The Feedback Loop


Candlelighting, Readings:
Torah: Lev. 12:1-15:31
Haftorah: II Kings 7:3-20
Havdalah: 8:29 p.m

The concept of metzora, an affliction usually likened to leprosy that can affect both skin and houses, is a difficult one [Leviticus 14:2-57]. What is it really? The classical Midrashic warning is that it afflicts those who are “motzei shem ra,” bringing forth an evil report [B.T. Arakhin 15b]. The Torah is creating its own “feedback loop,” a “measure for measure”: if a person gossips, bringing something unpleasant into the public for all to hear or see, it is matched by an appearance on the skin of the gossiping person for all to see, or there will be a blemish to a home that houses uncharitable, miserly opinions of others.

In a recent book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” British­Jewish journalist Jon Ronson discusses a variety of cases of those who have criticized or shamed others online, only to have the person doing the shaming receive a mass shaming himself by thousands or even millions of strangers due to publicity from the event. Ronson suggests that those who have the most to hide are the ones who feel the most shame, and the most lasting shame.

Sometimes a feedback loop simply gives “feedback” regarding behavior, says Ronson, such as the electric highway signs, “Your Speed is __.” The man who invented this was looking for a way to get people to slow down in school zones, and other such places. He realized that if you actually show people what they are doing, such as showing them the evidence of speeding, it will teach them not only to slow down but also to be mindful of their velocity afterwards.

Metzora should be similarly understood as a way for someone to get feedback about their behavior. Too stingy? All one’s possessions will be laid out publicly to cleanse the house of the virus. Too cruel when speaking of others? One’s skin will whiten and blanch in a way that anyone can see the evidence of unkindness.

Good people, such as Moses and his sister Miriam, could have moments that bring on metzora. And, of course, evil people, such as Pharaoh experienced metzora, too. Pharaoh, explains Exodus Rabbah, was a metzora according to the verse, “The king of Egypt died” [Exodus 2:23], because “a metzora is as one who is dead.”

If we think about metzora and feedback loops, we see Pharaoh as the perfect example. Nine plagues, each analogous to the crimes of Egypt, nine chances for Pharaoh to change his ways, came and went until the tenth finally made a difference to him, albeit temporarily. Pharaoh is one of our strongest biblical examples of someone subjected to public rebuke.

One of the people Ronson writes about is Mike Daisy, a man who performed a show about the abuses in Apple computer factories in China, something he claimed to have witnessed. Except that though Daisy used facts, he did not witness all that he claimed to have seen, thus destroying his credibility and integrity.

Daisy told Ronson, “I feel that a really public shaming or humiliation is a conflict between the person trying to write his own narrative and society trying to write a different narrative for the person. One story tries to overwrite the other. And so to survive you have to own your [honest] story,” something Pharaoh never could.

The concept of the metzora is one we can all apply in a metaphorical way. We need to be aware of what we are thinking about internally and try to only bring to the external that which can have positive impact on the world. The stories we can hope to create in that way will be ones not of shaming and humiliation but an impetus for good. Let us hope our stories, when told, can create positive feedback loops.

Beth Kissileff  is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum 2016) and author of the novel “Questioning Return” (Mandel Vilar Press).