When you have a tradition spanning thousands of years, one aspect of learning it includes thinking about how concepts, laws, values, and practices evolve throughout time. The great anthropologist of religion, Roy Rappaport, noted that one of the fundamental features of pre-literate societies was the idea that rituals seemed unchanged since the earliest days of creation – if the elders said this is how it has always been done, who could argue? However, because the rituals were not being written down, they were certainly changing slowly over the course of time, remaining meaningful and functional because they could adapt. The current Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, offers a fascinating example of the evolution of core ideas in Judaism over time.
The portion focuses on purity and impurity, in particular on a variant of leprosy known as Tzara’at (scholars don’t know exactly what this refers to, but it is generally agreed that it isn’t synonymous with our current conception of leprosy). The original biblical text is exclusively concerned with purity and impurity, much less with medicine or medical treatment of the condition, and dictates priestly interventions that should occur to handle restoring purity in these cases.
Much later, in Rabbinic Judaism, Metzorah came to stand for Motzi Shem Ra – literally, bringing out a bad name, but the concept is slander. Whole books and treatises are written on the subject of guarding your tongue, using proper language, and the evils of gossip and slander. The Rabbinic conception, added on to the core text, was that slander would actually cause a person or a house to be struck with leprosy (along with impurity), and that until it was properly dealt with, they would live outside the community. Their entire interpretation of the text is based on this idea.
At Gesher we appreciate the power and importance of language, and our norms include the idea that students and teachers need to be careful about their words, particularly when they talk about someone else. The Jewish tradition is a valuable lens here, as it conveys the enormous potential words have to hurt or to heal. Making mistakes with our words is part of growing up, and it certainly doesn’t end in adulthood – that’s why we also learn how to fix what we’ve broken when our words seem to have caused more harm than good. We learn from our tradition that part of life in a thoughtful community like Gesher includes connecting meaningfully with other community members, so we practice and reflect often on how we are doing in this important task.
This Shabbat, I encourage you to talk to your kids about a time when words hurt you, or when you used words that you regretted using later. Ask them to share similar experiences with you.