Friday, April 08, 2011

Tazria--Hahodesh (Individual & Community)

“Outside of the Camp Shall be his Dwelling Place”

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, is the first of two sections dealing with various kinds of ritual impurity or contamination—in itself a rather abstruse subject rather distant from our own contemporary lives. The focus of this particular chapter seems even more arcane: namely, tzara’at, a form of skin infection or disease, commonly translated as leprosy, which afflicts people now and then. Leviticus 13, the central chapter of this week’s parashah, goes into great detail about the various kinds of symptoms a person may find on his skin, which he is then required to bring to the priest, who examines him, and either sends him home or sequesters him for seven days, at the end of which he is again examined to determine whether or not the symptom has spread or not. At that point he decides whether or not he is to be declared as either pure or impure, and at the end he is required to undergo certain purification rituals.

What seems most interesting to me from the viewpoint of our subject this year is that, at the very end of the chapter, there are two verses stating that the person subject to tzara’at is to be totally isolated from society: “The person who is tzaru’a, in whom there is the affliction, his garments shall be rent and his head shall be disheveled, and he shall cover up his mustache, and he shall cry out ‘Impure! Impure!’ All the days that the affliction is within him he shall be impure, he shall dwell alone; outside the camp shall be his residence” (Lev 13:45–46). (Interestingly, the instructions applied to the tzaru’a are almost an exact inversion of those things which the priest is proscribed from doing even when in mourning, as we discussed last week regarding the deaths of Nadav and Avihu: Lev 10:6-7).

What is the point of this isolation? The simplest, common-sense explanation is that it was a pragmatic measure, a form of prophylactic action to prevent contagion. Evidently this disease, whatever it was, was highly contagious, so that if the afflicted person were to remain within the camp he would be likely to spread it to others. But what is strange is that the isolation of the tzaru’a was stricter than that of any other impure person and of any other kind of disease. (Note Num 5:1-4: כל צרוע וכל זב וכל טמא לנפש — “You shall send outside of the camp every leprous person, and everyone with a flow, and everyone impure by contact with the dead,” which is read by the Sages as arranged in descending order of distancing from the camp) In particular, it is more severe than the isolation of the zav, the person with a “flow” from his or her sexual organs as described in next week’s portion, which presumably refers to gonorrhea or some such sexually–transmitted disease. Hence, the Rabbis interpreted leprosy as a kind of divine punishment for moral transgression—specifically, evil speech, tale-bearing, gossip, etc. This is the main thrust of almost old Rabbinic aggadah dealing with this subject. It is suggested by the fact that Miriam, when she spoke ill of her brother Moses concerning the Kushite woman he had taken in marriage—or perhaps when he separated from her—was punished directly by God with leprosy; the Bible then describes how Moses prayed, briefly but eloquently, on her behalf (Num 12:1-16; but why was Miriam alone punished, and not Aaron?). That there is a definite connection between the two is further borne out by the proximity of the verse warning one to be careful about the laws of tzara’at and the commandment to remember what God did to Miriam, which are adjacent to one another in Deuteronomy (24:8-9), in one of the first examples of what some scholars call intra-biblical interpretation.

Social isolation is one of the harshest punishments which can be meted out to a person. Man is by nature a social being, with a multitude of family and communal connections. In addition to the isolation prescribed for the metzora, Judaism developed a number of sanctions of social isolation, nidduy and herem, the ban or excommunication, by which a person who had transgressed certain cardinal norms of the community was isolated from others, whether on a temporary or more permanent basis. In some cases, this was used as a form of pressure to cause the person to change his ways—or perhaps as a way of dramatizing the severity of malicious gossip, which to many seems an almost innocent pastime. For example, it has been suggested today in certain religious communities that a husband who refuses to give his wife a divorce writ or get, once the Rabbinic court has ruled that he should do so and must do so, should be subjected to such isolation is a form of pressure. (The idea of social isolation or exclusion also exists in some Christian groups today, such as the Mormons and the Amish, at times even breaking up families, separating husbands from wives and parents from children, etc. Is such a sanction inhumanly cruel? And may it at times also be used as a tool for enforcing a narrow type of social conformity, or even to keep its members ignorant of the life of main-stream society? All these are questions raised by the issue of social isolation —and perhaps, some would say, shows the negative side of excessively strong community generally) “Life is with people,” to quote the title of the book about Eastern European Jewish life which was popular some decades ago, and a person who is not allowed to have ordinary free interaction with his fellows is almost “as if dead.” Even if it does not involve imprisonment or monetary penalties, not to mention corporal punishment, such isolation is perhaps one of the strongest forms of punishment known to society. Interestingly, Jewish law regarding mourning for one’s parents or other close relatives is in some ways analogous to the isolation imposed upon the metzora or upon the one subject to the ban—although in the case of mourning it of course has a completely different meaning. As if to say: the death of a loved one, the disruption of the most basic and intimate social cell, that of the nuclear family, is such a great upheaval that the lives of all those who are part of this family are ipso facto somehow outside of the mainstream of the larger community; during the period of shivah they are preoccupied with their own family and with their own loss. They need to reorient themselves to the new situation, in which a key person is gone forever. Thus, only after the seven days of mourning do they gradually return to the community circle, and even then there are a number of symbolic expressions of them being apart. A man does not sit in his regular seat in synagogue during the twelve months of mourning for his parent (or, at very least, during the sheloshim, the first thirty days following the death). One goes to work, because one needs to make a living, but one does not go to celebrations and joyous events, because one remains somewhat apart from society.


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