Wednesday, 10 Apr 2013

Written by Esther Hugenholtz

The Ick Factor
The famous Anthropologist, Mary Douglas, once wrote a seminal work called ‘Purity and Danger’. Every student of Cultural Anthropology is required to read this classic which deals with what could be termed as ‘the question of the Ick Factor’. Why do we find some things dirty, polluting and impure and others holy, clean and pure? One of the premises of the book is that we react against things that are out of place, out of order. Something may be deemed ‘clean’ in one setting but unclean in another. The striking example the author gives is that of hair: when it sits on our head, we don’t think much of it. But if you find that same hair caught in the bathtub or sink, we recoil in disgust.
This week’s parashah is all about the Ick Factor. Tazria-Metzora is dreaded by b’nei mitzvah students and rabbis alike. Yet I voluntarily signed up to write this D’var Torah. I might be a little odd but I’d rather chalk it up to my training as a Cultural Anthropologist. See, we Anthropologists have a penchant for the bizarre, the taboo and the out-of-place. And often our bodily functions are relegated to that realm. As a society, we’re not comfortable discussing natural bodily functions that are intimate: the blood of menstruation and childbirth, semen, urine, faeces, wounds, puss, disease, mold, infection. Even writing these words goes against my better, ‘respectable’ nature. But the parashah feels no such inhibitions. The Torah talks about these things openly and our first response may be to recoil in disgust, like the proverbial stray hair in the sink. We don’t want to think about it. Especially as Progressive Jews, where the Temple and its attendant purity laws are no longer relevant to our experience or theology, we’d rather not deal with our very own Ick Factor.
But deal with it we must. We all deal with sexuality, illness and death at some point in our lives. Currently, I am (very happily) five months pregnant and when you’re pregnant, one of the first fears you have to let go is the Ick Factor. Your body goes through momentous and wondrous changes, reminiscent of Psalm 139.14. For starters, about 15% of pregnancies end in miscarriages. Ultrasounds reveal embryonic and fetal development at its earliest stages. There’s ‘morning’ sickness (what a misnomer!) and the discomforts of gestation and of course, childbirth itself—no small feat! Embedded in the physicality of the ‘Ick Factor’ are much deeper existential questions about life and death which touch at the heart of the Torah’s purity system. As outdated as these notions may strike us, they speak to the imaginations of our ancestors who wrestled with the same existential feelings of awe and wonder as we do.
So, what do we do with Tazria-Metzora? Do we slam the book shut? Or do we use it as a spring board to think about these eternal questions of how we inhabit this mortal coil of ours? There is much to be offended at in this parashah as well as what one could see as ‘awful medical science’: women (and men) rendered ‘impure’ through normal bodily functions, women rendered more impure when they bear a female child, social ostracisation as a response to infectious illness. The notion that offerings were needed to offset physical states of ‘impurity’, the idea that illness is coupled to sin. Many commentators in past and present have wrestled with these texts: can we bend them to say something about our ethical state? Can they offer a warning how we deal with the sick and vulnerable as a community? Is the tza’arat, the Biblical leprosy, really a physical manifestation of leshon hara, evil speech, as the Rabbis suggest? All of these might be valid readings but for once, I’d just like to stick to the ‘p’shat’, the literal meaning, of the text. It won’t make the uncomfortable go away.
Then again, perhaps that is the deeper point of this parashah: to balance between articulating the uncomfortable and the natural. To integrate the mixed message, the ambiguous, into a life-affirming whole.
We live in a world where we are bombarded with mixed messages about our physicality. On the one hand, we live in a hyper-sexualised world of nudity and (often, female) objectification in the public arena. To put it bluntly: sex sells and images of ‘sexy women’ sell too. On the other hand, there are many private struggles regarding intimacy and marriage. There are shocking figures about how young people have access to internet pornography and how this affects youngsters developmentally. We receive mixed messages of body image versus indulgence. We are pressured to be young, slim and beautiful yet every night, sumptuous advertisements for fast-food or fattening, unhealthy food grace our TV screens. We live in a culture that celebrates death, violence and war in all its gritty detail through the continual streaming of media images while at the same time, speaking of the impact of death and mourning remain taboo. In short, we are a schizophrenic culture where we operate a divided narrative.
Parashat Tazria-Metzora cautions us against that message. For the Torah, there is no body-mind dichotomy, no prudishness about sexuality (although restraint and modesty are certainly Jewish and rabbinic values) and no shying away from the raw truth of death and disease. The world of our ancestors was harsh and brutally honest but also surprisingly tender and insightful. Most of all, amongst the gore of blood, death and sacrifice was a deep love and celebration of life. Sometimes, as Mary Douglas would argue as well, what is ‘icky’ and what is ‘holy’ are very close together. This is the human condition. The Torah calls upon us to honour it and celebrate it because ultimately life is beautiful and we can make it good.

Student Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.