Reading an Ancient Practice

Tazria, Leviticus 12:1−13:59

D'Var Torah By: William Cutter

Is Tazria a parashah that indexes Jewish connections between purity and community health? Jackie Mason might say that the Jewish fixation with health originated in this parashah: You begin with a spot on your skin, and you wind up with a bad back! Imagine what the Israeli comic Gil Kopetch could do with this weekly Torah commentary: skin afflictions and our political dilemmas!

We squirm in the wake of such history, looking for spiritual aggadah-especially when our portion is yoked with its common partner M'tzora (in this leap year, next week's portion, and seen as the prohibition against gossip). Surely, as commentators like Hallo, Fields, and Plaut suggest, our portion is less about medicine than ritual. What is true is that the parashah comes in the middle of our religious year and beckons us to bridge between Genesis and Deuteronomy with spiritual significance. But one meaning is plain: This portion, with or without our aggadic exegesis, reminds us that we are a very old tradition, composed of practices and beliefs that have been sublimated, distilled, and recombined beyond recognition. Once each year we must read about them even if we have given them up (as we also expect our sister religions to do with some of their ancient material).

The haftarot have often helped us elaborate Torah. But this haftarah (II Kings 4:42 - 5:19) was stymied, and the best it could do was tell of an ancient but later instance of skin affliction. A certain Na'aman defies Elisha's medical counsel to bathe in a certain river, but his servants reprove him with a simple a fortiori argument: "If the prophet had told you to do something difficult, you would have done it. In this case, he has only asked a simple thing of you. Follow his prescription."

This is a surreptitious window on our tradition. It seems that we, too, respond easily to complex demands; the most elaborate narratives delight our mental processes; complex economic and social demands at least challenge our ingenuity. But now we are faced with an issueless Torah portion. It sows only our determination to continue the quiet act of reading, of coming to terms with our past, and of learning the components that make us what we are today, however sublimated those components have been.

I tell my students not to indulge in ruminations about how difficult it is to speak about certain Torah portions. Now I have violated that rule. But this I can say: If we can issue dazzling thoughts about complicated demands, if we can see ourselves in the ancient stories of tradition, then surely we can respond to the simple demand to honor tradition-keep on reading!

Rabbi William Cutter is Steinberg Emeritus Professor of Human Relations at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he held the Paul and Trudy Steinberg Chair in Human Relations, and was Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature and Education. HUC-JIR, Los Angeles, California.


Daver Acher By: Debbie Niederman

As my partner and teacher Dr. Bill Cutter said, "There is probably no other parashah that really makes us aware of how ancient our tradition is." Parashat Tazria is concerned with ailments of the skin that, at the time of revelation and compilation and even to this day, can appear somewhat mysteriously. When such a skin ailment appeared on someone in our ancient community, the priest was called in. The priest served not as diagnostician and provider of medicine but as religious leader, prescribing ritual action. The skin diseases described in the text may be as simple as eczema or psoriasis, but they were unexplainable to the premodern individual and thus appeared through mystery. Also tzaraat (the affliction addressed in our parashah) was considered negah, smiting or being struck with, indicating extreme divine displeasure. So, what are we to do with this seemingly primitive text? Can we merely dismiss it as folklore and hocus-pocus? We cannot. Rather, we must go beyond the actual text in order to garner meaning for our day.

For me, the striking particularity of this text is not the issue of diagnosis but that of impurity. What does it mean to be impure, and how does it affect us and our community? When the priest is called to examine someone with a skin affection, it is the duty of the priest to pronounce the person clean or unclean / pure or impure. The text tells us, "He [the patient] shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp." (Lev. 13:46) It is assumed that a problem with one individual affects the whole community. What we must question here is when we send someone outside of the community, are we doing it to protect ourselves or to protect the individual?

There are two important ethical teachings in Judaism that relate to the above question:

  • Do not separate yourself from the community. (Pirke Avot 2:4)
  • All Israel is responsible one for the other. (Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 39a)

For Family Discussion

  1. Discuss why you think these texts relate to the parashah.
  2. If we remove someone from the community, are we fulfilling our responsibility?
  3. What responsibility do you think we have to protect against impurity in our community?
  4. How can we best fulfill that responsibility?

For further reading 

A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Harvey J. Fields (UAHC Press 1991).|
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by Rabbi W Gunther Plaut (UAHC Press 1981).

Deborah Niederman, R.J.E, is the Coordinator of Career Services for the HUC-JIR Schools of Education, all campuses.

Reference Materials

Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-13:59 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 826-838; Revised Edition, pp. 734-745; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 637-656

Originally published: