Judaism Is More Than Skin Deep
The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him unclean. But if it is a white discoloration on the skin of his body which does not appear to be deeper than the skin and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall isolate the affected person for seven days. On the seventh day the priest shall examine him, and if the affection has remained unchanged in color and the disease has not spread on the skin, the priest shall isolate him for another seven days. On the seventh day the priest shall examine him again: if the affection has faded and has not spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean. It is a rash; he shall wash his clothes, and he shall be clean. But if the rash should spread on the skin after he has presented himself to the priest and been pronounced clean, he shall present himself again to the priest. And if the priest sees that the rash has spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is leprosy. (Lev. 13:1–4)
This is how one of the most difficult sections for any modern Jew to grapple with begins. In addition to all of the priestly duties we might recognize as “religious,” the sons of Aaron or kohanim, the religious leadership during the period of the wandering in the desert, must also be on the front lines of what seems like basic infectious disease control. A person who suffers from a little understood ancient disease that is often translated as “leprosy,” despite its dissimilarity with the modern disease of that name, is instructed to come before the priest in order to have the affected patch of skin inspected. If, among other things, the patch of skin has turned white, the person is indeed infected.
We are not to imagine that our own bewilderment with this passage is somehow unique or even new. For even the earliest documents of rabbinic Judaism, like the Mishnah, redacted around 200 CE, postdate a period in which this strange condition—which can affect not only skin but also houses and garments—is an actual, pressing concern. True, when one reads the Mishnah, one gets the general impression that the world depicted therein is a rabbinic utopia: the Temple still stands (over a century after its destruction), the Sanhedrin promulgates law from its perch in the chamber of hewn stone, and, indeed, people are still afflicted by “leprosy.” Yet unlike other areas of Jewish law, such as the observance of Shabbat, the adjudication of civil law, or marriage and divorce—about which the Mishnah also cites a wealth of knowledge and ideas from its own time—when it comes to Tractate Negaim, there is almost nothing to show that its authors aren’t living in the biblical period. Indeed, as Professor Neil Danzig once pointed out to me, large swaths of the tractate interpret Parashat Tazri-a verse by verse, almost the way one would might expect from a midrashcollection. The Mishnah, whose whole reason for being is to disassociate Jewish law from the biblical text, can’t help but be forever linked to scripture in Negaim.
That said, the Rabbis nevertheless allow their own ideas about human beings to permeate their understanding of this ancient disease. Notably, and perhaps in great contrast to biblical Israel, the Rabbis of the Mishnah lived, much as we do, in a multicultural, multiracial world. And thus, in the discussion of how the priest determines how white the white spot must be to be considered leprous, we find the most sophisticated and telling discussion of race in the rabbinic corpus. Whereas the Torah states simply that if the affected patch of skin turns white, the Rabbis are well aware that skin tone is relative, and the whiteness of the white spot depending as much on the color of one’s surrounding skin as on the color of the affected spot itself: “A bright baheret looks dull on a German and a dull [baheret] looks bright on a Ethiopian. Rabbi Yishmael says: Jews, for whom I will atone, are like box-wood, their skin is neither black nor white, but between” (Mishnah Negaim 2:1).
This mishnah, at first glance, provides three racial categories with which we are familiar, and may likely subscribe to ourselves from time to time: White, Black, and Jewish. Jews are swarthy, as Rabbi Yishmael states; we, our own distinct race, fit into neither dominant category. However, this first reading can simply not be correct, for, as the first mishnah in the following chapter explains, these skin afflictions are unique to Jews: “Everyone is [potentially] made impure by negaim [blemishes, or leprosy] except for non-Jews and resident aliens” (Mishnah Negaim 3:1).
So we are forced to conclude that despite Rabbi Yishmael’s generalities, both the German and the Ethiopian are actually Jewish.
How many times have you heard someone exclaim that someone else doesn’t “look” Jewish? In general, in North America, where the vast majority of Jews are descendants of Eastern European immigrants and where Jewishness is so culturally connected to specifically Ashkenazi Jewish culture, it is all too easy to slide unthinkingly, perhaps as Rabbi Yishmael did, into equating Jewishness itself with the way the majority of Jews look. Yet, as the Mishnah reminds us, there are white Jews and black Jews, East and South Asian Jews. Like all Jews, some Jews of color are Jews by choice, and others are Jews by birth.
In our majority Ashkenazi world, where many assume that looking Jewish involves “box-wood” skin, ubiquitous curly hair, and brown eyes, we risk alienating those in our communities who, for whatever reason, don’t look Ashkenazi. Both the German and Ethiopian Jews, the Mishnah teaches us, are equally susceptible to the uniquely Jewish condition described by our parashah, no more and no less than the swarthy Middle Eastern type seen to be the norm.
A notion of Jewish peoplehood can be hard to square with contemporary ways of separating people into distinct categories. We are not a nationality, though there is a Jewish nation. We are not only a religion, although Judaism is surely that. Whatever we are, we are not a race. That we accept and honor those who choose to join us through conversion is proof enough of that. But one need only look around and note our increasingly multiracial communities to see that not much has changed from the time of the Mishnah. Jews come in all colors.
Our Torah reading concerns a Jewish skin disease. One thing we might learn from our reading of it is to focus, again, on all the different forms of Jewish skin.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.