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Friedrich Nietzsche and the Plague of Tzaraat (Tazria-Metzora 04/21/18)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Friedrich Nietzsche and the Plague of Tzaraat

Today’s Parsha deals with metaphysical affiliations of the skin, clothes or home called Tzaraat.  Many of the readings in Leviticus are wearying; they detail the numerous sacrifices that we no longer offer.  We read them and try to find parallels in our lives; what can I sacrifice or offer G-d?  I find this week’s reading even more frustrating.  It’s long and complex and hasn’t been applicable since the destruction of the first Temple.  Tzaraat, the various changes in skin and hair color, is understood by the rabbis to be a Divine message, a rebuke from G-d.  Hubris, arrogance or hurtful behavior has been manifested in the recipient, and he now needs to meet with a Cohen (Temple Priest) and be cast out of his community.  With guidance from the Cohen and proper repentance, the afflicted person can reunite with his community and family.  What are the parallels to today’s world?  We are all afflicted at times in a myriad of ways: health, wealth, car and home problems, weather disturbances etc.  While it was understood that Tzaraat specifically punished arrogance and gossip, we cannot assume our afflictions are because of arrogance, or even perhaps from any sin.  What’s the lesson for us nowadays?

I’m listening to a Great Course series on the teachings of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.   Nietzsche is infamously known to be the one who declared “G-d is Dead.”

Here’s the passage in which he forged such a bold statement, in Parable of the Madman in The Gay Science (aka Joyous Wisdom):

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace, and cried incessantly:  “I am looking for G-d!  I am looking for G-d!”

As many of those who did not believe in G-d were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter.  “Have you lost him, then?” said one.  “Did he lose his way like a child?” said another.  Or “Is he hiding?  Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage or emigrated?”  Thus they shouted and laughed.  The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

“Where has G-d gone?” he cried.  “I shall tell you.  We have killed him – you and I.  We are his murderers.  But how have we done this?  How were we able to drink up the sea?  Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun?

Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying G-d?  G-d is dead.  G-d remains dead.  And we have killed him.  How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves?”

It has been further related that on that same day the madman entered diverse churches and there sang a requiem.  Led out and quietened, he is said to have retorted each time:  “What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of G-d?”

Nietzsche is concerned that G-d is dead in the hearts and minds of his own generation – killed by indifference and a pronounced cultural shift away from faith and towards rationalism and science.  This same G-d, before becoming dead in mankind’s hearts and minds, had provided the foundation of a “Judeo Christian morality”, a defining and unifying approach to life with a shared set of beliefs.  These beliefs created a social and cultural outlook within which people had lived their lives.

The clash between religious and secular values has become very evident under Vice President Pence and the Family Research Council, who are anti-gay, anti-abortion, etc. and are trying to push their agenda on liberals who have moved away from bible-based morality.

Nietzsche declared war on the traditional concepts of guilt and sin.  Like Freud, he found guilt and sin psychologically debilitating.  Nietzsche rejects the idea that human beings are intrinsically blemished or flawed, or that we are born guilty.  He views “sins” as the foibles that make human beings interesting. For example, the “seven deadly sins”, pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth are just manifestations of natural human instincts. Although the “seven deadly sins” is a Christian concept, it is not altogether foreign from traditional Jewish belief.  Pirkei Avot, our ethical code, advises us to distance ourselves from all of these vices.

Nietzsche doesn’t decry morality or kindness or justice. He just rejects feeling guilty for succumbing to being human.  There are also positive aspects to these traits: Lust helps keep the population growing, greed grows the economy, envy makes sports competitive and gluttony drives all the shows on the food channel!

Perhaps this is the lesson we should learn from Tzaraat; its inactivity for the past 2500 years.  Maybe G-d’s telling us that it used to be that lightning (Tzaraat) struck when one acted or spoke improperly, but even G-d learned that we can’t live with that constant fear over our heads.  We should all strive for positivity and the well-being of ourselves and others, but not be subject to guilt and punishment when we fail.  It’s a narrow gap between confidence and arrogance.  When we fail, it’s best that we learn from our mistakes but not suffer immediate and embarrassing consequences.  Perhaps Tzaraat stopped not because we weren’t worthy of these Divine signs anymore, but rather to teach us that life can’t be productive while being handcuffed by sin and guilt.

I believe G-d is a living and loving force in our lives.  Nietzsche decried the vestigial and corrupt practices of a religion that inflicted guilt and sin on the individual and society.  But what if this concept was already taken into consideration?  Maybe the negation of Tzaraat was the beginning of what Nietzsche and Freud would later espouse.

To see the Shabbat Yom Ha’Aztmaut Drasha 4/20/18, click here

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