The Honor System and The Realm of the Self

Reflecting on Parasha Tazria – Leviticus 12-13

The principal character of the cable television show “Six Feet Under” regularly finds himself in conversation with his late father, who is tragically killed in the opening episode of the series. This “Hamlet’s Ghost” type character is given to sharing strange yet valid pearls of wisdom. Perhaps the most memorable of these is: “At the end of the day there’s just two kinds of people; you and everybody else.” From the most selfish to the most selfless we experience the world through the realm of the self. Ultimately there is only one human being who can state with complete honesty whether we have done our best: the self. The honor system is rooted in the trust we place in one another to behave honorably. Whether or not we actually do so is up to us.

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, provides us with two powerful instances in which the responsibility for an important act is placed squarely on individuals dealing with or recovering from difficult circumstances. If she has sufficient means, the mother of a newborn is required to bring a lamb and a pigeon or turtledove as an offering before the priests. If, howel1120662-1ver, her means do not suffice she need only bring two pigeons or two turtledoves (Leviticus 12:6-8). There are two things worth noting in this initial example. The first is that the Torah (in this case anyway) provides a progressive tax structure. The second is that the text provides no mechanism by which to assess whether or not the payer, participant or contributor, is bringing an offering that is in keeping with the law. Whether or not the woman is bringing the appropriate amount is entirely up to her. Nowhere does the passage provide a process by which a priest, judge or other official drops by to see if the mother’s contribution squares with her family’s circumstances. Leviticus is relying on what we call “the honor system” to motivate these women to give the appropriate amount.

The second example is both more delicate and complex. The very same society that doesn’t check to see if people are endangering the finances of the group does indeed send priests out to check if people are threatening the physical well-being, the literal health of the group. If, however, a priest declares someone to be afflicted with leprosy, tza-ra-at, it is up to that individual to call out “Unclean! Unclean!” for the benefit of those who might otherwise become affected. It is not a case of “Visitor, or Priest, Beware”, but rather it is the duty of the patient, the afflicted party to let anyone and everyone know his or her status. To our modern sensibilities this seems shaming and humiliating, but from Torah’s point of view the individual in question is fulfilling an obligation to society at large. Once again, the only mechanism by which this task is actually being done is the honor system. Leviticus provides no punishment for failing to call out “Unclean! Unclean” all day, every day for the protection of all passersby.

It is in the realm of the self that responsibility is ultimately borne out. Incentives and disincentives, rewards and punishments, peer pressure, economic pressure, political pressure always have and always will exist. Yet, even with all our computers, documentation, and any number of enforcement resources we have to draw upon, we cannot catch everyone who disregards their obligations and breaks the rules. We can’t audit everybody, ticket everybody, or indict everybody who ignores or defies the law. Just like the people in this week’s Torah portion: the woman bringing her post-partem offering and the leaper who must self-report his condition, we too are bound together in an honor system that hopes, expects and trusts us to act honorably.

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