The Unclean Body

LEVITICUS 12:1–15:33

By Lore Segal

Published April 28, 2006, issue of April 28, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

How interesting that the animal offered for sacrifice was required to be physically flawless, and that the Lord, looking into men’s hearts for a future king of Israel, elected the handsomest and tallest. Can man’s relation with the divine depend on the body‘s soundness and health? There are instances when un-health is used for punishment. God sends a plague on disobedient populations; sudden onset leprosy repays Miriam for her envious misjudgment of her sibling Moses.

Liberal morality is anxious to relieve both body and mind from moral blame. It looks for the cause of physical distress in the suffering psyche, and for the source of psychological ills — alcoholism, a spot of kleptomania — in the physiological. Shall we wonder why then, if it isn’t really our fault, we seem to share a communal guilt of being overweight?

This week’s portion speaks about the leper’s ritual uncleanness. It is the business not of the doctor but the priest to differentiate between leprosy and what were assumed to be associated diseases. It instructs the priest to track pathology’s progress by examinations at seven-day intervals. The detailed specificity of the observations set out for his guidance might have come out of the research lab.

Modern commentary points out that the priest’s job was not to cure his patients but to separate them from the community and its observances, to reintegrate them after the ritual cleansing by water, fire and prayer. Moses’ prayer returns Miriam to instant health. We are not to look for the laws of hygiene in the ancient procedures commanded for the ritual cleansing of infected households whose contents could be saved if they were removed from the premises before the priest came and declared them unclean. (This can’t help putting me in mind of the aftermath of my childhood scarlet fever — perhaps it was diphtheria; there is no one left alive who can check my facts. According to the routines of Vienna of the 1930s, walls and furniture were chemically decontaminated and movables destroyed. It must have been my mother’s angelic disobedience that saved the Teddy bear, a sentimental animal — too much loving had loosened his head to a perpetual nod. Whatever became of him? He did not emigrate with me.)

Our modern understanding is more particularly puzzled by ancient biblical laws regarding the healthy body’s natural acts and unavoidable fluids, the isolation of the menstruating woman, the uncleanness after the act of sex toward which Judaism is so generally friendly. Even the giving of birth, which fulfills God’s earliest commandment to multiply, leaves the woman ritually unclean.

Perhaps we should be puzzled by our retention of some such attitudes in ourselves hardwired in our nature or by the persistence of tradition. How curious, our shame and our hiding from each other’s eyes, the acts all of us perform in much the same fashion. And what are those dirty words for which, not so long ago, little kids got their mouths washed out with soap? Recently the government has imposed on the public media punitive fines for the pronunciation of certain innocent letters, though all they do is spell some necessary and inevitable functions of our bodies.

Lore Segal is a novelist, translator and essayist. Her latest children’s book is “More Mole Stories and Little Gopher, Too” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach!
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.