Blaming the Victim (Weekly Torah)

confused doctor smallerLast night, I saw it again. A familiar psoriasis lesion. Just below my ankle.

Every winter, it grows in the dark under winter socks and boots. Every summer, it disappears, healed by light shining through my sandals.

No wonder Torah sees tzara’at – psoriasis– as a mysterious and edgy event. Psoriasis chooses a random victim and never lets go. Year after year, it assaults us in predictable cycles of ulceration and healing. Modern physicians have failed to find a cause beyond the generic euphemisms for medical ignorance. Stress. Genetics. Auto immune.

Why? Why? Why are our bodies attacking us? What have we done wrong?

Traditional Torah commentators* know. We get tzara’at lesions because we are motzi shem ra— we have spoken badly of another person. Sure, alliteration connects this cause and effect . The metaphor fills in the blanks of a strange Biblical story about Miriam (Numbers 12). And the theory can’t be falsified. Because our speech can always be purer, more compassionate.

Why would we use a moral accusation to explain a medical problem?

Because, says philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), we are experts at self-centered ignorance.

We recognize our human desires. With goal-oriented actions, we try to fulfill them. We hope to maximize our advantage.

This cycle of desiring and seeking is so familiar, it shapes our understanding. We even imagine that God directs the universe towards a goal. Of course, we don’t know what the goal is. So, drawing on our experience, we assume it’s our advantage.

Our narrow mental lens reinforces itself. How could it not? Our human mind has only so many pathways. When we understand something clearly, we say, “the universe is orderly!” When our senses feel good, we say “the universe is beautiful!” But, let’s be honest. When we say, “God created an orderly, beautiful world,” we really mean, “God created a world that works for human beings.”

When bad things happen, we apply our usual categories. The events that touched us, we say, were directed towards us. Why? Because we did something undesirable to God. And God reacted by disadvantaging us. But what did we do? We don’t really know.

We don’t know because moral logic does not govern human fate. But do we acknowledge this empirical fact and let go of our habits of thought? No. We just keep searching for God’s criteria.

The search seems normal enough…until we reach a ludicrous conclusion. Like blaming a frustrated patient for her disease. At that point, we ought to ask Spinoza’s question: What were we thinking? And maybe take seriously his answer: You weren’t thinking!

For more reflections on Parshat Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33) , click here

*Talmud b. Arakhin 15b, Sifre Deut 175, Midrash Rabbah Devarim, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rambam, Rabbeinu Bachya, Ramban, Tur, Me’am Loez, S.R. Hirsch…

Categories: Philosophy, Torah

Tags: , , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. Dear Laura, I am loving what seems to be a new voice. I think that the old voice is still what makes my heart sing. And yes, maybe I am reading my own mood into these latest offerings. In any case, as usual, thank you, thank you!

    • Thank you, Shira! Thanks for appreciating a variety of expressions. I’m certainly posting more now that the semester is done…but I think that I, like you, am moving through a variety of moods.

  2. Take 2

    When my younger son was two years old he stopped walking and he had an infection ravish his body for 9 months. During the time the community that we lived in wanted to check our mezuzot, hoped we would take on Halacha, Jewish law, in a more stringent way, and finally 150 women in the community took on saying the book of psalms every day as a community.

    I found the behavior fascinating and very touching. Still, I never for a moment believed that the first two factors played a role in my son’s illness; I did believe that the community seemed to need something outside of the simple reality that illness happens.

    In terms of reciting Tehilim (psalms), it was said with such love and care… Who can fault that?

    I tend to agree with Spinoza.

    • Thanks, Chava! It’s easy to see this as the community’s impulse to do something to help you. They did something meaningful for them and for you, something that touched you and did no harm. All blessings to you and your family.

  3. One of my best fried is a music teacher During school year he always suffers from Psoriasis but not during summer when he has all the time he needs to compose beautiful music.

    We get the idea. I think we should not feel ashamed to admit it is beyond our understanding when we don’t know. Just as G-d is beyond our understanding; and we are not ashamed to acknowledge this.

    I think our need for understanding makes us feel secure. That’s how it works for me anyway.

    When it comes to emotions we are not ashamed to laugh but we are to cry.

    • Yes, I agree with you, Michele. I feel much more secure when I have all the information. And your reflection on crying in front of other people is astute. Summer is coming. All blessings. – Laura

  4. On astute observation: “We don’t know because moral logic does not govern human fate.”

    If we recognize that morality functions as a metaphor for the ceaseless human drive to find value in all things, then its variant likewise pertains: “We don’t know, that is, we can’t have knowledge — certitude — because human logic does not govern moral fate.”

    • Thanks, David. That’s certainly a more cautious statement than Spinoza would like to make. But he would absolutely agree with it! And add the caveat that we don’t simply reaffirm the arrogance by saying “Divine logic does — and God has focused that logic on human life.”

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