This week has the second double portion, of both Tazria and Metzora. Tazria is about tsara'at (צָרָעַת), which usually gets translated as leprosy. But any reading of the text will demonstrate that the disease being described is nothing like Hansen's disease. When it affects humans, it is more similar to plaque psoriasis, although perhaps not identical. But tsara'at also affects clothing and houses.
Let's step back a moment and put this in context. When I was a child, I was raised without religion by secular Jewish parents. When I was old enough to begin Hebrew school, my father offered me the choice of either spending my weekend mornings at Hebrew school, or playing pee-wee ice hockey, and I chose hockey. When my friends who attended Hebrew school began having their Bar Mitzvahs, I was invited to all of them, but I really had no context for what I was observing. The first Bar Mitzvah I went to was a friend who was in hockey with me (so he was doing both). His Torah portion for his Bar Mitzvah was Tazria, this Torah portion. I was given a Chumash (a book with the five books of the Torah in Hebrew with all vowel points and cantillation marks printed, and an English translation alongside the Hebrew text, with Torah commentary at the bottom of the page), and I followed along with my friend as he recited the passage. And I was horrified. It soured me on Judaism in general for a long time to come.
I am not unique in this. A lot of Christians, and even a lot of Jews, are mortified that the Bible puts so much detail into describing a disease, which in English often gets mistranslated as leprosy, and describes it as a Divine retribution causing the sufferer to become an unclean outcast who is removed from the community and blamed for his affliction. It is hard to reconcile with our understanding of a loving God, and goes against our contemporary concept of fairness. As a result, the entire Book of Leviticus is reduced to being "the leprosy book", and many Christians (and atheists) dismiss the whole Old Testament as "leprosy and stuff".
So, how does a contemporary Jew reconcile the ugliness of Tazria with a modern theological sensibility? My rabbi really enjoys teaching this Torah portion, because it illustrates many things about the Bible that are not well understood today. One year, my rabbi brought in a dermatologist to analyze the Torah's description of the skin disease, and diagnose it based on current medical understanding. In my community, we embrace textual ugliness rather than shy away from it. We haven't even gotten to the genocides Moses leads against the Midianites (that will have to wait until the Book of Numbers), but there will be a lot more that is disturbing in the weeks to come. How do we handle that which is disturbing in the Torah?
By taking in what is said with a critical eye, not rejecting the text, but striving to understand these things are in the text. There is often much subtlety in this approach. Judaism is one of the rare cultures that has a continuous history of many millennia, and in that time, we have gone from a pastoral or agrarian society from the early Bronze Age; to an urban culture in the Iron Age; to an ancient civilization in the midst of other ancient civilizations like the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans; to a small urban minority in medieval, feudal society; to a modern religion. Jews have connections to all aspects of this historical continuum, being simultaneously ancient and modern. Being a Jew means having an identity that spans most of recorded history. So when we find our Scripture mired in antiquity, we can recognize that we traveled through that portion of space and time, and reflect upon where it fits in our long journey.
We can easily imagine that in the time of the Torah, contagious diseases were not well understood, and that sanitary conditions in the encampment of the Children of Israel were not especially good. In the desert, there was a constant shortage of water, which means that bathing was infrequent. Most people had the clothes on their back and no other clothes. The Torah tells us that one of the miracles in the desert was that the clothing of the Children of Israel never wore out, which means they were wearing the same garments for forty years of wandering in harsh elemental conditions. One can imagine that skin diseases like psoriasis broke out with some frequency.
How would an ancient and primitive people handle such outbreaks? Most likely by ascribing such afflictions to Divine retribution, and possibly mass panic. To deflect against this, the Torah describes skin diseases in a great deal of detail, and then insists that the sufferer be brought to Aaron or to the Priests for inspection. This would immediately diffuse a panic, since the Priest as mediator would protect the sufferer from the panic of the general populace. The immediate prescription is a week of quarantine. This would keep the affliction, if contagious, from affecting other people, and keep the sufferer out of the way of the crowd who might panic at the sight of such an affliction.
The Torah describes when tsara'at affects clothing (and houses in the next Torah portion). By a modern understanding, this could be mildew or dry rot. We know that these things can spread, and that they have to be treated early before they do more damage. Again, the affected garment should be brought to the priest, which is then quarantined if it proves to have tsara'at. If after seven days, the blemish has not gone away, a garment is to be burned.
All this is fairly reasonable medical treatment for a Bronze Age physician. So why is this in a holy text? The Torah is intended to be all the laws for the Children of Israel. Unlike other religions, Judaism intends to cover every aspect of life, the ugly and material as well as the sublime and spiritual. The Talmud is intended to be a whole document that covers every possible judgment that could be made, and this includes such issues as well as a myriad of other examples far stranger. When we get to the Sotah in the Book of Numbers, we are going to see things far less reconcilable to a modern sensibility, so get ready.
As I have mentioned previously, the word that gets translated as unclean might better be translated as unready. Someone overcome with skin lesions might not be ready for social intercourse, let alone the spiritual demands of temple services. Clothing eaten away by mildew might not be ready to wear.
The Talmud interprets tsara'at as the Divine punishment for harmful gossip. This metaphor of dry rot or skin lesions for the effects of gossip is effective. When we gossip maliciously, we cause real damage with our words, harming the reputations of others, and turning amicability into emnity. Many a social organization, including more than one Masonic lodge, has been destroyed by harmful gossip. The Talmud suggests that tsara'at might not even be visible, but merely the residue caused by lies and malicious rumors. There is a Hasidic tale of a woman who has spread mean-spirited rumors who, feeling some contrition, asks the rabbi how she can fix the damage she has caused. He tells her to go home and take a feather pillow, tear it open with a knife, and scatter the feathers out her bedroom window, and then to return to him. When she does this, she goes back to the rabbi and asks him what she should do next. He tells her to retrieve every feather that she scattered.
"That's impossible," she tells the rabbi. He replies that it is equally impossible to reverse the harm caused by malicious rumors.