Few words unnerve a student preparing to become a bar or bat mitzvah more than, "Your Torah portion is about leprosy." Queasiness about Parashat Tazria is practically as old as our Jewish tradition, but we would remind ourselves that Ben Bag Bag also said with regard to Scripture, "Turn it, and turn it again, for everything is in it" (Pirkei Avot 5:22). So, on we go to study about leprosy.
Or on we go to read about-as our text calls it- tzaraat, which seems to mean any number of afflictions affecting the skin. In Leviticus 13:9-17, we see that an unaffected person starts out "clean." If the person develops a white swelling that bleaches some of the hair on the skin, then he (or she) is declared "unclean." If the eruption spreads to cover the entire body, he (or she) is declared-perhaps counterintuitively-clean! But then, as soon as healthy flesh begins to reappear, the person becomes unclean! So, to recap: If one's skin looks entirely normal-clean. If one's skin looks entirely infected-clean. But if one has patches of discolored skin-unclean.
The words for clean and unclean have less in common with today's concepts of "sick" and "healthy" than they do with biblical notions of ritual purity. While few experts-whether rabbis, linguists, anthropologists, or physicians-claim full understanding of this passage, at the very least we can infer that the Torah here resists ambiguity. Hence its insistence on an "either/or" approach to tzaraat . Entirely normal skin and entirely discolored skin indicate clean, but patchy discoloration indicates unclean.
This either/or mind-set informs much of Leviticus. Laws define permissible and impermissible foods, and the logic of these categorizations seems designed to avoid ambiguity. For example, think about how to classify a crustacean, like a lobster? It dwells in water but looks like an overgrown bug. Is it a fish? Is it an insect? The law clarifies this: Acceptable aquatic foodstuffs sport fins and scales. The sprawling diversity of nature defies neat categories, but human nature seems to have evolved a long time ago to crave order, to eschew a lack of clarity.
Perhaps it is not so different for us today. Don't you find CD stores frustrating? I do! I'm always looking for a new CD that doesn't quite fit the store's categories. Where do you look for an album of bluegrass covers of Bob Dylan songs? Is George Gershwin in the jazz or the classical section? (The answer: Oh, Lady Be Good! Ella Fitzgerald Sings Gershwin . . . And More is in jazz, but Previn Plays Gershwin is in classical.) Is Stevie Wonder in rock, pop, or R&B? One music store in Kentucky that I had the misfortune to visit filed Stevie Wonder under "oldies"! With musical genres fusing and melding, there's ambiguity all over the place and not enough categories to rein it in.
Imperfect medical knowledge makes accurate diagnoses difficult. The text would thus give us diagnostic tools, a nomenclature of "either/or" to reckon with symptoms that may in fact present as "both/and." In so doing the Torah satisfies our craving for conclusiveness and our resistance to ambiguity.
Gifted with relatively advanced medical knowledge, today's physician must still sometimes make a tough call, a firm diagnosis, even when an ailment's classic symptoms do not present clearly or consistently.
But when does an either/or, black-or-white mind-set prevent us from seeing important nuances-call them "shades of gray"? When does our need for neat categorization prevent us from seeing and appreciating both sides of a story?
Rabbi Jan Katzew, RJE, Ph.D., is the former director of the URJ's Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning. He shared with me the sermon he delivered this past Erev Rosh HaShanah that speaks to this week's subject, as follows:
We live in an either/or world. Either you are for us or against us. Either you are right or you are wrong. Either you are good or you are evil. Either you are rich or you are poor. Either you are old or you are young. Either you win or you lose. Either you are in or you are out. . . . It may be simple to live in an either/or world. . . . An either/or world is inhabited by two types of people, friends or enemies, citizens or barbarians, members or infidels, brothers or others, people who have the truth and people who do not. In extreme cases, an either/or world is divided between people I would die for and people I would kill, people of God and people without God. We are all witnesses to an either/or world, but we do not have to accept it and live according to its norms.
Enter Reform Judaism, which at its best upholds an honored Talmudic precept, eilu v'eilu. The phrase comes from a famous debate between Hillel and Shammai, which was resolved by a divine proclamation, "Eilu v'eilu divrei Elohim chayim ," meaning, "These [opinions] and those [opinions] are both the word of the living God [even though the law follows Hillel]" (Bablylonian Talmud, Eiruvin 13b). Two divergent opinions can both be valid, even if one must eventually prevail.
Our Reform heritage would have us view Judaism as a living and evolving organism, too diverse, too complex, too multivalent in its opinions to reduce to a list of immutable "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots," each one an either/or. The serious Reform Jew cultivates a religious awareness of both/and.
Yes, sometimes tough calls must be made. The leper cannot be clean and unclean at the same time. The law cannot follow both Hillel and Shammai. But in any worthy debate, both sides have something valid and good and important to say.
How important to keep in mind this election year! One can both oppose the war in Iraq and still support the troops who are on the front lines. One can both oppose the death penalty and still be tough on crime. One can both demand reproductive freedoms for women and still value life. One can advocate both for effective Israeli security and for the human rights of Palestinians.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "God's voice speaks in many languages, communicating itself in a diversity of intuitions. The word of God never comes to an end. No word is God's last word" (The Insecurity of Freedom [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1963], p. 182).
And neither is this! I welcome your thoughtful feedback- both compliments and critique!
Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake is associate rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York. A graduate of Amherst College (1995), he was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2000 and was a regular contributor to 10 Minutes of Torah in 2005-2006. He is happy to receive feedback at email@example.com.