The Torah portion of Tazria-Metzora presents a perennial problem: how to make meaningful the picayune details of ancient laws rooted in faulty science which seem so entirely foreign to our thinking today. This is Leviticus at its most Leviticusyness.

One approach in recent years has been to focus on the act of world-creation that happens in the phrases uttered by the priests who look at the skin disease tzara’at and pronounce the diseased pure or impure. In gazing at a new phenomenon and ascribing to it a name, the kohen re-enacts the work of Adam at the beginning of time: naming, ordering, creating a moral universe through words. This line of explanation partakes of the midrashic tradition that links tzara’at to lashon hara, or malicious speech about others. In the Torah’s system of actions and consequences, such speech leads to a disease, the result of which is the kohen using speech to ultimately cast out the gossiper from the community. Speech creates, and speech destroys, the world.

This approach echoes the philosophical approach of Jurgen Habermas (who for years taught at Northwestern). Habermas’s school is known as discourse ethics, and focuses on how our words construct our worlds. Choosing our words with care is essential to creating and sustaining our relationships and our civil society.

Habermas’s philosophical interlocutor is Michel Foucault. In contrast to Habermas’s focus on the power of words, Foucault follows in the tradition of Friedrich Nietszche, who aimed to reveal a philosophy of embodied, physical power. Foucault spent years studying those who are physically excluded from and marginalized by society–most notably in prison. For Foucault, it is not words that create a universe, but the power dynamics of the body that generate the words we use. ‘Civil society’ is a chimera that obscures disparities in class, race, gender, sexual orientation–these things cannot be overcome simply by words; in fact, the bodily drives the intellectual.

In this line of thinking, there is a Foucauldian reading of Tazria-Metzora as well. In fact, it is much closer to the peshat, the plain meaning of the text. The physical issues presented by the people in the parasha are entirely physical, and they are ultimately excluded from some way in full participation in society. To say that a woman who gives birth, or a man who has a seminal discharge, is impure, is not simply an act of discourse; it is an act of power politics that keeps certain people–average, everyday people, who engage in the average, everday acts of the body–from centers of power. And it leads to an ethical disposition towards sexual taboos, which are really about preserving a certain kind of regime.

We can raise a number of questions on both of these approaches, and a good chunk of academic theory these days takes place at their point of intersection. But listening to them also reminds us that Torah is a different kind of discourse, a different kind of ethics, one that seeks to unify even as it breaks apart. The person afflicted with tzara’at ultimately has a route back into the camp; the zav or zavah ultimately comes back into the community. The hierarchical order created by the langauge of tahor and tamei, pure and impure, is, as Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai states in the midrash, not a reflection of a physical reality. The biological and the cognitive exist in a braided relationship which cannot be reduced to either Habermasian or Foucauldian ethics.They are aspects of a unity that transcends either, the unity of God, in whose image the human is created.

Shabbat shalom.