Loose Lips and Leprosy

parshat metzora, leviticus 14

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on clubhouse on April 7th 2022 as we explore how the affliction of Leprosy became identified with slander in Rabbinic texts. We’ll watch our tongue as we revisit the theme of Mitzvot as symbol, language and metaphor.

Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/398050

Transcript:

Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish text or tradition. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, I host Madlik disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8pm. Eastern, and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. Today we explore how a skin condition became identified with slander in rabbinic tests. So rinse your mouth and wash your face and join us for loose lips and leprosy.

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So welcome, Rabbi, another week of Madlik disruptive Torah. And I was all prepared to say to you, you know, maybe the reason why leprosy was compared to speaking evil was because there was a quiet week in the parshiot and no one had anything to talk about, you know,  especially in this cycle where we have, it have Tazria and Metsorah, two portions that are just very hard to connect to. I mean, they talk about houses that get mold in them and all sorts of stuff that we can hardly relate to. And then as I started doing my research, I said, you know, this is a little bit more than just filling in the white space, the amount of texts that are invested in making the association between this skin condition which is called leprosy and the English translation probably isn't quite that. And the evils of speaking evil slander are all over the place, the sections that you go to when you do a search, don't have an isolated paragraph they go on and on. So I think we're actually in for a little bit of a treat. It's not something that most people have not heard of, I think it's fairly common knowledge that leprosy and lashon hara are identified. But I think we might be a little bit interested and surprised by how deep, profound and maybe even directions are taken that we weren't expecting. So let's begin with Leviticus 14, 1-3. And it says God spoke to Moses saying, this shall be the ritual for a leper at the time of being purified. When it has been reported to the priests, the priests shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the leper has been healed of the scaly affection. And then it goes on to describe different types of this dermatological ailment, and different levels of purity. But one thing is pretty clear that it is done outside of the camp, it is done outside in the open. And somehow it piqued the interest of the moralists who connected it to speaking evil. So let's stop here. Do you think a simple drash, hermeneutics that the connection was made? Do you think its inherent in the text? How do you explain it?

 

Adam Mintz  03:26

Well, first of all, you started by saying that we have two weeks of this, which is fascinating, right? We have two weeks of these kinds of pashas, which are hard to kind of find relevance. But I think the idea of biblical diseases is a fascinating topic. And what I mean by that is, I think we may have mentioned last week, when you think about, you know, the characters in the Bible, nobody dies of disease. How is that possible? Right? Nobody dies of cancer. Nobody has a heart attack. Everybody seems to die of old age. The one exception in the book of Genesis is that Rachel dies in childbirth. But that's not exactly sickness. Why doesn't anybody gets sick? I think the answer is that according to see in the pre penicillin era, when they couldn't cure diseases, they had to somehow get their arms around desease. The only way they knew to get their arms around disease was by saying that the disease was a punishment for a sin. So no, it's not inherent in the text. But basically, the text has no choice, but to suggest that there's a reason for it. And the reason has to be a sin. Mitsora, sounds like Motzzi shem Rah, which is The Hebrew word for gossip. That's really where it's a similarity of, of words, it's a similarity of hearing of, of, you know, a pronounciation. That's really the connection.

 

Geoffrey Stern  05:17

So I love the fact that you make us aware that in the Bible till now, yes, there are people that are killed as a punishment, they're swallowed into the earth, things like that. But in terms of especially the main characters, the pivotal characters, they just die. And you know, they were beautiful euphemisms for that they are gathered into their people. And we focused a little bit on that. But you're right, there is no particular disease. And as someone who has just this past week, experienced death in a hospital, you know, you got to put something in the death certificate, you can say, this 95 year old person died of old age, it's got to be something conjunctive heart disease, pulmonary failure. And you're absolutely right, that, although this doesn't necessarily talk about death, but it does focus on a disease on an ailment. And the Rabbi's, as you say, in Erochin 15b Reish Lokish says, this is the law of the leper. This means this shall be the lowest of a defamer motsi shem rah. So on the one hand, you kind of scratch your head and say, Well, if it was that, why didn't you say it? But on the other hand, I think what he's doing is tied into what you talked about. And this is kind of controversial, because in a sense, what we're saying is bad things happen to bad people. And that's a very scary concept. On the one hand, in terms of morality, and edification, it's nice for us to think if we do something bad, we might get punished, our bodies might misfunction, whether if we abused them by eating the wrong thing, or saying the wrong thing. So it is a slippery slope. But let's talk first about the positive side that it's trying to take a moral message or moral meaning from an ailment, such as what is called leprosy. And I think what we can certainly do is focus on what directions, the texts kind of take this for now. And maybe later, we'll come back to the other aspect of it. Which is, are you really saying that bad things only happen to bad people, and that if someone who seems to be righteous gets a skin ailment, you can assume that he must have been speaking Loshon Hora?

 

Adam Mintz  07:54

Right. I think that that really is the question of the parsha. If you had to get the parsha down to one question, though, that really is the question about how you connect Loshon Hora to this skin ailment. There's another question by the way, what exactly is the ailment? So in the title, you called it leprosy? But you said that it's not really leprosy. Most of the scholars identify it more with psoriasis. You know, it's interesting leprosy. You know, until very recently, the Western world was scared of leprosy on Roosevelt Island, there's actually a leper hospital. It does not use this a leper hospital anymore. But there's a building that is a leper hospital. A leper hospital means that the people were afraid of lepers. They thought that leprosy was contagious. And therefore people who got leprosy were literally put in a hospital away on Roosevelt Island away from everybody. People were afraid of leprosy. Isn't that interesting? I wonder whether that's connected to our parsha?

 

Geoffrey Stern  09:09

Well, I do think that leprosy or any type of dermatological skin ailment is distinct from other ailments. You can be walking around with heart disease and no one knows it. You can have any sort of disease of internal organs, no one knows it. I think what's unique about whatever this is, whether it's leprosy or some other variation, is that you can see the disease. You're wearing it on your shirt sleeves, so to speak. And I think that is what possibly guides the rabbi's and some of the commentaries that say, not only is it a punishment, but it's a punishment for something that somebody does in private and has implications to the public, and therefore the punishment is made to fit the crime, midah keneged midah, and you are punished in public for something that you did to hurt somebody in private. And that I think, is a little bit of a clue as to why the rabbis thought that leprosy had to do with Motzei Shem rah. Motzei means like, in Yetziat Mitzrayim, taking something out into public and Shem Rah obviously, we know from Wisdom literature for Mishlei, that the most important thing that anybody has is a good name. So am I correct in saying that the rabbi's kind of make that connection here,

 

Adam Mintz  10:50

They definitely make that correction. And you're right Shem Rah is the opposite of a Shem Tov. Actually, the Misheneh in Pirkei Avot says that what you need the Keter shem tov oleh al gabeyhem.  That the most important thing of all was to have a good name. And that's really that's important idea.

 

Geoffrey Stern  11:12

So I think we've established that one of the connections besides the play on word, which is probably a little artificial, One of the connections is this public private space. But the other is, is in the narrative itself in Numbers 12, we learn of Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses, because of the Kushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. And they had a problem with either her being a Cushite, or something to do with their marital relationship. And then it goes on in verse 10. And when the cloud was removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow. And Aahron looked upon Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. And the commentaries and the Midrash start to do something that we're now going to encounter, which is, this is a sin that is full of nuance. This is a sin that scholars up until the great Chofetz Chaim who wrote a complete book, just on the laws of lashan hora, were totally aware. How do you distinguish between saying lashon Hora and listening to it? How do you respond if you hear it? So here in this particular case, the Ibn Ezra, and also the Gemora says that Aaron was punished t0o because he listened to it. But in any case, I think here is a clear connection between speaking bad of somebody speaking bad of somebody's private affairs, marital affairs, maybe even race and the affliction of this dermatological condition.

 

Adam Mintz  13:02

I think that that is absolutely correct. Now, there is an interesting question about why turning your skin turning white is the appropriate punishment for Lashan Hara. I think that's a good question to ask. And I think probably the answer is that when you speak Lashon, Hara, you want to harm other people. And, you know, like you're acting as if you're superior to other people. If I gossip about you, I'm feeling superior to you. And, you know, the way to handle someone who appears to feel superior is to embarrass them publicly. And if their skin turns white, they're embarrassed publicly. So that's also an interesting twist on all of this, that actually the punishment, we would say the punishment fits the crime.

 

Geoffrey Stern  13:56

Well, I think that normally we think of white as something that's pure. When the thread on Yom Kippur turns from red to white, we know that our prayers have been answered. But what you raise is this issue of embarrassing someone and in Hebrew, it's Malbin Panei chavero. So those of you who know Hebrew Malbin comes from the word Lavan, which is white. And the concept is if you embarrass somebody in public, the blood leaves their face, they turn white, and maybe there's that connection.

 

Adam Mintz  14:33

Good. I liked that also, that's good. Malbin Pnei Chavero, So you embarrass them, they turn white, so your skin turns white too. The other thing that's interesting is what happens to you if you get this disease and what happens is that you have to leave the camp. Badad Teashev. Now that's very relevant to us. Because we have a term for that these days, you call it quarantine, right? You have to leave the camp, you can be with other people. Now, everybody knows everybody who's had COVID knows how depressing it is to be in COVID quarantine. And here, this is what they did, they put them in quarantine, they had to go outside the camp, they couldn't interact with anybody in the camp, that's also very relevant to the sin that they violate.

 

Geoffrey Stern  15:31

So obviously, this concept of you think you hurt somebody with just language. But it has physical consequences. And I think there's that connection as well. Not only is there that momentary loss of face color, so to speak, but you can do infinite damage. I mean, we all know, unfortunately, from what happens on the internet, where there are companies designed to help you clear your name, you know, the old story that I believe came from the Chafetz Chaim . And that says that speaking evil is worse than any other sin. Because it's like a pillow full of goose feathers, that once you open it up, you can't control where those goose feathers go. And if you want to repent and you're asked to retrieve all of those goose feathers, it's almost impossible. So the idea is you start by speaking.... speech only. And then you end up by creating hurt that is not easily retrieved or taken back, it leaves an indelible mark,

 

Adam Mintz  16:49

That is a great image. I mean, that's a famous Chofetz Chaim. But that idea of you can't control. And we all know it, right? Once you start once something's on the internet, it goes places you never would have imagined, you know, what, what do they say, don't put anything in an email that you wouldn't say, to the whole world that you wouldn't publish in the New York Times. Because potentially that's what's gonna happen to it. And that's really the image of the Chofetz Chaim long before there was email.

 

Geoffrey Stern  17:20

And the Hebrew expression is HaChosed BeKesharim loke begufo. Someone who is "choshed" who suspects somebody of being evil, and they are kosher, they get hurt bodily. So there's, you know, it's, it's when I started, I forgot all of these nuances. And I said, you know, we all sit around the table on Friday night and somebody says, Did you hear what happened to this one? And we all say, don't say lashon Hora. Let's not get down there. You see the side of a bus in Israel. And if you Google the word loshen horah, when you look at the images, it's amazing. People have bumper stickers that say don't speak loshon horar. But loshon hara  taken by the rabbi's and parsed by the rabbi's gets into all sorts of things. There's the story of Rav Kook who would see a car driving on Shabbat and instead of throwing a stone, he would say Mazel Tov, because in his mind, why else would you be driving a car on Shabbat if you weren't going to have a bay? So that's the "dan lekav zechut" That's when you think that whatever anybody does, there must be some righteousness in it. It's the opposite of "Choshed bekasherim" We've we've come across this concept of listening. Aaron, according to the Midrash was also punished with leprosy. It came and it went faster, but he just created an audience for it. So there's that aspect of it. But the one fascinating point is that all of the commentators, as they begin to speak, say, although this is not a commandment, and of course, there is a commandment that says "lo telech rachil b'amecha", you should not go about and speak. Raheel will, he looked is certainly a synonym to LaShan Haoran, but because of the context that it's in, and it talks about judging and showing favor to the poor and deference to the rich, and it talks about judgment, the actual use of Raehilut it is probably more legal. It has to do with giving evidence when you have to say something bad about somebody and where that's not necessary, where a judge who leaves the court doesn't necessarily have to say, well, it's not that all of us agreed that he was blameless. But nonetheless, there's this commandment, quote unquote, commandment that has definitely taken root within Judaism in a very impactful way, even though it's truly not one of the 613 commandments. And what does that say about sometimes you need to be commanded? And sometimes maybe you should figure it out in your own.

 

Adam Mintz  20:31

Yeah, I mean, that's also interesting, that, you know, right, you know, sometimes it's better not to be commanded, right?

 

Geoffrey Stern  20:40

Yeah, we've definitely come across that, even with the two sons of Aaron, who were killed in service, so to speak. So there is that tension there. But this certainly became very mainstream. The interesting thing about the word Racheel, and where he looked, that is different slightly from LaShawn Hara is Rashi. In the verse in our numbers that I just quoted, he goes on to talk about why does it say "holech racheel", and he starts making comparisons between sellers of merchandise and tailbearers. And so now he's talking about those people who almost make a living out of exposing other people's private lives. And that's certainly something that rings true to us today, where, you know, if you say something bad, it's gonna get a lot more hits than if you say something that's nice. In this whole weather, it's the National Enquirer, this whole element of character assassination, that seems to be so part and parcel of our politics. You know, it's the more you think about it. This is a profound aspect of social life. And it ultimately is a blemish in terms of social mores. It's at the basis of so many bad things that affect us.

 

Adam Mintz  22:20

That is absolutely correct. I mean, it's interesting how we started with with tsarat, with leprosy, and we kind of are able to connect it all the way through to all these fascinating ideas.

 

Geoffrey Stern  22:33

Well, and I think in a sense, that's why leprosy is not a bad translation, not because medically it's correct. But because, as you mentioned, yes, this this thing of calling out leper leper, maybe it was considered contagious. And that is clearly something that speaking bad, or even nurturing a society that lives off the secrets of others, that lives off the talking about others. Is something that is clearly contagious, you know, you get into I think I came across an article from Rabbi Sacks of a teenager who committed suicide because of what people was saying about her. We live in a hyper situation with regard to these these visceral attacks, and visceral impact of words.

 

Adam Mintz  23:36

Yeah, I mean, obviously, that's true. I mean, the internet makes these things so much more complicated, doesn't it?

 

Geoffrey Stern  23:45

It certainly does.

 

Adam Mintz  23:47

Because all of these things, we're talking about the the feather pillow, the the idea of "rachil", you know, the word rachilut, comes from the word rachil, the word rachil means a merchant. And the way they explain it is that a merchant goes from place to place. And that's what our Lashan Hora does, it goes from place to place; the same idea, is it not a powerful image? That actually comes from Rashi.

 

Geoffrey Stern  24:19

It actually does. And the other thing that while she says is he quotes a French word, which comes from spy "espiement". The idea is not simply to come across this foul secret, but to look for it to make an industry of it. Let's get back a second to the episode of, of Miriam and Aahron. So the commentaries have, you know, tried to figure out what was the content of Miriam's loshon hora. So if you recall when I quoted it, there were two things that come to mind. One is she said Moses, his wife was a Cushite. And I thought for sure that a Cushite means an African or black person. And I was sure that I would find in the commentaries, a level of bias of bigotry. I was sure that I would find something that harken back to us discussion with the Reverend Washington, way back when of the of the sin of Ham. And the reason I was so sure about it is because I remember as clear as day having an argument with my study partner at the Yeshiva where he was talking about listen, black people, you know, it's no compliment. Look what happened with Miriam, and to my grand satisfaction. And maybe it's because I didn't have enough time, I did not find one classical commentary that read into this a racist remark. What they all focus on, is that she was distinctive, like a Cushite, because actually, in the Bible, it says that she was a Midianite that he married a girl from Midian. So they explained that she stuck out in the crowd, her beauty was so striking. It was like a dark skinned person amongst white skinned people. But one of the things that Reverend Washington told us and I think some of us learn is that skin color as a derogatory characteristic is a fairly new phenomenon. But again, I was pleasantly surprised on the one hand, but I think I cannot say conclusively, but anecdotally, I do find in certain circles of Jews, that there is a high level of bigotry and bias. The word Shvarter is used in a negative way. And I know that Lushan hara and the laws that we're talking about today a studied in detail, but I think this core essential aspect of it seems to have lost thieri attention, whether it's even Jews of color, Sefardin and some members of Haredi society. And again, we all have it, we all have this, but I would like to think one of my takeaways from today's discussion is that on the one hand, talking in a bigoted fashion, whether you believe in bigotry, or you're just using the words of the past, is lashon hara, and it needs to be called out. And that the the types of conversations that we have where the youth is getting too hypersensitive (politically correct) , and you can't get hypersensitive about lashon hara, if the Chofetz Chaim taught us anything, he wrote a book on every aspect of it. And he said, The Power of Words is profound.

 

Adam Mintz  28:05

There is no question that that's right. I mean, and obviously, that's right, in terms of bigotry. And it's terrible, that we live in a world where there is so much bigotry. But what's fascinating is the Torah kind of goes out of its way to not be bigoted there, it'd be easy to be bigoted there. Right, it'd be easy to say that they were worried about was the fact that he married a woman of color, but they go out of their way to say no, that's not what we're talking about. It's almost as if they're sensitive to that very point.

 

Geoffrey Stern  28:43

I couldn't agree more. The other commentary as to what Miriam was saying that was negative was that she said, she overheard a conversation of two people who had become prophets and had separated from their wives, and overheard Moses's wife say, Yeah, I know what that's about. So they were getting into the private marital affairs of Moses. And I think that to the aspect of lashon hara, that many times we can ignore it sexually and in you, innuendo. And this is the kind of core case history everything else becomes commentary. So I think that's another takeaway. We're running out of time, I would like to focus a little bit on the first instance, of leprosy in the Bible. And that goes back, believe it or not to the burning bush, in Exodus 4. If you recall, Moses is striked by the fact that the Bush is burning and not consumed. And he says, What happens if the people of Israel don't listen to me? So the first thing that God says is grab the staff and throw it down. (5) “that they may believe that ה', the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, did appear to you.” (6) ה' said to him further, “Put your hand into your bosom.” He put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it out, his hand was encrusted with snowy scales!  (7) And [God] said, “Put your hand back into your bosom.”—He put his hand back into his bosom; and when he took it out of his bosom, there it was again like the rest of his body.— So this is the first instance of leprosy that is related to something that Moses said, the traditional commentary say, he doubted the people of Israel, He said to God, they're not going to believe that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is there for them. And for that sin, he was punished. And isn't it interesting that we have Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, three siblings who all all kind of case studies in tsoras.

 

Adam Mintz  30:57

So let me tell you what's fascinating to me about that story. It's amazing that Moshe gets leprosy for speaking lashon hara before the Torah tells us that you get leprosy for speaking lashon hara. The Torah hasn't gotten there yet. But Moses gets it anyway. It seems to me from that story, that this was a common belief in the ancient world that the punishment for lashon hara was leprosy. In Jewish and Egyptian culture in all cultures, everybody knew if you get leprosy, I know what I did wrong. It's like if you wake up tomorrow, and you have COVID, God forbid, so you know, you're exposed to somebody with Covid. If you wake up tomorrow with a white skin disease, you know, you spoke lashon hora. And that's what happened to Moshe, the Torah doesn't need to tell us that that's what happened. That's an automatic. That's why you get leprosy. Isn't that interesting?

 

Geoffrey Stern  31:56

It is interesting. It's also interesting, that from this perspective, Lashon hara is when you speak badly of a people. So in a sense, when Israel is the only nation in the United Nations that gets blamed for crimes that it does possibly do, or where it falls short. But it's one amongst the family of nations, that's loshan hora also. And for those of us who are can can talk about a whole people in in one broad stroke, and say that they are thus and they are the other that also lashon hora. So it seems to me that the more your journey through our texts, you see the profound effect that words can have to both heal, but also to hurt. And I think at the end of the day, this brings it back to the Egypt story. This brings it back to a story of believing in our people, ultimately believing in ourselves, it comes down to national pride, and it comes down to giving that same pride to other peoples and to other nationalities, and that the Exodus story therefore is so universal,

 

Adam Mintz  33:14

and you know what it goes to show that the most irrelevant of parsha's is also the most relevant of parshas. I want to wish you Shabbat Shalom. And the next two weeks there is no parsha because the next two weeks is Pesach so therefore, we look forward to seeing everybody three weeks from now when we continue with another great parsah the parsha of Acharei Mot. Hg Sameyach everybody enjoy and look forward to seeing you in a few weeks Chag Samayach.

 

Geoffrey Stern  33:43

Chag Sameyach, Shabbat Shalom and I love it Madlik Spring Break. See you all in three weeks.

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