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Tazria: Alopecia, Tzaraat, and COVID-19

Jada Pinkett Smith, https://www.instagram.com/jadapinkettsmith/

Until Will Smith inexcusably and inappropriately smacked Chris Rock at the Oscars this week, few Americans probably knew about the skin condition called Alopecia, a skin condition that among other things causes baldness. Especially for women, in which notions of beauty are so intertwined with hair color and hairstyle, baldness can be and is often stigmatized. Many women in chemotherapy treatments will specifically either buy wigs or use scalp-cooling caps to prevent hair loss. Unlike other medical conditions which can be conveniently hidden from the public eye, the reality of conditions on your skin- like one’s race or complexion- are exposed for all to see.

In a fashion-conscious world in which femininity is associated with beauty and one’s hair in particular, Chris Rock’s irreverent comment perhaps touched the core of Jada’s sense of being a woman, prompting Will Smith to become so enraged that he took the regrettable actions he did. The disgraceful episode teaches us many lessons on how not to behave, but one area perhaps that has gone unnoticed is how our skin- something that we might think as simply an outer garment that garbs our ‘true’ sense, is in a very real way a critical marker of our identity.  Our skin is our true sense.

Coincidentally, this week’s parashah considers various skin lesions and scabs identified with the biblical disease of tzaraat, a mysterious skin condition that is often misidentified as leprosy. (We therefore will not translate it.)  Strangely, not only can this disease impact one’s body, but also can be found on clothing and even houses!  Not your typical disease. In a complex process described in well over an entire chapter, the priest can quarantine an individual. If after a period these scabs or lesions have not disappeared, the priest declares that these skin conditions are indeed tzaraat.  With this pronouncement, the person becomes impure (tamei), requiring the person to leave the community until he no longer presents the signs of tzaraat; he then must go through a purification process, described in next week’s parahshah.

For most Jews, no parashah can be more irrelevant than one considering ancient skin lesions and quarantines. Yet, while there are no practical laws for today, the concepts underlying these foreign concepts invites us to consider the meaning of impurity, of tzaraat, of skin, and of illness in general.  If you follow along with me, I believe you will gain a key to understanding this enigmatic section of the Torah, as well as what this might mean for us today. Ultimately, the uncomfortable truths raised by the phenomenon of tzaraat in this week’s parahah is an extended meditation upon illness, and what it means to be human in general.

Let us begin with three critical keys to solving the riddle of tzaraat:

  • To begin with, it is not at all clear that tzaraat was a contagious disease needing quarantine. First, if it were typical disease, a ‘medical’ professional as opposed to a priest should have diagnosed the condition. Second, a skin disease does not generally affect clothing or houses. Third, the quarantine does not seem to be motivated by biological contagion, but the spiritual contagion of impurity, or tumah (defined below).[1] Fourth, the person does not officially have the disease until the priests declares he has tzaraat; only then is he impure and must separate.   In essence, the priest is not simply diagnosing what he is seeing but is pronouncing the disease and its accompanying impurity.
  • Most surprisingly, the metzora (the one with tzaraat), does not simply quarantine, but as we will see leaves the camp in a dramatic way announcing to all, ‘impure, impure.’ Why would the Torah require the victim of tzaraat to openly stigmatize himself or herself?  Unlike narrative sections in the Torah and many rabbinic texts that see tzaraat as a punishment of sorts, the simple reading from our parashah is clear that he is guilty of no crime![2]  If Chris Rock was inappropriately attacked because he made light of a skin condition and the stigma associated with it, why would the Torah make the victim of this skin disorder dramatically announce his skin disorder to all?
  • What does it mean in Jewish thought that one is ‘pure’ or ’impure’? In essence, these terms are only meaningful for an individual when they enter the Tabernacle, or later the Temple in Jerusalem.  People who had various forms of impurity could not enter the tabernacle, for the Tabernacle or Temple reflected a utopian vision of eternal life, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden.  In essence, when one entered the holy precincts of the Tabernacle or Temple they were in this world, but not completely of this world.  Just as God is infinite and eternal, so humanity, fashioned in the image of God and Godlike, can in a way partake in fellowship with God.

With these three insights, we can begin to unpack this enigmatic section of the Torah. Indeed, a person is Godlike, but at the same time they are very much dust of the earth.  Human existence is always vulnerable, and at any moment, death is a distinct possibility.  Death tragically is the great equalizer.  As Ecclesiastes wrote, neither our good deeds, our wisdom, our creations, our power, our possessions nor our wealth can rob us of the last day.  We will all have that last day, and the question is only when.  In this, we are no different than the animals and the world all around us.  Everything which we tend to believe is permanent is fleeting, and in this we are very far from being Godlike, no matter how much we would like to see things differently.

While there are many sources of impurity in the Torah, as well as many ways in which impurity is transferred, in some way or another, all are associated with the reality of death. Death creates impurity in the fact that it flies in the face of the very notion that a human being is godlike. For this reason, the impure person cannot enter the Tabernacle or Temple, because this sacred space is a place of Divine vitality, creativity, and life. Just as death cannot enter the realm of the sacred, so too anything connected with death. Ultimately, impurity is not a punishment, but a part of life with which we confront every day.

What does this have to do with tzaraat? In the Torah, tzaraat is the archetype of illness itself. As a chaplain, I have spent years reflecting upon how to support those who are ill, but I have also needed to consider the meaning of illness itself. In truth, illness is not merely a medical condition, but an existential crisis. Anyone who has been seriously ill knows that major illness plays itself out in the context of relationships with family and friends, elicits spiritual questions, raises questions about access to healthcare and equity, and fundamentally influences one’s very sense of identity and security.  (Many of the spiritual care volunteers we train come to us after experiencing illness themselves, an event that transformed their very sense of being in this world.)

However, while for each person the meaning of a particular illness is highly personal, for all people serious illness points to a deeper uncomfortable truth. The integrity of our very body, something that for many is seen as a given, is something that is not absolute. On a deeper level, any form of illness, especially serious illness, points to our very mortality.  Our bodies at some point will ultimately decay and succumb to forces of atrophy.[3]

However, why is tzaraat the archetype per se? Unlike some illnesses, which impact our internal organs and we therefore might be able to hide them to the outside world (or even ourselves), tzaraat strikes the outer skin. Our illness is exposed to all, upon our skin, the organ that is meant to protect the integrity of the human body.  Moreover, skin lesions or discolorations on our bodies (or perhaps the loss of hair with alopecia) are associated with decay and death.  As uncomfortable as it is to imagine, when a body decomposes, the skin becomes drained of blood, is pale, and within a short order begins to lose its luster.  It is not a coincidence that the majority of signs of tzaraat consists of white blotches surrounded by ruddy flesh!  Thus, in the particular case of tzaraat, a person and a community are reminded of the reality of death while they are still alive. It is therefore not a coincidence that the rabbis compare the metzora to a dead person.

However, the manifestation of the illness on the skin is part of a larger truth about life itself. The disintegration of the body in the form of biological illness becomes part of a continuum culminating in cultural disintegration- tzaraat on our homes and our clothing.  All our cultural creations are ultimately fleeting as well.  By declaring people, clothing, and houses as impure, the Torah challenges us to consider the nature and limits of human life itself.  Nothing is permanent, neither our lives nor our creations. Perhaps we are Godlike, but we are also mortal, even with the advanced technologies we have created.

Our society, with all the advances in health, has in some ways shielded us from this disquieting truth, but this is not a truth that the Torah intends to hide. Thrown into quarantine, the metzora himself must exclaim “tamei, tamei,” “unclean, unclean”! (Lev. 13:45)  The metzora must exclaim his impurity with rent clothing, unkempt hair, and his upper lip covered.  His actions are decidedly performative, and the rituals associated with his declaration curiously are the ancient rituals of a mourner.  For whom is he mourning? Himself. In exclaiming his predicament to others, he is instructing others about the fragile boundary that divides life and death, wholeness and disintegration, culture and chaos. The metzora may not hide away in the corner but is enjoined to use this personal event in an instructive way for others; by extension he is inviting others to consider that they are not so different.

With his call of “Tamei! Tamei!” along with his adoption of some of the signs of mourning, the metzora announced that his world was unmade, that everything was not the same as it once was, and that things had not turned out as he had hoped. By taking responsibility for breaking the news himself, rather than relying on the Levitical priest, the metzora owned his condition and was forced out of any denial he might have had. It was this public announcement that allowed the metzora to enter into his mourning process, to invite others to mourn with him, and to begin the process of remaking his world in the light of these new realities. [4]

The performative drama of the metzora is specifically meant to be sobering.  Our sense of invulnerability, of hubris, can be the source of our undoing, as we fail to recognize the contagion of tzaraat on “bodies, clothing, and houses.”  We can be reckless, both individually and collectively, and assume we will not pay a price. Are we that different from the metzora?

We are hopefully emerging from a two-year pandemic, of disease throughout our camps. Perhaps we should frame COVID-19 as a modern day tzaraat. Even if we do not want to see this metaphor theologically, lest we take it too far and attribute the recent pandemic to God’s wrath or punishment, the pandemic has forced us to consider the meaning of illness, and the fragility of individual and public life.

The compromised condition of the metzora is meant to always elicit a moral response from all those around. By exclaiming “tamei, tamei/ unclean, unclean” is to invite others to respond.[5]  In hearing the voice of his vulnerability, we realize that we are vulnerable too, and we are more likely to reach out compassionately to another. Today they are the metzora, but tomorrow we might be. To simply see tzaraat as something that simply happens to others is to miss the meaning of events.

There will be days in our lives when we feel superhuman, full of creative energy and vitality.  Indeed, we are creatures that can both figuratively and literally pierce the heavens. We can be in the inner sanctum of God because we too are Godlike.  However, there will be other days when we confront the fragility of our existence.  The chasm between heaven and earth seems unbridgeable. The book of Leviticus reiterates these contradictory truths repeatedly in a graphic way that many would prefer to ignore.  However, when we recognize that fragility, we will have a healthy understanding of self, and have the capacity to care and exhibit compassion towards others as well.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Although in truth one might argue that the impurity designation is pronounced based upon the biological contagion.  See e.g., Ibn Ezra Lev. 13:45

[2] See Shlomo Zuckier, Whence Leprosy? An Inquiry into the Theodicy of the Tannaim, in Land and Spirituality in Jewish Literature: A Memorial Volume for Yaakov Elman (Brill: Boston, 2022): 106-136.

[3] Sadly, this is also the way some look at aging as well, reducing a person’s humanity.

[4] Excerpted from Rabbis Nancy Levi and Jo Hisrchman, Maps and Meaning: Levitical Models for Contemporary care

[5] See Niddah 66a.  My thanks to Rabbi Shai Held for alerting me to this text.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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