It's time for all Leviticus fans to haul out their decoder rings! In Leviticus 13 and 14, we encounter a strange disease called tzaraat, which can be contracted by human beings, walls, stones, or cloth. Tzaraat has been translated variously as "'scale disease,' 'scaly disease,' 'eruption,' and (erroneously) 'leprosy' " (The Women's Torah Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss [New York: URJ Press, 2008] p. 659). What in the world is tzaraat? Into this category, ancient Israelites put human skin diseases such as eczema, psoriasis, and vitiligo, plus forms of fungus and mildew that attack stone or cloth. What all these conditions have in common, as I have suggested elsewhere, "is that their wholeness is being compromised. They are being eaten into, decayed, caused to come apart" (Rachel Adler, "Those Who Turn Away Their Faces: Tzara'at and Stigma," in Healing and the Jewish Imagination: Spiritual and Practical Perspectives on Judaism and Health, ed. William Cutter [Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2007] p. 146). I would call tzaraat "disintegration disease."
Tzaraat makes people and objects impure, although for the priestly writer (P) that does not mean the afflicted have sinned. Though other biblical texts associate tzaraat with sins of arrogance and presumption, P texts do not (Adler, ibid., 155-56). Leviticus 13-14 does not claim to know what causes tzaraat or how to treat it. All it knows are guidelines for diagnosingtzaraat , for declaring it in remission, and for conducting purification ceremonies readmitting the healed back into the sanctuary and the community.
The m'tzora, "the tzaraat sufferer," had one of the most serious forms of impurity, in fact theonly form of impurity that actually resulted in exile from the community. Why were people with this illness shunned? Why did they carry such stigma? To understand, we must examine whattum'ah, "impurity," meant to ancient Israelites. Assume that tum'ah was for the ancient Israelites what germs are for us: most of us have never seen one but we all believe in the pesky little critters. In both cases, it is necessary to take care to avoid contact that might transmit contagion or infection by airborne particles. In both cases, washing is a means of purification.
But tum'ah is more than contagion. Tum'ah is the opposite of purity, the chief characteristic of the holy. Hence, all who have some form of impurity may not enter the sanctuary of the living God. The most severe conveyor of tum'ah is the corpse. It is impure forever, and those who touch it or are in the same room with it are impure for seven days. Tzaraat is the second most severe kind of tum'ah . Sufferers may be quarantined as long as two weeks before being positively diagnosed (Mishnah N'gaim 1:3, 3:3). They must dwell outside the camp or outside the city walls, rend their clothes, dishevel their hair, veil their mouths, and when anyone approaches, they must cry out a warning: "Impure! Impure!" (see Leviticus 13:45-46).
We must conclude that tzaraat is viewed as a condition similar to death. The Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom quotes Elihu in the Book of Job describing Job's boils as a painful form of tzaraat: "His skin is eaten away by a disease. Death's firstborn consumes his limbs" (Job18:13) (Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, The Anchor Bible,vol. 3 [New York: Doubleday, 1991] p. 819). Tzaraat is death's firstborn.
Tzaraa t also is connected with death in Numbers 12 when Miriam is afflicted with the disease. Aaron pleads with Moses, "Let her not be as a stillbirth which emerges from its mother's womb with half its flesh eaten away" (Numbers 12:12). A stillborn infant's skin peels off in large sheets. Indeed, a corpse's disintegration begins with the sloughing off of skin. It is this peeling off or flaking that associates tzaraat with death. The skin is the simplest human boundary. It holds the blood, the organs, and the life force in and keeps the outside world out . If the integrity of that boundary is breached, the implications are dire.To the ancient Israelite, the tzaraat sufferer must have looked as if he or she was decomposing while still walking around. That is the source of the stigma.
Stigmatizing others is cruel. Yet before judging the Israelites we might ask, how eager are we to step into the hospital or to visit dying friends? Someone in remission from cancer told me she wished she could have a purification ceremony to rejoin the community of the living. I have argued that dementia patients are the modern tzaraat sufferers. We avoid them in terror, as if brain deterioration were contagious. We are not less afraid of death and disintegration than our forebears.
Milgrom theorizes that all forms of impurity symbolize death: menstrual blood and semen exemplify the life-giving forces leaving the body, while abnormal male or female genital discharges represent something wrong with the life-giving organs (Milgrom, ibid., pp. 1,002-03). In the purification ceremony, the dreaded death is acted out and transcended. Water is the primal element from which life first emerged, and out of water the impure emerge, reborn. All major forms of impurity require laundering clothes and bathing. In addition, corpse impurity andtzaraat , disintegration disease, require sprinkling with a preparation of symbols representing both life and death: red substances or blood and in the case of corpse impurity, the ashes of a red heifer, mixed with "living water," flowing water, the life-symbol par excellence.
I speculated long ago that by means of a cycle of impurities and purifications, ancient Israelites practiced dying and renewal over and over (see Rachel Adler, "Tum'ah and Tahara: Mikveh,"The Jewish Catalog [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1973], p. 167-71). We, too, keep dying and being remade. Throughout our bodies, cells die and are replaced. But we stay unconscious of the dying; neither do we ordinarily practice ceremonies of renewal. However, following childbirth and upon recovery from serious illness, many in our communities recite the blessing Birkat HaGomeil. And, at community mikvaot , "ritual baths," like Mayyim Hayyim in the Boston area, men and women are starting to immerse in the mikveh , "the ritual bath," again to celebrate occasions where they seek purification or wish to commemorate some death-like ordeal and affirm a renewal of life. Maybe we too can be restored by living water.
Professor Rachel Adler is professor of Modern Jewish Thought and Judaism and Gender at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. She was one of the first theologians to integrate feminist perspectives and concerns into the interpretation of Jewish texts and the renewal of Jewish law and ethics. She is the author of Engendering Judaism, which won the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought, and many articles.