The Importance of Ritual in Balancing Mystery and Meaning in a World We Can’t Control

Even with all the science we have now and the accumulated knowledge of thousands of years of human culture, the human body is full of mysteries and conditions that cannot be cured, even now. That was all the more so 2,500 years ago.

LEVITICUS 14:1-15:33
This week’s Torah portion, Metzora, deals with an affliction called tzara’at, which often is translated as leprosy but, in fact, has nothing to do with leprosy. Tzara’at can be contracted by people, garments and houses.
Also discussed are unhealthy penile and vaginal discharges. The portion concludes with a discussion of menstruation.
It is easy to imagine that these conditions would cause anxiety. Even with all the science we have now and the accumulated knowledge of thousands of years of human culture, the human body is full of mysteries and conditions that cannot be cured, even now. That was all the more so 2,500 years ago.
The Israelite community, facing the scary conditions we study this week, developed protocols and rituals to address the needs and fears of both those with the conditions addressed and those free from them.
Conspicuously missing from the Torah is an approach that blames the victim for their condition. The fact that the Torah does not blame the victims is not generally known by most Jews for at least three reasons.
The people, garments and houses having one of these conditions become ritually tamei, not allowed to come close to the sanctuary and sometimes required to be physically outside of the camp. Both the physical isolation and the English translation of tamei as “impure” makes it easy for readers to imagine them as somehow guilty of something which brought about their condition.
Part of the process of coming back into the camp often includes the offering of an asham and chatat, often translated as guilt and sin offerings. These offerings are generic parts of the ritual of purification that happen at major transitions, as well as holidays. These rituals are part of a fabric of atonement that is built into Israelite tradition and are required of all people.
Beginning with Talmud, Jewish commentators begin interpreting these conditions as the result of the committing of various sins, the most coming be lashon hara, gossip. But many other sins are mentioned as well. Samson Raphael Hirsh (19th century Germany) wrote on 14:18, “[A person’s] physical well-being is completely dependent on his spiritual and moral health.”
But when we take the time to actually read this Torah portion, we will see that its sole focus is on managing these conditions and on making clear procedures by which the sufferers of these conditions can be both separated from and returned to the community. There is no mention at all as to the causes of these conditions. The rituals might be repetitive and thus somewhat boring for the reader, but nonetheless, a fair reader must see these rituals and procedures as the essential essence of this Torah portion.
There is another approach taken in our post-Biblical sacred texts which puts forth a different way of interpreting these texts from the blame-the-victim approaches I’ve mentioned earlier.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 67b, there is a teaching which attempts to explain the differences between “ordinances,” mishpatim, and “statutes,” chukim, as mentioned in Leviticus 18:4. The interpretation brought there suggests that statutes were commandments that logic would have dictated we abide even if the Torah had not commanded them. Examples given are the laws concerning idolatry, adultery, bloodshed, robbery and blasphemy.
“Ordinances,” on the other hand, were commandments that are beyond reason. As an example, Talmud specifically mentions the laws relating to purification of the person with tzara’at among other examples. Both kinds of laws are understood to be of equivalent standing.
In other words, both the causes of tzara’at and the logic behind the procedures for the community’s handling of the sufferers are a mystery.
There are different ways in which human cultures address the unknown; the establishment of rituals and the making of meaning are two of them.
I’m suggesting that the making of meaning, as powerful as that is, and as good as we are at doing it, has the possibility to push us away from confronting what we truly don’t know.
Let us reconnect with the power of rituals (new and old) as a way confronting what we truly don’t know. And let us be very careful to avoid the use of meaning making in ways that unfairly hurts people.
Rabbi Shai Gluskin is a Reconstructionist rabbi and leads Jr. Congregation at the Germantown Jewish Centre. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.


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