This week’s Parsha, Tazria-Metzora, spends decisively more quality time and effort on describing how the Cohen must diagnose a scaly skin blemish as Tzaraat, than the Torah spends describing the creation of the universe. Indeed, this is not unique to this Parsha: the entire book of Vaikra (Leviticus), is a book of excessive excruciating detail. Whereas some of the seemingly most important ideas in the Torah get barely a line or two, others, particularly those in Sefer Vaikra, are nauseatingly detailed, super long, and even repetitive.
One of the reasons for this asymmetry is evident when one thinks about the nature of the topics that receive the most obsessive scrutiny in the text. The ones sure to make everyone’s short list are no doubt Korbanot (sacrifices); the composition of the Ketoret (sacrificial incense), and the manifestations of various ritual impurities, including Tzaraat in this Parsha. The extreme emphasis on detail for Korbanot, Ketoret, and Tumaa is reinforced by clear indications in the Oral Torah that the details are no trifling matter: Korbanot performed in the wrong order are invalid; getting the Ketoret mixture wrong carries the death penalty (!!); and Tuma’a, along with correct purification from it will determine the ability of an individual to stand in the presence of HaKadoshBaruHu.
Why are details of such critical importance for mixing some incense, or ritually slaughtering a sheep, or identifying the biblical impurity of Tzaraat, and why do we need to know all of them? Why couldn’t the Torah have just said “The Cohanim will figure out how to make sacrifices and incense, and how to diagnose skin blemishes. The rest of you all: worry about how to be nice to each other and keep kosher?”
The obvious answer comes from comparing the text of the Torah to (lehavdil) countless other religions. Typical religion (not counting classical Judaism) thrives on the mystical and the hidden; on trade secrets of a priestly class and unique access to divine answers on the part of an inspired saintly leader. People have a basic intuitive need for mystical, as opposed to fully revealed, religion. Demystification makes everything seem mundane, and therefore much harder to perceive as having divine dimensions.
Sefer Vaikra teaches us how radically the Torah opposes hidden religious experience, because of the many ways in which mysticism, spiritual hierarchies, and exclusive access to the divine by some, are prone to abuse. What this means is that (unfortunately for those of us who are Cohanim) the Cohen can’t just come to you and say “Today I’d like a Truma of all your gold and also your daughter, because the requirements for building the Mishkan and for Trumot are laid out in precise detail already. The Cohen also can’t make a “special” Ketoret to get everyone really high, thereby enhancing their religious experience and his power. The Cohen also can’t diagnose people he doesn’t like with Tzaraat willy-nilly, the way that religious leaders have sometimes profited by designating specific individuals as being cursed or as being witches.
These days we (wrongfully) do not bring Korbanot, and we do not mix Ketoret spices, but this idea presented in Sefer Vaikra, that systems of belief shrouded in mystery beget idolatry, and that Hashem does not desire us to be led by oracles of an initiated class, are desperately relevant today. Now, as then, modern idolatries thrive on exclusive access to the “truth,” and now as then purveyors of idolatry seek to obscure the inner workings of their cults. It is therefore not surprising that one of the most popular of modern idolatries, science, also thrives on the majority of people not understanding a single thing about how “scientific truths” come into being before they are aired, printed, or posted. I do not mean to imply, even for a second, that the scientific method is not the best way that we have of finding things out, nor can any serious person belittle the achievements of modern science. But, speaking as a scientist myself, whether consciously or not, most of us have come to relate to science in a religious way, portraying it as a singular source of all truth and scorning those who “refuse to listen” to the opinions and prophecies of anyone claiming to represent a scientific consensus.
In reality, scientific findings, whether those published in a scientific journal or in the popular press, resemble much more a Ketoret than they do the word of God. Yes, some of the basic ingredients are pretty solid, incontrovertible facts. But in order to make a model of reality (let alone predict the future) you end up relying on some gross oversimplifications, some huge assumptions, mistakes, experimental error, and bias. Then, as with the Ketoret, a real stink-bomb ends up getting mixed in there, in the form of cutting corners, confirming bias, or overlooking data in order to get the desired outcome so that careers and egos get advanced. All of this, together, gets served up as a scientific consensus (e.g. that the world is about to end from climate change or that we are in the midst of a medieval plague).
This Parsha reminds us that anyone claiming to make predictions of the future or wants to tell everyone how best to live their lives had better show all of their work, and that the minute details deserve careful scrutiny.