In many contemporary editions of the Torah, the name of the skin condition which concerns Parashat Tazria-Metzora is transliterated but not translated. The word, Tzara’at, is thus unfamiliar to the ears and stripped of associations. We cannot know for certain what it is.
Faced with this uncertainty, we have two choices. We can, as many physicians have, medicalize the text, attempting to apply a modern scientific framework to the Biblical description. Perhaps the most famous suggestion is leprosy, though there have been many others, including psoriasis, scabies, syphilis and ringworm.
We can also, as many sages have, spiritualize the text, understanding Tzara’at as a condition caused by sinful speech acts — hateful words or careless gossip. That it manifested on the skin was a sign of our spiritual sensitivity in those early days of our peoplehood. While today, like Dorian Gray, we have mostly succeeded in severing the connection between our bodies and souls, back then, our sins showed.
Even more mysterious is the Torah’s description of Tzara’at of the clothing, found in the warp and weft of fabric, and Tzara’at of structures, which afflicts the building blocks of one’s home.
As readers, we are again faced with a choice. We can concern ourselves with the question of what the Biblical author was seeing (perhaps mold or dry rot or fungus), thereby coming to understand that thing in our own conceptual language. Or we can concern ourselves with the question of how the Biblical author was seeing, thereby coming to see our own world through a new lens.
We can concern ourselves with the question of how the Biblical author was seeing.
Were we to make this second choice, what would we see through our new lens? We would see a world in which the barrier that separates the spiritual from the physical is but a thin and semipermeable filigree — easily bent, torn and bumped into. We would see a world in which the body is a symptom of the soul, and a world in which health is considered the purview of the priest. We would see a world in which the borders of the body are more expansive than those we conceive for ourselves, stretching to encompass the garments we wear and the homes we dwell in — no longer regarded as inanimate matter but rather as living tissue, capable of health and susceptible to disease.
Whichever choice we make, however, will yield new questions, new answers and new insights, leaving us with a richer understanding of the Torah and of the world around us.
It may be of some interest to note that the rabbis of the Talmud didn’t believe that any house had ever actually become afflicted by Tzara’at. As written in the Tosefta: “There never was and never will be an afflicted house. So why were these laws written? So that you may study them and receive a reward” (Negaim 6:1).
There are a few other laws in the Torah that the sages suggest are purely theoretical, and the justification is always the same: They are there for us to study, to puzzle over, to interpret. They are there so that we may merit the reward, each generation anew, of being transported through our study of Torah to the strange and fertile grounds of our shared history and transformed by what we discover there.
Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.