Speech that Heals: Narrative Halakhah, Part 2
Last week, we saw that our capability to be full partners in Torah is anchored in the messy and sometimes disorienting details of our embodied lives.1 In Parashat Metzora, we see the importance of narration, how giving voice to our experience plays an important role in a model of Torah and halakhah that conveys dignity and is a source of healing.
Speech plays an important role specifically regarding tzara’at one finds in their house. Throughout most of the discussion of tzara’at we see passive verbs: “he is brought to the kohen,” time after time. But for tzara’at of the house, the person afflicted is much more active:
וּבָא֙ אֲשֶׁר־ל֣וֹ הַבַּ֔יִת וְהִגִּ֥יד לַכֹּהֵ֖ן לֵאמֹ֑ר כְּנֶ֕גַע נִרְאָ֥ה לִ֖י בַּבָּֽיִת׃
The one whose house it is comes and tells the kohen, “Something like an affliction appeared to me on the house.”
The grammarian Ibn Ezra teaches that this active verb is not merely a matter of logistics (you can’t bring a house to a kohen!) but reflects an act laden with religious value. He writes, “it is a mitzvah to come to the kohen” (מצוה שיבוא אל הכהן). One might think that doing a “mitzvah” only kicks in once the kohen gives instructions. But here we see that the mitzvah begins earlier, at the moment where a person identifies a potential intersection between their own life and a larger religious world, even as there is some uncertainty (“something like an affliction” “כנגע”). If we think of halakhah as a bridge between our lives and divine will,2 we see from this verse that this encounter is rooted in our subjective experiences and grows from our decision to reach from there towards God. The halakhic system at its core is not really about obeying religious authority, it is about claiming agency and taking initiative to frame one’s life through interface with Torah.
The act of telling our story comes at the intersection of confidence and humility. I have to value my own perspective—trusting that my eye can identify something that has potential halakhic significance. On the other hand, I am aware of the limits of my own perspective; the statement is not absolute but contingent, “כנגע - like an affliction.”3
In a fascinating shift from the power dynamics of the kohen’s authoritative expertise in the Torah, later interpretation determines that a religious authority must also speak from an awareness of contingency. In her comments on the parashah, Nehama Leibowitz emphasizes that the word “כנגע - like an affliction” is a reminder that even (especially) a sage should train themselves to say “I don’t know.”4 The “expert” must adopt a stance of humility.
Rather than a battle between liberal autonomy and religious authority, the picture becomes one of mutual contingency. An individual can trust their intuition, yet at the same time have a very clear sense of the limits of their knowledge. A sage can have experience and training, yet at the same time be aware they are not a full expert in the particulars of this individual’s experience. When these two stances encounter each other, there is a possibility of transformative relationship.
Concrete religious and spiritual gain grows out of this process where diagnosis can only come on the heels of sharing one’s narrative and waiting for an expert’s response. The medieval commentator R. Ovadiah Sforno explains that the time lapse after the homeowner’s narration and before the kohen comes to see their home leads to a period of time rich for reflection and further expression. The homeowner may do teshuvah and pray; the kohen also prays.5 This is a vision of a relational approach to halakhah, less about an objective determination and more about mutual investment in an outcome of healing.
In this vein, we can interpret the narrative moment (והגיד לכהן) expansively, as a model for a kind of “narrative halakhah”—akin to “narrative medicine.” Narrative medicine is a relatively new field that places importance on an individual’s agency in sharing their experience and very particular knowledge of their body with a medical practitioner who listens and develops a holistic plan for care. In one foundational text that lays out a vision of narrative medicine, Rita Charon writes:
…Our genuine curiosity and commitment toward the truth enable us to peer through the twilight of another’s story as we try to see the whole picture and as we reflect on what it might mean. We recognize what parts we play in one another’s lives and how entailed we are in our shared creation of meaning. We get to know ourselves as a result of the vision of others, and we are able to donate ourselves as instruments of others’ learning.6
The meeting point between an individual and an expert becomes so much more than a simple diagnosis. It becomes a relational moment that offers deeper healing as the two share their knowledge and limits of knowledge.7
Parshiyot Tazria and Metzora adamantly insist that the reality of our embodied lives—even when disorienting or scary—is the soil where Torah takes root and from where it grows. We get there through narration (והגיד). The Torah models this narration by spending so many words on these parts of our existence that we may have deemed unworthy of divine attention.8 Just as God loves the details of our messy lives, so too we can be ready to share our narrative as part of this relationship.
Narrative halakhah paves the way for us to find our own voice—having the confidence to notice and articulate our personal experiences, and having the humility to refrain from reaching a definite conclusion about how that interfaces with a religious pathway. The encounter between an individual and the broad and deep wisdom of Torah must dignify—rather than eclipse—the person and their story. As we enter into this Pesah season, we can dive into this work of “Haggadah”—narrating the stories of our own lives and moment that are part of reaching towards a more redeemed world.
1 “Torah Rooted in the Real: Narrative Halakhah, Part 1,” Parashat Tazria 5782, available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-tefillah/resources/torah-rooted-real-narrative-halakhah-part-1
2 The importance of narrative in law was articulated by American Justice Robert Cover in his seminal article “Nomos and Narrative,” where he argues that any study of law must coincide with a study of the stories and culture in which that law is embedded. You can’t understand the laws about inheritance and birthright in the book of Devarim without also reading the stories of the patriarchs that add texture and conflict to these laws. Cover, “The Supreme Court 1982 Term–Foreword: Nomos and Narrative,” Harvard Law Review 97 (1983), pp. 4-68.
3 Sifra Metzora Parashah 5:10: “נגע - מה ת''ל כנגע אפילו תלמיד חכם ויודע שהוא נגע וודאי לא יגזור ויאמר נגע נראה לי בבית אלא כנגע נראה לי בבית.” Even if a person has some halakhic knowledge, they still don’t make this halakhic determination alone. Rabbinic interpretation leaves ample room for others to have the knowledge to arrive at the conclusion that something is tzara’at, but only the kohen has status-conferring powers.
4 Leibowitz, in her comments to Parashat Metzora, draws on Rashi to Leviticus 14:35 (כנגע נראה לי בבית - אפילו תלמיד חכם שיודע שהוא נגע ודאי לא יפסוק דבר ברור לומרח נגע נראה לי, אלא כנגע נראה לי) in addition to Talmud Bavli Berakhot 4a (דאמר מר: למד לשונך לומר איני יודע, שמא תתבדה ותאחז).
7 In the most concrete terms, the process of going to the kohen first ends up saving some of the individual’s property: there is time to get vessels out of the house before the potential declaration of impurity so that all the vessels don’t become automatically impure by being in the house with impure tzara’at. See Rashi to Leviticus 14:36: “ולא יטמא כל אשר בבית - שאם לא יפנהו ויבא הכהן ויראהט הנגע, נזקק להסגר, וכל מה שבתוכו יטמא. ועל מה חסה תורה, אם על כלי שטף, יטבילם ויטהרו, ואם על אוכלין ומשקין, יאכלם בימי טומאתו, הא לא חסה התורה אלא על כלי חרס, שאין להםי טהרה במקוה”