The Avodah Blog

Torah Teachings on Purity Rituals in the Time of COVID-19

By Rabbi Lauren Tuchman

This week’s parsha, Tazria-Metsora is both incredibly timely and deeply complex. Now that the Kohenim have been ordained, their functions are beginning to be outlined. The Book of Leviticus is arguably the Torah’s most complex and least-understood book, given that it is largely concerned with ritual actions and the functions of
the priests.

We are introduced this week to one of the central concerns in Leviticus—issues of tuma’ah and taharah. Tuma’ah and tahara are ritual concepts that are not easily translatable. They are most often translated as pure (tahara) and impure (tuma’ah). The connotations of ideas of purity in the English language, combined with how those notions have continued to evolve culturally in deeply harmful, marginalizing ways make understanding this ancient idea quite
difficult. We are introduced to this idea in two distinct ways in our parshiyot—through the ritual process after a woman gives birth, and through the process that occurs if a person or house has contracted Tzara’at, a skin condition inaccurately but all too commonly translated as leprosy. We don’t know what Tzara’at was. Many traditional commentators have taught that a person contracted tzara’at owing to gossip, which leads to a significant conversation about lashon harah, or negative speech. One of the most prominent teachers in this arena was the Chofetz Chaim. In recent years, a discussion in Jewish Feminist circles has arisen around lashon harah and how the traditional ideas of what is considered negative speech are at best incomplete and ought to be open for continued evolution.

Our parshiyot this week also point to the challenges that we have all become intimately familiar with—issues of quarantining, diagnosis, treatment, isolation, and reentry. How long does a person who has contracted tzara’at need to remain outside the camp in the Torah’s words? Though the Torah’s language is dry and technical at best, the
text is grappling with an issue our world has been facing for the better part of a year, with all of the inequities and challenges present. The priest was, in a sense, the ritual/medical expert, and it was he who determined whether a given individual was infected or had recovered.

For many years reading these parshiyot, I would gloss over the minutia, taking comfort in the spiritual explanations. Tzara’at occurs when we are out of alignment with The Divine, it is a matter of spiritual significance and not necessarily one of physical and tangible stigma. In light of COVID-19 and the trauma we are all
holding, those readings ring hollow at best and feel utterly out of touch with the raw human experience of this year at worst. This is yet another example of what I have come to internalize this year—there is just so much of human experience we do not fully understand until we’ve lived it. This is not to say that we shouldn’t always strengthen
and stretch our empathy muscles and strive to understand what is beyond our own spheres. What it does mean is that there is a difference between understanding something intellectually and knowing it viscerally. It becomes part of our embodied experiences and lives within us always.

It is easy to read a text like this and feel that it is yet another example of the ways in which the Torah is not aligned with our experiences and lives today. That was then, this is now. The very idea of priests assuming any degree of medical expertise, for example, feels absolutely absurd. Yet, as was mentioned in a recent article on clergy burnout, the spiritual toll of this year is intense, multifaceted, and long-term. Today’s rabbis, priests, ministers, cantors, and others aren’t making ritual or medical determinations, but are bearing the burdens of conducting multiple funerals a week, holding the needs of traumatized communities all the while their primary and secondary trauma goes unacknowledged and increases, and are making painfully difficult decisions about reopening, capacity and
who can enter the sacred sanctuary of the synagogue or other house of worship and for what purpose?

We are not calling out “unclean, unclean!” to our neighborhoods as is noted in the Torah. Yet, we are taking necessary and crucially important safety precautions to ensure that we don’t spread this terrible, deadly virus. And too many of us are not heeding these precautions, which is making the pandemic that much harder to come out
of. Some of us are experiencing increasing freedom, able to safely gather. Others have yet to gain access to the vaccine. Some of us are podded with people who hold stricter interpretations of safety than we do. Others of us are struggling to communicate how important, how real this virus is, even after a year of a deadly pandemic. We are all faced with the very ancient problem of plague and how to contain and stop it.

Our Torah’s context is quite removed from our contemporary one. Yet, the multifaceted ethical and ritual challenges it presents are utterly contemporaneous with our lived experience. We can take much from this—about what to do, about what not to do, about how to mitigate risk and cause the least amount of harm, and also how to call the
tradition into a richer understanding of equity, safety, and holiness.

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