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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT TAZRIA-METZORA - ROSH HODESH IYAR
April 29, 2006 - 1 Iyar 5766

Annual: Leviticus 12:1 - 15:33 (Etz Hayim, p. 649; Hertz p. 460)
Triennial Cycle: Leviticus 13:40 - 14:32 (Etz Hayim p. 657; Hertz p. 464)
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1 - 24, 66:23 (Etz Hayim p. 1220; Hertz p. 944)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Summary

With this double portion, we reach the heart of the difficult laws of ritual purity and impurity (tahor and tamei). Certain activities, bodily flows, or diseases cause someone to become ritually impure, and therefore forbidden to enter holy areas, including the Temple. This portion also contains detail of purification rituals. The purpose of all these laws is to add to and to preserve the holiness of the Temple by making sure that only those in a proper state of purity could enter.

Childbirth creates ritual impurity. After the birth of a son, a woman is tamei for seven days. The brit milah, or bris, takes place on the eighth day. After the birth of a daughter, the woman is tamei for 14 days. She had to wait an additional 33 days for a boy, 66 days for a girl. (One can only speculate on why the time of impurity is double for the birth of a daughter.)

The bulk of both of these portions deals with the symptoms of a skin disease called tzara'at, often mistranslated leprosy. The rabbis felt that this condition was not merely physical but spiritual. It was caused by gossip. The priest would check the symptoms, including discoloration of skin, and declare the person ritually unclean. This disease, which may be a kind of fungus, also can break out in a person's clothing or on the walls of his or her house.

Metzora is concerned with the detailed rituals of purification for someone who has been found to have tzara'at. This portion also includes rituals to restore purity following various physical flows from the body. A man's semen or a woman's menstrual blood causes a man or a woman to become tamai. So do various unnatural flows, perhaps caused by disease. Purification includes immersion in a mikvah, a body of water that has gathered naturally.

Issue #1 - Healing

"The priest shall examine the affection of the skin of his body; if the hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection" (Leviticus 13:3)

Discussion

  1. The priest is the one commanded to inspect the body and decide if the disease tzara'at has broken out. Why should a religious leader do this instead of a doctor? Is there a spiritual side to healing? Is there any efficacy to the healing services that are so popular today? Do traditional prayers for the sick work?
  2. Too often today many doctors look at the disease, not at the person. Too often they take a materialistic view of the body, seeing it as a machine to be fixed. It is similar to a driver bringing a car to the mechanic to be repaired or tuned up. The only object is to get the machine working properly again. That is why so many patients say, "The doctor came and saw my symptoms, my disease, my problems. But the doctor never saw me." If that is so often the case, what can we do to see that physicians are better trained? Can our society as a whole take a more holistic view toward healing?
  3. We have all seen faith healers on television and the many books and magazine articles that address the power of faith to promote health; some faiths replace medicine with prayer completely. Though as Jews we might be tempted to discount the concept of faith as an independent healing power, we certainly understand its impact for improving health and happiness. The words of the traditional prayer for healing include a request for "refu-at ha-nefesh u'refu-at ha-guf," healing of soul and body. How are those related? Can the body be healed without an attendant healing of the soul? Can the soul be healed when the body is not healed, or perhaps can never be healed?

Issue #2 - Family Purity

"When a woman has a discharge, her discharge being blood from her body, she shall remain in her menstrual impurity seven days" (Leviticus 15:19)

Discussion

  1. One area of Jewish law practiced by many Orthodox Jews but ignored by most Conservative Jews is family purity. Nonetheless, there has been a recent rekindling of interest in these laws by many serious Jews. A husband and wife separate for a time when the woman has her menstrual flow. Then, after counting seven days, the woman goes to the mikvah, a natural gathering of water, and immerses herself. (According to the Torah she counts seven days altogether; according to rabbinic law, she counts seven white days after all bleeding has stopped.) Then the couple can resume marital relations. The Torah is trying to add to the holiness of sex through periods of separation and coming together. Does this work?
  2. Many authorities see a romantic reason for these laws. Often there is a sense of newness and excitement to mikvah night, almost like a second honeymoon. "Rabbi Meir said, [The Torah taught these laws] so that she will be beloved by her husband as on the day she entered the huppah [marriage canopy]" (Niddah 31b) Is Rabbi Meir right?
  3. Some feminists are deeply troubled by these laws. Why does a natural female cycle make a woman ritually impure? (Note: Seminal emission, also natural, makes a man ritually impure. But this form of impurity has fallen out of practice, while the other is still part of Jewish law.) Other feminists see great meaning in these laws. First, the law is considered one of three classical women's mitzvot. The law also makes an important statement about the relationship between men and women. As a consequence of observing this law, a husband and wife are constrained from treating each other as sexual objects. During part of the month, sex becomes off limits; husband and wife must relate to one another in other ways. How would these laws fit into an egalitarian understanding of Judaism?

 
 
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