Disease or Divine Reckoning?

Context

The bulk of the parshiot of Tazria and Metzora deal with a description of the dramatic effects of tzara’at, often defined (for want of a better term) as biblical leprosy.

The Torah delineates in fine detail the specifics of this mysterious affliction – which affects individuals, clothes and dwellings – and the steps to be taken under the guidance of the Kohanim towards its diagnosis and treatment.

Questions

What exactly is tzara’at, biblical leprosy? Is this affliction a natural, physical illness or a supernatural phenomenon?

Given the myriad diseases that affect humankind, why does the Torah devote so much text to a description of this specific malady, its diagnosis and treatment?

Approaches

The mystery of tzara’at gives rise to a wide-ranging series of observations among the commentaries.

A.
At one end of the spectrum lie those scholars who view tzara’at as a contagious physical illness with dangerous potential for spread to the entire population.

The Abravanel, for example, explains the Torah’s concern for “afflicted” clothing in distinctly natural terms. Unlike strong materials such as metal, clothing will readily absorb bodily decay upon close personal contact. The Torah is, therefore, concerned that tzara’at will spread from a metzora (an individual afflicted with tzara’at) to his garments. To prevent further contagion, therefore, all suspicious stains and growths on clothing must be examined by a Kohen.

For his part, the Ralbag interprets the puzzling phenomena of clothing and dwelling afflictions according to scientific theory of his day. Foreign moisture or heat entering an item, he claims, causes an imbalance in that item’s natural stasis and leads to the item’s disintegration. This destructive process is evidenced at an early stage through the appearance of red or green growth (colors associated in the text with tzara’at).

Although the Meshech Chochma initially categorizes the theme of tzara’at as one of the “secrets of the Torah,” he then avers: “Nonetheless, one can say that these afflictions are contagious diseases.” The treatment of the illness itself, this scholar maintains, is ample evidence of its communicable nature. The metzora experiences enforced isolation and is required to ac-tively alert others to his condition. Any physical interaction with infected individuals is extremely dangerous. The Torah, therefore, assigns the task of such interaction (the diagnosis and treatment of the ill) to the sons of Aharon who, in their role as Kohanim, are separate from the rest of the people and are granted extraordinary divine protection.

Finally, Rabbeinu Bachya discerns concern for communicable disease in the Torah’s mandate that the metzora, at the end of his period of isolation, let loose a bird offering “on the face of the field.” The release of the bird into a place absent of human habitation, he maintains, represents an implicit prayer that the metzora’s erstwhile contagion should not spread to others.

B.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are those commentaries who eschew any natural explanation for the tzara’at afflictions discussed in the parshiot of Tazria and Metzora.

These scholars point to a number of details of tzara’at outlined in the Written and Oral Law that are clearly inconsistent with the characteristics of communicable diseases, including:

1. The Kohen diagnoses tzara’at based only on examination of those parts of the body which he can readily see. No careful examination is required in the folds of the body.

2. When tzara’at is suspected in a dwelling, the Torah orders the Kohen to remove everything from the house before conducting his examination. If tzara’at is a communicable disease, such a procedure would expose the public to potentially infected material.

3. Examinations of potential tzara’at are not performed by the Kohanim on Shabbat, holidays, or upon a bridegroom during the seven days of celebration following his wedding.

4. The laws of tzara’at only apply to dwellings in the Land of Israel and only after the land has been divided into individual holdings. These laws do not apply to homes owned by non-Jews or to dwellings of any ownership in the city of Yerushalayim.

5. The laws of tzara’at do not apply to non-Jews. A lesion contracted by a convert before his conversion to Judaism is of no consequence.

6. Under certain circumstances, if lesions cover an individual’s entire body he is not considered contaminated.

7. After the nation’s entry into the land, a metzora is only to be excluded from walled cities (as determined by the city’s status at the time of the conquest of the land). He is to be allowed to remain in unwalled cities and to roam freely through the rest of the countryside.

According to Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, these and other details “show the absolute folly” of any attempt to interpret Torah laws as rules and regulations created for health or sanitary purposes.

C.If the afflictions described in the parshiot of Tazria and Metzora, however, are not natural diseases, what exactly are they? What message is God sending the people through the visitation of these frightening supernatural phenomena? What crimes perpetrated by individuals within the nation could possibly trigger such severe divine reckoning?

The Talmud lists, in the name of Rabbi Yonatan, seven sins that cause the affliction of tzara’at: evil or damaging speech, murder, perjury, sexual immorality, arrogance, robbery and miserliness. Of these associations between crime and punishment, however, only one seems to capture the rabbinic imagination completely. Over and over again, the rabbis link the punishment of tzara’at to the related crimes of motzi shem ra, slander (literally, the bringing out of a “bad name”), and lashon hara, evil or damaging speech.

Rabbi Yitzchak Arama offers a brilliant insight in an extensive discussion on Parshat Metzora. While man’s intellect sets him apart from the beast, his intellect is only fully revealed and actualized through verbal communication. Speech is the God-given tool through which an individual’s heart and mind are reflected to an outside world.

Because speech is so reflective of man’s unique character, the obligations associated with verbal communication carry great significance. An individual who misuses his power of speech degrades himself through the very skill meant to mirror his greatness.

From this perspective, the sins of motzi shem ra and lashon hara acquire another, devastating layer of significance: the perpetrator himself. Created in God’s image – granted reason, intellect and the ability to actualize that intellect positively in the surrounding world – the perpetrator diminishes his own stature and demeans his human essence.

God, therefore, specifically punishes sins committed through speech with the plague of tzara’at, an affliction that mirrors what the perpetrator has done to himself. Through his grave actions, the metzora has fallen from his place at the pinnacle of God’s creation. No longer a “living being,” no longer a “speaking spirit,” he suffers from an illness so severe that the rabbis claim, “A metzora is considered dead.”

Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.