Tazria: Being Transparent But Discreet
A heavenly fire had descended into the mishkan, confirming the presence of God within the human realm and within a human edifice. The divine spirit among us is cause for celebration, but it also poses challenges. Preserving the splendor and magnificence of the divine presence demands that those who experience unsightly illnesses or inelegant bodily circumstances be temporarily suspended from the mishkan.
In listing those who are temporarily suspended, the Torah depicts numerous "undignified" conditions of the human lifecycle. It describes the contagious physical disease of tzara’at. Likewise, the Torah portrays a compromised bodily state of a zav or zava, who experience unpleasant bodily secretions. These people are not in a state of maximal nobility or physical dignity.
The Torah could have easily and quickly summarized the laws pertaining to these awkward illnesses. Yet, surprisingly, these two wordy sections painstakingly delineate each and every detail about someone stricken with these conditions. This "verbal outlay" illustrates that that the Torah doesn’t flinch from any aspect of the human condition. There is no moment which isn’t "dignified" enough for the Torah’s interest. Human beings constantly stand in the presence of God – during our most magnificent moments and in our most compromised physical states.
In fact, the actual word “Torah” appears five times in Tazria and Metzora – the greatest concentration of this word in the entire Torah. To dispel the notion that unattractive human experiences are ignored by religion, the Torah repeats the word “Torah” five times, underlying the sweeping interest of Torah and religion.
The notion that the Torah would avoid certain topics or blush at certain situations implies that religious experience is to be compartmentalized into exclusive areas of human life. By spotlighting diseased or physically compromised people the Torah presents religion as all-encompassing.
We have learned - sometimes the hard way - the value of open and frank conversations about the entire range of the human condition. We realize the great danger of suppressing topics and allowing the general culture to fill the void. We conduct open and honest conversations about mental health, marriage, sexuality, verbal and physical abuse, racism and many other issues which, in previous generations, were unattended to. In a world of easy access to information, shying away from these important issues merely surrenders that conversation to others.
The damage of "conversation suppression" isn’t limited to the particular issue being suppressed. Avoiding important conversations because they are "too sensitive" conveys that impression that religion is partial, frightened or both. Engaging in open conversation conveys confidence and conviction that the Torah is eternally relevant and comments upon every nook and cranny of the human condition.
Yet, despite the candidness of the Torah's list, it still employs discrete language. A male who experiences abnormal bodily secretions and conveys halachik impurity is portrayed as riding upon a horse. A female who experiences similar bodily emissions is described as sitting upon a chair. In the Torah's vernacular, the image of a woman riding horseback is less discreet than a woman sitting upon a chair. Even though the Torah is quite frank about the physically compromised condition of a woman, it still utilizes discrete language.
Transparency is vital but so is prudence. While we must address every issue – even sensitive ones – we must be careful about our language and the looseness of our conversation. By encouraging frankness and transparency we sometimes too eagerly share information meant to be confidential. Likewise, in the rush to open conversation about every topic, we sometimes speak in words that w ould better be avoided. There is a thin line between transparency and TMI (too much information). We can create open conversation while still protecting the dignity of language and while still sharing information only with those who need to know. The cost of unrefined speech can sometimes far outweigh the value of transparency. The tilt towards transparent conversation has created a loose-tongued culture while introducing words and imagery which robs us of our purity. Can we achieve transparency while preserving the dignity of language and the privacy of others?
Additionally, sometimes our rush toward transparency tramples potentially innocent people. When addressing situations of possible abuse, are we careful to assess the context and timing? Are we cautious about the potential damage we may cause to the innocent? It is obvious to us all that our primary responsibility is to eradicate abuse, protect victims and prevent future victimization. It is fair, though to ask ourselves: are we sometimes too fanatical in our interventions? Given the gravity of these crimes it is a difficult question to raise, but an important one. As a rabbi I have been approached several times about people who allegedly behaved inappropriately toward others. I was asked to intervene and to prevent further exploitation. I tried to be thorough, responsible but also discreet. My primary objective was always to protect potential victims, but I also tried to be mindful not to victimize those who may have been falsely accused. This isn’t an easy balancing act but one we should be mindful of.
The sections of Tazria and Metzora remind us to carefully calibrate between two important but sometimes clashing values – transparency and discretion. We must extend the religious conversation to every aspect of our human experience. Just the same, we must exercise great caution about the manner in which this conversation is conducted. Otherwise, we will pay a heavy price in our mad dash toward unlimited transparency.