Tazria and Tzaraʻat

Parshat Tazria Drash by Alexander Fellman

Good Shabbos, all. I’d like to start, as is my custom, with a little story: There is a council of Rabbis meeting, discussing a matter pertaining to the ritual impurity of an oven under very specific conditions of Kashrut; the details are not particularly important, as to the best of my recollection the circumstances would now be almost impossible to attain these days.

But anyway, all the Rabbis agree. All the Rabbis except one: Rabbi Eliezer the son of Hyrcanus, who says that not only is he correct, but he can prove it.

“If I am correct,” he says, loudly, “Then let this carob tree fly!”

And the carob tree flies.

“So? Nu?” Say the other Rabbis. “Is the law of God to be found in carob trees?”

“Very well! Then if I am correct, let the water flow backwards!”

And the water flows backwards.

And again, “Nu? So? We should be impressed by this?”

And finally, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus says, “I call upon the Almighty Himself, Hakadosh Baruch Hu, to bear witness to my interpretation!”

And the heavens part, and from the heavenly throne comes a great voice that says “Eliezar ben Hyrcanus is entirely correct in interpretation of Halakha!”

And what do you think the Rabbis do?

You’re probably wrong.

The Rabbis tell Hashem, in a not particularly respectful manner, that as he gave the Torah at Mount Sinai to humanity to look after, and with it the Oral Torah for us to interpret it by, then it is no longer any concern of Hashem’s, and so he can take himself back to Heaven and they’re going to go ahead and go with the majority opinion, thank you very much.

And Hashem, chastened, departs. Presumably after telling Rabbi Eliezer, “Sorry, kid. I tried.” Because, as Hashem himself goes on to tell the Heavenly hosts… the Rabbis are right.

This story comes to us from the Talmud; it is both a statement of how our Rabbis have the right to make judgments on the law, and a bold claim for the righteousness of humanity in its ability to determine our own laws from the starting conditions.

Now. Why do I bring this up?

Today’s parsha, Tazria, is an unusual one. It is another in a long run of legal structures and strictures, in this case regarding purity. And there are two key aspects of purity concerned within it: The purity of a woman following her pregnancy, and the purity of one who is experiencing the disease Tzaraʻat, which we often, I think wrongly, translate as leprosy.

The issue of a woman’s pregnancy is brief and may be, I think, quickly disposed of: Let a pregnant woman bathe, have time to herself, and, oh yes, remember boys have to be circumcised.

It’s the question of Tzaraʻat that is interesting to me, and I’ll tell you why: Whether Tzaraʻat is leprosy or not, there is a treatment plan that I think we should go through.

First, the patient is examined by a competent authority. In Ancient Israel, and for much of the world for the longest time, that competent authority would be the nearest literate human being, probably a priest.

The patient is held under examination to see if certain set conditions arise. If not, then nothing happens.

And if the priest says “Oy vey, that’s Tzaraʻat!” then the person is sent outside of the camp or city to dwell in isolation until such time as he is healed, or dead, whichever happens first.

And that’s it.

Competent authority says you’re sick, and off you go until you’re better. Or not. Can’t have whatever’s wrong with you infecting everybody. Sorry.

Now, I am not going to get involved in politics, either now or three thousand years ago. I just wish to point out that that is not far from how we treat almost all potentially infectious diseases these days. The difference is that we now have specialists to determine whether or not someone is ill, and we now let people suffer their communicable diseases in their homes, because our homes are now far cleaner places with far easier access to water and so forth than our ancestors had.

Let’s circle back to the question of ritual purity. We often think of it in terms of ‘ritual’ and so forth, arbitrary rules and the like, that affect people who are just trying to live their lives. I think it’s important to focus on the ‘purity’.

Purity, in our religion, means cleanness. Spiritually and physically. And for the longest time, that was very hard to come by. It was something you had to work for. And Hakodesh Baruch hu, taking us as he found us, provided us with rules that he thought our ancestors could live by, that he thought we could keep. Not just in the grand things, but in the little things, too.

And because we are Jews, not Karaites, we believe in a living tradition; we believe that our rabbis have the power, as executors of the will of the last Sanhedrin, to look at our laws and say ‘No, now we know better.’

And so they do. And we hope they’re right.

Too often we think of Jewish law as stifling. As binding. I think it is important to see it as a liberating, beautiful thing, one where we are engaged not in following diktats from on high but in a conversation dating back centuries into the past and that will, I know, continue on for centuries into the future.

Or, because we’re Jews, an argument we’re having with our grandparents, and that our grandchildren will have with us.

Good Shabbos.

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