Discussions of Parashat Metzora generally revolve around one of two topics: the horrendous disease of leprosy as the punishment for l'shon harah, harmful language, and the "otherness" of both the outcast lepers and even the kohanim in their roles as health inspectors-healers. The parashah itself addresses the most immediate issues pertaining to the treatment and containment of tzara-at, an eruptive skin disease: Somebody (or something) has it and now, with the priest's assistance, he, she (or it) must get rid of it in order to regain social admittance.
Many people today choose to gloss over this portion because they regard it as too primitive, too "Deuteronomistic." Are we supposed to interpret leprosy as a divinely ordained punishment? Must one have sinned in order to have contracted such a fatal disease? Do we not now realize and acknowledge (in large part because of the teachings of Rabbi Harold Kushner) that bad things very often happen to good people and vice versa? Accepting the punishment theory makes it difficult for us to explain all the ailments associated with the aging process or any chance occurrence that causes pain or death to young and old alike.
And then there are the elaborately described purification rituals, involving sacrificing animals, dashing blood all over, shaving off eyebrows, etc. Although all of this is presented with due seriousness, it surely strikes many of us as being a lot of hocus-pocus. Just as we question the efficacy of these practices, so, too, we wonder whether people thousands of years hence will get a chuckle out of our own so-called "state-of-the-art" medical procedures and treatments.
So now what? We are compelled to return to the Torah text in order to figure out what lesson can be derived from this segment of God's teaching. Even if we accept the punishment theory and even if we can relate to all the details of the purification rites, there still remains one issue that must be addressed, namely, whether all this truly "cures" the individual of the impulse to commit the sin of l'shon harah. Does the isolation treatment really rehabilitate the offender? If we have "advanced" in any way since Parashat Metzora was written, it would have to be in our increased awareness of the psychological underpinnings of many "unacceptable" behaviors. The knowledge and sensitivity we have derived must be applied to attempting to cure people, but this point is noticeably absent from the traditional discussion of leprosy in the biblical context.
Whether trying to eradicate leprosy or any other societal ill, we must endeavor to strike at the systemic root of the problem and not merely attack the periphery. For example, in light of Rabbi Eric Yoffie's recent call for Reform Jews to "revolutionize" our worship opportunities, let us keep in mind Rabbi Larry Hoffman's advice (as presented in his indispensable work The Art of Public Prayer) that rather than treating the symptoms of a problem, we must delve deeper in order to fix the system that produces those symptoms.
The purification process for leprosy (as punishment) does not guarantee that the disease will not recur. So, too, we must not be disappointed if merely cosmetic changes to worship experiences do not go far enough to achieve our movement's goal of truly affecting the overall role of worship for Reform Jews. Instead, let us make sure to ask the right questions from the outset so that our modern-day cures truly represent an advancement over the primitive ones of yesteryear.
Rabbi Andrew Bossov is the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Sarasota, FL.