This week, Leviticus goes medical, delving into intimate and sometimes troubling details that have to do with human discharges, general mutilations and genital mutations. There is nothing profane about the wonders of nature, especially when the miracle of birth is discussed, and even when things go wrong in the body, but honestly, not everybody wants to discuss this stuff in the middle of Synagogue. But the Torah goes there – and especially this week – when the Supreme Court of the one of the world’s leading democracies has taken a painful stand on the rights of humans to determine what is holy and sacred – a stand inspired in no small part by a narrow reading of biblical ethics – it is
important to note the this ancient text addresses the human experience in ways that may hold the keys to a much better system of human health and dignity. We just need to read closer, and perhaps, Tazria – Metzora – this double whammy torah portion that has challenged rabbinic sermons for generations, calls for precisely this careful re-view of what is or isn’t sacred, gross, or worthy of public discourse. In some ways, this text demands that we deal with all that life – and death – has to offer – in the noblest and most humane way possible.
One of the challenges to human wellbeing that is discussed here is an ailment commonly referred to as ‘leprosy.’ This is probably not the condition that modern medicine recognizes as such (still prevalent in parts of the world) but is some kind of a general biblical prognosis for an overall bad state of skin disfigurement – although it can also be found on houses or inanimate objects. The real issue with leprosy, however, goes beyond skin deep.
Over time, lepers have been identified not only as persons with a specific physical illness, but also as metaphoric carriers of alienation, disfigurement, and ‘Otherness’. The one key feature about lepers is the keen interest of society to keep them isolated – out of sight, and out of mind. This is a healthy precaution perhaps, but also a human cruelty. A random Google search for ‘leprosy’ yields an astonishingly high number of associations with HIV/AIDS – and never kindly.
We can’t argue with the medical demand for sterility and the prevention of spreading disease –– but we can read closer and challenge the notion that the random carriers of such conditions are to be subjects of estrangement and loneliness. When translating one verse in this torah episode, several translators tackle this challenge and offer subtle solutions:
Leviticus chapter 13, verse 46 describes the fate of the leper:
“All the days in which the plague is in him he shall be unclean; he shall dwell alone; outside the camp shall his dwelling be.”
The Hebrew word for ALONE is ‘Badad’ – translated elsewhere as ‘solitary’, ‘separately’, ‘in isolation’, ‘kept by himself’, or ‘dwell apart’.
The classic Aramaic translation, the Pseudo Jonathan, goes even further – adding another prohibition that increases the leper’s loneliness: ‘he shall dwell alone by himself, to the side of his wife he must not come near.’
These translations are similar – but not identical – offering different treatments and varying degrees of human dignity. They seem to suggest that ‘alone’ does not have to mean ‘lonely’.
It’s difficult to translate this Biblical verse and transcend its necessary but cruel implications, but maybe we can do what one is supposed to do with this text – read it carefully, challenged it, translate it anew. Maybe this is a reminder for us to take every measure possible to honor ‘other’ in our midst and alleviate the emotional and physical pain of suffering in every way possible. Can we find which is the part in our selves, in our community, which is a temporary, lonely leper and do something to ease the pain and increase the intimacy so much yearned for by all who plagued by life?
Remember how Princess Diana kissed kids with AIDS back in the 80’s? Here’s to more of that.