Friday, November 27th, 2020

Should Jews Change How They Build Houses? On Avoiding Halachic Problems by Gidon Rothstein

April 6, 2011 by  
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Based on its reading of verses from this week’s parsha, Mishnah Negaim 12:2 clearly states that only houses constructed of wood, stones, and dirt can be subject to house-צרעת, loosely translated as house-leprosy. The Mishnah derives this from the Torah’s reference to replacing all those materials as the first stage of checking whether the stain in the house is a stubborn, returning one (necessitating destroying the house). 

The issue is safely academic enough—because we don’t have any tsaraat today, and we tend to build buildings without all those materials, anyway—to raise two interrelated questions about how God wants us to experience the system of Torah and mitzvot

Making Halachot Irrelevant: Good, Bad, or In Between?

First, as I just noted, most of our modern homes do not consist of all three of those materials, meaning that in that  house, tsaraat wouldn’t be an issue.  But is that good or bad for a religious life? While we have avoided the annoyance and financial loss of that tsaraat, it would also mean that we have closed off an avenue to God teaching us about how and where we need to improve our lives (or, according to Rashi, an opportunity for God to reveal to us hidden wealth in the walls of our houses).

If we insist the loss is worth it, does that mean we should also favor those garments made of materials that are not susceptible to clothing-tsaraat?  The two questions, then, are: when is a command of the Torah telling us how to handle a negative situation, one we should avoid if we can, and when is the possibility of handling such a situation valuable even if painful?

I think, for example, we would all prefer not to administer the death penalty, but that cannot be taken to mean that if two people were about to witness a capital crime (in a time of functioning Jewish courts) they could consciously refrain from giving hatraah, the warning that would render the sinner(s) liable.  There are some halachot, in other words, that we prefer never to see put into action, and some that we very much want to put into action (the offering of a Paschal sacrifice, for example), and then there are many in between. It is that latter category that I want to explore a bit more.

To take one more academic example and then move on to more practical ones: household items made of certain materials are susceptible to ritual impurity, and others, made of other materials are not. If it were possible, would there be a problem with religious households making use only of that latter kind? 

My answer is that whatever the ultimate answer, I think we need to remind ourselves that doing so would ease our religious lives in some ways, but would impoverish them in others.  For the two examples I mentioned thus far, tsaraat and ritual impurity, it seems likely that aside from the technical aspect of those laws, there was a religious/spiritual one. In the case of tsaraat, Hazal seem fairly clear that it was supposed to be seen as a message from God about our sinful state; ritual impurity is a more difficult discussion, but I think it accurate to say that there, too, the laws are not purely technical, that we are meant to learn something from them.

If so, constructing lives in which those laws do not (or cannot) play a role means we have lost touch, by our choice, with an area that God deemed religiously worthwhile.  And, I would add, we have done so not only in practice, but in theory—by having these laws rendered impossible to act on, we have also made them more difficult to understand even as a question of Talmud Torah, of understanding God’s Torah. Let me turn to more practical examples to demonstrate.

The Eating of Meat and How Far It Is From How the Torah Thought It Would Be

Many of us no longer remember that the Torah commands giving certain parts of every animal we slaughter to a Kohen, a priest, a law that is rarely observed now because we have professionalized the production of meat, and they have (I believe) found legitimate halachic ways of avoiding losing so much of the animal to priests.

Similarly, the whole area of terefot, animals that have suffered a wound that renders them unkosher, has withered in recent years, because shechitah, ritual slaughter, has been professionalized and made corporate so that, first, only butchers have any involvement with the questions that arise.  Equally important, the urge to investigate the intricacies of these laws is significantly reduced, since the cost of being stringent is relatively small (animals rejected by the kosher butchers go straight to the non-kosher ones, with a small financial cost easily passed on to the consumer).

The two examples allow us to see what is lost even as we gain greater access to meat.  In the first instance, the fact that we no longer give those priestly gifts, we have lost what would seem to be part of how the Torah envisioned our building our sense of God in our lives. If, as is clear from numerous sources, the priests serve as God’s representatives among the people (aside from their service in the Temple), these gifts seem at least partially geared towards insuring we think of God when we eat meat, by including God’s representatives in each of those occasions.  While there is no reason to doubt the legal efficacy of how we avoid that, I think the cost bears taking into account.

With terefot, there is another loss as well.  When each terefah came out of a Jew’s pocket, there was pressure on rabbis to study the matter carefully before ruling.  Now, it is simpler to just throw the animal or bird onto the non-kosher pile, so that we may cease to recognize the options and leniencies we might otherwise have taken advantage of.

Should Jews Be Farmers?

Another application of the same question comes in the area of agriculture, where the Torah ordained many laws for the farmers about to enter the Land.  As society has moved away from agriculture (although, truthfully, even in the Torah’s time, only some of the tribes were primarily farmers), the question of the value of those laws becomes more pressing.  If they are purely utilitarian—a way to make farming a religious experience if you happen to be a farmer—there would be no reason to encourage doctors, lawyers, etc. to strive to cultivate at least a small plot of their own land.

The other possibility is that farming the Land was vital to the connection the Torah wanted each Jew (with the exception of priests and Levites) to experience.  Tithing, leaving some of the crops for the poor, bringing first fruits to the Temple, leaving the Land fallow during shemittah and yovel, these might be laws the Torah thought valuable for all Jews to experience, not just those who made a living as farmers.  But maybe not; a question I think deserves discussion.

The Study of Torah

Rendering certain areas of halachah largely obsolete has another damaging affect on our religious lives, in that it makes it harder to understand the Torah’s system of laws and values.  As I noted before, our knowledge of terefot today is worse than in decades past not only because fewer people need to study those laws, but because in many cases they need study them only relatively superficially, without the deep knowledge that would qualify them to find appropriate leniencies.  This is true in other areas as well, where our desire to be careful not to violate God’s law can also lead us to lose sight of the full intricacies (and, therefore, the full message) of that law.

To the extent that Torah is intertwined—so that laws regarding putting up a mezuzah in a house might depend on the definition of a house for tsaraat purposes, or an opening for eruv purposes, or vice verse—when we lose sight of those areas, we also make it harder to understand even the areas we are still actively working on. The giants of each generation, of course, have walked confidently in all of Torah, but the rest of us make understanding the religion and the God Who gave that religion more difficult in our so doing.

One lesson of house tsaraat for me, then, is the extent it shows us not aware of simple aspects of our religion: what parts of it are ideally supposed to be an active reality in our lives (agricultural laws?), what parts are simply mechanical (if you do this, do this—should we be eating meat and using the shechitah laws, or it’s there if you need it), and what parts should we really hope to avoid putting into practice ever (the exact laws of how to conduct a stoning)?

And the stakes are not small, since they shape our vision of our relationship with God, our understanding of how to create that relationship, and our awareness of the full richness God hopes will infuse that relationship.

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