Creating words with words

Creating words with words

Metzora — Leviticus 14:1-15:33

Before science, no one had very much to say about disease that was useful. Understanding little about microbes and genetics, people connected illness with sin, making sickness into punishment, and (in effect) blaming the sick for their maladies. It followed that if sickness comes from God, so too did health, which required propitiation through sacrifice, and when that became impossible, through prayer.

In that scenario, religion is an obsession with placating a jealous deity to avoid suffering, and then — when suffering comes anyway — to be cured of it through a redoubling of the same delusional strategy. If that’s all religion is, count me out.

Fortunately, it is a whole lot more than that, although it is easy, I admit, to get the wrong impression. Take this week’s sedra, for instance, the Torah’s classical discussion of illness. At issue is the metzora, someone suffering from tsara’at, usually translated as leprosy. Scholars debate what tsara’at really was, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. All that counts is that it was widely feared as contagious and lethal — a pretty awful combination. Biblical Jews probably did associate it with divine anger. But I doubt the rabbis did.

At first glance, the Talmud does appear to classify tsara’at as a matter of morality. Seeing “metzora” as a far-fetched pun on “motzi shem ra,” “slander,” the rabbis convert a discussion of “leprosy” into a treatise on “spreading a bad name.” One might easily conclude that the rabbis thought people become a “metzora” because they practice “motzi shem ra”; they get leprosy, that is, because they use words for harm.

But did the rabbis really believe that? Were they so naive as to imagine that everyone with tsara’at had sinned verbally? What about infants who died of it? Didn’t tzadikim ever get it? Could the sages who canonized the Book of Job have thought that sickness was divine punishment — the very opposite of what Job is all about? A talmudic tale describes a rabbi who hears someone tell a grieving father that because his deceased son, presumably, did not warrant early death, he, the father, must have been the cause. “You came to comfort him and you made his pain worse!” the rabbi exclaims. Does that support the notion that the rabbis attributed sickness to sin?

Maybe, then, the rabbis were not explaining tsara’at so much as they were changing the topic. Having nothing to say about the metzora, they used a midrashic pun to transition the conversation to a subject about which they could say a lot. If we read the mountain of rabbinic commentary through the ages as just a benighted explanation for illness, then Judaism does become a set of prescientific claptrap that has seen its day — and not a moment too soon.

But what if the rabbis did not use motzi shem ra to say something about tsara’at? What if, instead, they used tsara’at to say something about motzi shem ra? We then read the rabbis not as bad doctors but as good moralists. And this is what we get: a master metaphor on the power of language.

The Dubner Maggid (1740-1804), for instance, says, “There is no way to know the gravity of words…. The slanderer thinks, ‘What’s the big deal? I let some an idle thought escape my lips.’ That is why the metzora [a metaphor, remember, for the motzi shem ra] is brought to the priest [not a doctor, presumably]: to discover that it is the word of the priest [not the medicine of the doctor] that determines his fate for good or for evil. If the priest says ‘clean,’ he is clean; if the priest says ‘impure,’ he is impure. He thereby learns to appreciate the power of language, for good or for evil.”

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” said Shakespeare, famously. The rabbis disagreed. What makes things good or bad, they would have argued, is not the thinking but the saying. Indeed, until we have said it, we have not fully thought it.

The rabbis were not stupid scientists. They were wise moralists who pictured God creating a world with words, and who taught us to appreciate our own capacity to do no less, day in and day out. To be sure, God’s world works by scientific laws that our words cannot alter. We are describing morals, not magic. But our words too create worlds whenever they evaluate, classify, and categorize as beautiful or ugly, good or bad, worthy or wanting. If language is what makes us God’s partners in creation, we better watch our language carefully.

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