Tazria and Leprosy
Today, we are reading the portion, Tazria. This section plus the next portion, Metzorah, is about the prominent illnesses of the time and how to diagnose and cure them. It starts out explaining what rituals someone had to go through after giving birth. While being, what they called "unclean," the mother couldn't touch anything holy. After she was purified, she had to bring a number of offerings for the priest to sacrifice.
The second, much longer part of my portion, is about leprosy. The priests, who were in charge of dealing with diseases, were the ones who diagnosed a person with leprosy. If the person had signs of being leprous, which included skin discoloration and bald spots, then he/she was quarantined for a week. After the week was over, the priest checked on the patient again and, if he/she looked better, than he/she had to wait another week and then he/she was clean again. If they didn't look better, then they had to go to the leper camp where they probably stayed for the rest of their life until they died. The portion also explains the procedures for burning leprous clothes.
There are many different points of view of leprosy and ideas about leprosy. I learned about three of them: the biblical point of view, the modern-medical point of view, and the rabbinic point of view.
The biblical point of view is what I just explained. I think that the people of that time didn't understand diseases. First of all, the people barely understood what a disease was. Anything that was nasty and painful that they couldn't explain was a disease to them. Also, they didn't know what caused the disease, and they didn't know how to treat it properly. They pretty much didn't know anything except that leprosy was not a good thing to have and that, if they had leprosy, they could give it to others in the community. They believed that leprosy was a punishment from g-d for doing something wrong.
Almost all people today believe in the medical point of view because we now have a much better understanding of leprosy. I learned from searching the Internet that these days leprosy is called Hanson's Disease. Actually, some people think that Hanson's Disease and biblical leprosy are two different things. Anyway, Hanson's Disease is caused by bacteria. It is a chronic infectious disease found in many different countries. The most affected areas are Africa, South America, and South-East Asia. It affects the skin, nerves, eyes and mucus in the upper respiratory tract. It makes the victim's nerves enlarge and makes his/her skin discolored. Although we know a lot more about it than the biblical people, we still don't treat lepers very well. Since biblical times, lepers have been outcasts and have had to to live in separate communities called leper colonies. In these communities, lepers almost always stay there until they died a little later. Only recently have we found a cure. There are still many lepers in the world that haven't been treated.
The third point of view, the rabbinical one, is very interesting. The rabbinical commentators pointed out that g-d punished Miriam for saying that Moses chose a bad wife because she was a Cushite woman, by making Miriam leprous. As the Torah says, "her skin turned white as snow."
The interpreters noticed that there were many other cases like this in the bible where people got leprosy for doing bad things. Joab got leprosy for murdering Abner in the second book of Samuel, 3:29. Gehazi obtained leprosy when he lied to Naaman in the second book of Kings, 5:23. Actually, lots of people believed this idea over the years. The Christian priests of the middle ages had basically the same idea.
The rabbinic interpreters generalized this idea by saying that leshon ha-rah, or talk that hurts someone, was the cause of leprosy. They also said that leshon ha-rah was worse than murder because it killed three people in one.
It "killed" the person saying the hurtful things, the person being spoken about and the person listening. My explanation to this idea is that it doesn't kill those people. Instead, it just hurts them or at the most ruins them. It hurts the first person because he/she told a mean thing about another person. Obviously, it hurts the second person because people know something bad about them. The third person is hurt because they are now a co-conspirator.
If you misinterpret this idea, it can become very bad because it would put the blame on the victim of the disease for getting the disease. That's just wrong. My mom probably did some bad things and said some bad things but that is certainly not why she got M.S. She got M.S. because she was unluckily infected by a virus that causes M.S. Any other person with a disease didn't get sick because they said something bad.
All three points of view have some good ideas about how to deal with the leper and some bad ideas. The biblical point of view allowed suspected lepers back into the community if they got better. However, almost all them didn't get better. Also, both the biblical and the modern point of view tried to isolate lepers so that others didn't get leprosy. The modern point of view has a lot more information and facts about the disease than the other two points of view. It knows the cause of Hanson's Disease and it knows the cure. The rabbinical point of view is good because it teaches a lesson about the power of speech. There are also many bad things about the three points of view. The people related to the biblical point of view didn't understand anything about the disease, and the people of the time exiled the lepers from the community. The rabbinic point of view is bad in some ways. It doesn't really concentrate on the disease. Also, if interpreted wrong, it could put the blame of the disease on the victim. The victims of Hanson's Disease also are exiled because they are thought of as weird and disgusting and no one wants to be near them.
I think that the modern-medical point of view is the best. The people associated with it have lots of understanding of the disease. It doesn't have any bad misinterpretations associated with it. Also, there now is a cure.
I might have put an image in your mind that Jews were always very unkind to the sick, but that isn't the case. Jews have always cared for sick people, and many Jews have been doctors. Maimonides was an extremely famous Jewish doctor. Some people think that the making of Eve was the first surgery. All the way back then, Jews have cared for sick people. It says in the Torah how g-d comforted Isaac when his father died. G-d also comforted Abraham after he had a bris. We say that g-d is kind, merciful, and loving. We say that we are in g-d's image or like g-d. If g-d cares for sick people, then we should care for sick people. That is one of the philosophies behind our caring for the sick. As you can probably tell, we have many ideas about sickness. Some of them can be very misleading. However, there is no doubt that Judaism teaches us to care about sick people.