As we work our way through the scroll, reading a section a week till we have completed the yearly cycle, there are some sections which cry out in their relevance to the moment, and others with which we struggle to connect with at all. Tazria-Metzorah is one of the latter.
The book of Leviticus brings us into a world we no longer understand. Yet we still read about it, and it is important that we do, because it reminds us how ancient our tradition really is, and it brings us into the religious and spiritual world of our early ancestors. We may find the detailed description of the ritual sacrifice of animals and of wine, oil and flour incomprehensible and off-putting, and the clear concern for the community to create a state of ritual purity in its encounters with God perplexing, but it such texts hold the memory and history of our people and must reveal to us something of what they meant in their time.
The double portion Tazria-Metzorah is concerned with skin disease. In particular we learn about the condition ‘tzara’at’ – a collection of skin diseases whose causes were unknown, whose duration was also unknown, but which we know were seen to be contagious and dangerously damaging to the community.
The impurity brought about by tzara’at had serious consequences. The sufferer was required to remove themselves from the sanctuary, stay on the periphery of the community and announce to all that they were in a state of ritual impurity. They were to tear their clothes, and to keep their distance from anyone else in the community. They were outcasts.
While we are given a great deal of quasi medical information about tzara’at – all the signs and symptoms are elucidated in the text with a rather grisly fascination – the Torah is not in fact interested in its medical significance, but instead it cares about the ritual significance of the condition. The people who are to monitor and assess the cases are not the healers but the Cohanim, the priests, who are instructed about recognising the disorder, about declaring the individual ritually impure, and they are also trained how to restore the individual to ritual purity after the disorder has run its course. This is a matter not of medicine, but of ritual. The priests don’t in any way treat the condition nor do they act as safe guarders against infection for health reasons. Their job is to patrol the borders of ritual purity and impurity, and, most importantly, to create the way back into the community for the one who had been afflicted and marginalised.
The priest conducted an elaborate ritual in order to bring back the sufferer into the community once the skin disease had run its course. This ritual was, as is all good ritual, transformational. The rejected person was brought back into the people, their status cleaned up and made as if new. It was as if the priest, by power of the ritual, could conquer the fear of tzara’at embodied by the sufferer, and bring forth a new reality for them.
What is happening right throughout the purity/impurity issues which make up the bulk of the book of Leviticus is not some ancient superstitious magic, nor a primitive acting out of an even more simplistic understanding about God that we are long past. What is being enshrined in ritual and social structures is a way of dealing with, and including, the frightening randomness of life, the sudden illness or ill fortune, the terrifying closeness of death to life, the way our bodies sometimes seem to be following a plan we know nothing about and would not willingly agree to if we did. The role of the priests is to mediate in some way, and always to bring the person closer to God, even if there has to be a temporary alienation in order to demonstrate the return.
The Book of Leviticus sometimes seems to be one of a world no longer relevant – altars and sacrifices, blood and smoke, white spots and red skin, magic and superstition. But reading it carefully it reveals itself as something else, rather like an optical illusion, another perception makes itself known. The Book of Leviticus isn’t primarily about the rituals and the spices, the prescriptions and the descriptions of priestly activity – it is first and foremost about what a priest should be, how a leader should behave. Empowered by their role as leaders of the worshipping community the priests use that power to create a society where everyone has access to God, everyone is able to be brought into the community. Because the priest declares a thing to be, so it becomes. Their job description is to effect ‘korban’ – translated often as ‘sacrifice’ but actually meaning something about “to draw more closely together.”
In Leviticus, the priest is the leader who holds the ability to create the community through the ritual system. Nowadays this is not something we can expect from an hereditary priesthood. So where do we look and who can take on the role to make sure that everyone is included, everyone can overcome disability and disaffection in order to be part of the whole people, to be a valued member of community? We no longer have a prescribed ritual system but we still have the imperative to find ways to bring people from the margins back into our society. The Book of Leviticus still calls to us to find a way to do this holy work – it calls to us. So the question for us now has to be “How will we choose to respond?”