Leviticus: Tazria-Metzora — Holiness at the Surfaces

I. Marked and Marketing:

Our perasha 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’ is viewed as an acronym for ‘motzi shem ra’, gossip or slander. The anectode used as an illustration of the motzi shem ra, of the malignant gossiper, is that of a 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’.

Before turning to a more in depth analysis of what the speech act of a ‘motzi shem ra’ actually entails, let us dwell for a moment on the peddler story segment of the Midrash. What did the peddler actually teach R. Yannai? For as the Mei Hashiloach points out, the peddler? campaign contains no novel hermeneutic insight; he simply recites the verse, which is fairly self-explanatory, and we may assume it is a verse with which R. Yannai would have been acquainted; there’s no hidden reading of the verse presented by either party. R. Zadok Hacohen of Lublin (presented in Pri Zaddik on Ki Tisa, 103: ) explains that what was so transformative for R. Yannai was, 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 about. 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 do we know this? Because of his job description- he is called 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, that leads to displacement and estrangement from the community, as we shall see.

II. Dis-placed Speech

Judith Butler, in a recent book, 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 prefer to 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? 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. The most striking aspect in the Ben Ish Hai’s reading 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 evil 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 wormholes 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 their mouth, but if an individual is asked to produce some spittle onto a spoon, and then asked to return it to their mouths, this individual will feel uncomfortable and even made ill by the thought. Thus also speech, produced in the mouth, when perverted, can lead to dis-placement in the speaker and the surrounding community.

While we are discussing this concept of tainted speech, it is worth a moment to reflect upon the hebrew term used. In general, the phrase ‘lashon hara’, evil speech is used. Here, due to the play on words, an alternate phrase, motzi shem ra, has been current. 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 mechanism than sin per se, rather it suggests a mistaken epistemological approach of the individual ‘extracting evil’ from the world around him. ‘Performing’ Ra might mean to actually 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 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 horror and emptiness of it; how even the most tasty food will end up as waste products, or how even the most beautiful human being will eventually become naught but dessicated bones, etc. When one learns to extract this kind of ultimacy from within external appearances, one can then work upon seeing even further within all existence, and learn 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’ is taken to referring to the erroneous way of looking at the world, not the individual. ‘Dis-placing vision’, the cognitive approach which sees reality only in a corrupted view, becomes elevated to the level of ‘kohen vision’, holy priestly seeing.

The Sefat Emet, speculating about the aforementioned two birds, suggests, that they represent the two drives within the individual, the ‘good inclination’ and the ‘bad’ one. In actuality, they are both equal components of the human theo-psychology and are essential for human existence. The Talmud 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 seemingly 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 incest). Thus, so called ‘base drives’ are not intrinsically ‘evil’ ; it is primarily a matter of keeping the drives in their proper place and balance. Thus, within the individual, the avoidance of dis-placement comes as a result of proper placement and alignment of the different forces within.

The Sefat Emet (in year trm’z), thus reads the external nature of the plague afflicting the metzora as representing a boundary, a sign of personality flaw that inhibits and represses the individual? true self, that locks him in underneath his improperly aligned behavioral pattern. Thus, after a mandatory period of solitary introspection, the former metzora learns to see his truer inner self, and is healed. 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 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 become a rupturing divisive force in society. Why should this be? Is it not enough to repent, and then be absolved? What purpose or lesson is inherent in this exile from the community?

The reason this appears to even serve as a problematic is due to our conceptions of ourselves as selves, as a primary repository of Being in relationship with the Divine as the primary mode of spiritual and personal attainment. In contemporary theory, this position is best presented in Heidegger. The concern of the individual is the relationship to Being, which needs to be discovered and appropriated. However, particularly due to 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. 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'utre] (italics in the original)

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 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- an experience of the the loss of society. The slanderer has, in essence, formed a rupture in the community, thus, he must learn just what the loss of community entails for the individual as well. It is interesting, to contrast this with a concept particularly prevalent in contemporary spiritual circles, that a personal relationship with Gd is the ultimate goal of spiritual life, and this 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. 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 as a corrective, in spiritual disease states such as the metzora, who is cast out of the ‘machane…, out of the ‘camp…, out of proper society; everyday society, with its healthy ‘we…, being the higher level of spiritual attainment. The purpose of the personal unmediated experience of Gd? gaze is to allow a reintroduction of the individual back into society, which is where the more desirable spiritual activity is situated. The Tiferet Shelomo states this most directly in explaining why the lesion of the Metzora is specifically on the skin, at the surface: first of all, because the error of the slanderer can be healed, it is so to speak external to the individual’s true being, and not at the core of the self, hence surface as exterior; but at the same time recognizing surface as meaning an emphasis on the Other, the intersubjective and the ‘being singular plural…” that is, the skin, the skin as surface, here implicates the interactive surface, the space between the self and the Other, and it is at this surface that holiness lies.

Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, is a hematology and cancer specialist based in Duarte, CA.
tags: Torah Commentary   
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