By Dr. Tamar Frankiel, AJRCA Professor of Comparative Religion
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
The Torah’s presentations of tzarat, now usually translated ‘scale disease’ (rather than the older, incorrect ‘leprosy’) seem arcane and, at the very least, peculiar. But they raise an enduring issue: what is the relationship between a person’s thoughts and words, and the physical body? And what is the relationship of the body, with its own unique rhythms and products, to the physical and social world? Is there an ideal to strive for? How are people to deal with the aspects that are uncomfortable or disturbing?
Bodily emissions can be either normal, as in the case of women’s menstruation or men’s accidental seminal emissions, or abnormal, as in the case of scale diseases. Even when normal they created an unusual status, known in biblical times as tameh or impurity. When abnormal, there was anxiety about the spread of impurity to other people – as we still have with various kinds of disease – or even to inanimate objects. Physical and spiritual cleansing through ritual, together with quarantine, were ways of containing and correcting impurity.
One can find concerns like this, and rituals to deal with them, all over the world. What has been most interesting to biblical commentators, however, is the early attribution of scale disease to a particular moral violation: loshon hara, literally the evil tongue, or what we call slander. The logic seems to have been that slander, which threatened to break social bonds, was to be corrected in part by separation from society: “Quarantine.”
In a tightly knit tribal culture, isolation was a terrible thread, just one step away from being outcast. Being banished or exiled echoes back to the punishment of the first murderer, Cain, to wander until his death, and beyond that to the banishment of Adam and Chava from the home of humanity in the original Garden. Even today, solitary confinement is considered a harsh punishment for one already being punished for crimes against society.
There are laws against defamation (libel and slander) in modern society; in most places it’s a civil crime, and can be ‘paid for’ with money as assigned by the courts. But there are some more dangerous crimes of speech, namely ‘hate speech.’ The United States does not criminalize hate speech because of the First Amendment protecting free speech; but many countries do consider hate speech a crime, even without direct incitement to violence, and they can punish convicted perpetrator with imprisonment.
This may or may not carry the same weight as isolation of the slanderer in ancient times. But the vivid imagery of tzarat, the stain of disease that arose from slander, may help us appreciate how speech can poison the body public. The care with which Judaism approaches the halachot forbidding loshon hara, emphasized especially in modern times thanks to the work of the Chafetz Chaim, reminds us that this is a crucial step in social self-governance.
Sad to say, our society has become very careless with speech. We are infected with a plague of speech-viruses of speech that degrade self and others, from public use of epithets of disgust and anger, to outright false accusations. The results may not appear as scales on skin and houses, but they are obvious enough to make a sensitive person shrink from contact.
We can also learn from the cleansing of the person who had contracted tzarat. Besides sacrifices, there was a sprinkling with a mixture of red things – cedar wood, crimson wool, hyssop, and blood. We can’t be sure what these all meant symbolically, but red is often associated with aggression, power, and willfulness. Whether by the rule of like-cures-like, or simply by its symbolic impact on the person, the sprinkling was a potent reminder of the danger of aggression, and the need to cure oneself of even the smallest drops of evil speech.