Parashat Tazria 5776

Rabbi Lea Mühlstein, 8 April 2016


The Power of Rituals

How are we, as Liberal Jews, to relate to this week’s Torah portion Tazria? Probably one of the least loved Torah portions in our cannon, the parashah focuses on the rituals that are connected to the mysterious disease Tzara’at. This disease is often incorrectly translated as leprosy, because one of its forms is a certain type of skin disease (Leviticus 13). But without having to go into a detailed medical analysis of the disease, we can easily see that Tzara’at is a different type of disease than leprosy as it can also affect clothes (Leviticus 13:47-59) or even buildings (Leviticus 14:33-53).

The founder of modern-orthodoxy and 19th century Bible commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out the fact that Tzara’at was treated by priests, rather than doctors, and thus concludes that it should not be interpreted as a medical problem at all, but rather as an exclusively spiritual ailment.

The fact that the priest is deeply involved in the inspection ritual of someone affected with Tzara’at also shows that the Bible does not consider the disease to be medically contagious. However, once diagnosed, a person infected with Tzara’at is to be isolated from the camp suggesting that the disease might somehow be spiritually contagious.

But what does it mean for something to be spiritually contagious? I think most of us know how infectious the sense of helplessness is when we see others struggling with challenges for which we cannot provide a practical solution. Who is left unaffected when they see a family member, a friend or fellow congregant struggling with an incurable disease or affected by unsurmountable financial hardship?

This is where the power of rituals comes in. As Bryan Bibb of Furman University notes in his book Ritual Words and Narrative Worlds in the Book of Leviticus: “Ritual theorists have long attended to the role of ritual in binding a community together, in resolving conflict and crisis, and in creating a context in which members of society feel secure and valued.”

The priest has a completely different role in our sedra than a doctor would have. Rather than attempting to treat the disease, the priest performs an inspection ritual. We might understand the priestly ritual as a way to control and exert power over a vulnerable individual – after all it is up to the priest whether the person is to be banished from the community for 7 days – but we can also look at this ritual from a different perspective.

In her book Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, Catherine Bell, a leading scholar of religious ritual, argues that “ritual does not control; rather, it constitutes a particular dynamic of social empowerment.” The priests are only able to perform their rituals and exert control over the individual affected, because the community empowers them to do so. As Bibb points out: “[a]lthough the rituals exclude, manipulate and alienate these individuals, they provide a structured path by which they might be included back into the community.” The ritual can thus serve a dual purpose: it provides a framework or process for someone who is affected by mysterious misfortune to reintegrate into communal life and, maybe more importantly, acts to reassure the community so that a sense of security, hope and optimism may return.

So, maybe even as a Liberal Jew we can find something positive and meaningful in these strange rituals which are found in our sacred literature.
Yet, we must, at the same time, not be blind to the cruelty of these rituals. And so I want to end with a most powerful description of what this experience might have been like. It is a song by the band Girls in Trouble entitled Snow/Scorpion & Spiders and is based on the biblical description of Moses’ sister Miriam contracting Tzara’at (Numbers 12). You can listen to it at www.girlsintroublemusic.com/songs/snow-scorpions-spiders/

Snow/Scorpions & Spiders
Well my mother named me bitter
Although as a child I was so kind
Hiding myself in the trees to watch over my brother

But still my name was bitter
Bitter the taste of the sea
Bitter the cries of the horses drowning behind us

If anybody had asked me
I might not have chosen to go
But everyone knows
Sometimes you don’t have a choice

So when he said You’re banished,
Seven days in the desert alone
I just started walking
I knew there was nothing to say

The scorpions and the spiders
Crawled up to me and stopped in my shade
Together in silence they watched
As the sun crossed the sky

And if your father spit in your face
Wouldn’t you want to leave that place
And if your skin should turn to snow
Wouldn’t you have to go
And if your G-d should turn from you
wouldn’t you turn too.

Still I don’t regret a minute
And I don’t regret an hour
of the week that I lived all alone
at the top of the mountain
Though no voice came down from heaven
and I never saw words written in fire
I did see the birds of prey pick all the carcasses clean

And if your father spit in your face
Wouldn’t you want to leave that place
And if your skin should turn to snow
Wouldn’t you have to go
And if your G-d should turn from you
wouldn’t you turn too.

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