Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris, 28 April 2017One of the special pleasures of teaching at Leo Baeck College is that some times, if one is very lucky, one gets to supervise the MA dissertation of a final year rabbinic student. This year, as LBC has seven students completing their training, many of the faculty have been able to participate in this exciting task. As for me, I have been co-supervising one student and solely supervising another. I have learned a great deal from the work they have both been doing. For the purposes of looking at this week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, thankfully I have just completed the reading and marking of Kath Vardi’s dissertation.
While her dissertation is not strictly on the subject of Tazria-Metzora, it does contain a section that helps me to think about the parasha. All of our rabbinic students must write an MA dissertation that contains an applied component – a sort of ‘how I will use my research for this dissertation in my forthcoming rabbinate’ section – and student rabbi Vardi’s applied component discusses head on how to work with bits of the biblical text that we would rather not read. I was particularly struck by her analysis of both the Liberal and Reform lectionaries, which neatly demonstrates just how often we, as progressive Jews, consciously decide not to read parts of the Torah that we don’t like. We have sanitized the text of the Torah to a large extent by simply not reading. And Vardi’s dissertation directly challenges that approach.
Tazria-Metzora challenges that approach as well, because if we only read the bits of Tazria-Metzora that we liked, we might not read it all. The beginning of the parasha deals with how many days a woman is unclean following on from childbirth. In case you were wondering, twice as long if she bears a girl than if she bears a boy. As a self-confessed feminist, I find that Leviticus 12 makes for an uncomfortable read whatever apologetics are read into it.
Leviticus 13-14 deal almost exclusively with what is normally translated as leprosy, thought modern scholarship dispute whether this illness is really the skin disease in question. Psoriasis and other skin maladies have been suggested. The truth is that getting a modern medical diagnosis from the biblical text is challenging. Leviticus 14: 33–54 does not deal with human illness at all, but rather with an ‘eruptive plague’ [v. 34] that besets buildings, but which bears a category similarity to skin diseases. The likelihood is that the description of green (or possibly yellow) or red streaks that appear on the walls of a house may, in fact, describe dry rot.
Finally, Leviticus 15 finishes off the parasha with a description of both male and female bodily discharges, how they should be dealt with, the degree of ritual impurity they transmit, and how to regain a state of ritual purity. Among other things, lots of laundering and ritual baths are involved. The penalty for not guarding against dealing with these matters properly is severe – death for anyone who defiles the Mishkan by being ritually impure [Lv 15: 31].
What is a committed Liberal Jew to do with these passages? States of ritual purity or impurity are not of great relevance to us. Fundamentally, all of these passages are about only that – ritual purity, who is and who isn’t, what is and what isn’t, and how both people and buildings can be restored to states of ritual purity. Not only as Liberal Jews might we not care much about a category relevant only to a Temple that we have no desire to see rebuilt, much less put back into use; we might also find the things that create categories of ritual impurity problematic, if not downright discriminatory.
I’ve scoured the internet and read various books in my office. I could have written something that might well have spoken to some people about the needs of post-natal women for privacy and space or the ongoing challenges of preventable diseases like leprosy in parts of the developing world etc.
But I’d rather say just this – even as a rabbi and Bible scholar deeply engaged in the act of read and transmitting Torah, I find Tazria-Metzora disturbing, upsetting, and even repulsive in parts. Yet I also think we need to read it. The Torah isn’t just the bits that I like or even just the bits I find challenging. It is also the bits that discomfort me, that unnerve me, and that repulse me. Ultimately Torah is a mirror of life, which is not always comfortable or comforting, but sometimes unsettling and disturbing. For Torah to speak to us in the fullness of our experiences, it must also be these things, too. Thank you, soon-to-be-Rabbi Kath Vardi, for teaching me this truth.
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