The Body or the Soul?

M'tzora, Leviticus 14:1-15:33

D'Var Torah By: Robert E. Tornberg

I recently completed a fascinating course on Catholic theology as part of my Ph.D. program. One of the things that interested me most was the great struggle Christian theologians have had over whether body and soul are a unified whole or two separate states of human existence. While there is not unanimity among the writers, the bulk of the thinkers seem to be influenced by the Greek view of the division of body and soul.

Similarly, Jewish texts present a variety of opinions about this issue. Maimonides held that there was a separation between body and soul, but much of our tradition regards the human being as an integrated whole. In fact, while the Rabbis state that body and soul separate at death, they also teach that the soul will again join with the body when resurrection occurs. One text that touches on this (worth reading in-full) ends with the words, “[God] will bring the soul and force it into the body, and judge both as one” Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 91a–b).

And so, we arrive at this text in Parashat M’tzora: “This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed. When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the leper has been healed of his scaly affection. . . . ” M’tzora begins with a detailed description of the rituals that must take place in order for the person suffering from tzaraat, “affliction,” to return to the community. Sometimes translated as “leprosy,” tzaraat is not necessarily what we think of as leprosy today.

In trying to make sense of the whole idea of tzaraat as it appears in last week’s and this week’s Torah readings, the Rabbis go to great lengths to show that the text does not see the priest as a doctor. They argue that his responsibility is definitely not that of healing a physical ailment. They suggest instead that this disease is a punishment of the soul for committing the sin of l’shon hara (gossiping, talebearing, and so on).

This traditional approach to these texts presents a wonderful teaching opportunity, and I don’t necessarily disagree with it. Who am I to disagree with the Rabbis? However, it is also possible to read the M’tzora text according to its p’shat, or “simple,” meaning, as referring to either a physical or a spiritual malady—or even to a sickness of both body and soul. There is absolutely nothing in the language of the text that limits us to only one of these possibilities. This then brings us back to the rabbinic belief that body and soul are a unified whole that should not be seen as separate from each other.

As an educator, I worry a great deal about the implications of the way young people view this body-soul dichotomy, although they don’t realize they are doing so. For many teens you are either a “jock” or a “nerd” (read “brain”). Many young teens are preoccupied so much with their bodies that they forget about the life of the soul and mind. Similarly, all too often those who are studious often forget to exercise and take care of their bodies. Unfortunately, the same attitudes and lifestyles can also be seen in the lives of the parents of these students.

Each year, when it is time for us to read and study Tazria and M’tzora, we brush by these texts quickly. After all, they have so little to do with our lives today. And yet, I would argue that these parashiyot give us an opportunity to raise important, life-affirming issues with young people and adults—issues of health of the body and the soul, issues of moderation and control of ourselves—our whole selves—and issues of identity.


Once when the sage Hillel had finished a lesson with his pupils, he accompanied them partway home. 

“Master,” they asked, “where are you going?” 

“To perform a religious duty,” he answered. 

“What duty is that?”

“To bathe in the bathhouse.” 

“Is that a religious duty?” they asked. 

“If somebody is appointed to scrape and clean the statues of the king that stand in the theaters and circuses, is paid for the work, and even associates with the nobility,” he answered, “how much more should I, who am created in the image and likeness of God, take care of my body.” ( Vayikra Rabbah, 34:3)

A scholar [talmid chacham] is not permitted to live in a city that does not have the following ten things: A court empowered to and capable of punishing the guilty; A communal tzedakah fund, monies for which are collected by two people and distributed by three; A synagogue; A bathhouse; Sufficient bathroom facilities; A doctor; A blood-letter; A scribe; A butcher; A Torah teacher for children 

It was also stated in Rabbi Akiva’s name: Also a variety of fruits, because a variety of fruits brightens the eyes. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 17b)
Our Rabbis taught: There are three partners in [the creation of] a person: the Holy One, blessed be God; his/her father; and his/her mother. . . . The Holy one gives breath [ruach] and spirit [n’shamah], beauty of features, eyesight, the power of hearing, the ability to speak and to walk, understanding, and discernment. (Babylonian Talmud, Nidah 31a)


  1. Is there a connection between Hillel’s attending a study session and his taking a bath immediately afterward?
  2. How many of the ten items in the list of community requirements relate to care of the body? How many relate to the soul or the spirit? Why do the Rabbis see these elements as necessary for a talmid chacham, a “scholar”?
  3. Why did the Rabbis choose this list of attributes as coming directly from God? What is the message of this list?

Robert E. Tornberg, RJE, is Head of School of Cohen Hillel Academy in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Reference Materials

M’tzora, Leviticus 14:1-15:33 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 839-854; Revised Edition, pp. 750-764; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 657-678

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