Outside the Camp
The double parashah of Tazria-Metzora ranks at the top of the list of parshiyot to avoid for a bar or bat mitzvah. Its detailed lists of bodily ailments—rashes, colorations, emissions, and secretions—associated with ritual impurity are not the stuff of religious inspiration in contemporary times. I confess to having once colluded with congregants to subtly move the date of their daughter’s bat mitzvah celebration slightly further away from her Hebrew birthday, in order to provide her with a more palatable Torah reading to chant and speak about than Tazria-Metzora. But this year—the year of #BlackLivesMatter—has caused me to read Tazria-Metzora through a new and painfully relevant lens. The parashah tells us over and over again of skin conditions and other physical states and symptoms that, while not represented by the majority, are, in fact, entirely normal within the varied spectrum of human experience—but that are nonetheless treated as problematic abnormalities, raising questions about who has a full place in the community and who must be marginalized, put outside of the camp, barred from the rites and rights of full citizenship. How sadly contemporary indeed, then, do our parashah’s central themes turn out to be.
The most famous among the afflicted souls described in our parashah is the metzora—one suffering from a skin condition of some kind (tzara’at), perhaps akin to psoriasis, according to Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom. Midrashic explanations trying to penetrate the deeper meaning of tzara’atabound—for surely one suffering from such an affliction must have done something to deserve it, according to ancient theology. And surely he must also deserve the resulting social ostracism prescribed by the Torah: “As for the metzora, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, ‘Impure! Impure!’ He shall be impure as long as the disease is on him. Being impure, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev. 13:45–46). Outside the camp—the place where unwanted sacrificial leftovers are discarded (Ex. 29 and Lev. 4)—a place of isolation and alienation from the majority. That isolation might be only temporary if a person’s condition changed, but if his skin remained the same, his marginalization would become permanent.
The opening of this week’s Haftarah depicts in narrative form the deep despair brought about by the metzora’s state of abandonment: “There were four men, metzora’im, outside the gate. They said to one another, ‘Why should we sit here waiting for death? If we decide to go into the town, what with the famine in the town, we shall die there; and if we sit here, still we die. Come, let us surrender to the Aramean camp. If they let us live, we shall live; and if they put us to death, we shall die’” (II Kings 7:3–4). Things end up turning out unexpectedly well for these particularmetzora’im; but these opening verses convey the extreme degree to which they feel trapped in a hopeless situation, to the point of incessant rumination about their own deaths. Excluded from the benefits enjoyed and taken for granted by the rest of human society, purely because of the nature of their skin, they seem to conclude that untimely death will be their inevitable fate. They will be, as it were, marginalized to death.
Fundamentally, the metzora is made a social pariah because he is perceived as a threat to others (since his impurity will render them impure). That is the straightforward explanation of the requirement that he alter his appearance and declare his impure status to anyone who might inadvertently pass by: there must be no mistaking the fact that he is a source of danger to them. But the danger that he poses to others in turn puts him in danger, expressed so despondently by the four metzora’im at the gate. In an almost eerie parallel, New York Times writer and editor Brent Staples reflects vividly on the specter of death ever present in the lives of African American men as a result of their being seen categorically as threats: “I soon gathered that being perceived as dangerous is a hazard in itself. I only needed to turn a corner into a dicey situation, or crowd some frightened, armed person in a foyer somewhere, or make an errant move after being pulled over by a policeman. Where fear and weapons meet—and they often do in urban America—there is always the possibility of death” (“Just Walk on By,” Ms. Magazine, 1986). The one who is different, the one who is feared, himself ends up being the one in danger, even of potential death.
Staples goes on to describe the psychological effects of being feared and therefore separated. While acknowledging the vulnerability of women to street violence, and the overrepresentation of black men among the perpetrators of that violence, he writes nonetheless, “Yet these truths are no solace against the kind of alienation that comes of being ever the suspect, against being set apart, a fearsome entity with whom pedestrians avoid making eye contact.” He describes his learned behavior in response to the numerous arrests and deaths of other young black men he knew: “I chose, perhaps even unconsciously, to remain a shadow—timid, but a survivor.” An alienated shadow living in fear of death—like the metzora, suffering isolation and potential death because of his wrong-colored skin.
The Talmud (BT Nedarim 64b) likens the metzora to one who is dead, based on Moses’s plea to God when Miriam is stricken with tzara’at, “Let her not be as one dead” (Num. 12:12). But numerous rabbinic, medieval, and modern sources and commentators (e.g., BT Moed Katan 15a–b) have noted the similarities between the behavior prescribed here by the Torah—torn clothing, a bare head, a covered upper lip, and social sequestration—and rituals of mourning referred to elsewhere in the Bible (e.g., Lev. 10:6, Ezek. 24:17). It is almost as if the metzora mourns in anticipation of his own death—whether that death be social, physical, or both—an untimely death that feels frighteningly probable to the one who lives in fear of being feared because of his skin.
In a beautiful essay on tzara’at and social stigma around difference, Rachel Adler elaborates on one of the mourning practices required of the metzora:
He shall cover his upper lip.Fearing contagion from the metzora’s breath, the biblical text commands that he veil his upper lip and proclaim his impurity to warn others away, but under his veil, his eyes can still call out wordlessly for compassion, for connection. The contemporary philosopher Emmanuel Levinas teaches that the face of the Other upturned to our own face is the primary locus of ethics. Faces are infinitely varied, the most individualized of our body parts. The face is bare, vulnerable. It expresses pain, need, and loneliness. The face is also the primary locus of Otherness. The Other’s face is different from mine. . . . Levinas would argue that our ethical obligation is to do what is counter-intuitive, what is the very opposite of pollution thinking: to stay rather than to flee, to comfort rather than reject. (“Those Who Turn Away Their Faces,” in Healing and the Jewish Imagination, 153)
Although Adler is writing in the context of critiquing how we frequently relate to those suffering from radical illness, her words ring true in the context of race as well. How often are the faces of black Americans “covered up” by stereotypes and crime statistics, and not truly seen. How often do we flee (or attack) in fear of difference, instead of staying to hear the pained and fearful cry of the other and being moved to draw the one who is marginalized nearer to us. How often do we turn away from the gaze of eyes that ask merely for the comfort of equal treatment in the eyes of society and the law.
In the course of its long list of bodily concerns, our parashah notes an obscure type of potentialtzara’at: the case of one who has been burned by fire, resulting in a discolored patch of skin. In such a case, the priest must examine the skin to determine whether or not it displays symptoms oftzara’at. If no tell-tale signs appear, the person is to be isolated for seven days and then examined again: if by then the condition has spread, it is tzara’at; if not, “it is the swelling from the burn. The priest shall pronounce him pure, for it is the scar of the burn” (Lev. 13:24–28). Those who have been categorized into boxes of fear by virtue of their dark skin indeed suffer from the scar of the burn—the burn of wrongly attributed ill intent, and the scar of the sometimes lethal consequences. They must be declared pure; they must be brought back into the camp; they must benefit from the safety and protections enjoyed by the majority. They must be entitled to dwell fully in the land of the living, not of the near-dead—where all lives, created in the image of God, matter.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).