The laws pertaining to the person with what is commonly but incorrectly called leprosy, are very clear in this week's portion M'tzora. These skin diseases disclosed a condition of impurity, and therefore the afflicted persons went through a thorough process whereby they were distanced from the camp and healed of the disease, and then this period (seven days) was followed by a cleansing purification and reentry process (an additional day).
The most famous "sufferer" of this skin affliction, known as tzaraat was Miriam. She gossiped about her sister-in-law, and was immediately afflicted with "leprosy." The Rabbis play on the word m'tzora (the name of our parashah) and claim that Miriam slandered her brother and sister-in-law's good name in that she engaged in the act of "spreading a nasty name/rumor," motzi-shem ra (see The Torah: A Women's Commentary).1 The Torah and the Rabbis understood these skin afflictions were serving as some kind of punishment for estrangement from God. This period of censure served to "rehabilitate" the person, so as to enable the person to rejoin the community.
Sadly, the idea of a "leper" or a tzaraat has become synonymous that of an outcast; someone who must be shunned: someone who can never return to the tribe, or worse, cannot be allowed to enter it.
This parashah also introduces us to the idea of women's impurity through menstruation. Women are rendered impure because they discharge blood (the symbol of life). A woman is called a nidah, which actually means "to expel" (ibid.).2 The Hebrew word, nidah, can also mean variations of the word: "ostracized."
These categories of m'tzora and nidah designated clear lines of "in and out" in ancient Israel. Perhaps the only comfort in these difficult laws was that you were never completely isolated by them: there was a way back, through cleansing, ritual sacrifice, and priestly intervention.
By contrast, today, one is baffled and furious when bus lines in Jerusalem are segregated between men and women. One is enraged when the ultra-Orthodox try to create separate passages along sidewalks in their ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Meah Shearim for men and women, as they did this year during the holiday of Sukkot. The Israeli Supreme Court intervened and demanded that the barriers be brought down. And lest we forget, there is also the never-ending saga of our heroic Women of the Wall, whose voices have, been called "impure" and "defiling." This is not our biblical way; this is not the Jewish way!
In the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, the most troubling aspect of all this is how little has changed. We still live in segregated, isolating communities. There are the pure and the impure, the leper and the defiled. Recent decrees and public stands by state-sanctioned "rabbis" in the State of Israel have brought these issues to center stage. When over forty state-supported rabbis tell the public not to rent apartments to Arabs and foreign workers, one wonders if we are reading the same Torah. These rabbis' wives take to the streets to plead that we can only protect the purity of the daughters of Israel if they don't come into contact with Arabs. These positions fan the flames of fear and suspicion that pit the weak against the weak. The foreign workers flooding Israel's borders are moving into the impoverished neighborhoods of those who are already disenfranchised. The affluent do not have to confront these "foreigners" going after their jobs or their housing.
Would their neighborhoods welcome the "other"?
These are complicated issues and complicated times. Yet, I hope that our tradition of welcoming the stranger and rehabilitating the impure can be translated into twenty-first century language and norms.
In the summer of 2008, I found myself in New York at the theatre. I went to see the first ever revival of the musical classic South Pacific. This Rogers and Hammerstein masterpiece is about racism and ageism! In the 1940s in America, anti-Semitism, racism, ageism were accepted forms of social mores, some more genteel than others. And I haven't even mentioned homophobia. As tears streamed down my cheeks watching this glorious production, I could not help but be overwhelmed that for the first time, an African-American was running for president.
These powerful words from South Pacific3 were first sung at a time when no one dared confront these societal norms:
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!
Our biblical text recognizes that we ostracize, we banish, and we exclude, but only in the context of sanctifying God's name. More importantly, we must enable the banished and the excluded, a way back in. Our beloved Miriam had gossiped about her sister-in-law pointing out her racial identity. God wasted no time, showing "zero tolerance" for this kind of talk. The Children of Israel waited for Miriam as she healed and was purified. She made amends for ostracizing Zipporah, and she herself became a temporary outcast.
How do we confront racism, sexism, and ageism today? We must call its name, we must show "zero tolerance," we must embrace the victim and rehabilitate the perpetrator. We must not allow our Torah to fan the flames of hate, slander, and segregation. We must be able to admit when we are accomplices and partners in these acts willingly and unwillingly.
This week's portion, M'tzora, could be dismissed as another chapter in our ancestors' attempts to make sense of a messy universe where skin diseases and body fluids left them confused and frightened. Or we can look at our own skin, as it were, and remember that skin afflictions do not differentiate between skin colors. And we can demand that women be full citizens in our community because they are no longer bound by childbirth and biology. The age of pure and impure is long over; the age of segregation and prejudice is not. Our ever-renewing tradition must confront this with its greatest "weapon": We were all created in God's image in order to spread the sense of holiness everywhere. This is what we must teach our children before it's too late!
- See The Torah: A Women's Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi (New York: URJ Press and WRJ, 2008) p. 672, for the sources of this midrashic wordplay
- ibid., p. 668, Note, the word nidah can also mean variations of the word, "ostracized"
- "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught," lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, 1949
Rabbi Naamah Kelman is the dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Born and raised in New York, she has been living in Israel since 1976, helping to build a pluralistic, progressive, and egalitarian Jewish Israel.