Priest as physician. Spiritual blight as medical malady. Simmering beneath the descriptions of scaly skin and malignant discolorations in Parashat Tazria is a mode of power that challenges the modern mindset. A dominant few of paternal priestly lineage hold the knowledge and authority to diagnose, isolate, and adjudicate regarding leprous eruptions. The fate of those afflicted rests solely in the proclamations of the priests, who deem whether people are labeled “clean” or “unclean.” In our parashah we read:
“the person with a leprous affliction, the clothes shall be rent, the head shall be left bare, and the upper lip shall be covered over; and that person shall call out, “Impure! Impure!” (Lev. 13:45).
Amidst a backdrop of assumptions that priests were, by definition, paragons of perfection and necessary conduits for divine contact, if Tazria’s depictions of disease don’t inspire queasy feelings, the underlying social stratification may do so instead.
Post-Temple Judaism and the rise of Rabbinic reimaginations of Jewish life largely upended priestly potency. Divine communication would no longer require the intermediaries of priest or altar. The offering of flesh and blood would morph into the offering of word and heart, and a collective of 10 individuals would become the new Temple in any place and at any time. All threads and strands of modern Judaism reflect the dynamic disruptions of our early Sages positing new understandings of power, and our human relationship to one another and to God.
In a slightly more modern frontier, we see the ripples of similar disruptions in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). For decades, NASA stood at the forefront of science and technology, pushing the frontiers of exploration and human possibility. By 2010, however, NASA faced staggering budget cuts and widespread questioning of its effectiveness and viability in the 21st century. Confronted with existential urgency and diminished resources, some of NASA’s leadership reimagined their approach to innovation. Dr. Jeffrey Davis of NASA’s Space Life Sciences Directorate picked out 14 strategic research and development challenges and placed them in an open platform for the world to help address (“Open Innovation at NASA,” 1st World Open Innovation Conference, Napa, CA, Dec. 4, 2014). The results were staggering. More than 3,000 people in over 80 countries contributed. Typical R&D development cycles shifted from 3-5 years to 3-6 months. And people without degrees or academic pedigree offered solutions and concepts that eclipsed much of the best thinking at Johnson Space Center. So successful was this new platform of open innovation that it is now built into both the structure and culture of NASA. (Hila Lifshitz-Assaf, “Dismantling Knowledge Boundaries at NASA,” Administrative Science Quarterly, Dec. 14, 2017).
More minds from more cultures and backgrounds, radical transparency, collaborative dynamics, and passion-driven work offer a markedly different path from the institutionalized, expertise-driven, confidential, and specialized approach of NASA’s past. Such disruptive approaches to innovation and power may be seen in a multitude of sectors today, from AirBnb to Uber to Black Lives Matter to Wikipedia. Hierarchies are replaced with collaboratives, silos with creativity, and alliances with coalitions.
Such approaches of new power are not without issue and controversy. Access to WebMD does not a doctor make. A Pew study shows that nearly 70% of Americans get their news on social media, dramatically altering the access of information and our encounter with dissonant understandings. Moving power from an anointed elite to a democratized collective may trade one set of pitfalls for another, but this pendulum swing is seen perpetually across recorded history. Moments when power rests in a wider pool of people tend to be linked to the greatest explosions of scientific thought and artistic expression, as a fuller range of humanity encounters one another (Jeremy Heimans, Henry Timms, New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World, p.8).
Returning to Tazria, we witness the afflicted person physically isolated and humiliated, crying out his tainted status in a world that has left all power in the hands of those above and apart from him. Set apart from the camp, he awaits a priest to deem him worthy and allow him return to the community. But our Talmudic Sages offer a different reading of this episode:
He [R. Yochanan] said to her [a woman afflicted], “Announce your trouble to your friends so that they may offer prayers for mercy to be given to you. For it was taught: ‘And shall cry, “Unclean, unclean” (Lev. 13:45),’ he must announce his trouble to the public so that they may pray for mercy to be given to him.” R. Joseph stated: “Such an incident once occurred at Pumbeditha and the woman was cured.” (Babylonian Talmud, Nidah 66a)
In this radical rereading of our Torah text, a person afflicted and challenged is urged to place her troubles out in the open for the world to see and witness. And in such an act of vulnerability and courage, a world is moved to compassion and a collective moves toward mercy. Rabbi Yochanan moves away from priestly power, and instead, to a collective power to cure from their collaborative compassion and prayer.
In this new understanding of Tazria, heroics are not placed upon the shoulders of an established elite, but rather in the grassroots potency of the people. When transparency of trouble enables a collective to act, we see a new power emerge: one where disease and plight are dealt with not through isolation and solitude, but through encounter and compassion.
Rabbi Ben Spratt is the senior associate rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. His passion continues to be building community beyond existent walls and boundaries, and in partnership with many others has sparked Shireinu, Tribe, New Day Fellowship, and Minyan.