• Rabbi Max Davis

Statisticalization

Parshat Tazria Metzora Stat.

Statistics were never my forte, yet these days, I find myself attracted to them like a moth to light – or perhaps a deer in the headlights. It’s not an addiction, but a strong desire to check ‘The Curve’ in Minnesota, Israel, New York and other places I hold dear. Hennepin County vs. the state? Sweden vs. Norway? Is the line flattening or growing? How many hospitalized and how many lives lost? Statisticalization is a word not yet recognized by Merriam Webster, but I have found it in several academic articles (including an attribution to Igor Stravinsky) and can think of no better term to describe a tragic byproduct of our corona world. It is a word that expresses the transformation of individual humans into “populations”, “statistics”, dots plotted on graphs to show The Curve. Each dot tells the story of a life, a precious universe in the language of our sages. Each dot represents a gaping void. Our parshiyot this week, Tazria-Metzora, also tell the story of dots. The story of these dots, tzara’at, is not the story of a global pandemic, but the language used by the Torah to convey the details is strikingly dehumanizing. As Rabbi Dov Linzer observes, “In contrast to the active role of the kohen, the person with the spot is described in fully passive terms. Indeed, a close reading of the verses shows them to have been reduced to an object of scrutiny for the kohen.” Numerous examples follow. The person is brought to the kohen, examined by the kohen, diagnosed by the kohen, and sent to isolation. Two particularly telling phrases are found in Vayikra 13:3-4.

נֶ֥גַע צָרַ֖עַת ה֑וּא וְרָאָ֥הוּ הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְטִמֵּ֥א אֹתֽוֹ... It is a blemish of tzara’at, and the kohen shall see him/it and shall declare him/it ritually impure. The object of each pronoun is conspicuously vague. Perhaps the kohen is seeing the person, perhaps only the spot. Perhaps the kohen makes a pronunciation about the person, but it could also be about the spot. Either way, the text renders the victim passive at best, and possibly reduced to nothing more than a spot. וְהִסְגִּ֧יר הַכֹּהֵ֛ן אֶת־הַנֶּ֖גַע שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים... The kohen shall quarantine the blemish for seven days. Here without question, the victim is linguistically reduced to a spot. Rabbi Linzer explores possible reasons for the Torah’s treatment of metzora’im in this manner, https://library.yctorah.org/2016/04/are-patients-still-people/. Demonstrating a general shift in the language from Tazria to Metzora, from objectification to personification, from passivity to activity, Rabbi Linzer suggests that the parshiyot express a delicate doctor-patient balance. Medical staff function at the peril of emotional trauma, aside from physical dangers, and must be able to avoid distracting emotional attachments to patients. However, patients are human beings, not science projects, and are worthy of dignity and compassion. This age-old tension is brilliantly articulated by the precise language of Torah. The antidotes for tzara’at and coronavirus are tragically beyond our present capacity. Thankfully, the antidote for objectification and statisticalization is well within our reach. Major news media are largely savvy to the problem. Many papers, in addition to 'curve stats', have been printing extended eulogies. These not only highlight individual lives lost, but fulfill a vital role in bringing humanity closer together. In the past 24-hours, I have a newfound respect for a 97-year old Manhattan survivor of the Shoah, a Duluth area pastor and scientist, and a selfless Indonesian doctor, none of whom I had known previously. Permit me to share two moments this past week that made a particularly strong impression on me, bringing statistics to life and, literally, taking my breath away. The first was watching a WhatsApp video posted by the grandson of our beloved Aaron and Hinda Dukes. The boy, Tzvi Baruch, marked his twelfth birthday last week while his father, Rabbi Chaim Shneur Zalman Yehuda ben Hinda Yocheved, remains hospitalized, as he has been for many days. Tzvi Baruch makes a gentle pitch to viewers: If you wish to give him a birthday present, please perform mitzvot, give tzedaka, or learn Torah in the merit of his father’s recovery. The appeal speaks volumes about the family’s commitment to Yiddishkeit and Jewish values. Without question, Hashem is on Whatsapp too. No doubt, Hashem viewed Tzvi Baruch’s post, and those of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of children worldwide crying for their parents. My heart breaks for the countless orphans of Covid-19, the ones whose losses comprise the curve I watch. Only Hashem has the capacity to process those pleas, but Tzvi Baruch’s words made that line a little bit (a lot) more real for me this week. I am inspired by his courage and join the community in wishing his father and family continued recovery and besorot tovot – only good news. Finally, permit me to share a post from a beloved Rebbe, HaRav Yisoscher Katz. Rabbi Katz is the Satmer born Mara D’atra of Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights Shul and a longtime member of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah faculty. He shared this week a message about the personal toll the pandemic is having on him, as he remains linked in numerous ways to his birth community in Brooklyn and upstate New York. The hundreds of deaths we read about in ‘the Chareidi world’ are his childhood friends, cousins, chevrusas and he knows the devastation these losses are having on the families left behind. Rabbi Katz posted a hespeid he had written for one such friend, Yisroel Horowitz z”l. I share it here, with the Rabbi’s permission, because the Chareidim have become a statistical subset in recent weeks, statistics within statistics, due to violations of social distancing rules. My purpose is not to deflect the critique. Rather, for myself and for anyone reading this, I hope that forwarding this account will play a small part in countering the forces of statisticalization. Most importantly, may Yisroel’s neshama have an aliyah. May his example as expressed through Rabbi Katz’s beautiful words, inspire us in deed as well as in thought, particularly when we check The Curve or hear about our fellow Jews in Brooklyn or Bnai Brak. Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh shel beriyut u’besorot tovot – A month of health and good tidings! -Rabbi Max Davis Posted by Rabbi Yisoscher Katz, Rosh Chodesh Iyaar 5780. Covid 19 has been brutal to my birth community, the Ultra-Orthodox communities from Brooklyn and Upstate New York. The virus has been relentless. Every day brings a list of new chareidi victims. I know almost all of them, to one degree or another. They are former friends, neighbors, acquaintances, or people who are otherwise well-known in the community. It is hard to watch so many people you know perish in such a short span of time, and even harder to fathom the pain experienced by their families. Not only did Covid kill their relative, it also denied the survivors the chance to say one last goodbye, to properly send off their loved ones to their final resting place. They were unable to be present as their dying souls departed heavenward. It hurts deeply to imagine the sorrow of old friends and former classmates. The fact that the virus is also limiting those mourners' ability to be sufficiently comforted during the period of mourning further exacerbates the feeling of sadness for my childhood community. My heart aches for them, the enormity of their pain is heartbreaking. Our natural tendency is to reach out to others when we are hurting, to seek solace. I therefore was tempted to seek comfort from my current community by sharing publicly the stories of some of those killed by the virus. Upon reflection, I decided not to do that. It felt wrong to accentuate the loss of only some victims. Every death is extremely painful to the victim's family and friends. It therefore did not seem right to magnify the tragedy of some of the deaths just because they are my friends. The more than forty thousand deaths are more than forty thousand tragedies. Each of Covid’s victims was unique; every death is devastating to the deceased’s family and friends. It seems inappropriate to highlight one death more than another. It was not an easy decision, though. I was itching to unload some of the emotional burden but chose to resist the urge. That seemed to be the morally correct thing to do. But, after agonizing about this for a while, I decided to make an exception for one of the forty thousand American victims, my friend Yisroel Horowitz, zichrono livracha. Yisroel died single and alone—he did not have a family. Letting his beautiful legacy perish along with him felt like double jeopardy; his life was taken, and now his memory would be snuffed out as well. I cannot let that happen. The world needs to remember him, to know a little bit about this special person whose life was cut short by a cruel virus. To do that, please indulge me for a few minutes so I may share with you a concise biography of Yisroel z”l. Yisroel was 72 years old when he died. Anybody who knew him knew his exact age. It was easy; his name gave it away. He was named Yisroel in recognition of the state of Israel—because he was born on May 14, 1948, the day the modern State of Israel gained its independence. My friend was born into a non-religious home and embraced Orthodoxy as a young teenager. Even though he got a "late start," he still managed to catch up and even gallop ahead of his peers. He went on to become a superstar talmid chacham, who photographically retained almost all he ever learned. "Talking in learning" with him, consequently, was a real pleasure. His vast knowledge made him an "insider" in every sugya. You knew that if you turned to Yisroel for help in thinking something through, he would give you way more than what you were looking for. He would point you to a text you had overlooked or a twist in the conceptualization of the idea you were exploring that you had not noticed. Yisroel had a joie de vivre that was nourished by his love for Torah. That joy was infectious. Every conversation, no matter how complex or esoteric the subject matter, ended with him and his interlocutor smiling. Ideas did not just stimulate his mind; they also stirred his soul and excited his big and kind heart. In addition to his immense scholarship, Yisroel will also be remembered for his quirky sense of humor. He was funny and somewhat iconoclastic. It was hard to fit him into a mold. Neither Litvak nor Chasid nor Musar'nik. Yisroel Horowitz, z"l, was just Yisroel. Perhaps surprisingly, Yisroel was also an amateur photographer. Many of his photographs depict scenes of religious intensity: someone inspecting an etrog prior to purchasing it, a person immersed in intense prayer, etc. His was an admiring gaze. He was fond of devoutness. A closer look, however, revealed a dose of reverential irreverence. He paradoxically admired his subject but at the same time was also a tad critical. The photographs seem to convey the double-edged nature of punctiliousness. It is perhaps admirable, but occasionally comes at a cost. It often exerts a price from those living in its proximity. Yisroel's pictures managed to depict that dichotomy. That, in a nutshell, was Yisroel. And that is who and what we lost. While this epitaph gets thrown around a lot, in this case it is in fact very true: Yisroel was exceptional. Few people so fully encompass that mix of simultaneously living in heaven and on earth. Yisroel was a man of ideas whose mind was constantly marinating in new insights, yet he was also deeply immersed in the material world, not just as a consumer, but also as a provider. His mischievous smile brought joy to people, and his appreciation of aesthetics elevated them. With Yisroel gone, the world will be smiling less. He is truly irreplaceable. In the words of the Rabbis: חבל על דאבדין ולא משתכחין (We mourn most for those who perished but can never be replaced.) Yehi zichro baruch; may the legacy of Yisroel’s kind heart and exquisite mind continue to live in the memory of those of us who were blessed to know him, laugh with him and learn Torah from him. (As the person who often was behind the camera, there are very few pictures of Yisroel. Despite my best efforts, I was not able to locate any of them. In the absence of a real image, please imagine a jolly fellow, whose affect exudes kindness, humility and an insatiable thirst for (torah) knowledge and ideas.)

© 2020 by Darchei Noam

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