This coming Shabbat we read in great detail about the following: swellings, rashes, discolored flesh, scaly infections, funky hair conditions, eruptions, inflammation, skin burns, leprosy (or similar malady), skin streaks, rotted clothes, and the ritual of purification required after childbirth. This is Judaism’s holiest book??? Welcome to Leviticus, tale of priests and all that concern them. Scaly infection? White hairs streaked with red? This is not a medical emergency of the body, but rather a potential threat to the well-being of the sacrificial system itself. Nothing with blemish may approach – not priest or animal or supplicant.
The priest is instructed on how to examine each afflicted person and when to proclaim purity or impurity, clean or not-clean, re-entry or continued quarantine. There is placing of blame or cause-and-effect in the text, though plenty of traditional commentary draws a direct line between skin disease and sin. Idol-worship, unchastity, bloodshed, cursing, theft, pride, and gossip can all land you in physical trouble. The proof? Miriam’s whitened skin after she bad-mouths her brother Moses much further into the story.
From a modern perspective, this theory of disease is a bit off-kilter. And many of us rightly question any connection between physical “imperfection” and full participation in communal life. Still, I like this conflation of the bodily and ritual realms. For one thing, the priests — who spend much of their time in the rarefied air of the Tabernacle — are required to mix and mingle with sick people, worried people, unattractive people. For another, is insures a kind of universal health care: someone is checking up on you, free of charge, on a regular basis until you’ve recovered. Also, I’m not willing to disconnect emotional/spiritual and physical well-being. We need more understanding of this connection in our lives, not less.
I love the idea of a person afflicted with rashes and discolorations tearing her clothing, uncovering her head, and calling out Impure! Impure! so that others know to keep their distance. It’s not fun feeling under the weather – and we don’t indulge ourselves with peace and quiet anywhere near enough in a world where 24/7 is the norm. Beyond that, there are definitely days when I know I’m not fit for human interaction, when it would be better if I just stayed in bed and worked through whatever was eating at me, when I know that if people could see inside my head they would be repulsed by just how weird I am.
I wish that there was a ritual for keeping my distance. I wish there was someone who could say: okay, you’re cured now. This week’s poem, Midlife, is a meditation on leprosy-like mental states and how it feels to be sitting outside the camp, waiting for the signal to come on in.
My friend and teacher Rabbi Phyllis Berman speaks not of pure and impure, but rather of those times in our life when we are focused on the internal (after childbirth or at moments of peak creativity) and those times when we have a broader focus; those times when we need to be alone and those when we move in concert with the larger community. You can read her thinking here.