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Parashat Tazria-Metzora: The burden and gift of empathy


For the past eight years, I have led a study group for physicians from my congregation. Every few months, we get together for good food, some wine (OK, lots of wine) and to discuss issues like medical ethics.

About three years ago, several of the sessions clustered on the idea of whether doctors could have empathy toward their patients. As one of the doctors wrote to me: “Can you (should you) act empathic when you don’t feel it? Is it okay not to feel it? How can you feel it in every encounter when you see 25 patients, one after the next, day after day?”

This week’s double portion, Parashat Tazria-Metzora, very subtly raises these same questions. Of all the weekly readings, these two in the book of Leviticus are by far the most medical, dealing with topics like afterbirth, seminal discharges, skin eruptions, burns and sores. How do we make sense of these conditions? How do the rabbis understand them?

To begin, it is necessary to make an apology. For hundreds of years, religious scholars and rabbis have associated the theology of sin and guilt with that of disease. Often, in order to make a moral point about gossip or some other social ill, rabbis link this section in Leviticus with the text in Deuteronomy where Miriam criticizes Moses and then is struck by a skin eruption. Their conclusion tells us that to be declared tameh (literally unclean) is the same as being unfit ethically. To be sick is to be wrong, and to be debilitated makes you an abomination to both your fellow human beings and to God.

When we graft morality too heavily onto purity and wellness, we cause more suffering while ignoring the sanctity of the sick. To be unclean is not to be immoral — ever.

One does not have to go far to see the danger in this thinking. How many would-be mothers are made to feel that something is morally wrong with them if they cannot bear children? How many people who have cancer feel that it’s a punishment for some unknowable crime?

When we graft morality too heavily onto purity and wellness, we cause more suffering while ignoring the sanctity of the sick. To be unclean is not to be immoral — ever.

Learning with my congregation’s doctors made it clear to me that they share much with the ancient priests of Israel, actually. The priests of our far-reaching past were twice burdened, first by God to be the caretaker of the Divine-human connection through the rituals of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and again by the people themselves, who presented to the priest all manner of physical ailment. The same is true for the doctor who embodies the knowledge of science and then takes that knowledge and encounters real people.

Where they intersect the most is in the realm of human connection, the critical role of empathy. The parallels between doctoring and priestly work, the heady stuff of bearing witness to the most profound moments of human suffering, find their greatest expression in the empathic need for mutual recognition.

The word “patient” comes from the Latin meaning “to suffer.” The patient suffers and wants to be seen as a validated person in the eyes of the sacred authority. The priest/doctor can give validation through empathy, while feeling that they have been given a gift by being cum pati, with those who suffer, for their own life has been validated as consequential. Such is the dual gift-giving of being in service to one another and why the rabbis caution us to treat the sick with dignity and honor, for it is at the foot of their bed when we visit with care and love that God’s presence resides (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 335).

Lastly, we know from Leviticus itself what role empathy plays out in the act of holiness. The central theme of the Holiness Code, found a few chapters later, is that empathy itself leads to holiness. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is one of the great cornerstones of Western morality.

This plays out nicely with those who have been healed from their sickness. After the priest sees them and welcomes them back to the community, a sacrificial rite is performed. The patient is brought to the literal center of the community and anointed in the same manner with the same rituals that anoint the High Priest over the people. Both priest and patient are bound together in this ritual of mutuality.

The ethical stance on sickness found in our Torah is not to see how the ill are immoral, but how those who suffer illness provoke us to become more moral by responding to their suffering in the same manner as the priest — with empathy, patience and care. 

Words to amuse and amaze


Novelist Jonathan Franzen (“The Corrections,” “Freedom”) is such a draw that his public appearances are more like rock concerts than bookstore readings. For example, his gig promoting his new book, “Purity” (Bond Street Books), requires advance tickets at $33 apiece — the ticket comes with a copy of the book. “Jonathan Franzen WILL NOT be posing for pictures,” warns the website of Skylight Books (” target=”_blank”>skylightbooks.com or

Company probed for certifying Hungarian politician’s racial purity


Hungary’s Medical Research Council requested an investigation of a company that tested a politician of the extremist right-wing Jobbik party for Jewish or Roma heritage, according to science journal Nature.

The unnamed lawmaker requested the Nagy Gen Diagnostic and Research Company give him a certificate indicating his Hungarian racial “purity.”

In May, when the certificate appeared online on a right-wing website, the Hungarian media widely publicized the story, though without the name of its subject, which was blacked out.

Nagy has experienced some repercussions, with one of its financial partners, Jewish three-time Olympic water-polo gold medalist Tibor Benedek, ending his involvement with the company.

Jozsef Mandl, secretary of the Medical Research Council, was quoted as saying that the certificate is “professionally wrong, ethically unacceptable—and illegal” following a June 7 discussion that concluded that it broke the stipulation in the 2008 Law on Genetics because testing is purely for health reasons. The Hungarian Society of Human Genetics also protested the tests.

Istvan Rasko, director of the Institute of Genetics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, said the test could not possibly have determined ethnic origins the way it was carried out.

“This test is complete nonsense and the affair is very harmful to the profession of clinical genetics,” Rasko said.

Mikvah: Calming Waters for a Chaotic Life


The first time I saw a mikvah I had no idea what it was. My college roommate took me to a small building behind her synagogue that looked like a storage unit. We entered a dimly lit area where a small, green-tiled pool dominated the shabby room. It was hardly appealing, and I was shocked when she told me that Jewish women immersed themselves in it before they got married.

“My mother told me that the rainwaters that fill it are like the waters of Eden,” she said as we left.

The next time I encountered a mikvah was in “The Ritual Bath,” a mystery novel written by Faye Kellerman. While the moving descriptions of the Orthodox women who went to the mikvah had a powerful hold on me, I never thought that I would go to one myself.

Several years later, I made a decision that was life-altering: I decided to leave my law practice and pursue my passion for Jewish learning. I wanted to do something special and spiritually significant to elevate my choice into something more than just a career change. That’s when it hit me. I would begin my journey into Jewish learning by preparing myself in a very Jewish way: I would study the texts about ritual purity and go to the mikvah. To this day, it stands as one of the highlights in my quest to find ways to live a meaningful Jewish life.

Traditionally, the mikvah is a thoroughly private experience, so I feel somewhat uncomfortable writing about it. But I take some comfort in knowing that along with other traditional Jewish rituals that are being redefined today, there is renewed interest in mikvah observance as modern Jewish women discuss, explore and participate in mikvah for the first time.

The laws of family purity, or taharat hamishpacha, date back to biblical times. There are a lot of misconceptions and negative connotations about these laws, which have been viewed by Jews who are not familiar with the reasons behind the laws as primitive or demeaning to women. But the mikvah lies at the heart of Jewish life because it offers us the opportunity to become spiritually pure and to perpetuate Jewish life and Jewish living.

Leviticus 18:19 and 20:18 prohibit marital relations during a woman’s menstrual cycle and for seven “spotless” days thereafter. A woman goes to the mikvah to become spiritually pure — not physically clean, as those who misunderstand the ritual suggest. If we understand menstruation as a reflection of a woman’s unique potential to create life, then we can appreciate a ritual that honors the renewal of a woman’s capacity to conceive.

Mikvah attendance requires conscious, vigorous preparation, including bathing, washing and combing the hair, cutting fingernails and removing all jewelry, makeup or anything that is a barrier between a woman and the mikvah waters. It gives a woman the opportunity to luxuriate in being “squeaky clean” and offers a time to focus on the miracles of being a woman.

Mikvah has traditionally been used for conversions, kashering utensils and preparing the dead for burial. But today, Jewish women are reclaiming mikvah to celebrate important lifecycle events and provide meaningful rituals in times of loss, tragedy and sickness. Women also go to the mikvah to mark the onset of menopause, the end of a marriage, a trip to Israel and, in my case, a change in careers.

Many community mikvahs are open to all Jewish women before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for the purpose of spiritually preparing themselves for the year ahead. What a wonderful mitzvah to add to our lives as we embrace the New Year and the joys of being a Jewish woman.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at alederman@cox.net.