Drash on Parashat Tazri'a-Metzora
Rabbi Fred Morgan AM
UPJ Movement Rabbi
This double portion concentrates on a single topic, the physical or bodily sources of ritual impurity that may require a member of the Israelite community to be sent “outside the camp,” or isolated from the people, until the impure condition has been identified and neutralised. The bulk of the reading focuses its attention on a particular expression of impurity, the affliction known in Hebrew as tzara’at, usually translated as leprosy but not to be confused with the medically diagnosed “Hanson’s Disease”. Tzara’at is diagnosed and treated by the priest according to ritual, not medical, procedures. Aside from being a bodily impurity, it also affects clothing and houses, as we discover from the portion. It extends beyond the realm of physical hygiene or dermatology to what we might see as the spiritual health of the individual as a member of the community. It indicates a degree of danger to the community as a whole.
Since we don’t live any longer in a world in which our relationships are governed by matters of ritual purity and impurity, it is difficult for us to grasp exactly what is going on when the Torah speaks of tzara’at. But we can draw analogies from these descriptions which may help us to see more clearly what is happening in our own lives. For example, when the Metzora or person suspected of being afflicted with tzara’at is sent outside the camp for seven days, we can appreciate the gravity of this exclusion for the person experiencing it, and also its impact on the person’s reputation. It is no wonder, then, that the midrash later interpreted ritual impurity such as tzara’at in moral terms. Why, for example, was Moses’ sister Miriam struck with leprosy (reported in Numbers 12:10)? Because she spoke ill of her brother’s Kushite wife. She was, in effect, guilty of slanderous gossip, so the rabbis glossed the expression Metzora with motzi shem ra, one who gossips about another.
The rabbis were undoubtedly looking for a reason in the person’s behaviour to explain why Torah allowed the community to ostracise the Metzora in this way. There is, after all, a concern for justice in Torah, and the rules of impurity do not seem to take justice or fair-play into account. That is why we today feel so uncomfortable with the procedures employed to isolate ritual impurity. Notions of purity and impurity that are not based on ethical or medical standards are confusing to us. It simply seems unjust to exclude people because they don’t conform to society’s standards of appearance, etiquette or manners, the rituals of what used to be called “civilised” behaviour.
A viewing of “The Crown” or “Downton Abbey” on Netflix will give you a pretty clear idea of what I’m talking about. Both television series hinge their stories on a penetrating representation of the changes in values that took place in the first half of the 20th century surrounding matters of social convention. These changes came about because of a redefined sense of social justice that followed the two World Wars. Much of our concern for human rights today parallels the breakdown that we see in the way that rules of ritual purity and impurity are applied to society as a whole. While our sense of ethical responsibility has sharpened, our sense of social convention based on notions of purity and impurity has dulled.
From a Progressive point of view, this is a good thing. The idea of excluding people socially, putting them “outside the camp,” because they are different from us or because they don’t conform to our standards of dress, of manners, of religious or social rituals, or for some other non-medical or non-moral reason is repugnant to most of us.
Nonetheless, the fact that we are not aware of our own diagnoses of tzara’at doesn’t mean that we don’t make them. Acting as if we are the priests, we send all sorts of people outside the camp on the basis of their “skin conditions”, that is, not for ethical or medical reasons but based on our presuppositions or prejudices about them. Think of how people in our community sometimes react to refugees, to Muslims, to Arabs, to people of different sexual orientations – as though the descriptors alone make them impure, and dangerous. More than once I’ve heard people in our communities say things like “you can’t trust an Arab” or “refugees from Arab countries are potential terrorists,” without seeming to notice the social ostracism implicit in their remarks. If we feel uncomfortable about tzara’at and how it’s handled in Torah, we should also feel uncomfortable about our reactions to these people, who all too often are made to stand in as the ritually impure in our own society.