The Children of Israel and Public Health
a.k.a. Parashat Metzora (Leviticus 14: 1 – 15:
God gave Moses instructions regarding lepers, who
had to be examined by the priest outside of the camp. If the leper were found to be healed, the priest had to
conduct a cleansing ceremony with two clean, living birds – one bird was to be ritually slaughtered while the
other was to be set free in open country. The healed leper was to wash his clothes, shave off all his hair
and wash himself. On the eighth day the healed leper had to present himself at the entrance of the Tent of
Meeting with two lambs and a flour and oil offering. The priest had to ritually slaughter the lambs, then mix
their blood with the floor and the oil and use the mixture to make guilt offerings, burnt offerings, wave
offerings and sin offerings. In this way the leper becomes ritually clean.
Then God said to Moses and Aaron, “When you enter
Canaan, which I shall give you, and I afflict a house with leprosy, then the owner of the house must come and
tell the priest that there appears to be a disease in his home. The house must be emptied before the priest
enters. If the priest finds evidence of green or red spots on the wall, then the priest must shut the house
for seven days. The unclean parts of the house must be removed and be replaced with clean materials. If the
whole house is unclean, it must be torn down and its parts dumped away from areas of habitation. The house
must be rebuilt with clean materials.”
Once rebuilt, the house would be inspected by the
priest and a cleansing ceremony would follow if all were well. Again, two clean birds were used – one was to
be ritually slaughtered and one set free in open country.
God commanded Moses and Aaron to explain the laws
concerning the emission of bodily fluids to the people. A male who had discharged semen had to wash his whole
body and his clothes and be considered unclean until the evening. The same applied to a woman who had slept
with a man who had discharged semen. A woman who had her period was unclean for seven days and anyone who
touched her was unclean until the evening.
In such ways were the people of Israel to be kept
clean, and not die in a state of uncleanliness. In this way they would not defile the tabernacle of God which
was situated in their midst.
Commentary on the 28th parsha (portion of the Torah). The Torah consists of the
five books of Moses, the first part of the Old Testament.
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are.
He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: Well, it seems as though
your god had some funny ideas about the relationship between disease and body fluids. Leprosy and semen in
the same Parsha? No wonder people in the Judeo-Christian tradition are hung up about their bodily
MS: Now hold on. In those
days, leprosy was a very big problem, and it is a tribute to our people that they chose to handle it so
humanely. We did not cast lepers out, as was so often done, throughout history. Instead, we allowed them to
heal and then ritually cleansed them before returning them to the community. In any event, the disease
referred to in the bible is tzaraat, and strictly speaking, this
is not what we today know as leprosy.
SAS: Very well, but what about invading the homes of people suspected
of leprosy and tearing them apart?
MS: You are very harsh,
Sigmund. God helped Moses and Aaron to run a community, and that included a responsible and communal attitude
towards public health. Why are you being so sarcastic about the ways in which lepers were returned to the
SAS: Well, I’m not convinced about the healing properties of live
MS: Once again, a failure of
the imagination. The birds were part of the ritual of return. The impulse is noble, you have to grant
SAS: And once again, it’s not
the people and their impulses I am worried about, but this God character. He admits it: it is he who afflicts
houses with leprosy. They have to clean up the mess.
MS: Sigmund, God does not
operate according to the same kneejerk reactions as you do. He has his reasons.
SAS: No doubt, but his
motives are, at best, suspect. He strikes me as a very bored character, trying to use humans to work out a
set of moral dilemmas. Now, what about semen and its uncleanness?
MS: Yet again, I implore you
to consider the context in which these rules were given to the people. Consider the situation in which these
rules were not followed. Men would not wash themselves after ejaculation and women would not wash themselves
after having had sexual intercourse. Once body fluids are out of the body and exposed to air, they are
subject to change and may be carriers of infection. This is a rule ensured to promote
SAS: Well I think it is all
part of a set of rules to make us believe that sex and all that is associated with it is dirty, and should be
washed away. Just like the leprosy bacteria.
MS: Your version of events is
so reductionist. What on earth is wrong with people cleansing themselves after they produce any kind of body
fluid? We all do it; it’s good hygiene. It’s to prevent infecting ourselves and others in the case of
disease. What bothers you so much about this?
SAS: What bothers me is the
equation of sex with uncleanliness, and disease. I think that this is about much more than hygiene; it is
about interfering in people’s lives and telling them how to conduct their most intimate
MS: Sigmund, this is silly.
Jews don’t believe sex is dirty or that it necessarily leads to disease. We don’t feel guilty about sex. This
is nonsense: we simply follow very sensible rules to protect ourselves and prevent the spread of disease.
That’s very public-spirited. What’s your problem?
SAS: My problem? The
regulation of every aspect of life in the modern age because some old guys in beards were control freaks and
wrote down the way they insist that we conduct our lives.
MS: We must talk more, so I
can convince you of the wisdom of their ways, and the immaturity of yours.
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know more about the real history of our
extended Jewish family, read on.
How did secularism arise among the Jews of
According to historians, the period from about 1780 to 1910 witnessed the greatest
transformation in Jewish life since 1500 or perhaps since the Roman Empire. Several modernizing factors
influenced Judaism, and the Jewish community became more secular as a result. The main secularizing
influences, were the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment); the rise
to prominence of Jews in social movements and labor organizations in Russia, America and places in between;
the decline of the Yiddish language in favor of English and modern Hebrew; the rise of Zionism in its various
ideological forms, and the rise to prominence of many Jews in the academic life of several
Successful participation in commercial, industrial and mining enterprises also made a
number of Jewish entrepreneurs famous and influential in the corridors of commercial power and secular
pursuits. The migration of many Jews to the Western world, and most notably to the United States, was a
powerful secularizing influence. The USA government was the first that did not officially endorse any
particular religion. Within a society that separated church and state, Jews enjoyed the freedom to build
successful careers, and cultivate secular identities within the commercial world.
Some historians tell us that as a result, the Rabbis suffered an appreciable decline
in authority and influence as modernity overtook their congregations. Not all historians agree about
Assimilation into various cultures also played its role in the secularization process.
Back in Napoleonic France, the granting of rights of citizenship went hand in hand with the expectation that
Jews would become good Frenchmen, and become integrated fully into the new state. This became the pattern
elsewhere – religion was for the home and the house of worship, but elsewhere the Jew was as much a part of
secular society as anyone.
Reform Judaism was one of the byproducts of the Haskalah. It did not promote secularism per se, but it did soften
liturgical demands and brought to prominence the rabbinic sermon which often had a practical, this-worldly
The influence of a market
economy and liberal capitalism made many Jewish entrepreneurs “men of the world” for whom material existence and
market forces meant more than religious observance. Ethical practice, however, was important to many, and some
still claim that this was due to the eternal obligations set forth in the Torah.
Not all Jews were enamored of capitalism – far from it. Marx, Trotsky and Luxemburg
are famous names from the Communist-Socialist world. Less radical, but equally committed, were numerous Jews
from the socialist and labor union world. They campaigned against injustice in the workplace and inequalities
in society that resulted in exploitation and profiteering. They did so in the name of secular justice, not
In the early 20th century Yiddishkeit was a popular cultural strand among Jews across the world. The
aim was to create a distinctive Jewish culture in the Diaspora. It was mostly secular in character, but
engendered a sentimental attachment to the past which modernism undermined. However, a newer, more virile
form of secularism was to take its place.
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment
by the Father, Chaya and Ben.
BEN: So the way other people
in Europe were thinking during the Enlightenment actually deeply affected the Jews in Europe
DAD: Yes, but the Haskala refers to the Jewish Enlightenment – a period of modernization,
moving out of the closed world in which Jews only interacted with one another and were always subordinated to
the leadership of rabbis.
CHAYA: But the Haskala came about as a result of the Enlightenment movement in Europe,
DAD: Yes, the same ideas
caught hold and were embraced by Jews who wanted to engage with the wider society.
BEN: So, the Jews were
influenced by wider social and intellectual movements, and part of that was to leave their beliefs and
DAD: Well, some of them were
persuaded of rationalist arguments, believing that religion was part of the Dark
CHAYA: Oh, the Rabbis must
have loved that.
BEN: But the Enlightenment
didn’t destroy Judaism or the religious belief of Jews. Look, it’s more than 300 years later, and there are
plenty of devout Jews, who have maintained their beliefs and ways of worship.
DAD: Right, but many things
changed for Jews as a result of mass social movements, the rise of socialism, the ideas of nationalism, and
for those who left Europe, the loss of Yiddish as their main language.
CHAYA: So the Jews turned
into major capitalists and prominent communists during this period?
DAD: This is something that
we have always known about Jews – our beliefs about the world are not monolithic. Think of all the old
folktales. Jewish people don’t just accept what they are told. Questioning is a part of our
BEN: And it seems that the
Jews liked being successful, and excelled at their new activities.
CHAYA: Those are only the
ones we know about. Isn’t it a myth that we Jews like to believe – our people are the
BEN: I think the historical
facts stand for themselves.
DAD: In any event, the rise
of secularism among Jews accompanied their entrance into the wider world. This was not simple. There was
resistance from both Gentiles and Jews to their open participation in the world. History shows that the rise
of Jews to prominence in Europe did not go unnoticed and plenty of resentment
CHAYA: Do you mean
DAD: I do, and we need to
talk about how the Jews’ embrace of the Enlightenment and the wider world’s allowing them in affected some
groups of people and made them turn on Jews with a renewed hatred.
Every Shabbat we read five short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and
humour, insightful reflections on this life of ours.
Here are tonight’s sayings:
· Brains to the lazy are like a torch to the blind – a useless burden. (Bedersi, Behinat
· No dollar is a bastard.
· When God told us to walk to shul, he was anticipating the fuel
· The Torah may be likened to two paths, one of fire, the other of snow. Turn in one
direction, and you die of heat; turn to the other and you die of the cold. What should you do? Walk in the
middle. (Talmud: Hagigah, 2: 1)
· If I do not acquire ideals when young, when will I? Not when I am old.
Celebration of Great Lives
Two major health problems in the 19th century were scurvy and
beriberi. It was discovered early that certain fruits and
vegetables could prevent scurvy and in the 1870s that a diet of brown rice instead of white rice prevented
beriberi. The missing component in the diets was vitamins. Casimir
Funk was born in Poland and discovered vitamins. The first was Vitamin B, a complex of
multi-vitamins. His paper published in 1912 revolutionized
biochemistry and medicine. His discovery shifted attention away from cure to effective means of prevention,
vitamin supplements, vitamin deficiency and the importance of a good diet. Funk contributed to knowledge of
the hormones of the pituitary gland and the sex glands and he emphasized the importance of the balance
between hormones and vitamins. He also did research on the relation of diet to cancer.
Abraham Cresques (d.
Cresques was a Catalan
Jewish cartographer from Palma de Mallorca. He was a leading member of the Majorcan cartographic school. He
dedicated his life to the making of maps, clocks, compasses and other maritime instruments. He and his son, Yehuda,
received a commission from Prince John of Aragon to make a full series of nautical charts which represented the
“East and the West and everything that, from the Strait (of Gibraltar) leads to the West”. Prince John wanted to
give the charts to his cousin, Charles VI of France. These charts did not comprise the Catalan Atlas, which was
numbered among Charles V’s possessions when an inventory of his library was made on his death in 1380. However,
Cresques is often credited with compiling the Atlas, the first two leaves of which contain a compilation of
cosmographical, astronomical, and astrological texts that emphasize the earth’s spherical shape and the state of
the known world.