Leviticus 13: Complexity and Simplicity

The other day I related the complexity of Leviticus 13 (which I had read, i.e., chanted, on the previous Shabbat) to the complexity of the human condition. In my mind, at the time, it was all complexity, complexity of complexities. In this complexity I found beauty. Now I see, at the same time, a logical and structural simplicity.

Leviticus 13, which forms part of the Torah portion Tazria, describes the diagnosis, treatment, and ritual purification of people with various skin disorders, which may or may not be “nega tzaraat,” or “the plague of [leprosy]” (it is commonly translated as “leprosy,” but we don’t know what the disease actually was).

As I discussed before, these verses present special challenges for the readers. Words and phrases repeat many times, but within different grammatical structures (and thus with different trope, or melody). It does not work to associate a phrase with a melody. You have to learn both trope and text in a different way.

Today we have our last cantillation class. We were supposed to bring some pedagogical materials that we use when teaching cantillation to others. (Most of the students are preparing to be cantors.) Since I have never taught anyone else how to leyn, I thought about how I might go about learning Tazria, if I were to do it again.

Then it came to me. In the earlier part of chapter 13, in many of the verses, the first part of the verse has to do with the symptoms and general diagnosis; the second, with the action or treatment (and sometimes the reason as well). The two parts are divided by a melodic phrase called etnachta, which indicates a pause analogous to our semicolon. (It appears under its corresponding syllable and looks somewhat like a curved caret.)

So there you have it: symptoms and diagnosis in the first half, and treatment or action in the second.

But you can break it down still further. Within the first half, the symptoms are sometimes grouped in phrases; these phrases are separated by a zakef katon, a trope that indicates something like a strong comma–not quite an etnachta, but closer than many of the other disjunctives, or melodic separators. (It appears above the syllable and looks like a colon.) In fact, sometimes this zakef katon separates specific symptoms from a more general diagnosis. In the second part of the verse, the zakef katon may separate two possible actions.

I am not doing justice to the topic of parsing; there’s much more to it than this, both within these verses and in general. I am just looking at a particular relation between structure and meaning. When you consider it in this way, everything falls into place–if not in this particular way, then in other ways.

Take, for example, Leviticus 13:2 (I have set the etnachta phrase in blue and the zakef katon phrases in green; the quoted text is courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website):

ב אָדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֤ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ֙ שְׂאֵ֤ת אֽוֹ־סַפַּ֨חַת֙ א֣וֹ בַהֶ֔רֶת וְהָיָ֥ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂר֖וֹ לְנֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת וְהוּבָא֙ אֶל־אַֽהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֔ן א֛וֹ אֶל־אַחַ֥ד מִבָּנָ֖יו הַכֹּֽהֲנִֽים׃

“When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.”

Up through “bright spot,” you see a description of the symptoms; in the next phrase, the larger condition (the plague of leprosy); and after “leprosy,” the possible actions: bringing him to Aaron the priest (pause) or to one of his sons.

You can hear Hazzan (Cantor) Rob Menes of Congregation Beth Shalom read this verse. He announces the verse numbers in English as he goes along, so just listen for “two” (and continue listening after that, of course).

Of course this is not the pattern throughout; but once you see how it works, you can find other patterns too. Many Biblical verses have a kind of semantic symmetry; once you see the relation between the two main parts, you can see other relations as well.

If I were teaching this portion (to myself or anyone else), I would encourage the person to think in terms of the logical patterns and their meaning: in this case, in terms of symptoms, diagnosis, and subsequent treatment or action. We would start with this pattern and then find some of the others. We would parse a few verses systematically and completely, for the practice and understanding–but other verses we would view in terms of cadence, movement, symmetry, and meaning.

The portion still requires hours of practice (for me, at least), but it’s much easier when I not only see the smaller and larger structures at once but relate them to the narration.

This leads to a subject that might seem off-topic at first: “growth mindset.” In a group of previous posts, I questioned the assertion (now widely popularized) that people have either a “fixed mindset” (an assumption that their abilities are fixed) or a “growth mindset” (a belief that they can improve) and that a “growth mindset” is conducive to success, while a “fixed mindset” is not. I argue that we both have and need a mixture of mindsets.

After stumbling over this reading last Saturday, I was definitely not in “growth mindset.” I felt terrible. I thought it was the worst I had ever done (even though it was the longest and trickiest portion I had tried to learn in a short time). My disappointment was unreachable; people’s kind and encouraging words barely grazed my skin. But I had no doubt that I wanted to persist with cantillation. Also, I knew I wanted to figure out what went wrong. So as soon as the distress passed, I went back to the verses. That is when I saw the pattern.

Someone might say, “But with a total ‘growth mindset,’ you can skip over the distress altogether; that way, you’ll be more productive.” The distress has an important place, though; it comes from longing. When I am discouraged by my own performance (in the sense of carrying out a form), it’s because it matters to me to do well. The mattering carries me forward.

That brings out another possible meaning of the portion and the next one. Sarah Krinsky, a rabbinic fellow at B’nai Jeshurun, gave a magnificent D’var Torah (commentary, interpretation, sermon) on the purification process for the leprous person. Once the priest has pronounced him unclean, his clothes must be torn, he must let his hair loose, and he must cry, “Unclean, unclean” (Leviticus 13:45). On the one hand, this seems like humiliation; why should the person be forced to cast such stigma on himself? On the other, it can be taken as a statement of truth and a call for help and compassion. The person does not stay “unclean” forever.

My discouragement was much like a cry of “Unclean, unclean.” I knew I had not done well. By seeing and feeling this, without mitigation or immediate “positive thinking,” I could then proceed to do better.

I am glad for human complexity and structures of simplicity; I am grateful for cadence and mattering.

Note: I revised this piece in several stages after posting it. For much more on trope and how it works, I recommend Joshua Jacobson’s 965-page book Chanting the Hebrew Bible.

Education Without “Stuff”

In many areas of life, the less “stuff” we have, the better. A person learning a musical instrument works toward simplicity. Technique that at first seems cumbersome and complicated later becomes easy; it is ultimately meant to be easy, so that one can do what one wishes with it. An actor goes “off book” as early as possible so as not to be encumbered by the book. In relationships and friendships, the less “baggage” we carry, the more open we are to others–and so on. The principle “get rid of unnecessary stuff” has exceptions and qualifications, but overall, it’s sound.

Yet education reform tends to pile the “stuff” on. That’s one of my main criticisms of the Common Core: that it results in extraneous work that has little to do with what’s important. But this problem is not limited to the Common Core. One sees it in everything from pedagogical mandates to bulletin board requirements to tenure applications to writing instruction. There’s a prejudice against brevity and simplicity, and a great push for more, more, more.

I do not envy colleagues who have to put together massive tenure portfolios. (I was tenured when the rules were different, so I haven’t been subjected to this.) In these portfolios, they must not only demonstrate the range and quality of their work, in accordance with a set rubric, but also demonstrate that they are demonstrating it, with labels, reflections, explanations, and so on. Even those who have worked assiduously on their portfolios–and who have plenty to show–may worry that they haven’t included enough. Recently a teacher told me that she keeps all of her students’ work (after showing them their grades and comments), just in case she needs to document what she has done.

Now, granted, there is value in keeping track of what one has done as a teacher–but does it need to be done in such volume? That leads to another area of bulk: the Common Core.

The Common Core State Standards are neither terrible nor spectacular. They have some decent ideas, imperfectly articulated. As a gesture, the Common Core is a valuable document. As a mandate, it complicates good work. Teachers of literature courses, for instance, must now document their implementation of the standards–with lengthy lesson and unit plans, “tasks” matched to standards, and so on. That would not be so onerous if they could take the standards at face value, but instead they must prepare students for assessments that reflect questionable (and sometimes even bizarre) interpretations of the standards. Thus their work is tripled: they must teach their courses, demonstrate explicitly that they are addressing the standards, and contend with official interpretations of what that means.

What’s lost here is a sense of economy, of keeping one’s basic duties as simple as possible so that one can do interesting things. Instead, teachers learn to produce volume: long, elaborate lesson plans, even longer justifications of these lesson plans, and still longer lists of evidence that the lesson plan attained the desired goals.

Students, too, face pressure to substantiate their statements with copious “evidence.” Now, using evidence is a worthy practice–but one must take care not to overdo it. More evidence does not automatically make for a better argument, nor do all arguments require “evidence,” strictly speaking. Machiavelli uses numerous historical examples to justify the points he makes in The Prince–but one can question his interpretation of these examples. John Stuart Mill uses very few concrete examples in On Liberty, but this is appropriate for his mode of speaking. In order to determine the proper use of examples, one must know what one wishes to say in the first place.

Standardized writing assessments (and, by consequence, writing instruction) rarely focuses on what one has to say, or even how well one says it. Instead, it emphasizes adherence to a rubric, where more is better (“at least two textual details to support your point,” etc.) Students get into the habit of making a statement, supporting it with two examples, stating that the two examples support the statement, and concluding that the statement is true. There’s a lot of faulty logic and excess verbiage in that. Here’s a made-up example:

John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” suggests that love can survive separation. For example, in the second stanza, he says, “So let us melt, nor make no noise.” This means that he is telling his wife that they shouldn’t cry when they have to part from each other. He says this because the love is stronger than the separation. Another example is in the fifth stanza, where he says, “Our two souls, therefore, which are one, / Though I must go, endure not yet / A breach, but an expansion.” This means that when lovers are separated, their love remains and is even expanded by the distance. He says this because he believes their relationship is strong enough to survive. In conclusion, Donne is saying in this poem that when lovers are separated, their love can continue and even get stronger.

This would meet the criteria of many a writing test–but there is much waste in it, and many missed insights. The idea that “love can survive separation” is fairly trivial; it’s the metaphors that make the idea rich. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to examine the word “melt”–in its immediate context and in relation to the final line of the fifth stanza, “Like gold to airy thinness beat”? Yet a student who did so might receive a lower score–because the essay didn’t include enough “evidence” (or seemed to go “off topic”). An essay that stays “on topic”–but states the topic over, and over, and over again–will often receive a higher score than an essay that follows the wit.

There is much more “evidence” that education places inordinate value on “stuff”–but I believe I have made my point.

On a tangent (but speaking of “stuff”): I am dismayed to see the new “look and feel” of poets.org It used to be one of my favorite websites, as it allowed for focus on the poetry itself. It didn’t try to look like the flashy websites. It didn’t try to get all social. Now you have to scroll through a frame to read a whole poem, and you’re surrounded by “easy reading” font and social media icons. Someone on the staff must have persuaded others that rhinoceroses are in fact beautiful.