Friday, June 18, 2010

Torah Tidbits: Parshat Metzora

14:2 - "This shall be the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing..."  Rashi's comment again speaks to the socially constructed nature of un/cleanliness:  "This teaches [us] that [one afflicted with tzara’ath] is not [pronounced] clean at night. — [Torath Kohanim 14:3, Meg. 21a]."  In other words, it is the pronouncement of cleanliness -- not the objective lack of the leprosy -- that makes one clean.

14:4 - "...then shall the priest command to take for him that is to be cleansed two living clean birds, and cedar-wood, and scarlet, and hyssop."  So why birds?  Why the scarlet and hyssop?  Here, Rashi again draws the (unfortunate) connection between one's behavior and having leprosy:
[Why are birds required for this cleansing rite?] Because lesions of tzara’ath come as a result of derogatory speech, which is done by chattering. Therefore, for his cleansing, this person is required to bring birds, which twitter constantly with chirping sounds. — [Arachin 16b]
What is the remedy that he may be healed [of his tzara’ath]? He must humble himself from his haughtiness, just as [symbolized by] the תּוֹלַעַת [lit., “a worm,” which infested the berries from which the crimson dye was extracted to color wool], and the [lowly] hyssop. — [Tanchuma 3]
I suppose one could draw a lesson that derogatory speech makes one unclean (X causes Y) rather than inductively assume that the presence of leprosy is a sign of having engaged in loshon hara (the presence of Y is evidence of the prior occurrence of X).  But that's not really what the parsha says, does it?

14:5 - "And the priest shall command to kill one of the birds in an earthen vessel over running water."  Am I the only who things this is strange, to take two birds, kill one but not the other?

14:7 - Some confusion in this verse.  Back in 14:3, we read "And the priest shall go forth out of the camp; and the priest shall look, and, behold, if the plague of leprosy be healed in the leper," implying that we're talking about someone cured of leprosy.  But here, in 14:7, we read "And he shall sprinkle upon him that is to be cleansed from the leprosy seven times..." Is this to say that once one is cured of leprosy, one still needs to be cleansed?

14:10 - "And on the eighth day he shall take...three tenth parts of an ephah of fine flour for a meal-offering, mingled with oil, and one log of oil [וְלֹג אֶחָד שָׁמֶן]."  The Hebrew for "log" is log [לֹג]?  Is log a Hebrew word?!?

14:18-20 - "And the rest of the oil that is in the priest's hand he shall put upon the head of him that is to be cleansed; and the priest shall make atonement for him [וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו הַכֹּהֵן] before the LORD.  And the priest shall offer the sin-offering, and make atonement for him that is to be cleansed [וְכִפֶּר עַל הַמִּטַּהֵר] because of his uncleanness; and afterward he shall kill the burnt-offering. And the priest shall offer the burnt-offering and the meal-offering upon the altar; and the priest shall make atonement for him [וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו הַכֹּהֵן], and he shall be clean."  For what, exactly, is the priest making atonement?  For the (supposedly) underlying loshon hara that caused the leprosy?  For the fact of having been unclean?  It seems wrong that someone afflicted should have to make atonement at all.  The reason for needing to atone is obviously assumed in the text, but I don't get what it is.

14:28 - More social construction:  "And the priest shall put of the oil that is in his hand upon the tip of the right ear of him that is to be cleansed, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot, upon the place of the blood of the guilt-offering [עַל מְקוֹם דַּם הָאָשָׁם]."  Rashi has an interesting comment here.  Why does the Torah say upon the place of the blood rather than just on the blood itself?  Because the priest is to put the oil on the place where the blood was "[e]ven if the blood had been wiped off. This teaches us that the blood is not the determining factor, but the place is the determining factor. — [Torath Kohanim 14:54; Men. 10a]." 

14:34-57 - This series of passages -- of what to do with a house that has leprosy -- is remarkable.  First you empty the house before the priest goes in.  Then you see if it's on the walls (?).  If so, you wait a week and come back.  If it's still there, you remove the stones from the wall, then scrape around the mortar holding the stones together; then you replace the stones.  If leprosy remains, you break down the house entirely.  To me, these passages are a powerful metaphor for the diligence with which one needs to root out uncleanliness, though I realize that it is not intended to be metaphorical.  This makes me a little uneasy:  drawing my own lessons from the text while remaining aware that it was surely not intended that I, as an individual, should do so...

14:34 - A remarkable verse:  "When ye are come into the land of Canaan, which I give to you [אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם ] for a possession, and I put the plague of leprosy [וְנָתַתִּי נֶגַע צָרַעַת] in a house of the land of your possession..."  It's as if God is saying, on the one hand, I give you this land, while on the other hand saying, I put -- actually, the Hebrew word is the same, natati or "I give" -- a plague in the house I'm giving you.  What is the meaning of this?  Rashi offers a strange explanation:
and I place a lesion of tzara’ath [leprosy]: Heb. וְנָתַתִּי, lit. and I will give. This is [good] news for them that lesions of tzara’ath will come upon them, (Torath Kohanim 14:75), because the Amorites had hidden away treasures of gold inside the walls of their houses during the entire forty years that the Israelites were in the desert, and through the lesion, he will demolish the house (see verses 43-45) and find them. — [Vayikra Rabbah 17:6]
Sooooo...all this talk of leprosy literally being in the house isn't because of the loshon hara we read about earlier, but rather a kind gesture from God so that the Israelites will find the gold hidden in the former inhabitants' houses?!?  Aside from this being -- I'm sorry -- thoroughly ridiculous, it's also a bit creepy:  So the Israelites wipe out the Amorites, move into their houses...and then God points out to them the riches in the walls?!?  Ugh.  In any case I don't buy it.  But it leaves open the question:  Why give with one hand while taking with the other?  Surely it speaks to the fact that leprosy can't be because of loshon hara, right, if God is putting it in the house simultaneously with its being given to the Israelites.  Hmmm...
14:37 - "And [the priest] shall look on the plague, and, behold, if the plague be in the walls of the house [וְהִנֵּה הַנֶּגַע בְּקִירֹת הַבַּיִת] with hollow streaks, greenish or reddish, and the appearance thereof be lower than the wall..."  How is this even possible, to have leprosy in the walls of the house?!?

14:43-44 - "And if the plague come again, and break out in the house, after that the stones have been taken out, and after the house hath been scraped, and after it is plastered; then the priest shall come in and look; and, behold, if the plague be spread in the house, it is a malignant leprosy in the house: it is unclean."  Rashi has a lot to say about this, and what he has to say is strange.  I'll quote at length, but bold the relevant portions:
[From here,] one might think that a recurrent lesion [in a house] can be deemed unclean only if it spreads. However, the term צָרַעַת מַמְאֶרֶת, “malignant tzara’ath,” is mentioned in reference to houses, and צָרַעַת מַמְאֶרֶת is mentioned in reference to garments (see verse 13:52). [Through the exposition of a גְזֵרָה שָׁוָה we derive that] just as over there [in the case of garments,] a recurrent lesion is deemed unclean even if it had not spread, here too, [in the case of houses,] a recurrent lesion is deemed unclean even if it has not spread. If so, what does Scripture teach us here when it says, “Now, [if] the lesion… has spread…”? [in answer to this question, Rashi explains that the verses here should not be understood in the order in which they are written. Rather, they should be read in a different order, because] this is not the place for this verse. [I.e., the first section of this verse, namely, “Then the kohen shall come and look [at it]. Now [if] the lesion in the house has spread,” is to be understood by inserting it elsewhere within these verses, as follows]: “He shall demolish the house…” (verse 45), should be [understood as if] written after “And if… the lesion returns…” (verse 43), [skipping over the first section of verse 44], and then [reinserting this first section of our verse] “Then the kohen shall come and look… the lesion in the house has spread.” Thus, [when our verse says that the kohen looks at the lesion, the phrase, “[if] the lesion…has spread”] comes to teach [us] only about a lesion which remains the same during the first week [of quarantine], but when he came at the end of the second week [of quarantine], he found that it had spread. For in the earlier verses, Scripture does not explicitly tell us about a case where the lesion had remained with the same appearance after the first week [of quarantine]. Here, though, Scripture teaches you with this mention of spreading, that it is referring only to a lesion that has remained the same for the first week but spread during the second [week]. So what shall he do to it? I may think that he should demolish it, as is written immediately following it, “He shall demolish the house….” (verse 45). Scripture, therefore, says (verse 39), “the kohen shall return,” and [here], “the kohen shall come.” Just as in the case of “returning” [i.e., when the kohen returned after one week and the lesion had spread], he must remove [the unclean stones], scrape, and plaster, and give it another week [of quarantine], likewise, in the case of “coming” [i.e., where the lesion has remained the same for the first week, but spread during the second week], he must remove [the unclean stones], scrape, and plaster and then give it a week [of quarantine]. And, if it recurs again, he must demolish [the house]. If it does not recur, [however,] it is clean. Now, how do we know that if it remained the same during this and this, [i.e., during the first and second weeks], he must [also] remove [the unclean stones], scrape, plaster, and give it a [third] week [of quarantine]? Therefore, Scripture [here] says, “the kohen shall come (וּבָא),” and [in verse 48, it says], “if the kohen comes and comes [again] (בֹּא יָבֹא) ” What is Scripture referring to? If [you suggest that it means a lesion] that spread during the first week [of quarantine], this has already been mentioned [in verse 43]; if [you suggest that verse 48 is referring to a lesion] that spread during the second [week], this has already been mentioned [in our verse]; so [one must conclude that verse 48], “if the kohen comes and comes [again],” [is referring to the case that] he comes (בֹּא) at the end of the first week [of quarantine] and comes [again] (יָבֹא) at the end of the second week [of quarantine], and looks, and [as is continued in verse 48], “behold, the lesion did not spread” [i.e., it has remained the same throughout]. What shall he do to it? One might think that he should dismiss [the case] and depart, as it is written here (48) “the kohen shall pronounce the house clean.” Scripture, however, continues there, “because the lesion has healed.” [God says:] I deemed clean only what was healed. What shall be done with it [if the lesion has remained the same during the first and second weeks, and has not yet healed]? “Coming” is stated above [in verse 44, “the kohen shall come”], and “coming” is stated here [in verse 48, “if the kohen comes…and comes [again]”]; just as in the case above (verse 44), he must remove [the unclean stones], scrape, plaster, and give it a week [of quarantine], a law which we learned through the link made between the terms “returning” and “coming,” likewise, in the case below, [in the question of a lesion that has remained the same through the two weeks, the owner shall remove the unclean stones, scrape, plaster, and observe a week of quarantine]. The above is taught in Torath Kohanim (14:105). The conclusion of this matter is: Demolition [of an afflicted house] is required only when the lesion recurs after the removal [of the unclean stones], scraping, and plastering. The recurring lesion does not require spreading [to necessitate demolition]. Hence, the sequence of the verses is as follows: (Verse 43), “And if [after he had removed the stones, and after the house had been scraped around and after it had been plastered, the lesion] returns” ; then (verse 44, second section),“it is malignant tzara’ath …it is unclean”]; then (verse 45), “He shall demolish the house…,” and (verse 46), “Anyone entering the house […shall become unclean],” and (verse 47), “[And one who lies down…] and one who eats in the house [shall immerse…]” ; [at this juncture, just before verse 48, the second section of our verse (44) is now inserted in the sequence, namely,] “Then the kohen shall come and look…the lesion in the house has spread”- [and, as above, now we know that] Scripture here is referring to a case where the lesion remained the same during the first week [of quarantine], so a second week of quarantine is applied, and at the end of this second week of its quarantine, he comes and sees that it has spread. What should he do with it? The owner must remove [the unclean stones], scrape, plaster, and give it another [i.e., a third] week [of quarantine]. Now, if the lesion recurs, he must demolish, but if it does not recur, [the house is deemed clean, and] birds are required [along with the whole cleansing procedure, because lesions are never quarantined for more than three weeks.
Remarkable!  Rashi is saying that the order of verses in the Torah is wrong!  So no reason is given for the order in which re read them, only a complicated argument is to why it "should" be different.  What are we to make of this?  That God dictated the Torah incorrectly to Moses?  That Moses wrote it down wrong?  Or -- gasp! -- that the Torah is an imperfect, incomplete, problematic document?
14:53 - "But [the priest] shall let go the living bird out of the city into the open field; so shall he make atonement for the house [וְכִפֶּר עַל-הַבַּיִת]; and it shall be clean."  How can one make atonement for something that can't sin?  Weird...

Now we get into the gross stuff...

15:2 - "Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When any man hath an issue out of his flesh [זָב מִבְּשָׂרוֹ], his issue is unclean."  This verse -- indeed, the entire chapter -- is in certain respects very strange.  Why would something over which one has no control -- something entirely natural and part of being human --- be a source of uncleanliness?  A possibility is that uncontrollable bodily emissions are powerful things precisely because they cannot be controlled; if purity is in part a function of performing certain rituals and taking incredibly great care to perform them correctly, then anything that might through a monkey wrench into that precision might by its very nature be viewed as a "threat" to the maintenance of purity.  The problem, of course, is that it's hard to make the case in modern terms that there's anything actually "wrong" with bodily emissions other than the taboos concerning them (which probably come from pre-modern superstitions).  Maybe one way of approaching the issue (no pun intended) is to think of involuntary emissions as signs or reminders that our bodies are not entirely under our control, which is to say, they belong to God.  Hmmm...

15:24 - "And if any man lie with [a woman who as had an issue], and her impurity be upon him [וּתְהִי נִדָּתָהּ עָלָיו], he shall be unclean seven days; and every bed whereon he lieth shall be unclean."  Let's put aside for the moment the issue (!) of whether a woman's menstrual blood should be an impure thing.  By framing this verse in the conditional "if" -- if a man lies with an impure woman and her impurity is upon him -- it implies that a man might lie with a woman who has had an issue but the issue wouldn't touch him.  But I thought men were supposed to be extremely diligent about not getting into this situation in the first place?  Why not just say, don't do it, or X, Y and Z will happen?  Is it possible that a man could sleep with a menstruating woman and not get her blood on him?  Is this what the verse is contemplating?!?

15:30 - "...and the priest shall make atonement for her [וְכִפֶּר עָלֶיהָ הַכֹּהֵן ] before the LORD for the issue of her uncleanness."  Again, why make atonement for something beyond her control?!?

15:31 - "Thus shall ye separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness; that they die not in their uncleanness [וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ בְּטֻמְאָתָם], when they defile My tabernacle that is in the midst of them."  Aha!  Here's part of the explanation for all this...  To the extent that a thing makes one ritually impure to enter the mishkan -- which would cause one to die -- it is uncleanliness and therefore something to be dealt with. 

Maybe a way of approaching these clean/unclean and pure/impure issues has to do as much with being aware of one's appearance and state of being -- one's holiness, perhaps? -- before coming into the presence of God.  There's something very archaic about it, but at the same time -- when the premodern aspects can be overlooked -- something poetic about it, that being aware and mindful of our physical state should be related to our readiness to approach God.  The problem is how to separate this idea from the distasteful aspects.  How does orthodox men not touching women in public not, in practice, constitute discrimination or misogyny?  How does basing any kind of distinctions on whether or not a woman is menstruating entail anything less than superstition?  The problem, for me at least, is that I don't see these things is inherently dirty, embarrassing, impure or "unholy," so using them as some kind of touchstone for determining ritual cleanliness seems wrong.  Not to mention the fact that in the absence of a priesthood/the Temple, who are the arbiters supposed to be of what is un/clean or im/pure?  The Rabbis of the Talmudic period?  This seems insane.  It seems to me that if the priest's pronouncement of un/cleanliness or im/purity is a critical step -- indeed the sine qua non -- of something actually being un/clean or im/pure, then the absence of a priesthood means there's no central authority to make these calls and, therefore, no basis for making them.  Indeed, once the Temple itself is gone, the very point of maintaining cleanliness and purity -- to avoid defiling the mishkan -- is gone.  So if we want to still maintain cleanliness and purity, then we need a different justification, and that justification surely cannot be rooted in a set of premodern ideas that existed thousands of years ago.

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