The Word is Flesh and Bread

Metzora Tazria By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Apr 20, 1996 / 5756 | Torah Commentary

For Jews, the Hebrew Bible has always been a canon without closure, and the key to that historic paradox is the way we read it. Midrash posits more than one meaning to a word, verse or book. The literal meaning does not begin to exhaust the contents of the sacred text. Beneath the surface lie deeper meanings waiting to be tapped by resourceful readers. What distinguishes a divine from a human text, the Rabbis contended, is a multiplicity of meanings. In their sensitive hands, Scripture (the Tanakh) never lost its pliability: a finite number of books were made to yield an infinity of new readings.

Professor Judah Goldin, who imbued me with a love for midrash in my student days at the Seminary, caught its spirit far more eloquently:

And here, it seems to me, lies the miracle of this whole performance, that the Sages, like heirs or curators of a rare collection, charged to preserve a sacred text, are not dumbfounded by it into silent adoration. Instead, with a combination of reverence and spontaneity, they so open up and arrange and illuminate the individual volumes of the entrusted collection that they and their contemporaries will discover the reflection of their own features in it, and the response to their own needs and even fantasies (Studies in Midrash and Related Literature, p. 281).

To unlock the secrets of Scripture, then, calls for as much devotion as freedom. Deep reading is a function of constant reading. The inviolable sanctity of the canon is what inspired the Rabbis to memorize and ponder it in totality and detail, enabling them to turn the slightest textual rub into a story, ethical insight or world view. Why is Scripture called Torah asks the Zohar (the most daring practitioner ofmidrash) on our parasha? Because, in accord with the root meaning of the word (Torah=teaching), it teaches and reveals that which is obscure and unknown. Thus the most prosaic text can become the most profound.

Our parasha, maddeningly concrete in its extensive treatment of skin ailments, offers a memorable example of this self-transcending fundamentalism. Resh Lakish asks, “What other meaning could possibly inhere in this most specific of verses: This shall be the ritual for a leper (Leviticus 14:2)?'” To which he responds cleverly that we must read these unvocalized words to mean: “This is the teaching pertaining to one who defames the character of another.” The basis for this dramatic shift in subject matter is the rare Hebrew term for leper, “metzora,” the common word in the Torah being “tzarua.” It is this slight anomaly which prompts Resh Lakish to enlarge the canvas. The word metzora can easily be broken down into two unrelated, but similarly sounding words motzi [shemra, meaning “to defame.” With the subtlest of rereadings, leprosy has been linked to the misuse of language. Indeed, adds R. Yohanan, gossip is among the seven cardinal sins that cause a person to be plagued with skin maladies. A rabbinic adage claims, alluding to the same association, “We tend to notice all skin maladies except our own.”

Broadly speaking, the Rabbis distinguish between slander and gossip. Even though the latter (leshon ha-ra) may contain no untruth, both are contemptible because they spring from malice and inflict harm on others. Yet, only slander is punishable in a court of law. The Mishna affixes a far greater fine for defamation than it does for rape or seduction or the death of a slave through negligence. When someone protests that this actually makes verbal violence a graver offense than physical violence, the Mishna defends its scale of values by reference to biblical history. The generation of Israelites redeemed from Egypt was not fated to die in the wilderness by God till the spies, sent into Canaan to scout it, had weakened their resolve to conquer the promised land by slandering it (Numbers 13-14).

The Rabbis, however, reserve most of their indignation for the human proclivity to gossip. For example, on the principle of measure for measure, they identify the fate of the leper to live in isolation outside the camp with the punishment in store for the purveyor of gossip (Leviticus 13:46). “Since he (the gossiper) alienated (literally separated) a man from his wife or one friend from another, he too shall be forced to live apart and alone.” Again biblical proof for the linkage is brought from the case of Miriam, who came down with leprosy after she and Aaron made Moses’s domestic life a topic of public conversation (Numbers 12). Similarly, the incense offered in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur by the High Priest was deemed to atone for the ubiquitous sin of gossip. “Let the clandestine ritual (enacted unseen by the public) atone for the violence done clandestinely.”

In Palestine (as opposed to Babylonia) it was customary to speak of gossip’s effect in threes: it destroys not only the subject, but the purveyor and recipient as well. Accordingly, gossip was no less of an abomination than idolatry, murder and sexual promiscuity, the only transgressions which in times of persecution a Jew was expected to avoid even at the cost of his or her own life. In the face of gossip, God was even imagined to lament having to live in the same world with a person who abused the divine gift of speech.

And in a marvelous flourish of rabbinic fantasy, R. Yosi ben Zimra has God address the tongue directly. “What else could I have done to rein you in, O tongue of deceit? Though all human limbs are erect, I made you to lie flat. Though all limbs are external and visible, I concealed you inside the body. Moreover, I enclosed you behind two walls, one of bone (the teeth) and one of flesh (the lips).” In other words, the very anatomy of the organ betrays the Creator’s anxiety about its physiology!

What motivates this tirade against loose and hurtful language? It is the rabbinic conviction that the ability to speak makes humankind most God-like. What was it that God blew into Adam’s nostrils at the moment of creation which brought him to life (Genesis 2:7)? For the Hebrew phrase “le-nefesh hayya – a living being,” the oldest Aramaic translation we have, Onkelos, suggests “a being that speaks.” The added specificity underscores the nature of the endowment. Like God, humankind was to be the only living creature to enjoy the extraordinary power to create through words. Human speech is a faint echo of the language of God, and to abuse and corrupt it is to assault the essence of our being. It is for this reason that the long and oft-repeated public confessional on Yom Kippur, the “al heit,” devotes at least one quarter of its lists of transgressions to acts of verbal violence.

Judaism is, above all, a love of language, witness the rabbinic efforts to sanctify it. The way we address each other foreshadows the way we will treat each other. The words of the gifted Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, sent to Siberia by Stalin in the 1930s and murdered by the Nazis in 1941, haunt me: “The word is flesh and bread. It shares the fate of bread and flesh: suffering.”

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Tazri’a – M’tzora are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.