This week’s Torah portion, Tazria (and its usual partner, Metzora), strikes fear in the hearts of Torah scholars and B’nai Mitzvah alike. Not because it’s lacking in interpretable material, or because it casts God and the Israelites in a bad light, but because if it were a TV show it would be rated M, for mature. This section of Leviticus gets pretty graphic, describing bodily processes not normally discussed in public. Diseases, emissions, blood, and puss are the primary subjects of our text, thereby forcing us to put aside issues of “polite conversation” in lieu of a frank dialogue about how our bodies work or not.
The commentators of old went back and forth in their comfort level surrounding biological and physiological discussions. Sometimes, they chose to focus on the spiritual pathology for disease, interpreting leprosy as a symptom of gossip, or that “genital malfunctions” are due to impure thoughts. Sometimes, they delve deeply into the specifics of male and female discharges – commenting on color, viscosity, accompanying symptoms, and levels of infectiousness. Sometimes, they understood how our bodies work with amazing insight. Sometimes, their limited understanding of biology makes us wonder if they had any observational, experimental, or medical experience at all, or if they just made it all up.
Regardless of the sensitive subject matter however, Tazria is still Torah. Therefore, Jews of every time and every place are compelled to study, interpret, and struggle with its contents. And yet, even centuries after commentaries begin these tough conversations, we still hesitate to speak of them out loud. The whispers of our Puritan American roots permeate nearly every discussion about biological processes. Our culture teaches us to fear the question of “where do babies come from” or conversations around the onset of hormonal sexual urges. Media of every kind either over emphasizes or under represents sex and how it relates to our relationships, communities, ethics, and manners. No matter what, our conversations around males, females, sexuality, and biology always carry heavy baggage.
But Torah commentary can teach us more than insight into the inexact medical understanding of the commentators’ time. It can teach us how to talk about difficult subjects without shying away from them, how to have meaningful debate without devolving into mocking or name-calling, and how to accept the more inexplicable parts of the human condition without worrying about absolute Truth. Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud, halacha, commentary, scholarship, and responsa all include discussions around sex, birth and death, disease, menstrual and seminal discharge, sexual attraction, and many more sensitive topics in detail and to the best of their understanding.
We, too, can add our voices to difficult conversations – while also updating the common language, terms, and beliefs to keep the conversation meaningful and relevant to our modern day lives. While the rabbis of old focused on how our bodies permit or prohibit our participation in ritual acts, we can focus on how our bodies are closely linked to identity, spirituality, and attraction where each provides unique insight into respect of self, of others, and of community. We could allow ourselves to fear the annual reading of Tazria and Metzora, and the inevitable M-rated conversation, or we can dive into difficult subjects with knowledge that this too is a part of our tradition.
Our bodies are one of the most important expressions of our Jewish values, and one of the most difficult subjects of our Jewish discourse. But we don’t do ourselves, our children, or our people any good by keeping the hard topics in the closet. Our discomfort can be a tool as it forces us to discover another part of our nature and what it is that we really care about. Is our fear of biology about disgust or incomplete knowledge? Is our anxiety about sexuality due to differing expressions of oneself, or differing expressions about the individual’s responsibility to common society? Is our nervousness around disease due to the possibility of our own infection or the evidence of mortality?
We’ll never know unless we talk about it.