Many contemporary Jews read Tazria and wonder what possible meaning it could have for them in these days when we know so much more about childbirth, illness, Hansen's disease (leprosy) etc. This may be so because they make the all too common error, common not only in this case, but in the case of the dietary laws and other mitzvot, that there was some primitive medicinal practice at work, based on the limited knowledge of the time.
But was it disease of the body, or disease of the spirit that was at the heart of these practices? It simply cannot be over-emphasized how our ancestors were, in that time, concerned foremost with purity, with separation of the clean and unclean, the sacred and profane.
Clearly, tzara'at was a bodily skin condition which the priests were expected to be able to identify. But it was a specific condition, and doubtless there were other forms of disease which manifested themselves on the skin which were not tzara'at and would not render one impure. So these rituals and skills were not about segregating persons with bodily diseases from the community. It was about segregating those who had specific conditions would could renders other unclean or impure.
As time progressed, the rabbis tried to explain these passages as metaphor for spiritual sickness (they would point, for example, to Korach and his fellow rebels, whose poisoned spirits infected many of the people.) In this day and age, that remains an appealing interpretation. Our world is full of spiritual poisons, venomous hatred. It's too bad that bigots, spiritual poisoners, and other hate-mongers don't manifest their diseased spirit bodily. Perhaps then we could easily identify them and segregate them for the sake of our world. (Of course, in our contemporary American society, where our ethics place personal liberty above all else, we might have a hard time trying to do this. And perhaps there are good reasons we should. All it would take is one influential kook to declare AIDS as the equivalent of tzara'at and we could have another wholesale slaughtering of human beings as the Nazis did in WWII.)
The methods described in Tazria for identifying and isolating those who might defile the population are problematic. Why did this specific skin condition render one impure while another might not? Why would a woman who has just contributed her whole body to the greatest miracle of all-only one step below Gd's ability to create life-be considered unclean and asked to make a sacrifice for expiation? Why did Gd give us these particular mitzvot and rituals (if that is what you believe) or Why did our ancestors develop these particular attitudes towards what was clean and unclean and rituals to deal with that (if that is what you believe) ?
The obvious difficulties aside, it seems to me that our ancestors challenge us to find a way to do as they sought to do-to identify and isolate that which makes the community impure.
Since people don't seem to manifest their spiritual impurity in Tzara'at anymore, how are we to go about this task? And how do we define what is clean and unclean? Do we fully accept the definitions of Torah? And how do we extend those definitions to include things and circumstances unknown at that time (or can we safely assume Gd knew in advance and still wishes these definitions to be used.) It's all very confusing, difficult, and challenging. For me, that's a good enough reason to read and study Torah.
And the ultimate question-will remove those whom we identify with spiritual rot truly protect the community? Will it prevent the continued spiritual rotting of our species?
May Tazria present you with many challenges, difficulties and questions. May it stir us all from complacency and certainty, to think about what is clean and unclean.
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