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The Attraction of Irrelevance

Is our religious consciousness enhanced when we attempt to make our sacred scriptures relevant to a contemporary mind, or when we accept and enter into their foreignness, and allow them to be “irrelevant,” ancient, and utterly new?

This week’s “double portion” of Tazria/Metzora begs the question, with 59 verses about tzaraat (a skin disease similar to leprosy), 57 more on the procedures to become pure after it, and still 57 more on seminal and menstrual emissions. This is the Torah they don’t teach in Sunday school.

Actually the sugya (topical section) to which Tazria and Metzora belong began in last week’s portion, Shemini, which describes how the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, brought “strange fire” into the tabernacle and were destroyed. The response: new rules to regulate priestly behavior, to maintain the purity of the Israelite nation and, in the words of Leviticus 10:10-11, to “discern between holy and secular, and between impure and pure.” The text then teaches the laws of kashrut, the rules of family purity, the vivid anatomical details of Tazria and Metzora, and, most importantly, the Levitical “Holiness Code” that we read in synagogue next week.

In other words, this part of the Torah is about purity and contamination, sacred and profane, Israelite and foreign. As anthropologist Mary Douglas would describe in her work, these concerns undergird the way the Bible describes the creation of the world (order from disorder), how it orders the social realm and how, in general, the ordered cultic worship of YHVH defined itself in opposition to contemporaneous spiritual practices. Israelite worship was not to be an ecstatic bacchanal, in which distinctions are erased and the god(s) known in wild abandon. It was to be precise, mindful of distinctions, and separated from anything “unclean” or foreign.

Does all this matter today? Actually, yes — primarily because of what it doesn’t say. For example, Leviticus 18:22, in next week’s portion, has been taken to judge homosexuality as “unnatural,” “immoral” and destructive of the “family,” all categories (including “homosexuality”) quite unknown to this part of the Torah. Indeed, Leviticus 18 is quite explicit about why its sexual prohibitions are important. You guessed it: “Do not impurify yourself with all these things, because with all these things the goyim, who I am sending away before you, impurified themselves, and impurified the land.” (“Impurified” is a bit clumsy, but the Hebrew titamu, from the same root as tameh, means more than just “defiled.”) It’s rare that the Torah provides such clear reasons for the commandments — and yet, there it is: purity and impurity, Israel and Other, just as in this week’s portions.

In fact, this part of the Torah is much more concerned about leprosy than it is about sexuality — about 200 verses more, to be precise — but for the same reason: because both contaminate the cultic purity of the Israelite nation, and blur the distinctions between Israel and Other. Now, such subjects may not suit anyone’s political agenda — “God hates shrimp” doesn’t quite have the punch of “God hates fags” — but it’s what’s in the text. Yet when we clumsily attempt to make the Torah “relevant” to our times, we often import our own biases and agendas into a text that, like it or not, is about ancient cultic purity, and the prohibition of foreign actions and mixtures which contaminated it. Not “homosexuality,” not the family, not nature, not morality. After all, what do menstruation, vultures, leprosy, shellfish and male sexuality have in common? Ethics? Hardly.

Moreover, when we let go of our own agendas about what portions like Tazria and Metzora are supposed to say, we are taken on a journey of discovery by what they do say. For example, we know from the archeological record that these practices were forbidden because people were doing them, expressing their religiosity in unorthodox, hybrid and “foreign” ways that were abhorrent to the priestly elite in Jerusalem. What was Israelite religion really like? Can we imagine a religio-cultic world at war between the “purifiers” and the “mixers,” those who sought separation, and those who blessed the blending? For that matter, can we really conceive of a religion in which the body, not the soul, was the site of holiness and sin? And what must it have been like to live in a world so disordered that order itself was sanctified, even deified — and chaos was thought by some to be holy, and others outright demonic?

There are all sorts of judgments one might make about these tendencies — subjugating chaos, for example, has long gone hand-in-hand with subjugating women. But for me, the questions themselves take on a cast of wonderment, as long as I don’t try to make them “relevant” or reduce their foreignness to domesticity. When I let them be what they are — ancient, cultic and strange — I find that, in a contemporary world devoid of magic, these tribal texts possess a power of enchantment.

Jay Michaelson is chief editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture (

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