Blood; eczema, dermatitis; bodily discharges; mold, fungus. Hardly sounds edifying. The topics of this week’s dual portion of Torah evoke responses ranging from an adult’s “Egad, is that in the Torah?” to “Yuck!” from the bar/bat mitzvah student who has just learned that this is the portion s/he has been assigned. But for those of us who study Torah regularly, the response goes beyond the initial reaction. The response is, “Yes, that’s in the Torah, but why?” Getting beyond the yuck-factor, is there anything spiritually uplifting in this week’s parashah?
As an aside, there was an era in Reform Jewish practice in the mid-20th century when some Reform rabbis would substitute an extra reading of Kedoshim when the schedule called for Tazria-Metzora. Why? They found the latter to be unedifying. A Conservative colleague of mine was shocked to learn this bit of history. However, I assured him that my generation of Reform rabbis held with the view that, since it is in the Torah, we must read it, grapple with it, and seek to understand why it is there and what is its meaning.
In his introduction to Tazria in the Soncino edition of “The Pentateuch and Haftorahs” (which he annotated), Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz, z”l, stated that there were two schools of thought as to why there were such graphic details, and quarantine and prescribed rituals attending certain conditions described in this parashah. One school held that the purpose of such quarantine and rituals was entirely spiritual. The other held that the purpose was hygienic. But, Rabbi Bernard Bamberger, z”l, who introduced and annotated the Book of Leviticus for W. Gunther Plaut’s “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” held that the purpose of the quarantine and the subsequent rituals was solely spiritual.
Many a beginning student of Torah, reading the accounts in Tazria-Metzora of a person afflicted with a dermatologic condition being examined by a kohen, jumps to the conclusion that the kohenim were the physicians of the biblical age, and that public health was their concern. However, upon closer examination of the text, one sees that they were, indeed, acting as priests and not as physicians, nor as officers of some biblical version of the C.D.C.
The role of the kohen was to examine the person with symptoms of tzara-at – any one of a cluster of skin disorders – to determine if the person was indeed a metzora. Rabbi Bamberger pointed out that tzara-at was translated into Greek for the Septuagint as lepra, meaning “a scaly condition.” When the Greek was subsequently rendered into Latin by early Christians, the word came to mean “leprosy,” and metzora came to be translated as “leper.” But, clearly, as many physicians who are also students of Torah have noted, the skin disorders described are not likely to be Hansen’s disease, more commonly called leprosy. My own view is to leave these terms -tzara-at and metzora – untranslated, and simply understand that they refer to a cluster of disorders and a person afflicted with one of them. And, further, that tzara-at can also refer to a cluster of problems affecting a house, such as mold or fungus.
So, why would we not consider the kohenim to be like physicians? Because, once a kohen declared that the person was indeed a metzora and quarantined him from contact with the rest of the community, he did not see the person again until he was healed. He did not treat the person; he did not prescribe anything to treat the condition.
Who did? When we turn to Chapter 5 of II Kings, from our haftarah, we learn that the prophet Elisha was reputed to have knowledge of healing. Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a metzora. His wife’s attendant, an Israelite captive, informed her mistress that Elisha would know how to cure him. So, off Naaman went to Samaria, where he was told to bathe seven times in the Jordan, and he would be healed. And, voila! He was healed. Thus, we learn that there were those in Israel who practiced the healing arts. But it was not the kohen who quarantined the patient.
But why the quarantine for the metzora in Israel? Our ancestors did not understand the etiology of disease. Lacking the scientific knowledge of later ages, they feared that such afflictions came from God as punishment – perhaps for some moral infraction. And, if the affliction came from God, then the healing, too, ultimately, must come from God. The person so afflicted was considered tamei – another term that is difficult to translate, but rendered in English as “impure,” “unclean.” These are ritual terms. It’s not the same as being dirty and needing a bath. Rather, by being tamei, the person may have endangered the entire community. Hence, the quarantine, until cured, lest the tzara-at be contagious. Otherwise, there was a risk of the entire community becoming spiritually impure.
The talmudic sages, spinning off the notion that such affliction was divine punishment for a moral offense, understood metzora to be an acronym for motzi shem ra – an idiom for “badmouthing.” They wove wonderful lessons about gossip and slander, and the consequences of such moral offenses. But I digress.
Once the metzora was healed he came before the kohen once more. This time it was for the ritual whereby he could be declared tahor – literally, “cleansed” or “pure,” but, really, healthy and whole again.
So what is the lesson for us today? When I would meet with b’nai mitzvah students who studied this portion I would ask them to think about the metzora this way. I asked them to think about a time when they might have been ill and had to stay home from school. Perhaps they might even have been confined to their room, isolated from the rest of the family, so as to minimize the risk of others catching what they had. Or, had they ever had to be hospitalized? How did that feel? And how did it feel when they were finally well and able to rejoin their family and return to school and resume normal activities? I would then teach them about a later development in Judaism that paralleled the ritual of purification: the gomel prayer. I would teach them that, when one has recovered from serious illness or injury, or from major surgery, and one is healed and able to return to family and community, we Jews have a prayer that thanks God for the healing. I would tell them a story about a moving experience early in my rabbinate when an older member recited the prayer before the entire congregation upon recovering from injuries sustained in a serious auto accident. The students always got it.
As to “Jews and Medicine,” that’s the subject of another essay. But, as for our d’var Torah on Tazria-Metzora, the lesson is clear. We are concerned about the spiritual health and well-being of both the community and the individual. As well, in our own age, extrapolating from this lesson, we are concerned about public health issues for the community, and physical health and healing for individual members of the community.