Treating the Person, Not the Disease
This blog post is the byproduct of a conversation with Rabbi Michael Weiss. Special thanks to him for his wisdom, insight, and partnership.
During a “normal” Jewish year, Tazria-Metzorah is one of the least compelling Torah portions I usually encounter. It’s even worse during a leap year (like this year), when we have to dedicate a week each to the two Torah portions most concerned with the icky skin disease we call tzara’at, and other similarly off-putting bodily functions. The portion is most famous, it would seem, for being the best week to skip Torah study.
The pandemic of the past two years gave this section of the Bible a little bit more credibility. We clung to the notion that this isn’t the first time our people have dealt with an infectious disease, and we found comfort in knowing that there was a ritual way of surviving such a blight. The timing in 2020 was almost divinely inspired; just as the world began to shut down, we communally began to read about the way the priests ensure public health in the face of a threat. But we had been there, done that twice already, which made teaching Metzorah this week was ever-more daunting.
At least that is what I thought before sitting down with the portion and my chevrutah (study partner). We began at the top, Leviticus 14:1. Almost immediately, something felt off. We read:
“The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: this shall be the ritual for a metzorah at the time of being purified. When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the metzorah has been healed of the scaly affection, the priest shall order two live, pure birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for the one to be purified. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall then sprinkle it seven times on the one to be purified of the eruption and effect the purification; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country.” (Leviticus 14:1-7)
There is so much to process here, not least of all how traumatic this must have been for the surviving bird. But, in the course of the book of Leviticus, we have heard a lot about the various sacrificial practices that function to connect the people to God. We read about different categories of sacrifices, different processes and rituals that must happen in order for the community to keep things on the up-and-up with God. But this feels somehow different from the typical offering style God requests. There is something vaguely magical and “other” about the process of dipping a bird in blood and purifying a person.
This isn’t the only time in the Torah narrative that we see rituals that seem culturally unrelated to the system we know as Jews. In Exodus, we read about painting the doorposts of our houses in blood, a practice that feels pulled from Ancient Near Eastern tradition, rather than invented for the Jews originally. The process of a scapegoat that we read in the next Torah portion involves sending a sacrificial animal wandering into the desert to be claimed by Azazel, an abstract creature who needs to be placated. Even the golden calf incident from Exodus seems emblematic of a different time and goal than the religious system that Moses and God are trying to introduce to the people.
At this point, we owe some acknowledgement to the two contexts into which we read the Bible. The first (and most obvious) setting is the actual world of the text. We read about a people that had been enslaved in Egypt, freed by their sovereign God, and led into the wilderness in order to be consecrated as a chosen people. From this view, it makes sense that there be a variety of dynamics in the still-new paradigm of religious observance. The people are transitioning between two very different modalities, from their identity as a slave nation, forced to function at the behest of their masters, into a self-determined group, empowered to create a more personalized society. The Torah, then, would reflect something of the tension between the way things have always been done (i.e. references to the kind of spiritual magic that may have been practiced in Egypt) with the structure of religious piety that God is attempting to encourage.
But we also have enough scholarly wisdom to know that the Torah was being written at a different time than the one it claims to describe. To this end, there is the reality that the text might be influenced by the cultural environment in which it resides. From this perspective, the Torah was likely a document introduced to try to inspire either a change in behavior or a recommitment to some long-held belief. From this perspective, it would make sense for the Torah text to acknowledge some of the basic rituals that were common among the laity, but were in contradiction to the priestly goals of the time. Put another way, this could be a manifestation of “meet people where they are,” with the Torah remaining identifiable while also trying to steer the people in a new direction.
In either case, we see the Bible and society having parallel influences on one another. In his book, God: A Human History, Reza Aslan uses the expression, “As the politics on earth changes, the politics of heaven changed to match.” It is impossible to evaluate our sacred texts without giving acknowledgement to the way that society and theology play off of one another, the ways they influence, warp, and manipulate the practices they inspire.
Let’s make things even one step more complicated. Why tzara’at is so often translated as “leprosy,” we can’t actually say what this scaly skin disease was. The only references in the Biblical canon describe the consequences of the disease, but very little is understood about its causes, its cures, or how it spreads. Instead, we get a very brief glimpse, in this section, as to how the community isolates a person who is burdened by the disease, and therefore how the larger section of the congregation can stay safe from harm. Because of this lack of knowledge, Jews throughout history have been left to believe that tzara’at is a disease caused by divine retribution, supported by the story in Numbers where Miriam is inflicted with the disease for speaking ill of her brother, Moses. Again, we are left to ask: is tzara’at a reference to a disease that was common at the time that the Bible is set, or one that was a known affliction to the people of Israel who were receiving the Torah in the already established kingdom? This might seem tangential, but that is far from the truth; if tzara’at is a disease the Biblical writers wanted to place in antiquity, it could be their attempt to describe the purpose of the disease, giving a background for the already well-established practices that were common to the people at the time. With our knowledge of history, it is nearly impossible to know, but the nuance of what we’re reading sheds significant light on how we might find meaning in the text.
With this in mind, we turn our attention back to Leviticus 14, where we see that the process for purification happens AFTER the afflicted person is healed. This doesn’t seem to make any sense; this would mean that the ritual is not meant to CURE a person of their disease, but rather to banish the bad omens that came with being sick in the first place. We have little to no evidence here about what the actually healing process looks like. Instead, we are left to explore the emotional process of bringing someone back to the community.
This would indicate that this section of the Torah is more concerned with the emotional and mental consequences of tzara’at than the physical ones, which would be beyond our hopes of handling. We instead have a process by which the quarantined individual can representatively wash away their uncleanliness, and can prepare to return to the community. If ever there was a moment in time when we could understand this, it is right now, as the pandemic is finally showing signs of receding, leaving us to pick up the pieces of what has been wrought. We are encountering unprecedented levels of mental illness, caused by the time in isolation that COVID-19 has demanded. From toddlers to adults to the elderly, we are seeing heightened anxiety, social discomfort, and stress. Schools are reporting behavioral and social disasters that no teacher is able to handle in a vacuum. The disease may be fading into the periphery, but the consequences of it remain very much near at hand.
It is to this end that Metzorah can be so particularly meaningful. What we read in the text is a process by which our people have taken old traditions, ones dating even further back than the priestly sacrificial cult, to reset themselves after encountering hardship. Despite the textual desire to drive the people toward a new modality of engaging with God, there is a kind of permission given to the people to engage with their less Jewishly-typical practices. As readers, we get to see one of the times when multiple moments in Jewish history collide to create a narrative for how we handle adversity.
All the more meaningful is the rest of the historical timeline, which bears out the need for creativity and innovation. The Torah is trying to inspire a sacrificial practice that was eliminated 2,000 years before today. Prayer replaced sacrifice after the destruction of the Temple, and as a result, we saw two millennia of standardized worship practices. But the 21st century very well be another friction point, another moment where the ways we engage with God are being upended and demand attention. How, we might ask, can we relate to the divine, the sacred, the holy while worship in structured space and time feels so distant? I don’t have the answer. I have some options for answers, but we are too involved in the moment currently to be able to see where it leads. What we can identify is that the Torah establishes a way for us to talk about these kind of innovations of meaning. By way of this Torah portion, we get to see what happens when we use all the tools for finding meaning, from the oldest Ancient Near Eastern traditions to the systematized preferences of the leadership, to better ourselves for the moment we face.
The Torah is not about finding answers. It is about learning processes for us to establish our own path to meaning and intention. To this end, the section we read this week brings incredible insight into the ways we make sense of that which we don’t understand, how we adapt to changing realities in our new age, and how we center the emotional, mental, and spiritual needs of the community, even when that comes in the form of a scavenger hunt through history to find the best answer.