe until the 16th Century, is forbidden, probably because “corn” sounds like “kern,” the Yiddish word for “rye.” Sephardim have it much easier – they are forbidden only the 5 grains and eat all the rest of that stuff.
But whatever you do or don’t eat, what is important is the separation of Passover from the rest of the year in remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, the turning toward God and remembering what He did for us. In my view that’s what all of this is about – turning toward God and having the turning create a separation between clean and unclean, good and bad, sacred and profane – because that is what it is to “be holy” – to be kadosh is to be distinct, to be separate from those things that turn us away from God – that is the real choice we have as human beings – which way we turn.

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