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Sunday, 17 April 2016

Is Illness Linked to Moral Failings?

 There is a well-known rabbinic saying about the Torah – in Pirkei Avot [‘The Ethics of the Fathers’] it’s credited to Hillel’s disciple, Ben Bag Bag from the 1st century – ‘Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it’ (5:25). Well, I suppose it depends what you mean by ‘everything’.  You could think of a million things that aren’t in it, from the EU referendum to smart phones, from Mozart to Premier League football. So what he seems to mean, Ben Bag Bag, must be something rather different.

Maybe what he was trying to say was something like this : whatever  situation you face in life you can find it addressed in Torah, if you search long and hard enough. Family dynamics, between husbands and wives, or parents and children, or sibling relationships; social dynamics  - how you structure a society in terms of justice and equality and relationships between people, both neighbours and strangers; how you deal with creating a moral framework for living, learning to distinguish between good and bad actions; how you deal with psychological dynamics: guilt, forgiveness, envy, jealousy,  possessiveness, sexual desire, aggression...; how you deal with the structure of a life, one’s life cycle: birth, marriage, divorce, health and disease, ageing, death; how you form a collective identity as a people through festivals and celebrations and rituals, through singing and memorializing and story-telling.

From this perspective, the Torah is a set of texts that in one way or another speak about ‘everything’ you might experience: from the foods you eat to the clothes you wear to the money you spend to the historical memories you retain. And if it doesn’t seem to cover it, what Ben Bag Bag is intimating is that those who study these texts, the rabbis, will turn the texts inside out, and upside down, and dig and dig until they, the rabbis, will discover whatever they need to address a real-life situation.

He is suggesting that the text of the Torah and the Hebrew Bible as a whole is infinitely rich, and fertile - and our human ingenuity and creativity and imagination can make anything out of it, discover anything in it. The Torah becomes a kind of Rorschach test, a Rorschach text, where we will find in it whatever we want to find: we will see patterns and themes and ideas, we will see in it whatever we want to see, layer after layer of sacred truths. And although the rabbis of tradition would have said that they were discovering what was already implicitly there, we could also say that they were projecting onto the text their own contemporary views and values and needs. But whichever way you see it, this has been the Jewish way, for two millennia, to turn it and turn it, and keep on discovering new everythings that are in it, or suggested by it.

So when the rabbinic commentators through the ages were faced with the chapters we read this week, Metzorah (Leviticus 14+15), they were quick to dig beneath the original, primary meaning of its opening verses – how to re-integrate into society someone who was temporarily afflicted with a physical skin condition that made them unfit to remain in the body of the community. They diverted their attention away from the literal meaning – not least because the institutional setting of the Temple with the priesthood and the offerings  was no longer in existence, so the rituals described couldn’t be enacted in any case. The rabbis turned it into a text about something else - that appears to be quite different from outer skin conditions and fungus in houses. It became a text about malicious outbreaks of a different kind: gossip, slander, bad-mouthing others, talking in a hateful or destructive way.

So how did they get from outer afflictions, discoloration – of skin, or fabrics, or houses,  metzorah – to speech acts? First of all they looked at where else this word came in the Hebrew Bible and saw that it was used when Miriam spoke against her brother Moses (Numbers 12: 1-15) after which she suffered from tzara’at; and it is also used at the burning bush when Moses spoke ill of the Israelites by saying they wouldn’t believe him about God’s plans to redeem them, and his hand turned metzora’at and ‘white as snow’(Exodus 4:6). We find the same Hebrew word (in different variations) in all these places.

So with these precedents, the rabbis interpreted our sedrah’s texts as speaking not so much about adverse physical conditions that people or buildings might suffer, but about a moral issue - what people say: people expressing disparaging  thoughts, off-colour thoughts, about other people. And they backed up this interpretation by pointing to a play on words, a pun, in the Hebrew. They saw that metzorah sounds like and looks like motsi ra, short for motsi shem ra (literally: ‘putting out a bad name’ – bad-mouthing, slander, defamation).

So the link with slander is made on two levels – through looking at other texts where the word comes, and speaking badly about people is the context; and by using their own rabbinic theory of the plasticity of language: the words are there, they thought, to be read both literally and creatively - midrashically, imaginatively, homiletically. 

So the Torah text of Metzorah is turned over and dug into so that it could offer something of value that transcended its original setting and original meaning. It was made into something relevant for all times and all people and all settings: it was used to talk about l’shon hara – speaking ill of people. Because we can all relate to that: to the temptation, the impulse, the experience, of speaking badly about other people. And we can all relate, when we have done it, to the wish to find a way of recovering from it, dealing with the consequences of it, this kind of moral affliction.

The problem for us, now, is that we don’t have any rituals for this, or priests who help us – though people do go to their secular equivalents, therapists, to deal with the feelings that lead to this kind of stuff breaking out in us, or in our homes - outbreaks of verbal aggression (which is what gossip is, and slander, and other forms speaking abusively about others). We know how damaging this is on an individual level, when we do it, or when we are on the receiving end of it; how corrosive it is of good relationships, of trust, how it undermines the fabric of social relationships.

And we don’t have to look too far to see how destructive it is on a collective level, where we have no rituals to deal with outbreaks of metzorah, motsi ra: it spreads in a quite uncontained way and poisons public life and private life. The omnipresence of social media actively promotes unrestrained verbal aggression, trolling, hate speech. The tabloid press couldn’t exist without gossip and the denigration of individuals and groups. We have as a society a really profound problem with metzorah, motsi ra. And no rituals to contain it or help us recover from it.

What happens to our well-being as a society when individuals and groups are made into ‘lepers’ [the old translation], to be bad-mouthed and shunned? Immigrants, Muslims, Zionists, paedophiles, benefit claimants, old people, young people, politicians, trades unionists: any group can be demonised, any individual can be outed and abused, made into an outcast by a self-righteous group (or individual) who set themselves up as judge and jury.

Before we look down, with the vast condescension of posterity, on these ancient rituals and archaic beliefs that we think we are seeing in the Torah, and smile at how superior we are morally and intellectually to our ancestors, we just need to take a cool dispassionate look around us and wonder what the effects are, short-term  and long-term, of living with, and colluding with, the metzorah that is part of our daily reality.

Yet there is one way, I think, in which we moderns might have an insight into something that our ancestors didn’t fully appreciate. You see, these Torah texts, and the later rabbinic commentaries on them, sometimes give the impression – when they connect issues about physical well-being, health and illness with moral issues and moral failings - that there’s a cause and effect relationship. Although it never says in our Metzorah chapters why a person or a house might be afflicted, once you start to link that condition with a moral failing like slander, an association is set up in our minds - and it is sometimes spelled out specifically this way by the rabbis - that the affliction is caused by the moral failing.

But there is a big difference between saying that when you read text A it can make you think about theme B (you read about discoloration on skin or stones and you then link it imaginatively to bad-mouthing others) and saying ‘A is caused by B’. A might lead you to think about B, but that doesn’t mean ‘A happens because of B’ or ‘A is a punishment because of B’.  And I’m saying this because one very common belief people have, ancient and modern, is that physical illnesses happen to us because we are being punished.

Those brought up in a traditional religious framework – Catholics are almost as good at this as Jews – often believe that if they are ill, or something bad happens – that this is a punishment from God for something they have done wrong. And even if the belief doesn’t come in that religious form - ‘God is punishing me because I’m bad’ - there is a secular variant that takes God out of the picture but still says ‘I’m suffering this because I did that - and I shouldn’t have done that’: ‘I’ve got cancer because I cheated on my partner’.

I come across this a lot as both a rabbi and a therapist: the belief that suffering, physical or emotional, is a punishment. But, unlike the ancient texts and rabbis,  I just don’t think the world works that way. Although I’m sure that’s how it felt to us when we were very small. Because when we are very small we are hard-wired to think of things as being about us: ‘Mummy’s in a bad mood because I’ve done something wrong. Daddy’s angry because I’m bad.’ When we are 3, 4, 5 years old we don’t think, we can’t think, ‘Mummy’s in a bad mood because she’s just lost her job. Daddy’s angry because he can’t find his mobile phone, or his team has just lost.’  What the child believes is that something is going wrong - they are being ignored or punished or told off - because it is something they have done wrong. And that way of thinking – bad things happen to me as punishments for my misdeeds, illness happens because I’m bad – persists into adulthood, in both religious and secular forms. And that kind of belief really doesn’t serve us well. It’s basically anti-life.

But I want to add a further twist to this theme about the relationship between physical ailments and moral failings. And this may sound paradoxical after what I have just said. Every day in my psychotherapy consulting room I find that there is often a relationship between our body’s state and our behaviour and emotions. But it isn’t anything to do with being punished. It’s about the ways in which our bodies and minds, our physical state  and our emotional state, are completely inter-related.

So – to take an example directly linked to our Torah portion - skin complaints:  spots, boils, eczema, psoriasis, rashes, skin irritations of various kinds. These are often linked to what’s going on in our lives:  what we are feeling, or not feeling; what stresses and emotions we are aware of, but can’t express; or we might not even be aware of a range of feelings, that are unconscious. Very often skin complaints are to do with anger, unexpressed feelings that are translated into a symptom. We might be aware of the anger, but we might not. Either way, that anger has nowhere to go except into the body, where it produces an outbreak of one kind or another.

And we talk about it this way in our everyday speech, as if we intuitively know what the problem is: we speak about an ‘angry rash’ without realising that yes, the rash is there because we are angry. (I’m simplifying here to make my point, things are often more complex than this). But what I do know is that physical ailments are very often connected to something else - something that we can’t manage in our lives, or emotions that we have no access to, or we are ashamed of, or we can’t find an outlet for: back pain, headaches, stiff necks, heartburn, constipation, sore throats - our bodies are a theatre in which the stresses and strains and emotional dramas and psychological problems of  our lives are constantly played out.

Our Torah portion – and the rabbis who traditionally linked Metzorah to the envy and jealousy and fears in us that end up with us speaking ill of others – is intuiting a deep understanding that things are linked together in life in surprising and sometimes disconcerting ways. How we might long for a modern ritual as powerful as the ancient one to help us move on beyond our afflictions, our meanness of spirit, our spite, our tendency to make ‘lepers’ of others.

Consider the symbolism of the ritual. Two birds were taken, and one is killed. The blood is sprinkled on the afflicted person or building. The other bird is set free. Atonement is achieved. At-one-ment. The movement is from death to life. Something has to die, something has to be scattered, something has to be set free: that’s the process that leads to well-being. Don’t we need some modern rituals of transformation that can help us transform the destructive polemics of our lives and society into creative and life-giving forms of expression?

Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it’. This ancient text from the much-maligned Book of Leviticus gives as a kind of route map, a  symbolic pathway towards wholeness , to help us renew a sense of well-being in a society. Something has to die, to end; something has to be scattered, dispersed; something has to be released, set free. Zot Torat Ha’za’ra’at (Leviticus 14:57) – ‘this is the law concerning afflictions’: ‘this is the teaching concerning these deep ailments we suffer...’

I wonder what it is going to take before we really are ready to listen to this Torah, this teaching? 

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, April 16th, 2016]