Embracing the Modern-Day Metzora

How we can restore dignity to the diseased.

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In Parashat Metzora we read of the purification ritual for the metzora, the unfortunate person struck with tzaraat--a preternatural skin disease that resulted in a status of ritual uncleanliness and temporary banishment from Israel's encampment. The surprising intimacy of the purification ritual underscores the importance of restoring dignity and community to those living with stigmatic disease.

In the biblical imagination, the metzora occupied a space similar to that of the leper in the popular imagination--one who is isolated and cast-out for a shameful affliction (Midrash Tanchuma Metzora). Although indisputably mistaken, many English editions of the Torah preserve a centuries-old chain of mistranslations that renders tzaraat as "leprosy" and metzora as "leper."

Indeed, some translations of the Torah deliberately preserve this error to imbue our understanding of tzaraat with the dread and fear inevitably conjured by leprosy's mention. This malevolent portrait of tzaraat is further reinforced by the Rabbis' reading of the malady as Divine punishment for acts of slander and malicious gossip.

Ritual Purification

Against this backdrop, the ritual for the metzora's purification is jarring in the physical intimacy it demands between the priest and the afflicted. After initial rites that permit the metzora to reenter the encampment, the metzora offers sacrifices.

From these, the priest "take[s] some of the blood of the guilt offering, and . . . put[s] it on the ridge of the right ear of him who is being cleansed, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot." The priest then pours sacrificial oil into his own left palm. Some of this oil he sprinkles "before the Lord." Some he smears on the metzora over the sacrificial blood. The remnant, he pours onto the metzora's head (Leviticus 14:10-20).
The intimacy of this ritual emerges clearly when one considers that the priest--who must avoid any contact with ritual uncleanness--himself smears the metzora's extremities and anoints him with oil. In so doing, he advertises that the metzora retains no impurity, but is instead suitable for an intimate encounter with the holy man.

Once the metzora is purified--these rituals seem to say--there is no clinging "taint." The rite is thus carefully calibrated to remove not just the metzora's ritual uncleanness, but also to restore his dignity, to eliminate any residual stigma or shame.

Re-acceptance of the Metzora

This message is further underscored by the ritual's scriptural context. Similar smearing and anointing appear elsewhere. Aaron's and his sons' priestly consecration is marked by Moses smearing sacrificial blood onto their extremities (Leviticus 8:23-24). Saul is transformed from citizen to King when Samuel anoints his head with oil (Samuel I 10:1).

Just as these rituals confer Divine authority to priests and kings, so too do they confer re-acceptance of the metzora into the Divine community. Indeed, he is not begrudgingly allowed back in, but is honored through the same choreography that dignifies Israel's priests and kings. 

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Rachel Farbiarz

Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law. Rachel worked as a clerk for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, after which she practiced law focusing on the civil rights and humane treatment of prisoners.