Culture, Religion, Sex & Gender

The Vort: Tazria & Metzora – Not a Question of If, But When

Upon setting out to write this dvar Torah, I had grand visions of talking about the halakhic status of coed toilets. If a woman is ritually unclean, how can other members of her family use the same toilet, for example?
There was going to be a blow-out Foucauldian analysis of the halakhic sources, followed by a lengthy exegesis on Melanie Klein’s partial object; Kohut’s narcissistic transference, and Freud’s paranoia “syllogism” as taken up by Lacan. And then the ground-breaking revelation that we have been/are currently/always will be sinning.
It was going to be fabulous.
Perhaps fortunately for you, Masechet Niddah, Masechet Khullin,  and Masechet Keilim (11:2) took me to school. Once again. We can use the same toilet as someone who is ritually unclean because the toilet is “מחובר לקרקע” (it is connected to the ground)—this is the loophole. (For those following at home, this is the same term used in reference to mikvaot, or ritual bath pools.)  Furthermore, I learned that in our times–i.e. post-Temple times–we are all tamei met already, and thus this is a non-issue.
Now that we’re all breathing comfortably…
I will tell you, instead, about how I first learned about sex. (What does this have to do with tazria metzorah, you ask? Just wait. You’ll see.)
One fine Shavuot, when I was a kid, my mother and I were reading and discussing together the story of Yehudah and Tamar. She was trying to explain to me how the royal Davidic line actually emerges from outsiders and/or deeply flawed characters—and so a reading of the book of Ruth and this Genesis story was in order. Everything made eminent sense to me. That is, until Gen 38:9:

וידע אונן כי לא לו יהיה הזרע והיה אם בא אל אשת אחיו ושחת ארצה לבלתי נתן זרע לאחיו
(the idea here is that Onan, Judah’s second son, would not fulfill his Yibbum duties with his deceased brother’s widow, Tamar; instead he “wastes his seed”)

“Doesn’t that anger you?” my mother turned to me. “Anger me?” I was puzzled. “Because he was a bad gardener?” She looked at me incredulously, “Oh come on. Really.” My genuine confusion was misunderstood as sarcasm until a few more seconds had passed, and the look of honest bewilderment remained fixed on my face. I carefully watched my mother’s face—she was very obviously processing something internally. I wasn’t sure what. “I’ll have Dad explain it. He has a very healthy position on this.” On what?
My father, the physician of over four decades, the scientist of a lifetime. Clearly he was the one who would explain the particulars of what I thought was a grievous horticultural error. We had our supposed ‘talk,’ a talk drenched in complicated scientific jargon. I left armed with a comprehensive knowledge of flower reproduction and was still utterly mystified at the Onan issue. Why would God strike Onan down?
Why were my parents so reticent about this issue? It was then that I decided this must have to do with sex. I was not quite sure what exactly was involved, but I was determined to find out. But I was not going to ask just anyone. I would ask someone who was clearly skilled at the task. Someone whom God would not strike down.
From a biblical perspective, which, in this case, was my primary means of reasoning, the goal of sex is chiefly reproductive. Accordingly, those who ‘succeeded’ were ‘rewarded’ with more children.  It was obvious whom I was going to ask. The wife of my Talmud teacher, mother of 12.
The next week, I figured out when she would be in our primary school building and how I would track her down.  I needed to know about Onan and what I was slowly piecing together must be his sexual inadequacy and/or rebellion.  Part of me was terrified to ask, but I was mostly embarrassed about posing such an intimate question to someone who was  merely a peripheral figure in my life.
Here is the most amazing part of the story: this rebbetzin responded with complete honesty and aplomb. She did not miss a beat. She did not sensationalize anything. Her answer was brief, simple, and honest. No moralizing, no sugarcoating. No mussar even.
Reading this week’s double parasha  brought me back to those halcyon days of my youth because, as was the case with the wise and prolific rebbetzin’s approach to the facts of life,  this week’s double sedra is remarkable for  the conspicuous absence of any contextualizing device, whether moral, emotional, or intellectual in instructing us how to handle various forms of bodily issues which result  in ritual defilement.
Whereas the rabbinic literature that emerges from these laws is rife with sensationalized sexual imagery, dire warnings, loaded descriptions, and stern moral declarations (see for example the aforementioned massechet niddah, and for an even better time, see a more recent discussion of Tazria in this literary tour de force: specifically, go to pages 100-101 and read the part about Rabbi Yochanan) here, in Leviticus 12,13,14, and 15, we are instead presented with an almost manual-like compilation of laws and procedures in handling those afflicted with impurities of the body. Strange bodily discharges and irregularities are to be examined, monitored, if need be isolated, and purified. Beyond the literal description and corresponding treatment of these ailments, there is essentially nothing else here.
Indeed, this week’s double parasha opens by jumping into the tachlis (the practical):

וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר. דבר אל בני ישראל לאמר אשה כי תזריע וילדה זכר וטמאה שבעת ימים כימי נדת דותה תטמא
And God spoke to Moses saying that he should speak to Israel accordingly: when a woman at childbirth bears a male, she will be tmeyah (for lack of a better word, unclean) for seven days as at the time of her menstrual infirmity

In biblical Hebrew, the word ki holds different meaning, depending on the context: its possible renderings include ‘because,’ ‘when,’ or  ‘if.’  Additionally, very often “ki” is used as an emphatic (which, if one absolutely had to translate, one might translate as “indeed”).  Elsewhere in the Torah, we see similar constructions as the opening line of this week’s double-feature. For example, at the outset of Parashat Mishpatim, we read of the laws regarding a Hebrew slave. “…כי תקנה עבד עברי”  The parasha goes on to explain the conditions of his release in the seventh year. Importantly, the sedra also allows for the possibility that he may love his master and wish to stay. In the event that such is the case, Mishpatim clearly illustrates what is to be done (Ex. 21:2-5). Even in such technical dealings, there is an emotional component which creates a more fluid and arguably human sense of contingency.
As we learn in Deut. 21, (כי ימצא אדם בחלל) if a person is found dead, there is an elaborate rite in which the leaders of community openly declare their innocence in this matter.
In parashat Ki Tezte, the first ki (…כי תצא למלחמה על אויביך) (in Deut. 21) is commonly translated as “when”—when you set out to war, whereas the ki in the following clause about a man have two wives, one he loves and one whom he does not, is commonly understood as “if.” The idea here being that we can safely expect the reality of war, whereas the scenario with the two wives is a possibility, but not an automatic expectation.
In nearly all of these cases, what is stipulated in the ki clause invariably includes some explicated moral/emotional/spiritual component. A prime example: In Deut. 20, another  כי תצא למלחמה על אויביך, and this time you see a horse and chariots, etc…do not fear them.
Even in explaining the mechanics of the people-wide census (Ex. 30:11-16), כי תשא את ראש בני ישראל, the idea of a ‘reminder’ is invoked in the taking of the expiation money from all of Israel. (Whereas in Tazria Metzora, the kinds of sacrificial offerings are named, but not further explicated—no rationale is proffered beyond the very names themselves).
Returning to this week’s parasha, the various ki’s must be understood as “when.”  Despite what, at first glance, may appear ‘other’ (for example, the menstrual blood of a woman), ‘impure’ (for example, the man’s semen), or generically unhealthy (such as leprosy), these afflictions are presented in a rather routine matter, as physical issues which must be properly addressed. What may seem most personal and exceptional is, in fact, collective and widespread. Instead of stigmatizing, moralizing, or even explaining, all that is proffered here is the ‘how to’ of the times. It seems that these issues, being ones of the flesh, are addressed as such.  In Platonic terms, we are dealing here with the element of man which is “matter” – the physical, the “soma;” there is no inspirational engagement with “form.” These passages deal with physical issues which must be corrected (just as in Leviticus, physical flaws in a house that has become “impure” have to be dealt with in a specific manner).  It may be assumed, however, that underlying these procedures is the idea that by “repairing” the flaws in the “matter” which is the physical container of the “form” (which, in the case of man, is his spirit or “soul”), the form contained therein is thereby elevated or honoured as well.  Thus the proper “treatment” of bodily afflictions  would ultimately lead to the sanctification of the spirit, although this is certainly not explicit in the purely mechanical instructions found in this week’s double parasha.
Shabbat Shalom.
(Bonus: For an entirely different approach to bodily impurity, see the “Dope Hat’ video in which Marilyn Manson revels in a literal sea of grotesque bodily discharge. “My bag is in the hat, it’s filled with this and that / My vision’s getting fat, the rabbit’s just a monkey in disguise.” What could I possibly add to that.)

29 thoughts on “The Vort: Tazria & Metzora – Not a Question of If, But When

  1. very nice. just a little personal pet peeve…
    חולין=hullin (or if you really want it to be, chullin)

  2. This is freakin’ hilarious! Thanks for the great dvar, “Raysh”. Though I remember you as RokhlChana, as in:
    [UNNAMED TEACHER]: “RokhlChana, what kind of apikorsis. This is a true chilul Hashem!”

  3. actually, Laura, this isn’t a religious issue at all. and TWJ, there really are numerous ways to transliterate but a ח can never be transliterated with a k because it’s corresponding letter is a gutteral h, therefore some accepted versions allow for ‘ch,’ whereas כ corresponds to our letter k.
    It is mainly about where in the throat and mouth the letters are pronounced. a ח is pronounced inside of the throat, much like we breath an h when you say ‘ha’, but if one tightens their throat as they breathe it produces the sound of a ח, however a כ is pronounced like when we say ‘kite,’ and if you feel where that sound is made at the back of the throat, one will find that when they correctly pronounce a כ, either hard or soft, it sounds distinctly different than a ח, therefore when soft, and the sound is rolled of the roof of the mouth rather than stopped there, it is transmitted ‘kh,’ and in some accepted transliterations ‘ch,’ although in my opinion it shouldn’t be.
    This is not about religion, it is about language. And just like one wouldn’t say ‘hite’ when they mean to say ‘kite,’ when one means to write חולין one should not write khullin, unless one means to write כולין, in which case one should not write hullin.
    I certainly don’t mean to offend anyone.

  4. sorry, re: כ, I meant to say it is pronounced at the back of the mouth, not the back of the throat (specifically on the roof of the mouth in the back above the throat).

  5. khullin, transliterated to hebrew or aramaic, would never be spelled כולין. Justin, please provide an example of a hebrew or aramaic word that begins with kaf and is pronounced with a “ch” sound. I thought you said you were fluent??

  6. On my blog, I typically surround Hebrew with H2 tags to boost the font size. I tried to demo that above, but the comment system didn’t render the tags. If you have the freedom to use Hn or Font tags on the publishing side it should be doable.

  7. Oren,
    like I said, I don’t use it, I don’t like it, I don’t think others should use it, but people use it.

  8. kh is a valid transliteration for a khet. consider the word חכם. if you transliterate it with khacham, then you automatically know the first letter is a khet and the second is a kaf. if you transliterate it as chacham, both letters could be khets. if you transliterate it as hacham, it could be hay khet (or chaf). kh for a khet works great.

  9. which is why in style manuals from many institutes, the preferred usage is an h with a dot under it, but I don’t know how to do that here.

  10. Oren writes:
    Justin, please provide an example of a hebrew or aramaic word that begins with kaf and is pronounced with a “ch” sound.
    I’m not Justin, but how about (at least in biblical Hebrew) any word following a vowel sound (with a meshareit under the previous word)?
    Justin is right; chet has nothing to do with “k”, and shouldn’t be transliterated with “kh” any more than with “r”.
    Since Raysh is a Yiddishist, I assume her use of “kh” was influenced by transliteration of Yiddish, where “kh” is used for chet. That’s another language, though, with different pronunciation.

  11. Thank you, BZ, for sharing that. I never knew that kh was used for chet in Yiddish. That is good to know. Do you know why or how it happened to become used?

  12. actually, Laura, this isn’t a religious issue at all
    I’m not Laura, but I read her comment not as implying that the correction was a religious one, but rather as saying: responding to a long and thoughtful vort by picking at some transliteration thing is obnoxious. And this particular kind of obnoxiousness made her not want to be Jewish.
    But as I say, I’m not her, so I really couldn’t say for sure.

  13. PS I love you Miri and yes it’s the Talmudic discourse on something completely irrelevant to the topic, that people are hilariously still discussing that contributed to my leaving the religion.

  14. Supposedly proper transliteration is for sissies.
    I mean really, if Raysh cared about that stuff, don’t you think s/he’d be spelling his/her name “Reysh”? Btw, since we’re onto the picayune, which gender is this post author anyway?

  15. @Moron Geek:
    You’re just going to have to wait for the tell-all memoir.
    Or if you think you’re good at guessing, you can check out this post:
    and find the character on the floor whose face we don’t see.
    @Justin: sorry to have caused any undue agmas Nefesh
    @Rich: thank you so much for the helpful formatting tip. I will try that next time.
    @Fellow Refugee: who are you?? And how did you find this? from what you write, I sense you’re from way back, but I feel like I could count on one hand the possibilities.

  16. Thanks for your answer. I actually then searched your name on the internet, and it looks like you’re a woman. The only reason I asked is because I’ve never heard of the name Raysh before and was curious if it was gender-specific. I like it. Is it short for ראשית?

  17. Raysh, re: your question to me, I guess it’s your turn to wait for the tell-all memoir
    And Moron Geek, knowing what I know, I can answer your question. No. If you look at my earlier comment, you’ll see that her name Jewish and legal name is רחל.

  18. justin / bz – not that this matters so late in the game, but the standard transliteration for yiddish, which can include loshn koydesh words, does not differentiate between kaf and kuf. indeed, orally speaking, the vast majority of pronunciatory dialects do not differentiate.
    there is a standardized academic transliteration of hebrew, but that involves diacritics and is quite difficult to type. save that, just go with what works.

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