Impure, Impure!

This week’s Dvar Torah is written by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, who holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean's Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, California, where he is Vice-President.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Tazria, deals with a range of afflictions and illnesses that the Torah labels as tzara’at. While commonly mistranslated as leprosy (the illnesses actually have very little in common with Hansen’s Disease), Rabbi Jacob Milgrom translates it as “scale disease” and understands the illness as retribution for a moral sin or a sin against God.

For moderns, we read this week’s description of the afflicted person, the metzora, against at least two different back-drops: the old Bible movies of Cecille B. DeMille and his contemporaries, in which the leper was a forlorn and miserable outcast, and against the context of a more current affliction: the victims of AIDS who are treated as moral rejects as well.

How harsh, then, seems the following verse of the Torah: “As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, ‘Impure! Impure!’” 

Picture the suffering of this poor metzora: afflicted by a disfiguring and repulsive illness, uncertain as to its cause, despairing of any cure, the metzora was not only confronted by a medical horror, but was then also ordered to leave the settlement, with its comforts of family, familiarity, and order.

For the rest of his or her life, the metzora was now to live in the semi-wild settlement of the other afflicted. And to make matters worse, whenever the metzora went anywhere, that person had to wear torn clothing and walk bare-headed (biblical signs of mourning), had to have a covered face (to hide identity? To mask shame? To inspire it?). And, as a final mandate to publicize being a metzora, the person had to shout “Impure! Impure!”

Imagine the sense of humiliation, the sense of shame! According to Professor Baruch Levine, rending the clothes was a public sign of mourning, and baring the head “was a customary way of shaming a person, as was covering the upper lip.” Rashi, echoing the Sifra (an ancient midrash to Leviticus), recognizes the tear and the covering of the face as being “like a mourner.” 

Some traditions recognize in this imposition, that the metzora is in mourning - for lost health, companionship, and belonging. Others see it as a way of shaming the metzora who has presumably done something immoral (generally understood as motzi shem ra, malicious gossip) that deserves this punishment. Given those two ways of construing the bare head, the covered face, and the torn clothes, we still need to ask what is intended by forcing the metzora to shout “Impure! Impure!” 

According to Rashi, basing himself on the Talmud (Moed Katan and Arakhin) the metzora “informs others that he is impure and they keep away from him.” The purpose, then, of calling out, is to alert others to stay away. The metzora is forced to enforce his own isolation. Why? “Since he caused a parting—through malicious talk—between husband and wife, or between friends or colleagues, he, too, shall be set apart.”

Clearly, Rashi sees this proclamation as retribution, justly imposed in response to a wrong the metzora had committed in the past. This punishment, intentionally degrading, was designed to impose remorse and regret, as well as to make the metzora feel personally what had been inflicted on the recipients and objects of his evil speech. 

The Rambam (Moses Maimonides) sees a similar intent behind this legislation: “Not only those who are stricken with tzara’at, but all those who are ritually impure are obligated to make known to all that they are impure in order that the others will separate from them… the impure one announces that he is impure.” Like Rashi, Rambam understands this mandatory proclamation as punishment, a way of keeping the metzora isolated and alone, a way of allowing others to maintain their ritual purity by avoiding contact with the afflicted sinner. 

In our own day, we are all too accustomed to hear the self-designated spokesmen and women for God, for country, for civilization, calling for a similar isolation from the afflicted. From political and religious leaders, from prominent thinkers and writers, we hear an inordinate concern with their own purity and a desire to punish those who are already suffering. 

How refreshing, then, to see a completely different assessment in the Talmud. Massekhet Hullin understands the proclamation as, “he shall make known his affliction so that they may pray for him. Likewise, one upon whom a calamity has fallen should make it known so that others may pray for him.” 

What a wonderful reading! The call of “Impure!” is designed, not to punish the afflicted, but to summon other people to his/her aid. Without having to ask for help explicitly, simply by mentioning the suffering, the metzora can count on fellow Jews to reach out to do something to lift the burden, to show solidarity, to express caring. The metzora calls out “impure” so as to no longer remain alone. 

Wouldn’t it be transforming if we responded to the “impure” voices of our age with compassion, love, and help, rather than with condemnation and distance? Isn’t that response truer to the voice of God in the Torah, truer to the soft, still voice within our hearts?

Shabbat Shalom!

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