Two weeks have passed since my second vaccination against COVID-19. I am officially free of it, or at least the strains the vaccine was to protect against; but let’s not split hairs for the moment. I feel clean. Purified. Fit to be part of society. Maybe this is a bit of an over-reaction, or maybe it’s being really in tune with this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora.
This section of Leviticus typically evokes visceral reactions like, “Eeeeww!” “Disgusting!” “TMI!” One cantor I knew would let student whose a Bar/Bat Mitzvah was scheduled this week to give a talk about the more palatable haftarah, II Kings 7:3-20, instead of the Torah portion.
Even ostensibly scholarly reactions are often dismissive. British theologian Nathaniel Micklem writes that Leviticus Chapters 11 through 15, which is what we read this week plus last week’s chapter on kosher animals, “are perhaps the least attractive in the whole Bible. To the modern reader there is much in them that is meaningless or repulsive. They are concerned with ritual ‘uncleanness’ in respect of animals (11) of childbirth (12), skin diseases and stained garments (13), of the rites for the purgation of skin diseases (14), of leprosy [not Hansen’s disease, but some skin affliction which we’ll denote using the Hebrew, tzara’at. IGP] and of various issues or secretions of the human body (15). Of what interest can such subjects be except to the anthropologist? What can all this have to do with religion?”
That quote is from p. 47 of my go-to source on purity and impurity, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, 1966 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul), by British anthropologist Mary Douglas. Purity systems are not meaningless. They are a means of setting clear boundaries to define and protect a social order. From p. 42: “Defilement is never an isolated event. It cannot occur except in view of a systematic ordering of ideas. Hence any piecemeal interpretation of the pollution rules of another culture is bound to fail. For the only way in which pollution ideas make sense is in reference to a total structure of thought whose key-stone, boundaries, margins and internal lines are held in relation by rituals of separation.”
Essentially, “the unclear is the unclean. Items that cut across clearly defined categories threaten the agreed-upon social order that those categories represent and so are regarded as dangerous and ‘impure.’ This worldview is applied to what we eat, what we wear, our houses, and people with whom we come into physical contact. The rituals of ‘purification’ are thus a means for dealing with anxiety resulting from the muddying of boundaries.” (IGP, 2018) Ambiguity is a clear (pun intended) threat to the social order. This gives us some insight into why people whose position in their world has become unsteady may gravitate toward an authoritarian leader who makes promises in terms of absolutes, e.g., “I alone can fix it.”
What is “unclean”? Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J., University of Notre Dame writes in “READERS GUIDE TO CLEAN/UNCLEAN, PURE/POLLUTED, AND HOLY/PROFANE: THE IDEA AND SYSTEM OF PURITY,” that Douglas’ “key insight lies in an analysis of … ‘dirt,’ which is her code word for what we are discussing under the terms ‘polluted,’ ‘unclean’ or ‘taboo.’ ‘Dirt’ is itself a relative term which basically means that something is ‘out of place’ in the perception of the labellers. Objects and persons may be ‘clean’ in one situation but ‘dirty’ in another. The issue lies in the social situation, namely, in the sense of order or the system of classifications which people use to organize their world.” Douglas writes, “As we know it, dirt is essentially disorder. There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder. …Dirt offends against order. Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organise the environment.(p. 2)… Reflection on dirt involves reflection on the relation of order to disorder, being to non-being, form to formlessness, life to death.” (p. 5)
It is thus important to identify and separate out “dirt” and its carriers and provide a mechanism for re-entry into a state of normality, where that is possible; sometimes an affected house or cloth might not be salvageable. Some sources of “dirt” are obvious, like childbirth, a classic intermingling of life with death, earthly, bodily emissions and mess with the miracle and beauty of a new baby. And remember how Queen Victoria was “churched” after she gave birth? Others require careful diagnosis, like tzara’t on people, clothing, and buildings. Only a priest can be entrusted with such diagnosis. The priest does not cure the afflicted. Mechanisms for re-entry after a prescribed time involve immersion and sacrifices.
Purity systems were common in the ancient world and also exist today. “There are always groups that are defined, identified, and separated out socially by those in power, with benign or malignant intent. They are then often sequestered, by economics or force, and abused, physically and verbally. Finally, they may be eradicated in an ultimate ‘purification’ ritual. How far this separation, or selection, process is allowed to go depends on to what extent the desire for strengthening the identity of the group in power is accompanied by paranoia and fear of those outside.” (IGP, 2018)
Shabbat shalom and zei gezunt,
Quotes About Ambiguity
There is something special about the beauty in the unclear, the ambiguity, the in-between that you can’t totally recognise. Alessandro Michele
Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity. Sigmund Freud
It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules. John Updike
I think the relationship between social-dominance orientation in people and the extent to which they’re made uncomfortable by ambiguity and novelty is really important. Better a stable world that’s familiar, in which I’m doing pretty poorly, than dealing with all the ambiguity of a changing world. Robert Sapolsky
Pregnancy Jokes from scarymomm.com
- I used to work on an assembly line making pregnancy pamphlets, but I quit.
I got tired of labor manuals.
- Teacher: “Give me a sentence about a public servant.”
Student: “The fireman came down the ladder pregnant.”
Teacher: “Do you know what pregnant means?”
Student: “Yes, it means you’re carrying a child.”
- What should a joke have in common with a pregnancy?
A good delivery.
- How long is the average woman in labor?
Whatever she says, divided by two.
- Yelp review for pregnancy:
One out of five stars, took way too long, overpriced, really uncomfortable, too crowded, aesthetically a mess, and no alcohol.
Today my rabbi knocked at my door asking for a small donation towards the local mikveh.
I gave him a glass of water.
A dermatologist was studying new remedies for itching, but his lab burnt down…Now he has to start from scratch.
Dermatologist here. I can’t decide whether to specialise in psoriasis, or dermatitis. This indecision has put my career back 10 years.
I can’t make a rash decision.
Hey doctor, can you take a look at this mole on my shoulder?
Doctor: I’m a dermatologist, not a veterinarian!
Best Quotes and House-isms from Gregory House – Season 1. On Diagnosis
- Chase: “It doesn’t necessarily have to be that bad. If we exclude the night terrors it could be something systemic: his liver, kidneys, something outside the brain.”
House: “Yes, feel free to exclude any symptom if it makes your job easier.”
- House: “I don’t ask why patients lie. I just assume they all do.”
- Wilson: “You know how some doctors have the Messiah complex – they need to save the world? You’ve got the Rubik’s complex; you need to solve the puzzle.”
- House: “…take risks; sometimes patients die. But not taking risks causes more patients to die, so I guess my biggest problem is I’ve been cursed with the ability to do the math.”
- House: “You mentioned two obscure diseases to Dr. Chase. How’d you know about them?”
Patient: “I read about them on the internet.”
House: “So, what’d you search for? Diseases from Asia that don’t match my son’s symptoms.”
- House: “Haven’t done the MUGA.”
Wilson: “Then how do you know she needs a heart transplant?”
House: “I got my aura read today. It said someone close to me had a broken heart.
- Foreman: “You thought he was being poisoned by hemlock? Dr. Euripides tell you to check for that?”
- Foreman: “Ten-year-olds do not have heart attacks. It’s gotta be a mistake.”
House: “Right. The simplest explanation is she’s a forty-year-old lying about her age. Maybe an actress trying to hang on.”
- Cameron: “What happened to everybody lies?”
House: “I was lying.”