Being a leper isn’t so different from being a priest


Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Tazria, Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59.

I both love and find deeply frustrating our Jewish community’s diversity. I find it fascinating to explore and experience different approaches to Jewish life. I find being pushed out of my comfort zone, although uncomfortable at first, makes me grow Jewishly. I suppose it’s no surprise, then, that I have served Reform, Conservative and now a Humanist congregation.

I’ve also spent significant time with my dearest cousins, both in Israel. One is an Orthodox settler outside Ramallah and the other lives on a secular kibbutz. Joining each community is a paradigm shift, and I enjoy the reorientation that it requires.

Amid the great Jewish diversity, there are numerous commonalities. The most troubling commonality, though, is the tendency to view other parts of the Jewish community as the “other.” In Reform circles, I’ve heard comments about Humanists. In the Orthodox world, I’m treated as something of a spectacle — the female rabbi. And, I do it myself — considering others to not be progressive enough or accepting enough or genuine enough or committed enough.

This week’s parshah focuses on the laws of the leper. Skin disease was taboo in the ancient Middle East. When somebody discovered leprosy on their body, they were deemed unclean and required to relocate outside the camp until the skin disease resolved itself. The kohanim, or priests, would make frequent visits to the edge of the camp the check on the leper. When the leper no longer had symptoms, the priest would officiate at a healing ritual: ”The kohen shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and the kohen shall place it above the cartilage of the right ear of the person being cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot” [Leviticus 14:14].

The blood in these three spots — ear, thumb and toe — are said to represent purity of thoughts, purity of deeds and purity on the path of life. What I find particularly interesting and unique, though, is a parallelism in the ritual. The priest had gone through a very similar ritual when being ordained.

The priest, the epitome of the in crowd, is the mirror opposite of the outcast leper. Yet, their rituals of purification are the same. Moreover, the priest is forced to see himself in the leper. Since the priest went through the same ritual at the moment of ordination, a high point of his experience, he naturally would feel more kinship with the leper. The parallelism between the rituals is humbling. Being a priest isn’t so different from being a leper. And, being a leper isn’t so different from being a priest.

Today, our community tends to make lepers of one another. It isn’t our finest quality as a people, but it is a fact. We have a natural tendency to perceive each other as the leper. Orthodox as opposed to progressive, Ashkenazi as opposed to Sephardi, secular as opposed to religious. Even things as simple as day school as opposed to public school can become a cause for inclusion and exclusion.

The roles rotate. Sometimes, we see ourselves as the priest — the ordained leaders of the community. Other times, we feel like we are treated as lepers. We have all known the feelings of the leper and the feelings of the priest. But like one great and messy community horah, the roles go round and round, constantly rotating and changing.

Ear, thumb and toe. Let’s all commit ourselves to inclusion in our thoughts, deeds and communal life path. Maybe then the leper and the priest can be one.

Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen is rabbi of Beth Chai – the Jewish Humanist Congregation of Greater Washington.

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