INSIGHT

5768 - #24

THE NATURE OF AN ACT

Whenever the Torah calls for an action, a desire emerges to attempt to understand the purpose of the act. In this regard, the tendency of most people is to define or evaluate the nature of such an act in concrete or objective terms. The result is that certain acts are seen as inherently religious or ethical while others are seen as inherently reflecting the opposite. A purview of the laws of the Torah, though, seems to challenge such a perception. Various acts seem, at times, to, in themselves, present opposing value constructs dependent upon the actual circumstances that surround the action. For example, the various Torah directives concerning the care of hair seem to reflect opposing values in the very same act. At times we are prohibited to use a razor in cutting our hair. Other times, we are commanded to do so. At times, we are not even to cut our hair but rather to let it grow. Other times, we are told that letting our hair simply grow is unacceptable before God. So what action does reflect the religious ideal – to have hair and let it grow1 or, the extreme opposite, to fully shave the hair on our bodies?2 The answer seems to be both and neither. The commentators, in explaining the many specific circumstance that touch upon this broad area of conduct, explain the religious significance of both alternatives and also the religious problems with both. The result is a value structure that incorporates circumstances into the understanding of the religious and ethical ideal. According to the Torah, it would seem that the nature of an act simply cannot be defined in concrete or objective terms. At times, letting one’s hair grow reflects the religious ideal. At other times, shaving all our hair reflects the religious ideal. And at other times, simply being properly groomed reflects the religious ideal. Then there are also distinctions based upon the place of the hair. No action always imparts the one right religious ideal.

            This complexity in understanding the value constructs inherent in our actions is not simply a result of the variation in response to specific circumstances. It actually also reflects the inherent complexity within an action itself. For example, if allowing one’s hair to grow wild is a sign of sadness – which would explain why a mourner does not cut his/her hair3 – we could understand why this behaviour is sometimes appropriate and sometimes not. It would depend upon whether an act reflecting sadness is appropriate or not. According to this understanding, though, the nature of the action is still defined in concrete or objective terms. It would still be understood that letting one’s hair grow is defined as an act of sadness; the sole question being whether sadness is the appropriate religious response to the circumstance. The greater difficulty, though, is that an action in itself may also reflect differing constructs, even opposing constructs. Is a nazir letting his hair grow to be understood as a reflection of sadness? An act itself can have many different meanings, sometimes reflecting contradictory value constructs. The challenge we thus face in understanding the Torah’s call in demanding a specific action is to understand the full complexity of this action and the true dynamic nature of the religious ideal.

            The idea is, perhaps, best explained in cases where a certain action is prohibited for one person yet permitted for another. If the behaviour is inappropriate, why is it not forbidden for everyone? If the behaviour is appropriate, why is it forbidden for one? The conclusion must be that the action is not monolithic but reflects a spectrum of constructs that demand different conclusions in behaviour given the variance in existence, both in terms of circumstances and humanity. One such example may be the difference in regard to sexual relations in the laws of the metzorah. T.B. Moed Katan 15b4 informs us that sexual relations are forbidden to the male metzorah during the seven days that he is to count between his first shaving and his second. T.B. Keritot 8b informs us that this prohibition does not apply to females. If relations are inappropriate for the metzorah, why should there be a distinction between men and women? The answer may lie in the fact that an act itself may have many different dimensions to it. A distinction in gender may thus simply reflect this distinction and the value construct within the act that is to be highlighted in regard to each gender. In the case of the male metzorah, his gender would be deemed as highlighting a certain perspective on relations thus leading to a conclusion that relations are inappropriate in this situation. For a female metzorah, though, her gender may highlight a different perspective on relations and thus relations need not be forbidden.  

            Sexuality, as the foundation of both the husband-wife relationship and the family, actually has two dimensions to it that are, in a certain way, contradictory. In one way, it is a communal force that takes us away from ourselves and pushes us to connect with others. In another way, though, it is a force of privacy that leads to the entrenchment of personal and intimate concerns. Family is our bridge to the world yet it is also our haven from the world. Having children is a way of expressing our commitment to the broader society yet it also is a way of strengthening our own space within our own world. Sexuality is thus a method by which we connect to the world. Sexuality is also, though, a method by which we retreat from the world into our own domain. An example of the former is found in the very commandment to have children,5 specifically in that the commandment is tied to expanding out into the world. Interestingly, though, this commandment is deemed to only apply to men and not to women.6 This may be because the female focus for having children is the other effect of sexuality, to create the haven or home. 

            This, in fact, may explain why a woman is not commanded to refrain from sexuality as a metzorah. The prohibition is derived from the verse that states that the metzorah is to leave his tent, re-enter the world in a new fashion. Refraining from sexuality reinforces this idea in the case of the male. For men, the focus of sexuality is the community. As part of the process of purification of the metzorah, he is to re-evaluate his behaviour in a communal sense. For women, though, where the focus of sexuality is the creation of haven, refraining from sexuality does not portray such a directive. She is not to leave her tent; sexual relations are permitted. Female sexuality with a focus on haven is not prohibited to the female metzorah. The same act carries different meanings, thus there is a distinction in the Torah directive.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Footnotes

1 This could, perhaps, be argued from the laws of the nazir, who was not allowed to cut his hair. See Bamidbar 6:5.

2 This idea could be derived from the purification process for the metzora, the one afflicted with the spiritual disease of tzara’at. See, also, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Vayikra 14:8.

3 See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 390.

4 Based on Vayikra 14:8.

5 Usually understood to be Bereishit 1:28.

6 See T.B. Yevamot 65b.

Nishma, 2008


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2006 NISHMA