Michel Foucault, in his ‘Discourse on Language’ states:

I am supposing that in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized, and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and its dangers?

Foucault identifies a number of excluded areas of discourse found in contemporary society, such as sexual speech, or speech not residing within the truth values of currently accepted paradigms of science. This week we will see how the textual commentators identify and characterize a more fundamental type of problematic speech, the pathology it evokes, and steps that can be taken towards prevention and healing.

I. Marked and Marketing:

Our textual portion begins:

‘This is the Torah of the Metzora, the tzara’t patient on the day of his purification; he shall be brought to the Kohen’

The Midrash initiates its investigation of this verse with an oft quoted word play, where the unusual word ‘metzora’  (commonly translated as leper, though it is clear that is not the affliction described here) is viewed as an acronym for ‘motzi shem ra‘, gossip or slander. The anecdote used in the Talmud regarding the motzi shem ra, the malignant gossip, is that of an itinerant peddler, a ‘rochel‘, who like the snake oil peddlers of the nineteenth century, wandered among the towns around Zippori, proclaiming ‘who would like to buy the life elixir’?. The Midrash tells us that R. Yannai joined in with the gathering crowd, and tried to purchase some of this elixer from him. The peddler pushed him away, explaining that this product is not intended for people like R. Yannai, but R. Yannai persisted, and the peddler pulled out the book of Tehillim opened to verse 34:13 which reads: ‘who desires life should prevent himself from speaking evil’.

In other words, this peddler was an early example of a public health marketing campaign. R. Yannai is then quoted as responding:

‘all my life I have read this verse but did not comprehend it until this peddler revealed it to me’.

The Midrashic link of this anecdote to our perasha is in teaching that this odd word, metzora refers to one afflicted and cast out of the camp because of the sin of slander, so that the Hebrew word metzora is read as an acronym for ‘Motzi Shem Ra’.

The message of the anecdote is clear, don’t gossip, but upon reflection, what did the peddler actually teach R. Yannai? For as the Mei Hashiloach points out, the peddler’s comments contain no novel hermeneutic insight; he simply recites the verse, which is readily available and fairly self-explanatory; we may assume it is a verse with which R. Yannai would have been well acquainted and there’s no hidden reading of the verse presented by either party!

What was so transformative for R. Yannai according to R. Zadok Hacohen of Lublin (presented in Pri Zaddik on Ki Tisa, 103: ) was the actual encounter with the peddler, a fleshed-out ‘living’ example of a textual source. How so? According to the Mei Hashiloach, as quoted by R. Zadok , the message to R. Yannai was contained in the peddler’s lived example.

The peddler, the ‘rochel’ wandered from town to town carrying out this anti-slander campaign, because the peddler himself was marked as a result of the sin of slander- he had himself become deterritorialized as a result of slander, the very same slanderous language he was now preaching against. From personal experience, he understood the rupturing effect that slander has on the community structure having become himself marked and excluded from the normal stability of society as a result. And how does R. Zadok know that this peddler was once a gossip who repented? Because the text refers to the man as a ‘rochel‘, a peddler, which contains within it the same root form of ‘rechilut‘, slander, gossip! Thus, there is something within the essence of this virulent speech activity, which inherently leads to displacement and estrangement from the community.

II. Dis-placed Speech

Judith Butler, in Excitable Speech, argues that even insinuations present in speech acts alone can already be damaging and destructive to society. The Ben Ish Hai in his Aderet Eliyahu provides a vivid example of how minor translocations of speech and action contain within them the capacity for what I label as “dis-location”, that is a movement away from normal place of being with a negative connotation.

He reads the rite of the metzora’s purification, as a means of aligning proper action with proper intentionality. The text tells us that two birds are brought by the metzora. One bird is meant to signify improper actions, the class of improper actions that draws attention to itself, thus obvious like the tall cedar wood brought in the rite alongside the birds. The other bird symbolizes improper thoughts, which are more subtle and covert (like the moss also incorporated into the metzora’s offering), thought having been corrupted by the metzora’s improper speech acts. Thus, there is a reciprocal interaction between speech act and inner consciousness, with the end result being a cycle of corruption mandating a sacrifice.

A striking passage in the Ben Ish Hai’s commentary on this text is that regarding the cloth also brought in the rite, called in Hebrew ‘tolaat shani‘, which symbolizes, through a halachic teaching, the dislocation directly caused by malignant speech- a tolaat, a worm, is halachically only not-kosher if it has ‘crawled on the earth’- that is, a worm that hasn’t moved from within a fruit is still technically OK. But, if there are lines of movement in the fruit, then there is a chance that the worm crawled around to the outside of the fruit rendering the worm unkosher. To prove how such slight changes in language or wormhole tracings can produce a qualitative change in state, the Ben Ish Hai suggests an experiment. No individual is disturbed by the presence of the spittle contained in one’s own mouth, but if an individual is asked to produce some spittle onto a spoon, and then asked to return their own spit to their own mouths, the individual will feel uncomfortable and even made ill by the thought. Thus also speech, produced in the mouth, when it is out of place, can lead to dis-placement in the speaker and the surrounding community.

It is important to note that there are two terms in Hebrew for malignant speech . More commonly, the phrase ‘lashon hara’, evil speech is used as a translation for gossip. Here, due to the play on words with metzora, an alternate phrase, motzi shem ra, has been used. The literal meaning of the term is ‘to produce a bad name’ about someone. There are halachic differences between lashon hara and motzi shem ra, one is taken to imply circulating an unpleasant truth about someone, the other to slander someone falsely.

The Beer Mayim Hayim suggests that the words Motzi Ra, which literally means to ‘extract evil’ implies a different psychological process than does lashon hara, its reflects a faulty epistemological approach of the individual to the world, the individual is one who ‘extracts evil’ from the world around him or her. Acting ‘ra’ means to create evil, but to be motzi ra implies more of a character trait, a way of perceiving the world in a negative fashion, a way of seeing in which one finds and extracts the bad from within every circumstance. The difference between the two is that this trait is subject to a cognitive transformative approach; there is, as it were, a therapy for it.

The Beer Mayim Hayim presents such a therapeutic approach, the initial stage of which is reminiscent of the Surangama Sutra. He states that as a first corrective one must get away from seeing the world as a set of desires by seeing the nastiness and emptiness of desire; how even the most tasty food will end up as waste product, or how even the most beautiful human being will eventually become naught but dessicated bones, etc.

When one learns to extract this kind of inevitable degeneration from within the external appearance, teaches the Beer Mayim Hayim, one can then work upon seeing a more profound inner beauty within all existence, and thus train ones’ self to locate the ‘ultimate’ holiness and beauty, the aspect of the divine within each existing being.

In other words, after one learns to extract the Nothing from within existence, one can learn to see the divine within that sustains even the Nothing. With this approach, then, he reads the verse quoted at the beginning of this piece, ‘v’huva el hacohen’, ‘he shall be brought to the Kohen’, as: the evil and corruption itself is elevated, is brought up, is sublated to the level of priestly holiness; the verb ‘v’huva‘, ‘it is brought’; the “it” is taken to referring to this erroneous way of looking at the world, rather than referring to the individual. ‘Dis-placing vision’, the cognitive approach which sees reality only in a corrupted view, becomes elevated to the level of what we may call ‘kohen vision’, seeing through eyes attuned to finding holiness in all things.

The Sefat Emet, speculating about the aforementioned two birds brought as part of the metzora sacrifice, suggests that they represent two conflicting drives within the individual, the ‘good inclination’ and the ‘bad’ one. In actuality, this is not a dualistic reading, rather, they are both perceived as equal components of the human theo-psychology and essential for human existence in the correct balance. The Talmud (at the end of tractate Sukkah) tells the story of how one time the Rabbis decided to abolish the yetzer hara for sexual desires (the overpowering drive for idolatry so central to Biblical admonition narratives was already apparently abolished). The Rabbis were successful in this enterprise, so successful, in fact, that there were no eggs to be found in the market the next day, implying that the Rabbis had abolished a drive essential for natural existence, and thus they returned and undid their previous action (though they left a residual ‘wound’ in lust to at least decrease the yearning for incest). Thus, so called ‘baser drives’ are not intrinsically ‘evil’; what is critical is keeping the drives in their proper place and balance, and using them for good. Thus, within the individual, the avoidance of locational and existential dis-placement comes as a result of proper placement and alignment of the different forces within one’s self.

The Sefat Emet (in year trm’z), thus reads the external, skin related description of the blemish afflicting the metzora as representing a boundary, a sign of personality flaw that inhibits and represses the individual’s true self, that locks him or her into destructive, improperly balanced behavioral patterns. Thus, the Torah’s recommendation of isolation as treatment for this imbalance- after a mandatory period of solitary introspection, the former metzora learns to see his/her truer inner self, and the healing process begins.

This healing is represented by the inclusion in the sacrifice of the birds; birds sing, thus implying metonymically that the slanderer has discovered a new voice, that he sings a new more beautiful tune…

III. Being, Community, and Dis-placement

However, the path of the metzora leads not only to a ritual sacrifice and an individual repentance, rather, he is sent out of the camp until the resolution of the symptoms and only then the rites are performed. The dis-location of a proper drive appears to threaten communal life, it is viewed as a rupturing divisive force in society. Why should this be? Is it not enough to repent personally, and then be absolved? What purpose or lesson is inherent in this exile from the community?

Perhaps the text means to teach us to stop thinking of ourselves as only individual selves, as a personal repository of Being in relationship with the Divine as the primary mode of individual spiritual and personal attainment. In contemporary Theory, this position of the individual in contact with Being is associated with the writings of Heidegger who argues that the central concern of the individual is the relationship to Being, which needs to be discovered and appropriated.

Particularly due to the work of Levinas, and his emphasis upon the centrality to self-constitution of the Other, the pendulum has swung in the entirely opposite direction, to a recognition of the primacy of community to formation of the individual. Here is Jean-Luc Nancy, in his recent ‘Being Singular Plural’ (pp 34):

…what is at stake is no longer thinking:

-beginning from the one, or from the other,

-beginning from their togetherness, understood now as the One now as the Other,

-but thinking, absolutely and without reserve, beginning from the ‘with’, as the proper essence of one whose Being is nothing other than with-one-another [l'un-avec-l'autre]…

Nancy argues that the whole lesson of the ‘creation’ story is that all existence appears concurrently, this is the true meaning lurking behind the idea of creation ex nihilo, and thus there is no primacy to Being before world.

‘That which exists, whatever this might be, coexists because it exists’ (pp 29).

Thus, the importance of community and social justice is in a sense primary to personal ‘presence’, as in essence, Being is constituted by the community. ‘A world is a multiplicity of worlds’ (pp 185)- For community is not added to existence. Community is not some proper consistency and subsistence of existence as it stands apart from it: existence has such only as the sharing of community.

‘Coexistence does not happen to existence; it is not added to it, and one can not subtract it out: it is existence’ (pp 186)

For this reason, there can be no constitution of the self without the community.

Prior to ‘me’ and ‘you’, the ‘self’ is like a ‘we’ that is neither a collective subject nor ‘intersubjectivity’, but rather the immediate mediation of Being in ‘(it)self’, the plural fold of the origin. (pp 94)

Thus, there can be no personal perfection without a societal perfection, for the two are, essentially identical. This recognition of the primacy of community to individual being is also well articulated in the ‘post-colonialist’ work of Homi Bhabha, who argues that ‘culture’ per se is formed not within the personal, but in the ‘intervening space’, the borderline:

The borderline work of culture demands and encounter with ‘newness’ that is not part of the continuum of past and present. It creates a sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural translation. Such art does not merely recall the past as social cause or aesthetic precedent…

Returning to the metzora, the Sefat Emet (in trm’ch) argues that the casting out of the motzi shem ra, is not a punishment or a ritual process, but rather a ‘Torah of distance’ a lesson that the metzora must learn- the sobering experience of the loss of normal society.

The slanderer has, in essence, formed a rupture in the community, leading to someone becoming separated from those around him or her, thus, the slanderer must experience just what the loss of community entails for the individual.

It is interesting, to contrast this with a concept particularly prevalent in contemporary spiritual circles, that a personal relationship with God is the highest goal of the spiritual life, and this relationship must be sought in retreats, in solitude, and in personal meditation. However, in Hassidic thought, we see reflected an interdependence of the individual and the collective as the apogee of the spiritual.

The Mei Hashiloach points out that the unmediated gaze of Gd experienced by the metzora outside of the camp is not the goal of normal healthy spiritual activity, rather it is invoked exclusively as a corrective, as a treatment for spiritual disease such as the metzora, who is cast out of the machaneh, out of the camp, out of normal society; it is everyday society, built upon the healthy ‘we’, that is the greater level and goal of spiritual attainment. The purpose of the solitary, unmediated experience of God’s gaze in isolation is only to allow a reintroduction of the individual back into society, which is where the more desirable spiritual activity of the individual within the community takes place.

The Tiferet Shelomo states this directly in explaining why the lesion of the Metzora is found specifically on the skin, at the surface: on the one hand, because the error of the slanderer is capable of being healed, it is, so to speak, external to the individual’s core being, and not at the core of the self, hence surface as exterior; but on the other hand,  the Tiferet Shelomo recognizes the nature of ‘skin as surface’ as reflecting an emphasis on the Other, the intersubjective and the ‘being singular plural…” that is, the skin, the skin as surface, the skin as surface capable of reflecting the flaws of an individual vis a vis society, implies an interactive surface, the interactive space between the self and the Other, and it is at this surface that holiness lies.

(special thanks to Dr. Rachel Neis)


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