This is the time of year when we come across what is arguably the most challenging section of the Torah. The double portion of Tazria-Metzora bring us to the heart of the Book of Leviticus, a segment of our biblical canon already mired in seemingly antiquated language and theology.
Some view Leviticus as an outright burden. Some view it as inconvenient. I try to view its complex ideas as a portal to thinking about Jewish values in new ways.
So let’s get to it. Tazria-Metzora ostensibly tells the tale of how our Israelite ancestors dealt with illness. Those who had been afflicted by tzaraat (skin disease) were examined by the priest and, if found to be afflicted, were isolated for a period of time, generally seven days. If the ailment spread after that, “the clothes shall be rent, the head shall be left bare, and the upper lip shall be covered over; and that person shall call out, ‘impure, impure.’ The person shall be impure as long as the disease as present. Being impure, that person shall dwell apart, in a dwelling outside the camp.” (Lev 13:45-26)
It is worth noting that our tradition will also refer to such ailments as “plagues,” seeing this and other sicknesses as a kind of Divine punishment. Remember that more than one of the Ten Plagues amid the Passover story were related to disease.
There are two primary ways of approaching these challenging texts. One, we can say that our biblical ancestors were scared of difference. To look different, to think differently, to pray differently represented a threat to the would-be status quo of the Jewish community. Someone with a presumed medical abnormality was cast quickly as “other” and sent away to heal. They were deemed threatening and dangerous.
Do we not know of those in our own world who also see difference as scary? How many parents of children with special needs have been made to feel like aliens? How many of our children, whether due to a learning disability or a physical challenge, have stories of also being cast out of the camp and deemed “impure?”
This is one of the times when the Torah is there not so we follow it, but rather learn from it.
Indeed, the second, superior approach to Tazria-Metzora is to recognize how we must do things differently today. Rather than cast out, how can we as synagogues and Jewish institutions embrace those who society deems different? How can we make sure that our sanctuaries are just that? The Midrash, Sifra, will note that the priest had the power to “speak the words, ‘you are pure’ or ‘you are impure.’ If the priest was ignorant, he might be guided in his diagnosis by an informed lay person.”
We might ask: How are we bringing informed educators into our community to advise our teachers and clergy on areas surrounding special needs? How are we giving our kids the best chance to succeed? Are we using language that is inclusive and welcoming? In the simplest of terms, are we sensitive to the fact that not everyone is the same?
At Adath Emanu-El our door is open wide to every learner of every age, and we are trying to open the door wider all the time. Our Shabbat Together program gives all kids and parents the space to learn in an environment that allows for movement, noise, and broad-based inclusion. Our Friday night services are not meant to be somber and stoic, but open to all, including those not ready to sit still, not ready to stay quiet, and those who need to take an occasional break. Our religious school is working all the time to create a safe and nurturing space for every one of our children.
We cannot claim to be a community if only some are welcome. We cannot argue that we are a House of God if we turn away those also created in God’s image.
In this season, we are reminded of those words in the Haggadah, that “all who are hungry” should be able to come to the table. These highly idealistic terms drive me as a rabbi and as a parent. We have to keep going, until everyone feels that they can sit safely and comfortably at within the Jewish community.
Rabbi Benjamin David is the Senior Rabbi of Adath Emanu-El in Mt Laurel, New Jersey. He is a writer, runner, and cancer survivor. His wife, Lisa, is the director of URJ Camp Harlam. They are the proud parents of three beautiful children.