Parashat Tazria

Judging Ourselves And Others

The priest's role in declaring and treating leprosy, a physical manifestation of spiritual impurity, teaches us not to judge our own or others' spiritual lives.

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Provided by KOLEL--The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada's Reform movement.


Parashat Tazria and the following parasha, Metzora, deal with issues of ritual purity and impurity, starting with ritual impurity after childbirth. Ritual impurity, or tumah, has nothing to do with being "unclean" physically, but was a spiritual state that prevented one from entering into holy areas. Similarly, the skin affliction that is discussed at length is not the biological disease leprosy but rather something that the Torah understands as the physical manifestation of a spiritual or ritual problem. This condition is called tzara'at; a person with it is called a metzora. A negah is a more general word meaning some kind of outbreak on one's body or clothing.

It's important to remember that all these rules, which seem so arcane and barbaric to us, were part of our ancestor's religious system. They were not merely the medical knowledge of the day. The Torah seems very concerned about bringing people back into the camp who would otherwise be ostracized or expelled.

In Focus

"The kohen (priest) shall look at the affliction on the skin of his flesh....and declare him ritually impure" (Leviticus 13:3).


Let me say again: The system of purity and impurity was about religion, not about disease, per se. The priests were to examine certain kinds of skin blemishes and make a declaration that someone was either ritually pure or impure, in which case that person had various kinds of rituals to perform, depending on the severity of the impurity.


What strikes me about this verse is that only the priests were to declare someone ritually impure--this was not a matter for just anybody to decide. (Cf. Deuteronomy 21:5, for example.)

It's easy to understand why: If neighbors were allowed to declare each other impure, there could be all kinds of panic and nasty recriminations, and people might use this weapon for personal gain or revenge. It's hard to be objective about someone's problems if your life is bound up in theirs--even today, the mental and physical health professions insist on certain boundaries around the personal relations of patients and caregivers.

Reminding ourselves that tzara'at was the physical manifestation of a spiritual condition, I'd like to suggest that there is a powerful lesson to be learned from the fact that the Torah authorizes only the priests to make a judgment of impurity. All too often, we think we know what's going on with another person: they eat too much, they drink too much, they're too lazy, they're workaholics, they're too permissive/too strict with their children, they should do this, they should do that.... The list goes on and on.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.