In my writings and sermons I am constantly talking about the Torah as inherently progressive in its focus. This is in fact my answer to the most important question Jews often ask themselves – why should we care whether Jewish culture continues to exist or not? Why should we, as a community, spend so many resources in ensuring ‘Jewish Continuity’? For me the answer to these and similar questions is that the message of the Torah is progressive and universal therefore relevant as ever.
Of course there are all sorts of seeming problems with such a proposition. How can monetary compensation to the father of a rape victim, killing animals for God’s delight, or sanctioning revenge killings, be anything but primitive? The answer I believe lies in one simple concept, context. To judge whether the Torah is progressive, we need to match it up against the backdrop of its milieu. If we consistently find that the Torah is always offering a more humane, intelligent, and compassionate approach than its contemporaries, then it would be safe to conclude that its mission is to evolve the human spirit.
The subject of this week’s Parshat Metzorah is an excellent case in point. Without knowing any anthropology, history, and archaeology, all would be left scratching their heads. Metzorah is roughly translated as leper, and the laws in the last two weeks’ portions centre heavily on laws associated with symptoms of this disease called ‘tzaraat’ which can strike on humans bodies, their clothes, and even their houses.
Today one would go to a dermatologist for skin diseases, a builder for building issues, and ask for a refund from the clothing manufacturer for spontaneous inexplicable discolouration in one of their products. So we can ask, how then are these laws relevant to me in the 21st century?
Once we learn that similar laws are found elsewhere, what becomes interesting are the differences between the two. In other words, when it’s clear that the Torah is drawing on the common culture at the time, the message of the Torah is in the way it differentiates itself from those earlier texts.
There are Mesopotamian tablets that spell out all these laws which predate the Torah and they include two examples that are particularly worthwhile mentioning. One for its comical nature, the other for its brutality.
In the Torah, when discoloration appears on one’s house, they remove all of their belongings and then call the Kohen to give a diagnosis. This way even if the house will require some process to be made pure again, it wouldn’t affect all one’s belongings.
Compare this with the following law inscribed in a tablet in the 13th century BCE, precisely the time of the Torah according to tradition.
‘If there is fungus on a man’s house on the outer northern side, the owner of the house will die and his house will be scattered.’
I don’t think even Singapore with its draconian laws of public cleanliness has anything on Mesopotamia 3500 years ago. One would literally be executed because the cement used has developed some sort of fungus. Conversely, the Torah has ensured the safe removal of belongings and done away entirely with this barbaric notion that its owner should be killed.
Then there is the more comical example which is of particular interest since it contains the only known ritual for the treatment of the mysterious disease. This ritual was found on a single tablet composed in Emar and it reads:
‘If the fungus is yellow and red, it is the hand of the moon god Sîn. To remove it, you should anoint with human semen for seven days.’I’m not sure whose semen was used or how it got there, all I say is thank God for the Torah.
This sheds a whole new light on the timeless words of the Haggadah: If God had only given us the Torah – Dayeinu!