Dr. Steven S. Foldes, Ph.D
D'var Torah- Shmini
April 10, 2021
Making Sense of Vayikra: The Curious Case of Tzara'at
Today, we are well into Vayikra, a difficult book filled with things many of us find foreign and baffling at best, irrelevant and primitive at worst. The majestic story of creation and the fascinating stories of our earliest ancestors are over for the year. In Shmini we begin with animal sacrifice and end with kashrut, and along the way we encounter the death of two of Aaron’s sons because they proffered some kind of unauthorized fire offering to God. Vayikra is consumed with lots of prohibitions about things like menstrual blood, threats and curses, and what looks like an antiquated diagnostic manual for priests about leprosy. Why does the central of the five books in the Torah, the book with which children traditionally began the study of Torah, focus on this stuff? As we used to say in the 70s, "I can't relate!"
I would like to suggest that Vayikra, while it may contain an off-putting set of prohibitions, is the most ideological and in some ways the most central of our sacred texts. Today I am reaching back to my training as a cultural anthropologist to offer an interpretation to help us better comprehend this difficult text.
My starting point is that Vayikra cannot be understood in the same way we read the narratives of Sh'mot because Vayikra's source is the unique world of the priests. To our modern Western minds, this world requires a symbolic mode of interpretation in order to be meaningful. I will illustrate this by reference to the laws of "tzara'at," commonly translated as leprosy.
What is Vayikra about? For the priestly authors of Vayikra, the objective of life was kadosh, defined as holiness, sacrality, or being set apart. Howard Schwartz argues, in his remarkable book The Savage in Judaism, that the priestly authors of Vayikra sought in this text to communicate their cosmological interpretation of God's creation of the world. According to that account, one important aspect of creation was the classification of the natural world. As we know, God distinguished the light from darkness, the waters below from the waters above, and the land from the waters. Vayikra is similarly preoccupied with classification, the creation of order out of chaos. As Dr. Schwartz points out, this is a classic example of imitatio Dei. Just as God classified the world at creation, so God's holy people is expected to reaffirm and uphold the distinctions god implanted in the world at creation, and observing and extending these classifications was the path to achieve sacrality.
This is expressed in several ways in Vayikra. The Israelites must not mate two kinds of cattle, plant two species of grain in a single field, or weave a garment from linen and wool, materials taken from a plant and an animal. To do any of these things is to undermine the distinctions God embedded in creation. Similarly, Vayikra conceives of certain sexual acts, such as bestiality, as unnatural because they threaten the order established at creation. Further, on observing Shabbat, Israelites affirm the basic distinction between sacred and profane time, a distinction God also established at creation. In the priestly writings, then, creation and classification go hand in hand. Even a superficial reading of Vayikra shows that the priests conceived of classification as an integral part of the religious life. The creation story supplies a rationale both for the preoccupation with taxonomy in general and for many of the specific distinctions proposed in Vayikra.
According to Everett Fox, the priestly authors had in mind a world of desired order and perfection: a realm in which the human world mirrors the divine order portrayed in the creation story, creating distinctions in the natural and human world in which anomaly and undesired mixture are not permitted, and in which boundaries are zealously guarded. The result is a world in which everything and everyone are to take their place under the perfect worship of a perfect God, banishing or avoiding death, defect, and disorder. The majority of Vayikra concerns how to deal with what the priestly authors considered to be threats to maintaining sacrality.
The priests dealt with these threats through separation. Boundaries were erected around the human body. There is a boundary around what enters the human body, expressed through kashrut, which we encounter in today’s parsha. There is a boundary between life and death, expressed variously through laws concerning sexual functions and genital discharges. And there is a boundary about inner and outer surfaces, expressed through laws about tzara'at, to which I will return.
As is true with many other cultures, the priests enforced boundaries through the concept of purity. As written in today’s parsha, “This is a law for all time throughout the ages, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.” (Vayikra 10:9-10) The priests used the terms "tamei," or unclean, and "tahor," or clean. It is essential to understand that tamei and tahor are about ritual cleanliness or pollution, not about hygiene. Being tamei, unclean, was not a sin or a violation of the moral order. In the priestly view, one became tamei as a matter of course. Women, for example, became tamei every time they menstruated. Being tamei was a violation of the moral order only if someone in a ritual state of "tum'a" (n.) came into contact with "kadosh," the sacred, a transgression of a crucial boundary, and that was mortally dangerous. One who became tamei could approach the sacred only after being made tahor, clean. This transformation was achieved through ritual sacrifice and through water, which not so much cleansed as ritually purified the person who was tamei. That is how the priests created, enforced and protected a sense of sacrality.
The laws of pollution were put into place to protect the sanctuary, the priests and the people from estrangement from God, so that the land might not "vomit out" the people, as it previously had others who were not kadosh. Failure to observe the separations of God's creation led to impurity and was therefore profane. Unfortunately, as Rachel Adler and others remind us, some of the very boundary demarcations intended to establish right relations instead built certain injustices around gender and sexuality into the social fabric. Only in a patriarchy, for instance, would menstruation be seen as polluting. But that is a topic for another time.
In Vayikra the realm of the sacred is more than simply separated from the realm of the profane. As part of their vision, the priests elaborated God's classification of the universe by the qualities of wholeness, completeness, and perfection, which became in their view essential aspects of sacrality. From the priests' perspective, to be kadosh is to be whole, to be one; holiness is unity, integrity, perfection of the individual and of the kind. Indeed, much of Vayikra is taken up with emphasizing the physical perfection that is required of things presented in the Tabernacle and of the persons approaching it. The animals offered in sacrifice must be without blemish, women must be purified after childbirth, persons with tzara'at should be separated and ritually cleansed before being allowed to re-enter the sacred encampment. All bodily discharges are defiling and disqualify one from approaching the Tabernacle. Priests may only come into contact with death when their own close kin die, and the high priest must never have contact with death. He must be perfect as a man. In short, the concept of sacrality is given an external, physical expression in the wholeness of the body seen as a perfect container.
These are the salient characteristics of the priests’ uncompromising vision of the sacred people the Israelites were supposed to be. Clearly, the world described by the priestly authors of Vayikra was a rigid, and a very moral, universe. For every action carried moral significance, from the momentous act of worshipping another god to the seemingly minor act of using two kinds of materials in the same garment. As Dr. Schwartz suggests, this unbending perspective reinforced the hierarchical status of the priests, whose office was ascribed by virtue of birth rather than achieved due to study and apprenticeship.
But what, in this context, are the laws of tzara’at about? Why, indeed, are they here in the first place, together with the laws of kashrut and the Sanctuary? This is the only illness considered in Vayikra; What is unique about it? Is this an editorial lapse? Is this a section of helpful hints for the High Priest, a kind of priestly how-to? Clearly there is the common theme of ritual purity which links kashrut and the laws regarding tzara’at, but then why not consider other diseases that might also be contagious or physically disfiguring. Given the emphasis in Vayikra on being without blemish, why does Vayikra fail to consider the lame or the blind to be tamei, or those who have other contagious diseases? And why is it the priest who deals with this medical problem rather than a healer?
In fact, it is far from certain that leprosy is what these laws are about. The Hebrew "tzara'at" is of uncertain etymology. In the text, tzara'at designated a variety of skin ailments, but also referred to unusual changes in the appearance of fabrics and house walls. In the Greek translation of the Torah, tzara'at was rendered as "lepra," which means "a scaly condition." "Lepra" became "leprosy" in the Middle Ages. Tzara'at may have included leprosy but, unlike leprosy, from which it was not possible to recover at that time, apparently one could recover from tzara'at. The fact that tzara'at applied to textiles and houses as well as bodies indicates that a wide concept was being applied. I would like to suggest that the underlying concept was that visible imperfection in the skin, another boundary, transgresses the boundaries, disturbs the order of a sacred society.
The priestly authors did not regard tzara'at as just one disease among others. Tzara'at was a "nega," a "plague" or a "smiting," the manifestation of extreme divine displeasure. For, unlike the person in a routine state of tum'a, ritual uncleanliness, tzara'at did not merely exclude the defiled person from the Sanctuary, it barred that person from all human society and sent him or her into mourning. This carried the implication that the victim did something awful to deserve his or her fate.
Over the centuries, this inspired the rabbis to search for causes. Tzara'at became associated with slander and gossip through Midrashic punning on "metzora," meaning "leper," and "motzi ra," meaning "slanderer." This association served generations of rabbis well as a proof text when they sought to condemn slander and gossip in their communities.
What was tzara'at, this smiting, about in the world of the priestly authors of Vayikra? Let us return to the priests and their vision of sacrality, and to their concern with classification, separation, ritual purity and wholeness. I have argued that we should understand the laws of Vayikra as the priests' concerted attempt to create sacrality in the community by imposing boundaries to protect the sacred from the profane chaos of daily life. The skin is itself a boundary. As anthropologist Terence Turner points out, throughout the world the skin is perceived as a link between the biological person and the social world in which he or she lives, between the biological individual and the "body social." In the Amazonian society he studied, the Kayapo, Professor Turner observed elaborate body painting and other ornamentation of the skin, which he interpreted as a way that this society's culture was literally as well as figuratively imposed on the biological person. Jews are familiar with this, are we not? What else is circumcision if not the literal as well as symbolic imposition of Jewish culture on the male body?
Tzara'at may have been the inverse of this. It appears to have been the physical manifestation of an inner disorder, an eruption of disorder that threatened the perfection of the individual and the order of his or her social world. In this sense, tzara'at undermined the priestly vision of a world modeled on creation, with its carefully drawn boundaries and separations. Of course, there were other biological disorders, but it may be that tzara’at represented something more, possibly a physical manifestation of an unstated violation of proper social relationships in the community, a sign that might emerge on the skin of a person, on a garment, or on the walls of a house. I suggest this based on evidence from other cultures where, when envy or hatred disrupts the social fabric, an oracle may be consulted to identify the source of the social breach. In this case, the priest may identify the source of the disruption in the person, garment or house, and attempt to resolve the breach by sending that person out of the encampment, and to a symbolic death.
If this interpretation is right, then it may explain why it is a priest who had to discern that a person, a garment or a house was suffering from tzara'at. For it was the priests who were invested with the spiritual expertise to identify any threats to their vision of a carefully ordered sacred society. The role of the priest was not medical; He did not attempt a cure. His task was to eliminate the threat to the priestly vision of a strict moral universe posed by the ritual impurity of tzara'at, which he did by proclaiming the sufferer tamei and sending him or her into isolation. But in isolating the afflicted person the priest's purpose was not to protect the public health. Other, more virulent diseases did not require isolation. The priests' purpose in isolating the sufferer of tzara'at, in banishing the sufferer from sacred time and space and sending him or her symbolically to the grave, was to prevent the spread of ritual impurity and, perhaps, to eliminate a threat to the wholeness and integrity of the community.
We no longer live in the world of the priestly authors of Vayikra. Tzara'at is no longer an active concept for us. But through a symbolic interpretation of the text we can come much closer to understanding the centrality of the seemingly arcane preoccupations of Vayikra, such as tzara’at. Here is a question we might consider that derives from this interpretation of Vayikra. As we’ve seen, boundaries were central to the priests. They saw boundaries as extending God’s work in the creation, and as the way to create a sense of the sacred and enforce an ordered and moral society. Today, we live in a relativist and highly individualistic world, in which many of us rebel against any boundaries imposed by experts and authorities. Some of us still practice the boundaries established in kashrut and shabbat, an inheritance from the world of the priests. Is there more can we learn, is there more we want to learn, from the priests’ vision for how to live a Jewish life?
1998 Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.
Bamberger, Bernard J.
1981 "Leviticus," In W. Gunther Plaut (ed.), The Torah: A Modern Commentary. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
1990 The Savage in Judaism: An Anthropology of Israelite Religion and Ancient Judaism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
1995 "Leviticus: Now He Called," In Everett Fox (ed.), The Five Books of Moses. New York: Schocken Books.
Turner, Terence S.
2012 “The Social Skin.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (2): 486–504.
Bio: Steven Foldes, Ph.D., is a social scientist with over 40 years of experience conducting public health and health services research and leading research teams. Currently an independent research consultant and Adjunct Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Foldes previously worked in leadership positions in state government and private industry. His policy-related publications have influenced state and national policies, such as his work on the healthcare costs of tobacco, which helped pass the Minnesota Freedom to Breathe legislation in 2007 that ended tobacco use in public places. His more recent work focuses on psychosocial interventions for caregivers of persons with dementia, and the economics of youth homelessness.
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