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Mendel and the Metzora (Metzora)

As a rule, philosophers, though certainly original thinkers, seem to lose their creativity when it comes to selecting titles for their works. Sun Tzu, for instance, wrote a manual which discusses the art of war. He called it The Art of War. Spinoza wrote a treatise about ethics. He called it Ethics. Mill wrote a book on liberty. He called it On Liberty. But even less imaginative in this regard was Aristotle. His monograph on physics, he called Physics; on politics, Politics; on rhetoric, Rhetoric; on poetics, Poetics; on meteorology, On Meteorology; on metaphysics, On Metaphysics. The list goes on and on.

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch,

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, “the father of neo-Orthodoxy”

So perhaps philosophers do not possess tremendous literary flair. What their writings lack in terms of excitement, however, they compensate for in organization. When we pick up a copy of Plato’s Laws, say,or Hegel’s Philosophy of History, we know more or less what to expect. These are carefully arranged and logically structured texts, with few surprises, digressions, or glaring omissions. Whatever the title is about, the book is about – easy as that.

And now we turn to this week’s Torah portion, מצורע – “the metzora,” i.e., the one suffering from tzara’at. For the sake of convenience we will translate metzora as “leper” – the standard rendition of this term ever since the days of the Septuagint – even though R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (עי’ פרוש לפ’ תזריע) and others have demonstrated conclusively that the symptoms of tzara’at differ considerably from those of leprosy. In English, then, our Torah portion would be called “On Lepers.” The title is succinct and unambiguous. It sounds, להבדיל, like a handbook Hippocrates or Galen might have compiled. There’s only one problem: much of what the Torah has to say about lepers isn’t even included in the Torah portion “On Lepers” in the first place.

Let’s take a step back. In most years, our Torah portion, Metzora, is joined with (and read after) another Torah portion called תזריע – Tazria. The word tazria means “to conceive,” and the first seven verses of that Torah portion discuss the ritual obligations incumbent upon a mother who has recently given birth. This makes sense given the title of the text. However, the rest of the Torah portion – fifty-nine verses, to be precise – discusses Biblical leprosy. Specifically, it describes the symptoms; the process of diagnosis; the mandatory period of quarantine; and cases in which the sickness spread to one’s clothing.

Hippocrates of Kos,

Hippocrates of Kos, “the father of western medicine”

That’s when our Torah portion, Metzora, begins. Its first verses read, “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘This shall be the law [תורה] of the leper, on the day of his purification…’” (Lev. 14:1-2). From there, the rest of the Torah portion proceeds to discuss the process of purification for lepers, and for other individuals who have contracted ritual impurity of some sort. In other words, מצורע – the Torah portion which claims to be “On Lepers” – only discusses the treatment of this condition. Everything else on that topic is consigned to תזריע– “On Conception.” What is being communicated, thematically, by dividing the Torah’s discussion of the disease in this way?

As we saw in the verses cited above, our text calls the “law of the leper’s purification” a תורה – a “Torah.” We are used to translating the word Torah as “Pentateuch,” “Bible,” or, even more broadly, “Jewish canonical texts.” But literally, תורה means “instructions” or “procedures.” It is a word which connotes action. And of its fifteen appearances in the book of Leviticus – most of which describe the method of preparing ritual sacrifices – over one third (six) come from our Torah portion, “On Lepers.” The word תורה, then, is a leitwort (“מילה מנחה“): it introduces our text, and it comes up over and over again within that text, because it expresses an idea central to our understanding of what this Torah portion is all about. What might that idea be?

Gregor Mendel,

Gregor Mendel, “the father of modern genetics”

When we take a global view of the two texts which deal with Biblical leprosy we discover something fascinating. Every aspect of this ailment which we cannot control is addressed in Tazria: it belongs, as it were,to the moment of “conception.” We, who live over a century after Gregor Mendel, are particularly equipped to appreciate this concept. But the ancients also had a vague notion that much of a person’s physical makeup – and even personality, to some extent – is determined before birth. Based to a large degree on the scientific opinions current in their day, our sages believed that one’s gender depended on the position of one’s parents during intercourse (Berakhot 60a); that fornicating with an unwilling partner produced rebellious children (Eruvin 100b); and that one’s life expectancy, potency (Moed Kattan 28a), susceptibility to illness (Bava Metzia 30b), memory, and righteousness (Shabbat 156a) were all influenced by one’s astrological sign. Though the discovery of DNA renders many of these theories moot, the essential principle remains unchanged: there’s a lot about ourselves that we don’t get to decide.

It is in light of this fact that the Torah’s tractate on leprosy – the most dreadful disease of Biblical times – does not begin by addressing the contraction of that illness or the symptoms thereof, both of which we are at any rate powerless to prevent. These matters it leaves to “On Conception.” Where Metzora takes over is with a discussion of what we can do about this condition. It provides us with a תורה – an instruction, a call to action. In this way, our Torah portion, “On Lepers,” encourages us to define the experience of leprosy (and indeed, of any malady, misfortune, setback or challenge which life throws our way) strictly in terms of our response to it. We are not, Metzora implies, our disfigurements or our disabilities – nor, for that matter, are we our height, our looks, or our intellectual abilities. These features of ourselves lie, to a large extent, outside of our control. Who then are we? “We are,” in the words of French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, “our choices.” Or as his countryman, Voltaire, so poignantly put it: “Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her – but once they are in hand, it is he or she who decides how to play them.” That, in a nutshell, is the idea behind the division of Tazria / Metzora.

There’s more to say on this point, for sure, though we don’t have the space to develop these ideas fully right here and now. However, at least one comment is in order:

By presenting tzara’at in natural terms, we remain consistent with the plain meaning of the Biblical text, which includes this malady among a large group of biological phenomena that are also subject to ritual requirements: conception, birth, menstruation, nocturnal emission, etc. Our approach also aligns with those of several of the major Biblical commentators. Ibn Ezra, for instance, claims that the leper must “cover the lower part of his face” (Lev. 13:45) because he is contagious, and this precaution “prevents him from contaminating others with the ‘breath of his mouth'” (ad. loc. — thank you to R. Dr. Eliezer Schnall for pointing me to this source). Even more explicitly, Seforno (ד”ה שאת או ספחת) describes tzara’at as “the medical condition which physicians identify as morphea, or האלבראם (identity unclear – possibly skin cancer), or scabs.” Nor does the ritualization of tzara’at undermine this thesis; it actually makes a lot of sense, anthropologically speaking. From North America’s Midewiwin to northern Asia’s shamanism to China’s zhong yi to India’s Ayurveda to Australia’s bush medicine – להבדיל – dealing with disease through spiritual means was a standard practice of pre-modern cultures.

Yet apparently the sages of the Talmud (Arakhin 16a) rejected scientific explanations of tzara’at. Instead, they cast the infection in religious terms, singling out seven sins in particular which lead one to contract it. Famously, the sin of לשון הרע – loosely translated, “slander,” or “gossip” – headlines this list. How are we to reconcile what appears to be the simple approach to tzara’at which emerges from a straightforward reading of the Biblical text with the theological interpretation that this affliction receives in the Talmud?

That’s a good question! Another time, אי”ה, we’ll attempt to provide an answer File:icon smile.gif Until then…

Shabbat shalom!


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