Tazria : The sin of complicit silence
TorahParshat Tazria

Tazria : The sin of complicit silence

Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59

“Losing a friend is one of the great, under-reported tragedies of adult life.’’

This poignant truth, shared between two members of a clergy search committee in Michelle Huneven’s 2022 novel “Search,” highlights oft-unspoken challenges that

may arise within groups. As the committee struggles to identify what they seek in a spiritual leader, Huneven’s tale presents “a portrait of a community working toward that most elusive of goals — a unanimous decision.”

Huneven’s “Search” spotlights “the emotional questing that brings people into spiritual community,” while also chronicling “the rivalry, pettiness and basic human failings that manifest in those [same spaces].” While the congregation in the story is Unitarian, the group dynamics described are surely the same within communities and organizations of all traditions and types.

Similarly, this week’s Torah portion, Tazria, offers us insight into risks inherent in group decision-making, especially when participants are
emotionally invested, opinions are strongly held, there is a rush to judgment, and relationships (that is, friendships) will be forever impacted by what transpires behind closed doors.

While the Torah teaches Tazria was a contagious medical condition, our Rabbinic commentators have long suggested that we understand Tazria to be akin to gossip.

Or echoing the lyrics of the “West Side Story” song “Gee, Officer Krupke” — and with a hat tip to Leonard Bernstein — we might best understand Tazria to be a social disease.

Pernicious speech is a social contagion, to be sure. But an even more Tazria-esque harm to society may well be the sin of silence, especially when enforced through the power of groupthink, peer pressure and a conspiratorial code of omertá.

Groupthink, defined as “making decisions in a way that discourages individual responsibility,” is a lurking, social danger that can strike at any time, but mostly shows itself when there is a felt need to decide quickly, to overlook or obscure facts, and whenever unanimity is sought as proof of a group’s rectitude.

How does such a contagion stealthily spread among otherwise judicious adults?

In the face of swelling sentiment among an increasingly persuasive and powerful subset of any group, individuals may fear raising alternate ideas or objecting to a process that is moving with undue haste. This is true even when a contrary point of view would clearly be in keeping with the community’s foundational values.

Speaking truth to power within a group marching in lockstep is risky. For doing so, an open-minded member risks suffering that which befell those afflicted with Tazria in ancient times. That is, independent thinkers may be summarily isolated and ostracized for fear of their infecting the larger community.

In this way, erstwhile courageous people are cowed into a complicit silence.

Be assured, dear reader, it happens more often than any of us would like to imagine.

Parshat Tazria (like Huneven’s “Search”) comes, therefore, with a warning:

No matter how high-minded or virtuous one believes oneself to be, the insidious nature of the “Tazria of silence” is a poison pill for all.

Thus, when members of any group preach unanimity, circle their wagons and swear an oath of silence, that group’s pronouncements ought to be probed for a willingness to deliberate methodically, eschew bias, entertain new evidence and welcome minority opinions.

Tazria teaches us the importance of maintaining standards (not silence) when managing both medical and social contagions. To which Huneven adds, in the midst of this sacred work, the loss of friendships is tragic.

Jewish tradition’s lesson? We ought never elevate process over people. PJC

Rabbi Aaron Bisno is the senior rabbi at Temple Ohav Shalom and the Frances F. & David R. Levin Rabbinic Scholar at Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

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