Why the kohen must confront the leper

The Jewish people faced its greatest challenge out in the wilderness, freed from their prior slavery; despite hardships they ultimately triumphed: we are their descendants.

Head with Israeli flag kippa (photo credit: REUTERS/Ina Fassbender)
Head with Israeli flag kippa
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ina Fassbender)
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook likened the Torah to a mirror – it never changes, but each generation sees in it a different reflection. With Rav Kook’s comparison in mind, I approach the Book of Leviticus and its laws regarding the “leper.” In fact the disease referenced is not leprosy at all, but skin lesions the rabbis described as the result of a spiritual malady.
Sefer Vayikra, the third book of the Pentateuch, poses a challenge to any pulpit rabbi or religious teacher who wants to convey a relevant message that rings true in our own day. Unfortunately, many Jews too quickly smash Rav Kook’s mirror in disbelief, dismissing priestly law as the vestige of ancient taboos and superstition.
Other Jews cover the mirror with a sheet and deny the reality of new reflections, sitting in mourning for a debased and disappointing present, waiting to reinstitute the Temple service in a Messianic future as of old, denying any connection of sacrifice to the reality of today. We must confront this text as the priest in the Temple – the kohen – was forced to deal with the “leper” and his peculiar malady.
In the summer of 1987, while studying in the Hebrew University ulpan in Jerusalem, I went along with friends one Friday night to the Western Wall. After prayers, we had arranged to dine in the Jewish Quarter for a convivial Shabbat meal with strangers. The family was that curious combination of ultra-Orthodox and Nationalist Religious Judaism known as “hardal.” When the table conversation turned to my graduate studies at Columbia in the fall, I was asked by the hostess why I wanted to study Jewish history “under goyim.”
When I told the ba’alat habayit that my professors would all be Jews, I received no response, as if she believed that one who studied in a university, even if Jewish, even if steeped in tradition and concerned with Jewish survival and destiny, was simply not a “real Jew.”
The evening passed rather uncomfortably for me. I felt the disappointment one feels upon meeting long-lost relatives, only to realize they wished you hadn’t.
Anger remained within me; it intensified after our dinner and during our walk back to the dorms. Earlier in the evening we had walked unscathed but a bit frightened through an Arab neighborhood on our way to services. This was in contrast to our walk home through the undivided capital of the Jewish state. At the time, ultra-Orthodox protests against the opening of movie theaters in Jerusalem on Friday evening had reached their zenith. As we left the Old City walls we continued up Jaffa Street at about 11 p.m. Policemen mounted on horses, like cavalry waiting to charge, prepared to confront the demonstrators. Further up the street, there were large crowds of hilonim, secularist Jews, getting ready for the confrontation, waiting in great anticipation, as if gathering for a soccer match.
When we turned onto Yehezkel Street we saw large groups of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) demonstrators, including young boys, obviously receiving training from their parents in the proper way to fulfill the dictum: “Love they neighbor as thyself.” To our utter surprise, mothers carrying their babies were also going to the demonstrations, to provide moral support. One could just feel the tension – no, the excitement – shared by both sides before their confrontation. Perhaps that feeling –and intolerance – were all the haredim and hilonim had in common that night.
As we walked off we heard cries of “Shabbos! Shabbos!” On another street it would have been mocking taunts and the familiar cries of “k’fiyah datit!” (religious coercion).
Israel, as it should be, is the locus of the struggle between Jews to determine the character of the Jewish state (including, at its most extreme, the question of whether it should not be Jewish or not be a state). I am sure that my memory of that evening almost 30 years ago is defective – I was then looking at the world and Israel through the eyes of an innocent. It all seemed long ago to be momentous and apocalyptic.
My upbringing as a religious Jew who could be at home in the larger world took place in isolated enclaves in Riverdale and Manhattan – nurtured by superior and inspiring educational institutions and synagogues – and in the unparalleled hesder yeshiva in Alon Shevut.
I wanted Israel to conform to my vision of klal yisrael, the congregation of Israel; mutual understanding and Jewish unity.
The vision was that of a luftmensch. What reality demands is that we address a living, breathing – and flawed – society. The kohen probably wants to have little to do with the spiritual defects of the Israelite afflicted with skin lesions. In his idealism he likely demands that all be perfect. But his role is to confront that which, at times, is ugly. The State of Israel is not – and should not – be a “Little America.” There are specific issues that cannot simply be resolved by separating religion and state.
Israel is a sovereign state, and how that power is wielded entails great responsibility and a tremendous challenge. There are no easy answers. The gap between rich and poor; drug abuse; organized crime; abortion’s impact on regard for life; corrupt government; the need for more economic integration of Arab citizens into Israel; the crisis of a haredi subculture that almost constitutes “a state within a state” – these are symptoms of spiritual and political maladies that any idealist looking at from afar would simply like to ignore. Those in the middle of it cannot ignore it. Therein lay the challenge of the kohen confronting those skin lesions and the human being who possesses them.
Shelter can be a haven from dangers both natural and manmade. Yet, too many times a shelter’s inhabitants will remain inside long after the danger has passed. The shelter transforms itself into a prison, destroying those whom it initially protected. Peer inside the window and see the agoraphobics, men and women afraid to venture out, so afraid of death and the unknown that fear has paralyzed them.
The Jewish people faced its greatest challenge out in the wilderness, freed from their prior slavery. Despite hardships they ultimately triumphed: we are their descendants. If today we cower beneath the many challenges facing us, we will not overcome them. Our dogmas – both religious and secular – and our complacency shelter us. I do not doubt that we will survive as a people. However, that people’s home will not be in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv but on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility, far, far from corrupting influences, the challenges faith in God poses, and difficult questions.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.