Ignoring the Icky Stuff

By Burton L. Visotzky

Published April 23, 2004, issue of April 23, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

This time of year rabbis often despair over the weekly Torah reading. Our portion covers much of what Bible scholars technically refer to as “the icky stuff.” We read of skin eruptions, blemishes, leprosy of houses, genital flows and fluxes.

And yet there is much “Torah” in this Torah portion. First, one could follow the rabbis of Leviticus Rabbah and, instead of teaching on Metzora’ (skin eruptions), we could pun and preach on Motzi Ra’ (the evils of gossip). Thank God, our Jewish community no longer ever engages in gossip of any kind, so we can skip that sermon.

One could focus on genital flows and fluxes, and preach a good sermon about sexually transmitted diseases and the plague of AIDS. Again, that isn’t a problem in our Jewish community, so we may safely turn a blind eye and pretend that government promises are sufficient to bring a cure, whether we actually spend any money or not. After all, AIDS and sexual diseases happen there, not here. It’s not our problem, right?

On the other hand, much closer to home, certain expensive co-ops and condos have had troubles recently with attacks of mold — some sufficiently strong to drive out tenants and lower property values. Yet I fear that the leprosy of houses the Torah speaks of might be more profitably interpreted allegorically as whatever it is that plagues the very fabric and structure of this house we all live in: whether it be the Jewish community, the democracy of America, the State of Israel or the world at large. Here, too, I feel confident in eschewing this allegorical exploration for the simple reason that everything is just peachy — the Jewish community is united and healthy; the country is stronger than ever and the safeguards of our American democracy remain unassailable; the State of Israel is, quite simply, never wrong; and the world at large couldn’t get any better — whether we measure it politically, economically or environmentally.

So instead of writing about the “icky stuff,” allow me to focus on the few opening words of this week’s double portion, Tazria-Metzora, “When a woman brings forth seed and bears a male child” (Leviticus 12:2). What? Women don’t actually bring forth seed? Well, we know that, but taking our cue from the rabbis and leaving the facts of science aside, we can still focus on the odd prescriptions that seem to imply that a new mother will be ritually unfit for twice as long if she bears a daughter than if she bears a son. Is it possible that Jewish tradition might value boys more than girls?

Midrash Leviticus Rabbah suggests that it is always better to bear a son, and it might even imply that female anatomy is inimical to childbirth without God’s grace. I think our very existence here on God’s good earth depends every moment upon God’s grace. Yet, I also believe that women were created in God’s image as much as were men (Genesis 1:27 seems to say so). I am not happy about the rabbinic and biblical misogyny in today’s Torah reading and its traditional interpretations.

Times have changed. We value women now. We even ordain them as rabbis! Well, some rabbinical schools do. Yet some segments of the Jewish community still keep women behind the veil of the mekhitza, separate but equal, as it were. As our teacher Carol Gilligan taught us so long ago, women speak “In a Different Voice.” For some, this means that women must have different obligations than do men. For others, it means that women should have the same obligations, yet be encouraged to fulfill them in their own unique ways.

In those rabbinical seminaries that do ordain women, alas, the institutions still struggle to hear a woman’s different voice. Under the banner of pluralism and academic freedom, some of those institutions still encourage faculty and students to make it clear that women should not be rabbis, and to imply that we were better off when women were still behind the mekhitza. The current movement for full and equal rights for gays and lesbians has caused some backsliding on the women’s issue. It is, after all, a slippery slope. First we ordained women; and now if we ordain gays we’ll apparently slide right back to skin eruptions, sexually transmitted diseases and, God help us, even gossip. Maybe there is such a thing as leprosy of houses.

Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky is the author of, most recently, “Golden Bells and Pomegranates: Studies in Midrash Leviticus Rabbah” (Tübingen: Morh/Seibeck, 2003).

Find us on Facebook!
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • 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.