Torah | What can we glean from passage on skin afflictions

Tazria
Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59
Ezekiel 45:16 – 46:18
(Shabbat HaKodesh)

Vayikra or Leviticus, the book of laws, leads us, the Jewish community, through the mechanisms for keeping ourselves holy, and for regaining holiness that we’ve lost: sacrifices and offerings, rules for the priesthood, and laws governing purity and uncleanness of food, people and situations.

Midway through Leviticus, we come to Tazria. While many of these Torah portions may seem dry, repetitive and harsh, they are actually rich with spiritual meaning. Since the main purpose of Jewish law is sanctification, we can draw closer to God when we uncover deeper layers in these readings.

Tazria begins with two paragraphs discussing childbirth, moving on to various skin afflictions, including tzara’at, which is often translated as leprosy. However, it clearly doesn’t correspond to the disease currently known as leprosy. First, there is no indication that tzara’at, unlike leprosy, is contagious, and second, the condition also afflicts clothing and the walls of buildings.

Archaeological records clearly show that medicine was practiced throughout biblical history. Why then was tzara’at diagnosed and treated only by priests? We can begin to unravel this if we remember that Miriam was stricken with tzara’at for speaking harshly about Moses behind his back (Numbers 12). Tzara’at is a disease that signifies ritual impurity, not simply a physical ailment. Furthermore, while God gave the instructions for post-childbirth purification only to Moses, the instructions regarding tzara’at were given to both Moses and Aaron, the priest. Perhaps those instructions were so important that they needed to be entrusted to more than one person. Looking at the passage today, perhaps Tazria can help us understand and navigate our reactions to people who appear different from us, as well as revitalize our connections to God and our communities.

I decided to convert because I fell in love with Hebrew. Learning Hebrew, I fell in love with Judaism. Being Jewish provided me a path to fall in love with God. I wanted a traditional theological home, but I worried that with tradition would come prejudice. I’m gay, and I knew many gay Jews who had moved away from religion, who felt rejected by the Jewish community. Tazria tells us that community is important. It shows us that we must find a way to reintegrate community members who have felt cast out.

Today we have no Temple. We have no priests, as described in the Torah, to speak to God on our behalf, and to intercede in and navigate complex human interactions. Since the destruction of the Temple, we have no capable judge of tzara’at, according to Rabbi Yochanan as described in the 11th century Midrash Lekach Tov. If that is the case, we must either avoid judging altogether, or constantly strive within ourselves to develop the compassion, humility, discernment and wisdom required of the priests.

When we read Tazria together with  Metzora, next week’s portion, as we did last year, we also read II Kings 7:3-20, instead of Ezekiel 45:16-46:18, which we read this year. It’s worth taking a moment to explore the II Kings text because it furthers our understanding of the benefits to our community when we value those who have been cast out. Briefly, four men who have tzara’at, and are living as outcasts, outside the city walls, possess information acquired because of their outsider status. When they share this information, they save the city. This certainly tells us that we must not reject those who are different from us but must open our hearts and minds to what they might have to offer.

Addressing a Beverly Hills congregation on Feb. 10, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, said nobody should reject a Jew from a religious congregation or community because he or she is transgender. When we incorporate the lessons of Tazria — compassion, community, inclusion, acceptance — into our hearts, we can find ways not only to accept each other for our differences, but to see ways that difference repairs, saves and reinvigorates us. As Alvin Toffler said, “Change is not merely necessary to life. It is life.” May we continue to find ways to appreciate and accept the differences between us, and strive always to make a Jewish community expansive enough for all.

Guest columnist Karen Schoonmaker is a coach, mediator and trainer of humans and other mammals. She’s on the board of Conservative Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland.