Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Making a Change – in the Parasha and at the Protests (15)

Flags at a Knesset Demonstration. Photo: Diana Lipton

This is my fifteenth consecutive post connecting the parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy protests.

The Torah contains two main systems of classification, one of which is central in this week’s double parasha, Tazria-Metsora. As we saw in last week’s parasha, both systems are based on pairs of opposites. Immediately after the death of Nadav and Avihu, God told Aaron that it’s the responsibility of the priests to distinguish between the ‘holy’ and the ‘profane’, and between the ‘unclean’ and the ‘clean’ (Leviticus 10:10).

The system God mentioned first to Aaron is also the first to appear in the Torah. God created the universe in six days, rests on the seventh day, and sanctified it, made it holy. Shabbat alone is holy and the other six days of the week are profane. However much, as individuals or collectively, Jews desecrate Shabbat, Shabbat will remain holy. Nothing can change its holiness (Genesis 2:1-4).

The other system of classification, ‘unclean’ versus ‘clean’, appears prominently in this week’s parshiot regarding a disease that affects people, fabric, and houses. As described in this context (last week’s list of unclean and clean animals is a different matter), uncleanness and cleanness are fluid physical states. This system of classification, unlike holy versus profane, allows for change.

In the case of the man or woman afflicted with a scaly affliction of the skin (traditionally but misleadingly called leprosy), becoming clean after being unclean entails a process. While unclean, the affected person must tear his clothes, leave his head bare, cover his upper lip (not shave), live outside the camp, and call out ‘Unclean, unclean’ wherever he goes (Leviticus 13:45-46).

On the day that the unclean person’s skin heals from the scaly affliction, her recovery is reported to the priest. The priest leaves the camp, confirms that the disease has indeed healed, and performs a ritual involving cedar wood, crimson, hyssop, and two birds, one to be slaughtered, one to be set free. The priest then makes sacrifices and offerings. In both the bird ritual and the sacrifices, the person being cleansed is sprinkled with water mixed with blood and daubed with blood.

That becoming clean involves a process is to be expected. What’s unexpected is that the declaration of cleanness is not reserved for the end, but is repeated four times during the process.

First, the unclean person must be sprinkled seven times with the water and blood mixture, and then that person will be clean (Leviticus 14:7).

Second, after the bird ritual, the person being cleansed must wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water. Then the person will be clean (Leviticus 14:8).

Third, the unclean person can return to the camp, but must remain outside her tent for seven days. At the end of the seven days, she must shave off all her hair, wash her clothes, and bathe in water. Then the person will be clean (Leviticus 14:9).

Fourth, on the eighth day, the person being cleansed must take animals for sacrifices and meal offerings to the priest. The priest will daub him with blood and oil and make a sin offering and a guilt offering. Then the person will be clean (Leviticus 14:20).

Why is the unclean person declared clean four times yet, until the last declaration, still discussed and treated as if he or she is unclean?

As many of us know, even a routine sickness can quickly become an identity. For the duration of the illness, others treat us differently and we see ourselves differently. It can be alarmingly easy to forget who we are and how we operate in the world when we aren’t sick, all the more if we are isolated in hospital.

Being rendered unclean by scale affliction dictated how a person could present himself, the clothes she could wear, where he could live, and with whom she could interact. And beyond the physical illness, there was a religious component – becoming clean required atonement.

To top all this, the three spheres affected by scale affliction are the surfaces we present to the outside world – our skin, our clothing, the walls of our homes. They by no means define or delimit our identities, but they are unfortunately what outsiders see first and sometimes judge us by.

Perhaps the four declarations of cleanness mirror the struggle involved when identities need to change. The struggle of a person classified in one category to acknowledge that she really has moved to another. An outsider’s struggle to accept that someone else is no longer what he was, that he has fundamentally changed.

Since Israel’s pro-democracy protests began, many people who voted for the present coalition government and were initially in favor of Israel’s legal reforms are now against them. I haven’t yet heard of people changing in the opposite direction, but perhaps they exist.

The most significant change of position was Security Minister Yoav Gallant’s. His public statement against the reforms led to his firing, and massive late-night protests around the country. In this case, one man’s change of heart was a turning-point for the country.

Less significantly but still influentially, Aryeh Deri, the leader of the Sephardi Shas party, changed his position on the proposed reforms.

In numerical terms, the most dramatic change of position is among Haredi voters, who typically vote en masse. The Haredi coalition parties started out by supporting the whole package of reforms, but now they are against them. Their interest is focused on a single law that will if passed lower the age of exemption from military service.

And then there are the myriad other Israelis who changed not just their position on the reforms but, at least under the current regime, their party allegiance.

Political affiliation in Israel is often tribal. It spans generations and runs in families. Change of party can entail a sense of loss and dislocation, of betraying and of having been betrayed. I feel immense admiration for people who didn’t merely survive the identity crisis that political realignment can bring in a culture like ours, but are already standing shoulder to shoulder with ‘the other side’ at demonstrations.

As the holy day of Shabbat hands over to the profane first day, join them at one of the demonstrations all around the country. It’s not too late to change our destiny.


About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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