The double parashah of Tazria-Metzorah this Shabbat draws us into the strange realm of negaim, blemishes of the body, clothing and even homes that signal impurity and require urgent attention. This topic was considered to be one of the most complicated areas of Jewish law in antiquity, and it remains challenging for us today. We often associate this material with contemporary issues of illness and healing. It teaches the responsibility of religious leaders to visit the afflicted and assist them on their journey back to health. (If you are interested, listen to my podcast about Ketubot 77, which features the heroic Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi’s care for those afflicted by the dread disease “ra’atan.”)
In the parashah there is an arresting image at 14:33-38 in which a homeowner reports that something “like negaim” has appeared in his house. The Mishnah (Negaim 12:5) derives that even if the homeowner is a great sage, he should not condemn his own house as afflicted, but rather should report that the mark “looks like” a nega—so that the relevant authority, the priest, can determine the diagnosis. Moreover, the Mishnah notices that the Torah instructs that the house should be emptied before the priest’s visit. Why? According to this Mishnah, the Torah was “concerned” (hasah) about the financial loss that would result from the priest declaring the entire contents of the house to be impure.
In an unusual homiletical flourish, the Mishnah concludes that if the Torah was concerned with even inexpensive items, all the more so with expensive items. And if the Torah sought to minimize the designation of property as impure, how much more so with the people in the home—that they should be spared the diagnosis of impurity. And if the Torah was concerned with any householder—even a wicked one—then all the more so with the righteous. Thus the sages of the Mishnah teach that the Torah wants its representatives to administer ritual matters with compassion and leniency. This beautiful teaching never ceases to be relevant. Continue reading
I recently booked that rare flight which offers menu options, and was curious to peruse the fourteen choices currently available: Kosher, Asian Vegetarian, Dairy Vegetarian, Low cal/chol/fat, Vegetarian Non-Dairy, Hindu, Halal, Low Sodium, Gluten Free, Diabetic, Toddler, Child, Baby, and… Bland. My experience of airplane food is that it is always bland, but I suppose they are capable of adding extra blandness for those who require it. The list is interesting because it respects a variety of concerns equally: health, religion, life-stage and taste. Looking at this list with an anthropologist’s eyes, it would be hard to summarize the culinary values of the culture that produced it. There is no explanation, just a list of particulars, and it is up to the passenger to sort out which of the options best suits her needs for the flight.
Likewise, the Torah lists animals which are permitted or forbidden for Israelite cuisine here in Parshat Shmini (Leviticus, Chapter 11) and also in Parshat Re’eh (Deut. Chapter 14) with little explanation. We don’t know why the criteria listed for land animals and fish are significant, nor why no criteria are provided for birds. Mary Douglas notwithstanding, there is no convincing explanation of why cud-chewing or split hooves make an animal pure or not. It is quite possible that this list is not prescriptive but descriptive. Perhaps the Torah already knew which animals were in and out, and gave the physical signs as a shorthand to remembering what could be eaten.
Yet the Torah is not in the end silent about its motives. Eating animals that “swarm” (השרץ), apparently causes the eater to resemble them (שקץ). On the other hand, distinguishing between the animals as the Torah commands allows a person to come closer to the holiness of God. Making such distinctions is itself considered a unique human capacity according to the famous Midrash about Adam naming the various animals. Bereshit Rabba explains that the angels were unable to accomplish this task, but Adam did it with alacrity. When God asks Adam to name himself, he chooses the name Adam since “from the adamah/earth I was taken.” Finally, God asks Adam, “and what is My name?” Without hesitation, Adam replies “Adonai, for you are the lord (Adon) of all the earth.” Thus Adam names not only the animals but himself and even God. Continue reading
There is a wild story at the end of the seventh chapter of B. Ketubot about Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi. He is praised for visiting patients afflicted with the dreaded “ra’atan” disease (apparently some sort of parasite in the skull) and studying Torah with them, even as his rabbinic colleagues fearfully kept their distance. I concede that it is not entirely clear whether R’ Yehoshua b’ Levi was really performing the mitzvah of bikkur holim, as opposed to engaging in some sort of feat of Torah heroism, endangering himself in order to exalt the Torah, but not actually attending to the ill. From the angel of death’s description of his merit later in the story, and from a general preference to read generously, I am sticking with the understanding that he was visiting the afflicted out of compassion, and sharing the radiance of Torah with them.
In any event, Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi explains his daring by citing an erotic verse in Proverbs 5:19, which the sages read as a praise of Torah study. He claims that just as the Torah exalts its students, so too does it protect them. When it comes time for R’ Yehoshua to die, the angel of death makes a courtesy call and even obeys R’ Yehoshua’s directions. The rabbi asks to be shown “my place” in the Garden of Eden, and he demands that the angel surrender his knife, lest he try to harm the rabbi on the way. When they reach the garden, the angel of death lifts the rabbi up so that he can see over the wall and preview his destined place. (The Maharsha explains, based on a story of Alexander the Great told on B. Tamid 32b, that the Garden of Eden is located inside this world, but separated by a high wall). As soon as Rabbi Yehoshua sees his spot, he jumps over the wall. The angel grabs hold of his cloak and tries to catch him, but God defends the rabbi, who has entered heaven alive. The angel of death is outraged—“Give me back my knife!” he cries. The rabbi refuses, but then a “bat kol” or divine echo resounds, “Give it to him, for the creatures need it.” Apparently, the world is not yet ready for an end to death. Continue reading