Sunday, April 30, 2006

 

Weekly Parsha Blogging

I guess I've been lax, so the title cannot be read in the sense of blogging weekly on the subject but in the sense of blogging on a (usually "last") week's parsha.

Anyway -- normally the Haftarah reading for M'tzora (whether or not the reading is combined with Tzaria) is II Kings 7:3-20. Since it was Rosh Chodesh yesterday, however, we read from (Deutero or Tritero?) Isaiah 66:1-22.

Many people find it hard to talk about the parts of Leviticus read around this time of year, these parts being obsessed with impurity and disease and find them somehow to be the opposite of the Ethical Monotheism the mantle of which we claim for our faith. The solution for the preacher, however, is to look to the Prophetic reading to understand how the purity code, far from being a primative appendix to a modern religion is really part and parcel of that religious mode. Y'all know I am wont to argue how Leviticus as a whole is misinterpreted by many, but this parsha, more than any, really points the way to understanding what Leviticus really is about.

This last week, the Torah portion read dealt with, among other things, "leprosy" (not Hansen's disease but some other disease: my pet theory is that what is referred to by the Torah is something akin to Yaws/Syphillis that normally would be transmitted sexually but could readily mutate into a pathogen highly contageous by aerosal (hence the association with gossip) exposure or direct contact. But that is somewhat besides the point, as I have argued, judging by the "origin story" for the tribe of Levi that we get from J/E, this tribe is disposed of land, not because it is holy, but because Levi had sinned. It would seem that the Levites, though priestly, were also outcasts -- a combination found, for example, in the Osu of the Ibo people. As worship in ancient Israel/Judea centralized, the priestly clans became less outcast and some eventually became (in the period of the Second Temple) promenant and powerful. Their code was thus one that sought to redifine the role of the priest/physician, who was in ancient times considered unclean due to his role in diagnosing and treating "unclean" diseases, into a role of great respect (indeed, in Rabbinic Judaism, visiting the sick is not something that makes you unclean but is one of the Talmudic "10 commandments"). But like all such transformative codes, there is a need to define a new "outcast" group to replace the old one not to mention Nietzsche's observation about dragon fighters: yet, the important lesson from Leviticus is not that some people are "impure" but that

(1) by adjustment of our actions, even the most "impure" among us can, like the Levites, transform themselves and their station in life from being "impure" to being "holy". Perhaps this is the lesson of why contact with holy substances (e.g. during childbirth, menstration -- to connect with the concept of the month -- or touching the Torah) causes one to be impure -- to demonstrate an important truth (that impurity can lead to holiness) by making people act out the converse: treating them as impure when they have contacted that which is holy. Indeed, the difference between "impure" and "holy" in the Hebraic mindset is not that much: the word used for holy, kiddush, literally means set apart -- which is what you do with that which is impure. The holiness code is obsessed with the impure, not out of prurience or purely a desire to maintain an out-group, but because impurity and holiness are inextracably linked by the notion of separateness (which itself can be a synonym for severalness: which links to the next point about diversity ...)

and

(2) it is precisely those who, by being impure, are on the borderline regions of society who are most able to save society as a whole. This is the lesson of the Haftarah portion we would have read had it not been Rosh Chodesh -- the story of how it was the lepers that save Samaria from starvation following a siege. This is a lesson also taught by the example of Jesus but which too many so-called Christians seem to have forgotten. At the very least, all in a society, even the least and "impure" of society are needed for society to function and, more importantly, to face challenges in which it is the "last" who might be the "first" to figure out how to meet a challenge. This is also the real lesson of "evolution" -- not that the fittest survive, but that what makes a person fit can change with the blink of an eye and hence diversity in "fitness" is important. Indeed, the real fear of evolution comes from those who politically embrace "social Darwinism" -- the reason they fear "evolution" is not because it teaches "survival of the fittest" but because it, like Leviticus which seeks to set up a redistributive society in which not only the fit can survive but everyone can because it is often those on the borders of society who might prove to be society's saviours when conditions change, embraces diversity of fitness. It's like the old dispute between the essentialists and the nominalists: to an "Intelligent Design" supporter what is important is the essence of God's design. But to an evolutionist, like to P and D and probably J and E as well, what is interesting and important is diversity: it is not the first who remain first but the last who may in the future become the first ... so we must maintain a society in which all can flourish, because you never know who or which subculture will be our salvation in the future -- (to conect to the Haftarah portion actually read yesterday) as invisioned by Isaiah.

*

I am sure this can be polished more -- but it's my blog and I can ramble if I want to ...

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