By Cantor Sheri Allen
This Shabbat, we tackle the subject of ritual impurity. No “skin-deep” assessment today — we are going below the surface to explore the exciting world of leprosy.
Chapter 13 of Parashat Tazria begins, “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: If hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him impure.”
As if the diagnosis wasn’t bad enough, the metzora, or the one afflicted with tzaraat, was commanded to tear his clothes, bare his head, cover his upper lip and publicly warn people of his fate.
When the condition disappeared, a ritual involving birds, blood-sprinkling, cedar wood, hyssop and a good bath and shave were performed, with the leper gradually re-introduced into the community. But, while the individual could enter the camp, he or she had to remain outside his/her tent for seven days. After more washing, blood and oil sprinkling and making offerings, the metzora was finally declared to be pure on the eighth day.
This whole situation, from diagnosis to recovery, must have been a nightmare for the poor victims.
However, the Rabbis settle on an explanation for this seemingly less-than-compassionate treatment of the metzora: He/she deserved it. They linked the words “metzora: leper” with the phrase “motzi (shem) ra.” This, in turn, was translated as “giving someone a bad name/to defame.” They concluded that leprosy must be the direct result of gossiping, or “lashon hara”: literally, an evil tongue. The punishment for spreading the social contagion of hateful words to others was a physically contagious disease requiring isolation.
While it’s important to teach about the evils of gossip, and to put someone under quarantine to avoid an epidemic, the explanation that strict isolation outside of the camp was necessary is questionable. For example, Moshe Sokolow writes, “The Torah term tzaraat is not leprosy. Leprosy is a contagious skin disease that is spread pathologically by bacteria. Tzaraat, while designated an affliction (nega), is neither a disease nor contagious.”
With this in mind, we can determine that the treatment of the metzora seemed cruel and undeserved, especially if the condition wasn’t leprosy and not even contagious. However, the leaders of that time couldn’t have had the knowledge we have today concerning illness.
It is also possible that isolation was a form of protection for the afflicted. If others feared the metzora might be a threat to their survival, isolation would prevent that individual from being harmed.
It is also commendable that the most respected and revered person in the camp, the Kohen, determined when the disease was cured. It was also the Kohen who alone ritually cleansed the leper. By his showing compassionate care and giving his “stamp of approval” that the afflicted was cured, the patient could reclaim his sense of self-worth, and be welcomed back into his community without fear of being ostracized.
So perhaps we can cut the Kohanim some slack. But, we are still on a learning curve when it comes to the stigma of disease. When the AIDS crisis came to the forefront in the 1980s, the initial reaction to this horrible epidemic weren’t all that different from those of our ancestors. There were many who wanted to blame the victims for their illness, and many who didn’t want to have contact with them.
In 1992, an article in the Huffington Post noted that “36 percent of Americans believed AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior.” In 2014, that number shrank to 14 percent. Though better, the figure is still troubling.
Going back further in time, health officials blamed the polio epidemic on squalid living conditions, even though the disease didn’t seem to discriminate between the wealthy and the disadvantaged. Additionally, the typhus fever and cholera epidemic that impacted New York City in the late 19th century was blamed on Eastern European Jews coming to America, via Ellis Island.
So let’s circle back to skin diseases. As mentioned earlier, what the Bible defined as leprosy really wasn’t leprosy as we understand it today. It is known as Hansen’s disease; the Center for Disease Control defines it as: “An infection caused by slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae.” The definition goes on to describe the physical appearance of the disease, that it isn’t easily spread, and, if left untreated, can cause nerve damage, paralysis and blindness.
With quick intervention, this disease, contracted by 150-250 people in the U.S. annually and 250,000 worldwide, is curable. So, theoretically, there should no longer be any calls to isolate those who have it, as was done in biblical times.
But, we hasn’t come as far as we might think. Myths about leprosy persist; the CDC has found it necessary to continue observing “World Leprosy Day” on the last Sunday of January, which the organization has been doing every year since 1954. The CDC noted that, despite effective available treatment, leprosy remains one of the world’s most stigmatized diseases. Those living with leprosy-related disabilities in many countries are discriminated against and denied basic human rights.
So, while we have medical and scientific answers today, our attitudes are often stuck in the Dark Ages. We have a lot to learn about compassion and empathy when it comes to illness, especially outward manifestations of the condition. The physical marks might dissipate, but the inward psychological damage can be much harder to repair.
There is a lot about disease we don’t know. But, we need to take a holistic approach when it comes to dealing with those who are ill. Isolation, unless medically necessary, can do much more damage than the actual disease itself. Although our ancestors’ approach to the metzora — public pronouncement and subsequent isolation — wasn’t the most compassionate, it was likely what was needed for the good of the entire community. Let’s also not forget that, with the Kohen’s approval, the metzora was welcomed back into the community with, I hope, open arms, once the “disease” was gone.
Our responsibility as Jews and as human beings, is to leave our biases, fears and misconceptions at the door and practice the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick. Unless contagion is an issue and quarantine necessary, it’s important to provide a physical presence so those who are ill know that they don’t have to suffer alone in silence or shame. That is when the real healing can begin.