This week's Torah portion is Tazria, from the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), chapter 12:1-13:59. Wild weirdness this week with spiritual questions that are rooted in discussions of scabs, skin conditions, and other bodily delights. More to come on Tazria - when you peel away the scab there are fascinating questions beneath (ok, that was nasty). But for now....
Just a brief word on how Jewish tradition deals with bodily irregularities such as leprosy (at least some people think it is leprosy) and other skin infirmities; and how we deal with it in contemporary society.
I just read a disturbing article about a 1987 US law that creates hurdles for HIV-positive foreigners coming into the US and can prevent their entry altogether. I don't know how many have been denied a visa because they carry HIV since the law was passed, but this case highlights our anxieties about infirmity and contagion, and our tendency to respond to that fear irrationally and with great cruelty.
The Torah discusses this week the laws concerning those in the community who have certain kinds of appearances on the skin. If discoloration or certain other marks appear on the skin, the victim is brought before the priest who must declare the person either tamei or tahor, usually translated as 'impure' and 'pure' or 'unclean' and 'clean.' But these words are not necessarily moral categories, at least in the sense that we understand them. That is, one does not necessarily become tamei by doing something that is forbidden. These categories determine whether you must be separated from the community or certain holy places.
In any event, the Torah specifies that a person with marks on his or her body will be declared tamei or tahor by Aaron the priest or his sons. The rabbinic commentators, writing much later, emphasize that regular old Israelites were not permitted to make this declaration. Because declaring a person tamei meant that they had to be physically separated from the rest of the community, the rabbis saw the capacity to declare as one of great power - power not to be misused. Hizkuni (if memory serves - I don't have the text in front of me) says that this declaration must be made by a priest to avoid confusion and inaccurate judgments from those who don't know better.
We read this ancient text of the Torah and think "wow, those people were weird - all those bizarre rituals." But the 1987 law referred to in the Globe and Mail article points out that we still are unsure how to deal with disease. We do assign moral categories to sufferers of disease - and certainly in the '80s and still today AIDS sufferers, especially gay men, bore the brunt of this.
The rabbinic reading of this Torah portion, which emphasized the methodical inspection by the priests as against a response driven by a fearful public stands in stark contrast to how our nation dealt with AIDS sufferers - and how we often deal with all kinds of ill people. As the AIDS crisis unfolded we allowed mass-hysteria to guide social policy.
Often we respond to people with illnesses by seeking to separate them from the community, focus on what we think is the moral dimension (AIDS sufferers are hedonists, obese people are lazy and undisciplined etc) and attempt to cut out the problem from the body politic. The ritual described in this week's Torah portion, while not something that would be great social policy in 2008, has one significant moral advantage: it is concerned with reintroducing people into the community. The priests are charged with separating the diseased until the affliction goes away and then, significantly, initiating a declaration of tahor to bring the sufferer back and restore him or her to public life.