Tazria: The Non-Rush To Judgement

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tazria

Greetings from Swampscott, where it’s almost spring!

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the next two Torah portions are among the most
difficult of the yearly Torah readings, because the topics seem both arcane and highly
anachronistic. This week’s parsha, Tazria, begins with laws of tumah,
or ritual impurity- which means separation from areas considered holy- in the
period after childbirth. The next few chapters deal with scaly skin blemishes,
which must be examined by the priests in order to declare a person ritually pure
and thus able to rejoin the community in its religious life.

You can find the text of the Torah portion and the special
pre-Passover maftir (concluding Torah reading) and haftarah here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

Clearly, we do not look to the Torah for medical knowledge- the one
thing that all contemporary commentators agree upon is that the scaly skin blemishes described in Vayikra/ Leviticus are not the disease we call “leprosy,”
(Hansen’s Disease), but that’s where the agreement ends. Some believe that the Torah implies that such blemishes were understood as the manifestation of spiritual
condition, perhaps indicating a supernatural punishment, while others think that they were a morally neutral physical phenomenon. Furthermore, the very idea of “ritual impurity” and the concomitant exclusion from sacred areas is foreign to our sense of what is “natural” (like bodily fluids or skin blemishes) and our very legitimate desire to be maximally inclusive in our communal practice.

So what DO we do with these passages? How do we, with our modern
medical knowledge and inclusive ethical sensibilities, deal with verses about
the blood of childbirth and menstruation, scaly skin blemishes and discolored
hairs? One classic line of interpretation sees the scaly skin disease as Divine
punishment for misdeeds. While such midrashim (creative or homiletic Biblical interpretations) help us understand what the ancient sages considered to be an ethical and upright life, I’m personally left unsatisfied. I want to forge a more direct
relationship to the text of the Torah itself, if possible, and not only read it through the lens of such strong moral symbolism.

So returning to the text itself, with its vivid descriptions of
bodily fluids, scabs, lesions, and discolored skin, I’m struck by how carefully the Torah lays out a program for connection between the elite of ancient society (the
kohanim, or priests) and those who might be the outcasts (people in various states of
ritual impurity.) The Torah says, very clearly, that a primary job of the religious and
social leadership is to work with those in greatest danger of being shunned. Not only that, but the Torah also clearly and unequivocally commands the priests to see each
person as an individual, examining them down to the smallest hair or patch of
skin, in order to bring them back into the community if at all possible.

Remembering that what is true for the priesthood is now true for
entire people of Israel, (since there is no longer a priesthood, as such) I think one
way we can read parshat Tazria is to see an ethic of caring for individuals
underneath a sea of specific rules. That ethic goes something like this: When someone is in distress, don’t rush to judgement, but look carefully at each person, right down to the details of specific circumstances. Don’t judge people if it’s not your job to judge- remember, only the priest could declare that someone had the kind of scaly skin blemish which required temporary separation. Finally, precisely where there is potential for people to feel cast out or marginalized, that’s where the Torah wants us to pay close attention to our thoughts and actions.

Parshat Tazria might be the hardest parsha of the Torah, but not, I
think, because its subject matter is so distant from our contemporary frame of
reference. I think Parshat Tazria may be the hardest parsha of the Torah because what it’s asking us to do – refrain from quick judgement, see people as individuals, and always reach out to those on the margins- is a life-long process, a challenge to each of us which is central to our evolving spiritual maturity.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

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