A Plague Upon Our House

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Metzorah, we learn that the disease of Tzara’at does not only afflict human beings but houses as well:

…the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared on our house.” The priest shall order the house cleared before the priest enters to examine the plague so that nothing in the house may become impure…” (Leviticus 14:35-36)

The text goes on to instruct the priest to examine the plagued house: if it has certain characteristics and appears to go “deep into the wall” of the house, the home is determined to be infected. The affected stones of the structure then must literally be taken down and placed outside the camp and that part of the home must be rebuilt, literally, stone by stone.

There are many ways we might understand the spiritual symbolism of the infected home. In particular it suggests to us the many ways a community or society can often become “socially infected,” resulting in the breakdown of certain sacrosanct values that would typically considered central to its communal life. And like the High Priest, members of society must take care to identify and treat this infection to insure that its spread can be contained and eventually eradicated.

As Americans, can we identify the contemporay nega’ot (plagues) that currently afflicted our national “home? ” As I read the words of Metzora, I am particularly mindful of a news report I read this past week:

Highly placed sources said a handful of top advisers signed off on how the CIA would interrogate top al Qaeda suspects — whether they would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subjected to simulated drowning, called waterboarding.

The high-level discussions about these “enhanced interrogation techniques” were so detailed, these sources said, some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed — down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic.

The advisers were members of the National Security Council’s Principals Committee, a select group of senior officials who met frequently to advise President Bush on issues of national security policy.

At the time, the Principals Committee included Vice President Cheney, former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as CIA Director George Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The Bush Administration’s open willingness coutentance torture in open defiance of the Geneva Conventions and other Human Rights norms might well be considered a contemporary plague upon our house. Indeed, recent reports confirm suspicions that this negah seems to have infected our home to a deep and fundamental extent. More than ever, it seems as if our inherent fears have been confirmed, and that certain parts of our home – i.e. our national values and civic culure – will have to be rebuilt stone by individual stone.

It’s time to expiate this plague upon our house. I urge you to read and sign this “Jewish Statement Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment of Detainees Under United States Control.” To learn more about this critical issue, I recommend the recent issue of The Washington Monthly, which features a collection of essays by a former president, the speaker of the House, two former White House chiefs of staff, current and former senators, generals, admirals, intelligence officials, interrogators, and religious leaders. They range across the political spectrum, but they all agree that it “was a profound moral and strategic mistake for the United States to abandon long-standing policies of humane treatment of enemy captives.”

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