Parashat Metzora / Atop the Ruins of the Leprous House

Yakov Z. Meyer
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A modern-day illustration of Rabbi Ashi teaching at the Babylonian academy at Sura.
Yakov Z. Meyer

In this week’s Torah portion (Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33), God tells Moses and Aaron that, when the Israelites arrive in the Promised Land and become its rightful heirs, he might strike their walls of their homes with leprosy. When that happens, the owners will have to vacate and summon a priest. The latter will then decide whether it is sufficient enough to remove the stricken stones or, in extreme cases, whether the entire structure must be demolished.

Ostensibly, the Torah seems to be describing an actual situation and issuing instructions on how to deal with it. However, in Tractate Sanhedrin (page 71a), the Babylonian Talmud discusses three passages in the Torah – those of the leprous house, the wayward son and the idolatrous city – and states that all these instances “never actually occurred and never will occur.” According to the passage in Deuteronomy 21, the wayward son must be executed, and the idolatrous city, all of whose inhabitants have become idol worshipers, must be destroyed (Deut. 13).

The Talmud’s radical declaration that these passages do not describe a real situation would seem to render them irrelevant. But the sages do not simply cancel out entire passages in the Torah; instead they offer an explanation. Since God handed down the Torah in Sinai and all of its passages are thus relevant and meaningful, the sages offer a simple, elegant solution: “There never was, and never will be, a leprous house. Why then does the Torah discuss it? So that it will be studied and so that the person who studies it will be rewarded for the act of studying the passage.”

The Torah is a literary text that refers to the real world, describes it and instructs readers how to deal with it. Thus, the Torah is located outside reality and is an outside observer. When an injustice or sin is committed in that reality, the text describes the injustice or sin and proposes ways to deal with it. A situation is “imported” from the real world into the literary context of the Torah, where it is described and analyzed, and where a decision is made as to how to contend with it. The situation is then “exported” from the Torah back into the real world in order to influence and shape human reality.

However, the Torah is not just a text that exists a priori outside reality. It is written on parchment and is a tangible part of reality. The acts of reading and interpreting its words take place daily, as it is written: “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth, but thou shalt meditate therein day and night” (Joshua 1:8).

The Torah issues the command that it must be read, and readers who seek to obey see the instruction to read it. In this respect, the Torah creates a never-ending philosophical loop, like the story Michael Ende relates about the old man on the remote mountain who is sitting in a bog and writing about what he is experiencing in real time, including the act of reading his book, which is in the process of being written.

Apparently, all of the Torah’s portions have a dual function. For example, those having to do with how the Sabbath should be observed are intended first to enable a person both to know how to keep that holy day and, secondly, to study, analyze and interpret those passages.

In resolving the problem presented by the above three passages in the Torah, the Talmud redefines their function in the real world. Since they do not represent a situation that could ever take place, their function is solely textual; they are intended to induce the reader to study them. The Talmud “transfers” these situations from the real world into a textual framework. The passages do not depict reality; they are neither prose nor poetry, neither actual laws nor myths. They represent a purely intellectual text, an abstract mathematical formula that does not describe anything but itself, does not relate to real life and whose only function is to draw the reader to study it.

Admittedly, there is a gap between the literal reading of the three passages and the way they are represented in the Talmud. Just as the Torah depicts real situations demanding practical solutions, it seems in this week’s reading to be describing an actual situation, in which a house is stricken with leprosy. The sages argue that they are presenting the true nature of these problematic passages and not offering any innovative interpretation. According to their thinking, the passages are intended solely to encourage readers to study them and receive a reward for that study.

However, the act of transferring the passages from the real world to the narrow confines of an intellectual text is itself the outcome of an intellectual exercise. In their discussion of the commandment concerning the leprous house, the sages are expressing their view not only about that commandment but also about the Torah’s textual nature. In their opinion, the Torah need not undergo a process of reduction in the real world for it to continue to exist. Quite the contrary: In certain cases, it is preferable that the Torah remain in the intellectual, purifying fire of the beit midrash, the house of study, rather than become a living reality.

But the Talmudic discussion does not end here. For all three passages, someone seems to claim to have actually seen the remnants of each of these three situations. Regarding the wayward son, Rabbi Yonatan testifies: “I saw such a son and I sat on his grave.” Similarly, regarding the idolatrous city, he states, “I saw such a city and I sat on its tel.”

Concerning the leprous house, two witnesses come forward. Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Tzadok, testifies that he actually saw its ruins in Gaza and that the name given to the ruins in itself attests to the structure’s identity as a leprous house that was demolished. Rabbi Simeon, a resident of Akko (Acre), testifies that, on a visit to the Galilee, he saw an actual place to which locals claimed the stones of a leprous house had been removed.

The three rabbis do not directly attack the sages’ interpretation of the three problematic passages but instead provide testimony that in its seemingly naïve simplicity demolishes the abstract structure that the sages erected for those passages.

Archaeology, as it were, defeats intellectual analysis here, and the three seemingly abstract situations become real occurrences; they are removed from a literary, theoretical framework and returned to the real world. Through their testimonies, Rabbi Yonatan and his colleagues “rescue” the three commandments from the shackles of the intellect, restoring them to the real world and thereby demolishing the entire abstract structure the sages set up to explain the three commandments.

What can be done to counter the reality-oriented and provocative anti-intellectualism demonstrated by individuals such as Rabbi Yonatan? One possibility is to attempt to refute their testimony. Another is to simply ignore it; after all, what do academics care about what happens in the real world? They are content to reside in the narrow confines of their intellectual world and are not concerned with practicalities.

A third option is to admit that the sages’ approach is manipulative and that their claim concerning the sole function of the passages – namely, that they are simply intended to induce readers to study and reap the reward – is not a representation of the passages’ ultimate goal, but is rather an innovation on their part. One can then go one step further and even claim that their approach has a high moral value.

The discussion in the Talmud, however, does not choose sides; it merely presents both sides of an argument – the sages’ claim and the ostensibly refuting testimonies – and seems to ask the reader to walk through it and decide where he wants to be. To choose, with regard to the biblical passages in question, between a purely intellectual world and a down-to-earth sojourn in the real world that includes grave of the wayward son, the tel of the destroyed idolatrous city and the ruins of the leprous house.