Getting it together
Tazria-Metzora, Leviticus 12:1-15:33
Just between you and me, I feel a lot of ambivalence. I’m full of faith and doubt, calm and stress, gloom and hope. I’m an introverted extrovert, a sloppy perfectionist, and I’m planning to become more spontaneous. I hate having to do everything myself, but I also don’t trust anyone else to do it. Let’s face it, I’m a mass of contradictions.
Speaking of contradictions, this week’s Torah portion defines the laws of leprosy. If part of your skin changes color, you are impure; but if the entirety of your skin should change color, you’re clean (Leviticus 13:9-17). This is no medical diagnosis, but a ceremonial or metaphorical condition. Leprosy is inconsistency.
A pun, and the story of Miriam’s affliction in Numbers 12, are supposed to prove that the leper (m’tzora) is a slanderer (motzi shem ra). Slander is hypocrisy; typically, we condemn our neighbor for faults we share to some extent. We would not be sensitized to detect another’s greed, lust or vanity if we didn’t know the signs of those vices from our own experience.
Institutions are hypocritical too. The same store sells diet products and candy bars. The same university promotes deep inquiry and mindless spectacle. In our double Torah portion, not only individuals but also houses can have leprosy. The leprosy of houses is shown by green or red streaks in the masonry (Leviticus 14:37). Green or red — opposite symptoms. Leprosy is self-contradiction.
But is Judaism meant to iron out all our personal inconsistencies? Chas v’shalom, God forbid! A foolish consistency, said Ralph Waldo Emerson, is the hobgoblin of little minds. It’s the contradictions that make people interesting; we are intrigued by the fragile hero, the bashful beauty. Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth,” a fantasy novel rich in wordplay, introduces the world’s shortest giant, the world’s tallest little person, the world’s thinnest fat man, and the world’s fattest thin man — all the same person.
Institutions are paradoxical because they cater to paradoxical customers. We vote for politicians who promise lower taxes and balanced budgets. We buy magazines that combine incisive social commentary and frothy celebrity gossip — something for every mood.
The difference between leprosy and complexity is self-knowledge. We are peeved when a disorganized boss scolds us for wasting time, baffled when dictators assail the human rights record of democracies. In biblical terms, they are unclean. But we are charmed when poets or comedians spotlight their own irrationality, because they do it consciously, artistically.
The oxymoron is a quirk of language that has become a fad. It is the self-canceling phrase: old news, baby grand, standard deviation. If the oxymoron confuses us, it is a leprous scab on the flesh of discourse, potentially requiring an intricate ritual of purification. But if it delights us, it is like a seder plate, with the horseradish next to the charoset. Who’d want a feast where everything tastes the same?
Lepers don’t know they are lepers; a priest must disclose it to them. But we Jews are a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6). As long as we can be our own honest observers, as long as we can see and manage our own inconsistencies, we will be an enticing buffet of divergences rather than an incoherent heap of discrepancies.
For the kabbalists (mystics), God has 10 s’firot (10 aspects). Those created in God’s image are multifaceted too. Leprosy is mismatched colors, clashing voices, but uniformity is not the answer either. We ought to savor our strength and our gentleness, cultivate our sense of duty and our sense of fun. The cure for leprosy is not monotony, but harmony.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)