When is it important to call a spade a spade?
In Parshat Noach (Bereishit 7:2) the Torah gives us details of the animals brought onto Noah’s Ark:
“Min habehema hatehorah,” – Noah brought onto the ark clean animals,
“umin habehema asher einena tehorah,” – and also animals which are not clean.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi in the Gemara, Masechet Pesachim 3a, notes that in theory the Torah should have referred to a ‘behemiah hatemeiah’ – an impure or defiled animal. Instead eight additional letters are used in the term ‘asher einena tehorah’ – animals which are not clean.
From here Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that the Torah wants us to know that we should always strive to use clean, gentle forms of speech.
If that’s the case, what would Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi say about the parshiot of Tazria and Metzora? Here time and again the Torah uses the term ‘temeiah’ – impure or defiled.
The reason is clear. In the book of Bereishit the Torah engages in historical narrative and that is a context in which we should strive to avoid unclean terminology. But in the book of Vayikra, where we are presented with ‘din’ Jewish law, when we are made aware of halacha – the do’s and the don’ts of life – the Torah doesn’t beat about the bush. It calls a spade a spade. If something is temeiah, if it is impure, it is called by that term.
So too for example, when it comes to the laws of kashrut, what we can or can’t eat, it’s not good enough to say that something is not kosher. We call it treif, spelling out exactly what the nature of this food is. That also applies to our conduct. If there is behaviour which is treif, let’s make it known that that is what it is.
Now what is it in the parshiot of Tazria and Metzora that the Torah refers to as being temeiah? The term here is linked to Metzora, which comes from ‘motzi shem ra’. It is the purposeful attempt to assassinate the character of another person. I find this to be of particular pertinence and relevance in our times; times in which ‘cancel culture’ is gaining ground; times in which people increasingly prefer to attack the opponent rather than the opponent’s views; times when people are engaging in demonisation instead of being brave enough to debate the issues at hand.
From Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi we learn how important it is that in our speech we should always use clean, gentle terminology. But we also learn how important it is to call a spade a spade. If something is wrong let’s call it by that name and that includes ad hominem responses to the views of others. When people try to assassinate a character of an opponent, we must make it known in no uncertain terms that that is totally unacceptable.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis