On the Sanctification of Time

Metzora By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Apr 8, 1995 / 5755 | Torah Commentary

For as long as I knew her, my mother suffered from psoriasis. Her elbows were scaly and her shoulders covered with a patina of dandruff. A close look at her hair would show the lesions on her head from which it came. Psoriasis is not life-threatening, merely discomforting and unsightly. It is related to nerves as much as anything and can flare up with stress.

And my mother vibrated with energy and emotion. She was outgoing, gracious and of good cheer, a person of great resourcefulness. After Kristallnacht and in possession of a visa to England, she confronted the Gestapo to secure the release of my father from Buchenwald. In Pottstown, she mastered English, sparkled as the Hebrew School’s beloved first grade teacher and entertained company in our home with all the elegance of a European salon hostess. The success of my father’s rabbinate owed much to the devotion and charm of his “rebbetzin,” who never allowed her psoriasis to hamper her service to God.

It is not just the yahrzeit of my mother that brings her memory to mind, but also this week’s parasha and its unabated discussion of skin diseases. Scholars seem to agree that the Torah is not talking about leprosy. If the Hebrew term tsaraat can be identified with any specific malady (a rather unlikely prospect), it may be the chronic condition we call psoriasis.

But that fine point is not what grabs my attention this time round. I am struck rather by the fate of the person who came down with psoriasis. What would have happened to my mother in the Israelite camp in the wilderness? Our material, which is entirely of priestly origin, focuses exclusively on diagnosis. The function of the priest is to distinguish between the chronic and temporary state of a skin ailment. That may require a period of quarantine, one or two weeks (everything in multiples of seven), after which a final determination is made. Should the person be lucky enough to be declared clean, he or she would be subject to no more than a rite of purification, which would eliminate all traces of impurity.

Our parasha, however, offers no hope for the person afflicted with something more grave than a passing skin eruption. While an army chaplain in Korea years ago, I visited a lepers’ colony run by the Presbyterian church and can still recall the piteous states of decomposition that marked its residents. The biblical priest is not a medical man. That is the domain of the prophet, who alone intercedes with God to effect the cure of someone struck down by illness. Just two examples of many: When Abimelech king of Gerar and his household take sick because he is cohabiting with Sarah, God orders him to return her to Abraham, and “since he is a prophet, he will intercede for you to save your life (Genesis 20:7),” which Abraham does effectively later on.

Similarly, it is Moses who pleads with God to cure Miriam’s malady after she and Aaron had reproached their brother on several counts. While Aaron escapes divine wrath, Miriam is “stricken with scales.” Aaron begs Moses for help with words that betray all the dread evoked in antiquity by a leprosy-like disease: “Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away (Numbers 12:12).” Moses lifts his voice in prayer: “O God, pray, heal her (12:13),” and after a quarantine of seven days Miriam is restored to health.

In short, my mother would have been banished from the camp permanently. Without benefit of a prophet’s prayer, she would have been regarded as a source of constant danger to the purity of the Tabernacle and the safety of the community. The Torah leaves no doubt about her fate. It bluntly describes what was to be done to the victim of an incurable disease. “As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, `Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp (Leviticus 13:45-46).” With its overriding concern for the purity of the Tabernacle, Leviticus made no provision for those thrown into an irredeemable state of impurity. It extended neither sympathy nor support to those most in need of both. Clearly the public good took precedence over the well-being of the individual.

To be sure, the ethos of the Torah marks an advance in theology over its neighbors. It has stripped impurity of its demonic character. The antithesis of holiness, impurity is no longer the malevolent weapon of a competing deity bent on conquering the pantheon. The Torah has reworked the concept of impurity common to the ancient Near East to suit its own monotheistic framework. The result is that impurity now springs from death, the converse of life, which is the Torah’s supreme value. That which is perceived to reflect the kingdom of death-a corpse or carcass, a bodily fluid related to procreation or an ailment of the skin-has the capacity to contaminate the Tabernacle through human contact (but not through the air). And a polluted Tabernacle will soon be abandoned by God as a residence.

A concept of sacred space is thus inextricably linked to a system of ritual purity, though stripped of all dualistic and mechanistic overtones. Not everyone who wishes may enter the sanctuary. Concurrently, the association of impurity with death serves to accentuate the holiness of life.

The destruction of the Temple put an end to Judaism’s sacred space and left its impurity system in tatters. With no sacrificial cult to effect purification, all Jews fell equally and permanently into a state of ritual uncleanness. The synagogue did not inherit the Temple’s degree of sanctity and no one was excluded by virtue of being impure, including my mother with her psoriasis. Unlike the Temple, the Torah scroll, which constituted the heart of the synagogue, could not be contaminated. Whereas the Temple was still deemed to be God’s dwelling place, the synagogue became home to all Jews.

The Rabbis, in fact, regarded the presence of a mixed multitude of saints and sinners to be a congregational ideal. At critical junctures in the life of the community, they required the attendance of the least observant. Any fast-day service from which they were missing was declared to be incomplete and ineffective. This is the reason that on Yom Kippur, the holiest fast-day of the year, we precede the chanting of Kol Nidrei with an express appeal to the transgressors of the community to join us (le-hitpalel im ha-abaryanim). The synagogue was designed to resemble the untidiness of an imperfect world. By choosing to sanctify time rather than space, the synagogue was able to transcend the preoccupation with physical purity and open its doors to those who needed God most of all.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch