The Torah readings of Tazria and Metzora are often read together in the synagogue – and, a main subject of both Torah readings is leprosy although the Hebrew term (צרעת) translated as leprosy is evidently not referring to the medical disease of leprosy that we know today. Biblical leprosy described in these Torah readings is a broader term described as an affliction or infection (נגע), which afflicts or infects the skin of human beings, clothes and houses.
The concern of the Bible in the Torah readings of Tazria and Metzora with leprosy is actually not as a medical disease but as a form of ritual defilement that excludes the person afflicted not only from the tabernacle (the central place of ritual worship in the Israelite culture) but also from human society. Priests make a diagnosis not of a medical nature for the purpose of medical treatment but of a ritual nature in order to determine whether leprosy that afflicts someone (or clothing or a house) is defiling rendering the person (or clothing or house) as impure. A person (or clothing or a house) afflicted with leprosy is isolated to prevent the spread of ritual impurity and not the spread of disease.
The question that arises here is – what is the relevance of these Biblical passages dealing with Biblical leprosy, which was a form of ritual defilement, for a contemporary reader? None of these laws are applicable to contemporary Jews. Before examining this question, I want to give some background about traditional Judaism.
We as Jews in traditional rabbinic Judaism live not by what is written in the Bible but by the Bible as interpreted by the Jewish tradition, and therefore in principle traditional rabbinic Judaism is not fundamentalist (in the sense of a literal understanding of Biblical texts). Traditional rabbinic Judaism is not bound by the literal meaning of Biblical texts, not bound by what is written explicitly in Biblical texts and not bound by the plain, simple meaning of Biblical texts – and, this is true of the Halacha (legal material), and Aggadah (moral, philosophic and spiritual teachings) of the Jewish tradition.
Most of the material of the Jewish rabbinic tradition, whether legal material or moral, philosophic and spiritual teachings, is not the plain meaning of Scripture – and is considered midrash (midrash Halacha or midrash Aggadah). Midrash, originally, was a method of Biblical commentary (interpretation) of the Talmudic rabbis, according to which they elaborated beyond the plain meaning of Scripture – and also included stories or parables that were told as an elaboration upon Biblical texts.
I will give an example from the realm of Jewish law to illustrate that we as Jews in traditional rabbinic Judaism live not by what is written in the Bible but by the Bible as interpreted by the Jewish tradition. In the Bible it is written – “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23, 19). The verse is understood by the Jewish rabbinic tradition to prohibit the cooking and eating of milk and meat together. But, this is not the plain, simple meaning of the Biblical verse. The Biblical verse speaks only about not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk. For example, it is possible to roast a kid on an open fire, which would not constitute cooking according to the Jewish tradition, and to roast and eat the kid with milk from a cow that is not the mother of the kid, which would not violate what is written in the Biblical verse. Moreover, the Hebrew word (חלב) that is translated as milk may not actually mean milk, as the word can also mean fat. It is even highly likely that the original meaning of the Biblical verse was that it is forbidden to cook a kid in the fat of the mother (which may have been an ancient Canaanite practice), as in the Bible and in the Biblical world it was the meat and fat of animals that were sacrificed as a part of sacrificial worship.
Most Halachic (legal) material of the Jewish tradition is midrash Halacha such as the prohibition of cooking and eating milk and meat together – as this is not what is written in the plain meaning of the verse “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. Most Aggadic (moral, philosophic and spiritual) teachings of the Jewish tradition are midrash Aggadah. The verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Leviticus 24, 20) is not understood according to the Jewish tradition in its plain or literal meaning as actual bodily punishment, which would reflect a very primitive conception of justice – rather, the verse is understood midrashically (not according to the plain meaning) as requiring monetary compensation. The Talmudic method of midrash of not being bound by the plain or literal meaning of Biblical texts is what allowed Judaism to evolve and develop, and, an important image of Torah (Judaism) in the Talmudic tradition is a tree of life – and, a tree is organic constantly growing and changing, while at the same time preserving its identity.
The Talmudic method of midrash allowed the Talmudic rabbis to give moral and spiritual relevance to passages such as the Biblical laws of leprosy. If we return to the Biblical laws of leprosy, it is clear that in the plain meaning the laws are not concerned with leprosy as a medical disease. Many have pointed out that in the case of the affliction of a house, the priest commands that the house is to be cleared of all its contents before the priest examines the house to determine if it has become defiled (Leviticus 14, 36) – and, if the concern here was with leprosy as a medical disease under no circumstances would the contents be removed from the house. The reason given in the plain meaning of Scripture (Leviticus 14, 36) for the contents being removed is so that they do not become ritually defiled if the priest determines that the house has been defiled. The question, remains, though, as to what relevance such laws of purity and impurity can have for a contemporary Jew.
The Talmudic rabbis already in the Talmudic period faced such a question. The Talmudic rabbis used the methodology of midrash to elaborate beyond the plain meaning of Scripture and to interpret the Biblical laws of leprosy as a sign calling for those afflicted (whether afflicted in the skin, clothing or house) to examine their ways and to do tshuva. Tshuva (תשובה) is a central concept of the Jewish tradition, which is often translated inadequately as repentance, but comes from a Hebrew root that means return (שוב) – and, the concept of tshuva then is a return to the path of right living. The Talmudic rabbis interpreted midrashically that Biblical leprosy is a sign that those afflicted must examine their ways concerning the evil tongue. On the Biblical verse “This will be the law of the leper (מצרע) at the time of his purification” (Leviticus 14, 2), Reish Lakish in the Talmud (Arachin 15b) interprets midrashically “this will be the law of one who speaks the evil tongue (מוציא שם רע)” (and Reish Lakish plays upon the Hebrew term for leper in the verse that is similar to a rabbinic phrase for speaking the evil tongue).
The laws of the evil tongue in traditional Judaism are among the most severe. Far more important in traditional Judaism than what goes into the mouth (dietary laws) is what comes out of the mouth (laws of the evil tongue and speech). Not only are laws of the evil tongue and speech of an ethical nature (“between a person and one’s fellow human being”), whereas dietary laws are a ritual practice (“between a person and God”, and thus a personal and private issue) – but, the Talmudic rabbis compared the evil tongue to murder. In the Book of Jeremiah (9, 7) the tongue is compared to a sharpened arrow – and, the Talmudic rabbis pointed out that just as an arrow cannot be brought back to life; so, too, words cannot be called back once uttered.
One other crucial matter – there are those who justify speaking disparagingly of another by saying that this is the truth. However, the evil tongue (לשון הרע) in traditional Judaism is characterized by two things – not only the disparagement of another, but also that such disparagement is true and not a lie. This is an even worse sin if one disparages another by lying, which is considered defamation (מוציא שם רע). The very definition then of the evil tongue in traditional Judaism is the disparagement of a fellow human being – and, this disparagement is true.
Thus, the method of midrash allowed the Talmudic rabbis to interpret Biblical laws of leprosy not in the plain meaning concerning ritual defilement, which would have no relevance even already in the Talmudic period. Rather, through the method of midrash the Talmudic rabbis elaborated and interpreted Biblical laws of leprosy as a call for us to do tshuva (and return to the path of right living) by examining our speech – and, they interpreted the laws of leprosy as symbolic of a prohibition of the evil tongue and speech leading to our spiritual defilement of a moral nature.