Chapters 12-15 of Leviticus are filled with descriptions of bodily discharges and skin disorders that often serve to alienate the reader from any sort of meaningful connection to the verses in the Torah portions of Tazria and Metzora.
Almost instinctively we turn to rabbinic interpretation to make sense of the written text, most notably in the interpretive lens that posits cause and effect around manifestations of tum’ah (impurity) in a way that suggests that we readers could potentially take control and avoid some of these scenarios (notably tzara’at) if we would only avoid transgressive behavior.
Most famously, the transgression of evil speech is associated with tzara’at, meant to inspire all of us to be careful with our words to avoid the immediate impact of exposure as our skin, clothing and walls of the home can ultimately be infected with the ugliness represented by slander.
Bible scholars have exerted much effort in comparing these biblical narratives with other parallel ancient Near Eastern texts and the comparisons are fascinating. Notable is the unanimous understanding that the Torah does not bring any explicit causal connection between sin and the origin of tum’ah. Furthermore, the process of becoming tahor (pure) only occurs after the source of tum’ah passes. There is no way to shorten the process even for “good” behavior.
It is distinctly different from ancient Near Eastern healing rituals that were meant to banish malevolent forces causing disease, something inimical to monotheism. While the birthing woman and the impure zav and zava bring sin offerings, the “why” of it is left completely unresolved.
One idea I have always responded to is that the sin offering represents a return after a mandated distance. Bringing such an offering as one becomes tahor is symbolic of the experienced distance and the opportunity God allows for a return to His presence in many different ways. In the case of actual sin or transgression there is a need for confession and atonement. In the case of tum’ah, the physical body creates the separation, reminding us that we are infinitely human and we will be tamei (impure) throughout our lives.
Thinking about this cycle of distance and potential for reconnection that is presented by the move from tum’ah to tahara (purity), I am moved at the possible understanding that even in the most intimate of relationships, including ours with God, there is a need for mandated distance that demands withdrawal in order to potentially foster greater connection, self-reflection and spiritual or emotional growth.
On the human relationship level, this idea is also paramount with a different nuance. Looking more specifically at the metzora, Bible scholar Tamara Eskenazi observes that “after offering many details about the conditions that require separation and isolation, Leviticus... also concentrates on reconnecting the persons who have been isolated and on bringing them back to the center. The more marginalized the ill persons have been, the greater the effort to bring them back into the fold...
“Leviticus 14 illustrates the tremendous investment in the social and religious reconnection and rehabilitation of persons formerly stigmatized and excluded by virtue of the disease. The most marginalized, isolated person is reintegrated with an elaborate ritual, comparable only to that of the ordination of the high priest.”
Eskenazi notes that there are undeniable parallels between the ritual to purify the metzora (namely, both undergo an application of blood and then oil on the ear, thumb and big toe) and the anointing of the high priest, which is the penultimate act that makes Aaron and his sons holy.
This suggests that despite the metzorah’s mandated isolation, he is welcomed back with acceptance, and his reintegration shows an adamant reconnection to being part of God’s holy people despite the process he has undergone.
One of the rabbinic ideas I find most compelling is awareness of the potential impact of the metzora on those around him. In Nidda 66a, the Talmud explains that the metzora cries out “impure, impure” not merely to protect others from contagion. More importantly, he is publicizing his tum’ah to elicit compassion from his community, inspiring them to pray for his recovery.
This suggests that if we don’t tell others that we are in need of help, they will not be able to take part in our recovery or assist us in the complex processes of self-discovery that the mandated distance and isolation could accomplish.
Shai Held writes that “this rabbinic interpretation profoundly alters the human dynamic that unfolds between the metzora and the rest of the community; it tries to elicit a deeper level of humanity both from the afflicted and from the community at large. A person who is ill may be tempted to withdraw psychologically; the one who is suffering from an illness so closely associated with death and impurity all the more so.
“But the Torah invites him not to grant stigma and shame the final word: One who needs divine mercy should ask for it, and one who yearns to know that others care for him should ask for expressions of love and concern.”
Even in these portions that seem foreign to us, lie messages that are eternal. They embody the Torah values of human dignity, compassion for those less fortunate and the undeniable awareness that no matter how distanced we become from holiness, there is a cycle of return.
Finally, at times of spiritual exploration or growth, we might ignore the physical manifestations of our human condition. Judaism fully endorses integrating the physical and the spiritual in our total relationship with God.
The Torah, in its presentation of the laws of purity and impurity, which solely involve our physical bodies, forces us to recognize that in addition to the soul, the body is an active participant in our relationship with God, both in distancing us, but more significantly, in ultimately allowing us to also reconnect. ■
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.