Ritual Impurity: Signposts for Boundary Crossers (Parashat Tazria and Parashat Metzora)

The author explores the concept of ritual impurity in this commentary. She describes the isolation forced on people suffering from tzara’at, comparing it to the social isolation faced by queer people.

May 9, 2019

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Parashat Tazria and Parashat Metzora
Ritual Impurity: Signposts for Boundary Crossers
by Rabbi Amber Powers on Friday April 24, 2009
30 Nisan 5769
Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59 and Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33

The double Torah portion Tazria-Metzora details several different types of ritual impurity (tumah) and the process by which ritual purity (taharah) could be restored. Though other Biblical narratives and later Jewish sources associate ritual impurity with sinful behavior, in this context ritual impurity is a part of everyday life, often caused by routine events- childbirth, menstruation, sex, injury, illness.

One way to understand the concept of ritual impurity is to think of it as an expression of the complex emotions that can accompany experiences that are simultaneously ordinary and highly powerful, any of which could be imagined to be potentially life altering or even life threatening. We encounter ambiguous boundaries and categories all of the time- is this mark on my arm harmless or could it be cancer? Will this broken ankle fully heal or will it always be weak? Is this relationship going to fizzle out or will it transform my future? Tazria- Metzora gives us a glimpse into the circumstances that triggered a feeling of potential danger for our ancestors and can challenge us to identify and manage those emotions in ourselves with honesty and compassion.

The ritual re-purification process described in the parasha generally includes the passage of time, bathing or washing, and giving an offering. While the Torah focused on how someone removes impurity, I find myself thinking more about the experience of being tameh, ritually impure. I am very disturbed by the complete physical isolation required in the Torah when someone’s ritual impurity is the result of a skin condition, which was seen as potentially communicable. The person with possible signs of tzara’at, a skin disease often translated as leprosy, is examined once every seven days and remains in an impure state until the priest rules that his symptoms have diminished sufficiently to begin the purification process. If the priest rules that the person has tzara’at, the person must remain quarantined: As for the person with a leprous affection,

… his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out “Unclean! Unclean!” He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Lev. 13: 45-46)

We have no way of knowing exactly what disease or condition the Biblical tzara’at would correspond to in today’s world and whether or not there was a real danger of contagion. Regardless, whenever I think of this passage my heart breaks for the metzorah who is sent out and subject to this humiliation.

In the queer community we know all too well that social isolation itself is dangerous, even potentially deadly. Isolation is often described as a symptom of depression. I recently heard a psychologist explain that isolation is often a primary CAUSE of depression, not its result.

Although the biblical categories of ritual impurity may not feel relevant in our daily lives, there certainly are individuals and groups in our society who seem to trigger widespread feelings of fear and are treated as if they are contagious or contaminating. Whether it is a label cast upon us by someone else or even a way in which we judge ourselves, all of us have times when we feel set apart from everyone else because of something we have experienced or how we look and at those times we are at risk for becoming dangerously isolated.

One of the most powerful messages we can communicate to a person who is suffering is “you are not alone”. Rather than view social isolation as a defensive measure to potentially protect the many from the few, we need to honor the dignity and value of every human being and ask ourselves what we can do to connect the few to others. When someone in our communities is isolated, they are at their most vulnerable and we must challenge ourselves to find ways to reach out and support them however we can and do everything in our power to protect them from shame, humiliation, or harm.

We also need to practice self-care by doing our best to avoid becoming isolated. It is easy to feel alienated when you are not sure if you will be welcomed and accepted at a particular event, especially if you are not yet familiar with the host community or other participants. At those times, it could be useful to examine whether there are any signs that you would be unwelcome or whether it could be your own history and fears driving your avoidance. It takes courage to try to presume that you are welcome when an invitation has not been explicitly welcoming or inclusive of the categories by which you might self-identify. At these times you can try to remind yourself of your value and your holiness and challenge yourself to consider whether you can take a leap and go to the event anyway and be all of who you are. You may discover more welcome than you could possibly have imagined. We need to seek out community, even when we are afraid, for support and connection, something we all deserve and need.

May the purity of our hearts and souls overpower over fears and may we bring Godliness into our world by reaching out to each other in love and acceptance.