Friday, January 2, 2015

Fact-Checking the Torah -- the Fourth Principle

We’re talking about leprosy from Leviticus 13 and the fourth great principle that is part of its laws.
The first principle was that leprosy is limited in how it conveys tumah, the condition of being tameh, because all situations that cause tumah have only a limited number of hops beyond which tumah is not conveyed.
The second is that tumah can be changed.  One way preserves the utility of whatever is tameh: a waiting period followed by a positive act.  The other requires damaging the tameh object until it is no longer useful for its normal purpose.  If the damage is ever repaired, it returns to its condition of tumah.
The third great principle is that paskening for yourself does more harm than good.  It can force you to sacrifice everything in your house if you decide that there’s leprosy in it, instead of getting an expert to tell you so.  You do not bear the burden of proof and paskening for yourself that you do flies in the face of Jewish law generally, not just specifically in the case of the leprous house.
The fourth great principle goes under the name safeq tahor tahor.  Literally, it means that if there’s a doubt whether something is tahor or tameh, it is tahor. 
More generally, this principle means there’s a presumption in Jewish law that if something was in a known status and there’s no evidence that the status has changed, then the status has not changed.
This goes hand in hand with the requirement that the burden of proof lies with whoever wants to change the ownership of property.
It also applies to capital crimes.  Until the burden of proof has been met, there is a doubt of guilt, so the accused must be considered not guilty.
As long as the priest has not ruled on the house, it is considered tahor and all the things in it are also tahor.
Another example is the statement that every woman is considered not to be in niddah until one of two things happen.  If she is always absolutely precise in when her period starts, then she is not niddah until that time arrives.  The other is that she can test whether she is niddah and until that test comes out positive, she is not niddah. 
And now I have busted the urban legend that Jewish law is punitive, not merciful; that it seeks to condemn people rather than to acquit them; and that priests could arbitrarily deprive Jews of their property or their lives.  Such things were common in later legal codes originating among Indo-Europeans, which had for their purpose keeping the king in power and not necessarily operating the society for the benefit of its members.  It’s a case of Freudian projection to pretend that this situation, against which most of the revolutions in history have protested, applies to Jews.
Next week I’ll finish off the concept that Jewish women were second class citizens to whom the laws of tumah applied, while they didn’t apply to men.  For that, read Leviticus 15.

© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights  Reserved

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