Metzora: Disease or Dis-ease?

Metzora By :  Leonard A. Sharzer Associate Director for Bioethics Emeritus, The Finkelstein Institute of Religious and Social Studies Posted On Apr 9, 2011 / 5771 | Torah Commentary

When I tell people that Parashat Metzora and Parashat Tazri·a, which we read last week, are among my favorite parashiyot, they often respond, “Well of course, you were a physician and they are filled with medical information.” But if Tazri·a and Metzora are to be read as medical texts, there would be very little point in reading them at all. For one thing, the dominant subject of the texts is something called tzara’at and we really have no idea what that is. Though often translated as leprosy, modern scholarship is quite consistent that whatever the condition is, it is not what modern medicine knows as leprosy. More importantly, besides not knowing what the described condition really is or precisely what some of the specific terms mean, I would like to suggest that these chapters were never intended to be read as medical texts. There is no discussion of etiology; that all comes in commentaries which see tzara’at as a punishment for sin, typically the sin of slander or gossip (lashon ha-ra). Nor is there any mention of prevention or of treatment, which we would expect even in ancient times if this were in any way intended as a medical treatise. Rather, what we have is a manual that instructs the priests if, when, and how to perform purification rituals on the affected individuals after recovery.

The Kli Yakar, the 17th-century biblical commentator, interpreted these texts allegorically. He wrote that they are speaking about spiritual maladies and what kinds of transgressions would have led to the state of tum’ah (impurity) described in the Torah. But I believe even this metaphoric approach, with its attention to the details of physical conditions and the associated purification rituals, is missing the forest for the trees.

I believe there is something else going on here altogether. The narrative arc of Parashat Metzora moves from a discussion of the reentry ritual of persons following recovery from the skin afflictions of tzara’at, to tzara’at which affects the walls and contents of individuals’ houses, to a discussion of genital discharges (zav/zavah) in men and women. It is a movement from more public manifestations to more private manifestations of these conditions. Lesions of the skin are apparent to anyone with whom the one afflicted comes into even the most superficial social contact. One’s house is more private, shared with family and close friends. Tzara’at in the house or of the house can be hidden from the general public but not from those one holds more closely. Finally, genital discharges, the most private, are hidden from all but those with whom we are most intimate, and sometimes known only to the one affected. And yet all require some level of separation and some ritual for reentry into an intimate relationship, a domiciliary relationship, a social/public relationship.

In addition to the arc from public to private, there is a movement from the superficial to the essential. The lesions of tzara’at, despite their visibility, are after all only skin deep. The rabbis have interpreted them as a clue to the underlying character of the one afflicted, but that notion is not in the text and not necessary to impute to it. One’s home is more personal, more a reflection of our individuality. And finally, there is the zav/zavah, a level which gets at our very essence.

The common response to all these situations is separation—from the general public, from one’s home and family, from one’s intimate partner. This parashah is about who is in and who is out, who is clean and who is unclean, whom we may have contact with and whom we may not; it is, in short, about stigma. It is about the way others stigmatize us and the way we may stigmatize ourselves. We are never given a reason for the isolation of any of the individuals mentioned. Those who read these texts medically suggest that it was fear of contagion, but that is never stated, and contagion was really not recognized in biblical times. Moreover, a person afflicted with tzara’at is permitted to cohabit with his wife during his period of separation from the community, which would be counterintuitive if contagion were the concern.

The separation of the one with a skin eruption might just as well have been intended as protection from the public. Even in our own day, there is something about skin lesions that provokes strong reactions. You may recall the scene in the film Philadelphia when Tom Hanks, playing a lawyer with AIDS who is suing his former law firm, takes the witness stand and is asked to remove his shirt, revealing the lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma, and everyone in the courtroom recoils in horror.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas has suggested that notions of purity/pollution, cleanness/uncleanness, function in two ways in society: as a mechanism to enforce socially desired values and behaviors, and as a way for societies to image the body politic and its boundaries as a reflection of the human body. Parashat Metzora is about boundaries—boundaries of personhood and of bodily integrity—and the breaching of those boundaries with its attendant disruption and dislocation in the body politic.

The metzora, once he is judged tahor, shaves his entire body, including the hair of his head and his eyebrows, prior to immersing in a mikveh. He emerges from the “living waters” like a newborn without facial markings, as though the metzora has died and a new individual been born, who is then marked with blood on his right ear, his right thumb, and his right big toe. This is similar to the initiation rite of the priests, and like that ritual may be intended to recognize that the metzora has endured something that in some way will always set him apart as well.

Think of how we often react to a homeless person, or the problem of homelessness in general. Think of how we, like the commentators on this parashah, attribute to the homeless some character flaw, and how, rather than addressing the underlying problem, we just want the homeless hidden from view.

Even the fairly brief and mild isolation of the zav and the zavah, while less onerous, more private, and of shorter duration, still carries with it the stigma of tum’ah.

In the end, however, Parashat Metzora is less about separation, and more about reentry and reintegration. Where the separation is public, it requires an intermediary, the priest, to facilitate the reintegration. When it is more intimate and private, so is the reunion. If there is a lesson for us in this parashah, it is to remind us of the need for constant vigilance and for developing an awareness of our discomfort with difference, and of the way we marginalize others and often even stigmatize ourselves. It is not about the disease of the Metzora as much as it is about the dis-ease of the rest of us. Above all, we are reminded of the need to correct the injustice of the stigmatization we are all too quick to inflict.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.