Tazria-Metzorah – 5773
Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist
A few years ago there was a Broadway Musical called Avenue Q – basically Sesame Street for adults. One of the best numbers in the show was “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.”
Every time this week’s parsha rolls around I can’t seem to help humming this catchy little tune. After all, this parasha (in a non-leap year) is a grim double whammy about the halacha of ritual impurity. Impure, impure! Your house is unacceptable! Your clothes are unacceptable! Your skin is unacceptable! Your thoughts are unacceptable! Sounds like a lot of finger-pointing to me.
We have been explaining, apologizing, and stretching explanations of how we can condone condemnation of various segments of society without ever thinking about the underlying tone of the halachah spoken of in these parashot.
Throughout the Talmudic period Sages and Amoraim alike equated the affliction of leprosy with loshon hara. Shimon Bar Yochai states that “plagues come upon those who slander.” Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar (a fifth generation Tanna) agrees: “Plagues also come upon those who speak slander” (ibid.). HaRav Yossi ben Zimra at the end of the Tannaic period states the same thing: “Everyone who relates slander is afflicted by plagues” (Arachin 15b).
However, there is no direct Biblical source which equates leprosy with speaking ill of someone. Some Tannaim equate Moshe’s explanation that the Children of Israel will not take him as a leader, with his subsequent affliction of leprosy on his hand, for slandering the Jews. (Bamidbar Rabbah, Naso, 7:5). Most of our Sages see Miriam’s criticism of Moshe’s wife as a direct cause of her leprosy: Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses “because of the Kushite (black) woman he had taken”.
And the anger of the Lord was inflamed against them, and He departed, and the cloud was removed from above the tent and behold, Miriam was stricken with leprosy, white as snow, and Aaron looked upon Miriam and behold she was diseased with leprosy (Numbers 12:9-10).
Numerous Talmudic Sages commented: “For we have found that in the case of Aaron and Miriam who spoke slanderously of Moses that punishment overtook them” (Sifra, Metzora 5,7; Vayikra Rabbah, Metzora 17,3; Tanchuma, Metzora 4;Avot D’rabbi Natan, Version A, Chap. 9). Most Ammoraic sources concur: Rabbi Yochanan in the second and third generations (ibid), Rabbi Pedat in the third generation (Tanchuma, Metzora 1), Rabbi Yehudah Halevy ben Rabbi Shalom in the fifth generation (Bamidbar Rabbah, Naso, Parashah 6:5), and many others in Midrashic sources.
With the bias of the ancient world ringing loud in their ears, they completely miss the point. There is no direct cause-and-effect between G-d and illness. It’s not implied in the Bible – but it was rife in ancient religions surrounding them. From Egypt to Assur to Bavel to Rome; all the local ancient religions had bogeyman-gods ready to rain down punishment upon those who deserve it according to the judgment – not of the gods – but of their fellow man.
But we are different. Just how different is clear if you take away all the later commentaries and examine just the text. Starting in Parashat Shemini and continuing all the way through parashat Metzorah, we see a procedure. The impurities discussed are all entirely ritual – they relate only to temple service, contact with non-kosher food, biological functions, and contagious ilness. Whatever the cause for being in a state of ritual impurity, the result is thought of temporary.
What the text says is that if you go about your normal daily affairs you will come in contact with things that are ritually contaminated. Everyone does. This is not to say that that person is dirty, or unclean. Simply unfit for admittance to the mishkan, or later the Beit haMikdash.
Whether it’s coming in contact with contaminated food, a carcass of a dead animal, or even a human corpse, or through a normal biological function such as giving birth, anyone who lives in the world will have the status of being ritually impure from time to time. The issue isn’t that it happens , or even why it happens– but rather that whatever the source, it needs to be dealt with within the framework of community. And most specifically, ritual impurity is not a permanent state.
The entire passage regarding how a priest needs to identify whether someone, or something has a state of leprosy is actually a warning – unless you have ritual training, don’t take it upon yourself to exclude segments of the population. Leave it to the experts – i.e. the priesthood. Don’t take the law into your own hands. Don’t declare someone unfit. Don’t call a bald man a leper. And if someone is deemed to be a potentially contagious, then the experts will isolate them until they are well, with periodic evaluations of their status. Standard medical practice today. But then, as now, someone has to be in charge of making the decision of who will be isolated, where, and for how long. From the parasha, it is a clearly considered a temporary recaution until the sufferer is deemed recovered .
Occasional impurity is simply a part of life. And the fact that something as simple as a minor separation from some activities, and a dunk in a stream, ocean, or mikva can cleanse anyone is indication that if we are intended to live together, we have to accept the concept that occasionally some things, and even some people will be temporarily off-limits to us.
Sounds to me like a reason to stop pointing fingers, to be a bit circumspect, a bit tznu’ah (modest), if you like. There’s no reason to be a finger-pointing racist. Even if we all are a little bit racist. We are being informed in this parasha not to over-react. Just deal with the issue is an appropriately modest fashion, and get on with your life.
A recently discovered 2000 year old mikveh in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Menachem neighborhood, and a schematic diagram for a modern mikveh.