This week’s Torah portion is Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-13:59.
Much of this week’s Torah portion deals with a disease that makes its sufferer an outcast to the community. For much of history, disease such as this was considered not only a physical misfortune, but also a punishment for moral failings. In that context, it may offer us a few insights as to how to deal with those who behave terribly — but not terribly enough to be punished officially.
In the midst of a longer passage explaining how the kohen, or priest, will examine the person with a lesion to make a diagnosis, the Torah says, “And if the bright spot is white in the skin of his flesh, and does not appear to be deeper than the skin, and the hair has not turned white, then ‘hisgir hakohen et hanega’ — the priest shall shut up the person for seven days” (Leviticus 13:4).
But Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, known as the Tur, comments that although Rashi believes this verse means that the person with this lesion is shut up in his house for seven days, the Tur’s father (known as the Rosh) says that the verse is clearly referring to the lesion, not the person. In other words, the lesion should be covered with something for seven days at which point it will be examined again.
Rabbi Shai Held in his commentary on this portion is troubled that the Torah, which usually expects us to comfort the afflicted rather than expel them, and visit the sick rather than isolate them, in the case of the lesion, chooses not compassion, but expulsion, and not community but isolation.
He says, “I find it striking that the Torah seems deeply concerned to prevent permanent stigma being attached to one who has been afflicted with tzara’at.” And then, he sadly adds, “And yet, as we’ve seen, some of the ill bear their affliction for life and are thus permanently excluded from the camp.”
How do we handle someone who has done something “diseased?” We can shut this person away, isolated him from others, punish him socially with “the cut direct” as once was called the greatest etiquette punishment available. But we can also take a cue from the Rosh that perhaps we should examine and keep watch on the course of the behavior, rather than isolate the person entirely.
We might consider at some point, if the person seems to have worked hard to change, to do teshuvah, that we need to find a formal way to bring the person back into society, to remove the stigma of his previous isolation.
And of course, there may be those who cannot be brought back into society. This should be reserved for the most evil — if short of criminal — actions, such as those who would solicit others, maybe impressionable teens or seekers who need help, into racist or nationalist ideologies. We may need to socially isolate them, to make clear that there are some kinds of things that societies cannot tolerate.
But maybe we should also remember that as afflicted as they may be, they became that way because they, too, were lacking something they needed and maybe if we had helped them sooner, the disease wouldn’t have progressed so far.
Rabbi Alana Suskin is a Washington-based educator, activist and writer.