The Unclean Body

LEVITICUS 12:1–15:33

By Lore Segal

Published April 28, 2006, issue of April 28, 2006.
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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).

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