Balancing Tradition & Intellect: A Case Study Of The Difficulties Of Thinking Jews

Guest essay by Daniel Levine of “Who Knows One?”.

In this week's parsha, Tazria, we are quickly confronted with laws and procedures dealing with tzarat. The initial verse regarding this phenomenon is as follows:

Leviticus 13:2:

אָדָם כִּי־יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ שְׂאֵת אוֹ־סַפַּחַת אוֹ בַהֶרֶת וְהָיָה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת וְהוּבָא אֶל־אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן אוֹ אֶל־אַחַד מִבָּנָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים

If a man has a se'eith, a sappachath, or a bahereth on the skin of his flesh, and it forms a lesion of tzarat on the skin of his flesh, he shall be brought to Aaron the kohen, or to one of his sons, the kohanim.

The Torah then goes on to spend the better half of two different Parshiot discussing tzarat: what it looks like, the exact procedure required to deal with tzarat, and finally what to do once a person has ridden himself of tzarat. However, as we get to the end of this section in the Torah were are still left with one major problem. There is no explanation in the Torah, or attempt at an explanation, as to the cause or nature of tzarat!

The Talmud, in tractate Arachin, along with multiple other Midrashim, famously connects tzarat with a number of sins centered on the theme of speaking badly about others. Upon analyzing any Talmudic or Midrashic attempt at explaining a phenomenon in the Torah, it is crucial to try and find the scriptural text or texts to support their assertion. With the case of tzarat there are many hints in the Torah as to the cause of tzarat including:

  • Moshe's hand being struck with tzarat after speaking badly about the Israelites during the episode of the burning bush (Exodus 4:6).
  • Miriam being struck by tzarat when she spoke badly about Moshe (Numbers 12:10).
  • The name of someone stricken by tzarat, a Metzorah, sounds like it is made up of the words "motzi shem rah" or "one who slanders.”

As a result of the Biblical stories and Rabbinic interpretation, tzarat is subsequently viewed by the majority of Jewish exegetes as a Divinely ordained punishment for sin. In their view, God, who controls all of nature, inflicts a sinner with tzarat, and heals them once they have repented.

One may think that the story ends here — after all, our analysis above seems like the most reasonable conclusion to make from the Torah. However, within the more “rational” camp of Rishonim we actually see them try to argue for a much more scientific and natural explanation of tzarat. Many of our great sages such as Rambam, Ibn Ezra, Ralbag, Ibn Caspi and many others tried seeing the world in a much more rationalistic manner — while still trying to hold true to the “truth” of the Torah. In many different areas we encounter people in this camp fundamentally disagreeing with their “non-rationalistic” counterparts on a myriad of issues.

Perspectives Through The Ages

Before giving my commentary, I want to lay out some of the more “rational” opinions surrounding tzarat. Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim famously writes that tzarat is a contagious disease:

Guide for the Perplexed 3:47:

מצורף אל היות הצרעת מתדבקת וכל בני אדם מואסים אותה ובדלים ממנה וכמעט שהוא בטבע

Furthermore, leprosy is contagious, and all people flee from it; this is virtually in their nature.

Even if the onset or the timing of this disease is supernatural, once a person is diagnosed with tzarat, he must be careful not to get other people "sick.” Ralbag, in his commentary on Leviticus, takes this idea a bit further and attempts to explain tzarat via the scientific and medical knowledge existing in his day. He writes that when moisture enters an object, it causes the object to first display certain signs (tzarat) and then eventually that object disintegrates. Continuing along this theme the Meshech Chochma writes that the procedure that a Metzorah must go through is a quarantine, and the only people who are able to come in contact with the Metzorah are Kohanim, who are granted special Divine protection in this case. Many other commentators throughout the years have interpreted tzarat in a similar manner.

The idea that tzarat is a contagious disease is problematic on many different accounts. These reasons include, but are not limited to:

  • A person technically does not have tzarat until diagnosed by a Kohein, to the point where a person can never be “diagnosed” on Shabbat or a holiday.
  • The Kohein only searches for tzarat in the very visible parts of the body, excluding folds in the body (where a skin disease would be more likely to spread).
  • These laws only apply to Jews, so non-Jews cannot be diagnosed with tzarat.
  • If one is fully covered with tzarat he actually does not have tzarat due to a scriptural decree.

These reasons show the ultimate futility of trying to give any sort of “rational” or naturalistic explanation as to the nature of tzarat. In the words of R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, many of these arguments display the “absolute folly” of trying to “rationally” explain tzarat.

Interpreting The Text & Tradition

This brings up an interesting question: I have no doubt that many of the aforementioned scholars had knowledge of these challenges to the “rational” explanation of tzarat, so why did they go against the simple explanation of the verses in their explanation?

I think that the attempt of the “rationalist camp” shows the difficulty of living a life trying to balance loyalty to the Torah while at the same time valuing rationale and logic. For some individuals, simply accepting that in Biblical times there were all of these wild, supernatural, crazy miracles happening all the time is too much of a leap of faith. What reasons are there for us to assume that a few thousand years ago the nature of the world was fundamentally different then it is now?

The struggle of these Rishonim is the struggle that every one of us must go through on a daily basis. On the one hand, I refuse to give up my intellectual honesty and simply accept that everything that I am being taught is true. On the other hand, however, I find Judaism, with its vast tradition, extremely valuable and important. How exactly this dichotomy and process works will be unique for each and every person — as it should be. In trying to understand the nature of the miraculous disease tzarat, we have uncovered a much larger, more fundamental question, of how we balance our religious tradition with our intellect.

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