Tazria: Purity is Only Skin-Deep

By David Hazony
Wednesday, March 30, 2011

At last, leprosy! Just when we've had our fill of tabernacle ornaments and animal sacrifices, the Torah shows us how arcane it's willing to get.

At first glance, this week's reading appears to offer a detailed guide to the treatment and purification of an appalling disease—how to identify all those scales and hairs and spots, how to quarantine the victim, and much more along those lines for the benefit of the priests charged with determining issues of purity and impurity. But since when does purity turn on the condition of our skin? Surely nothing could be less relevant to religion as we conceive of it.

Look again.

To begin with, scholars have pointed out that the biblical leprosy (tzaraat) does not seem to match any known medical condition—certainly not if you include the bit about its spreading beyond the body to infect clothes and houses, as next week's reading suggests; nor is leprosy a disease that can be cured, as the Torah suggests, in a week's time.  

More confusing still is the fact that the Torah does not discuss any other ailments in this context. Unlike other ancient Near Eastern texts, which teach us about a whole range of ailments and their cures, the Torah is not a medical document.

So maybe the medical side is not really the point. The biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom has suggested that we are dealing here not with an attempt to address a disease but with an essentially cosmetic issue. "The appearance of the disease, and not so much the disease itself," he writes, "is the source of impurity."

The problem with leprosy, in other words, is what it looks like. It reminds us of a decaying body—which is why, when Moses' brother Aaron prays for his sister Miriam to recover from leprosy, he beseeches: "Let her not be like a corpse." Put another way, the attention paid to leprosy is a component of the general priestly need for all bodies involved in rituals, human or animal, to be beautiful, whole. That is the marker of their purity, and a prerequisite for participating in the divine service.

But why?

The biblical rituals of the Tabernacle, as we have seen earlier, are an eminently symbolic affair. Do not expect to encounter high moral principles like universal equality (the priesthood is limited to male descendants of Aaron) or fairness (people born with missing limbs or visible deformities are banned from the service). The symbolism surrounding the Tabernacle, the sacrifices, and the rules of ritual purity constitutes its own system; the rules surrounding leprosy (or whatever the disease was) must be seen within the same framework.

On the whole, that symbolic system projects the affirmation of life and the rejection of those things that remind us of the loss of life. Such things may include menstruation, entering a tent where a dead body lies, or coming into contact with certain creepy creatures. "Bodily impurity," concludes Milrgrom, "stands for the forces of death that are countered and reversed by God's covenantal commandments, the forces of life." The same holds with leprosy; its symbolic association with death, not the actual symptoms of illness, is what makes the leper impure.

We Western moderns take the "affirmation of life" as a given, in part because we have inherited a proud, confident Greek aesthetic of beauty, the celebration of the healthy body as epitomized in statues and painting. But what was a given in Sparta and Athens was for ancient Israel a battle. The Canaanite cults surrounding the Israelites celebrated death and decay through human sacrifice and such self-disfigurements as tattoos, dismemberment, and shaved heads—all emphasizing the submission of human life to the whimsy of the gods.

The Bible bans all such practices. Life and health are not simply good; they are the way we want God to encounter us. Not in order to make the aesthetically imperfect feel bad, but because in spite of our flaws we are still proud of our humanity, we rejoice in His having created us in complexity rather than in angelic perfection, and we feel grateful for, rather than resentful of, our bodies. The point is that we live for a life with Him in this world, and don't long too forcefully for whatever comes afterward.

David Hazony is author of The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, recently published by Scribner.


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