This week’s double reading is the combined Parashot of Tazria-Metzora, literally to conceive and to be afflicted with a tzara’at, a word that has no known meaning but represented some sort of foreign growth that would settle on the skin, clothes or the walls of a house. Frankly, we have no idea what it really was, it was already unknown by the third century C.E., but it presents as some sort of fungus, mould or bacterial colony. Yet, it was precisely that ignorance that drove its meaning.
The late Susan Sontag in her much criticised “Illness as a Metaphor” observed that societies need to have one illness which they could identify with evil, and attach blame to its victim. She argued that each of tuberculosis, cancer and Aids were three such diseases around which a mystique had developed, that were only dispelled once the physical causes of the illness had been revealed. Simply, what we don’t know scares us, if not repels us. Tzara’at was such a condition. By the days of the Mishnaic Period, circa 200 C.E. any actual experience with it had long been lost and any experience had long been forgotten.
Some Torah commentators had suggested that it was a form of leprosy (see for example Sforno). However, this theory has been now been discredited by Torah scholars (e.g. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch) and scientists (e.g. Jared Diamond) who concluded that leprosy was not an active disease in the geographical sphere of the Israelites. Notwithstanding, a Metzorawas in fact treated like a leper, who at one time was forced to live in seclusion, lest they infect someone. They that were afflicted by the Tzara’at experienced a similar, though temporary exclusion; they were isolated from the community. They were believed to be so impure, or perhaps so contagious, that they were required to warn people of their presence by shouting out, as they walked: “Contaminated, contaminated, contaminated”.
The protocols of dealing with a tzara’at strongly suggest that physical health wasn’t the issue. It was identified by a priest and rid of by ritual sacrifice; hence, there are firm grounds for believing that a Metzora underlying affliction was a diseased soul. The Rambam taught that Tzara’at was related to seven human actions forbidden by the Torah: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devised wicked thoughts, feet that ran eagerly toward evil, a false witness and one who sowed discord among people. The Ramban observed that since the afflictions could only apply to Jews, Tzara’at were not conventional physical ailments, but spiritual punishments. They were excluded lest some of their immoral behaviour somehow infect their neighbours.
Under the broad rubric of a tzara’at, the Torah describes and deals with (other) issues of personal impurity; bodily emissions. Blood, especially from the menstrual discharge, would render women impure for a significant monthly period and be separated from her community for at least one week. It was a form of taboo shared by the Israelites’ contemporaries and also some modern contemporaries of Judaism, including Muslims, Hindus and some Christian denominations.
Exclusion from one’s community can be a very unsettling experience, it’s is so unnatural that sometimes the Torah refers to it as “cutting off”. In our day, it would be the equivalent of shunning, a practice of a number of religious groups to mark disapproval of a person who chooses a different life. They too are cut off, not only from their community and their friends but also family; parents, siblings, and most tragically, their children. In such cases the metaphor was all too clear: to excise the cancer lest it spread.