Once upon a time I had a teacher who assigned me to read and report on a book titled Nizzahon Vetus, more fully titled, THE JEWISH-CHRISTIAN DEBATE IN THE HIGH MIDDLE AGES: A CRITICAL EDITION OF THE NIẒẒAḤON VETUS. The book is a compendium of medieval Christian-Jewish forced debates.
I confess I was frustrated and more than a little irritated with the assignment, which didn’t seem to correspond to any of my current interests. Have you ever tried to read an encyclopedia? If you have, you can understand my frustration.
I usually fell asleep after two or three entries. I had this gnawing feeling I had been set up to fail the final exam, which was the report on this very unreadable book, the kind of thing you might buy and stick on your shelf as a reference. As my irritation grew, so did my determination to find something comprehensive and significant to develop for my report.
I started to notice repeating words and themes and decided to treat this very unliterary piece of work like a piece of literature. I tracked the themes and repeating words. This, by the way, was in the days before computers were in every home.
Sometimes the most arcane texts reveal unexpected riches. In that case, I was startled by the accumulation of blood imagery, a medieval obsession with blood. Jews, rendered impure by contact with blood and forbidden to consume it, could not comprehend the idea of a deity passing through the birth canal, graphically described in terms of blood. Christians were convinced that Jews engaged in nefarious activities with the blood of Christians. Both were in a constant state of shock at who they assumed the other was. There was a gulf between their worlds, and it was filled with blood.
This week as I studied Tazria-Metzora, a combined portion that culminates the Purity Code in Leviticus, I remembered that experience studying Nizzahon Vetus. The recollection was stirred by two things: the encyclopedic nature of the material and the way blood dripped, poured, splashed and spilled through nearly every word of the narrative.
As I suggested last week with Shemini, Leviticus’ codes actualize the second creation story of Genesis, the Garden story. The Purity Codes are a constant reminder that we are part of nature in all its beauty and brutality. We are born and we die, and in between we are subject to organic decay. The Holiness Code reminds us of the G-d-like part of our nature, our moral understanding and ability to make moral decisions.
Blood is the scarlet thread that winds through the narrative and ties it all together. Blood makes a person impure…and blood purifies. It represents life, and it represents death, operating at the boundary between life and death. Blood expresses thanks…and it atones, paying a debt humanity owes, a choice for freedom and moral consciousness that catapulted us into a world of life and death. Somehow the blood of slaughtered creatures accumulating on the altar demands that we exercise our moral faculty, a distinguishing capability that came at such a high price.
Blood is at the center of the priestly religion of the Torah. If we can set aside the strangeness of this text from our contemporary perspective and pay attention to the details of blood, the contexts in which it appears, how it is treated in each context, how the contexts relate, we can begin to understand something about the meaning of sacrifice in this text.
For Shemini, I proposed these thoughts about blood:
“As the priests operate at the boundary between life and death and creation and Transcendence on behalf of the Israelites, blood is a boundary issue. It represents life, but outside of a living creature represents death. It purifies in a ritual setting but outside of cultic worship creates impurity.
“In the symbolic shorthand of the Torah, The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis tells us how human beings are like G-d. The Tree of Life and Death tells us how they are different from G-d.
“As a bloodless ‘meal’ generates the events that led to this situation (eating from the Tree), blood-filled meals centered around the altar represent a path to repair. Since a human being generated the crack in creation, human life is due for the repair — but G-d substitutes animals for the Israelites.”
In some earlier work on Niddah, the purity regulations surrounding childbirth and menstruation, I found:
“…blood has the power to communicate impurity. (Stephen) Geller attaches this negative valence to the violence that is part of human nature and which results in unlawful bloodshed. As part of lawful bloodshed, that is, as part of the sacrificial system, blood purifies.
“…Geller’s (analysis) furthers our understanding of blood in describing its dual power: ‘To [the priestly writer] blood is, in the ‘old dispensation’ of Noah, a symbol of human sinfulness. In the ‘new dispensation’ of Sinai it is to become the means of atonement for sin.’
“In the vocabulary of ritual impurity, blood … purifies (e.g., the consecration of the priests in Leviticus 8 and the parallel purification of the lepers in Leviticus 14). In the Yom Kippur ritual, it purifies the community. Out of context, it renders a person impure.
“At the same time, however, there is an absolute prohibition on the consumption of blood (Lev. 3:17, 7:26, 17:10-14, Deut. 12:15-16, 20-24). This prohibition applies in the context of sacrificial worship as well as outside of it — and extends not only to Israel but to all human beings (Gen. 9:4). It is presented along with a prohibition of murder.
“The rationale appended to the law is that the life is in the blood (Lev. 17:11, 14, Deut. 12:23). Only God “consumes” life and death; the human being is barred from consuming the blood as s/he is barred from the Garden lest s/he eat from the Tree of Life and Death.”
ALLUSIONS TO CREATION
On a quick count, I find at least 25 uses of the number 7 with reference to a woman’s days of impurity after the birth of a boy, or the days of impurity for a suspected outbreak of leprosy of humans, textiles or houses, or a woman’s days of impurity for menstruation. There are additional oblique references when 7 is doubled to 14 days of impurity following the birth of a female child.
The number 7 always recalls the creation story, and this particular portion is full to overflowing with those allusions. In addition, two verses, 13:2 and 13:9, use the word “Adam” אָדָם to refer to a man declared leprous by the priest. In 13:29 and 13:38, the words “Ish” and “Isha,” וְאִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה, refer to a man or a woman who are pronounced “pure” by the priest, without manifestations that conform to leprosy. “Adam” for the leper rather than “Ish” is another clear reference to the creation story.
It is hard to disregard the links through allusion between the number 7, impurity associated with childbirth, menstruation, leprosy, blood and the Garden creation story. When a woman’s “days of purification” are fulfilled, she is “cleansed from the fountain of her blood” and offers a lamb and a pigeon or turtle-dove or two pigeons or two turtle-doves. One of the set is a burnt-offering, but the other is a sin-offering. Why a sin-offering after childbirth? A guilt-offering after an episode with leprosy? The association to the Garden story gives us a hint.
What happened in the Garden changed the entire structure of creation forever. On one side of the act of eating from the Tree is a harmonious system of differences, a world in which all creatures live in harmony and there is no bloodshed and no death. On the other side is exile into a blood-soaked world, a world in which the most basic act of nourishing oneself requires taking life. Like blood that both purifies and generates impurity, eating from the Tree is an ambivalent image of love and obedience vs. becoming fully conscious and morally responsible.
Humanity made the choice for full responsibility, becoming god-like in that way. In the process of making that choice, however, they generated consequences for all of creation, and they bear responsibility for every death. The reminders of the human role in altering the nature of creation with consequences for everything in it are birth, death, menstruation, seminal emissions, and the strange organic decay, perhaps living death, associated with leprosy. Thus birth, death, food and sexuality are the points at which human beings confront their responsibility in this radically altered world.
Perhaps the human choice would have been less ambiguous had it been made consciously, thoughtfully. In the story, though, there was no consideration of consequences, Adam and Eve’s own or the rest of their world. This failure to choose consciously is the real sin and the one for which they and those who follow must atone. Blood for blood, death for death.
Tazria-Metzora forces us to stop and consider an inescapable brutality at the core of life. The biblical authors recognized it. The medievals recognized it. They had their ways of coping and urging us to confront it and exercise our moral nature, improving our world. Tazria-Metzora reminds us of the moral demand that we do what we can to make life a little less brutal.
When we fully absorb these words and the reality behind them, they demand that we set aside all the mechanisms we have for ignoring and escaping a brutal reality at the base of life. They demand that we face injustice in the world and respond with whole hearts. They demand our attention to pain and suffering and ignorance and indifference. They demand that we consider the consequences of our fully conscious choices, doing what we can to minimize the suffering of all creatures and of the planet, doing what we can to improve life for us all.
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