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Human Boundaries and Inclusion

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Every year, the weeks leading up to Pesach include the Torah portions Tazria and Metzora, which enumerate many rules regarding ritual fitness surrounding such bodily experiences as skin ailments and childbirth. The rules for the Metzora, the person afflicted by a spiritual skin disease (tzara'at, consistently mistranslated as leprosy) teach that if a person suspects that they have tzara'at, the Kohein/priest must examine them for diagnosis. If they are found to truly have tzara'at, they are sent outside of the camp. Today's incarnation of the Kohein is the religious leadership who are the gatekeepers, either restricting people from or admitting people to community.

Rabbi Chayim ben Attar (1696-1743) of North Africa, Italy and Jerusalem pointed to a fascinating aspect of the Torah's instructions. In his Or HaChayim he comments on a strange doubling of language in Lev. 13:45, where we read, "As for the Metzora person who has tum'ah (unfitness)." He wrote:

It appears necessary to interpret the verse in the following way... It is written that the person's body is tzarua, end nevertheless the Kohein must declare him unfit. And if the Kohein does not declare him Metzora, he has no unfitness... The truly unfit one is the one that is afflicted -- and -- that the Kohein designates. But if the Kohein designates as unfit someone who is not tzarua, that one is not unfit.

If a person has signs of tzara'at, and it is obvious to him and to those around him, the Kohein must still label him unfit before he is bound to the category. On the one hand, if a Kohein labels as Metzora one who does not have tzara'at, the labeling doesn't hold in the eyes of Heaven. On the other hand, if one truly has tzara'at and the Kohein overlooks it, they are not unfit in the eyes of Heaven. The power of the religious leader is enormous, both to religiously stigmatize -- and perhaps to reserve Heaven's judgment.

The antidote for this is:

On the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair -- of head, beard and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; then he shall be clean. On the eighth day he shall take two male lambs without blemish, one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish, three-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in for a meal offering, and one log of oil. (Lev. 14:9-10)

This recipe is tremendously expensive. If you were an afflicted person without considerable means, you would presumably be locked out from the cure. But we read a little later:

If, however, he is poor and his means are insufficient, he shall take one male lamb for a guilt offering, to be elevated in expiation for him, one-tenth of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in for a meal offering, and a log of oil; and two turtledoves or two pigeons, depending on his means, the one to be the sin offering and the other the burnt offering. (Lev. 14:21-22)"

If you believe that God wrote the Torah, then you probably interpret these texts as demonstrating that God wants afflicted people to be able to find a way back. God isn't concerned with money -- God cares about the individual's striving.

If you believe that human beings wrote the Torah, your interpretation is probably much the same -- but you might see the human arbitration of the Kohein as an inherited philosophy of human boundary-setting with flexible regulations for inclusion.

As my colleague Rabbi Neal Loevinger wrote:

One of the reasons Judaism insists that spirituality happens within community is precisely so that we learn how to care for others, as God cares for us, and in so doing, become more fully aware of the Divine image within ourselves and others. If the Torah goes out of its way to tell us that the metzorah of insufficient means was to be welcomed into the most sacred spaces and rituals, then surely we can find a way to make sure that Jews all along the financial spectrum feel truly welcome in every organization dedicated to Jewish life.

We read, in the initial description of someone afflicted with tzara'at:

As for the person with tzara'at, 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 unfit as long as the disease is on him. Being unfit, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Lev. 13:45-46)

It is important to note, as did Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, in one of his many books on VaYikra/Leviticus:

The practice of certified scale-diseased persons to ward off oncomers by pointing to their impurity (Lev. 13:45) is paralleled by this poignant picture of the Jerusalemites after their city was destroyed: 'They wandered blindly through the streets, defiled with blood, so that no one was able to touch their garments. 'Away! Unfit!' people shouted at them, Away! Away! Touch not!' (Lam. 4:15)

Jews know what it is like to be pointed at and derided. But what a contrast: Whereas in the Lamentations text others are shouting at the excluded one, the Leviticus text instructs the afflicted one to point to himself. What might this mean? Perhaps, as in The Who's "Tommy", the suffering person is calling out "See me, feel me Touch me, heal me." The individual is calling attention to her own internal struggles.

We can see the structures of Tazria/Metzora as guidelines for "making the tough choices" when resources are limited. A child requiring special Education, a potential drain on any school's budget, would therefore not be guaranteed a place. A handicapped person requiring a ramp to get to the bimah might not, depending on the shul's budget, rise for an aliyah with dignity. In fact, perhaps constructing shuls without bimahs is the way to achieve dignity in a truly egalitarian fashion.

The ethical imperative of religious inclusion has its basis in the powerful role granted to the Kohein in the Torah, and to clergy and lay-leadership in today's religious communities. Outsiders are created by our categorization processes. Exclusion is a choice, not a mitzvah.

I end with the words of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1801-1859; the "Ishbitzer Rebbe") in his classic Chassidic commentary on the Torah, Mei HaShiloach/The Drawn Waters:

[When the Torah says that the person afflicted with tzara'at must be brought to the Kohein] it means that the Kohein, experienced in awe and holy service, has the ability to discern in large and small matters whether or not they are the Will of God. And that quality is actually found in every Jew, but not all the time. The ability to discern God's Will activates when the Jew is occupied with awe and holy service, when the individual Jew elects upon himself the role of the Kohein, constrains his own self in order to begin healing.

May it be our wills, speedily and in our days.