Between ‘niddah’ and ‘nega’

Way back in the day, I sat in a Hilchot Niddah class together with a classmate who would eventually become a prominent Orthodox feminist. This classmate gave a presentation. Her presentation addressed the question: where does the idea of showing your bloodstains to a rabbi come from?

Now that is a question of feminist brilliance. No one anywhere in the halachic literature asks where what and why. It’s taken for granted that this is just the way things are. Even such an outrageous practice as having a rabbi check one’s bloodstained underwear. Yalta the Tannait was considered rebellious because she picked and chose her rabbis, but even she didn’t ask the question why do this in the first place. I must admit I did not either appreciate the sheer brilliance of this question at the time, which may be why she became a prominent feminist and not I.

My classmate claimed that the model was derived from the Metzora, the leper, who has to show his/her lesion to the priest.

That’s what she said. The rest now is mine.

The rabbis have long since taken over the role of the priest as teachers of the law, but as we don’t practice tzaraat anymore, Niddah, the adjacent topic will have to do. The priest determines tameh/tahor, and so does the rabbi.

But what role exactly did the priest play in all this? Was the priest basing his determination on medical knowledge, or occult knowledge? In ancient times, the two were often mixed.

Let’s talk first about tzaraat on a house. The priest’s role seems to be magical or shamanic there. His word determines whether the items in the house will be tameh or tahor. Any item removed before he says the magic word will not become impure, even if it was in the house five seconds before. suggests an alternate interpretation. The tzaraat in question is nothing but a harmless little mold; the priest knows it is bunk. The priest knows that the items are fine any which way. But the people don’t. So the priest has to go through an elaborate ritual to wean them away from the practice of freaking out over various molds. Basically, he’s a scientist only pretending to be a shaman.

Sound farfetched; but maybe actually the whole tzaraat deal is the same idea. Because basically no one has managed to identify what tzaraat actually is. No skin disease fits every single criteria that the Torah gives. Melanoma, vitiligo, cellulitis, whatever, all have some criteria but not others. So,the tzaraat in the Torah maybe like another ben sorer u’moreh (according to the rabbinic interpretation that is): it is intentionally written in a manner that it can’t ever occur. The purpose being to wean people away from their revulsion from icky, unusual and therefore frightening, but ultimately harmless thingies on their skin.

Fast forward to today’s rabbis and their niddah examinations. The priest was a scientist pretending to be a shaman; but the the rabbi today is a shaman pretending to be a scientist. He pretends to have greater knowledge than you based on study and experience in identifying types of blood. But really; its all about shamanism. The rabbi’s word, not objective reality, is what makes it tameh or tahor, forbidden or permitted; whether you will be punished with karet (excision) or not. You know how they say, wear black underwear, because if you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist. Don’t look, don’t check, don’t know (except, of course, when they say you have to check). Rabbis are told to look for leniencies, not to look for objective fact. Because objective fact doesn’t really count here. The rabbi is but a shaman who is supposed to exercise magical powers.

Up to anyone who wants to buy.

About the Author
Former Bais Yacov chick now straddling the margins of many communities
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