A Thought-Provoking Punishment by Jared I. Mayer


In this week’s Parashah the famous phenomenon known as Tzara’at is introduced to the Jewish people. Tzara’at, commonly translated as leprosy, is a condition in which one’s skin, hair, and even possessions are infected with a colored – most often white – inflammation. According to the Gemara (Arachin 16a), slander, murder, false oaths, selfishness, and several other undesirable actions and traits can all cause Tzara’at. Some of the traits for which one is punished, such as selfishness and haughtiness, raise questions on the procedure for dealing with afflicted individuals. The individual, after having his affliction confirmed by a Kohen, is excommunicated for a week or more and then undergoes a rigorous purification process. What is most troubling in this scenario is that an individual can be severely punished not only for speaking his mind, but also for thinking certain thoughts. Under what warrant could the Torah punish someone for a thought crime?

These conditions also come into conflict with modern standards of decency. For example, prisons in the United States must provide certain accommodations to prisoners, such as cells with windows and reasonably edible food. Without these factors, such a prison would be violating a prisoner’s constitutional right against “cruel and unusual punishment” as well as their rights to “due process of law” (as demonstrated in Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678 (1978)). Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court held that punishments must not be “excessive” in relation to the crime (see Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349 (1910)). The Torah statute in this case seems to be grossly disproportionate to the alleged crime. Then how indeed does the Torah allow individuals to be punished for their crime of speaking out against others?

It is perhaps the punishment outlined by the Torah is a strong reaction to an even stronger provocation. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince gives advice to individuals in power, as well as those seeking to become powerful, on how to overcome their adversaries and contain power. The primary method explained in the book is to use any slight advantage over one’s adversaries. One of the suggested methods is libel, the act of defaming another. This practice has had dire consequences in the past, when countless rulers and common folk have used this tactic to promote their own interests at the expense of others. The Torah’s objective is not to place the guilty party in a dire situation, where he or she will most likely go insane; rather, the isolation and purification is intended to teach the convicted party how to cope with their strengths and weaknesses without the degradation of others. This lesson, although a painful blow to liberty, most definitely helps establish a more reflective and sensitive society.

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