The Shuvah Project #30 — Spiritual Leprosy

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Go and report to John the things you have seen and heard: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with tsara’at are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news. And anyone who is not offended because of Me is blessed.

-Luke 7:22-23 

Section One (Parsha Debrief):

This week’s Parsha (Leviticus 14:1-15:33) contained: details of the purification process for the plague of tsara’at on a person and on a house, as well as the laws regarding bodily fluids.

In the Midweek Reading Guide, we said we’ll be examining what tsara’at is, and trying to figure out how it’s cured.

What’s more, we’ll try to understand its purpose. In order to do so, you’ll need to have last week’s discussion fresh in your mind.

So…

What is tsara’at?

While Chazal (an acronym referring to all Jewish sages of the Mishna, Tosefta and Talmud eras) teach why a person becomes afflicted with tsara’at (to be discussed next), Rabbi Samson Refael Hirsch, a 19th c. Rabbi, built the case against it being Leprosy (as it’s often translated).

Many outside of our circles took the simple and completely unsubstantiated route of seeing – especially in regard to tzara’at on human skin – an ancient approach to a medical issue. Numerous clues in our parsha belie this possibility. Not the least of which is the role of the [Priest], without whose pronouncement the afflicted person continues business as usual. [Business as usaul is an impossiblibty given the difficulty of life that accompanies the progression of medical Leprosy.] Tzara’at, however, is not leprosy. The classic progress of the true medical affliction, is not called tzora’at, but shechin Mitzrayim, and is halachically excluded from the treatment in our parsha.

-Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, on The Hirsch Chumash, Tazria

What Rabbi Hirsch suggests, and Rabbis like David Fohrman concur, is that Torah is not concerned with a medical condition and its medical treatment. Rather, Torah is concerned with a spiritual malady that manifests in physical form (tsara’at).  You see, in Leviticus, there are no medical treatments prescribed for curing the disease. In fact, tsara’at disappears on its own under the right conditions (Leviticus 14:3b), medical Leprosy (ie. Hansen’s Disease) does not.

Why does tsara’at show up?

Chazal teach that tsara’at is a Divine reaction to lashon hora [lit. evil tongue]. Subsequently, Chazal see the plague of tsara’at connected to a host of social sins [, or as Rabbi David Fohrman refers to them “anti-social sins”.] [These transgressions, like haughtiness, slander, and gossip, not only] keep a person indifferent to the needs of others, but the disparaging and belittling speech actually drives wedges between people. [These anti-social sins] unravel the cohesion of a community. [In fact, they’re often spoken of in reference] to the lying tongue, proud eyes, and a heart pondering violence. It would be a mistake, however, to see it as an interpersonal crime perpetrated by the speaker upon the target of their words. In truth, lashon hora is not a problem between two people, or a small group of people. Where there is lashon hora, the integrity of the community as a whole suffers. Its strength, the bonds that hold people together, is undermined. The pillar of communal cohesion begins to decay, as if plagued by internal rot.

-Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, on The Hirsch Chumash, Metzorah

Now, I think we get the language wrong. We tend to see tsara’at as a punishment. But, what if it’s more of an outing? What if it’s meant to make anti-social transgressions known to the public?

[Tsara’at] is clearly meant to be a message seen by others. To be considered tsara’at, it must lodge on an area of the skin that is plain and visible, not in a fold of skin, apparent only to the afflicted.

-Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein,on The Hirsch Chumash, Tazria

To further the point of public outing… why does a house need atonement (Lev. 14:53)? How can a house transgress? It can’t. A house can’t do anything. Therefore, the house must be connected to the occupant/owner.

[In fact,] the Talmud (Tannit 11a) teaches “the stones… and beams of a person’s house will testify against [them].” Some Rabbis even infer that the plagues of tsara’at, are carried out in ascending order (of harshness). [That,] God compassionately imposes affliction in stages, from the least severe to the most severe. Initially, the plagues strike the walls of the house. Next, objects upon which a person sits or lies upon, followed by the garments of the anti-social perpetrator. If that person persists, [ignoring the signs] to the point their clothing must be burned… the plague then develops on their skin. [As such,] Rambam considers the plagues to be miraculous events intended to spur the afflicted person to examine their ways, identify their faults, and rectify their behavior.

-Rabbi Haim Sabato, Rest for the Dove

The plagues, on a person’s home, clothing, and skin serve as warnings signs — tsara’at is meant to induce repentance in the transgressor.

How is it cured?

This is the law concerning the person afflicted with tsara’at, on the day of his cleansing. He is to be brought to the Priest, who will go outside the camp and examine him. If the tsara’at has disappeared from the afflicted person…

-Leviticus 14:2-3

The Text tells us that tsara’at is cured without any medical or ritual intervention.

The Text, in last week’s Torah portion, also tells us the repercussions once a person is afflicted. Tsara’at affliction requires (1) removal from the community (eg. taken outside of all three camps) and (2) treatment as the highest level of Tumah (eg. as if a corpse). The Gemara speaks directly to this point — in it, Rabbis compare the metzora (ie. person afflicted with tsara’at) to a mourner and someone excommunicated. Maybe the metzora is experiencing both. Maybe, like Rabbi David Fohrman suggests, the metzora experiences all facets of death expect biological death. Maybe the Rabbis are telling us that being cut off from the community is death. As if to say, the treatment for the person who causes separation in a community, is to be temporarily separated from the community.

[In fact,] no other person [in Torah] who is tamei (see last week’s Defiled post) is fully ejected from the borders of the community. [The metzora] spends time in isolation, mulling over what has gone wrong in their relations to others. The point of the “test” weeks may very well be to see if they respond by mending their ways.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, on The Hirsch Chumash, Tazria

At each stage of affliction, if the offender repents, the plague is removed.

But should the signs be ignored…

Section Two (Connection to NT + haftarah):

What if I told you that the medical condition Hansen’s Disease (ie. Leprosy) physically manifests in lameness, paralysis, and blindness if left untreated? Well, according to the CDC that’s exactly what happens.

We know it doesn’t spread easily and treatment is very effective. However, if left untreated, the nerve damage can result in crippling of hands and feet, paralysis, and blindness.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Maybe it’s a coincidence, but…

He replied to them, “Go and report to John the things you have seen and heard: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with tsara’at are healed…

-Luke 7:22

From a medical standpoint, Hansen’s Disease is not very contagious. But, what if spiritually tsara’at is very contagious? And, what if left spiritually untreated, it manifests just like if left medically untreated?

You see, prior to now I couldn’t tell you why all these ailments are mentioned together in the Luke Text (Luke 7:21-22), but I think we just gained valuable insight into the potential answer (Footnote #1).

What happens if Spiritual leprosy is left untreated?

If tsara’at is Spiritual Leprosy as a whole litany of Rabbis believe, and it is an affliction that forces a person with violence in their heart to confront the communal decay they’ve created through a death-like isolating experience… then what happens in the event the reflection, repentance, and ultimately reconciliation are left undone by way of refusal?

Maybe, like Hansen’s Disease, when untreated, Spiritual leprosy manifests in more permanent forms of disconnection from the community (Footnote #2). Maybe the author of Luke is inviting the 1st c. CE audience to wrestle with the progression of Spiritual leprosy (Footnote #3). Maybe, unraveling of community is a big deal to Jesus — one that He’s come to rectify and resurrect.

Section Three (missing the mark):

Now, pastors are not exempt. Rabbinic texts even mention that a Priest afflicted with tsara’at cannot be the one to pronounce Tahara and lead the purification process. Hopefully, that’s not news.

What I’m more concerned with is how pastors have used tsara’at rhetoric to inflict damage by (1) emphasizing punishment and (2) mislabelling whistleblowing and speaking truth to power as gossip.

First, tsara’at was not intended to make the case that “sinners” need to get their act together before they’re allowed back into a community. It’s not a “we’re not letting you back until you are sin free.” It’s more of an “oh bother, I’ve isolated myself from people by my actions, now I understand and feel that isolation… I want to be a part of community again.” Tsara’at is not a weapon for the self-righteous, it’s a tool for those in need of self-reflection.

Second, truth is truth. If church leaders engage in say, sexual harassment, then it’s not gossip to speak that truth. To suppress it for the sake of institutional credibility is the evil. It’s here, regarding church leadership, that I’d almost rather have the physical manifestation of spiritual maladies still exist today. That way, our leaders could no longer hide their lying tongues, proud eyes, and the violence in their hearts.

Section Four (real-world applications):

In light of all this, think about what exactly John is asking:

Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for someone else?

-Luke 7:20

John must know all the things Jesus has been doing. We have several examples in the Text that tell us the things Jesus does get talked about far and wide.

So, why would the author of Luke place this odd Q&A in connection to the metzora Torah portion?


Next Week’s Readings: Leviticus 16:1-18:30; Luke 7:36-50

Footnotes:

  1. In fact, in continuing your dig I highly recommend reading passages referencing the blind in this new light. It may open your eyes. It may just provide the foundation we need going into next week’s atonement conversation. So, look at Luke 4:18; 6:39; 14:13,21 and Mark 10:51-52 and John 9. The John Text is especially enlightening. It’s as if with our new understanding we can see the disciples operating from the Rabbinic conversation in our Torah portion. But, Jesus changes the interpretative language from one that focused on a cause to one focusing on purpose.
  2. I recognize we need to be careful with how we interpret this. First, I don’t believe the physical manifestation of the Spiritual disease still exists today. That is, I don’t think people who have trouble seeing today are blind because of anti-social transgressions. For one, we have nowhere to take the lamb on the 8th day of the purification process (Leviticus 14:10). Secondly, we have no tabernacle/temple to set up camp around; thus, no camp for which to remove someone from. Third, I think Jesus might have given us a new lens to see this process through.
  3. For example, what if the author of Luke inserts John’s question (see Section Four) and the “Unresponsive Generation” Text (Luke 7:31-35) as further emphasis of this community conversation? What images do Jesus’ words in Luke 31-35 paint? To me, it sounds like He’s suggesting false rumors were spread about both He and John. In context to our Torah portion, could it be that Jesus’ deeper message is that “the people of this generation” need to recognize how slander of John and Jesus has deeply disconnected the family of God (ie. the community)?


3 thoughts on “The Shuvah Project #30 — Spiritual Leprosy

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