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.

As part of my PhD coursework I’m doing an independent study in the philosophy of education this quarter. Each week I’m reading a major work in the subject and writing my response. Below are some of my initial thoughts on reading Plato’s Meno and Republic for the first time in a very long time.

Education is central to Plato’s vision of the Republic, because it is the primary means by which the Guardians and Philosopher Kings will be identified and prepared for their roles. His program is clearly a very elitist one, and Socrates himself acknowledges that it is highly improbable. Yet in the course of The Republic, and to a lesser extent Meno, Plato outlines many of the foundational questions of education that persist to this day, among them: What is the nature of education? Who should be educated? Why should they be educated? How? And to what end?

In the Republic, Plato outlines a systematic approach to education that begins with gymnastics and moves on to music. These two areas were meant to enable soldiers to do their work, and would help to identify those capable of further study, which would include arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and ultimately dialectic, the highest of the disciplines. While at the end of his discussion with Glaucon in Book 7 he states that all above ten years old are to be spirited away to the country for proper breeding away from their parents, he maintains throughout that different people will be able to achieve different levels of education and will ultimately perform different functions in society.

The purpose of education in Plato’s scheme is to enable the Republic to be a just and virtuous state. Individual desires are subordinated to the good of the collective, to the extent that the shoemaker happily accepts his role for the good of the state, and the true Philosopher King will be the one who does not desire to be a leader at all, but only serves because the state demands it of him or her. Plato’s commitment to principle-that is, justice and the good and welfare of the state and its citizens-as the motivating force in all decisions is thorough, and helps to explain his openness to gender equality.

Still, Plato has a difficult time defining virtue, as he makes clear in Meno. And in that sense, Meno serves as a check on the utopian vision of the Republic. As Socrates points out, we have a difficult time defining virtue, and we are hard pressed to identify true teachers of virtue. If something cannot be defined, it cannot be taught. This begs the question in the Republic: How does Plato envision the education of these virtuous leaders? He is not clear on this point, other than to identify certain subject matters to be mastered and certain life tests to be passed.

Perhaps the most striking moment for me in this reading of the Republic was Socrates’s description of the curse of enlightenment towards the end of Book 7. How is the highly educated person able to re-enter society after he has learned Truth? Yet it is precisely this test that determines one’s aptitude for leadership. It is a test of integrity, one which I imagine resonates with many highly educated people: Does one abandon the falsehoods of society and become a hermit, or does one learn to engage society with its paradoxes?

On this score, paradox plays an important role for Plato, leading ultimately to the consciousness that is capable of dialectic and truth. He who can recognize things that can be categorized in multiple and contradictory ways are the ones who can advance to the highest levels of education. So, perhaps paradoxically, only those capable of paradox are apt to be highly educated, and the greatest test of their aptitude is their ability to engage in a paradoxical existence.

Bruce Kimball has written that Plato’s singular emphasis on the search for Truth is the intellectual foundation of the current shape of American higher education, which values (or at least claims to value) the search for Truth above practical considerations. Certainly that is a strong element in the Republic. Yet I could not help but notice how much education for Plato is rather performative and relational: For Plato the philosopher who becomes a closeted intellectual is of lesser character than the philosopher who toils-stoically, as it were-in affairs of state. Education involves learning (or recollecting) a certain vision of culture, including taste and manners and behavior. Of course, for Plato those visions of culture are not simply visions or opinions, but absolute truths.