A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Torah Portion: Tazria

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.


  1. I think the concept of ritual purity/impurity is too often interpreted as good/bad by modern readers. It is more just two necessary aspects of living. We may come in contact with a dead body in the context of washing it for burial - clearly a mitzvah. These laws allow us to effectively compartmentalize our lives so when we enter into solemn ritual, we are truly ready having taken care of the prerequisites. A modern reader can twist things just a bit to identify what in their life is the equivalent of a skin sore that must be dealt with prior to entering into a state of kavanah.

  2. Interesting idea, and I agree. However, it's not just modern folks. who do this. In the Talmud, the skin afflictions explored in parshah Metzora are explained with the following wordplay. Metzora means "one whom is afflicted with the skin condition tzaarat." The rabbis in the Talmud asserted that a person so afflicted must have done something wrong, and they punned on the word with motzi ra, one who "brings out evil" -that is evil speech, or gossip. So, it's not just modern people who view ritual impurity as a sign of moral impurity.

    Also, the Torah itself complicates the issue. At the beginning of parshat Tazria, note that a woman who has just given birth (clearly a mitzvah) must offer not only a purification offering but also a sin offering. Puzzling, and there are many different answers. See Ibn Ezra, who explains that a woman is likely to curse her husband during the pain of childbirth, and so must make a sin offering; see also Nehama Liebowitz, who has a very different and very beautiful explanation.

    Thanks for posting.