Thursday, June 10, 2010

Torah Tidbits: Parshat Tazria

For me, this is a trying parsha on several levels.  With the subjects of post-natal uncleanliness and leprosy, we're getting our first glimpse here at some of the most pre-modern aspects of the Torah.  I can search these verses for more contemporary meanings, but it's tough.  I'm just glad Tazria wasn't my Bar Mitzvah parsha...

12:2-5 - "Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a woman be delivered, and bear a man-child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of the impurity of her sickness [כִּימֵי נִדַּת דְּו‍ֹתָה]...But if she bear a maid-child, then she shall be unclean [וְטָמְאָה] two weeks, as in her impurity [כְּנִדָּתָהּ]; and she shall continue in the blood of purification [תֵּשֵׁב עַל-דְּמֵי טָהֳרָה] threescore and six days."  Oy.  In the first place, why could there possibly be a difference between delivering a male versus a female baby in terms of the length of post-birth "uncleanliness"?  By my reading, the Torah is saying that having a girl makes the mother six times as impure as having a boy.  Aside from this being abhorrent (do the Orthodox observe this difference?), I just don't get why there should be any difference at all.

The second thing is an interesting difference in translation, not exactly what I would expect.  Machon-Mamre translates kiyimei nidat dotah [כִּימֵי נִדַּת דְּו‍ֹתָהּ] as "the impurity of her sickness" while Kehot translates this [12:2] instead, more sensibly, as "the days of her menstrual flow."  Sickness isn't exactly the same as menstrual flow, is it?  Rashi has a rather unfortunate explanation for the connection between "menstrual flow" and "sickness" in terms of this word dotah:
flow: Heb. דְּוֹתָהּ This expression denotes a substance that flows from her body. Another explanation: It denotes illness (מַדְוֶה) and sickness, for there is not a woman who sees [menstrual] blood without feeling ill, [since] her head and limbs become heavy upon her.
Nice, right?  A woman's period is a "sickness" because it makes women ill to see their menstruation.  Ugh.

12:6-7 - "And when the days of her purification are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt-offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtle-dove, for a sin-offering, unto the door of the tent of meeting, unto the priest.  And he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her [וְכִפֶּר עָלֶיהָ]; and she shall be cleansed from the fountain of her blood [מִמְּקֹר דָּמֶיהָ] ..."

In the first place, why does any atonement have to be made at all?  Surely having a child doesn't in itself constitute some kind of sin, but then why must a sin-offering be made?  (I get the idea of a burnt-offering, though, as a way of giving thanks to God.)  Second, look again at this strange translation here:  mim'kor dameha [מִמְּקֹר דָּמֶיהָ] is translated as "from the fountain of her blood," while Kehot translates this as "from the source of her blood" (emphases mine).  Both translations are technically right, though fountain hardly makes sense here.  But the difference, actually, is important:  If we accept the first translation - fountain - it implies that the woman is cleansed from the blood itself; the second translation - source - on the other hand suggests that she needs to be purified from something deeper:  not the blood itself but rather its source.  But what is that source?  The text doesn't say.

13:2 - From menstruation to leprosy:  "When a man [אָדָם] shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests."  What's interesting is that no mention is made of a woman who exhibits such scabs or spots.  We know the word used here - adam - refers to a man and not a woman because later on, in 13:29, we read "And when a man or woman [וְאִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה] hath a plague upon the head or upon the beard..." implying that in this case, it could be either.  Why is this?

But note Rashi's completely fascinating comment here.  The question for Rashi is why does a person with skin lesions have to be brought before the priests?  Isn't it obvious what his problem is?  Rashi's answer, I think, not only drives at the heart of why the Priesthood is so important, but it says something incredibly important about the social construction of meaning in Judaism in general.  Why does the person have to be brought before the priest and his sons?  Because
[i]t is a Scriptural decree that the uncleanness of lesions and their cleanness do not come about except by the pronouncement of a kohen. — [Torath Kohanim 13:43]
In other words, the a lesion isn't inherently clean or unclean; it only becomes so when someone in authority says it is.  Incredible!  By my read, it is the Priest's interpretation that matters -- in the context of his authority and in light of the textual direction, of course -- not some underlying reality.  So, unlike pork -- which is inherently unclean even in the absence of a specific interpretation that a particular piece of meat is indeed pork -- leprous lesions are not unclean unless and until the relevant authority says so.  I need to give more thought to the implications of this difference...

13:2-8 - These verses, indeed the entire 13th Chapter, deal with leprosy and how the priests should deal with it as an uncleanliness.  On the one hand, I can understand how this affliction might have been seen as frightening back in the day.  Indeed until very recently it was viewed in extremely pejorative, highly charged terms.  On the other hand, we know better today, and therefore it's hard to read these verses as anything other than ancient superstition.  What to make of the fact that the disease for all intents and purposes has a cure and has been virtually wiped out in the developed world?  That "impurity" and "uncleanliness" only exists in the southern hemisphere?  It's chapters like this that make me look at much of the Torah differently.  If some parts are clearly pre-modern, then what about others?  How can we tell the difference, and what are the implications?

Also worth noting is that, as with the mishkan, we see an incredible amount of detail concerning different kinds of skin problems and their meanings, much more so than we see concerning the more "moral" aspects of the Torah.  What is this trying to tell us?

13:14 - "But whensoever [וּבְיוֹם] raw flesh appeareth in him, he shall be unclean."  Mechon-Mamre unhelpfully translates u'vayom as "but whensoever"; the more correct translation, I believe, is Kehot's: "but on the day."

Why say "on the day"?  Note Rashi's comment, which echoes his comment on 13:2 above:
But on the day [that live flesh] appears: [The verse could have simply said, “But when live flesh appears.”] What does Scripture teach us [by saying,] “on the day”]? It [comes] to teach that there is a day on which you [the kohen] look [i.e., examine the suspected lesion], and there is a day on which you do not look [i.e., when he may not examine it]. From here [our Rabbis] say that a bridegroom is exempt [from having a lesion examined] throughout all the seven days of the wedding feast, for himself, his garments, and his house. Similarly, during a Festival [people] are exempt [from having a lesion examined] throughout all the days of the Festival. - [Torath Kohanim 13:87]
Incredible!  So basically when it comes to this kind of impurity, sometimes it's best to operate on a "hear no evil, see no evil" basis.  If the priest doesn't check, then there can't be any impurity, right?  And if there isn't impurity, then there can't be any basis to postpone a wedding, celebrate the Festival, etc. 

Could this entire approach to leprosy be saying something about its relatively lower importance in terms of causing one to be impure?  But then it seems to go against the grain of so much of Judaism, where being exact, and checking a million times, is the order of the day.  Fascinating!

13:46 - "All the days wherein the plague is in him he shall be unclean; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone [בָּדָד יֵשֵׁב]; without the camp shall his dwelling be."  Rashi brings up a good point:  Why should someone afflicted with leprosy be kept apart, isolated even from others who have it as well?  He quotes chazal:
Our Sages said: “Why is he different from other unclean people, that he must remain isolated? Since, with his slander, he caused a separation [i.e., a rift] between man and wife or between man and his fellow, he too, shall be separated [from society].”- [Arachin 16b] [This rationale is based on the premise that a person is stricken with tzara’ath as a result of his talking [loshon hara] לְשׁוֹן הָרַע, i.e., speaking derogatorily of others, although he may be telling the truth.]
Ouch.  So the assumption is made that loshon hara, and specifically slanderous talk that causes problems between other people, is the cause of leprosy, which is, of course, insane.  But what I don't get is if  loshon hara indeed caused leprosy, then why would its diagnosis be dependent on what the priest says?  Is this to suggest that if the priest doesn't diagnose the affliction, then the loshon hara didn't take place?  Makes no sense, but it's the logical conclusion to this line of reasoning...

1 comment:

  1. Welcome back to the blogosphere, RR.

    In the first place, why could there possibly be a difference between delivering a male versus a female baby in terms of the length of post-birth "uncleanliness"?

    Hmmm. . . .

    J. H. Hertz (The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, p. 460): "There is no satisfactory explanation why the period is doubled when a female child is born."

    Baruch Schwartz (The Jewish Study Bible, p. 233): "The reason the length of each phase is doubled when a female child is born is difficult to determine."

    Richard Elliott Friedman (Commentary on the Torah, p. 352): "No one knows the reason why it is double for a female."

    Clearly, there is a great deal of agreement among commentators on this point!