“Ritual Impurity and Tzaraat: A Contemporary Understanding”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s double parashiot, Tazria and Metzorah, are among the most complex Torah portions for contemporary thinkers to understand and appreciate.

The parashiot speak of ritual impurity at childbirth, the various manifestations of the Tzaraat disease that afflicts a person’s home, clothing and body, and the rituals of purification for those who are afflicted.

Rabbinic tradition maintains that Tzaraat is a spiritual dermatological malady, contracted through evil speech and intended to first warn a person against negative speech and then punish the violators who continue to speak evil, by isolating them from the community.

The Biblical texts of parashiot Tazria and Metzorah seem quite foreign to modern thinkers. The interpretations of the classical commentaries, at times, appear to be even more remote, seeming to reflect ancient superstitions and primitive beliefs.

However, those who make the effort to study these portions in depth will discover that these commentaries are as relevant today as they were in ancient times. I have attempted to reflect that point of view in my weekly writings on this subject. (Click here for Tazria 5763-2003)

It is possible, nevertheless, to interpret the challenging concepts reflected in these parashiot in a more contemporary light and in a manner that may render them more palatable to modern thinkers.

The Torah’s concept of “tumah,” is largely understood as ritual impurity. It is also frequently translated as uncleanliness, though it is not intended to mean “clean,” in the physical sense. Tumah is contracted in one of three ways: through contact with a dead body, contact with those afflicted with the disease Tzaraat (sometimes incorrectly translated as leprosy), or by coming in contact with bodily emissions that are related to the generation of life, such as menstrual blood, semen and the flow from reproductive organs. Those who are in a state of tumah may not approach the holy areas of the sanctuary, the Temple or the Tabernacle.

Tumah also has its positive side. The fact that the Torah emphasizes the purification rituals for those who are in a state of tumah underscores the positive need for regeneration and reintegration. The fact that tumah may be contracted by performing positive actions, such as childbirth and caring for the dead, indicates that there is a favorable side to tumah.

A number of contemporary commentators suggest that one of the reasons that those who are in a state of tumah are forbidden to enter the Temple environment is because childbirth and caring for the dead are themselves great spiritual experiences that need not be reinforced by visiting the Temple. It is only after they have been cleansed from ritual impurity that those who were defiled need to visit the Temple, to keep their spiritual consciousness alive.

Indeed, some contemporary commentaries see the notion of tumah, as “growing out of the sense of reverence for the miraculous nature of birth, the awesome power of death, and the mysteries of illness and recuperation.”

Many commentators point out that Jewish tradition has long recognized a significant connection between spiritual and physical health, a connection that is often missing from the practice of modern medicine. The fact that it is the Kohen who examines and diagnoses the person who is impure lifts the stricken person’s spirits and accelerates his healing, due to the knowledge that he is being cared for by someone of prestigious stature in the Jewish community.

The Kohen did more than simply diagnose the ailment. The Kohen helped reintegrate the sick person into the community, as quickly as possible.

Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that these diseases were not considered contagious. Otherwise, a newlywed with Tzaraat or a person entirely covered with Tzaraat would have been sent out of the community, rather than allowed to remain with their families in the crowded camp.

It is also important to note that the Kohen does not cause the healing. In fact, he only performs the ritual purification after the sick person has healed, so as not to leave the impression that he is performing voodoo or magic.

Despite the fact that the entire ritual was meant to cure and purify the affected person, our rabbis could not help but speculate on the failings, either spiritual or moral, that may have contributed to the person’s affliction. This contention, of course, is a hard concept for contemporaries to swallow, but it should not be.

We know, of course, that in the world of science and medicine, there is a price to pay for physically neglecting and/or abusing our bodies. Lack of proper sanitation, nutrition, and exercise all come at a cost to our physical health. And yet, we often neglect to see the same connection when it comes to the spiritual side of illness. Failure to eat properly, sleep sufficiently, or exercise enough are “sinful” actions. When we pollute the environment with fluorocarbons and deplete the ozone layer, this sinful action leads to an increased exposure to dangerous rays of the sun, often resulting in melanoma, skin cancer. Just as there is a price to pay for physical sins, so is there a price to pay for spiritual transgressions, often with physical ramifications.

Conventional thinking among medical practitioners today considers the act of telling people that they are responsible for their own illness or malady as needlessly cruel and perhaps medically inadvisable. However, from the global perspective and from the viewpoint of the communal responsibility that every person has to the next, there is no question that we are all responsible for our own illnesses and sufferings.

It is quite clear that, if humanity were as determined to heal illnesses as we were when we first put men on the moon, or as eager as we are today to watch our favorite baseball and football games, play our video games or listen to our beloved music, much of contemporary illness and suffering would have surely vanished by now. The fact that, through the miracles of modern medicine, we have extended the average length of human life by almost forty years in the last one hundred years is proof-positive of our ability to heal, to mend and to save.

It must be clearly understood that tumah, ritual impurity, is not meant as a punishment, but rather as a Divine signal that steps must be taken to find the source of infection, so that it can be ultimately cured and eliminated. That is the great hope of Judaism and the rationale behind our constant prayer for the arrival of the Messiah: To perfect the world under the rule of the Al-mighty!

May you be blessed.

Yom Ha’Zikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, is observed this year Sunday night, April 14th, and all day Monday, April 15th.

Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day,will be observed on Monday night, April 15th, and all day Tuesday, April 16th.