Those of you who know me well know that I have a penchant for working to redeem the so-called irredeemable texts. These misogynist, bloody, and questionably unethical texts abound in our sacred literature.
In my musing for this parasha in 5758 (1997-1998,) I wrote in part:
“Childbirth. Leprosy. Male Discharges. Menstruation. OY! If nothing else, I’ll say this-our ancestors did take on some common, everyday issues. The way they approached them may seem alien and strange to us, but surely it is a sign of a healthy society that they could talk about these things. Imagine the outcry today if you wanted to publicly talk about these issues. Although in recent decades our society has loosened up somewhat, we still have a lot of taboos against discussing things like sex, bodily functions, etc. openly and publicly. So while we may view these rituals and proscriptions in Tazria-Metzora with disdain and confusion, I ask – who is the healthier society: the one in which a mother talks to her daughter about “their friend” coming to visit them each month, or the one in which subjects like menstruation, discharges and leprosy are dealt with openly?”
Writing in 5762 (2001-2002) I said:
So I find it somewhat ironic that I, who has always openly taught the text to even the youngest students as straightforwardly as possible suddenly found myself unsure how to address the contents of Tazria-Metzora with students this week.
This led to a conversation with a friend about writing songs for Jewish occasions that no one particularly wants to sing about, like divorce, circumcision, agunah, pidyon haben, the assorted killing and ritual sacrifices in the text, etc. And this conversation ultimately led back to a discussion of songs about difficult texts in the Torah like Tazria-Metzora. (Difficult, that is, when weighed on the modern scale of relevancy to contemporary life. Of course, as I have often argued, this may not be the best scale to use.)
So we both played around with a simplistic way of writing a quick parody song about Tazria-Metzora suitable for youngsters and tweens.
We started with this version:
(All sung to the tune of “Sing a Song of Sixpence”)
Sing a song of leprosy, Illness in the air.
Sing a song of leprosy, Spots are everywhere. Sing a song of leprosy, Here the people cry:
“What did I say that’s so bad? And why ME, G”d, oh why?”
Well, would these kids understand what leprosy is without an explanation more graphic than I wished to use? So we tried again:
Tazria, Metzora Illness in the air.
On the skin and on house walls Lesions everywhere.
Tazria, Metzora Here the people cry:
What did I say that’s so bad? And why ME, G”d, oh why?”
Now that’s ALMOST an actually usable song! But again, will the students know what a lesion is? So we prettied it up a bit more:
Tazria, Metzora Sickness of the spirit. On the skin and on house walls Marks that do reveal it. Tazria, Metzora Tell the people this: ‘Twas something that they said or did That brought them all this tzuris!
Well, ALMOST, we thought. But tzuris might not be in their vocabulary. So once again we edit:
Tazria, Metzora Spiritual rot
On the skin and on house walls Look what we have got
Tazria, Metzora Let the people know
‘Twas something that they said or did makes spots as white as snow!
Hmm. That one was perhaps a step backwards. But it does convey the essential message we’re trying to get across here-that one interpretation is that tzara’at is really a physical manifestation of inner problems of faith, behavior, lashon hara, self-discomfort with one’s behavior, etc.
We finally settled on this version which we used:
Tazria, Metzora, Sickness of the spirit.
On the skin and on house walls, White spots do reveal it.
Tazria, Metzora, Hear the people cry:
What did I say that’s so bad? And why ME, G”d, oh why?
Now, this was a fun exercise. But I’m ignoring the essential question. Why is it that I feel I have to couch the reality of parashiot Tazria-Metzora in this way? Is there some reason I feel uncomfortable just saying “this parasha talks about menstruation and childbirth, and how they render a woman unclean for a time, the rituals involved when people developed some kind of odd eruption on their skin, or when houses developed similar infections on their walls, and the ritual for rendering the people and houses clean again.”
Is it locale? At the day school where I taught last year (2000-2001), was I more willing to be frank and open, believing the students could handle it because of their constant exposure to the text? Do I fear the student in my current (2001-2002) Reform supplemental school setting knows less and can therefore handle less? I’d like to think that’s not the case, as I had quite a mix of students from different movements at the day school. So whence my sensitivity?
Here I am, thirteen years later. I’ve been a director and/or taught at supplemental schools in Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist congregations, JCCs, independent congregations, and independent day schools, and now I find myself at a Schechter day school. My disdain for pediatric Judaism, which avoids the difficult (and potentially irredeemable) material remains and, if anything, is stronger. It is tempered, however, by more experience. The line between what a student experiences as “gross!” and what becomes potentially disturbing is rarely clear, and it varies not just between age and grade levels, but between individual students in the same grade or of the same age. And yes, just over the past decade the has been a perceptible, generalized change. Students have greater exposure to (or at least knowledge of) life’s grittiness at earlier and earlier ages. Fortunately, young students today seem generally more accepting of differences between people, are more welcoming and supportive of classmates who are different in some way. Now, they ask questions like “were the children of lepers allowed to go to school with all the other kids?” and they struggle to understand how lepers and others with visible signs of disease were segregated. Why just this morning I overhead some young elementary age students discussing circumcision, demonstrating they had at least a passing understanding of the concept (and they were not discussing it in a silly, giggly way, but as part of a serious conversation.)
I still don’t know the secret to teaching earthy Torah in age-appropriate ways. Some say we wait until the questions are asked and then we find a way to answer them honestly and as candidly as we can. However, if we don’t create an environment where that is bound to happen, at what point are we obligated to broach the subject? If we sanitize everything, our students will never develop the antibodies to resist the more troubling stuff when they encounter it.
The “Auntie Mame” in me wants to expose every child, at every age, to everything. I suppose I rely on the many Mr. Babcocks around me to keep me in check. Yet we all know how the story of “Auntie Mame” ends and she gets more young minds to expose to life’s banquet so they won’t be one of the suckers starving to death.
I still have no quick and easy answers. As I wrote thirteen years ago, perhaps I’ll delve into the text some more and see if I can find some. Because if I don’t identify and treat whatever it is that’s nagging at me about how I’m teaching these parashiyot this year, then I might wind up with my own tzara’at.
Thanks for allowing me the opportunity to try and prevent that. May you find the time for your own catharsis and avoid your external manifestations of your self-discomfort!
©2015 (portions ©2002) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this Parasha:
Tazria-M’tzora 5773-Even Lepers Bring Good News-Redux, Revised, & Expanded
Tazria-Metzora 5772 – We Are the Lepers
Tazria-Metzora 5770 – Excessive Prevention
Tazria-M’tzora 5767-Once Impure, Not Always Impure
Tazria-Metzora 5766 – Comfort in Jerusalem
Tazria-Metzora 5758/5764-Getting Through the Messy Stuff
Tazria-Metzora 5761-Lessons For Our Stuents
Tazria-Metzora 5762-Sing a Song of Leprosy
Tazria/Shabbat HaHodesh 5774 – Fifty Fifty
Tazria/Shabbat HaHodesh 5771 – It’s Good To Be the King
Tazria 5768 – Just Not Good Enough is Just Not Good Enough
Tazria 5765-If Naaman Can Be Forgiven…
Tazria 5760-Preventing Spiritual Rot